by Doug Eisenstark
Cut, no. 29, February 1984, pp. 8-9
For those of us who have trouble balancing our checkbooks, much less keeping some money in them, TIGHTEN YOUR BELTS, BITE THE BULLET, directed by Martin Lucas, James Gaffeney, and Jonathan Miller, seems to take on a monumental task. The film describes and analyzes the economic troubles faced by two U.S. cities, Cleveland and New York. Everyday the newspapers and television scream about the latest budget cuts, service cuts, and unions’ "unrealistic" demands. By utilizing a straightforward Marxist analysis, the film looks behind the dominant media's mystifications and scare tactics about these issues. Through TIGHTEN YOUR BELTS we are informed and educated about the fiscal collapse of New York City and Cleveland. Politicians, business executives, a seemingly populist mayor in Cleveland, and local organizing efforts in Brooklyn all form a dynamic relation with one another within the film. The film shows us the challenges of fighting a reactionary administration; the limits of progressive leadership within a bourgeois democracy; and the struggles, direct action, and organizing within communities.
TIGHTEN YOUR BELTS' form follows the traditional limits of documentary filmmaking. The film abounds in the use of irony and humor to drive home points that otherwise might be simply depressing. Narration ties historical facts to the current events pictured. Simple animation clearly and economically describes the complex history of immigrant populations who became a vital force in the U.S. workplace and unions. Sync sound and interviews are used well within the film; however, cutaways are sometimes awkward.
TIGHTEN YOUR BELTS looks closely at how cutbacks forced the closing of daycare centers, firehouses, health clinics and hospitals in the New York City area. Interviews with doctors reveal a great deal of bitterness as the doctors point out that the hospitals most affected are in the poorest sections of the city. These hospitals have always been understaffed and underfunded, and cutbacks only make a bad situation worse and create a danger to all patients. Financially poor citizens usually seek medical attention only in emergencies, so emergency and immediate medical treatment in hospitals in poor areas is crucial. With cutbacks, overloads in a hospital often necessitate transferring a patient to another hospital. Yet this increasingly common practice can be fatal. A few years after Gouverneir Hospital was built (through years of community pressure), in-patient service there on the Lower East Side of Manhattan was closed. Designed to handle 125,000 patients a year, the hospital actually had provided service to 380,000 people in 1975. Similarly, Harlem Hospital in Manhattan receives a new patient every 8 minutes. Thus the closing of one bed in a hospital anywhere in the city means that Harlem Hospital (which is also threatened by cutbacks) must run at above a 100% crisis level twenty-four hours a day all year long.
Daycare facilities, vital to a working community, also face increasing pressure. TIGHTEN YOUR BELTS interviews a daycare worker who points out that without financial assistance from the city, her center runs on a hand to mouth basis from contributions from the families involved. They can ill afford added expenses.
Missing from the description of cutbacks is an analysis of the role and position of the numerous labor unions, including public employees. Perhaps the filmmakers felt that such a discussion — with its many contradictions about labor leadership, rank and file issues, and the role of unions — could not be done justice to in the relatively short span of the film. The absent organized labor viewpoint may even deserve a full-length film of its own. Ironically, labor groups (perhaps because they are not critiqued) have been a major source of support for the film, through screenings and sales of prints.
TIGHTEN YOUR BELTS shows us that the manipulation of bonds by the city's largest banks caused New York City's near bankruptcy in the late 1970s. At the same time that corporations received large tax abatements (reductions or exemptions in taxes), banks that had loaned the city money threatened to foreclose on the city government. The same banks then demanded control over the city's governing process. Eventually two private review boards made up of the city's most influential corporate members took control of many governmental decisions through the MAC and BIG MAC review boards. In the words of David Gordon, interviewed in TIGHTEN YOUR BELTS,
While most Americans would agree that "anything can happen” in New York, we see that any city can become a victim of a capitalist disease called “fiscal crisis," when the film turns to Cleveland, Ohio. It had many of the same circumstances as New York but the results were much different. When Cleveland banks withdrew support for the city, Mayor Dennis Kucinich refused to ransom the publicly owned Municipal Power and Light Company. Behind his decision stood the people of Cleveland, who supported him at the ballot boxes in elections and referendums.
Kucinich comes off admirably in the film, especially when one considers the ridicule he was subjected to through the local and national media. Audiences might feel, as I did, confused when Kucinich is shown to be articulate and clear about his ideas and ideals. After numerous recall and regular votes, he was later defeated in Mayoral elections. He won his initial victory by a margin of only a few percentage points and lost later by a narrow margin, despite continual attack by the Ohio media and the loss of support by the Democratic Party.
A humorous section of the film shows the Cleveland media reporting the fiscal crisis. In a live newscast an anchor person turns dramatically to Kucinich and says, “The ball is squarely in your court, Mr. Mayor." Kucinich's answer is pointed:
At a black church service, Kucinich outlines the city's crisis in the moral terms of good and evil. TIGHTEN YOUR BELTS emphasizes his speech with a cutaway montage of the city, showing people shopping and working. Kucinich stresses the inherent racism in the city cutbacks and loss of public control of city services. The church sequence merges with a scene of Kucinich at a polka dance. The two sections emphasize the similarities rather than any conflicts in working class culture in the black and white communities.
Later Kucinich is shown with members of the community withdrawing their money from the banks which had put the financial squeeze on Cleveland. But we also feel ambivalence. Although Kucinich might be an exceptionally progressive politician, subsequent events find Cleveland in default and Kucinich eventually defeated at the polls.
In contrast to the high drama of the ruling class, the film also looks at a smaller community that was able to successfully resist budget cuts. When cutbacks closed the local firehouse in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, firemen and local residents occupied the facility. After eighteen months of organizing, the firehouse finally reopened. Those involved knew the area was being "redlined" by the banks for future development and thus had become prime for arson-for-profit. One wishes that the filmmakers could document more fully the complicity of the banks, developers and city management in this neighborhood. In any case, the actions that the local residents took (including blocking the Brooklyn Bridge) catalyzed the neighborhood to reclaim pride in the area that many had lived in all of their lives. It was just one example of a community which refused to give in to the demands of banks and corporations as they threaten to destroy U.S. cities for their own profit.
I expect that the filmmakers, while working on a film for over three years, might have been afraid that its content would be obsolete or of only passing interest once completed. However, since capitalism has a way of nourishing continual fiscal crisis, the film is as applicable today as when it was first tossed around as an idea. The film tells us how industry has moved out of the traditional manufacturing areas to cities in the South and West and to other countries. These new industrial cities and their municipal governments have too often responded to their own fiscal problems by looking towards New York's Big MAC model as a way to temporarily prop up industrial capitalism. The process that TIGHTEN YOUR BELTS, BITE THE BULLET describes, the inevitable instability of the capitalist marketplace, the self-interest of the banks and their politicians — is even more acute under Reaganomics. In many ways the New York experience of turning public services and decision-making over to an elite of bankers and businessmen has represented the start of a national fiscal policy.
TIGHTEN YOUR BELTS, BITE THE BULLET is distributed by Icarus Films, 200 Park Avenue South, Room 1319, New York, N.Y. 10003 (212/674-3375).