Waste Flix

Waste haulers have been depicted in more feature films and television shows than you may think — and the record is a decidedly mixed one.

The Three Stooges never played garbage men, although the Stooges sometimes lived at the city dump during the Depression, and [Charlie] Chaplin was momentarily a street sweeper.

The waste industry, at least as depicted by Hollywood, lately has been receiving a bad reputation. Frequently associated with crime, the most recent portrayal of the solid waste business is that of a New Jersey mob family — Italians, of course — in the HBO TV series “The Sopranos.” One of the Soprano's businesses is Barone Brothers Sanitation. Barone rhymes with Carbone, the New Jersey hauler that was a party in the 1994 Supreme Court case C & A Carbone v. Clarkstown, which held that flow control was unconstitutional.

The Sopranos are not larger-than-life figures like the Corleones in “The Godfather” movies. Instead, Tony Soprano goes to a shrink, struggles with his business and his teenage daughter, and tries to accept the fact that his mother wants to kill him.

In the June 2000 Waste Age, columnist Chaz Miller complained that this mob's association with the waste industry was a caricature, “dredged up, probably because the show's writers were too lazy.” And yet, at times, the writers also seem to go out of their way to show connections to the real-life waste industry, such as when one of the characters reads waste publications to try to understand flow control restrictions.

Another instance of this supposed association between solid waste and crime popped up in the last episode of ABC's “Spin City” 1999-2000 season. Michael J. Fox, playing the deputy mayor of New York City, was leaving the series to battle Parkinson's Disease. To write him out of the series, the show's writers had the dim-witted mayor give the city's garbage contract to a staffer's boyfriend, who also is a mobster. The deputy mayor takes the fall for the mayor, resigns, and leaves his job, the city and the series.

This, unfortunately, flew in the face of reality. While the waste industry in New York City and New Jersey has been plagued with corruption, prosecutors and waste haulers have driven the cartel out of the city and state. Also, residential solid waste in New York City is collected by the city, so there is no contract to award.

Fortunately, the overall portrayal of the waste industry in movies and television is slightly more complex than that shown in “The Sopranos” and “Spin City.” While the most recent films' depictions are prominent, our industry has a history of being on screen.

Collectively, these films and television shows help form a substantial part of the public's perception of the industry. (All the films discussed here either are or have been available on VHS tapes or DVD, unless noted).

Garbage Man as Savant

Perhaps the first portrayal of waste haulers in a U.S. film was “Ham at the Garbage Gentleman's Ball” (Kalem Studios, 1915), which was part of a series of Ham and Bud films starring slapstick comics Bud Duncan and Lloyd Hamilton.

In the 1938 British film “Pygmalion,” directed by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, and based on George Bernard Shaw's 1913 play, Alfred Doolittle provides one of the first glimpses of what would become a typical film depiction of the waste hauler. The play and film provided the basis for the musical “My Fair Lady,” which received the 1964 Academy Award for best picture.

Doolittle is the father of Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower girl to whom Professor Higgins teaches “proper” English so he can pass her off as a “lady.” Eliza's father is a dustman — the British term for a garbage man — and a drunken and lazy one at that.

In the musical, the garbage man sings, “with a little bit of luck, someone else will do the blinkin' work.” On meeting Eliza's father, and amused by the adroit way he cons him out of money, Higgins whimsically recommends Doolittle to an American millionaire who is looking for an “original moral thinker” for a lecture tour.

Toward the end of the play and film, Doolittle returns, wealthy from his lecture tour and angry at Higgins because affluence has forced him to marry the woman he has been living with. The irony here is the idea of a garbage man as an original thinker.

This conceit of the genius hiding under the grubby exterior of a garbage man was repeated 60 years later in the 1998 independent film “Henry Fool,” written and directed by Hal Hartley. In this film, Simon Grim, a shy New York City garbage man, meets a stranger who encourages him to write poetry. Simon, much like a savant, in one night produces an enormous, although evidently obscene, epic poem and later wins the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Critically praised, the film is a strange odyssey into the dark night of lost and tortured souls, complete with projectile vomiting, spousal abuse and murder. (For the record, Waste Age supplied magazines as props for the movie, which can be glimpsed on a newsstand in one scene, although Waste Age is not sold on newsstands.)

Tony Danza played a different type of garbage man/savant in the 1998 Disney made-for-TV film “The Garbage Picking, Field Goal Kicking Philadelphia Phenomenon.” Rather than being a poet or original thinker, he kicks field goals so well he is recruited by the Philadelphia Eagles. But he continues working his route.

