To Perform the Job Well: an interview with Tradesmen filmmaker Richard YeagleyJanuary 30th, 2012 | Posted by in Uncategorized
ook around you.
Unless you just woke up in the middle of a forest, you are surrounded by things that were made by other human beings. Despite a half century’s visions of a shining future with robots shaking your cocktails and turning down your bed, most of what you see around you is still made by people. Walls, roofs, roads, cities; planes, trains, and automobiles.
Forget Ayn Rand’s elitist dystopia of the abdication of the One Percent. Imagine instead if the laborers — the great base of civilization’s pyramid — laid down their hammers and trowels. Where would we be then? In the cold, in the dark, in the mud.
A useful thought experiment, I think; most of us tend to take things like infrastructure, not to mention plumbing, for granted.
Not Richard Yeagley, however. Yeagley has made a very thoughtful, and thought provoking, documentary called The Tradesmen: Making an Art of Work. The Tradesmen is not so much a celebration of blue collar laborers as it is a simple acknowledgment of the work they do. By that I mean that it doesn’t find any particular holiness or greatness in the people who keep our houses standing and our cars running; there’s no attempt to raise the blue collar above the white. But it does find in them a kind of grace.
By observing a handful of laborers in their work (a great deal of the camera’s attention is drawn by the hands of these men — and one woman, in this sampling — as they jigsaw-puzzle a flagstone deck into place, or perform surgery on the innards of a four-wheeled metal beast), Yeagley allows us to examine, and thus acknowledge, the work that almost all of us take completely for granted. Most of the time we don’t really care what goes on under the hood; it might as well be magic.
This is itself a kind of testament to the subjects of The Tradesmen: most of us are so oblivious to the world around us that we don’t notice how a thing works until it doesn’t.
I had a chance recently to talk to filmmaker Richard Yeagley about The Tradesmen.
Charley Cvercko: You’re the writer, director, producer on this film. So it’s obviously something of a passion project for you. What was it about this subject matter that inspired you to make a feature-length documentary about it?
Richard Yeagley: It was and is a topic I am passionate about. But I ultimately filled so many roles because I quickly realized that many individuals of my generation had hardly any interest and knowledge of the topics that are discussed throughout the film. Additionally, a couple of the individuals who I had discussed the project with during the development phase had a different approach to covering the topic. Truthfully, I was told by several people to use these workers for a reality show concept.
CC: Wow. Really? A reality show. You’d somehow have to get your interview subjects to degrade themselves for ratings. Probably not in line with your goals for the project. What is it about this particular subject that made it seem a good one to make your first film about?
RY: I had family who worked and who still work in the building and service trades. So I always had a connection and appreciation for the work that was done. But what I noticed as a young man trying to find an industry and career was that there was a channeling from many different sources of our youth into knowledge-based industries and into more white-collar oriented occupations. I thought that this tacitly demeaned the work of the conventional blue collar worker and also was a fundamentally distorted perception of the future available jobs.
CC: You talk about yourself as a young man, thinking about career options, and “our youth” being channeled into knowledge-based industries. Do you think things have changed from the America of 60, 70 years ago? The heroic laborer of the Depression; the workers in the WWII weapons factories; the postwar growth of the auto industry, etc.
RY: The modern-day carpenter and manufacturing operator is part of the knowledge-based economy. With modern technology rapidly integrating itself into all industries, all workers will have to perpetually train and retrain themselves. This channeling away from these old industrial jobs has left a pernicious gap in our labor force. Every week another media outlet covers the story of the labor shortage that exists with skilled workers.
CC: Are you suggesting a division within the blue collar workforce? Between those who divert much of their energies to retraining, and those who work with technologies that don’t change as rapidly, such as hammers and saws? The Tradesmen seems to focus largely on the latter.
RY: I am questioning the semantic framing of the term “knowledge-based” jobs or industries. As if the building, construction, and manufacturing sector which supports much of the industrial landscape are not part of this new catchphrase. Overall, most individuals feel that the knowledge-based economy is centered around software, electronics, telecommunications, etc. The truth is that the construction and manufacturing industries are adapting to new standards and technologies and many processes use software, telecommunication devices, and electronic components.
