It may start in a small town but this movie’s heart grows as big as Milwaukee

In one of the toughest scenes in “Small Town Wisconsin,” alcoholic Wayne Sobierski, pounds down liquor while desperately searching for overnight accommodations for the night in Milwaukee. badfeelingmag.com

Small Town Wisconsin runs only through Tuesday, June 21, at the Oriental Theatre in Milwaukee, but continues through Thursday at Marcus Theaters in Franklin, New Berlin, Delafield, and Saukville. For times and tickets: https://mkefilm.org/oriental-theatre/events/small-town-wisconsin 

Small Town Wisconsin is now available for purchase or rent on YouTube, here:

As was my mother, I consider myself something of a movie buff. As a professional arts journalist, I have only occasionally reviewed films, as I’ve worked for publications with designated film critics, per se.

But the new film Small Town Wisconsin hit me pretty hard, partly because it is a small-town Wisconsin story (my folks are from Two Rivers) that strives, like a salmon swimming upstream, towards a big spawning ground of dreams, the big city of Milwaukee Wisconsin (my hometown).

Director-turned-executive producer Alexander Payne understood the qualities he values in this film. He’s provided some of the richest indie-courting-the-mainstream films we’ve had in recent years: Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants, Nebraska and Downsizing. So, he produced Small Town, which was written by Jason Naczek and directed by Milwaukee-native Niels Mueller and has racked up a slew of film festival awards. I suspect Payne saw the heart he brings to all his films even though this, to my eyes is, more than his satires, among other things, a gentle poke at small-town manners.

Producer Payne is also an actor’s director, having elicited some of the finest roles of various actors’ careers, including Laura Dern, Bruce Dern, Reese Witherspoon, Jack Nicholson, Sandra Oh, Paul Giamatti, George Clooney, Will Forte, (Aaron Rodgers-ex-girlfriend) Shailene Woodley, and character actor June Squibb, among others. So, there’s the imprimatur.

The biggest name actor in Small Town Wisconsin is Kristin Johnson, the Emmy award-winning actress for Third Rock from The Sun.

What we have here is a sort of fish-out-of-water story, times two. The main character Wayne Stobierski (Daniel Sullivan) is slowly being reeled out of his comfort zone — as a failing divorced father virtually immersed in alcohol, literally kicking and screaming — up into the harsh reality of losing any custody of his adorable son, Tyler (Cooper J. Friedman). He seems basically a good guy and an extremely sympathetic character, but Wayne also has anger-management issues. So, it’s obvious to everyone how he’s floundering as a father.

Wayne’s only daily responsibility is to one goldfish, Buster, who also is symbolically forced out of his little water bowl simply by Wayne’s inebriated neglect. So, we fear Wayne will meet a similar fate, which hangs over the story. Point beer tall boys, with occasional whiskey shots at the local bowling alley bar, seem to be his primary fuel (the small town’s street scenes are in Palmyra).

So, the writer and director proceed to force Wayne up on a tight rope, in varying degrees of intoxication, with the poor schlep tottering between high-spirited comedy and utter pathos. Bowling scenes seem a variation on those of The Big Lebowski and provide the most notable cultural context for small-town Wisconsin — easygoing solo and team sport play to sustain folks through the state’s long, cold winters. The director strives for balanced political context by including cardboard cutouts of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton observing the bowling matches. Wayne’s comical lane mishaps extend to an offbeat scene of him driving around drunk with his bowling ball, another symbol of self-destructiveness.

It is only Wayne’s fundamental if dysfunctional decentness that persuades his ex-wife Diedra (Tanya Fischer), to warily allow him one last weekend with his son, on two conditions: that he explain to Tyler that he’ll be moving to Phoenix with her and her new husband, and that Wayne be accompanied by a chaperone, his best friend, Chuck (Bill Heck), an archetypal clean liver. Tyler clearly loves his father even though he realizes he’s an alcoholic and understands, at a basic level, what the word means.

Wayne struggles to break the news to his son Tyler — that the boy will be moving with his mother and stepfather to Arizona. wsaw.com

That relationship provides most of the film’s heart squeezing and tear-jerking which is, in my book, hard earned, but with golden aspects, like the humble luck of finding a great baseball card in a random gum pack and making hay with that card. In fact, Wayne shows his true colors by financing his last big bid for his son’s heart (and perhaps more) by selling his baseball card collection, including his Hank Aaron rookie card. Though he pitches the weekend to Deidra as a typically rustic fishing and camping outing, Wayne’s secret idea is grander: give Tyler something he’ll always remember his dad by, a trip to Milwaukee, and the boy’s first major league baseball game.

Indeed, it’s a small odyssey with one eloquent classical allusion. Wayne declares Milwaukee’s baseball stadium as what “the ancient Romans called a coliseum.” Wayne, a drinking-on-the-job car mechanic, plans a night or two in Milwaukee’s finest hotel the Pfister, and the big game, “Milwaukee versus Chicago” (curiously the Cubs and Brewers are never specifically named). Sullivan, and increasingly Heck and Johnson, carve out richly-textured characters. Chuck’s personal situation almost drives him to find some new solace, on this trip. They end up at the Milwaukee home of Wayne’s sister Alicia, played by Johnson in one of the most substantial and affecting roles of her career.