A garbage man who is not a genius but a more believable human being is Roc in the Fox 1991-’94 TV series of the same name. The actor Charles Dutton played Roc Emerson, a Baltimore municipal trash collector, who lives with his wife, his father and his freeloading brother. Much like Jackie Gleason's character Ralph Kramden in the early 1950s, on whom Dutton said he modeled some of his portrayal, Roc dreams of success and so achieves a certain nobility.

Liking the idea of playing a garbage man in the city where he grew up, Dutton went to Baltimore, talked to two city employees to get a sense of their jobs, and hired one — John Wood, who even resembled Dutton — as a technical consultant on the series. Dutton won the “Image Award” from the NAACP in 1993 for his portrayal of Roc. The series is still being shown in syndication.

Crime and Comedy

Often, landfills in movies and television are associated with crime. For example, the grisly discovery of a body in a landfill is the opening of Paramount's 1992 film “Jennifer 8,” starring Andy Garcia, Uma Thurman and Lance Hendriksen.

In the 1994 remake of Sam Peckingpah's 1972 film “The Getaway,” directed by Roger Donaldson, actors Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin are bank robbers on the lam who hide in a dumpster and are subsequently dumped in a landfill.

In the 1991 black comedy “Nothing But Trouble,” written and directed by Dan Aykroyd, and starring Chevy Chase and Demi Moore, the activities of a larcenous and murderous judge occur in an old Gothic mansion set in the middle of a vast waste dump resting atop an abandoned, burning coal mine. Residents of the dump are two mutant toddlers swaddled in billows of fat.

In the movies, the owners of waste facilities, like the judge in “Nothing But Trouble,” usually are portrayed as villains. In 1995's “3 Ninjas Knuckleup,” the second sequel to the 3 Ninjas film about martial-arts-skilled children, the heroes help American Indians save their land from a corrupt landfill operator.

Promoted as “another ‘Dumb and Dumber,’” “The Garbage Man” (1996, directed by Giorgio Serafina), stars Frank Stallone, Sylvester's brother, and Joe Estevez.

And, just for the record, a television projection of the waste hauler of the future was NBC's 1978 “Quark,” starring Richard Benjamin as Adam Quark, captain of an intergalactic garbage scow, and created by Buck Henry, co-creator of the TV spy spoof “Get Smart” (1966-70) and screenwriter for “The Graduate” (1968). “Quark” was a take-off of the 1977 film “Star Wars” and ran from Feb. 24 to April 14, 1978.

Aside from Bud and Ham in 1915, the great film comedians — Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Martin and Lewis, The Three Stooges — never played garbage men, although the Stooges sometimes lived at the city dump during the Depression and Chaplin was momentarily a street sweeper in 1931's “City Lights.”

Instead, these comics took the parts of plumbers and painters, firemen and boxers. It was all right for them to fling paint and douse each other with water, but flinging garbage at one another or falling into a pile of garbage rather than a mudhole was thought to be too “real.”

This changed in the 1990 “buddy” comedy “Men at Work,” starring real-life brothers Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez, who directed and wrote the screenplay. Carl and James are haulers, but they're intellectual, baby-boomer, surfing garbage men who care about the community and the environment.

The plot thickens when a company named Chemlife is dumping leaky drums of toxic waste into the ocean and murders the city councilman who wants to blow the whistle. The hit men put the body into a toxic-waste drum and place that in the trunk of their car, but it rolls out and is picked up by the garbage men.

Because Carl and James had shot the man in the fanny with a pellet gun the night before, they think they may be implicated in his death and set out to hide the body and solve the crime. They also end up exposing Chemlife's criminal activity.

This depiction of waste haulers so offended Richard Kahlenberg that he wrote in the Sept. 13, 1990 Los Angeles Times: “Maybe it wouldn't have ‘played’ if the garbage team hadn't included the obligatory psychotic Vietnam vet and instead had a grandma with a magna cum laude in history, such as the Ventura County Solid Waste Management Department's Pandee Leachman, a waste management analyst. Maybe the characters played by Sheen and Estevez in the movie are easier to relate to because they're bumblers — unlike the brainy folks I know at the waste management offices in the city and county of Ventura.” Kahlenberg then proceeded to extol real-life, hardworking people in the industry.

Juveniles and Journeys

The solid waste industry has been the focus of at least three educational films for children. In “There Goes a Garbage Truck” (A Vision, 1997), hosts Becky and Dave go behind the scenes in the industry, getting up close and personal with collection trucks, then visiting a recycling plant, all courtesy of the Pasadena, Calif., Public Works Department. Part of the “There Goes a —” series that also covers fire trucks, spaceships and dump trucks, the film was considered enjoyable and instructional by some, and less so by others — Becky is dumped from a dumpster, Dave locks her in a trash can, and a garbage truck goes out of control.

