Movie review: 'The Tradesmen' celebrates the salt of the earth — or asphalt

Documentary gives skilled workers their due, if not their names

  • A construction worker for Greenleaf Remodeling works on a house in the film "The Tradesmen: Making an Art of Work."
A construction worker for Greenleaf Remodeling works on a house… (Handout photo, Baltimore…)
May 27, 2011

"The Tradesmen: Making an Art of Work" is a potent grass-roots documentary — and it's all the stronger because its leaves of grass poke up through the asphalt.

Writer-director-editor Richard Yeagley salutes the virtuoso craft, practical intelligence and fraternal cheer of Maryland's honest tradesmen without prettifying their hard work or playing down the costs it exacts on bodies and souls.

He weaves vignettes of (mostly) men on the job into a lament for the growing sociopolitical bias against blue-collar workers. But the film is surprisingly upbeat.

With the help of fresh talking heads and sprightly animated statistics, Yeagley makes the case that revitalizing this country's trades is its best hope for renewing frayed communities and strengthening worn-out roads, bridges and sewers.

At its most inspirational, the move depicts tradesmen taking their destiny into their own work-hardened hands.

It's a green ray of hope to see builders combine renovation with ecologically efficient technology. It's even more heartening to witness veteran union members pass their wisdom down to apprentices in the Plumbers and Steamfitters Union.

Yeagley uses authorities like UCLA professor Mike Rose, author of "The Mind At Work," and Joe Lamacchiardi, the author of "Blue Collar & Proud of It," to break down the ways that public education and mass culture steer rising generations away from proper trades.

Rose and cybernetics expert Judith Lombardi are especially good on the intelligence — applied and abstract — that goes into building or plumbing.

The film introduces a cavalcade of characters who dramatize the artisanship of everything from woodcraft to fixing a toilet.

They include artist and house-painter Kelly Walker, and mechanics Jeff Millman and Steven Schuman of Sisson Street Automotive, who refer to their colorful shop as "the Garage Mahal."

Unfortunately, Yeagley doesn't identify these craftsmen by name until the closing credits.

He hopes that this tactic will echo society's neglect of skilled workers and prod viewers into paying closer attention to their complex personalities and specialties.

Actually, the omission is just irritating and confusing. But it's a forgivable young-filmmaker's offense.

Even when Yeagley withholds their names, he gives tradesmen their due.

Michael Sragow

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