2012 As Goes Janesville. New York: Cinema Guild.
Notes: DVD, 88 minutes
Reviewed 7 Dec 2012 by:
Troy Belford <email@example.com>
Medium: Film/Video Subject
With efforts to recall newly elected Governor Scott Walker making national news, As Goes Janesville provides an in-depth account of the struggles and hopes of union workers, business leaders and elected officials in Janesville, WI to rebuild their town's economy following the closure of the local General Motors plant.
ABSTRACT: This film follows the decline of the Wisconsin town of Janesville after it saw its major employer, a General Motors plant, close in 2008. Weaving a story of the impact of displaced factory workers with that of the local politics of Rock County, as well as the internationally reported Madison capital building protests of 2011, the film makers managed to be on the scene for a major political battle on union rights and the role of local governments in regional economic development yet managed to never allow this to overshadow the stories of their working class subjects/informants.
The film begins by framing Janesville, WI as a small all-American town where something very wrong has happened. The town experienced great prosperity while the General Motors plant was in operation, from 1923 until 2008. The closing of the GM production plant in 2008 cost the town not only 11,000 jobs but sent a shockwave through the county that decimated local businesses. In many ways the bleeding has yet to stop. The montage that begins the movie rolls past the political quips by Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker, as well as Barack Obama, that offer various versions of prosperity to Janesville to the stark reality that the promises of both men can offer little solace to the factory workers who saw their futures dissolve in 2008.
The film proper begins the investigation into what the aftermath of such an economic gutting really looks like, with assive foreclosures, community food drives, and the attempts to ameliorate the situation. This comes in the form of an economic development task force that is considering ways to bring jobs to Rock County, the county in Wisconsin of which Janesville is a part. There is a personalizing look at the individuals who suffer from the loss of those jobs. Workers who were lucky enough to be transferred (750 out of the 11,000) dealt with the forced move in order to keep what they have gained with GM. Those who did transfer had to learn a whole new factory and were placed on the night shift. They had to either sell their homes in an incredibly depressed housing market in Janesville, where foreclosures are at record highs, or find apartments in the place where they transferred and move away from their families. The film follows two such women who, having only a few more years until retirement, took transfers and were sent to Fort Wayne, Indiana. Their story is troubling, for in order to reap the rewards of their over 20 years of service they had to move away from their families. The trouble that this causes is a major theme of the film and one of the more disheartening things about the film.
A central character of the film is a community organizer who launches a "Rock County 5.0" initiative to bring jobs to Rock county and to retain those jobs that are still there. A central part of this initiative is to develop the economic incentives that would attract businesses to the area. Unfortunately this is enmeshed in an undercurrent of anti-union messages, particularly the reality that any manufacturers that move into the area can pay particularly less, if not minimum wage. The disconnect between the employees who lost their jobs or are having to move away from their families makes the economic development optimism seem an insulting failure to recognize the disruption it has caused families in the area and the stark fact that a minimum wage job is not enough to support a family (unless you have four of them at once).
Another theme is the race for the senate by Democrat Tim Cullen, which leads to a greater discussion of how partisan politics is so deeply embedded in the Wisconsin political economy, as opposed to the simplified media rhetoric of a market economy. A scene at a country club luncheon following the majority election win by Republican lays out the fact that this economic situation offers an opportunity to deregulate the states and that it is an opportunity that will be used.
It all builds to a head when the Democrat senators leave the state so that the deregulation of collective bargaining, tied to the budget bill, cannot pass to a failure to reach a quorum to satisfy parliamentary rules. In March 2011 the Democrat senators returned amidst massive protests, but a parliamentary maneuver allowed the bill to be passed. The resulting protests gathered world attention and could be considered a foreshadowimg of the internationally coordinated Occupy protests that would follow later that year. The protests in the capital building brought several 'celebrities' to Wisconsin as well, such as Michael Moore, Tom Morello (guitarist of the political rap/rock/metal group Rage Against The Machine), and Jesse Jackson, who makes a wordless cameo during the protest scenes of the film.
While there have been useful writings by analysts of the 2011 Madison protests (notably Collins 2011, Nichols 2012, Winans 2012) there is a problem with how we construct social protest and civil disobedience in the documentary medium. Often it is formed as a narrative denouement that is a celebration of such platitudes as the 'power of the people' or various slogans of popular resistance. The problem is that this great moment of orgiastic solidarity dissolves at some point as people return to their productive lives. There are countless arguments in the anthropological literature that in fact these mass protests and rituals of rebellion are necessary in order to keep such permutations of political power functioning (Gluckman 1952, 1965 for a start).
The serious question remains as to how much social and political change is truly gained from these protest acts. Famed philosopher/social critic Slavoj Zizek made many a liberal idealist upset by his killjoy reminder of this fact during a speech at the Occupy Wall Street protest on October 9, 2011. To quote: "There is a danger. Don't fall in love with yourselves. We have a nice time here. But remember, carnivals come cheap. What matters is the day after, when we will have to return to normal lives. Will there be any changes then? I don't want you to remember these days, you know, like 'Oh, we were young and it was beautiful.' Remember that our basic message is 'We are allowed to think about alternatives'" (Zizek 2011). The film places the protest in the middle of the film's narrative and deals with the reality of the displaced General Motors workers, for whom the protests have little impact except in a psychologically hopeful way. Framing the protests in this way does not cheapen them but instead demands that we remember that what matters is the day after.
