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Film Critic Harlan Jacobson: 2019 Labor Day Address

As my friend and Indiewire columnist Tom Brueggemann noted this week: This summer Disney had five films cross the $1 billion mark worldwide -- with fewer tickets sold domestically than any year since 1992--when the population was 90 million fewer.

“Summer totals for 2019 will be about $4.5 billion domestic, which is almost identical for the same period last year, but of that the only original title is Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, at #10 from Sony with around $350 million worldwide. Only two other summer originals, the music- and nostalgia-fueled Rocketmanand Yesterday,” Brueggemann wrote, have passed $50 million so far. Put off by superheroes and remakes, the public has now learned that great entertainment is at home on demand, 24/7.

You can watch people at work from the comfort of your couch this Labor Day weekend. Consider some docs from this year’s Sundance Film Festival that just beat the pants off the franchise pics at the multiplex: 

American Factoryon Netflix, couldn’t be timelier. Directed by the Oscar-nominated team of Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, it’s about the opening of a Chinese owned plate glass factory, Fuyao (Fu-yeow) Glass America, on the bones of a Chevy plant in Dayton, Ohio that GM closed in the 2008 meltdown. The doc is right on the money: there’s a culture clash, all right, between American workers and their new Chinese bosses. With Mr. Big Fuyao squinting in the sun the day of the ribbon cutting, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown goes off script and talks about his support for unions. 

Well, at that Mr. Fuyao goes oh wow, and we follow the tortured history of this venture into the equivalent of corporate couples’ therapy to land on Irreconcilable Differences: US work is more regulated and safer but way less productive; the Chinese workplace is way more productive but run like the Mainland’s re-education penitentiaries, themselves echoes of our own 19th Century labor practices.

Reichert and Bognar won the doc directing award at Sundance. Now the press is all over American Factoryas the first film under the new media banner of Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions. Makes you wonder if they thought American Factoryends in Kumbaya and didn’t stay till the end. It doesn’t. Fuyao automates. Good film. But it burns down the house.

Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins

So does Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins. Janice Engel’s doc about the late firebrand journalist, commentator and all-around rapscallion Molly Ivins lets Ivins show just how much hell she raised in her journalistic tear for almost 40 years across a half dozen papers from Texas to Minnesota to what she calls The New York City Times. It did not always go well—hell, it almost never went well--between Ivins and her employers.

Her readers—even her subjects—loved her till she succumbed to breast cancer at 62 in 2007. What Engels captures about Ivins is pertinent to Labor Day and the sense many of you have experienced in your own career of delivering the product the consumer wants, the one that’s in the mission statement, and the one the boss does his best to bury.

Want high intrigue? Drop in on Danish director Mad Brugger’s Cold Case Hammarskjold, about the 1961 death in a plane crash of the 2ndUN Secretary General, Swedish bureaucrat Dag Hammarskjold, over the breakaway Katanga province of the Congo. Brugger recaps the investigation of Swedish journalist Goran Bjorkdahl,  who didn’t buy the official plane crash story and has plenty of reason to suspect assassination. Mining interests, you see, don’t want to deal with civil servants who take their job seriously. 

One good reason to go out this Labor Day is to catch up with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I have not been a huge Tarantino fan, though I loved his two earliest films, Reservoir Dogsand Pulp Fiction. By the time he got around to the Kill Billsand Grindhouse, I was long gone, sounding an early warning that Tarantino was doomed to perpetual adolescence — now the standard knock on QT.  Turning Hitler, Nazi Germany and WWII in Inglorious Basterds into what amounted to an installment of the Mortal Kombat video game in which you could get to the last level and kill Hitler, aroused my inner Jew rage. What else would a brat who don’t know much about history, as the song went, come up with? Dayenu, said I. Enough.

I avoid all the current debate about Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, clearly a fairy tale which centers on the working relationship between a down and out fourth-rate film star played heroically funny -- maybe for the first time -- by Leonardo DiCaprio (words I thought I’d never say), and his stunt double everyman, Brad Pitt, who gets better and deeper as he gets older. 

These two also-rans, DiCaprio and Pitt, bumble through QT’s mid-century junk shop of American culture, wind up on an acid trip and ever so hilariously heroically alter the trajectory of our tragic history. Yes, there are critics who complain about the film’s old white man politics. I leave that to you. You don’t need all the inside film references to love Once Upon A Time; I don’t know what they all are. You do need to know Sharon Tate, played all cotton candy and dirty feet (Tarantino’s fetish) by Margot Robbie, and what happened to her that terrible night. This time, Quentin’s adolescent mucking around in history works. It momentarily lifts an early stain on the hurt soul we all carry inside over the ongoing assault on our innocence. That’s good work. 

I don't go to the movies over Labor Day weekend. For me, a film critic, going to movies is work--that's a little strange isn't it--but it's labor, it's what I do. I happen to like what I do, because I believe in the power of cinema to transport us to other worlds and to clarify experience in the process. I don’t go to the insiders Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day weekend. Rather, I take time on Labor Day to stop work and reflect. For me, it's a day for family and friends. My parents who had only just met in Schroon Lake, NY, eloped to Elkton, MD – which is what you did back then -- on Labor Day, 1938. My brother was born in Wilkes Barre, PA on Sept. 1, 1939.  The nurse said to my mother, “Congratulations, Mrs. Jacobson, you labored on Labor Day weekend and have a beautiful baby boy. Oh, and Hitler invaded Poland.” It’s also the anniversary of my second chance, married at a house by the sea on Cape Cod on Labor Day, 1992. 

Now I savor the last licks of summer on this Labor Day, my children having flown the coop for careers, as all three keep that appointment with the open road they so desperately want to take them across the light curtain to the future. Today is tomorrow is the past we try so hard to remember and can never forget.

So let us understand Labor Day and why I don’t work on its weekend. It is the one holiday that does not force you to swear fealty to a religion, the nation, or a man—that last, never more important than now. It is about you, what you do, and with whom and for whom you do it. Labor Day is about work. It. Is. So. Very. American. And… it is a rest in the rolling of the drums.

Have a great…Labor Day.   

Harlan Jacobson became WBGO's film critic in 2010, covering the international film scene for the "WBGO Journal," with reports from film festivals around the world about films arriving on the scene in the greater New York-New Jersey metroplex.