Friday, November 19, 2010

Blue Collar: Yaphet Kotto Kotto Week

(This is my entry to the Tribute To Yaphet Kotto week that has spread across The Interwebs. Here's the schedule. Check it out.

MONDAY Nov. 15th
Unflinching Eye - Alien
Raculfright 13's Blogo Trasho - Truck Turner

TUESDAY Nov. 16th
Lost Video Archive - Raid on Entebbe
Manchester Morgue - Friday Foster

Booksteve's Library - Live and Let Die

THURSDAY Nov. 18th
Mondo 70 - Drum
B Movies and Beyond - The Monkey Hu$tle

FRIDAY Nov. 19th
Ninja Dixon - Across 110th St.
Lines That Make Things - The A Team (TV episode)
Things That Don't Suck - Blue Collar

SATURDAY Nov. 20th
Breakfast In the Ruins - Bone
Lost Video Archive - The Park Is Mine

They pit the lifers against the new boy and the young against the old. The black against the white. Everything they do is to keep us in our place.

-Yaphet Kotto-

Blue Collar is a Paddy Chayefskyian social satire cum crime film stuck in a pressure cooker. Whose tension and palatable pressure reflect the notoriously fraught shoot. If there’s a film that can match Taxi Driver pound for pound on the level of sheer unrelieved unbearable tension Blue Collar is it.

Blue Collar follows three Detroit Auto workers, played by Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, and the man the week is dedicated to, Mr. Yaphet Kotto. They plot a break in, when they get wind of a Union Safe that’s supposed to have some under reported dues in it that could easily disappear. It doesn’t but what it does have is a ledger linking the corrupt Union explicitly to the mafia. It doesn’t take the organization long to figure out just who pulled the heist, and even less to divvy them up into those who will play ball and those who won’t.

Even in its opening moments set in the status quo Collar is all intensity. The manufacturing jobs the protagonists work are portrayed as hard and dirty. Everyone on screen is caked in sweat and grime, smoke and flames leap out from the corners of the frames. The characters aren’t even allowed so much as a moments respite in the break room without the vending machines stealing their money. The opening scenes have already painted the world as completely intolerable. Playing in miniature like Schrader’s version of No Exit. Hell is not other people. Hell is working with other people in a dark, hot, grimy hole with flames. Which ironically brings us back to the Orthodox view of hell.

Even the union hall meeting, the simple act of sitting around a rec room complaining, seems like a dangerous act. As the pitiful union rep attempts to talk the assembled workers into spending their Saturday passing out flyers, after we witnessed the shift they just worked. Even before anything is evidently “wrong” in Blue Collar its evident that it all is. Every character seems wired to explode from the word go.

We catch glimpses and snatches of our three leads during this opening montage but our first good look at one is Richard Pryor, not Kotto. During Pryor’s opening rant at the Union meeting. Pryor famously did not have a good time on the film. Reputedly refusing to do more then three takes, pulling a gun on Schrader, and finally only agreeing to finish filming if Schrader promised never to make a film again.

Whatever Schrader did to earn Pryor’s ire it was worth it. However far out of his comfort zone he may be, it stands that this is Pryor’s only successful dramatic role and arguably his only successful on screen role period. In his introductory scene Pryor snarls and paces the floor, using the familiar syntax and speech patterns of his stand up career to startling different affect. While on stage Pryor’s persona and wit made him appear invulnerable and rock star like. His tirade here about a broken locker merely makes him appear impotent. Complaining about things he has no hope of changing, even some petty indignity like a busted locker.

The irony of course is that the union rep that Pryor is complaining to, is just as impotent as Pryor is. He protests his helplessness to change things, and he’s right. In the opening minutes Schrader has painted a world in which the real powers that be are so far removed from the principle characters that it might as well be fictional.

Even the bar the workers retreat to isn’t any meaningful break. Its small cramped and dirty and even the ball busting and storytelling the leads participate in is cut with an air of danger. The scene perfectly displays Schrader’s economy as a screenwriter, the dynamics between the characters are firmly established within minutes of them being in the room together. And when an actor as intense as Harvey Keitel is playing the straight man, you know things are going to go very wrong.

Kotto is the Wildman of the group. But also the only one who really appreciates what’s going on. While Pryor is beaten down by the little indignities, and Keitel gets shaken out of his stupor when due to his lack of a dental plan his twelve year old daughter tries operating on herself with pliers, Kotto knows that the game is rigged against them from beginning. The one most willing and able to call bullshit bullshit. And he pays for it.

In a small piece of genius cutting, even the escape of the weekend is cut short, we cut directly from the door of the barroom shutting behind Keitel to the assembly line. After a quick series of shots displaying the job with the same gritty authenticity of the opening montage, we cut back to the squat little bar, as the factory workers flood in after punching out. The message is clear, these characters are stuck in an endless loop. Once again, there is literally “no exit”. Even Pryor’s faux jovial cries of “Party! Party” ring hollow.

