Tuesday, April 07, 2009

"Matewan" by John Sayles: a docudrama that explores the moral issues of coal mining and unions


Lions Gate, through its purchased subsidiary Artisan, offers a DVD of a historic docudrama by John Sayles, “Matewan”. This film (with theatrical release in 1987 by Cinecom), full-screen and long, at 142 minutes, traces the violence at a coal mine in Matewan, Mingo County W Va in 1920 when the company retaliated when Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper) tries to organize the workers.

The film is slow-paced with lots of quite, expository dialogue about the morals and politics. The workers are paid with script and can shop only at the company store, and fired for buying from competitors. They are assigned living quarters that are regulated. The men then were paid by the ton, for piecework.. Later Cooper’s character says something like, “the world has two kinds of people: those that work, and those that don’t.” There’s plenty of left-wing, even Marxist, moralizing.

Union organizers say what we often hear, that individuals mean nothing, and that people must stand together in solidarity.

John Sayles himself plays the “hardshell preacher” (reminding me of the role of Paul Dano in “There Will Be Blood”) – did he look that young at 37? The preacher in one scene renders the parable of the vineyards, and then questions whether life really flows according to God’s plan. He says God creates us and, after we are born, it is up to us to “take it from there.” Amen!

The film opens inside a mine with a solitary miner, and ends that way, with a solitary miner walking down a tunnel. There are some impressive artistic shots of steam engine trains.

Sayles had writing abook “Thinking in Pictures” The Making of the Movie Matewan", and had written an earlier book “Union Dues” in 1977.

I met John Sayles at a forum at the Lagoon Theater in Minneapolis in 2002 for the showing of "Sunshine State", another film that examines local politics and society (here in Florida) with a slow-paced buildup (a bit like Robert Altman). Sayles's best known film is probably "Lone Star" (1996), and "Silver City" (New Market, 2004) examined Colorado politics with Chris Cooper. At the Minneapolis forum, Sayles discussed the then upcoming "The Spiderwick Chronicles" which he wrote (Mark Walters directed, Paramount released in 2008).

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