One summer in my early 20s, I took a job with a company that installed insulation in people’s attics. On a good day, I would spend hours in the back of the truck, a metal box heated by the Central Texas sun, ceaselessly lifting heavy bags of loose fiberglass and opening them into the hopper. On a bad day, I would venture up into the attics, which regularly reached temperatures over 160 degrees. I came home every day itchy and miserable, so sapped of energy that all I could do was watch a few hours of television before passing out.
A few years later, I spent a summer on the overnight shift at a hostel. I had long been a night owl, so the job seemed perfect for me. But week after week of staying up past dawn and attempting to sleep while bright daylight crept in from behind my woefully inadequate blackout curtains eventually wore me down. I lost the ability to reliably organize my thoughts. Several times I cried inexplicable tears over the smallest annoyances. I hardly recognized myself.
I was lucky. I was able to leave both of these jobs without incurring financial catastrophe. There are countless people without other options, who spend their whole lives tethered to jobs like these, jobs that the more privileged among us couldn’t bear for more than a few months. Most of them adapt to some degree, but how much of themselves do they lose in the process? Between 1972 and 1978, John Huston’s Fat City, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar all explored that question, depicting characters trapped within an oppressive capitalist system that destroys the body, mind, and soul.
Fat City follows two low-level boxers struggling to get by in Stockton, California. 29-year-old Billy Tully (Stacy Keach) is washed up and attempting an unlikely comeback, while the teenaged Ernie Munger (Jeff Bridges) is just starting out, fresh-faced and full of raw potential. Though they are at different stages of their lives, both men are worn down by difficult relationships, stifling economic realities, and the unrelenting brutality of their chosen sport.
In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Old Hollywood mainstay John Huston was coming off of several flops and struggling to stay relevant. He badly needed a win, and Fat City launched a comeback for him that poor Billy could only dream of. Ironically, Huston saved his failing career by portraying workers for whom meaningful, lasting success would be impossible. He achieved this downbeat realism by drawing from his own experiences boxing as a teenager, and by a close collaboration with Leonard Gardner, the author of the source novel (and a former boxer himself). Together, the two men showed the sport in an authentically unglamorous light that resonated strongly with both critics and audiences.
This included placing a heavy emphasis on the physical toll of boxing. It would be a decade until the death of South Korean lightweight Duk-koo Kim and some strong words from The Journal of the American Medical Association helped turn the tide of popular opinion, but there was already a slowly growing understanding of the damage being inflicted on boxers’ bodies and brains. Huston and Gardner pulled no punches exposing the grimly gladiatorial nature of an industry that pays young men to sacrifice their long-term health for cheap entertainment. We see Ernie’s nose broken, and Billy so concussed he can hardly stand or speak. An older challenger pisses blood before stepping into the ring for another round of abuse.There is no “sweet science” romanticism tempering this violence, no promise of glory motivating the characters. All of them are driven by money. Even when voicing his admiration for Ernie’s natural athleticism, Billy doesn’t mention any potential for greatness or fame, concluding simply, “He could make a lot of money some day if he was handled right.” Between fights, both men do field labor to make ends meet, picking onions or whatever pays the most on a given day, visibly fatigued and roasting in the sun. Fighting pays them a little more for the increase in bodily harm, but either way, they are going through a meat grinder. It’s all they know how to do. This economy of pain is so pervasive that when Billy wants to impress the bedraggled, belligerent barfly Oma, he does so by ramming his head into a jukebox. Physical self-destruction is the only currency he has.
Seeing these men bounce between boxing and agriculture calls to mind the idea, dating back to ancient Rome, that a populace can be easily controlled with “bread and circuses.” Billy and Ernie are being exploited by these two industries, but they are also cogs in a larger machine that allows an exploitative society to run smoothly. From the fields, the people get basic sustenance. From the boxing rings, they get distraction and catharsis through displays of violence whose consequences they don’t have to feel or examine.
The fighters are likewise discouraged from thinking about each other’s injuries. After Ernie’s first fight, he staggers into the dressing room with his face and torso looking like a crime scene. Ernie’s manager then takes his trunks and tosses them to the next boxer in line, saying, “Wes, get into your trunks.” Wes looks down at them incredulously and complains, “They all bloody!” The manager shoots back, “Don’t worry about it, it’s not your blood.”
Just two years after Fat City’s release, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre would bury a similar subtext deeper within a wildly dissimilar narrative. In that film, five young people, including Sally Hardesty and her wheelchair-bound brother Franklin, run afoul of the now-iconic Leatherface and his family of cannibalistic lunatics in rural Texas. The unsuspecting youths are dispatched one by one, presumably to be butchered and sold as barbecue at the local gas station.