Schrader’s Blue Collar America is fully integrated both in term’s of race and gender. Its not racial, ethnic, and gender tensions, but power and money, and in Schrader’s land those two things are synonymous. This is illustrated in the next scene where a FBI agent disguised as a Grad student, conducts a tense interview with Pryor, Keitel and Kotto, for a sociological study. It's another great example of economy, serving both as exposition, introducing the mysterious Eddie Johnson, thematically underlining the class tensions, and as a canny bit of misdirection. After all Schrader, who had only a few years ago become famous for being the most highly paid screen writer of all time, has as little in common with his characters of as the bemused grad student, or for that matter Barton Fink, John Sullivan or any other Hollywood type mocked for their desire to portray “The Common Man”. By finding another character to pin the label of upper class voyeur to, Schrader avoids having to wear it himself.

Its not until twenty minutes in that this cycle breaks, and even then it hardly brings relief. Pryor is visited by an IRS agent who hits him with a wallop of back taxes, while Pryor who has claimed three more kids then he actually has, desperately tries to pass off three of the neighbor’s children as his own. Like in the union hall, Pryor breaks into a monologue that recalls his stand up persona,

“I take home two-ten a week man, goddamn. I gotta pay for the lights, gas, clothes, food... every fuckin' thing, man. I'm left with about thirty bucks after all the fuckin' bills are paid. Gimme a break, will ya mister? Fuck Uncle Sam, man! They give the fuckin' politicians a break! Agnew and 'em don't pay shit! Working man's gotta pay every goddamn thing! : Yeah I know I'll pay it! If I had the Navy and Marines behind me, I'd be a muthafucka too!”

Like before Pryor’s intelligence, wit, and hyper verbal nature only serve to underline his powerlessness in the face of bureaucracy.

A further division is established between the family men Pryor and Keitel, who have to worry about back taxes and braces for the kids, and the single Kotto, who in the films one nod to the swinging seventies holds a coke party in which all enthusiastically participate. This is where the plan to rob the plant is launched. It starts in elated debauchery. But like the scene in the bar, all the drugs and sex offers only the most temporary of escapes. The scene hasn’t played a minute before Schrader launches from the giddy into its brutal come down, with the trio in a drugged up daze, contemplating the shit their lives have turned into.

Even their rebellion ultimately comes in service to the machine. The corrupt union uses the break in as a handy opportunity to cover some of the money trail. Alleging a loss of over ten thousand dollars after the disappearance of a mere six hundred. Pryor, Keitel and Kotto are still pawns of it. Still nothing more then dupes.

Kotto, the most surfacely amoral of them, does ultimately become the film’s conscience, and his is the one unambiguous moment of victory in the film. In which in an eruption of Schraderian violence Kotto intercepts and then opens a can of whoop ass on a couple of leg breakers sent after Keitel’s wife (Note the picture of Christ hanging over Kotto’s shoulder when he’s introduced. Setting up his on coming sacrifice).

The scene where Kotto is asphyxiated in a set up in the paint room is textbook Schraderian violence. Ugly, clumsy, slow and sad. Its violence without even the dignity of a perpetrator. The ultimate brutality of the faceless that has been running through the film. Kotto ends up both literally and figuratively the victim of the machine.

Pryor in his willingness to sell out becomes the ultimate Schrader Protagonist. So defeated that he doesn’t even have the cold comfort of his moral outrage and clarity to protect him any longer. Like Scott in Hardcore and Nolte in Affliction he is a man consumed and destroyed by what he faces. Kotto on the other hand is destroyed physically, but not spiritually by the world. He allows the machine to destroy him, but not to corrupt him. And when the film end’s it is his voice that provides that haunting final line.


Chris Regan said...

Awesome analysis of an awesome film!

The Goodkind said...

Damn, I need to see this one, you convinced me.

abdul alhazred said...

This is a good one; I was hoping someone was doing this for YK week.
Nice work.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Chris: Many thanks sir.

@ Goodkind: I can say with confidence you won't regret it.

@ abdul: Thanks man. It's been a great week to be a part of that's for sure.

Ivan said...

Great write-up of a flick that just keeps getting better with age (esp. in these days),

robby431 said...

It's Yaphet Kotto week and you're not even gonna watch the movie he was in that my Grandpa produced????

Armando H. said...

Sounds like a really interesting movie, checking this one out very soon.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Ivan: The irony is that in today's serviced based economy most would kill for a job like this.

@Robby: Huh I had no idea which one was that?

@ raculfright_13: Looking forward to hearing what you think.

robby431 said...

My Grandpa produced Brubaker. It's a terrific picture.

Bryce Wilson said...

Huh I had no idea. I'll review it soon to make amends.