We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

_North Country_: A decent film · 15 November 05

My dear Fanny,

I thought I’d mention I went to see North Country by myself yesterday. No Izzy. Jim won’t go to most commercial films.

I was much moved by it. The director, Niki Caro, is a New Zealander woman; the screenplay by Michael Seitzman was based on a book by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler whose subtitle tells the significance of the story the film-makers adapted: Class Action: The Story of Lois Jensen and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law.

Here is Publishers’ Weekly’s commentary on the book:

In 1997, in reversing a lower court decision, federal appellate Judge Donald Lay wrote in a sexual-harassment class-action lawsuit, Jenson v. Eveleth, "The emotional harm, brought about by this record of human indecency, sought to destroy the human psyche as well as the human spirit…. The humiliation and degradation suffered by these women is irreparable." Journalist Bingham’s (Women on the Hill: Challenging the Culture of Congress) and attorney Gansler’s deeply felt and disturbing narrative is the story of what informed Judge Lay’s decision.

In 1975, Lois Jenson became one of the first women to work in the iron mines of Minnesota and the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. Eveleth Mines was Jenson’s employer. The center of the story is the 25-year ordeal Jenson and other women miners underwent: the harshness and callousness of the abuse directed at the women in the uncivilized and misogynist atmosphere of the mine will outrage readers. The equally brutal treatment class members received in the civilized venue of the federal court system, especially by the lawyers for Eveleth, will shock them. The matter-of-fact description of Eveleth’s lawyers’ assault on Jenson’s character during a deposition that inquired about the most intimate details of her life has tremendous immediacy.

Because of the personal price the plaintiffs pay, and despite the success of the litigation, this account falls somewhere between a cautionary tale about the dangers facing those who challenge entrenched institutions and a bittersweet celebration of the ultimate effectiveness of the justice system.

The movie does not deliver a 25 year saga of distraught sordid horror, but it does tell enough of the above story and frankly to be significant. What brought tears to my eyes was the berating and humiliation of Josey Aimes (played by Charlize Theron); I sat in my seat in a state of nervous anxiety as I knew when she would go different places in the mining compound she would be subject to sudden assaults, which would come on so suddenly, she would not be ready for them, and then jeering if she at all tried to negotiate with her harasser-attacker. I recognized this from my teenage-hood. I mentioned my mother yesterday; well, Josey’s father’s disgust, sneers, and pretense (as it appeared later in the film) of incomprehension bring to mind the sort of nasty sneer I’d get from my mother when I was 13 and just gingerly tried to hint at my problems in social interaction.

I also felt a slight shock from the mean conditions. Daily work appeared to be hard and interactions between people abrasive and unnecessarily rough. Perhaps the film exaggerated this for effect. The filthy rooms the women were asked to clean up may have been allegorically shaped (so to speak).

Charlize Theron delivered another strong performance. She was not as striking as in Monster, because although Theron was clearly cast in the same "type" image, Josey Aimes was nowhere as tough, subversive, does not break taboos and certainly not half-crazed the way Aileen Wuornos is imagined to have been1. Indeed Josey is very much basically in the mould of working class ideals for women: she wants to "feed her kids," bring the boy up to be a doctor, is only "looking to make a living," no ambition, and no feminism (in the sense of seeking a life of her own beyond the ability to pay for her own space and command it). Still, the psychological baggage of the two roles is coterminous, and that is revealing. Aileen broke the entrenched idea that women are non-violent and submissive; Josey Aimes was at least not submissive. Josey would not stay with a husband who beats her (that itself does not break a taboo and shows the way the film-makers kept her acceptable and yet made her non-submissive).

The film adhered to a number of stereotypes. The father, Hank Aimes was played by Richard Jenkins (note the name, all-American male here is what it delcares—- wasn’t Henry Fonda a Hank?). Hank is gradually revealed as a silently anguished but loving father and he it is who comes through and help win the day for Josey. He stands in front of his macho-male union and enables his daughter to speak; he tells the men he is ashamed of them. A somewhat improved definition of manliness is going on here (the one found in Graham Swift’s Last Orders trumps the one exposed in Walter von Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident).

The movie ends quickly and we see so many people stand up with her in the courtroom when her lawyer, Bill White (played by Woody Harrelson) tricks and berates a witness in admitting she did not ask for sex but was raped. Apparently had she been raped, but half-coerced would she then have been thrown into a garbage bin? The final scene is of Josey and her son, Sam (now reconciled and no longer hating his mother nor—we are to commend this—the world); they leave the lawyer in an ice-hockey ring where he has been playing with the boy. He is becoming a surrogate father. She takes her son to their truck and proceeds to teach him how to drive. The first thing is to put him in the driver’s seat.

