Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags -- Film Review

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TORONTO -- Documentarian Marc Levin, who is best known for his feature debut, "Slam" (1998), is back in Toronto with "Schmatta" (which means "rags" in Yiddish), an HBO documentary on the rise and fall of the garment district and the fashion industry in New York City. Some of the colorful ethnic characters that populate the film say moderately lively things from time to time, but mostly it's standard-issue talking heads and archival footage. Levin and the heads bewail the fact that the American textile industry is a shadow of its former self, because all the jobs have gone overseas, but they rarely go beyond lamentation of the obvious toward more in-depth analysis or the proposal of possible solutions.

On a historical level, "Schmatta" documents the famous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, which was the worst industrial fire in New York City history, and then later directly links this tragedy with a more recent one in a Bangladesh sweatshop. Levin wears his pro-union heart on his sleeve, which is perfectly fine, but as this film makes clear, sometimes knee-jerk political views can impede the saying of anything new.

The director zips through all the decades in between the two fires, discussing such different phenomena as the advent of the big box stores and their impact on the marketing of clothing, the blatant use of sexual innuendo in Ralph Lauren's advertising, and the rise of celebrity culture. Alas, little of this will come as big news to most of HBO's viewers.