Two representations of class: Days of Heaven and 28 Up

So I went to work in the mill. Couldn’t wait to get in there. Begin at 7, gotta have a smile on your face. And one day you wake up, you find you’re not the smartest guy in the world, never gonna come up with a big score.

When I was growing up, I thought I really would.

So Bill, one of the central characters in 1978 film Days of Heaven, recounts the prosaic reality of his working-class life. The young farmer hears Bill with a face that is sympathetic but not empathetic. Although they are comparable in age, their stations in life are anything but equal; one is the employer of the other. One is the “richest man in the Panhandle”, the other a rouseabout who must travel the land, taking one back-breaking job after another. Bill portrays his epiphany as a ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ loss of innocence. But this isn’t a light-bulb moment so much as an unmerciful slamming of a ton of bricks. He could feel the shackles of a lifetime of wage labour take hold, and the swift closing of any remaining doors of opportunity. If there was any doubt before, he could now be certain that dreams of becoming, say, a pilot or an artist, were indeed just that: fanciful notions. Coming from someone who couldn’t be older than 30, Bill’s tone of world-weariness is remarkable.

Cut to the Real World. (Well, sort of. Real World seen through the prism of documentary: the Up series, which was recently rerun on Australian television). Sue is one three girls who attended primary school together in London’s East End. In the 1984 instalment, she is 28, married, a mother, and still living in the East End. There are no scenic interludes in which wind ripples across sheets of water, and sets wheat stalks whispering in the breeze. There’s no Ennio Morricone soundtrack to build dramatic tension and augment crucial pieces of dialogue and plot. Sue’s story plays out in the kind of suburban lounge rooms in which she is now sitting. The light is drab and dull. By way of cinematic embellishments, Sue has some lipstick and a nice pair of earrings.

The three women seated on the couch are reluctant to acknowledge the role of social class in shaping the course of their lives, while being uncertain of their own agency. At 14, Sue and Jackie were attending a comprehensive school. “We do metalwork and woodwork, and the boys do cookery” was Jackie’s idea of getting “a share of everything”. They repeatedly emphasise the primacy of their individual choices, and yet when Sue discusses her decision to marry young, she seems to recognise that compromise, in some form or another, goes hand-in-hand with choice: “…the minute you get married, you’re no longer a single being, you’re a partnership…”. At 14 the girls question whether there is any justice in being born into a rich family, and Sue weighs in: “I don’t see why they should have the luck when there’re people who’ve worked all their lives and haven’t got half as much as what they [do]…It just don’t seem fair.”

If there are any lingering doubts about the respective roles of choice, compromise, luck and hard work, then the three women in their 20s have decided not to dwell upon them. Michael Apted asks, “So you three working-class girls don’t feel bitter about a society that maybe gives one strata of it more opportunities than another?” Lynn chimes in immediately “not at all”. Sue is more considered: “not bitter…”. Jackie, however, is defensive: “I don’t even think, to be honest, we consciously think about it until this program comes up once every seven years…it just doesn’t even cross my mind.” Sue reiterates, “I think that we all could have gone any way that we wanted to at the time, within our capabilities…I mean, we chose our own jobs…we were able to choose our own jobs quite freely.”

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3 thoughts on “Two representations of class: Days of Heaven and 28 Up

  1. It’s fascinating how people try to take control of a narrative so that it sits more comfortably with them. This reminds me of something I read in the textbook for the ‘Love, Sex and Relationships’ unit at Deakin. Couples were asked why they each did different kinds of work around the house, and some of them said that they just preferred whatever it was that they did – it seemed like choice was an easier concept to deal with, so they stuck to it even when it probably didn’t tell the whole story.

    You make an interesting point, by the way, about how the different forms of storytelling impact on the representation of class. Do you think that “cinematic embellishments” tend to distract us from thinking critically about class? I just saw the new film adaptation of ‘Wuthering Heights’, and it was interesting to note that apart from one song at the very end, there was no extra-diegetic music used in the film.

    • Cheers for the comment!
      I find the housework example interesting for two reasons: 1. It illustrates the impact of social conditioning, and 2. it illustrates the problems with this concept of ‘choice’, and how choice for working-class people almost always involves some degree of compromise.
      I don’t know that “cinematic embellishments” necessarily always are a distraction, although I can see how they would be. Many scenes in Days of Heaven were backlit by sunrises or sunsets, casting much of it in this sort of romantic glow, and much has been made of the film’s aesthetic characteristics. You also have to think of the discourses in which film is reviewed and the interests they might have in suppressing discussions of class.
      This concept ‘extra-diegetic’ I’m not familiar with – can you explain what this means?

  2. ‘Extra-diegetic’ – I think that’s the term anyway 😛 … I was just using it to mean things that are external to the “world” that the actors in a movie are inhabiting. So when music is added “for effect”, and which we don’t imagine the characters to be able to hear, it’s extra-diegetic.

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