We Know We Work Really Hard
“Want any lemonade?” Alan Fromm is on the sidewalk in his neighborhood, phone to his ear, the camera crew for Hard Times: Lost on Long Island tracking his movement. When he comes on a pair of kids at the end of their driveway, a pitcher and plastic cups at the ready, he smiles and buys a drink, then keeps moving. Their enterprise is admirable, yes. It’s also a bit of grim punctuation for his own situation, namely, unemployed.
Fromm lives in Levittown in Nassau County—where, the film narrates, the “suburban dream was born”—with his wife Susan. A corporate trainer, he’s philosophical about losing his job, as unexpected and as daunting as it was, noting the “things in my life that have helped me put this unemployment into perspective. I was struck by lightning when I was 15,” he says, “I had heart trouble when I was 21.” And he was in the World Trade Center when it was bombed in 1993 and then again when it collapsed in 2001. “You put all this stuff into perspective,” he says, “and it could be a lot worse. It’s not the end of the world.”
Fromm’s outlook is admirable, like that of the lemonade vendors. But it’s hard to maintain: he admits being depressed sometimes and relies on his family for emotional support (he explains that when he feels especially down, he rereads a letter from his daughter, including the observation that he’s not to blame: “We don’t know why bad things happen to good people”). His struggle and his spirit are typical of the interviewees in Marc Levin’s documentary, which makes visible victims of the recession who tend not to be visible. The four couples here represent a particular set of the 25 million Americans who remain unemployed or underemployed since the recession supposedly ended in the summer of 2009. White people with graduate degrees and careers in finance and management, teaching and doctoring, they never thought this life. Digging into their savings helps for a short term, but soon their houses are going into foreclosure and their American dreams are dissolving.
The Fromms meet with the Puccios, Nick and Regina (who met at Lehman Brothers), at a local diner, where they discuss their prospects or, more often, their lack of prospects. “I got turned down by FedEx to drive a truck for the holidays,” Fromm reveals, the camera cutting from one worried face to another. “They said I was overqualified.” It’s a problem that comes up repeatedly, along with others, increasingly absurd, like notices for jobs asking that applicants be employed. Ralph Morrison, an unemployed off-track betting manager, draws a bright red line around a broader picture, namely, “The middle class is not in the middle anymore.” Twenty years ago, he started working a job for $30,000 a year; now, he’s applying for (and not getting) jobs that pay the same.
The film offers beautifully composed, achingly resonant portraits, in order to focus on the economic and emotional effects of such ongoing defeat, the sense of what one jobseeker calls “prolonged employment uncertainty.” It’s difficult not to absorb the judgments hurled daily by cable TV and talk-radio opinionators, that they’re part of a “moocher class,” that they’re lazy, that they’re not looking hard enough for work. “Being unemployed for two years is not just a financial loss, it’s an emotional loss,” says Anne Strauss. “It’s a loss of friendships, people disappear, you can’t socialize. It changes every facet of your life.”
Hard Times presents some of these facets. Dave and Heather Hartstein are raising three small children, including one who was diagnosed with Down Syndrome on the day that she learned she lost her job as a third grade teacher. “You think you’re the only one,” she says, until a neighbor lets slip that he’s facing the same difficult choice, whether to feed the kids or pay the mortgage in a given month. Dave is a chiropractor, and he and Heather look back on how they spent “so much money on schooling and getting so highly educated,” seeing now how quickly it doesn’t matter. “For about 15 years, we were kind of like that couple where everything is picture perfect,” she says sadly over a shot that illustrates, “right down to the white picket fence.”
That image now haunts them, as it haunts Anne Strauss, who laments that it was easier to get help from family and friends when her husband Mel had cancer. “But when you’ve got this scary, no-money, going down the tubes situation,” she adds, “people, I think, are more afraid this could happen to me. Having cancer was easier than being unemployed.”
Now 65, Mel relocates to upstate New York, moving in with Anne’s son, in order to work some 12 hours a day as a mortgage broker. “I’m not going to be running around for another 30 or 40 years,” he observes. He’s framed at a medium distance, eating dinner from a cup on his couch, remote control unused on the coffee table before him. “I don’t have much more time. I don’t want to die on Route 78 going to Saratoga Springs.”
Mel’s mix of feelings, his sense of grief and exasperation, depression and defiance, is typical of the interview subjects in Hard Times. As they speak, the film shows them gazing steadily at the camera or looking off, the spaces around them empty. Shots that resemble still lifes show bills laid out on desks, swings without children, lawns overgrown, and “For Sale” signs posted. Shot through doorways, with youthful family portraits on tables behind them or prescription pill bottles before them, they ponder futures they “never imagined.”