Paul Schrader’s bookends to life in Capitalist America
Separated by nearly 40 years, Blue Collar (1978) and Dog Eat Dog (2016), two films in Paul Schrader’s ever expanding body of work, have seemingly little in common. While one is a highly acclaimed film representing the best of the New Hollywood movement of the 1970s, the other is, according to its own maker, not one of his important works. Rather, Dog Eat Dog was Schrader’s way to make amends to himself and Cage for not securing the final cut on their previous release, Dying of the Light. Glibly speaking, one may argue that Dog Eat Dog has not yet reached the Criterion Release status that Blue Collar enjoys.
Yet these two films are connected by way of being snapshots of two distinct periods in American history that both capture something specific about their respective economic landscapes. While Blue Collar deals with lives within organised labour in the late 1970s, Dog Eat Dog portrays the consequences of an expanding and arbitrary carceral system on this side of 2000s. Mike Davis’ book Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the US Working Class (1986), a history of organised labour in America, and Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s analysis of the evolution of the carceral system in California, Golden Gulag: Prison, Surplus, Crisis and Opposition in Globalizing California (2007), help delve further into the historical embeddedness of each film.
Blue Collar: A Last Sigh to the American Working Class Dream
Mike Davis’ book explores why the US, one of the most advanced economies in the world, does not have a concomitant labour movement akin to those found in Western Europe. Unlike France for instance, the USA neither has a concept of social wages and entitlements such as pension and healthcare inscribed into citizenship, nor does it possess an independent political party to fight for working class interests. That lack of a political party leads to a situation wherein the trade union emerges as the paramount locus of working class struggles. The recent drive towards unionisation by Starbucks and Amazon employees, as well as the current Writers’ Guild strike in Hollywood, serve as pertinent reminders of the primal role that unions play in securing basic rights for workers in the United States.
The unions themselves are impacted by this lack of overarching party in two interrelated ways. The first consequence is the festering within unions of sectarianism along racial, ethnic and craft lines. The second is that unions are forced to perform the roles of spokespersons of labour, but also of mediators with capitalists and cross-class political parties in order to obtain any tangible gains.
In the 1970s, American unions were losing their powers of mediation due to a bevy of structural factors. These included stricter provisions on striking by the government, a commitment to union busting by relocation of plants and the banning of communists, the entry of foreign car manufacturers in the American economy, and a slowdown of the post-war economic boom based on military spending by the government. Yet the union as an individual entity still held immense value considering the growing precarity of the working class. It is at this juncture of working class history that Blue Collar finds itself.
Set in 1978 Michigan and starring Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto, Blue Collar tells the story of three workers in an automobile factory and their descent into crime. The workers, tired of the drudgery and the financial constraints of working class life, decide after a coked out binge to rob their own union office to help mitigate their circumstances. Pryor’s Ezekiel ‘Zeke’ Brown is struggling to pay his back taxes to the IRS, leaving him with an arrear of over 2,500 dollars — his wage amounts to only 210 dollars a week. Keitel’s Jerry Bartowski, meanwhile, is struggling to pay for instalments on various consumer goods such as his TV, forcing him to work even during vacations at the plant. Moreover, his daughter is in urgent need of braces for her teeth, something Bartowski can ill afford. Finally, Kotto’s Sam ‘Smokey’ James, the eldest of the three, is a two-time ex-convict from Mississippi with a gambling habit.
Schrader, in an interview with Cinéaste magazine, reveals another reason why workers would rob their union:
I wanted to write a movie about some guys who rip off their union because it seemed to me such a wonderfully self-hating kind of act, that they would attack the organization that’s supposed to help them. It’s so symptomatic of the way that workers think about the organizations that surround them. You know, in their minds, and in the minds of a lot of people in this country, the union, the company and the government are synonymous. They have different logos but they’re essentially the same thing.
‘Wonderfully self-hating’ — could the protagonists in Blue Collar be acting out something perverse in wanting to rob their own union office? Schrader goes on to argue that this weariness with the union is symptomatic of the way Americans view all institutions including the government — as mentioned above, the lack of a corporate class consciousness within the working class leads to the creation of institutions that are individuated and, in due course, become separate interest groups themselves.
In one of the introductory scenes in the film, the workers are called for a meeting after their shift ends and are asked to volunteer in distributing election pamphlets to the general public during the weekend. The workers however are in no mood to sacrifice their free time for union work, despite the Union Rep’s insistence that the workers and the union share common interests. During the speech, Zeke stands up and complains about how his locker has been broken for months. The Rep tells Zeke to be ‘reasonable’, and that he has to wait for a ‘big’ thing or a bunch of ‘little’ things before he goes to the union leadership with workers’ complaints.