CC: Right, and these trades have their own knowledge base, as pointed out by some of your interview subjects: transforming 2D schematics and blueprints into buildings, making the imagined actual, is extremely “knowledge-based.” But what about the workers who are out in the field, using their hands, and not focused on the demands of retraining to keep up with evolving technologies?
RY: First of all, there is a difference between a skilled trade worker and an unskilled trade worker. Within those two factions are vast differences in pay. A skilled and entrepreneurial plumber can create his own sole proprietorship and make a really great living. Furthermore, if he has a business prowess, he can own his own company with the potential for immense growth. A laborer who has no intentions of increasing his skill set will be locked into the pay range that is not very suitable for a decent living. But so often, people neglect the skills and the amount of years that go into acquiring the aptitudes to perform the job well. My point is that being a skilled trade worker can and does provide a decent living. Plus, the cost for education and training is ridiculously cheaper than the college route, which for many individuals leads to a job not in step with the focus of the student.
CC: Why do you suppose, then, that the “honest day’s work” of a blue collar worker has come to be devalued in recent decades?
RY: I think the main reason is because many of the younger generations do not want to participate in laborious work. That, I believe, is the number one reason, the skilled trades are less desirable than many white collar and trade/retail related jobs.
CC: I wonder why that is? People acknowledge the skillset accumulation of a white collar worker, but they don’t see it in physical labor. Is it the whole “it must be magic” way of thinking? If we don’t really understand what it is that someone does, it seems more impressive. After all how complicated, on the surface, is putting one brick on top of another? We don’t consider the brainwork that lies behind doing it right. We just see the bricks.
RY: Well brick work can be more menial than let’s say stone work. There is a categorical art and craft behind the shaping and laying of stone to create an aesthetic and utilitarian construction. The same can be said for all forms of carpentry.
CC: Which brings us to my next question. There’s a very powerful segment in The Tradesmen where you interleave footage of a stonemason laying flagstones and a bricklayer building a wall. As each man tells part of his story, the camera is focused on his hands, on the actual work. Did you choose those two skills specifically, so that you could make that visual comparison? How did you choose your interview subjects in general?
RY: I started with two subjects: the plumber and the mason. The plumber is my uncle; the mason is a close friend’s uncle. I had previous experience working incompetently with both as a youth. From there each of those individuals recommended another skilled professional and these individuals recommended others. Every subject had a colleague who was both artful and had an idiosyncratic nature, and who they insisted I use as a subject for the documentary. Essentially, my scouting was done while the principle photography was taking place.
CC: And so you decided to become a filmmaker. What has the experience of making The Tradesmen been like for you? Did it alter any of your preconceptions? Do you feel like you learned anything in the process?
RY: I feel that I started to appreciate my own work as a craft. I realized that the more time and pride one puts into his work, the more value, gratitude and pleasure that individual will receive from their labors. I quickly realized that the process of documentary filmmaking and the slightly improvised, but slightly planned nature of my approach is tremendously similar to how all skilled tradespeople approach their work. I started to reevaluate my definition of a good job and I started to realize the satisfaction that comes from the production of one’s own desires. Working on your own material creates a sense of ownership and personal responsibility. Additionally, I acknowledged the significance of many often neglected forms of work.
CC: That’s interesting, that you can learn things about the craft of filmmaking through observing the labor of other, superficially unrelated skills. So what’s your next learning experience? Are you working on any other films?
RY: I am currently working on a documentary that is shot and told in a completely observational style. It centers on many of America’s policies on trade and manufacturing. It is perfect timing because as of recently, the Obama administration has supported the “insourcing” movement and has put greater emphasis on the need for a stronger industrial base. Whether he is in full campaign mode and courting middle class votes or sincerely trying to change policy remains to be seen.
On the surface, that subject matter strikes me as dry. But I would have said exactly the same thing about the subject of The Tradesmen before I screened it, and found it to be one of the most compelling and fascinating films—narrative or documentary—that I saw this year.