Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Real Mavericks: Folk Rhetoric in Harlan County, USA

Come, all you young fellers / So brave and so fine
Seek not your fortune / Way down in the mines
It’ll form like a habit / And will sink in your soul
Till the streams of your blood / Runs as black as the coal

Despite what becomes its heavily-vested, partisan approach, Harlan County, USA stands as a folkloric achievement. Though it is a hybrid of sorts, by using ritual, folksong, romanticization, and emphasis on the past, Harlan County becomes its own genre, that of political folklore. Today, while rich, corrupt politicians tout their own “folksiness,” it would be wise to remember this film and what it can teach us about the throngs of “folks” that really populate cities and towns across the United States. As the politically progressive Maverick family of Texas recently complained about the usurpation of their name by conservatives, the streams of miner blood are being co-opted here as well, but in this case to further their own political means.

Musically, Harlan County is rife with folklore. Writing of Give My Poor Heart Ease, Sherman states, “Although technically good, the film is too loosely structured to actually present the role that music plays for more than a few selected members...” (Sherman 1998: 86), and Harlan County could perhaps be seen here as the complete antithesis. The concept of music in HC is a central one, and the film is - though masterfully edited and by no means too dense to be fluid – an exercise in folk rhetoric. It aptly presents the role that music plays for just about all of the protagonists. Many sequences in the film are filled with music. The miners themselves, showing how important a role music plays in their lives, are oft seen singing or playing themselves. Right after the canary calls in the beginning, a rousing tune is struck up and the honorable, hard-working southerner that many of us Americans feel inside of us stands up and takes notice. While the images are of the sparse, hardscrabble lives of the workers and the environment, there is a non-diegetic soundtrack not so much wafting as hurtling through the air. In an environment where every movement and sound must be studied, and our biological ability to use auditory scene analysis is pushed to the forefront in a very survivalist way, it is no wonder the fast picking of banjos, mandolins, and guitars keep our ears attuned with each passing second, with each 64th note. The miner mind has become so attuned to auditory “busyness” that the music of the Kentucky hills, the bluegrass itself is very busy. Later, an old man sings unaccompanied on his porch in his rocking chair. This liminal space, sans picked mellophones, becomes a cry that he is retired and no longer requires the instrumentation to help him survive each and every second underground. Here, with these examples, music and folklore become inseparable.
The movie opens with a shouted, ostensibly common aspect of coal-mining; the canary, in the form and shape of a coal-covered, slightly shrouded man, calls to his co-workers that an explosion is about to occur. This ritual becomes a sort of touchstone for the rest of the film, and sets us up to enter the world of its subjects: the rural, poor masses and the boss and his cronies. Immediately, we flash back with photos of old miners, and voiceovers explaining the historical context of strike in “bloody Harlan.” A ritual only has power in its use to a culture through repetition, and we instantaneously feel that here. Indeed, documentary and journalistic filmmakers, especially in regard to the poor, Appalachian Hillbillybelt, seem to engage in a sort of ritual of their own. Abject poverty, as WE see it, finds a willing demographic in many people not living there. Barbara Kopple and Nancy Baker talk about their process of creation for Harlan County in their film-length Criterion commentary from two equally-fused angles; that of the actual process – their lack of money, film, bias – and their singular preoccupation with story. Baker speaks of first seeing it at a theater in New York, and noticing just how involved people got “with the story.” As we can see stories of poor vs. rich, exploited vs. exploiter, it is not difficult to feel an overwhelming sense of something approximating déja vù. This is where filming and viewing become ritual of their own, a sort of cultural meme in which compassion and schadenfreude mingle.

“The special success of Harlan County, however, is that even though it is documentary in format – and a “political documentary,” at that – it has much of the dramatic power and emotional impact of a fiction film, thus accounting for its potential to reach a general audience.” (Crowdus 1977: 564) This romanticizing of a strike storyline, with one side as inevitably heroic and never fully winning, and the other side as inherently cruel and bestial, is a very important sort of folkloric device. There can be no question as to the success of this Academy Award-winning piece. The folkloric interpretation is “[e]xplicitly or implicitly, self-understanding by means of understanding others.” (Sherman 1998: 2) Here, with this film, we are understanding ourselves by understanding others in a very dichotomized fashion. Social theorists such as Saussure and Adorno argue that capitalism creates many false dichotomies – indeed, post-structuralism argues that many of the classic black/white polarizations merit a good deal of blending, and this is probably something along the lines of the Crowdus' critique when he writes of the climax, “which to a certain extent opens the film to the charges of emotional voyeurism so often leveled against TV news journalism – obscures the importance of other events...” (Crowdus 1977: 567) Sherman writes, “folklore film and video highlight this interpretive function” (Sherman 1998: 2) where this “emotional voyeurism” can be seen in much on television, even journalism aside. These have both exacerbating and enlightening side effects. So we have a highly evocative set of images which helps us define ourselves as pro-worker or pro-owner. Kopple romanticizes, focuses on several individuals as “representative figure[s] for a culture,” (Sherman 1998: 7)) - in this case, the coal-mining hillbillies of Eastern Kentucky – and her participant observation style which John Sayles, in an interview on the criterion disc, says proved to the people there that they could trust her. All of these conventions have their documentary root in the originator of the genre, Robert Flaherty, and, as Sherman states on page 7, “are the elements of a filmic model that folklore documentary filmmakers emulated.”

The film evokes the importance of the past by contrasting today with yesteryear, in that there is a smattering of archival footage of a similar situation from the 1930s. Though this underscores the importance of the past, Kopple also has many instances in the film where the “characters” themselves mention this. Their experiences are thusly contextualized and reinforced. The film however, doesn't serve to diminish the power of the present, but rather strengthens it. It pulls its might straight from Nietzsche's philosophy of history – the past matters only in how it can motivate us today.

