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Men at Work

Coal, chemicals, and campaigning: They're dirty jobs, but someone has to document them

In this country as in no other, we have difficulty regarding elective politics as much more than a wrestling match between loudmouths, the citizenry's realpolitik needs, rights, and welfare be damned. Why? Marshall Curry's unpretentious and absorbing video doc Street Fight doesn't ask or answer, and in fact takes this grim, self-destructive state of affairs as read, documenting the 2002 mayoral race in Newark and avoiding sociopolitical facts along the way. Although the film has a righteous heart, by focusing solely on government as showbiz, it's part of what it decries. Curry makes uproarious hay with the illegal shenanigans of incumbent mayor Sharpe James, but is that all there is?

That said, Street Fight has enough cultural crosscurrents to fill out a novel: The challenger, Cory Booker, is a young, studly, articulate, Yale-educated lawyer hollering for change. Also officially a Democrat, James, in die-hard Republican fashion, has created his mini-empire by bleeding the poor for the profit of developers and business. Neither talks about policy; both are black, a fact that comes into question in James's version of Huey Long–style skulduggery. In fact, as his title suggests, Curry lucked into an old-school rat pit of electoral lying, crookery, and violence. James is apparently a compulsive liar, at various times during the campaign asserting confidently that Booker is white, Republican, gay, Jewish, and a KKK benefactor. "Carpetbagger!" is an evocative insult that James hisses frequently as well, although Booker's relatively light skin apparently sends its own message to underinformed black voters. Curry's camera is routinely assaulted by Newark police (who are caught on video performing other crimes), and the film's reigning visual motif is a huge close-up of a lens-gripping palm. It's clear to everyone in town that backing Booker means having your business closed down and your front door smashed in. A supporter is even accused, off the cuff by James during a post-debate scuffle, of being a terrorist, getting him detained by the city hall circle of goons. Even the mayor's own (white) press director calls the administration a "machine."

It's Vidal's The Best Man but with a carny-tent set of ethics and even less respect for the public, who enable this horseshit and demand less from their prospective legislators than they do from their sitcom stars. There was apparently no room in any quarter for the weighing of genuine issues and confrontation with Newark's wretched poverty and unemployment figures, which should be the subject of another, more ambitious movie. "I'm in over my head," Curry narrates at one point after a cop breaks his camera "in broad daylight, in front of reporters." It's no surprise, given James's behavior, that Curry quickly came to see the race as good liberal versus evil demagogue, which is doubtlessly part of the film's popular allure. With an Oscar nomination on his c.v. now and a new election coming this year, Curry should watch his back.

Sharpe James in Street Fight
photo: The Star Ledger
Sharpe James in Street Fight

Details

Street Fight
Written and directed by Marshall Curry
Opens February 22, IFC Center

Workingman's Death
Written and directed by Michael Glawogger
Seventh Art, opens February 24, Cinema Village

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A more challenging, narrative-free doc that dives to the roots of all politics, Michael Glawogger's rather majestic Workingman's Death takes a symphonic structure to document some of the ugliest and most dangerous shit work on the globe. Implicit in the journey is a stomach-churning critique of the New Globalism, even if this unmentioned position is better illustrated by the Indonesian sulfur haulers, working on the belly of an active volcano vividly jaundiced with chemicals, than the Ukrainian closed-coal-mine squatters, whose scrounging subsistence might not have been that different a century ago. The appallingly surreal sequence set in an open-air Nigerian slaughterhouse—imagine your favorite Francis Bacon nightmare times a thousand, with lakes of blood—might also have been little changed over the millennia.

Before twin codas set in a Chinese steel mill and a bizarre German theme park retrofitted from a massive metalworks, the final major sequence watches laborers in Pakistan gamble with their underpaid lives by cutting up gargantuan decommissioned freighters for scrap on the banks of the Arabian Sea. Glawogger's film may be thematically loose-jointed, but Wolfgang Thaler's cinematography is the glue; the signature move—a flowing Steadicam track before or following a subject—blooms into variations on a visceral theme, especially as it rhymes the Nigerian butchers stalking through acres of red mud dragging bull heads with the Indonesians carrying rocks down smoking, tourist-littered mountain paths. John Zorn's pensive electro-score ramps up the disquiet.

 
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