Friday, 14 March 2014

Klymkiw watches TV (HBO CANADA) - It's nice when rich people produce films about poverty. Kudos to Maria Shriver for this one. PAYCHECK TO PAYCHECK: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF KATRINA GILBERT - Review By Greg Klymkiw

Paycheck To Paycheck: The Life and Times Of Katrina Gilbert (2014) ***
Dir. Nick Doob, Shari Cookson, Prod. Maria Shriver, Starring: Katrina Gilbert

Review By Greg Klymkiw

I can't help it, but trying to remove the taste of bile in my mouth is near-impossible when super-rich White People manage to weasel their way into arts and culture, based primarily upon their wealth, blue-blood family pedigree, celebrity and all the luxuries afforded to them and then make films about poor people. Such is the case of this latest production by Maria Shriver, daughter of Eunice Kennedy Shriver (hence, JFK's niece) and ex-wife of the nanny-defiling movie-star-body-builder-former-California-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Still, I'm happy enough to assess the 75 minute feature film Paycheck To Paycheck: The Life and Times Of Katrina Gilbert on its own terms since co-director Nick Doob has the distinction of being a real filmmaker and a longtime member of the unimpeachable Pennebaker Hegedus Films team, whilst his directorial partner Cookson, has a prolific c.v. which, includes the popular, though somewhat spurious doc series "Real Sex" (with its audience grabbing emphasis upon soft-hard-core antics and personalities).

Doob and Cookson had a whole year to dip into Shriver's access to O.P.M. (said access also generously applied, in fairness, to her many charitable activities) and follow around a Chattanooga, Tennessee nursing assistant to examine the life of the working poor - most specifically an example of America's most vulnerable and largest targets of poverty, single mothers.

Katrina Gilbert has three children and toils for 9 bucks an hour in an extended care facility. It's back-breaking, flat-footing work, but Gilbert genuinely seems to enjoy the daily human contact she has with the old and infirm. Still, she'd prefer to "better herself" and continue her post-secondary studies in the health care field, but in spite of her meagre salary and needing to support three kids, she is turned down - shockingly and inexplicably - for financial aid to further her education and perhaps get a better paying job.

Welcome to America.

Gilbert also has on-going medical conditions which, could well eventually morph into something life-threatening, yet when she goes to get an overdue check-up, she's hit with a doctor bill for over $300 as opposed to the $120 she was initially quoted. In America, there is no socialized medicine - it's big business in the Land of the Free and most people, including the working poor, have to cough up. (Obama Care doesn't appear to be in full implementation during the shooting, but even if it were, it's such a mess I can't imagine it would really help her.) Even more horrifying is that the list of medications she requires to keep her health on the up-and-up are so ludicrously expensive, she needs to make the decision of what drugs she can afford during a last-minute tabulation at the pharmacy.

Welcome to America.

She has three kids to feed, but since her ex is unemployed and often in arrears with his childcare payments, she not only has to lend him gas money to visit the kids, but her ration of food stamps to actually feed her progeny is shockingly and inexplicably cut-off.

Welcome to America.

The film itself is pretty compelling stuff and as a subject, Gilbert is pleasing, kind-hearted and smart. That being said, the movie presents her story in a what-you-see-is-what-you-get style, but I did find a few editing choices somewhat dubious - perhaps even downright unfair to her struggle.

For example, after discovering she doesn't qualify for educational assistance AND forced to choose what drugs she can actually afford, the filmmakers follow her into a beauty parlour so she can "do a little something" for herself. When she drops a healthy whack of dough for her new hair-do, I began to wonder, uh, lady - you have no money for drugs, yet you're dumping 70 or so smackers on what looks to be a (not-especially) flattering makeover. Given how much we feel for this woman, I felt this artistic choice - no matter how "true" - was simply cruel (intentional or not). Maybe it's the filmmakers' desire to make viewers have a similar response to the salon scene and intentionally plant a seed that grows into guilt for even having such a thought.