This leads to the Recall Walker movement, which resulted in a recall election petition that gained over one million signatures. This election failed to recall Walker. Democratic senator Tim Cullen decided to run against Scott Walker in the recall election. The climax of the film is not the governor recall election but a much smaller demonstration of local politics. A majority of the economic development incentive for Rock County has been given to a single company, which is a venture capital situation where a return to the city of Janesville might not see a return for ten years. Various voices of outrage at the city meeting in Janesville are heard, and the measure is passed due to a partisan majority by the Republicans. Tim Cullen eventually drops out of the recall election due to not being able to raise the money for the campaign.
After this issue of tying public funds to venture capital, there is a saddening and bitter unfolding of the 'day after' of this playing out of the local political economy. The film montages together the civic pride and happiness of the economic developers and their celebration of closing the deal with a toast at a local bar with the isolated loneliness of the GM workers that have been transferred to the Fort Wayne plant being away from their families, forced into replacing physical hugs with cell phone calls. There is a distinct sequence where the economic developer from the BMO-Harris bank discusses how her daughter is so happy to be living in Janesville that left a particularly spiteful bad taste in my mouth.
The film does an excellent job in capturing the microcosm of Wisconsin politics as it played out in Rock County over three years. As depressing and dark as it may all seem, one should be reminded that these were what amounted to the success stories from the Janesville plant-closing. These were employees who managed to keep their jobs with General Motors. This is the laid-off woman who retrained to be a nurse found a job. These are the working class victors. Many, many other factory workers faced no prospects or suffered home foreclosures, automobile repossessions, and the daunting prospect of trying to support a family on eight dollars an hour with no medical insurance.
I would judge this film as an excellent, if uncited, illustration of the model of events that Naomi Klein refers to as 'disaster capitalism' in her book The Shock Doctrine (2007). The closing of the General Motors plant caused a significant amount of economic damage to the Janesville area. Combined with the economic problems that occurred in 2008 on the national level, there was a high unemployment, high risk situation that was fertile for the neoliberal deregulation that Scott Walker and his political allies were able to push through. In the budget, which was needed for state government operational purposes, the legislation that removed collective bargaining was another measure that resulted in a massive government culling in education, public healthcare, and other services provided by the state of Wisconsin. The idea here is that by utilizing opportunities which create a fragile market for things such as labor, the political economy can be altered via opportune legislation that is sold in a populist way to the citizen as a solution to their financial security worries. Despite the well intentioned sales pitch, this 'economic growth' is aimed towards buttressing shareholders and large scale proprietors while disempowering and disenfranchising the working class, and also lowering taxes by cutting or privatizing various public programs and civic responsibilities.
While there might be some reactionary criticism that attempts to attach a liberal bias to this film, particularly for how it deals with the issue of unions, I also feel like a conservative viewer might be able to accept it because it is not a direct attack but a reflection of what goes on in the political process of displacing unions. It is also very humanizing of the factory workers. There is no discussion of the greater issues of political economy in the form of neoliberal globalization and its effects on the manufacturing sector in the United States and the relocation of the remaining manufacturing away from states with stronger worker rights (such as Wisconsin and Illinois) to south-eastern states with more profitable state laws regarding labor. There is no direct narration, and the narration by editing which is usually the agent of partisan bias is not present. The most 'radical' liberal of the film is the Democratic senator Tim Cullen, a man recognized by even Scott Walker as a 'pragmatist.' One scene in the film features Cullen and Walker at a public event, and when Walker goes to speak he is heckled by protestors. Cullen actually admonishes the protestors for disrupting the governor while he is trying to speak and is called a 'fake liberal' for it. If I were to make a musical analogy, this film is not a punk rock protest anthem but a resonantly gritty delta blues song.
The score for the film was composed by Vernon Reid, guitarist for the popular rock band Living Colour, who has scored several of Lichstenstein's other documentary films.
I am not certain that I would wholly recommend this film for classroom use. It is well produced, entertaining, and enjoyable. It is not highly informative, though. The political specifics are often glossed over, yet at the same time the specifics of the events are esoterically Wisconsin. The events depicted in this film are essential to understanding Wisconsin politics, and they are a studied homology to the erosion of the labor movement in the United States, but it is such a small piece of the story. Lest you think that I do not value the film, I would state that it should be seen by every Wisconsinite, and it has real interest for people in other states as well. However, due to the central issue of the teachers union in the protests against Walker legislation removing collective bargaining, any high school teacher who showed this to their class might be accused of union proselytizing under the current miasma of anti-union rhetoric. That is why a copy should be in every public library imaginable.
Collins, Jane 2011 Theorizing Wisconsin's 2011 Protests. American Ethnologist 39 (1): 6-20.
Gluckman, Max 1952 Rituals of Rebellion in South-East Asia. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
----- 1965 Custom and Conflict in Africa. London: Blackwell Publishers.
Klein, Naomi 2007The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Metropolitan Books.
Nichols, John 2012 Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street. New York: Nation Books.
Winans, Kirk Michael 2012 Contemporary Social Movements through Twitter: The Cases of Madison, Wisconsin and Occupy Wall Street. Electronic document, http://antipasto.union.edu/engineering/Archives/SeniorProjects/cscurrent/CSSeniorProjectPage-2012_files/Winans_Kirk_Report.pdf, accessed November 30, 2012.
Zizek, Slavoj 2011Zizek's Speech at Liberty Square. Electronic document, http://www.imposemagazine.com/bytes/slavoj-zizek-at-occupy-wall-street-transcript, accessed December 2, 2012.