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The Challenger 

I'm not all right, jack

Wednesday, Oct 6 1999
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“In Europe a film crew works together for six weeks and becomes a family, but here people are always appearing and leaving, faces come and go -- how can you feel loyalty to anyone?” This quintessential welcome-to-L.A. observation was made in a British accent, which was somehow reassuring, in the way that most rebukes of Yankee civilization sound like Strauss to our American ears when they come from thoughtful outsiders; that the Briton in question was filmmaker Ken Loach was unsettling, however, as though our town’s soullessness could shock even a Marxist of Loach‘s intensity. Yet here was the director of Raining Stones and My Name Is Joe sounding like Jeremy Pordage in Huxley’s After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, a foreigner awestruck by the social Mojave before him.

Loach spoke to the Weekly two days before finishing a six-week shoot of Bread and Roses, his $5.5 million drama revolving around the Justice for Janitors movement that sprang up among the skyscrapers of Century City and Bunker Hill. The site was his command post in a rundown suite of production offices located in Pico-Union, a blandly utilitarian room wallpapered with his cast‘s Xeroxed head shots and containing JfJ T-shirts, a bag of lemon zinc lozenges, some recharging walkie-talkies and, rather incongruously, a large fuchsia umbrella.

The 63-year-old Loach began his career with neorealist features such as Cathy Come Home and Poor Cow in the mod ’60s, just as British film‘s first wave of angry young men was mellowing into Britcoms and costume dramas. For nearly 35 years he has chronicled the unhappy lot of working-class losers and rebels, presenting tartly humorous if ultimately sad appraisals of life under postwar capitalism. Bread and Roses marks the first U.S.-set story shot by the filmmaker, and was inspired by his co-writer Paul Laverty, who spent 1994 working with Service Employees International Union activists, then organizing the mostly Latino workers who make up Justice for Janitors. Laverty had no trouble convincing Loach of the poignancy of the custodians’ struggle.

“What was exciting was that their movement was community-based,” Loach said. “It wasn‘t just being led by the same old white, middle-aged male trade unionists with no political dimension to them. And it was interesting how the people who do the cleaning in the city of the American Dream were this hidden force.”

Although the film stars Adrien Brody as an Anglo union organizer who, like Loach, isn’t conversant in Spanish, the director was not going for a white-man-showing-the-way story: “I hope the audience will be Latino,” he said, “because in a way it‘s their film. When people from another country become synonymous with the working class, they also become identified with exploitation. In the U.K. we’ve had black and Asian immigrants -- and before them, the Irish -- arriving to a similar situation as Latinos have here.”

In person, Loach is not at all like the loud, barrel-chested blokes who populate his fables of class society. Speaking in a quiet, velvet-fringed voice, the slight, almost frail-looking director doesn‘t sound like a firebrand -- until someone mentions the state of organized labor.

“Trade unions have become the policemen of their own members,” he said. “They have to show a militant face to the membership, but they won’t challenge the employer‘s right to make a profit.” The “I’m All Right, Jack” attitude of Tony Blair‘s Labor Party and the trade unions it represents rankles Loach, who sees their collaborationist antics aped by American unions. “I read an article by [SEIU president] Andrew Stern in which he argued that presidential candidates should take notice of worker demands. Which was all very good, but he also said a strong union was good for productivity. The moment you say unions are good for productivity, you’re caught in a contradiction, because the interests of workers are not the same as their employers.”

Even when wrapped in a British accent, these words may sound a little doctrinaire today, but only a few years ago this view was held as commonplace by even the most revisionist Laborites. Now all that‘s changed, thanks to Maggie Thatcher and Blair, although Loach carries on with what Norman Mailer once called the Old Left’s solid-as-brickwork-logic-of-the-next-step determination. Ironically, Loach‘s L.A. experiences forced him to become, when dealing with local vendors, as sharp a horse trader as any capitalist. For when it comes to moviemaking, Loach is keenly aware that no safety net reassuringly stretches out below the director. “If we run over budget,” he said, “there’s no other money to fall back on. We have no choice but to finish Bread and Roses on budget.” But if Hollywood is a welfare state when it comes to its blockbusters‘ financing, it is not so generous to truly independent films. “So many films are made here, as commodities,” he said, “that people’s attitude toward them is that they are commodities and they drive hard bargains. And so you drive hard bargains in return -- quite properly.”

What Loach found quite improper was the treatment his downtown shoots sometimes received from suits occupying the corporate towers. “It‘s been extraordinary,” he recalled. “We’d be shooting on sidewalks, and PR people would come out of the buildings demanding that we stand to one side of a brass line. Which to me is bollocks, but they get away with it because people defer to them instead of saying, ‘Up yours in spades.’ Many of the people working on the film are janitors themselves -- they‘re good people working two or three jobs, yet they insisted that we comply with what these people said. There is this preparedness to accept what people tell you whether it is right or wrong.”

Reflexive respect for private property is not the only thing that got on Loach’s nerves in L.A. This inveterate seeker found himself futilely searching for contacts with the fledgling U.S. Labor Party, whose members he had met in New York, as well as for newspapers -- and news in general. “The news is very elusive to get hold of on television here,” he marveled. “I tried to find out what was happening in Kosovo and Indonesia, and all I got were stories about women football players playing on men‘s teams. The level of banality and trivia is just extraordinary. I really miss the hard news.”

The hard news is what Loach has pursued and presented onscreen all his life. And yet, as we hinge into the corporate Legoland of the 21st century, the reality does not look promising for leftists of his vision. Even Bread and Roses seems like a quixotic project, a labor movie made in a country whose tally of popular labor movies amounts to Norma Rae. (How many American union members even know of the old organizing song that provides the title of Loach’s film?)

Still, Loach keeps the faith by making his uncompromising films, and this description of his stay in Los Angeles might well sum up a career that has irrevocably entwined art and politics: “Our lives have been spent working away quietly, which is the only way to do it.” Is a man who keeps an umbrella by his side in a desert city an optimist or a pessimist? Perhaps Loach is both -- a pragmatist who intellectually understands capitalism‘s dehumanizing touch even while lamenting the lack of family and loyalty among the faces that have come and gone during his visit to this rainless town.

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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