I’ve been storing up the energy to for a review of “Slap Shot,” the Seventies movie with Paul Newman as the player coach of the Charlestown Chiefs (modeled on the Johnstown Jets) of western Pennsylvania. I have an old videotape and have had it on replay. “Slap Shot” can also be viewed through the lens of America’s forty year slump, a movie framed at the time big business resurrected a devotion to unrestricted preying on its human labor, and — as it turned out — hundreds of millions of future livelihoods.
The backdrop for “Slap Shot” is the perfect picture of it. The steel mill is set to close in “Charlestown,” laying off thousands.
“Ten thousand people put on waivers,” says Ned Braden (Michael Ontkean), the Charlestown Chiefs’ leading scorer, to Paul Newman, as both stand outside the steel mill waiting for a ride from Lily (Lindsay Crouse), Braden’s wife.
“What’s going to happen to them?” Newman, as Reggie Dunlop, the Chiefs’ player/coach asks.
It’s every man for himself, replies Braden.
They realize it’s the end for the Chiefs. No money, no ticket sales. What there are of the fans won’t be spending what they have left at War Memorial ice hockey arena.
Strother Martin plays the general manager and is making phone calls trying to find a new job and people to buy the team’s old equipment.
Newman as Reggie Dunlop gets the idea to revitalize the team for the remainder of the season with a stunt, using three comical brothers to attack the opposition. The matches turn into brawls as the Chiefs snap a losing streak and stomp their flustered opponents.
Newman plants a ludicrous story in the local newspaper, one that intimates the Chiefs are being avidly sought by a buyer in Florida, one who wants to bring the team to a community of retirees who miss old time ice hockey.
The working stiffs of Charlestown come back to Chiefs games for the blood and circus, organizing a pep squad that even follows the squad around to its away matches. The fan hysteria reaches a climax when the Chiefs play in Hyannisport against “the Presidents.”
A Hyannisport lout throws a key ring at one of the Hansen brothers after a goal is scored and the trio assault the crowd, intimidating the locals. The police are summoned. It’s another publicity windfall for the Chiefs.
Paul Newman finally confronts the owner, a wealthy woman who admits the team is making money now that it’s winning but she’s going to kill it, anyway, because her accountant advises the tax write-off would be better for her bottom line.
“Well, we’re human beings, you know,” replies Newman.
He curses, calling her “garbage” for “letting us all go down the drain” when they’re doing better than ever.
She replies: “I don’t think you understand finance.”
I grew up through that systemic result in Pennsylvania.
From the mid-70’s to today, one unrelenting slump.
It never got better. More jobs were always lost. People made less and less money. There were no moments when anything turned around.
Occasionally, because of presidential propaganda, people felt better about it.
Largely, we bought the swill about “trickle down economics,” the need to squash labor unions, that firing thousands of people was “right-sizing” to get lean, mean and efficient, that life would be a different set of opportunities in which you’d go back to school or be trained four or five times, every ten to fifteen years, this so you would fit the workforce of the glorious future!
All convenient lies. And that’s only a fraction of it.
Manufacturing flushed down the toilet
When I was entering college, Alcoa aluminum closed the biggest extrusion plant in the world in Cressona, PA, where my father worked. He escaped lay-off and was transferred to a small soda bottle-cap manufacturing plant outside Lancaster, a three hour drive every day.
The metal-working plants closed. A recession was in full swing when I graduated from college in Reading, PA. There were no jobs so I enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Lehigh.
During the Reagan years, the nation’s economic policies destroyed Bethlehem Steel. The center of Allentown and the south side of Bethlehem turned into slums. I saw it happen. The people voted for the man who was killing their future. So did the rest of the country.
In November, I was invited to a friend’s house for Thanksgiving and during dinner I sat across the table from a man, my age, who declared Bethlehem Steel had gone out of business because it was “inefficient.” He told me he based this position on having been to one of its plants, one time.
I lived there. Yet that was the type of received wisdom you can routinely hear from Americans who know nothing of the subject except the trivial, making broad statements that it was bad business and everyone had it coming
When you rip the economic heart out of a community it takes a lot down with it.
I went to work for the Allentown Morning Call for a short period.
Advertising revenues, at its owner — Times Mirror, and readership were always in decline.
Losing Bethlehem Steel by no means explained total newspaper weakness but it surely did not help. As with the Chiefs, that so many people had so much less to spend and much less vital economic futures made a difference. A newspaper is a luxury one could forgo, even well prior to the internet, in bad times.
There was a rival to the Allentown Morning Call in Bethlehem. I subscribed to it. It died during the time of the steel collapse.
Newspapers have been going extinct ever since. Once I moved to California, layoffs always, like clockwork every two years, or even more frequently at the Los Angeles Times. An endless river of cutbacks.
However, no matter how people were squeezed or how many were disposed of, the publishers and owners always made more.
A proudly antagonizing pleasure over the annihilation of people was part of the spirit of it. You would have had to been blind not to have seen the corporate joy over the tearing down of so many working people, of the disposition of them into waste-bins with the added insinuation that it was because of the alleged manifold weaknesses in the American worker.
It is an excrescence in character that has come to be seen as both virtuous and normal.