This harrowing story made its way to the screen through a famously nightmarish shoot. Extreme heat, rotting animal corpses brought in to save money on props, and various other conditions combined to create an ordeal far beyond the usual film-industry stories of onset difficulties. To make matters worse, while the film was quite successful and launched a career for director Tobe Hooper, a particularly egregious example of “Hollywood accounting” robbed the cast and crew of their fair share of the profits. They were used and discarded by unscrupulous profiteers, much like the fearsome fictional family they helped bring to life. Though the film ostensibly presents its villains as a blast of senseless chaos, perhaps a result of dark cosmic forces, they are also natural products of the American economy: former slaughterhouse workers, now jobless due to technological advancements in their industry.
In the decades since this film’s release, research has emerged showing that labor in a slaughterhouse is likely to cause PTSD and a range of other psychological issues, including increased violent tendencies. This labor, combined with deskilling (the process through which professions are reduced in scope to a narrow range of specialized tasks) has left the family with fractured minds and few marketable skills aside from killing efficiently and without emotion.
Their crimes are also explicitly and implicitly presented as an extension of their former trade. We see Leatherface put one of his still-living victims on a meathook with workmanlike indifference, and there’s a good chance that the family’s chainsaw was once used to quarter dead cattle for easy transportation. While Sally is held captive at the dinner table and her captors bicker over the division of labor, one of them explains, “I just can’t take no pleasure in killin’. Just some things you gotta do. Don’t mean you have to like it.” They decide their grotesquely withered patriarch should do the honors of bashing Sally’s skull in, because he was once “the best.” He lacks the strength to lift a hammer on his own, but his family can’t accept this reality. His viability as a worker is inextricably tied to his value as a person.
Cannibalism has long served as a metaphor for larger patterns of predation and exploitation in society. As beneficiaries of a system that eats up and casts aside its unwanted human assets, Sally and her friends have that dynamic turned around on them, and the blithe batch of consumers becomes the consumed.
It is appropriate, then, that most of Leatherface’s murders take place in broad daylight. Daytime is usually considered safe and unthreatening in the horror genre, but the sun-soaked surroundings here tell us we are not free to relegate society’s monstrous elements to the shadows. Look at this, the camera insists. Don’t look away. This idea runs through the dialogue, too, as Franklin is repeatedly mocked and dismissed for bringing up realities his cohorts would rather ignore. If, as is sometimes said, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre symbolizes the death of hippie-era optimism, it does so through a harsh confrontation with the horrors of capitalism.
Shortly before things begin to unravel, the film points ominously toward the widespread, willful ignorance of these horrors. While Sally and her friends make a brief stop at a cemetery, Franklin hears a local drunk declare to no one in particular, “Things happen hereabout, they don’t tell about. I see things. You see, they say it’s, it’s just an old man talking. You laugh at an old man. There’s them that laughs and knows better.”
Four years later, Blue Collar would describe the plight of the working class in terms too explicit to ignore. The protagonists, Zeke Brown, Smokey James, and Jerry Bartowski, work in a Detroit auto manufacturing plant, earning barely-adequate wages and enduring sub-optimal working conditions. Zeke and Smokey are black, Jerry is white, and all three are so fed up with their complacent, ineffectual, and often racist union leadership that they decide to rob the local union headquarters. Instead of the expected sum of money, the trio finds evidence of high-level corruption. They realize this information has monetary value, but their ill-conceived blackmail plot succeeds only at putting their lives in danger and tearing their friendship apart.
Though Paul Schrader was a successful screenwriter by 1978, his directorial debut nearly broke him. The three stars hated each other, and clashes of personality led to multiple fistfights and other physical violence during filming. You can see a subtle byproduct of this volatility onscreen—the camera rarely moves. Schrader never knew when his stars would walk off set, so he was forced to shoot carefully and make every setup count. In spite of all this, Blue Collar came together as a powerful illustration of societal ills. Part of this strength is that its story is built on such solid historical ground: The union’s fictional wrongdoings (using union funds for illegal high-interest loans, likely connected to organized crime) closely mirror the much-publicized charges against Jimmy Hoffa in the mid-‘60s. Aside from widespread concerns about corruption, by the mid-‘70s, many believed that the prominent United Auto Workers union had become an instrument of the capitalist establishment, helping to preserve the status quo rather than protecting its own members. On top of this, racial tensions simmered within UAW, with many of its white members having opposed the civil rights movement. And as if to retroactively prove the film’s point, 2018 has seen UAW under investigation for corruption involving misuse of funds.
