Jonathan Rosenbaum’s 1981 Review of “Tighten Your Belts”

From The Soho News, October 6, 1981. I’m embarrassed to confess that over three decades later, I have no recollection at all about Tighten Your Belts, Bite the Bullet apart from what I wrote about it, although I’m happy to report that the film is still in distribution, and available from Icarus Films. — J.R.

September 25: Grateful as I am to see both the 48-minute Tighten Your Belts, Bite the Bullet and the 54-minute Resurgence: The Movement for Equality versus the Ku Klux Klan in one dynamite double-bill, I can’t help but wonder if the only reason why they’re shown in the above order is that the latter is six minutes longer. I bring this up only because Tighten Your Belts strikes me as conceivably the most intelligent, powerful, and informative rabble-rousing leftist film that I’ve seen in years, and can’t imagine why the festival organizers didn’t want to maximize its impact by showing it second. …

Tighten Your Belts, codirected by James Gaffney, Martin Lucas, and Jonathan Miller over four and a half years and costing a third as much as Resurgence, is a stunning example of how this work and economy can pay off in dividends. Expertly incorporating animation, live-action interviews, and other footage of diverse kinds with a good jazz score (by Nick Scarim), the film has the rare virtue of using all its materials to build a clear linear argument that progresses at every stage. Contrasting the recent fiscal crises in New York and Cleveland and the antithetical approaches taken by their mayors, the filmmakers delineate and document the capitulation of New York to the caprices of banks and the resistance of the city administration of Cleveland to corporate takeover, sparked by the forging of a broad popular front by the exciting Dennis Kucinich.

Exemplary in its clean, polemical construction, Tighten Your Belts, Bite the Bullet deftly incorporates a specific popular struggle – the 18-month campaign in Brooklyn’s Northside to keep a firehouse – into its overall argument, without succumbing to any of the temptations of a political travelogue. In other words, it means business. It sends you out of your seats making you believe that positive change is actually possible – and that if any single force finally succeeds in radicalizing the American working class, it may well be the good ole Reagan administration.

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