This spring, West Virginia University Press will publish the collection American Energy Cinema, edited by Robert Lifset, Raechel Lutz, and Sarah Stanford-McIntyre. A volume that explores how Hollywood movies have portrayed energy from the early film era to the present, it’s been praised by Michael E. Webber at the University of Texas as “captivating and informative for movie lovers, energy enthusiasts, and historians alike.” Here, we share an excerpt from one of the book’s essays—a study of the movie Matewan by historian James R. Allison, III.
Matewan’s focus on the fine-grained interactions of a diverse community coming together can be traced to John Sayles’s own intellectual journey to this historical subject. In Thinking in Pictures, the filmmaker explains how his path to the Matewan Massacre traveled through the work of new labor historians, who by the 1970s were dismantling their field’s dominant “institutional” approach, which focused on labor’s most visible components: trade unions, labor leaders, and strikes. In contrast, these new labor historians were interested in better understanding workers, and they did so by exploring the intricate social relations forged within their workplaces and communities. This turn reflected the discipline’s broader interest in the social history of everyday folk, and it produced significant insights into the long-term, multigenerational process of class development. As E. P. Thompson, a leading advocate of this new approach, explained, “We cannot understand class unless we see it as a social and cultural formation, arising from the process which can only be studied as [workers] work themselves out over a considerable historical period.” The new labor history, in other words, went to the ground to get to know the people, but then remained there over time to best explain the development of working-class culture.
Converted to the cause, Sayles’s film excels in the former but has no time for the latter. In Matewan, typically abstract institutions like “the company,” “the company town,” and “the union” get transformed into a collection of personal relationships worked out in this particular place. As such, the specifics of place matter quite a bit to understanding these interactions, as well as to the film’s success in portraying the workers’ world. So while John Sayles’s familiar Western narrative carries the audience along, Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler frames the narrow verticality of this Appalachian hollow in such a way as to make inescapable the intimate entwinement of workplace with homelife. In this tight space, there are few unfamiliar faces or single-layered relationships. Danny must share his rooming house with the hated Baldwins, Sid Hatfield regularly crosses paths with his adversaries as he patrols Main Street, and ethnically diverse communities are “segregated” by just a few hundred yards, if at all. This intimate and textured look at mining life is further enhanced by Matewan’s use of local actors, whose regional accents and dialects provide some stilted prose but also lend an air of authenticity to these Appalachian scenes. Even the largely amateur cast’s uneven performances somehow contribute to the film’s credibility, similar to a Coen Brothers’ production like Fargo (1996) or No Country for Old Men (2007). In other words, this is not some sweeping Hollywood epic, but a grainy, realistic depiction of life in an Appalachian coal town.Read More »