Forty years of slump. Pitiless. Period.
Now it’s the beginning of the end. The cancer is developed, it’s “stage IV,” fully metastasized, everywhere, as a doctor might say. We never wanted to admit this was festering, growing more toxic. Instead, we have always been full of misplaced optimism, slogans, bromides and fix-it patent nostrums on reinvention and revival.
My parents were steeped in it, believing things were getting better all the time, that America was the best, even as bitter proof of the opposite stared them in the face.
How can you tell it’s really bad? It’s an insane question but I’ll humor you.
You can tell it’s almost terminal because the six and seven-figure explainers have taken it up in essays and television shows, even as they have absolutely no skin in the game.
A timely example is Robert Reich, who was part of the American ruling class work over as a piece of the Clinton administration. His movie, “Inequality for All,” got largely great reviews. And he is a fantastic celebrity explainer. But who is he explaining things to?
In the movie, it’s his class at Berkeley. Is that an audience with any exposure to the 40-year slump? Of course not! Americans can’t afford Berkeley in 2013. It’s a school for the offspring of the plutocracy and their immediate most well-paid servants, the latter who just haven’t yet been properly obsoleted.
You should be so lucky to have a camera crew following you around at Cal and for the well-off to laugh at your jokes, eager staff who’ll edit your shit, get financing and a KickStarter campaign going, put it on YouTube and pass it around everywhere because you’re, well, YOU.
Do you have that?
Great message! Wrong messenger. I don’t need to be told it. Neither do you. I already have a good friend who is unemployed, just like me. And others who have either greatly diminished prospects, been fired or who are regularly threatened with lay-offs by bosses who continue to rake more in.
You see, it’s just “[we] don’t understand [American] finance.”
But even the forces of systemic political evil had the last laugh with Reich’s movie. It’s publicity campaign was run over by the shutdown and blanket news coverage of the latter.
But back to “Slap Shot.”
At the end of it American optimism still rules. The Charlestown Chiefs win the championship but are shut down, anyway. Charlestown gives them a parade. For a day it’s all right.
Newman as Reggie Dunlop excitedly tells his ex-wife, a beautician who is leaving Charlestown because there’s no business, that he has a new job as coach of a team in Minnesota.
When he gets there, he’ll bring up “all his guys.” Clueless hope springs eternal.
However, it is still a great movie. View it again. It’s humorous, coarse in a good way, with wonderful ensemble acting. “Slap Shot” rewards repeated watching.
In America, though, for the majority, places like “Charlestown,” Johnstown — in real life, they never came back. The people just had to deal with ever diminishing expectations and opportunity, with slowly but inexorably more crabbed and desperate lives.
Any social contract that existed was shredded by corporatism.
Despising American labor and wishing for only ever larger immediate gain, US business de-industrialized the country, chasing slave labor, or whatever was closest to it, around the globe.
The belief that Americans were a great resource in human capital was made anathema. American labor was something to be crushed in an allied political and business vice.
To corporate America people are good for only two things: Buying stuff and working for as little as possible.
And when they can no longer buy there’s no use for them at all.
We may have believed this country still was showing signs of vitalism, progress and ways forward. But these were illusions, booms for the few, mostly at the top.
If you were in the national security megaplex, you did fine and will continue to do so. During the slump, beating up on piss ant little countries with the biggest military in world history was tremendous business opportunity.
Oil, financialization and Wall Street, even better.
And now, ad nauseam, the tech industry, heavily engaged in writing software, swipe-your-finger “apps,” to take what little everyone else has have left while telling us how inferior we are for not being able to deal creatively and imaginatively with “disruption.”
An old American story, just a different buzzword.
Some day soon, maybe you too will be able to go to work for nothing or next to it, disrupted and atomized by computer code, courtesy of the mechanized all-against-all economy and a civilization [cough] that’s socially bankrupt.
Or you could stay home and drink whatever cheap stuff you can find. Hell, I’ll drink with you.
“Yeah? Well, then normal is fucked.” –Lindsay Crouse as Lily Braden, Slap Shot
Lily Braden, played by Lindsay Crouse, pictured above coming out of the state store, Pennsylvania’s infamous government-run liquor control business, plays the movie as a drunk. She is enraged, trapped in Charlestown, a “goddamn dump,” while her husband Ned is always on the road with the Chiefs. To ease the pain, she gets shit-faced.
Newman/Dunlop concedes the same thing happened to his wife, she wound up drinking and driving.
“Why do you talk dirty?” Newman/Dunlop asks Lily, one furious night after a game in which her husband, Ned, has checked into a hotel to avoid being with her.
“My family has money,” she replies, in tears.
A minute later she pulls up in front of Newman/Dunlop’s place, realizing she’s been manipulated again: “Get out! Beat it!”
E-mail from a friend in the Lehigh Valley a couple days ago: “Did you know that downtown Allentown is changing? A hockey arena is being built, with buildings around it for offices and restaurants. Leases are being signed. I just can’t picture it, but who knows, it just might work.”
Errata and please pardon the faux pas: It is pointed out to me, quite correctly, that I misspelled “Reggie Dunlop” as “Dunlap” through the entire piece. Oof. Now, so corrected! Thanks, TP!