Despite all the things working against him, Wayne is lucky to have a sister like Alicia (Kristen Johnson).  screen daily

One curiosity is that a movie this excellent has only earned about 80% Rotten Tomatoes critics rating, though a 95% audience score. As I see no real flaws in it, I might only speculate that it was victimized by our cultural schism between rural and urban. Milwaukee itself is somewhat idealized and the movie provides a rich panorama of the city’s diverse virtues, including a Lake Michigan boat tour of the lovely cityside, a visit to Usinger’s sausage retail outlet, and an impulsive quest to the McMansion of ex-Milwaukee slugger Gorman Thomas. I must leave the wiggling storyline in the water at that. Suffice to say, sister is the better angel on bro’s shoulder, in a story of redemption as tough-minded as it is bighearted.

So, I wonder if those less taken by it adopt the small-town viewpoint, as defensive about the characterization of the lead as an alcoholic, with little apparent self-awareness. Of course, alcoholics exist in big cities at least as much, if not more, than small towns. And the film’s makers walk their own tight rope of avoiding precipitously heavy-footed political commentary.

After all, ex-wife Deidra, Chuck and Alicia are fully sober and reasonably intelligent. And Wayne himself, in his lucid moments, displays a distinct sensitivity, especially interacting with his son. Is there a small-town critique that isn’t only defensiveness, and is this the posture of dissenting critics? The movie strives also for an overriding cultural point: We need to start bridging the gap of rural and urban, red and blue, because our commonalities as Americans are quite evident and valuable in such things as baseball games, road trips, fishing and bowling, and the gratifying and heartbreaking dynamics of nuclear families.

To me, a film like this also allows us to see our humanity shorn of illusions created by politicians promising the moon and snookering those who desperately grab onto, what appears to them, the fading American dream. Facts and stats bear it out: Urban minorities still have much more to overcome in America.  Yet a film like Small Town Wisconsin suggests that even a decent white man, with black heroes, can lose his grip and must, at some point, do something other than blame others for his apparent fate.

A final symbolic pattern surfaces: Two people, who help open Wayne’s eyes in Milwaukee, are black. A third black person, with a “halo” for a name, grew up in Milwaukee, and shows him a possible way to a new start in life.

 

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How has capitalism worked out for you? Socialism is not a dirty word. Even less so is democratic socialism.

If a political novice like Donald Trump can become president, why not give a political novice, like New York Senate primary winner Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez –  with the energy, sharp intellect and vision of youth – a chance to apply her ideas about democratic socialism? We are, after all, a democratic society. Medium

Perhaps the most naked and time-worn example of American “anti-intellectualism” is the demonizing of the word “socialism.” Even some educated and seemingly thoughtful people instinctively react as if even the scent of socialism robs them of their precious liberties.

But the freedom capitalism promises – and now delivers so pathetically to “we the people” – is to empower or enrich persons or corporations in isolation, leaving distribution of wealth up to the enriched.

Yet in the United States, a person is almost invariably part of some community, if they admit it or not. Even a hard-working farmer, living perhaps a mile away from a neighbor, is sorely dependent on an economic system that runs fairly to compensate and support his labors. This means that a socio-economic system that balances the needs of individuals, as opposed to greedy wants, with the needs of the community makes sense. Why? Because trickle-down theories of capitalism rarely actually deliver to the people, whereas a social-minded system strives to assure the individual gets back something from the communal system.

I think a more socialist-oriented America can help redirect appropriate percentages of taxes on the rich, help close the terrible income equality gap, and stimulate the economy with greater consumer-spending power. Democratic socialism can co-exist with our capitalist system, in a dialectical tension, a check and balance, if citizens and our leaders do their jobs.

Bret Stevens, a conservative New York Times opinion columnist, reacted recently with condescending, patriarchal tone to the win of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old newcomer to politics who beat out an old Democratic Party insider, Joseph Crowley, in New York’s senatorial primary, and who has captured the imagination of a lot of America. She’s a self-described “social democrat.”

Stevens then trots out examples of how a few socialist governments in Mexico and South Africa have been corrupted. In Europe, democracies have consistently strengthened or formed since World War II, based on socialist principles. But their current struggles with reactionary politics are due to mainly to massive refugee flight from wars elsewhere. The problem isn’t the democratic socialism of, for example, Germany where, despite her challenges, chancellor Angela Merkel is now, in effect, the leader of the free world, now that President Trump his virtually abdicated such a role, with his anti-allies and pro-dictatorial perversities.

His disgraceful post-Summit press conference performance beside Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday is only the latest (and perhaps the worst) example.

It’s true that any political system can be corrupted. That is why democracy can never be a spectator sport, and part of the people’s role is remain vigilant about keeping our politicians honest. And Mr. Stevens, what about the gross corruptions that capitalism has wrought, time after time after time? We live in one of the worst ever –  the reason why American people across much of the political spectrum want meaningful change, not the same old same old. 1

More in America’s societal key, Stevens sings the grindingly tired “left-center-right” song that has not an ounce of intellectual creativity in it:

“If Trump is the new Nixon, the right way to oppose him isn’t to summon the ghost of George McGovern. Try some version of Bill Clinton (minus the grossness) for a change: working-class affect, middle-class politics, upper-class aspirations.” 