Zeke, Smokey, and Jerry begin the story in easy harmony with each other and fiercely loyal to the union. They understand too well where they would be without the gains made by the labor movement. Early on, when an FBI agent approaches them under false pretenses looking for dirt, they smell the subterfuge and are righteously indignant. But their frustration with the lazy, inadequate representation they receive in return for their dues leads them to compromise that loyalty, justifying their theft on the grounds that they are taking back what belongs to them. After their once-beloved union starts trying to kill them, they make divergent moral compromises they would have previously found unthinkable, eventually devolving into deep feelings of betrayal and racial hatred.
We are reminded throughout that the characters reached this point as a result of their struggles with poverty, which the film spells out with illuminating little details. Jerry comes home one day to find that his daughter has hurt herself trying to use a piece of wire to craft the braces he can’t afford to provide for her. Zeke faces an IRS audit for claiming several nonexistent children as dependents. Smokey’s desire for a decent car has gotten him in deep with a loan shark. All the while, the FBI agent circles Jerry, waiting until he is desperate enough to turn informant. The common laborers of the film are beset on all sides by coldhearted professionals, each representing a facet of an uncaring and oppressive system.
When the group first discusses what to do with the damning documents they’ve found, Smokey diagnoses the problem at the core of their lives. “They’ll do anything to keep you on their line,” he says, talking about the corporate bosses. “They pit the lifers against the new boys, the old against the young, the black against the white—everybody—to keep us in our place.”
America loves to romanticize labor. We love stories of bootstrapping entrepreneurs, images of Rosie the Riveter, and notions of noble companionship between grubby-faced men gathering for a cold beer after an honest day’s work. These three films brutally dismantle that romanticism, not only through their stories and themes, but in their basic visual texture.
Even by ‘70s standards they all look gritty, giving a tactile quality to their impoverished worlds. The gyms, dressing rooms, and apartments of Fat City are conspicuously bare, the dull paint on the walls scuffed and stained, any trace of adornment only accentuating the surrounding emptiness. By contrast, Chain Saw is filled with visual clutter, environments so entropic they feel hostile to human life. And as Blue Collar bounces between drab homes and a hellish factory floor, the stillness of its camera creates a claustrophobic atmosphere, hemming the characters in on all sides. The films also share a cynical edge, diagnosing problems without offering solutions, all cleverly literalizing the intractable nature of these problems by showing characters physically stuck or trapped somewhere. When we first see Fat City’s Ernie with his girlfriend Faye, his car is stuck on a muddy road, foreshadowing the obligations of domesticity and fatherhood that will soon constrict his world. Chain Saw has its disenfranchised workers turn the tables on the carefree middle class by trapping them, suspending them from meat hooks and tying them to chairs in a role reversal of oppressor and oppressed that complements the central metaphor of cannibalism. And Blue Collar’s saddest, most unbearably tense scene takes place in a barricaded room that fills with toxic fumes as the distracting clatter of the status quo goes on unabated outside. Most importantly, each film draws a direct, visceral link between labor and violence—we see the inherent violence of boxing and slaughter in unflinching detail, and watch the tools of the automotive trade transformed into weapons. Violence exerts a gravitational pull, as if destruction is the logical end point of capitalism. As if those two things are one and the same. In Fat City, labor destroys the body. In The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it destroys the mind. In Blue Collar, it destroys the soul. In all three, it leaves workers irretrievably alienated from humanity.
One usually takes some pleasure in calling a film timeless. I can take no such pleasure here. I wish these three films felt more like relics from an unfamiliar past, but unfortunately, the problems they expose all persist to this day. Sports still leave countless young people with life-altering injuries and brain damage. Slaughterhouses still traumatize and warp their employees. Social pressures and divisions still prevent underprivileged workers from uniting against their oppressors. I long for a time when I can call these films irrelevant. My fiancée is part of what’s known in socialist circles as “the Trump bump,” the influx of American leftists radicalized by the 2016 election. Maybe I am, too; I’m not sure. While I want badly to believe that these problems have solutions, the socialists I know all seem to possess an optimism that I simply can’t access.
But radical leftist ideas have clearly influenced me, or at least the way I watch movies—and not just bleak, subversive films like the ones discussed here. Honestly, it’s downright inconvenient; I can’t enjoy a breezy workplace comedy without also seeing the systems that keep us in our place, can’t laugh it off when I know better. As much as I might like to, I can’t look at the injustice and suffering in the world and think, Don’t worry about it. It’s not your blood.