Margaret Thatcher

THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

OZARK AND AMERICAN MIDDLE CLASS BLUES

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Marty Byrde talks and thinks about money all the time. Even when he is preoccupied with his family Marty is more concerned about their potential prosperity. At the beginning of Ozark we hear him over the soundtrack share his thoughts. ‘Money is what separates the haves from the have-nots. Patience, frugality, sacrifice, deciding to invest in your family’s future and taking responsibility for your actions. Money is the measure of a man’s choices.’ As an opening to a TV series, the words are not that impressive, not the dramatic hook that audiences expect. But later we understand the words are a sales pitch that Marty would have made to potential customers when he was a financial advisor or salesman. The problem for Marty is that his marketing waffle has become a philosophy. It is how he evaluates himself, his society and existence. Marty is the pure product of the ambitions of his society. He is a monetised human being.   Type ‘American middle class physical health’ into Google, and the search engine will reproduce nothing but links to websites about the cost of health care. Americans worry more about financing their health treatment than whether they are actually healthy.   Value for money rather than well-being transcends anything and everything.

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Ozark has been compared to Breaking Bad, and at this point people are hedging their bets about how the TV series will develop. It depends on your point of view.  Ozark explores similar themes to Breaking Bad or is an opportunistic rip off.  Marty Byrde is the main character in Ozark. Byrde is educated and affluent and should be settled in middle-class comfort. Instead he was tempted by a well-paid offer to manage the accounts of a drug cartel. Now he is involved in money laundering schemes and obliged to keep both gangsters and the police at bay. Despite the potential for mishap, violence and chaos Ozark will not match Breaking Bad for narrative invention. This is a safe prediction because nothing ever will. Darlene Snell is the wife of a local hillbilly drug runner.   She is impulsive, violent and carries a loaded shotgun. Already in the first season she has become a dependable plot device to ensure surprises and twists.   But any TV series that has a ten year old define gross domestic product and explain how it does not measure the production of anything has to be given some respect. The show is less effective at making clear the process of money laundering but it makes a more serious attempt than most.

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Jason Bateman is a key player in the production. He plays the main character and has directed several episodes. Bateman lacks the dark potential of Bryan Cranston, who played Walter White in Breaking Bad, but his wife is played by the great Laura Linney and together they make a fine and interesting couple. Marty Byrde is a hustler but he is also a peacemaker. He wants his family to be happy rather than a monument or a legacy.   It is tempting to regard Byrde as an innocent.   One character, though, describes him as the Devil.  Byrde broods about the accusation.  People die around him. No one can predict if Ozark will generate the dead body count of Breaking Bad or whether Byrde will eventually take the violent options that tempted White but there should be plenty of fun in working out who is slain next.

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The plot of Breaking Bad was shaped by the struggle of Walter White to pay the medical bills for the treatment of his cancer. He did not have enough money to deal with a crisis. Byrde is different. He made his decision to commit to performing mundane money laundering tasks in 2007. A whole episode is devoted to a flashback to that year. Financial security and perhaps a little adventure are what tempted Marty.  Wendy his wife agrees to the diversion.  They are either being greedy or romantic or maybe both. The significance of 2007 is obvious.  Although it is not mentioned in Ozark, 2007 is the year of the financial crash. This is the year when American middle class lives became even less secure, vulnerable rather than successful. The episode is an audacious innovation and it establishes an important metaphor for life in a modern money shuffling economy. The episode deserves to be admired. We discover that Marty and his wife are a couple that lacked the imagination to understand the limits of economic aspiration. They assumed that economic good times could last forever. They had the same trust in gangsters that financiers have in debt. Neither are reliable, and now Marty is hustling around a lake in Missouri looking for businesses in which he can invest the drug money.

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Middle class hope is symbolised in the show by the trampoline. It exists in the memories of Marty and his wife.   The children in the family are troubled by the revelation that Dad is a money launderer.   Imagining their teenage daughter and son as young children bouncing in the air helps the parents to remember good, decent and innocent expectations of progress. When Marty feels he might just survive and there is prospect of settled family life, he reassembles the trampoline. In another episode it looks as if there is no scope for him to continue as a father or a man.   Marty retreats to the trampoline and he lies on its surface. He is alone and staring at a sky that is now a weight. Bouncing and optimism are no longer options.

Both Breaking Bad and Ozark reveal the crisis that is affecting the American middle class this century.   In the USA social class is defined exclusively by money or income. Right now the income for a middle class male in the USA ranges from $43000 to $71000. For women the range in income stretches from $26000 to $54000. People with income below that are identified as lower class, and those above that range are described as upper class. In UK terms the American middle class contains both people with working class jobs that have decent wages and those who in Britain would be described as lower middle class, folk whom we used to think of as ‘comfortable’.

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Mark Gongloff in The Huffington Post has described the last 36 years for the American middle class as a ‘sea of suck’. There was brief respite in the 90s when the technical boom and the Internet bubble lifted incomes. It did not last. Overall wages and household income have been stagnant for nearly forty years. Any growth in income since 1980 has gone to the upper class. Some of this extra money would have, before the neoliberal reforms, landed in middle class bank accounts. Creating that growth in upper class income has often been the burden of the middle class. And not everything in the work ethic garden is rosy.  Now Americans sleep 20% less than they did at the beginning of the last century.

