The incredible history of the Wobblies! Also, did you know it was Independent Bookstore Day tomorrow?
In which I entertain you with tap-dancing, an article, and some links, whilst the next podcast simmers to perfection
Dear Last Thing I Saw fans,
It’s been a busy couple of weeks, catching up with the work that helps pay the bills around here (gestures vaguely to a pile of boxes and a sleeping cat). Even podcast hosts take a rest sometimes from recording, editing, and consuming the high-protein diet that provides the incredible muscle mass necessary for hosting.
But fear not! There are a couple of splendid podcasts in the pipeline, and then of course, it’s off to Cannes to tell you all about the latest in fine cinema.
In the meantime, please find below some links and a Classic Podcast™ to tide you over in your insatiable hunger for Nicolas Rapold™ content, content, content.
By the by, if you’ve been listening to The Last Thing I Saw, now is the time to become a paid subscriber and support my whole groovy podcast thing.
In celebration of the current restoration of David Lynch’s weird and wonderful Inland Empire, here’s my conversation with Melissa Anderson, author of... a book about Inland Empire, the same movie!
Inland Empire with Melissa Anderson
Melissa Anderson is the film editor at 4 Columns. Her book on Inland Empire is available now from Fireflies Press.
For more information on the podcast’s opening and closing music by The Minarets (gratefully used with permission):
Follow the band on Instagram
RECENT WRITING, PART ONE
For the latest edition of New Directors New Films, the good people at the Museum of Modern Art invited me to write about a few selections. I accepted, and you won’t believe what happened next! (I wrote an article.)
For the Financial Times, I wrote about the great James Wong Howe, the cinematographer who shot Sweet Smell of Success, Hud, The Thin Man, Picnic, and other lovely movies. The reason? Why nothing less than a lovely retrospective at the Museum of the Moving Image. Be a smartie and get your tickets now!
For The New York Times, I reviewed I Love America, a French comedy of uplift set in Los Angeles. There was room for improvement.
RECENT WRITING, PART TWO
The lively 1979 documentary The Wobblies has been re-released, and now everyone is swooning over the Industrial Workers of the World and their fight for rights at the beginning of the 20th century. I wrote a piece about the movie (see below) which Metrograph has graciously given a home on their editorial side.
The Wobblies (1979)
By Nicolas Rapold
There are blue-blooded queens and princesses,
Who have charms made of diamonds and pearl,
But the only and thoroughbred lady
Is the Rebel Girl.
—“The Rebel Girl,” Joe Hill
“I think I’m in love.” More than once did this thought occur to me when a 70- or 80-something subject in The Wobblies railed against the brutality of strike-breakers and raised her voice in song about justice and solidarity. Stewart Bird and Deborah Shaffer’s eye-opening 1979 film about the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) immortalizes a groundbreaking and volatile period in unionism, but its testimonials also just accrue into an inspiring gallery of pure fearlessness—lives lived without fetters, despite employers hell-bent on running workers ragged.
Never was a nickname so misleading: the thousands of members of the IWW were anything but in their commitment. (The movie proffers one origin for the “Wobbly” moniker though other accounts vary.) Founded in 1905, the IWW aimed to create “One Big Union” for all workers, including so-called unskilled workers and groups otherwise excluded according to prevailing prejudices, such as Blacks, women, and immigrants. It leaders and founders were larger than life—Big Bill Haywood, Eugene Debs (a five-time presidential candidate), Mary G. Harris “Mother” Jones—but their rank and file needed to be outsized, too, when demands for a reasonable workday or safe conditions were met with billy clubs. As recounted by members, the steadfastness is impressive, but so is the sheer physical courage: when not working marathon shifts in factories, mills, or lumberyards, they endured beatings and shootings, grueling freight-car journeys, separation from families, and meager meals during strikes.
The strength of The Wobblies, then, lies in the resilience of the men and women on screen, who have lived to tell the tale. Filmed in vibrant color, they’re not presented as creaky fossils wheeled out for the camera: you tend to notice a spark in the eyes, a level no-bullshit gaze, and sometimes simply a sinewy toughness. The stories of silk weavers Irma Lombardi and Sophie Cohen, timber industry worker Tom Scribner, longshoreman James Fair, and others can be sobering—the movie is roughly structured around a few key labor struggles, the town names sounding like battlefields in a war: Lawrence, Massachusetts; Paterson, New Jersey; Everett, Washington; Bisbee, Arizona. Tactics ranged from picketing, on-the-job strikes, and “sabotage,” deliciously defined by one worker here as “the conscious withdrawal of efficiency.” A frequent pleasure of the film is learning origin stories: sabotage comes from the French word sabot, a wooden shoe, which (once upon a time) could be tossed into a factory’s machinery to gum up the works.
