Five movies for Labor Day

With the long weekend ahead, why not settle in with these tributes to the working person? You earned it.

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Blue Collar (1978)


Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader’s directorial debut exudes working-class authenticity—from its assembly-line opening credits to its hot-blooded final freeze-frame. There was a time, it seems, when you could have a bona fide celebrity like Richard Pryor convincingly playing prole. Pryor is one of a trio of Detroit car-plant workers (Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto are the others) who contrive to rob their union bureau’s safe. The plot machinations are a means to several tragic ends; what’s more impressive is the potent sense of life lived by time cards and between paychecks. Schrader fully immerses his cast and crew in actual Rust Belt locales, which contribute immeasurably to the characters’s grubby, stubbed-cigarette existence. And the friendship among Pryor, Keitel and Kotto, which slowly deteriorates over the course of the film, is so fully realized that it’s shocking to learn that the actors could barely stand each other on set.—Keith Uhlich


Hoffa (1992)


“I’m gonna do what I gotta do!” jabbers Jack Nicholson behind his prosthetic nose, and let’s be charitable and ignore the directorial stylings of Danny DeVito. This is still an absorbing bit of dramatized labor history. Hoffa was scripted profanely (to the count of 153 fucks) by David Mamet; per his blueprint, the movie does a ripping job of articulating the pressures orchestrated by the Teamsters’ leader before his mysterious demise. Our hero is no angel, nor is he strictly legal in any sense, but Nicholson makes him compellingly strange. Best are the deliriously disrespectful showdowns between Hoffa and the movie’s Robert Kennedy (a starchy Kevin Anderson), the attorney general who had it in for him for years. Ultimately, as with a lot of Mamet, the real subject here is entitlement: respect that’s earned versus inherited. That’s a good theme to ponder while you, ideally, do nothing but eat barbecue.—Joshua Rothkopf


Matewan (1987)


Writer, director and indie-cinema icon John Sayles has always been a friend to the callus-handed working man, as well as an artist with a keen interest in both American history and lefty causemongering. So it wasn’t surprising to see this maverick moviemaker taking on the 1920 standoff between unionizing coal miners and their unhappy corporate overlords in Matewan, West Virginia, as the subject of an ensemble drama. The shock comes in how such a sympathetic overview to the so-called socialist cause of organized workers got made at all during the tail end of the Reagan era. Passionate about its political leanings yet never preachy, the movie is like a Woody Guthrie song come to life: You can practically feel the grit under your fingernails and the brewing sense of outrage in your gut as the company goons start brutally beating on the strikers. It’s a film that continues to remind viewers of the battles fought and won in the name of fair working conditions—how far we’ve come and, given the state of today’s on-the-job concessions, how far we still have to go.—David Fear


Modern Times (1936)


Utterly iconic and evergreen (so long as our jobs continue to make us feel crushed between the cogs), Charlie Chaplin’s Depression-era comedy scores its points simply and beautifully. The enemy here, in Chaplin’s mind, is mechanization, turning the individual into an overworked robot. But after his Little Tramp is fired from the factory, there’s a whole world of incident that’s just as compelling: a jailbreak, an unsuccessful dine and dash, a disastrous stint as a waiter, even a Communist rally. All of it is a by-product of desperation stemming from an inhumane workplace. Chaplin himself, a wealthy Hollywood player, toiled harder than virtually all of his peers—he not only directed and acted in this, but produced it, scripted it and scored it. He certainly kept the little guy in mind.—Joshua Rothkopf


Office Space (1999)


The tag line for Mike Judge’s white-collar satire really said it all: “Work sucks.” If you weren’t already inclined to agree with that sentiment, just spend some time with the drones at Initech and their coffee-cup-carrying egomaniac of a boss (we love you, Gary Cole!)—watch how quickly the movie’s motto turns into your own personal mantra. (Desk jockeys at software companies aren’t the only ones who suffer in soul-crushing jobs; apparently, waitresses at cheesy franchise restaurants have it even worse.) Few comedies have captured the claustrophobic world of cubicle culture with such dead-on wit, and though the film loses steam once it criminalizes everyman hero Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston), those early scenes nail everything from pink-slip paranoia to annoyingly optimistic coworkers. DOA when initially released, Office Space has since become a quotable cult classic; just ask anybody whether they got the memo about those TPS reports, or how much “flair” they’re going to pin on. Your fellow wage slave will undoubtedly reply with a nice long “Yeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh.”—David Fear



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