TV Preview

TV Preview: Hank Stuever examines the HBO Documentary 'Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags'

AFTER THE FIRE: New York mourns victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory blaze in 1911. HBO's "Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags" draws parallels to the greed and indifference of our era.
AFTER THE FIRE: New York mourns victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory blaze in 1911. HBO's "Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags" draws parallels to the greed and indifference of our era. (Kheel Center)
By Hank Stuever
Monday, October 19, 2009

"Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags" is an almost minute-for-minute example of what viewers have come to expect from the perfectly sewn style of an HBO documentary. In this case the clothes on your back, which almost certainly were made in Asia or perhaps Latin America, are supposed to give you yet another cross to bear.

That your clothes are no different than the clothes seen an hour later on Vinny Chase and the boys and girls of "Entourage," or like the zipper sweaters seen on Larry David and other schlubs in "Curb Your Enthusiasm," is, well, immaterial. When not delivering Emmy-winning scripted programs about vampires, angsty celebs and polygamous Mormons, the premium network's sense of documentary noblesse oblige now occupies a niche once dominated by viewer-supported public television.

Contradictions be damned and bully for HBO. Unhampered by any calibrated notion of political balance that occasionally bites at PBS's hindquarters (and thereby leavens its programming choices), HBO concentrates very hard on funding and distributing the films that preach to that left-leaning choir. Lately the focus has been on the economy -- and correctly so. As with last month's "Last Truck," an elegiac narrative about the closing of a GM plant in Ohio, "Schmatta" is a pro-labor tone poem about the defenestrating effects of corporate-driven shopaholism on the American middle class.

The only problem is knowing the choir too well, and while watching these films, the viewer's head gets a little tired from nodding in assent. Anyone can sense exactly where "Schmatta" (directed by Marc Levin) is headed the minute it begins with a wistful gaze at the machines a-whir in a New York textile factory backed by strains of Aaron Copland. A lot of time is spent paying homage to the hardworking Italians and Jews who built the Garment District into the city's largest industry and thereby lifted their descendants into the middle and upper classes, primarily thanks to unionization.

Even though "Schmatta" is filled with terrific interviews and fascinating historical footage ("Mad Men" fans should tune in for still more mid-century fashion fetishizing), there's an almost tiresome format to it.

A noble circle is drawn from Manhattan's Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 to a similar tragedy in Bangladesh in 2000, in which underpaid, unorganized seamstresses met their doom in a burning factory.

In 1965, 95 percent of clothing bought and worn by Americans was made in the United States. Now it's about 5 percent. That leads to "Schmatta's" central question: What happened to us? "The garment industry is a microcosm of everything going on in this country," lifelong textile cutter and union leader Joe Raico tells the camera, on what is to be his last day of work after 42 years in the business. "We don't produce anymore. We're giving it all away. What happened?"

Certain enemies are identified, who really aren't given much of chance to speak for themselves, largely because they are corporately abstract: Wal-Mart, of course, is a biggie. Don't forget China, NAFTA, the rise of the celebrity designer in the 1970s, the Reagan '80s, Ralph Lauren, the shift from textile-making to image-making and a present-day $290 billion spent of fashion advertising.

Finally "Schmatta" fixes its gaze on you, shopper.

The documentary is far more intriguing in its middle third, when Levin (whose previous HBO doc, "Protocols of Zion," explored the resurgence of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories after 9/11) interviews white-collar workers in Manhattan who've also seen their jobs disappear in the great Garment District die-off. These include designers, creative directors and even Sigrid Olsen, whose entire label went under in 2008, in part because of the same bottom-line mania that killed the American textile market.

They all talk about the relentless race to the bottom -- the pressure from above to make clothes cheaply in a way that paradoxically drove designer-label prices through the roof.

"When I was at Ralph, I was working on jeans [that would sell] for $750," recalls technical designer Regina DeCorte, one of many fashion workers now out of a job. "How do you make a jean for $750, I mean, even me, I was like, how do you that? . . . Even if it had Cher's fingerprint on it or something, how do you make it [cost] $750? Well, you develop the denim using organic yarn, cotton that wasn't treated with insecticides, grown under strict conditions. You cut that denim in Hong Kong, then you ship it on over to India for hand-embroidery, then you add a little purse, also handmade, then you ship it back to Hong Kong, because they don't trust India to close it . . . then they ship it on over to us again. That's how you make a jean for $750. Oh yeah, and you also market it correctly."

"Schmatta" stitches together a well-stated argument, but each time HBO unrolls one of these common-man documentaries, I can't help but remind myself how expensive my cable bill is. For a fashionista to truly feel the pain of the forgotten New York garment worker, she or he needs to pony up for basic-plus-premium-On-Demand. And as with "Last Truck," I wonder: Is documentary film among the last American-made goods?

Schmatta: From Rags to Riches to Rags (76 minutes) airs Monday at 9 p.m. on HBO.

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