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Cinema celebrates the worker 

The Rochester Labor Film Series turns 25

In honor of its 25th anniversary, the organizers of the Rochester Labor Film Series will screen a dozen motion pictures culled from 250 titles, repeating the most popular of all those shown in the past. The selection, a kind of anthology of movies employing the theme of labor, includes works from several countries in addition to the United States, ranging from documentaries to comedies, some of them described below.

The series kicks off with the slick Hollywood comedy "Nine to Five" (1980), which stars Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton. Though most labor films address the subject of industrial work, this one shows at least something of the often neglected reality of white-collar servitude, the conditions of millions of overworked, underpaid secretaries, clerks, and low-level office workers of all kinds all over the country. (Screens Friday, September 5.)

Another, darker film, "Glengarry Glen Ross" (1992), provides an appropriate bookend to close the series. With a brilliant ensemble cast that includes Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin, and Kevin Spacey, the movie shows the wheeling and dealing of a boiler room full of desperate salesman making cold calls to pitch a questionable real estate development.  The picture incidentally held the record for the most frequent use of what polite folks like to call "the f-word" until "The Wolf of Wall Street" achieved new heights of profanity (and I thought they were just speaking my language). (Screens Sunday, November 2.)

Sandwiched between those two very different pictures, some documentaries and docudramas deal with a variety of labor issues. They include "Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price" (2005), a most successful and revelatory exposé of the practices of that company, its dominance of retail sales markets everywhere, and its effects on its workers. (Screens Sunday, September 7).  An Austrian film, "Workingman's Death," (2005) confronts more traditional areas of labor movies -- coal mines, sulfur mines, slaughterhouses, steel foundries -- the industries that first ignited the labor movement in many countries and which still ruthlessly exploit their workers. (Screens Friday, September 12.)

A couple of movies from Europe demonstrate the eclectic tastes of the organizers.  They understandably chose the Italian "The Organizer" (1964), starring the incomparable Marcello Mastroianni as the title character, a man attempting to help textile workers in Turin in the early years of the last century. (Screens Friday, October 3.) Oddly, they also picked Henri Clouzot's "Wages of Fear" (1953), a terrific story of desperate men driving trucks full of nitroglycerin over South American mountains, expecting to be disintegrated at any moment, which really seems more a study in ironic existential despair. (Screens Sunday, October 26.)

Two other familiar American films provide something like a commentary on their particular era. Charles Chaplin's first sound picture, "Modern Times" (1936), displays his brilliant acrobatics along with his pervasive sentimentality in a story of an assembly line  factory worker caught up in one disastrous event after another, all of them suggesting comically the victimization of the wage earner by bosses, government, and even technology. (Screens Sunday, September 21.) The only openly leftist film of its decade, "Salt of the Earth" (1954 -- mistakenly dated in the Eastman House brochure), made in the shadows by blacklisted artists, uses a cast of ordinary people in its story of striking Mexican-American zinc miners fighting against the oppression of mine owners, law enforcement, and the American legal system, a testament to the courage of all concerned. (Screens Sunday, October 5.)

Although the series remains a most important concept, a testament to the value of the George Eastman House to the community and the world, it also suggests a sad irony for our time. While corporate profits skyrocket, the average real wage of their employees stays flat or even decreases. The chief executives of almost every large business take home (let's not say "earn") something like four or five hundred times the annual income of their people. 

As the series demonstrates, once upon a time working men and women organized into unions, often in the face of violent reactions from employers and governments, when law enforcement served the powerful and state governors routinely called out the National Guard to defeat strikes. Now governors and legislatures simply pass laws that weaken unions of all kinds, with particular attention to public employees, routinely vilified in conservative circles. 

Sadly and ironically, ever since the triumph of Ronald Reagan, union members have voted in large numbers for those union-busting lawmakers. The Rochester Labor Film Series reminds us of different times and attitudes, the continuing exploitation of workers in many places, and the brave fight for fairness and justice that may even inspire some sense of hope for a different view of working men and women.

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