Humanistic agitprop at its finest, Barbara Kopple’s documentary is the rare cinematic work that is both a ferocious vanguard for human rights and an enervated echo into the heart of American identity. Adopting the verite mantra as a way of life and exploring the months-long United Mine Workers strike in Harlan County Kentucky, Kopple’s film wrings out with both the dust-caked haziness of human exhaustion and the fevered perception of dissent against all odds. One can feel how the miners had spent months incubating in harsh conditions without losing sight of the hard sear they bring to strife and soldiering on. Kopple’s film, although entirely humble, takes them out of the crawlspace of American memory and uses the currency of the camera to explore the potholes of American existence with venom and frailty in equal measure. The experience of the strike was no doubt fatiguing, and Harlan County, USA is a dispiriting film that nonetheless energizes itself with cinematic gusto in a bold attempt to fight against the dying of the light, mimicking the miners who no doubt had to invent an excuse for continued passion at any cost.
Hybridizing guttural fly-on-the-wall realism with the more urgent, spontaneous fury of an Eisenstein adherent, Harlan County is volatile not only for its content but its presentation. Treating her camera as an editorial pen rather than a third eye, Kopple’s film is not merely an expose of cultural strife in the field but an expression of contest within the documentary industry. While logic dictated that the verite movement privileged neutrality at all costs, Kopple’s vehement film peers behind the bourgeois assumption of an “unbiased” depiction and suggests an early imprint of self-reflexive awareness of documentary subjectivity. In unabashedly siding with the miners and foregrounding her own voice in interviews, the film externalizes a provocative defiance of the verite movement (even as Kopple arguably achieves its apex) insofar as the film foregrounds Kopple’s own perspective on the crisis. In doing so, it also interrogates the linkages between verite and the individualistic, neoliberal/capitalistic “everyone decides for themselves” rhetoric of the market; Kopple’s awareness that cinema, like any market construct or artwork, is biased and foreclosed from neutrality bubbles through right to the top of the film, stinging with understanding that any faux-democratic option of presenting multiple alternatives is bourgeois cinematic rhetoric at it most pecuniary.
Rather than basking in the gilded glow of respectable please-everyone-in-the-theater ambivalence, Harlan County is a documentary with a temper, and god bless it. The fragmented editing style disorients and disobeys continuity laws by swiveling between debates and contests and strikes in different sectors (workers strikes to consumer protests, for instance). It collides ostensibly unrelated crises together through editing, forcing us to compare and bind oppressions and paving over the elite’s desire to keep social causes and social agitators fragmented and alienated from one another. Without suspending the minutiae and terror of the miner strike, Kopple also sketches the abjection of a wider cultural milieu and stirs the country through agitating formal principles, framing choices, and editing rhythms with a proletarian charisma and desperation. Ultimately, she negotiates a balance between the intimate details of a small corner of the United States and the painful resonances in wider society (without dipping into a Liberalist rhetoric of equating the miner’s physical pain with the emotional aimlessness of domesticated bourgeois culture).
Relying on dust-caked cinematography and firebrand editing maneuvers, Kopple also makes a robust case for filmmaking that connects the gut to the head as she even palpates her rhetoric with a sequence or two influenced by minimalist horror circa Texas Chainsaw Massacre . Okay, the only rotting corpse here is the American Dream, but the corporate thugs and ghouls hired to break the strike aren’t far off from Leatherface, and their inability to so easily shift from verbal abuse to open corporeal violence only makes their oppressive tactics all the more insidious. Plus, for anyone who denies the connection, remember that Texas Chainsaw also copied intellectual montage insertions of meat butchery from the grandparent of all leftist filmmaking, Eisenstein’s Strike.
Kopple also mounts a sustained argument for understanding intersectionalities, emphasizing the women who find opportunity in the strike, taking up leadership roles as an outlet for rebellion against Western cultural public-private divides that would segment them off into a life of child rearing. The latter perhaps situates the film too easily in an individualistic rhetoric (unlike Eisenstein) where the focus sometimes dips too much toward specific strike leaders rather than the collective mass of the workers, but if such a pure focus on the collective was a necessary casualty for Kopple’s work, then so be it.
I also suspect the film is too reticent to escape from a bourgeois three-act narrative structure of conflict and resolution, that structure being the one instance of palpable timidity in a film with an otherwise voracious appetite. (A bolder critic than I might just claim that the structure is some variant of attempt to trace the ways in which traditional narrative constructs infringe on any attempt to pursue radical thought or an exploration of how life imitates art, but I don’t see the evidence in the film to back such a claim). Still, as both a polyphonic portrait of America and a white-hot screed of social injustice, not to mention a firm believer in pointed documentary aesthetics and a critique of neutrality, Harlan County is divine documentary filmmaking with the social muckraking devil in it.
It is also a best case scenario for evolving the verite style a mere one decade after jittery mod-culture documents like A Hard Day’s Night because it galvanizes the core vigor of the style with new purpose. Specifically, Harlan County is all the more impressive for how it massages the very same techniques as the Beatles’ film – unstable perspective, whip-smart editing, inventive associative linkages – but weaponizes them for an excoriating blast of pure rage rather than giddy pop of pure exultancy. That the off-kilter energy from ’64, almost bustling with purpose and drive to arrive at the future, so easily negotiates the pandemonium of the ‘70s is as pointed a statement as I can imagine for how the mad carnival of the ‘60s curdled into the crazed paranoia of the ‘70s. Somewhere between lingering on the crestfallen faces of Appalachian woe and lobbing visual molotovs with the camera, the film makes you forget other class of ’76 alums like Rocky or even Network; of them all, Harlan County is the only underdog story with underdog filmmaking to match.