Blue Collar

(Paul Schrader, USA, 1978)


It would be difficult to think of a movie, for all intents and purposes classical (predominantly naturalist, realist, linear, unified), that is more intellectually rigorous than Paul Schrader‘s Blue Collar.

It performs an intricate set of spacings between the characters’ ideas about themselves (their motivations, aspirations, actions and reactions) and the social context which, while elasticising itself from one moment to the next, ultimately determines the system of power. In more traditional literary-thematic terms, the kind so sadly forgotten and devalued by modernist film criticism, we could call this spacing the placing of characters, the putting-into-perspective, the narrational organisation of an attitude, interpretation or point-of-view upon the represented events.

Before detailing a reading of the film, it is important to grasp how Blue Collar as an overall fictional gesture is itself a spacing in regard to a genre (the crime/gangster genre) which it activates without ever reproducing.

The notion of genre used here (which informs the collective work of Stuffing magazine) (1) is one that expands far beyond discrete model examples to stranger (but no less important) cases which can for instance call to a genre in absentia – that organise themselves around the virtuality, the phantom or the shadow of a generic instance. This is not only because any genre is in itself the fragment of an exploded, exploding set of concerns and figurations (e.g. the problem of power) which cannot be contained within a specific set of representations; it is also due to the fact that ‘images of genre’ are themselves, in history, little phantasmatic configurations, little congealed myths, pieces of cultural stratosphere which arches above us. One of the operative modes of drama today is that which makes a distance – however small, fragile or reversible – between the ‘movie world’ that is just over there, and an ‘other world’ (which is not the real world, for the movie world is a very real world) which resists or falls away from it. Images of genre in this context function as particular metonyms of ‘the movies’, which then function as the pretext for certain kinds of explorations of violent dislocation or poignant whimsy. (I’m thinking of films as different in their styles and references as Thieves Like Us [1974], One From the Heart [1982], Prenom: Carmen [1983], Gloria [1983]and Trouble in Mind [1985]).

Thus, I would want to call Blue Collar a gangster film at several removes. Gangsterism itself has been transformed into deals made with organised crime by trade unions – gangsterism not so much as myth but as a social fact which has reached an advanced level of penetration, diffusion and invisibility. However, myth returns in the functioning of this film (as in Lumet’s Prince of the City [1981]) at the level of iconography, or rather, character typology – union bosses cast as the ‘heavies’ of the piece. More essential to the film is the way it ‘mocks up’ its three central characters (Richard Pryor as Zeke, Harvey Keitel as Jerry, Yaphett Koto as Smokey) as heroes reaching out to the transgressive act of criminal robbery. It would be proper to say that the film puts these guys through the motions of a typical band of outsiders – and that, in the event, they perform these motions very badly (a rich source of humour for the film). What they are attached to, in the course of the fiction, has the ring, the wallop, of a mythical gangster itinerary – they get the possession, however inadvertently, of ‘the book’, as did Legs Diamond – and what they manage to do has occasionally the driving force worthy of an exemplary metteur en scène (e.g. Smokey overhearing a phone call, heading off the henchmen, and beating them to a pulp).

But the balance of power in Blue Collar is definitely not with its failing heroes. At most other principal points of the classical space-time scenario of power, the positions are very deliberately and emphatically reversed. Smokey beats up the middlemen and extracts ‘a name’; but the unseen unidentified upper hand of power traps him inconspicuously in a workroom and gases him to death. The film has a phone-trick, reminiscent of the play in both versions of Scarface (1932 and 1983), but it is a trick played on Zeke by his union rep (and revealed to us in its full irony as it happens). And here is another band of rebels – “a regular James gang” – which starts dissolving from within the moment after those fatal, classic words: “we can’t be seen together anymore…”

