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[whitespace] 'Bread and Roses'
Fight the Power: Adrien Brody and Pilar Padilla strike a blow for janitors in 'Bread and Roses.'

Swept Up

Ken Loach's good intentions can't save working-class drama 'Bread and Roses'

By Richard von Busack

WHENEVER A NEW Ken Loach movie is released, I feel the urge to ask, "For whom?" The real working-class types are probably elsewhere, scratching their heads over the ever-shifting politics in Moulin Rouge: first, club owner Jim Broadent is pimping his star attraction, Nicole Kidman; later, he's tearfully referring to her as "my little sparrow" and concealing the seriousness of her health problems from her, presumably to save money with the HMO.

Compared to the usual Hollywood mixed message, the new Loach movie is all too clear: it's on the side of the working man and woman, and the union that represents them, and against the bosses who exploit them.

The loftily titled Bread and Roses, Loach's first film made in the United States (with alternating Spanish and English subtitles), is set against the janitors' strike in L.A. in 1988. The Service Employees International Union was yet another union busted in the Reagan years. Janitors who had been paid up to $13 an hour with benefits were replaced by nonunion, usually immigrant, laborers making minimum wage.

A group called Justice for Janitors publicly embarrassed some high-profile companies--such as the William Morris Agency--with joke awards. In June 1990, the LAPD attacked a janitors' march, roughing up a pregnant woman who later miscarried.

For whatever reason, Bread and Roses fictionalizes this story, referring to the real events in passing. The film begins with Maya (Pilar Padilla), an illegal immigrant who arrives in the United States and is almost raped by one of the men who smuggles her across the border. (The early scenes feature some incoherent handheld camera work: The Blair Coyote Project.)

Maya moves in with her elder sister, Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo), and her disabled husband near downtown L.A., and soon lands a job as a janitor, under the supervision of a lecherous, vicious straw boss named Perez (George Lopez). She finds friends, though, including Ruben (Alonso Chavez), who is trying to get into law school.

Sam (Adrien Brody), a young and ardent union organizer, urges the janitors to fight for health benefits and better conditions. His guerrilla methods get him into trouble with the union brass as well as with the businessmen who profit on depressed wages.

Loach's first film was solidly working-class: 1967's Poor Cow, with Terence Stamp (excerpted in Steven Soderbergh's The Limey). More recently, Loach has been a regular presence on the film-festival circuit with generally sharp tales of North English/Scottish urban suffering (Raining Stones, My Name Is Joe, Ladybird, Ladybird). Carla's Song, however, demonstrated that as soon as Loach leaves his neighborhood, he is lost. In Carla's Song, Scottish bus driver Robbie Carlyle goes to Nicaragua to help a girl he met overcome her demons. Eventually, her tale comes out in Loach's favorite narrative method: the monologue. The description of Contra torture in Carla's Song may be true, but the film is betrayed by the telling--it is too thickly done.

In Bread and Roses, the sister, Rosa, becomes the most compelling character because she goes against the grain of the film. When the labor organizer Sam barges into her house, cockiness personified, she throws him out (as well she should; his manners are appalling).

Unfortunately, at the end of the film, Rosa tells her own story of why she couldn't join with the rest of the workers' efforts at a strike. She's too warped, and she has the memories of all the sordid things she did to survive back when she lived in Tijuana. She lists all these tragic deeds, shouting them at her sister--and you can't believe a word of it.

LOACH HAS ALL of the best intentions, and a heart full of oratorical fire, but he can't make janitor work as harrowingly real as Barbara Ehrenreich has in her new book, Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (Metropolitan Books).

The common fallacy is that even if a people can barely survive on minimum-wage work in the Bay Area, there must be some place else (Indiana?) where they can thrive. Ehrenreich, a journalist, went from Maine to Minnesota trying to find a part of America where she could live on a little more than $5 an hour.

She discovered that even if you're living in a trailer park, you'll need several jobs--work that she got in big-box department store, as a house-cleaner and as a waitress. Loach portrays work in Bread and Roses as usually a happy occasion with lots of solidarity for all. Compare this to Ehrenreich's description of minimansion maid service in Florida:

    It is hotter inside than out, but I do all right until I encounter the banks of glass doors. Each one has to be Windexed, wiped and buffed--inside and out, top to bottom, left to right--until it's as streakless and invisible as a material substance can be. Outside, I can see construction guys knocking back Gatorade, but the rule is that no fluid or food item can touch a maid's lips when she's inside a house. I sweat without replacement or pause, not in individual drops but in continuous sheets of fluid, soaking through my polo shirt, pouring down the backs of my legs. Working my way through the living room(s), I wonder if Mrs. W. will ever have occasion to realize that every single doodad and objet through which she expresses her unique, individual self is, from the vantage point of a maid, only an obstacle on the road to a glass of water.

WORKING IN L.A. did make a mark on Loach. He was a typical U.K. labor supporter who suddenly had half-a-dozen film unions on his set, making sure that everything was done according to code.

"I guess you saw the good side of trade unionism, but you also saw the worst examples," Loach says, "which is when unions become self-protecting guilds. Then again, the Americans who made the film with us were magnificent"--and so forth, back to the usual fulsome congratulations to the cast and crew you read in a press kit.

For Loach, work always has dignity--even undignified janitorial work. The telling part--or rather, the part that's so hard for the movies to tell--is that some work is deeply undignified. There's not always a way out of it. Compare Bread and Roses with one image: the last shot of John Sayles' Matewan, where we realize that the grand prize of winning a coal strike is being able to work in a coal mine.

The deeply left-wing political person who hates all movies because they're fake may love Bread and Roses. Everything's so awkward that it might pass as cinema verité.

In an early moment, we see a typically villainous act by the leering straw boss Perez. He harasses and then fires an addled old lady janitor. She's neither a professional actor nor a character we've gotten to know, so the scene doesn't play as big as Loach intends. Perez cat-and-mouses her a little, his eyes bulging with wrath, right before he fires her. It's a case of overacting vs. nonacting, take your choice.

Loach may think it's enough--worse, Loach's core audience may think it's enough--that he's dealt with the problems of janitors at all, since in the movies and on TV, janitors are jokes, stooges like David Spade's Joe Dirt or groundskeeper Willie on The Simpsons. Actually, Loach's film required more care and less cockiness because he was doing something so unusual. Loach is like a man who tripped just at the moment he was carrying something very important.

Bread and Roses (R; 110 min.), directed by Ken Loach, written by Paul Laverty, photographed by Barry Ackroyd and starring Pilar Padilla and Adrien Brody, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose.

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From the May 31-June 6, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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