The Same Gestures at Different Speeds
Work and Pleasure at the Movies
by John Carnahan
"You've got a job to do, and you do it well," Paul McCartney croons over the title sequence for the James Bond adventure Live and Let Die. That open "you" is a rare cameo for the James Bond audience. Like us, James Bond has a job to do. After forty-odd years he's still a toiler with no family or hobbies, just endless errands for a boss who barely thanks him for saving the world. We however can see how hard Bond tries. We, too, bask in the job well done and the big night afterwards. The Bond series is less an escape from work than a mask for it. To see ourselves as daredevil loners with everything riding on the latest assignment is a kind of hard truth. If we accept that cops, gangsters, and spies are basically jobbers, then movies are filled with masked work. We will watch a criminal cracking a safe much longer than we will watch a clerk filling out a overdue spreadsheet even though the same sums may be at stake. Yet the former is plainly catharsis for the latter—movie night carnivalizes job day.
Below the aristocracy of Bonds and Dirty Harrys, the cinema labor pool includes some more plausible saviors: underdog lawyers, teachers, doctors, priests, crusading journalists, suffering artists, never-say-die entrepreneurs. These heroes are independent and morally motivated, romantic paladins facing realistic opponents. Films like To Kill a Mockingbird or The Wild Child have probably recruited millions into the helping professions. (If you're already there, the two films just mentioned will make you think twice about quitting criminal law or teaching, respectively.)
A well-stocked video store is a museum of the rise and fall of noble callings. Up to the 1950s, farm families were glorified in films like Wild Harvest (wheat), The Southerner (cotton), Bright Leaf (tobacco) and The Grapes of Wrath (still the best film about migrant labor). Today the small farmer is an underground man growing pot, in 1998's well-cast Homegrown (John Lithgow, Kelly Lynch, Billy Bob Thornton) or 1992's indy-shaggy The Moneytree (much closer to the life it's about). Doctor Kildare now makes house calls, only via television. He's been replaced by the fairy-godfather psychiatrist in films like Ordinary People, Awakenings [Oliver Sacks is actually a neurologist], and Good Will Hunting. Anguished clergy have become rare, with Robert Duvall's The Apostle (1997) as a great exception. The priest's halo has shifted to the teacher, whose selflessness and skill (Goodbye, Mr. Chips; To Sir with Love) now earns martyrdom (Dead Poets Society, the extremely masochistic 187). The heroes of noble calling movies have ordeals, not adventures. An exception is Nobuko Miyamoto in the roles created by her late husband, Juzo Itami. The cook in Tampopo, the tax investigator in A Taxing Woman and A Taxing Woman's Return, and the lawyer in Minbo are screen rarities: cheerful women who love their jobs, win or lose, with no Prince Charming in sight. Start with A Taxing Woman (1987), which sympathizes with both Miyamoto and the adult-motel kingpin her audit will ruin.
But we can't all have noble callings, can we? Survival work has been best filmed by movie leftists under the vows of documentary, realism, and analysis. Dziga Vertov's 1928 silent Man with a Movie Camera may be the happiest, least rhetorical documentary ever made. His Cinema-Eye Collective gathered images of public life (work and play, but also abject homelessness) from the new USSR and spliced them together, so quickly that MTV's hacks would gasp for breath yet so well-timed that no clip feels incomplete.Movie Camera is a collage of humanity creating itself through labor. A stage magician performs tricks for children, cut with a hairdresser giving a shampoo cut and a foundry worker pouring steel—all three make something out of nothing; it's all (not) magic. Editing turns the repetitive motions of a box packer and a traffic cop into a dance over Vertov's experimental Loony Tunes soundtrack, scored for orchestra, factory whistle, and cowbell. You dance along with this movie and almost forget that it comes from the first Five Year Plan.
While Vertov's slogan was "reality, not realism," Ermanno Olmi's 1962 Il Posto shows how a realist narrative can collapse the distance between viewer and subject. Olmi filmed his autobiographical story on weekends inside the Milan offices of Edison Electric where he had worked since adolescence, using an amateur cast that included laid-off clerks from the local unemployment office. Olmi's adolescent hero, played by Sandro Panseri, goes to sleep a student and wakes up to the desk job he's meant to have for the rest of his life. Clerical work in postwar Italy was poorly paid but extremely secure, which makes the Edison offices "like a village" (as Olmi remarks on the Criterion DVD) where all the stages of life are bent over the same tasks. Panseri is finding his bearings in this world and just beginning to sense that he'll never leave it. His new village is sometimes funny, sad, or Kafkaesque, but mostly indifferent, a fact of life. The movie often abandons Panseri to gaze curiously at his older co-workers. At home, the quiet loner nobody likes is writing a novel; a fat-necked tough guy sings opera in a bar; a devil-faced, eccentric old man with a cigarette holder sits in a plush chair he seems unable to leave. We glimpse them but we never figure them out; Panseri is still innocent of quick judgements and so is Olmi's camera. Olmi insists that Il Posto is too realistic to be compared to Italian classics like The Bicycle Thief, with their professional actors and calculated dramatic arcs. He may be right. Il Posto takes realist fiction to its limits.
