AMAD Special Tribute: Patton Oswalt on Paul Schrader’s BLUE COLLAR (1978)!!!
Published at: Jan. 17, 2009, 6:20 a.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with the final AICN Tribute article, from one Mr. Patton Oswalt who chose Paul Schrader’s first film as director BLUE COLLAR.
It’s been a nice 6-movie run and below Patton’s review I’ll say all my thanks. Nothing more for me, let’s get to Patton! Enjoy!
If you’ve ever worried that, lying on your deathbed, you’d utter, hopelessly, “My God, I never saw a shirtless dildo fight between Harvey Keitel and Richard Pryor”, then put your fears to rest. Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar – his directorial debut after writing obsessive masterpieces as The Yakuza, Rolling Thunder and Taxi Driver – features just such a scene.
Said dildo fight happens during a sweaty, exhausting, ultimately hopeless low-rent orgy scene, midway through the movie. Our three leads – Keitel, Pryor and Yaphet Kotto – play laborers on the Checker Cab assembly line in Detroit. Their lives are sweat, oil, fumes, flame and frustration. Every conversation on the line is a barked argument. Every union meeting is a chance to speak truth to powerlessness and smirking condescension. At night, they go home to un-filling meals of Hamburger Helper, intrusive IRS agents interrupting their numbing hours in front of silly-ass shit-coms, and drinking themselves into dry oblivion.
It’s pointless to repeat the whole, “Major studio movies in the early 70’s would be little indie films nowadays”, mantra. But Blue Collar is a refreshing exception – this probably wouldn’t even get made as an indie today.
Remember when art direction and costume design were as thoughtful and creative as the screenplay and direction? In The Taking of Pelham 123, Walter Matthau dressed in the drab, slouchy sort of suit a transit cop would be able to afford. Melvin and Howard’s world of trailers, junk food, coupons and jury-rigged appliances are as much characters in the film as the actors. And was there ever a more alive, breathing, growing/dying Western town than in McCabe & Mrs. Miller?
The characters in Blue Collar wear give-away T-shirts from McDonalds and outfits made of the same, re-purposed six or seven clothing items. Their “break room” is an alcove full of rusted snack dispensers that belch out stale candy bars and over-sweetened instant coffee – when they don’t flat-out steal your money.
And the “chemistry” between the three leads is, at best, tense. This is the kind of “friendship” that develops between the desperate and pressured – wobbly, and abandoned at the first sign of selfish hope. The fact that any sort of give-and-take exists between Pryor, Keitel and Kotto onscreen is a miracle because, according to Schrader in the DVD commentary, the three actors hated each other. Fistfights, arguments and threats were the norm for any working day. The laughter between the three – on the line, in the bar after work and, later, as they plan a heist, is only there to cool the flames of hatred and violence.
Yes, they plan – and execute – a heist. Pryor – here playing a work-shirking, fast-talking con man – notices the safe in the union headquarters is under-guarded and usually left open. Desperate for money (at one point he “borrows” the neighbor’s kids to try to fool an IRS inspector that he actually has all the kids he claims on his taxes) he convinces Keitel and Kotto to go in on the job. Both of his friends are in similar financial straights – un-solvable, self-inflicted financial holes they’ll never dig themselves out of.
But what they find in the safe is more valuable than money, and ultimately, their doom. Not to spoil any of the surprises in the second half of the movie, but Blue Collar goes places with its story and characters that even a gritty independent might be uncomfortable visiting.
So many things to love about this film. The soundtrack, especially the unnerving, machine-driven score, with Captain Beefheart growling over an anvil chorus (“Dark meat by the pound/Hard work fucking man”). The documentary shots of the assembly lines, like the industrial ballets of Metropolis and Brazil, but robbed of all grace and poetry. The way goofy comedy mixes so seamlessly with anger and violence in scene after scene. Yaphet Kotto, an avenging angel against the union’s eerie thugs, who ultimately pays a grisly price for his strength and intelligence. Keitel, complaining of “brain cancer” and kid’s braces, reduced to an automaton by the film’s end, whose only humanity left to him is whatever violence he can inflict. Lane Smith and Ed Begley and Leonard Gaines and the great Harry Bellaver as the ineffectual Union president.
And Richard Pryor. If you only know him from The Toy and Superman III, then watching Blue Collar will be a refreshing shock. Still as profane, true, mean and funny as he ever was onstage, Pryor here is also scary, sad, and all too-human as Zeke, the biggest fly in the company ointment. If the company can’t crush a noisome fly, it can do something far worse. You’ll see.
Keep those cabs rolling out. Never stop the anvil chorus. Grease the gears.
Those Checker Cabs. Was that a conscious choice on Schrader’s part? The fact that these cabs, the same model Travis Bickel piloted in Taxi Driver, came from a hot, hopeless hell like the factory in Blue Collar? Where every rivet was fastened by someone with murder on their minds? Every windshield tamped into place by someone who wanted to blow up the world? Every steering column and gas pedal affixed by the damned? It’s as if the metal, rubber and fuel themselves were infused with rage. Bickel never stood a chance.
That wraps up the AMAD Tribute. I’d like to thank all the contributing talents who have written in for taking the time. So, all my thanks to Edgar Wright, Rian Johnson, Randy Cook, Aziz Ansari, Don Coscarelli and Patton Oswalt!
I won’t say the AMAD book is officially closed because who knows what lies in the future. I might try to organize another special run if I feel there’s any interest from friends and acquaintances in the industry and I will, of course, be keeping the spirit of AMAD alive in a regular, hopefully weekly, article that’ll have me looking at a previously unseen vintage film. I think I’ll simply call it Quint’s Watching… That feels right.
Thanks also to all you constant readers for following along. The three or four dozen emails I’ve gotten since closing the column have been a great thrill to me and I’m very touched that AMAD meant a lot to many of you guys out there.
Like I said earlier, the memory will live on… so stay tuned!
Every A Movie A Day Tribute:
Edgar Wright discusses 1971's VIRGIN WITCH Rian Johnson discusses 1971’s A NEW LEAF Randy Cook on 1963’s DONOVAN’S REEF Aziz Ansari on 1988’s MAC AND ME Don Coscarelli on 1953’s THE TWONKY Patton Oswalt on 1978's BLUE COLLAR