"People Like Us" examines social class in America
Imagine that a stranger on the street shows you a series of black and white photos. The first shows a plump, older man wearing a stained white t-shirt and plaid shorts. He's standing in front of a screen door. In the second, a young couple poses with two small children on white carpet inside a house with gleaming brass banisters and no art to speak of. The third features a strawberry blonde woman wearing slacks and a blouse standing with her back to a false-wood grain wall. Can you guess what social class each one belongs to?
Louis Alvarez and Andrew Kolker think so. The producers of the first documentary entirely about social class, "People Like Us," spoke at Bowdoin on April 7.
"We found that America is a very segregated place by class," Alvarez explained. "By and large, we don't interact with people of other classes in any sort of meaningful way," he said.
In the production process, which began in 1996 and ended with the first screening in September 2001, Alvarez and Kolker interviewed hundreds of ordinary and extraordinary Americans, hoping to hold a mirror to the nation to gauge the role social class plays in modern society. The project took them from Texas sororities and Ohio trailer parks, to urban townhouses in Maryland and summer communities on Long Island.
But the original idea of testing whether strangers would be willing to sort a series of pictures based on social class turned out to be the most telling. While people fumbled to define what it was exactly that made them call Subject A upper middle class and Subject B working class, they never hesitated to volunteer an opinion.
"People do know about class," Kolker said. "The reality is contrary to the myth that America is somehow a class-free society. People do pay attention to class. They just don't have the vocabulary to talk about it."
While the pair believed the tensions their documentary exposed were quite important, they felt the best way to present them was to try and draw in as wide an audience as possible. They already knew the film medium was more egalitarian and accessible than a strictly academic forum.
"We pride ourselves on having a sense of humor," Alvarez said. In addition to the lighthearted approach, they also provided treatment of many social classes and tried not to make too much fun of any one of them. Also, they hoped to avoid the condescension of some documentaries.
"We wanted to make a film that could be approached from any social level. We tried not to be hierarchical in assuming that the audience would be upper middle class college students," Alvarez said. "This is something my mother and the doorman in my office building will both get something out of."
Most people interviewed were happy with how they looked in the film, according to the producers. People self-identified their social status, and were self-effacing when talking about the company they kept. A Baltimore Sun columnist who says he was raised in a working class family poked affectionate fun at the idea that lawn ornaments -neocolonial columns and wind ornaments-added culture to a yard. In a section called 'WASP Lessons,' an elderly woman warned that driving a Mercedes made after '89 makes you 'nouveau riche.'
The most telegenic person lived in a trailer set on cinderblocks in southern Ohio. Tammy, a mother of two, walked ten miles to work, at a job cleaning bathrooms at Burger King.
"She really wanted to tell her story, she was very proud to finally be recognized," Kolker said. Unlike many of the subjects, she immediately understood how to speak in front of the camera, something that requires telling a personal narrative without interruption from the filmmakers.
Alvarez and Kolker urged the audience to try out filmmaking. With a few techniques and the low cost of equipment, "this is a great time to get involved," Kolker said.
Alvarez and Kolker met working for a VISTA program in Louisiana and have been making films together for 25 years. Although neither attended film school, they have caught the eye of the establishment several times, winning both the Peabody Award and the duPont-Columbia Journalism Award.
Over the years, the duo has focused in on an exceptionally broad array of subjects. They created "American Tongues," a study on the relationship between regional accents and attitudes, in 1988, "Louisiana Boys - Raised on Politics" in 1993, and more recently "L.A. Is It with John Gregory Dunne" and "The Japanese Version," a study on what happens to American culture when it reaches Japan.
Their production companies are the Center for New American Media and Kingfish Productions.
The lecture and screenings were sponsored by the department of Sociology and Anthropology and introduced by Susan Bell, A. Myrick Freeman Professor of Social Sciences and chair of the department.