Frustrated with this response, Zeke decides to go meet the senior leader, Eddie Johnson (Harry Bellaver), at the union headquarters. The union headquarters in contrast to the factory floor is a plush space with everything in working order (unlike Zeke’s locker in the factory), and is indistinguishable from any other corporate office.(1) When Zeke complains about his malfunctioning locker to Johnson, and asserts that the union is racist because it does not pay heed to his complaints, Johnson resorts to citing the historical role that the union played in securing equal wages for Black and White workers. Only when Zeke remains steadfast about his current concern does Johnson pick up the phone and address the issue. In both these scenes, the union establishes itself as an aloof and apathetic body which instrumentalizes worker power while cloaking this process with collectivist rhetoric.
The Union heist planned by the workers goes off as easily as envisaged, and they manage to break the safe courtesy of some expert help from a crime consultant, Charlie Hernandez (Jimmy Martinez). But instead of finding cash, they find a ledger which records loans given by the union at illegally high interest rates. Considering it is their own money that is being lent by the union for illicit profit, the workers ask the union for a $10,000 ransom in exchange for the ledger.
Their plans are halted almost immediately when Charlie Hernandez is caught for an unrelated crime and divulges information about the union heist. In the next scene, we hear the voice of Eddie Johnson flipping the files of the three perpetrators. Johnson categorises Jerry as a union loyalist who would buckle under pressure, Zeke as a worker who wants to rise up the ladder, and Smokey as someone who cannot be negotiated with since he is a two-time convict and has a nothing to lose attitude. The subsequent retaliation of the union towards the workers stems from these very characterizations made by Johnson.
Since Jerry could buckle easily, the union sends henchmen to his house to attack his family. Luckily for Jerry, Smokey senses the danger and thwarts this attack in heroic fashion. The next day, Zeke is offered the role of the shop steward, in keeping with his high rising aspirations, in return for the ledger. The very same day, Smokey is asked to supervise a car painting in a booth and finds himself unable to escape. The scene, shot in excruciating detail, portrays Smokey valiantly trying to call for help while poisonous fumes of paint consume him. Considering his intransigent nature, the only solution that presents itself to the union is to brutally kill him on the factory floor.
Smokey’s death also sounds a death knell for the friendship between Zeke and Jerry. Zeke has compromised with the union and obtained the promised shop steward post, leaving Jerry dismayed. In response to Jerry’s allegation that he was bought off by a petty promotion, Zeke says that Jerry is thinking ‘White’. While Jerry can and will have more chances, Zeke argues that he has this one chance to make good, failing which, he might see jail and lose everything he has worked for. At this moment, Zeke is not only referring to the centuries-long racial oppression and inequality in America, but also pointing towards how these conditions of oppression still exist, even in the industrialised metropolis.(2)
Zeke even goes on to offer Jerry the post of foreman, an offer Jerry refuses. Jerry, in turn, chooses to be an informer to the FBI who are intent on busting this union for corrupt practices. But this act, according to Schrader in the Cinéaste interview, isn’t an act of solidarity with Smokey; rather it is in line with Jerry’s ‘safety first’ approach to life that Johnson identifies while flipping through his file.
The film ends with a coda, a voice speaking over a freeze frame which depicts a heated confrontation between Zeke and Jerry on the factory floor. The voiceover is an earlier dialogue from Smokey when they were planning the heist and reads, “They pit the lifers against the new boys, the old against the young and the Black against the White, everybody, to keep us in our place.”
This coda is a direct allusion to the nature of power in the United States. The ‘they’ Smokey refers to is the company, but could also be the government, the union or another organisation. These organisations structure and influence everyday existence for the masses in an insidious manner and are therefore able to sow seeds of dissension, if not actively then passively through the very perpetuation of unequal socio-economic structures. Davis alludes to the very same divisions that Smokey refers to in his history of organised labour in America. But the author warns that these divisions, though deeply rooted, cannot readily explain why organised labour finds itself in such a situation. Every moment of struggle is replete with possibilities, and the shape history takes is not preordained but a result of concrete manifestations of situations.3 Blue Collar, though ending in tragedy, showcases a glimpse into this very possibility of transcending structural conditions for a better future.