So men in charge?Not quite though as a number of the vicious ones (capitalist, boss on the floor) are made to give up the "age-old" way men and women interact. Why what has been done for a long time is valued for that reason is beyond me (as it was beyond Paine). Slavery lasted for centuries. Now human dignity and respect and courtesy will be the legal norms.

And at one point (an ever-so-slight note of quiet humor or irony), Josey’s mother, Alice Aimes (played by Sissey Spacek) actually leaves Josey’s father. She goes to stay in a motel over night. The humor was she left him a sandwich on the table. He has to come to her and we see him standing in front of her door, now considering how to approach her. Early in the movie she had told her daughter it was her duty to stay with the husband who beat her, and she had to understand it bothered this man not to have a job. The movie did bring out how women bucking the system do create a faultline of gender war. The jobs at the mining company had hitherto been all men’s.

A tonic note is set by another couple: the friend who tells Josey of the job at the mine, Glory (Frances McDormand) has a beloved and tenderly-loving husband, Kyle (Sean Bean). She contracts a fatal disease and he cares for her as a mother. According to Suzanne Juhasz, this is a male hero type of feminine romance (Reading from the Heart), from Rhett Butler to, say, Colonel Brandon (in Sense and Sensibility). Still it’s an ideal of protective sheltering manliness and partnership. Glory had been a union leader before she fell ill and comes to court (after at first refusing) to help Josey. Schmaltz, I know, but it’s a movie seeking to please, an emotion picture (as Hilton TTims in Emotion Pictures calls this subgenre).

The depiction of the difficulty and hardness of mining work was well done. Perhaps also the culture in bars among working class small town people too. A young woman who is a sexy kitten-type in the bar is at home a hard-working daughter who we see be lured into a John at the work place, only to be locked in, shaken about and then thrown down so all the urine and feces fall on her as well as the heavy metal contraption. At home she cares for a aging sick mother. And the film did capture some of the typical or real harassment women would know—even if melodramatically exaggerated after a while. It’s a joke to find a rubber penis in your lunchbox. Blow-jobs for sale written on a wall are jokes.

During the film we are led to believe the Anita Hill case on TV is going on. So we see that in the upper class world the same configurations happen. This movie-watcher remembered what happened to Hill afterwards. It took the real Josey (Lois) 25 years to be vindicated. In the public realm Hill was destroyed, and has not been vindicated. Thomas now writes cruel judgements from his seat on the court regularly.

The way a woman’s sexual reputation is what is immediately attacked was of cousre central to the piece. And how hard this is for her to live with as other people mistreat and humiliate her and those she lives with. Several scenes in public about this.

Small things I liked: how Theron said she disliked the game of hockey: it is very violent. Woody Harrelson as non-macho male. Here we did have that old brother-archetype Ronald Colman used to play. Another type from female romance turned into movies. Richard Jenkins was memorable as the father (he can do pain in the face just as well as Tom Courtney) and Sissay Spacek as the loyal mother (she’s gotten old—it happens to us
all). And the beautiful snow landscape of Minnesota was alluring (to me). Minnesota was at one time a highly progressive state and still has a strong democratic farm-laborers party.

Alas that more films do not show the world from this stance of decent justice.

I recommend the film if you haven’t seen it as yet.


1 A stunning film. Much better than North Country. Hardly any pandering to false and oppressive norms; rather they are fully exposed.

Posted by: Ellen

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  1. Hi Ellen,

    I love the look of this blog. Is it your own software? Or how does one do it (a blog, I mean)? I think I should start one, but I don’t want it to look cluttered. Yours does not. Brava—
    Laura Kennelly    Nov 15, 11:00am    #
  2. An astute review! Many thanks!
    R J Keefe    Nov 15, 11:07am    #
  3. Dear Laura,

    It’s not our own software. Jim set it up using a free sofware package he found on the Net whose configuration he liked.

    You’re right: it’s uncluttered. No ads at all. We’re not inclined to imitate or use the kind of distracting overload of information and movement (flash, noise, over highlighting and emphases) which are so common in media outside the Net and has begun to become common here.

    You’d have to email Jim for instructions. Just click on the "contact … Jim" on the lefthand side.

    Chava    Nov 16, 7:53am    #
  4. Dear RJ,

    Thanks. Next one up is the latest P&P!

    Chava    Nov 16, 8:04am    #

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