Despite the burden of picketing for securing basic demands, the surviving Wobblies remain proud and even gleeful. More than once one of the folks on screen starts singing a verse (or two) from some classic of the IWW back catalog: “Oh we hate this rotten system more than any mortals do / Our aim is not to patch it up but build it all anew / And what we’ll have for government, whenever we are through / is one big industrial union.” The film begins, somewhat cheekily, with mugshots of jailed Wobblies, and, in voiceover, a back-and-forth between prosecutorial questioning and defiant responses: “Are you a citizen?” “No, I am an industrial worker of the world!” Arriving at the tail end of the 1970s—a much-mythologized decade of American film marked by revisionist yet nostalgic looks at gangsters, the Old West, and the Depression—The Wobblies seems to present its subjects as outlaws by necessity. Workers had to go to extraordinary lengths to secure basic rights, because of poorly enforced, or nonexistent, labor laws. Even the right to speak up was not a given: demonstrations by the Wobblies and others—often met with violent strikebreaking by police and company-hired goons—frequently doubled as key conflicts over freedom of speech and assembly.
Bird and Shaffer’s oral history feels freshly vital today, both because of high-profile union (and anti-union) activity, and because film and television usually skip the very period delineated here (post-Civil War, pre-World War I, with a starry exception being 1981’s Reds, whose team consulted with the Wobblies filmmakers). Shaffer came up through the historic Newsreel collective and would go on to direct the Academy Award-winning short Witness to War (1984). Bird had co-directed 1970’s Finally Got the News about the League of Revolutionary Black Voters in Detroit (where the two filmmakers first crossed paths) and wrote a play about the IWW (The Wobblies: The US vs. Wm. D. Haywood). The duo unabashedly center their account on members of the IWW and a couple of supporters—you won’t see a historian holding forth, or a factory owner giving the context for below-cost-of-living wages and toxic work conditions—but their lively, richly researched approach remains distinct from consciousness-raising entries in political documentary and joins a lineage of films like 1976’s Union Maids (directed by James Klein, Miles Mogulescu, and Julia Reichert).
The Wobblies becomes newly visible now partly thanks to the film’s induction into the National Film Registry (a little over a decade after a fictional counterpart from 1979, Norma Rae, was inducted). It’s an especially suitable honor because of the film’s function as a compendium of visual and aural history: the worker testimonials are accompanied and illustrated by an array of photographs, political cartoons, IWW posters and badges, headlines (one says the Paterson strike was “worse than” a recent fire), parodies of the Salvation Army (twigged for getting permission to solicit when Wobblies were forbidden from assembling), Ralph Fasanella’s panoramic painting The Great Strike: Lawrence 1912 (with a factory worker visible holding up an IWW sign), and even Disney anti-Communist propaganda starring an animated Muscovite chicken named Little Red Henski and a live-action model. Speeches by Big Bill Haywood and others are on the soundtrack—ACLU co-founder Roger Baldwin provides a guiding voice, and one of the other voices we hear belongs to Rip Torn, recruited after he was spotted attending Bird’s play—and the union standards by Joe Hill and others are performed by folk stalwarts like Mike Seeger, Alice Gerrard, and Joe Glazer.
A memorably blunt cartoon in the film depicts a “Bolshevik IWW rat,” pointing the way to the decline of the IWW in the wake of World War I and the 1917 Russian Revolution. The Wobblies’ refusal to suspend strikes during the war, the Communist conflagrations, and (though not spotlighted by the film) anarchist activities helped provide pretexts for redoubled crackdowns on the IWW, most famously with the Palmer Raids of November 1919 and January 1920 (instigated by an Attorney General who singled out the “misshapen features” of his targets, largely Italian and Eastern European Jewish immigrants, as denoting “criminal types”). Wobbly leaders were jailed, and one chapter of union history seemed to slam shut. Bird and Shaffer don’t sugarcoat the organization’s decline, which still appears to nonplus a couple of members. But it’s hard not to feel uplifted by one final interview, with a woman ID’ed as married to a miner (a rarity on screen simply because they died younger). She ends the film on a resounding note of unity and self-worth that rings out loud and clear today.
THIS CRITIC’S PICKS
Delectable selections for home viewing.
Harlan County USA (Criterion)
Slacker (HBO MAX)
Mysterious Object at Noon (Criterion)
Salt (HBO MAX)
Martin Eden (MUBI)
Black Narcissus (Criterion)
Here I may end with a song.
Welcome to The Last Thing I Saw! I’m your host, Nicolas Rapold.
Besides hosting a podcast, I’m a writer and an editor. My features, interviews, festival dispatches, and reviews are published in The New York Times, Sight & Sound, Artforum, Filmmaker, and W Magazine (and appeared in dearly departed publications such as The Village Voice, Stop Smiling, The New York Sun, and The L Magazine).
I worked as editor-in-chief of Film Comment, where I was for 15 years. I assigned and edited both web and print editorial, hosted its podcast and talks and screenings, learned from brilliant writers, curated Film Comment Selects, and wrote a lot, including interviews with Spike Lee, Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, and Frederick Wiseman. Film Comment was subsequently awarded the Film Heritage Award by the National Society of Film Critics (an honor historically awarded to the Museum of Modern Art and other institutions).
Feel free to get in touch re: writing, editing, moderating, programming, podcasting, etc.