Ghost of labor

Posted: 25 February 2016 in Uncategorized


FiveThirtyEight has picked The Revenant for three major Oscars: Best Actor, Best Picture, and Best Director.

Even so, the film remains haunted.

As everyone knows, it wasn’t an easy film to shoot, for the director or for the other people who acted in or worked on it. But director Alejandro González Iñárritu seems not to care too much about the labor involved in making the film.

Last July, the Hollywood Reporter ran a story that the shoot was a “living hell”, as one crew member put it; there were accusations of indecision, of feuding between Iñárritu and one of his producers, and of disregard for safety, including the report of one actor being repeatedly dragged naked across ice. In the same publication, Iñárritu dutifully responded to the charges, although sometimes in terms redolent of a certain maestro loftiness. “As a director,” he said, “if I identify a violin that is out of tune, I have to take that from the orchestra” – then concluded, “When you see the film, you will see the scale of it. And you will say, ‘Wow.’” Indeed, whether or not The Revenant attains the deeper existential insights that its director aspires to, it’s undeniable that, as adventure spectacle, the film is often genuinely gasp-inducing.

When I ask Iñárritu about the controversy, a palpable impatience creeps into his voice. “I have to say, there’s nothing more boring to talk about than the challenges of production. ‘Oh my God, poor guys, they suffered…’ Honestly, who cares? The only reason I answered that is because I was asked, and I said: ‘There’s nothing for me to hide here.’”

In addition, as my colleague Jon Coleman [ht: dg] points out, there’s an important issue of labor in the film itself. Both Hugh Glass (played in the film by Leonardo DiCaprio) and Daniel Potts, who never met Glass but wrote about him in a letter to a childhood friend, worked for the same employer, the Rocky Mountain Fur Company.

Both labored for a company that could not properly feed, equip, and protect them. Both suffered extreme workplace accidents. Potts actually left more material for posterity. Glass only wrote one letter that has survived, and the missive said nothing about with the bear attack. If posthumous celebrity were based on literary production, Potts deserved higher billing than Glass. Fame, however, awaited the man with the best story, and getting gnawed on by a wild animal offered a better plot point than eating frogs and baby birds. Still, despite the huge disparity in the star meters, Glass truly belonged in Potts’s class. They were workers in a profession that offered great scenery, plenty of fresh air, and incalculable dangers.

A revenant is a ghost, and Glass struck a haunting figure stumbling back from the dead to kill the men who abandoned him. Yet the true ghost in The Revenant is work. Glass did not drop into a natural or an existential wilderness when he got mauled. He was just doing his job, and his job, as Daniel Pott’s letter proves beyond a doubt, hurt. Men who harvested wild animals for a living in the nineteenth century, whether they killed beavers, deer, bison, seals, or whales, often put their bodies on the line. Violence against nature boomeranged back as violence against workers. And being tough did not protect men from damage. The only safe spots in these businesses were company boardrooms and investors’ mansions. It’s fitting that an actor who starred as a penny-stock tycoon in his last movie may finally bring home the top acting prize for his portrayal of a hunter. The two characters are not as far apart as they seem. Capitalism inspired the adventures of both Wall Street wolves and western bear men.

Labor, on and in the film, is the real ghost of The Revenant.

  1. BRF says:

    What, no gritty truth telling film of the Ludlow massacre, the battle of Blair Mountain or the life of Big Bill Hayward or Eugene Debs? I have a friend who has stood face to face with quite a few Grizzlies while gathering berries and giving way never had a problem except for one purple faced bear he ran across for the second time in a day, which the bear probably took as a challenge to his person and territory. Pepper spray saved the day a put quite a scare into my friend. More dangerous when with young or you stumble across their “kill” or one decides your “kill’ should be theirs, which by law you must surrender. If attacked of course you have the right to defend yourself with whatever saves the situation. I was charged once and the timely discharge of my firearm into the air reversed the charge and we went our separate ways.

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