Dog Eat Dog: There is Hope only in the Afterlife
Blue Collar lays bare the deteriorating conditions of organised labour in the 1970s, which Mike Davis’ book reveals to be caused by a combination of factors. Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Golden Gulag takes this economic downturn as one of the foundational bases for the exponentially(4) expansive prison system which has developed in California since 1980, and which is central to the dynamics at the heart of Schrader’s Dog Eat Dog.
One of the most striking and counterintuitive points in Gilmore’s book is the emphasis that this carceral apparatus isn’t a consequence of increased crime, itself caused by the economic crisis. In fact, Gilmore demonstrates that crime declined in the same period in which prisons were on the rise.
So what links this economic downturn and the rise of prisons? Gilmore addresses this question by analysing California’s political economy through a Marxist lens. She argues that the immiseration of land and labour is the collateral that society pays for capitalist accumulation.(5) Thus for example, the entry of big agro-businesses sound the death knell for smaller farmers, or the introduction of new heavy machinery renders workers unemployed and unemployable. The growth of AI is another innovation in the long history of capitalism which will make a few people richer and the others poorer.
The collapse of the post-war military expenditure economy(6) was not compensated for by government spending that would alleviate the situation of the masses. Instead, what we witnessed in the 1980s was a dramatic cutback on government spending and a government fiscal crisis due to the reduction of taxes on the wealthy. Emerging at this juncture as a way to redirect state capacity and handle the social crisis that capitalist accumulation creates is the prison, the final phase in the infamous ‘war on crime,’ with crime defined as “an elastic category spanning an alleged continuum of dependency and depravation.”
One of the ways in which the state of California ‘doubled down’ on ‘crime’ was through the ‘Three Strikes and You’re Out’ law. This 1994 law allowed for de facto life imprisonment for those who have been convicted for three violent crimes or felonies. The fine print of the law, however, reveals an even more sinister program of mass incarceration, as Gilmore points out. The law included “nonviolent prior convictions among eligible ‘strikes,’ [set] no age, temporal, or jurisdictional limitations on priors, and [allowed] prosecutors to use their power to ‘wobble’ charges in order to make current misdemeanours into felonies and therefore strikable.”(7) In other words, the State of California was finding ‘ingenious’ ways to permanently imprison a growing number of people.
Dog Eat Dog, Schrader’s 2014 film based on the eponymous 1995 book by Edward Bunker, (8) is situated within this very juncture of crime and punishment in American history. The film stars Willem Dafoe as Mad Dog, Nicholas Cage as Troy, and Christopher Matthew Cook as Diesel, three ex-cons who chose to embark on the proverbial ‘one final crime’ to make enough money to settle for good. Looming over the heads of the protagonists is the feared Three Strikes law, which adds to the stakes of this heist.
In a promotional interview with Ricky Camillieri, Schrader said that the challenge of making Dog Eat Dog was to make a novel crime film in 2016 after the interventions of Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie in the genre. Schrader’s way out was to make a film which was as much a commentary on crime films as a commentary on criminals. To do so, the director worked with a crew which not only thought out of the box, but wondered what the box itself was to begin with.
Unlike other crime films, Dog Eat Dog is neither a caper like the Ocean’s series nor a film with a tragic denouement like Heat. The protagonists of Dog Eat Dog have no special skills or expertise allowing them to embark on complicated crimes, nor do they have any heroic qualities that would endear them to the viewer. The movie goes on to make a reference to such heist films in a hilarious exchange between Mad Dog, Troy and Diesel when they plan their ‘final heist’, a baby nabbing for the price of $750,000. Troy tells the others that he plans for success, but if they meet failure, they all have to go down “Samurai style.” With all three down two strikes, the prospect of being in jail for the rest of their lives is nigh unimaginable. At this phase, Diesel remarks, “Where there’s a gig, and there’s a lot of money at the end, you run away to Hawaii — that shit never, ever works out. Does it?” to which Mad Dog responds, “I think it does sometimes. You just don’t know about it ’cause they run off to Hawaii and you don’t ever hear from ’em again.”
Diesel’s fears are proven right as the heist fails miserably from the get go. After some reconnaissance, the three break into the baby’s house and hold it hostage only to shoot down the father of the baby who was to pay the ransom. The climax of the film, in contrast to other crime films, does not involve the heist per se but the aftermath of their decisions. More than anything else, Dog Eat Dog shows how the experience of prison and more specifically the Damocles sword of the Three Strikes law can shape not only the trajectory of a life, but one’s worldview.