Blue Collar is about a cluster of socio-psychological processes which add up to a critique of the illusion of egoistic subjectivity: privatisation, alienation, internalisation, resignation, self-oppression. The ‘self’ emerges as a stage-managed construct – a private prison – locked into equally determined self-other relations that are meant to function harmoniously (but actually seethe, like Jerry’s family) or be fixed in an interminable conflict which underwrites and serves the prevailing power system (Smokey’s great speech which is recalled on the soundtrack over the final freeze frame: “The company wants to keep you on the line, they’ll do anything – they pit the lifers against the new boys, the old against the young, black against white….everybody, to keep us in our place”). One of the film’s toughest world-view angles is to posit the individual’s ‘intractability’ not as a measure of his/her deathless resistance, but as the gesture which (pathetically) ensures the individual’s lack of consciousness or vision on their own situation. When Zeke faces his union rep, after producing some stirring public utterances to the effect that ‘plant is just short for plantation’, all he can answer “what’ your problem?” with is his personal gripe – “my locker”. In a darker and more violent vein, Schrader narrates in the margins of the story the little allegory of the worker who completely burns out in the tunnel vision of his own privatised fix: going bananas when the coke machine takes his money without exchange for the sixteenth time.

One receives what is perhaps a familiar sociology of a privatised working class from Blue Collar, but it’s a living, breathing thesis connecting up to a fascinating and complex symbolisation of power-in-process. For the film starts from the psychically dynamic plateau on which its fictive individuals are ‘sucked in’ and know it, declare it, perform it, kick it around endlessly. A frazzled, neurotic resignation – “we’re gonna watch all the shit on that TV”, since Zeke worked so hard to buy it – mixes with an ambivalent identification with the oppressor (“if I had the navy and the marines behind me I’d be a motherfucker too”), and with a frustrated consciousness of being caught in a deadly rut, a systematic cycle (“why do you go to the line on Friday – coz the finance man’s gonna be at your house on Saturday”). Dreams of leaving rise and vanish in the obligatory performance of extra-marital orgies and drug-taking – “every time I get coked up like this I think I’m never gonna go back to the plant” – which gives birth to the robbery plan.

When we reach the level of this film’s richly creative and suggestive vernacular – “you a redneck peckerwood motherfucker” – the body imagery, although it sounds similar, performs a diametrically different interpretive function to that in Year of the Dragon (1985). Closer to De Palma’s use of verbal obscenity, words here suggest the fatal limitation of the characters’ world-view. All of the trio’s colourful body-talk – “we got ’em by the balls”, “we’re gonna cut ’em a new asshole”, “you want to fucked over” – betrays their fatal and pervasive recourse to personalisation of the power which oppresses them in the form of an identifiable, individual enemy. They can only ever think power in terms of the ‘motherfuck’ who can be immediately seen as ‘dumping’ on them. Their fleeting victories – Smokey’s beating up of the henchmen, Zeke refusing to shake hands with the foreman who takes him to the front office – arise from and continue the illusion that they can and do take the upper hand in one-to-one battles with power. The union precisely fosters and plays on this illusion in their strategy of co-opting Zeke: “how much power am I gonna have?” – “how much can you handle?” – “all you got”. And at the same time the notion that the power relation is a relation to an enemy can be make subject to a displacement, whereby one’s hated ‘other’ is no longer the company or the union, but one’s ex-best friend, as in the film’s finale, where Zeke calls Jerry a “dumb Polak”, a “jive honkey” and a “jive white boy”, while Jerry retorts with variations on “fuckin’ nigger shit”.

Blue Collar traces a most complex example of a power game with moves and strategies. The dominant player in this game (the union) enters into a strategy of deceit and camouflage which recognises each and every one of the characters’ illusions – illusions about the individual self (in a mirror relation with the enemy-self) and about the group-self constituted in one and another formation, those circles of trust and allegiance. The dominant player moves in on a particular ‘identification’, co-opts or changes it, and then moves in somewhere else. The rules of the game keep changing, under the key light of a master strategy. Zeke, Smokey and Jerry see the pattern of neither the little nor the big moves which are worked upon them. Nor do they see how the effects of power ‘leak out’ over a micro-network that cannot be contained by the powerful individual; the key destablising moment of the fiction comes, after all, from the margins, when a bookie who is owed money by Smokey makes a deal for his freedom with the police by turning over his knowledge of Smokey’s theft.