Meanwhile the costs of being middle class have increased and the standard of living has fallen. Utilities, child care, education and health have become a financial drain on American middle class households. Neither are the well paid jobs so secure. A majority of middle class American families will at some point in their existence experience poverty or a financial crisis that will have them worry about what will happen next and feel desperate.  The jobs when they do appear are also more demanding. People are easier to exploit, and companies are competing against rivals that know how to control labour costs and maximise efficiency. Yet there is good news. Technology has controlled the prices of motor cars and electrical equipment. We have big TVs and smartphones. Thanks to feminism women are also safer in the home. Men are less violent to their spouses but, because everyone is working so hard, their is less time to throw punches.

 

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Physical safety is desirable and welcome but it does not constitute security or stability. Breaking Bad and Ozark are shows about people at their wits end. Walter White and Marty Byrde are both an inspiration and a warning to American fathers. The lucky get rich but the American dream of sharing a comfortable life with a contented family in a secure home is beyond people who have normal lives. Mortgage repayments are juggled, and so are insecure jobs, and what Mom and Dad do to earn the money that pays for the mortgage and everything else is best not talked about.   Money is both tainted and threatening. The best that can be said about Mom and Dad is that they are not as shabby as the powerful monsters that make Mom and Dad shiver. Domestic partners unable to share their despair, pessimism and self-hatred tell lies to one another.

It may have been always like this, of course. But the data showing what has happened to the American middle class and also to a lot of British workers is stark. Thatcher and Reagan arrived, and the upward curves showing income growth on the graphs disappeared. Americans work harder but after nearly forty years of extra effort they earn no more than their predecessors. Their children face even worse prospects. Relaxation is possible. We have big cheap TVs and watch middle class heroes struggle and resist. They grit their teeth when they understand the odds against them. Walter White and his teeth survived for as long as six seasons but he was doomed. If Marty Byrde lasts that long, he will be doing well.

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Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.

 

 

 

 

 

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An A-Z Journey Around Britain

40 St Helens

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The Citadel nightclub in St Helens began life as a Salvation Army hostel. A comedian appeared there and told his audience that St Helens was famous for rugby league players and beautiful women. The comedian paused and said, ‘what position do you play, love?’

My father was from St Helens and a professional rugby league player.   Before his career as an athlete he was in the Royal Navy. The other sailors called him ‘Scouse’. The three miles between the two urban boundaries of Liverpool and St Helens were inconsequential for sailors on an aircraft carrier in a distant ocean.   On Merseyside the three miles ensure mutual antipathy. As well as accent and size, sport divides Liverpool and St Helens. Jurgen Klopp is the new manager of Liverpool Football Club. My father told me that St Helens schools taught Roman Catholicism and rugby league and nothing else. This is an exaggeration but, thanks to Flemish glassmakers, there is a high percentage of Roman Catholics. Whatever the religion, all in St Helens appear to be obsessed with rugby league. The folk of St Helens and Liverpool may dislike each other but they are passionate supporters. The City of Liverpool has overachieved in football, and so has St Helens in rugby league. It has won six League Titles since 1996. The team would have won more except it has a poor record in play off finals.

Local landowners shaped the history and boundary of St Helens. It consists of four manors. Outsiders assume one identity for the population of 107,00 but people from St Helens are obliged to mention the manor in which they live. None of the manors are prosperous. The people of St Helens vote Labour. The Tories stay silent to avoid criticism. The absence of coal in Liverpool helped the North West to resist the economic spread of the City. The mining industry of St Helens was terminated by Thatcher but the left wing identity remains.

Crime in St Helens has declined since 2008, as it has across the UK, but local crime figures are below national averages. Pedestrians can walk in safety around a not that interesting town centre. It is not the equal of nearby Wigan. Celtic Brigantes was the tribe that inhabited the North of England when the Romans arrived. The Romans chose to settle in Wigan rather than St Helens. Anyone who has seen the two town centres would understand why.

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St Helens, though, has had international reach. Pilkingtons Glass dominated the global industry and was sued by the United States Government for creating a cartel. The exhibitions in the Glass Museum in St Helens reveal pride in innovation but neglect to mention the aggressive use of patents. Pilkingtons once provided work for 15,000 people in St Helens but today that number is less than a thousand. Beechams produced pharmaceuticals and it also became a global giant. Beechams Pills were used across the world and recommended to those who wanted ‘to dislodge the bile and stir up the liver.’ According to adverts ‘the wild waves tell you to try Beechams Pills.’ St Helens is eleven miles from the coast but someone had an imagination. Beecham Clock Tower is the name of the building where people dreamed of stirring up livers. It is now open to the public, and the staircase and extravagant wood panels justify a visit.

Next week, Max Jaffa peels back the years, Scarborough

Howard Jackson has had four books published by Red Rattle Books. His 11,000 mile journey around Brazil is described in Innocent Mosquitoes. His latest book and compilation of horror stories is called Nightmares Ahead. Published by Red Rattle Books and praised by critics, it is available here.

If you want to read more about his travels click here.