There can be no doubt that Kopple is documenting these people as rural and important for it. Indeed, when the film goes to a rally of mineworkers in the city, it seems a bit of pleading for the city dwellers amongst us to connect our mutual plights and stand together. In the first year in the United States, 2008, where more people dwell in cities than rural communities, we start to sense nostalgically that Kopple's film is even more past-centered, despite it's political preoccupation with the present. Her narrative style, despite politics, is slow and methodical – one could argue, “homey.” She lived with people for 4 years in order to produce a sub-2 hour documentary. In a crazy, hectic, computer-saturated, profit and time-obsessed nation, the Kopple style alone evokes a desire to return to simpler days, something most folklorists – nay, social scientists in general – would smile at.
In its portrayal of the constant struggle between worker and owner, Harlan County partially uses the mechanics of folklore. Not intentionally rushing to save any particular part of hillbilly culture, the film nonetheless has a certain amount of latent urgency. Similar to the Red Queen Effect in evolution, where species must run non-stop, as fast as possible to keep up with the competition from their own and predatory/parasitic species, here there is depicted a certain amount of this. It is no wonder that social Darwinists, who certainly side with Basil in this film, will mime “survival of the fittest,” and probably is a counter-motivation behind the humanistic, full portrayal of the workers, and not their bosses. Here, Kopple falls into the trap discussed by Weinberger: “They have typical members. We do not. They are unusual[ly greedy, stupid, and slovenly], but can be comprehended. We are usual[ly just, benign, simply fighting for what is duly ours], but ultimately incomprehensible [due not to our vast complexity but the immediate and immense threats to our survival].” (Weinberger 1992: 58) The owners aren't portrayed with nearly as much depth as the strikers. Here is Godard's “lie” of editing, or a self-admitted bias – of course owners have depth and a personality every bit as subjective and potentially interesting as a miner (or even more), but the documentary maker, especially the political one, must make the unusual seem usual. The folklorist, to the contrary, doesn't make anything. The things are made and the folklorist strives to be a clear window, both of this world, and of a filmmaking world.

As an interesting aside, John Sayles was interviewed on the Criterion disc about Harlan County, USA. His 1987 film, Matewan, deals directly with the Matewan massacre of the 1930s, and is something that added more mystique to Barbara Kopple's approach. Sayles' film contains some similar music but in a more polished and glossy overall vibe. Both films contain musicians playing on-screen. If we consider western music as an attempt to progress in skill toward perfection, do we not consider folk music the same way? Probably not, but there is that secret inner analysis when we watch film. Chronologically our brains place simple and off-key well before slick and compressed. When we consider Matewan and Harlan County then, we see a progress of time and a regression of sound quality. In this sense, Harlan County becomes more folkloric still, as she seems to put more emphasis on spontaneous song and less skilled musicianship. This romanticizes the past simply because in our brains, while considering coal-mining music, Harlan County seem chronologically older, even if it's about a much more recent event. Rather than post-modernly collapsing time, as in Gardner's films, this becomes folkloric in that it puts higher value on the past and works in a reverse vortex of Gardner (Weinberger 1992: 160-161).

“What I'm really saying is that those people who think they own the city—who are the wealthy—while they're at sleep during that night air, there's forty radio stations transmitting Huayno music” (Sherman 1998: 91), and this could just as easily symbolize the protests of Harlan County miners against Carl Horn, Basil, and the others, “who are the wealthy.” In Harlan County, music goes from a sort of symbolic underground railroad – see Sherman's discussion of John Cohen – to an overt form of protest. Gone are the days of Victor Jara being butchered to quell the Allende uprising, or so we'd like to hope. One man does lose his life here, and its better to remember Hugh O'Connor before we jump to such conclusions, let alone other places in the world where music feeds the struggle of small groups against large, of guerilla against State. There is an unresolved note that never reaches cadence here: no matter how much money you have, we harken back to the conversation between miner and police officer, when the miners bring their strike to the city. “See that electric light there (pointing, officer looks up to follow line of gesture)? These people don't know that one of us dies everyday for that, everyday in the mines.” No matter what injustices are dealt with, we are quickly brought to the fore of this high, lonesome sound. We're reminded of our own mortality, and of the humanity that struggles daily to place that anxiety in a lockbox, to rise out of bed and fight back the cresting of the wave. If that isn't folklore's goal, than what is it?

Though ultimately it is difficult to argue against Kopple's bias, for one from a working family especially, we must be able to see it, name it, and realize that our experience of the realities that we are so luckily able to perceive here is at times clouded and opaque. In the ragged battle for meaning, however, we have to realize that being scientists at times must take a back seat to our inner aesthete. The beauty here isn't in establishing eternal truths – though that may be arguable to a degree – but in depicting humanity. The human experiment is an ongoing one, and at times, otherwise quiet, downtrodden, or dispossessed peoples will stop being Sisyphus and become bold, daring Icarus – we may touch the sun but nobody gets out alive. The wax will, alas, finally melt. A banal, but true aphorism can sum this up better than a standard essay conclusion: Einstein's “imagination is more important than knowledge,” and this is Kopple's fine-tuned and folkloric message. The real mavericks out there already know it.

-Harlan County, USA, Barbara Kopple, 1976.
-Matewan, John Sayles, 1987.

-Crowdus, Gary. 1977. "Film Comment."
-Sherman, Sharon. 1998. Documenting Ourselves: Film, Video, and Culture. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky.