Our kind of people -- or maybe not

Public TV takes a tour of the country, including Baltimore, to examine American ideas about social class.


September 23, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Landmark nonfiction television should not be this much fun.

But People Like Us: Social Class in America, a documentary premiering tonight on PBS, is one of those rare films that will make you smile even as it changes the way you see the world. People Like Us is a reason to believe in public television.

The two-hour film from Louis Alvarez and Andrew Kolker should get an award simply for tackling the issue of social class. (Alvarez and Kolker are Peabody and Emmy Award winners for such critically celebrated works as Vote for Me: Politics in America and American Tongues.) Is it not conventional wisdom that there is no class system in America?

More daunting yet, the filmmakers are running against some 50 years of television -- the number of episodes of network programs alone during those decades measures in the millions -- that presented an American landscape in which everyone seemed to belong to the same vast middle class.

Once the television industry found its corporate feet by the mid-1950s, and such early working-class sitcoms as I Remember Mama and The Honeymooners disappeared, so did any sense of class distinctions in the world-view presented night after night in our living rooms.

And we are not just talking about commercial network television, which is driven by Madison Avenue imperatives. People Like Us is the first American documentary on public television to examine social class.

From Georgia to Baltimore

How do you even start to make a dent in that?

Rather than trying to make their case by piling up a mountain of facts, or by lining up an army of super-smart talking heads, the filmmakers offer us a dazzling, all-American array of words and images, from the trendy Hamptons of New York and the salons of Rodeo Drive, to smoky corner saloons in Baltimore and a self-described "redneck" picnic in Georgia where people bob in ice water for uncooked parts of a pig.

You'll smile as you hear a WASP explain how your hair has to be parted to be a member of his set. You'll laugh out loud at the woman who teaches social climbing by having a student walk around holding a tape measure in front of herself until she learns to stand "exactly 16 to 19 inches" chest to chest when talking to someone -- just the way the upper classes supposedly do.

But, a few minutes later, it will break your heart to see a single mother who lives in a shabby house trailer without heat walk 10 miles in the rain to her janitor's job at a fast-food restaurant, while her son tells us how embarrassed he is by her. It's hard to say which is more painful to hear -- what the teen says about his mom, or what she thinks he says about her.

The film does have its share of experts -- good ones, ranging from authors Joe Queenan and Barbara Ehrenreich to David Brooks, editor of the Weekly Standard. In the first segment, titled "Joe Queenan's Balsamic Vinegar Tour," the cameras follow Queenan as he cruises upscale shops in Santa Monica, and wickedly tears into yuppie consumption patterns.

There are a number of local voices, too. They include: Sun columnist Dan Rodricks, former Evening Sun society columnist Sylvia Badger and Pat Gulden, who runs the largest concrete lawn ornament store on the Eastern seaboard.

Baltimore is the focus of two segments in the film. The first, "Gnomes R Us," features Gulden taking the filmmakers on a tour of her store as she explains the appeal of gnomes as lawn ornaments to local residents. The other, "Friends in Low Places," visits the Hon Fest, where contestants try to imitate a particular style of Baltimore femininity. The segment also follows a group of young suburbanites on what they describe as a "dive-bar crawl" through corner taverns in East Baltimore.

Viewers challenged

Be warned: even as they delight and amuse, Kolker and Alvarez so brilliantly capture the nuances of status, language and gesture that some of your attitudes are going to be profoundly challenged.

For example, in the middle of Hon Fest, we hear a college professor question whether this type of woman is being celebrated, emulated, patronized or mocked by festivalgoers. It's the kind of question the film forces you to confront and, in so doing, you can't help but think more clearly about where you live on the landscape of American social class.

Personally, I became so angry watching a mortgage broker and his loud suburban friends on their "dive-bar crawl" that I had to stop the tape and go for a run to cool down.

But, clearly, these guys in their SUV and designer Hawaiian shirts thought they were bonding with the men and women in this working-class Baltimore bar. Watch this film, and you can't help but understand how different people from different classes will interpret the same scene differently.

I purposely haven't compared People Like Us to any other documentary or style of filmmaking, such as the stateliness of Ken Burns or the sleek packaging of MTV. That's because it seems so original -- not just its content, but also its look, tone and style as it bounces across genres and approaches to take us inside this seldom-discussed topic.

Their attitude seems to be that they'll use whatever it takes to hold our interest and tell this too-long-untold story. Kolker and Alvarez, two of the finest filmmakers working in public television, enrich the medium and our lives by telling it so well.

On television

What: People Like Us: Social Class in America

When: Tonight at 9

Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67) and WETA (Channel 26)

In brief: A landmark look at the invisible walls of social class in America

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