People Like Us
When the subject is both funny and very touchy
Originally published in Current, Oct. 20, 2001
By Jacqueline Conciatore
"I wouldn't drive a Volvo. Volvo is plumpish, middle-aged, middle-class woman, too many children and uncontrolled dog. I certainly wouldn't drive a Ford. It's probably stolen."
Award-winning filmmakers Louis Alvarez and Andrew Kolker ferret out Americans' class attitudes in a new public television documentary, People Like Us: Social Class in America. The upscale woman who gamely shared her car prejudices before the camera is one of many people from a variety of backgrounds who reveal their class status and influences in the course of the two-hour film. People Like Us will premiere on many public TV stations Sept. 23 .
Alvarez and Kolker, known for humorous, conceptual films including Vote for Me, American Tongues and Moms, traveled the country over three years talking to people about social class — or at least asking them about it. "No one has ever made a show about this, and after working on it for a while, we knew why," says Kolker. "It was really hard. It is still a great taboo."
"While most people were welcoming, we did get quite a few doors slammed in our faces," says Alvarez.
Nevertheless, the film presents a rich and colorful pastiche. African-American debutantes parade in white, hooped gowns. Middle-class white women dress up as Baltimore's big-haired waitresses (they call them "honeys" because that's what the waitresses call their customers). Shirtless, big-bellied men flop into mud pits at the "Redneck Games" in Georgia. There's even a quick shot of fully decked out fox hunters, with beagles, at an upper class tribal event. And that's not half of it.
"Class was one of those topics that was ripe for an interesting film," says Alvarez. "We want people to start thinking about what it means to be of a certain class . . . and how in this country we don't think about it."
Alvarez and Kolker met as young filmmakers at the New Orleans Video Access Center and four years later started their own production company.
Twenty years, two duPont-Columbias and two Peabodys later, they are known best for finding the humor in serious subjects, whether in politics (they made Vote for Me with Paul Stekler) or regional accents (American Tongues) or motherhood (Moms). Humor is the best way to get viewers' attention, says Alvarez. "We always try in the first minute-and-a-half to put in a genuinely funny moment."
The humor in People Like Us generally isn't crafted or imposed but springs from the scenes as they unfold. In one segment, self-improvement consultant Ginnie Sayles, author of the book How to Marry the Rich, coaches a mild young woman who's worried about her tendency to attract unemployed men who run out of cash on dates. Sayles talks about "people of pedigree " and how many inches apart from each other they stand when conversing. (A discreetly distant 19 inches "is good for business and Boston" she says, tape measure at the ready.) She also shows her client how to walk up the stairs sideways. At the end of the segment, the client bravely wades into the crowd at an art opening, wearing a new upscale look and persona.
When it comes to people of lower rank, remarking on social status from an outsider's perspective — and having fun while doing so — is dicey at best. The film handles this dilemma partly by letting people identify and remark on their own position in society. At the Redneck Games, for example, festival-goers express pride in their community. "We just found a better way of life," says one woman.
And there are scenes that don't aim for humor. The most poignant of these deals with Tammy, a single Appalachian mother struggling on a minimum-wage part-time income to raise three boys. Filmed in the family's trailer home, her oldest teen talks openly about being embarrassed by his mother and brother and his own aspirations for a better life. The segment ends with a distant shot of Tammy walking 10 miles to work on an empty rural road.
At the project's outset, Kolker and Alvarez wondered whether their verite style was suited for the subject of social class. "How do you take this idea and make it work when you don't have a narrator holding your hand through the way?" says Alvarez. Would they find stories that adequately represented social class as a contributing factor? Especially if the class dynamics weren't apparent to the participants?
In Burlington, Vt., they were fortunate to find a conflict fueled by class differences. Decades-old class resentments bubbled to the surface during a community-wide debate about which commercial outlet should run the city's new grocery store: a supermarket chain or the local co-op. The poorer residents framed the debate as a matter of rights and access to affordable, "regular" food. The more advantaged residents spoke of community control. In the end, the co-op won, and at least some residents clearly felt further disenfranchised.
Kolker and Alvarez frame the issue differently for comic effect. The higher a person's income level, they note, the less likely he or she is to eat white bread. They interview the assistant manager of an emergency food pantry in town who says he can't give away the loaves of multi-grain bread that some richer folks eagerly buy for $4 each in another part of town. "White bread is basically a class issue," he says. The good news is that the new co-op in Burlington sells 99-cent white bread.
Americans generally don't have a broad vocabulary to discuss class issues, certainly not with the surgical precision of their English counterparts, says Kolker. But, in a segment both funny and chilling, People Like Us takes viewers to a high school where students openly and volubly discuss class divisions. One teen alludes to the unspoken rules that govern interactions outside the classroom: "If you sit at the wrong table [at lunch], that's like a death wish." A teacher says it's galling to see students drive off in cars that cost more than his yearly salary.
Most significant are consecutive scenes in which groups of students discuss their career ambitions. The students from wealthy families want to be psychologists and lawyers, while the students from working class families are more vague. One says she wants only to be happy, while a male student says, "I wanted to be a lawyer, but I think that's too much."
In the end, People Like Us is heavier than other Alvarez-Kolker films. "On all of our shows we try to leave people with a good feeling generally, and I think this one is a bit different," says Kolker. "I think we kind of leave them weeping."
He himself was struck by the extent to which America is divided by class, he says. "We live in a remarkably segregated country, as much as we would like to think otherwise.
"[We tried to] craft a piece that holds up a mirror and says, 'Look here, this is how it works. Here is how people deal with this and don't deal with this. And if you look hard enough, you'll find people who look like you.'"
The producers' next project was commissioned by the Oxygen Network, as a follow-up to Moms, in which women of all stripes share stories of motherhood. Sex: female will feature frank talk about sex and romance a la women's magazines and is probably something that won't interest PBS, says Alvarez.
People Like Us was produced with WETA in association with the Independent Television Service. CPB, PBS and the MacArthur Foundation were funders.
Western civilization, or at least upscale dining, hasn't been the same since the advent of balsamic vinegar, says satirist Joe Queenan in People Like Us. (Photo: Andrew Kolker.)
Pat Gulden ships more lawn concrete than any other vendor on the East Coast.
. To Current's home page . Earlier news: The producers previously poked fun at a human clan that often deserves derision. . Outside link: At the program's website, you can decorate a virtual living room and reveal your class tastes.
Web page posted Aug. 20, 2001
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