Blue Collar ends on a tragic note with Zeke and Jerry on the verge of fisticuffs: race becomes the primary dividing line between the two, with Jerry accusing Zeke of being a comprador while shouting racial expletives at him. Zeke in turn accuses Jerry of being a union buster and derides him with ethnic slurs. While Blue Collar begins with the possibility of racial harmony and ends with the (im)possibility of class solidarity, Dog Eat Dog operates on the premise of Two Americas, with the gulf between the America of prosperity and the America of despair widening and maintained by legislation such as the Three Strikes law.
An example of the cynicism and despair that prison festers is a scene wherein the three are assigned by Greco, a higher level criminal played by Schrader himself, with the task of robbing a Black drug dealer named Moon Man (Omar J. Dorsey). To accomplish this task, Troy requests three Cleveland PD uniforms. These outfits, together with a fake Cleveland PD car sticker, are all the three men need to accost Moon Man, threaten him at gunpoint and rob his house in front of protesting neighbours. Although the three criminals are immediately identified as fake cops by the discerning crowd, the scene shows how all three have internalised the omnipotence and omnipresence of police power to serve their own interests. An interesting parallel to this scene of ‘police’ brutality are the scenes of actual police raids and brutality conducted by the Baltimore PD in David Simon’s We Own This City. Imbued with the same malicious energy and showing the same spirit of revelry as in Dog Eat Dog, the show underlines the arbitrariness undergirding legality and illegality. Or as Jack Nicholson’s Frank Costello says in The Departed, the point is not whether one chooses to be a cop or a criminal, but rather the apparent lack of difference between the two.
In the aforementioned interview with Cinéaste, Schrader says that women come somewhere below beer and TV for the characters of Blue Collar. Indeed, the scenes that Zeke and Jerry have with their respective wives are short and mundane, revolving around the day-to-day travails of managing a household. The only moments of romantic tenderness we see between the protagonists and their wives is when they cook up excuses to escape for a sex- and drug-filled binge at Smokey’s house. However, it is important to point out that the actions of both Zeke and Jerry are strongly influenced by their being family men. Zeke takes the promotion in lieu of the ledger in order to support his family, while Jerry is fearful about the safety of his own and thus collaborates with the FBI. It is precisely because Smokey does not have a family that the union deems it impossible to negotiate with — or threaten — him.
On the other hand, Mad Dog, Troy and Diesel have transactional and violent relationships with women. Compared to the scenes of familiar domestic bliss (and chaos) in Blue Collar, Dog Eat Dog begins with Mad Dog alone watching a debate show on gun rights on TV while snorting cocaine. The house he occupies seems a parody of a cosy home, everything in it of a bright pink colour — from the walls to the furniture and furnishings. We soon realise that Mad Dog is in fact occupying his ex(?) girlfriend Sheila’s (Chelcie Lynn) house when she enters with a handful of groceries alongside her teenage daughter — a standard family unit this is not. After some persuasion, Sheila concedes to allowing the unexpected guest a day’s stay, but immediately asks him to leave when she discovers that he used her computer to watch porn. She calls him a drug addict, a pervert and a loser while slapping him and pushing him around; Mad Dog’s response is to stab Sheila to death then go upstairs with a sigh to shoot the only witness, her teenage daughter. Already on fragile ground at the beginning of the scene, what little affection there might have been between these characters is annihilated by Mad Dog’s entirely materialistic and self-serving approach to the relationship and to the world at large, only engaging with others in order to take from them the things he needs, using violence if necessary.
Diesel, by contrast, shows a much gentler side when he takes part in a charming conversation with Zoe (Louise Krause) at a hotel bar, after which they go up to his hotel room together. There, Zoe tries to learn more about him by asking about musical artists he likes. Unable to participate due to his lack of knowledge on the subject, a direct result of his past incarceration, Diesel loses his cool and asks if she is mocking him, since she knows he has been in prison. Threatened by his sudden change in tone and unwarranted allegations, Zoe abruptly leaves the hotel room. Elena Lazic’s review of the film analyses Diesel’s breakdown as representative of the divide between his and Zoe’s worlds. While Zoe imagines art and friends to be a commonplace feature of a shared reality, Diesel was severed from these aspects of everyday life while in prison. Reference to such things not only alienate him, they also reinforce his feeling of loneliness and the belief that he may never again experience such joys.While Mad Dog and Diesel both suffer breakdowns in conversations, Troy turns not to violence, but to money — the only thing he has to offer. He tries to convince Lina (Melissa Bolano), a much younger sex worker, to fly away with him to Nice, even gifting her an expensive bracelet. But Lina has other plans, and ends up selling the bracelet on EBay. What to her is only a commodity, is to Troy the only way the former convict has found of showing his affection.