First of all, Trump is proving far worse than Nixon, who at least had intelligence for political and policy nuance, and a sense of shame. And Nixon actually accomplished some policies that provided ordinary people social and economic benefit, unlike anything Trump has done. And summoning “the ghost of George McGovern” is lamely poking at a straw man.

As for what we should agree on, we do need finally “working-class affect, middle-class politics,” and even “upper-class aspirations.” Those are all things that a well-run government that functions for general societal benefit can provide, with good faith and creative collaboration. You might notice how Stevens’ historical cherry-picking ignores the historic elephant in the room, the most relevant history in modern America. Of course, that’s Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which produced the most successful and extended period of across-the-board prosperity in American history.

As John Nichols points out in his history of American socialism, Roosevelt “drew inspiration from the platforms of the Socialist party that (Eugene) Debs handed off to Norman Thomas. But Roosevelt, a lifelong reader of (Thomas) Paine quoted the pamphleteer’s fireside chats (‘So spoke Americans in the year 1776. So speak Americans today!’) borrowed at least as much from the distant revolutionary’s canon.” 2

We know that when social-minded policy is put on the table, conservatives often start bleating about profligate hand-outs to the needy. However, thinking of American farmers, Thomas Paine wrote in his pamphlet “Agrarian Justice”:

“But it is justice, and not charity, that is the principle of the plan. In all great cases it is necessary to have a principle more universally active than charity; and with respect to justice, it ought not to be left the choice of detached individuals whether they will do justice or not… It ought to be the act of the whole growing spontaneously out of the principles of the revolution, and the reputation of it ought to be national and not individual.” 3

I want to draw an arc from Thomas Paine to the New Deal more pointedly, to one of the most explicitly acclaimed examples of socialist success in American history – in Milwaukee – which Nichols details in his book. But it was a column on this very topic this week by Shepherd Express writer Joel McNally which actually inspired this blog.

The longtime journalist has also taught a class on urban history of Milwaukee at UW-Milwaukee. His column notes the swelling energy and activism begat by Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, and concisely delineates how the three consecutive Socialist mayors of Milwaukee, from 1910 to the 1960s, succeeded.

McNally explains that “there is a reason why young activists don’t consider socialism to be a scary word. They’re well-educated.” McNally then demarcates a history he taught his students, about what he calls “Milwaukee’s Socialist example.” The city’s three socialist mayors over that time were Emile Seidel (1910-1912); Daniel Hoan (1916-1940); and Frank Zeidler (1948-1960). The first, Seidel, helped clean up Mayor David Rose’s corrupt government, and Zeidler lives on as far more than a historical entity to those old enough to have witnessed his successful mayoral terms.

“But it was Hoan – the crusading socialist city attorney left standing after the 1912 purge of socialists who was elected mayor in 1916 and held the office for the next 24 years – who defined lasting contributions of Democratic Socialists to democracy itself,” McNally writes.

Socialist Milwaukee Mayor Daniel Hoan on the cover of TIME magazine in 1936. Courtesy TIME

Daniel Hoan was so successful with a socialist Milwaukee government that he was “recognized nationally for its sound financial management while expanding public employment for those out of work.” The New York Times praised Hoan in December 1931, two years after the stock market crash of 1929, for paying its bills, delivering unemployment relief to hundreds of thousands, “and at the end of the year will have about $ 4 million in the bank.”

And TIME magazine, run by conservative Republican publisher Henry Luce, put Hoan on its cover in April 1936, reporting: “Under him, Milwaukee has become perhaps the best-governed city in the US.”

McNally then describes how, despite The Democratic Party’s successful undermining of The Socialist Party, Democrat Franklin Roosevelt  “used public employment, unemployment benefits and other social safety net programs to pull the nation out of the Great Depression and become the most popular president in history.”
Lyndon Johnson’s Medicare and Medicaid,  Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act similarly are socialist programs, McNally notes.

“It’s as American as apple pie to elect a bright, new generation of Democratic Socialists. They’re fighting to preserve the American ideal of sharing the economic benefits of democracy with everyone, not just the wealthy.” 4

And we’re likely better off with more women public servants, like Ocasio-Cortez, baking America’s apple pie, because they’re often more skilled and experienced in the societal kitchen than men, and know how to slice and distribute the pies, to Make America Socially Equitable Again. How great would that America be?

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1 Bret Stevens,

“Democratic Socialism is Dem Doom,” https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/06/opinion/democratic-socialism-alexandria-ocasio-cortez.html, The New York Times, July 6, 2018

2. John Nichols, The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition… Socialism, Verso, 2011, 46

3. Nichols, quoting Thomas Paine in The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition… Socialism, 50

4. Joel McNally, Democratic Socialists Aren’t Demons; They’re Just Energized Democrats, The Shepherd Express, July 12-18, p. 10, 2018