Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Two films about community: Leave No Trace and Sorry to Bother You

I had taken a break from blogging in order to try to sort out a too-busy life, and find that, as so often is the case, as I return, I am blogging about film.

Recently, I saw Leave No Trace and Sorry to Bother You. Both show bleak worlds and both offer hope through community.

Leave No Trace, directed by Debra Granik of Winter's Bone fame, based on the book My Abandonment by Peter Rock, focuses on a young girl of about 13 named Tom. Tom lives "below the radar" in an Oregon state park with her father, Will. Will, an Iraq war vet, suffers from PTSD. Will is not able to tolerate being around people or living in civilization. As the story opens, the twosome's carefully constructed and sophisticated wilderness life is disrupted when  a ranger spots Tom. This leads to their relocation to a small house on a tree farm. It also has repercussions for other people who had set up a tent/shack village in the woods, as they are bulldozed out of their makeshift homes.

Tom and her father after moving to a small, generic house on the tree logging farm. 

Tom pulls away from her father because she likes living in a house with young people her own age around her. She welcomes the possibility of being part of a larger culture. She leaves the tree farm unwillingly when Will decides that they have to go back to the woods. Later, when Will is badly injured, she finds a small, marginal community near the park where they have been staying in Washington state. A medic sets Will's injured leg, while a local woman lets them live rent free in a small trailer. Once again, Tom enjoys getting involved in the life of the local community. When her father decides he must return to the wilderness, she lets him go, but stays behind in civilization.

Sorry to Bother You, directed by Boots Riley, takes place in a slightly alternative-universe  Oakland, taken out only a few degrees from our own culture. The movie is a Swiftian satire of our culture's obsession with money, violence, and success. In this film, the lead character "Cash" Green is so desperate for a job that he is glad to get work as a telemarketer. He lives in a garage with his girlfriend Detroit, an artist, and is surrounded by a world of poverty and desperation that makes the Leave No Trace universe look prosperous. People are so desperate that they sign lifetime contracts with a company called Worry Free, which gives them room and board in return for their labor. Worry Free ads show people living stacked in bunk beds, where their meals are brought on trays. Cash's uncle, whose garage Cash rents, thinks about joining Worry Free because his house is about to be foreclosed on. The US Congress, consistently shown in cahoots with big industry, passes legislation that deems Worry Free not slavery, though obviously it is. In addition, people enjoy a reality TV show in which other people are beaten up called "I Got the S**t Kicked Out of Me."

To abbreviate the plot, Cash moves up to become a Power Caller because of his "white voice" and ability to telemarket, where one of his clients becomes none other than Worry Free. He is exposed to Worry Free's sociopathic owner, Steve Lift. We see the vast gulf between the haves in the luxury  Power Caller offices upstairs, and the have nots crowded into the bullpen office below. Cash as Power Caller makes enough to pay off his uncle's mortgage, buy a fancy car, and move into a luxury apartment. Meanwhile, a worker name Squeeze organizes the employees downstairs into striking for a living wage.

Cash in the downstairs telemarketing room, before he gets his break.

Sorry to Bother You offers a more expansive worldview than  Leave No Trace. It includes rich and poor, and black, white, Latino, and Asian. Leave No Trace suffers from being an entirely "white world" movie, albeit one that largely deals with a fringe population living on the margins of society. Both movies, however, show the hollowing out of the middle class. Will in Leave No Trace is, of course, an exception, being in the wilderness because of PTSD, but many of the other people in the movie seem to be living either in the Oregon state park's illegal "Hooverville" or the "fringe" community next to the Washington state park because they lack economic resources. That the movie makes no comment on this makes a comment. This is a far cry from the settled suburban white worlds of Leave it to Beaver or even 1987's National Lampoon Family Christmas, in which a boss is vilified for not giving his middle-class workers a substantial Christmas bonus. In the last community in which Tom and Will land, people live close to each other in Rvs or trailers, or in some cases, modest houses. Many seem to be retired people, who we can guess didn't expect to spend their golden years in an Rv.

Sadly, from communities on the margins to people signing up for Worry Free, neither movie world seems too far from reality, and  the two movies together provide an honest commentary on the current state of the United States. Both movies raise the question, which seems to be verboten in our day-to-day discourse: do so many people really have to live so rough (to paraphrase Dickens's Magwitch)  so a few can live obscenely well?

Both movies depict community as the answer. Some of the loveliest scenes in Leave No Trace show Tom learning bee keeping skills with a quiet, gentle mentor, who encourages her to let the bees get to know her and to herself become part of a broader ecology. There are also beautiful moments of community get togethers outside with music and food. Likewise, in Sorry to Bother You, strength and integrity come from people sticking together in community. The characters may have horrible jobs, but they don't lose their sense of self or their dignity--that is, except for Cash when he becomes a Power Seller and is humiliated by being expected, for example, to "rap" at a white party.

Tom makes friends in her Washington state community. Her new friends look like real people, not Hollywood actors. 

Detroit, Cash's girlfriend, is one of the strongest characters in the movie. She wants to raise consciousness with her art. She leaves Cash when he continues to break the striking workers' picket line. She also, ala Yoko Ono, allows people to throw objects at her almost naked body in an installation piece meant to raise awareness of exploitation of Africans: she is willing to suffer pain to do this.  As with Yoko Ono having her suit snipped off, people are willing to act aggressively against her once given "permission."

Detroit, an artist, often wears her art as earrings. She is a center of decency in the film. 

Cash has to decide whether we will stay with his massively high paying job trying to sell Worry Free globally or return to his coworkers, friends, and roots. He will have to give up pay that allows him to help his relatives while living in luxury, but he will escape a cruel, sterile world of sycophancy. This choice seems very real as the "middle ground" disappears in our society and perhaps others.

Sorry to Bother You  shows the solidarity of the striking workers and the strong, authentic friendships between the movie's main characters. It can be easy to ridicule the values of friendship and community, but each film shows them to provide nurture, joy, and power. In her good mental health, Tom knows she has to choose community over isolation, as does Cash. Community is threat to a monetized world because it offers people security and self worth.  We wish Will could find his way to it--and one can't help but wonder if Will represents, albeit in different form, all the people who isolate themselves from human contact behind video games or computer screens (though computers are also a good way to find community).

I was surprised by my 23-year-old son's reaction that Sorry to Bother You was "radical." To me, it simply seemed to be speaking truth to power. Both movies remind us that this country needs to get on a better footing and that people coming together non-exploitatively is a way to do it.