The ripple effects of life in prison imprint themselves most vividly in the respective demises of the three characters. Unaware that they have killed the wrong person, Mad Dog and Diesel proceed to dispose of the body at a safe place known to Mad Dog in Toledo, over 100 miles away from Cleveland. We soon realise that this is also where Mad Dog disposed of Sheila and her daughter’s bodies, and he sees this act as a way to make amends with his past. During the entire journey and the subsequent disposal, Mad Dog constantly asks aloud for redemption and seeks acceptance from Diesel, while the latter just wants to get the job done. Diesel finally loses his cool when they stumble onto the decaying bodies of Sheila and her daughter, and impulsively shoots a repentant Mad Dog. His apathetic attitude to forgiveness, combined with his belief that people like Mad Dog do not deserve empathy, here align Diesel with the American justice system that caused him so much harm in the first place.
In a twist of fate, and on grounds of mere suspicion, Troy is accosted by police in the parking lot of a departmental store while waiting for Diesel. Panicking, he punches one of the officers. Diesel sees the commotion as he exits the store and immediately shoots the police officer before driving for cover. But as Diesel drives away, Troy’s words about dying “samurai style” reverberate in his mind and he crashes his car into a building, meeting his death. Troy, meanwhile, is apprehended by the police but not brought to the authorities. Instead, two officers beat him to a pulp before dragging him by car to his death.
Schrader ends the film with an alternative fantasy ending wherein a bruised Troy has turned into a version of Humphrey Bogart. Troy/Bogart then kidnaps an elderly Black couple from a diner and asks to be dropped off to a location. He reassures them that he means no harm and has no ulterior motives. Just when a semblance of trust is built between them, the police arrive and indiscriminately shoot down both him and the couple, giving what Lazic calls a “movie end” to Troy’s life. This ending can also be seen as a callback to Blue Collar’s climax where the nascent offshoots of intra-racial understanding are destroyed by a repressive apparatus.
In a similar vein to Lazic, Richard Brody remarks that the triple denouement of the characters gives each one something they could not grasp in real life. Troy, who strives to act like Bogart throughout the film and is mocked for his impersonation, becomes a perfect Bogart with all his signature trappings after death. Mad Dog, who seeks repentance for his terrible actions, learns that there is no forgiveness in this world for his gruesome acts. And Diesel shows that the true mark of friendship in these circumstances is to sacrifice oneself “samurai style.”
Lazic points out that Schrader in Dog Eat Dog reveals his disdain for America with “its vacuous culture, its gun laws and its failing economic system where money and its swift procurement become the sole concern for so many.” Unlike Blue Collar, Dog Eat Dog has no place for a coda that galvanises and forewarns the working classes. The possibility of solidarity envisaged in the former film, albeit a tenuous and teetering one, has been replaced by a future where redemption lies only in the afterlife.
1. Indeed, Davis remarks that due to the practice of private arbitration and individual contracts, the number of union officials per worker in the US outnumbered those of other advanced countries. In 1962, the USA had 60,000 Union workers or 1 for every 300 workers, while Britain had 1 union worker for every 2000 workers. Mike Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the US Working Class, (New York: Verso, 1986), 114. back
2. A pertinent and geographically adjacent incident which underlines racial oppression in the metropolis are the anti-Black riots across Detroit conducted by White workers in 1943 in response to the protest of Black workers demanding promotions in the Packard factory. See Mike Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the US Working Class, (New York: Verso, 1986), 82. back
3. Mike Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the US Working Class, (New York: Verso, 1986).14-17. back
4. The California state prisoner population increased by 500 percent between 1982-2000. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prison, Surplus, Crisis and Opposition in Globalizing California, ( Berkeley: Verso, 2007), 7. back
5. See Ibid 54-57 for a detailed discussion on what constitutes economic crisis and how crisis and the production of surplus are inextricably linked. back
6. Gilmore goes to great lengths to emphasise that she is not an advocate for military-based government spending, which inevitably increases the scope of American Imperialism. The reason to bring up this system of ‘Military Keynesianism’ is to mark it in contrast to the subsequent era when this form of government spending is expedited with. See footnote 9 in Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prison, Surplus, Crisis and Opposition in Globalizing California, (Berkeley: Verso, 2007), 255, for a more detailed explanation on Keynes. back
7. Ibid, 108. back
8. The book is based in California while the film is situated in Cleveland (possibly for financial reasons) but the Three Strikes rule still looms over the characters. back