In the blue darkness of the West Virginia coal mines, and in the plainspoken simplicity of the men of those consuming holes, filmmaker Kenneth Fink has found an engaging way to recycle an old story.
His "Between Rock and a Hard Place," a documentary of three coal miners which airs tonight at 10 p.m. on Channel 26, returns to the harsh life of the miners, an American saga others have captured as a noble subject.
Filmmakers often have seen the miner only as victim, the object of hillbilly stereotyping, the one-dimensional rugged worker, ripped off by the mine owners, paraded out by the politicians and rewarded only by black lung. Those situations are tragic, still needing public remedies, and Fink does not ignore them.
However, in his hour-long chronicle of the life styles and hardships of McDowell County, he presents work-a-day heroes without penciling in the haloes.
The three miners, John Monroe Smith, a retired white, Coy Lee Harris, a black suffering from damaged lungs and counting his days until pension, and Hub Alger, a young white who left for the city but returned to the mines, talk about work, love, pain, money, dreams, and satisfactions. "It was brutish work, it was muscle-straining, it was back-straining, it was nasty, bad air," says Harris. Sitting on a chair in his garden, Smith looks back on his 30 years: "The young miners are a different breed, he's educated, he's not fond of hard work. The old miner was all muscle-bound. It was hard work."
But as the camera follows the working miners along the indigo walls, their faces illuminated only by the light on their hard hats, a picture of their special camaraderie emerges. They have the frank, good-natured ribbing sanctuaries like the corner barber shop. When the men shower and change, they soap up and joke, teasing a man who goes to Christian revivals, debating the existence and fame of black cowboys. As one man examines his mangled fingers, he shows a dark humor, asking, "Think I can get 2 percent out of it?"
Only a few times does the story stumble -- when Fink indulges his skilled camera in another long look at the dark insides of the mines or the black carpet of coal falling into the railroad car. But those moments are saved by the camera's intimacy with Smith, Harris and Alger.