Disconcertingly, trust itself is something which, in the main characters, is constantly being manipulated and moved. The borders of the inclusion-exclusion mechanism are shifted around the sites of union, family, friends and race. The union knows in each case which trust to rely on, and which to work on. In a classic moment of shifted ‘driving seat’ enunciation, we see merely the photos and file cards of the so-called central characters, while an off-screen voice evaluates them: Jerry – “this one’s a union man. He’ll buckle under a little pressure”; Zeke – “he’s hungry. He wants to get his hands on the controls”; Smokey – “now this bastard is a two-time loser. He’ll make us pay through the ass forever and then fuck us for the fun of it”. Appropriately enough, Smokey, who has the greatest investment in (and brute force to act upon) his sense of ego vs enemy, can be at the end of only one possible strategy: elimination. Zeke, as they predict, is co-opted. Jerry, contrary to their guess, prises himself free of union loyalty and instead throws himself to the haven of federal and police protection (as in Prince of the City).

The union knows it can bolster or unmake a particular pact of trust. It knows how to create in an individual’s mind the notion that he grasps the game and its rules, and can secretly make the best move. It seduces Zeke into dropping his allegiance to his fellow black – justified in terms of “Smokey’s already dead, and ain’t nuthin’ gonna bring him back”, so no move should be made his behalf, in his name – and intensify his loyalty to his family, and his belief in the possibility of an ‘arrangement’ with the union which would grant him power. In one of the greatest dialogue exchanges I know in all cinema (the porch scene), Zeke and Jerry take one another through all the illusions, feints and contradictions of their respective positions, especially Zeke’s as a co-opted subject. Rationalising his move, and severing his allegiance to Jerry (by telling him that his survival is now his sole responsibility, no longer a group responsibility), Zeke accuses Jerry of “thinkin’ white”:

J: What the fuck does that mean?

Z: It means that you got more chances than I got, Jerry. And you’re always gonna have more chances than me. I got one chance and I’m gonna protect me. Six months after this fuckin’ thing’s over I’ll end up right back where I started from, livin’ in some ghetto, up to my black ass in bills, wonderin’ what night they’re gonna come in and kill the kids, Caroline and myself. If I gotta kiss ass, I’m gonna pick the ass I wanta kiss. And it ain’t gonna be the motherfuckin’ police, coz they ain’t gonna do nuthin’ but shit in my face.

J: Was Smokey white?

Jerry confronts Zeke’s illusion that, now on the union staff, he will be allowed to “make some changes” (“this union rep job, it’s a club in my hands”). He sees that Zeke’s victory sign – getting “dogshit Miller” fired for negligence after Smokey’s murder – “don’t mean shit”, is still locked into the trap of individualising the enemy. From his side, Zeke explodes Jerry’s notion that they can both make a deal with the FBI man Burrows – after all, he is black, and protection might indeed work differently – and sends up his individualist fantasises of revenge: “you want revenge, you got a gun? You go out lookin’ for killers, man, coz damn if I am.” Zeke throws Jerry back to the only bottom-line allegiance which holds: the family (“there ain’t nuthin’ in the world I wouldn’t do to protect my babies and my wife. Now you gotta take care of your own family”). (It’s interesting that Schrader marks this bottom line: in another fiction, we could imagine even that allegiance being sold out for the sake of an individual’s self-protection, as is indeed the case with Legs Diamond.)

Zeke taunts Jerry with what is in fact the sign of his own delusion: “you don’t know the deal, do you?” The ‘deal’ is that which cleverly seduces or brutally excludes: Jerry learns in a hurry (the penultimate car chase scene) that he has to give up any compunction about informing. His statement “They’ll have to kill me before I turn stoolie” is met by a resounding “who are you kiddin’?” (from Burrows) and mere hours (minutes in screen time) later rearranges itself into the realisation that “everything will be OK when I’m dead”. The final scene locks Zeke and Jerry in their fully determined intersubjective conflict – racist obscenities rubbing with Jerry’s insight on Zeke’s privatisation (“they finally fixed your locker, Zeke”) and Zeke’s (non-reflexive) accusations on the dissolution of all allegiances (“you ain’t lookin’ out for nobody but number one”). Their presumed fight-unto-death beyond the freeze frame couldn’t be more differently located thematically to the struggles of Stanley White and Joey Tai: this is the match of ‘mimetic rivals’, mirror hero-figures, which does not transcend  material systems of power but positively underwrites them, perpetuates them.

© Adrian Martin December 1987

MORE Schrader: Affliction, Auto Focus, The Comfort of Strangers, Touch, Light of Day, Patty Hearst


1. Cf. Philip Brophy, Raffaele Caputo & Adrian Martin (eds.), Stuffing: Film: Genre (Melbourne: Stuff Press, 1987). back

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search