“Where Does the Garbage Go?” (TNT Media Group, 2000), illustrates the path of garbage from collection pickup to the landfill by following Waste Management Inc. vehicles. The trip passes recycling conveyor belts and wood chippers and is set to a disco, techno-pop soundtrack. This film was awarded the 2000 Bur-bank International Children's Film Fest Award for best educational short.

In “Garbage Day” (1994, Big Kids Video), “Gus the Garbage Man” takes a boy and his dad to work with him for a day. He shows them many different trucks and where the trash is emptied. The film, which also discusses recycling, was a 1994 Parents' Choice Recommendation.

Two recent independent films that were distributed about the same time — neither of which are currently available on video — use waste industry topics as backdrops for quixotic odysseys.

In “Garbage” (1995, directed by Peter Byck), Jimmy is a musician and janitor who sweeps up in a church in Louisville, Ky., and dreams of being a rock star. He leaves town in search of musical success, taking his electric guitar and his friend Bob, a documentary film-maker making a movie about America's garbage crisis.

On their journey, Bob finds problems with waste everywhere he looks, from an overflowing landfill to what he calls “the poo-poo choo-choo,” a train transporting sludge. In Russell Springs, Ky., he finds people talking about the Fruit of the Loom plant's disposal of waste into Lake Cumberland. In Nashville, he meets people who oppose the city's plans for a landfill next to an Indian burial site. In Memphis, the two are befriended by an Elvis impersonator and a young woman named Lisa Marie. While they are there, Bob meets sanitation workers who honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in Memphis when he visited the city in 1968 to support the workers' efforts to unionize.

The film compares wasted lives with waste vehicles and facilities. There is a scene in which two solid waste haulers discuss the dreams they've abandoned as they make their rounds. “Garbage” won a top award at the 1996 South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. In fact, it took the award for best documentary, a curious choice given the fact that its main characters are fictional. Byck calls the movie “fictional non-fiction” and blends the two genres.

In “Fresh Kills” (1996, directed by Shu Lea Cheang), Mimi Mayakovsky, host of a Staten Island public-access talk show, speaks out against the immense Fresh Kills landfill on the island. Soon, someone notices that a huge fish on a restaurant counter emits a phosphorescent glow. The main characters are a lesbian couple that interacts with their dysfunctional “family.”

Hollywood's view of the waste profession has been that of the garbage man as savant, as a “dumb and dumber” entertainer, and maybe one or two earnest portrayals such as “Roc.” Other professions and industries have fared better. The interstate trucker was portrayed nobly and even heroically in 1940's “They Drive by Night,” starring Humphrey Bogart and George Raft, as were steel workers in “Steel” (World Northal, 1980), starring Lee Majors, and “Heart of Steel” (1983), starring Peter Strauss. Even milkmen and Fuller brush salespeople were the subject of good-natured comedies: “The Milkman” (Universal, 1950), starring Jimmy Durante and Donald O'Connor; “The Fuller Brush Man” (Columbia, 1948), starring Red Skelton; and “The Fuller Brush Girl” (Columbia, 1950), starring Lucille Ball.

The waste industry appears to be still awaiting its best portrayal.

Contributing Editor John T. Aquino is the former editor-in-chief/publishing director for Waste Age Publications. He currently is an attorney, writer and publishing consultant based in Washington, D.C.


In addition to feature films or shorts, documentaries are another film depiction of waste-related issues. Here is a selected list:

  • “Creators of the Future: Intimate Strangers: Unseen Life on Earth,” Public Broadcasting System, 1999. This film describes “supermicrobes,” which have survived radiation poisoning caused by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and can possibly be harnessed to fight disease. It includes a segment featuring the Columbia County's (Ga.) Baker Place Road Landfill.

  • “Danger at the Beach,” National Audubon Society special, broadcast on New York Channel 13 and other Public Television stations, 1991. This film uses the “medical waste” found on New Jersey beaches as its jumping off point.

  • “Down in the Dumps: America's Garbage Crisis,” Ken Day, producer, Maryland Public Television, 1993. This documentary won a 1993 Washington, D.C. local Emmy Award as best local documentary and a 1997 CINE Golden Eagle, awarded by the Chicago International Film Festival judges.

  • “Harvesting the City: The Wonders of Garbage,” National/Canadian Broadcasting Corporation News. This documentary won the 1997 Hot Docs award as the best science/technology/environment documentary.

  • “Modern Marvels: Garbage,” produced in February 2000 by the History Channel and available from A&E Home Video. This one-hour documentary traces the history of disposal and looks at the controversies surrounding trash. Garbologists, scientists, sanitation workers, and government officials share their opinions and insights while footage shows how everything from massive landfills to modern recycling centers work.

  • “The People's Planet,” a six-part CNN news special about consumption, waste and the environment, aired Fall 2000.