Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Joe Hill (Bo Widerberg, 1971)


Bo Widerberg’s Joe Hill follows the history of the real-life early 20th-century activist from his arrival in America as a Swedish immigrant, through early struggles in New York, through years of itinerant labour and increasing involvement in the workers’ rights movement, to his shocking death by firing squad after a murder conviction. The film has some wonderful, light-footed passages, at its strongest when channeling formative, unstructured experiences and realizations, such as his stumbling into song as a way of getting his message across (Hill is apparently reliably credited as the source of the phrase “pie in the sky’). It skimps though on setting out the arc and substance of his political journey, allowing a few isolated sequences to represent a complex whole, and spending relatively disproportionate time on the trial and its aftermath (although the contrast between the state’s painstaking management of execution protocols and its indifference to matters of infinitely greater social importance is well-made). Like Widerberg’s Adalen 31, the film feels less radical than its subject might demand; potential anger and righteousness somewhat defused by a sensitivity to the unpredictable nature of experience and influence, to the unreliability of memory and history in prioritizing events. Joe Hill acknowledges the possibility that a martyred Hill might be worth more to the movement than a live one, but doesn’t attempt to provide any broader perspective on the validity of that judgment; the final scenes show the organization making strategic use of his ashes, but also hints at how quickly hearts and minds move on. Widerberg’s curiosity and openness are among his most appealing qualities, even if they might suggest a lack of rigour and focus; in this case, at the very least, his approach results in a very personal engagement with history and myth, leaving ample space for competing versions of Hill’s story and significance (an implied invitation not yet taken up by other filmmakers though).

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