Whatever the reason it somehow feels out of place, just as a breakfast scene in the family's squalid home is shot and included wherein we watch the kids scarf down grease-laden plates of bacon and eggs, then guzzle-back bottles of pop. Yeah, we know that nutrition-choices are, for the poor, dictated by their poverty, but by continually including such sequences, one occasionally suspects there's a deeper agenda at play here - even if there isn't.

The choice to do this kind of thing might be true to the filmmakers's adherence to a direct cinema approach, but it's almost to the detriment of the film's forward trajectory since you, as a viewer, almost waste more time thinking about the rather mean-spirited approaches than what really counts. I suspect mean-spiritedness was not the intent and that the adherence to a direct cinema approach was paramount. However, even within that context, these moments stick out like sore thumbs rather than integrating with the whole. Greater attention needed to be paid to the desire to present an unfettered reality that should have addressed these important and clearly dichotomous moments in this woman and her family's life.

For example, the movie occasionally interviews individuals on the sidelines of the activities captured - in one case, a man who works as a clerk in a money-lending firm and in another, a clerk in a tax preparation office. In both instances, these brief side trips address the issues at hand - a woman who can't get credit anywhere else other than a usurious money lending service is acknowledged and treated like a human being who knows how hard she's trying to manage her debt and another who seems to even sense the absurdity of poor people needing to pay for a third party to report an income that, for all intents and purposes, is at the poverty line.

Where then is an individual to advocate for the "poor" or even simply acknowledge how easy it is to choose ephemeral pleasure over medical well-being and how prevalent it is in the lower financial strata of society? Where is the same perspective in terms of the grotesquely unhealthy breakfast the family is eating?

I think it's important we see these elements of Katrina's life - especially since it's presented as an individual sampling of the kind of thing millions of Americans are living through. I hate to make generalizations, but I think there's some truth to this one. Poor people see the world through the eyes of hardship and life experience. Some even acquire a modicum of wealth, but they've had to WORK - really WORK for it. Their sense of observation and even balance seem far more aware and open. The rich, generally, are criminals and/or assholes who most always see things from an elevated position. Some are neither, but I'd suggest that even the well meaning ones have prejudices that temper their observations.

Since the directors have not addressed this, I have to ask:

Where, in this film, is the producer (who especially in television has a very strong creative hand) to address the weird perspectives I point out above? And let me be clear, where is that strong hand, NOT to censor, but to address the shortfalls in the direct cinema approach and to do so aesthetically within the context of the whole film and its style/POV?

There wasn't one. She's a Shriver. Why would she even think about it? Sure, her credentials as a journalist, filmmaker and philanthropist cannot be ignored, BUT there is a perspective she has not been able to bring to bear upon this film that her directors also ignore. Direct cinema, in its purest forms and as we know them today were, in fact, rooted in colonialism, prejudice, poverty, working-class values and very little access to post-secondary education in the Canadian province of Quebec. (Though, it would also be remiss of me to not acknowledge the influence of Dziga Vertov's "Truth of Cinema" movement in the 1920 - born out of repression, revolution and the eventual sad march to another form of repression with a different name.)

Look, I'm not suggested Shriver nor her directors must have tasted subjugation to utilize this form, BUT it's of utmost importance for all artists - especially those working in documentary - to leave as few stones unturned in their quest for truth.

While the journey of Katrina Gilbert moved and inspired me, I could only feel saddened and defeated by the end of the film - not just as a viewer, but for her, those like her and the world as a whole. One of the very last things the film leaves us with is the knowledge that Gilbert is finally getting her first raise at work - ever! It's in the amount of a few cents. Chances look good she'll continue living in a trailer park.

All the film really leaves me with, especially because it does such a good job of detailing her struggle and allowing us to get to know her as well as we can, is one overwhelming annoyance. With one pen-stroke upon a check book, Executive Producer Shriver (who lives in a $10 million dollar Brentwood mansion) could make this woman's life turn around.

Instead, Shriver made this movie. On other people's money.

Welcome to America, indeed.

Paycheck To Paycheck can be seen on HBO Canada. For Dates and Times, visit the HBO Canada website HERE.