For Jean-Luc Godard, workplace reality includes playacting and media noise. His characters may suddenly burst into arias or act out scenes from Westerns. Odd bits of Madison Avenue and cinema-verité form a series of koans, disorienting until we accept them, then very orienting in a you-are-here way. Many of Godard's riddles test the antithesis between work and life. Jerzy Radziwilowicz, as the Godard-surrogate film director in 1982's Passion, shoots living tableaus of paintings by Rembrandt, Goya, and Delacroix. Re-staging these images with sets and actors, entering them with a mobile camera, exposes the labor behind the masterpieces like a documentary that explains a movie stunt and makes you enjoy it more. Godard cuts from his stunning recreations to scenes of female factory proles working and listening to off-camera arguments about a strike - image is detached from sound until we're seeing classical tableaus and portraits emerge from the signals of everyday life. The strike is prompted by Isabelle Huppert, as a pious, Simone Weil-like labor activist. Her passion tangles with the movie crew's in a comic plot that surfaces from Godard's lush mix of car horns, aphorisms, slapstick, nudes, and landscapes. Informed that filming factory work would violate privacy rules, Huppert tells Radziwilowicz, "So it's true—work and pleasure are the same. The same gestures at different speeds." We realize that Passion is a series of rhymes between workers straining to reach a switch and actors straining to pose as martyrs, between all the gestures in separate realms that we still recognize as "passion." All three of these films give us long, adoring shots of faces and bodies at work. Vertov, Godard, and Olmi avoid the loathing (for co-workers and bosses, but especially for ourselves) that makes most films about work so happy or sad dishonest.
That loathing is as thick as fog at the credit company staffed by temps in Jill Sprecher's Clockwatchers (1997), a no-exit comedy of glazed eyes and hair twirled around idle fingers while Muzak plays and plays. Clockwatchers resembles Il Posto's first-person narrative and landscape of desks, but the Italian boss's paternalism has been replaced by random firings and therapy-speak about letting go of needs. Olmi's hero was (in some ways sadly) becoming a man, but Specher's four temps are stuck in adolescent roles—the nerd, the slut, the cheerleader, the delinquent—because any identities they build at work can be yanked away by a market correction. When the delinquent—Parker Posey as a Forties-movie sass—abruptly leaves, the movie stays at its desk as if Cuckoo's Nest had dropped Jack Nicholson and left us with the other inmates. Boredom becomes the subject; our complicity in boredom; boredom as control, as peer pressure; the way boredom makes everything internal. I think it's brave. Clockwatchers refuses a lot of easy payoffs, to the point, however, of becoming stingy and fake. It laughs at the cheerleader and the slut, then pities them as stunted losers—there's no chance that any of their romances or personal dreams could be valid. Train-wreck hypnotic, uneven and aggravating, this might not be the movie for tonight, but if you're thinking of quitting—or starting—a Muzak job, Clockwatchers will school your ass and make you strong.
Comics are often the medium of the work-bored. Drawn in high-school notebooks or circulated by office photocopiers, they're truly art-for-art's sake. They can't afford to lie. Two of the best recent work films come from cartoonists. Office Space (1999) could be described as "Dilbert finally destroys his boss." Fox seems to have leaked it onto the market as a favor for Mike Judge (Beavis and Butthead; King of the Hill) who wrote and directed this live version of an animation project that never gelled. Yet I've heard dozens of people recommend it ("There's this really obscure movie..."). When a film hero (Ron Livingston) turns right to the camera with his best Henry Fonda face and says that humans weren't meant to work in cubicles, when a software engineer launches a virus at his employers with a mouse click that sounds like a gunshot, audiences who've worked in those cubicle farms feel noticed. Judge has a pitch-perfect ear for American voices and a caricaturist's eye. His corporate "village" belongs to nasal, passive-aggressive tyrants with Mr. PotatoHead hairpieces and mustaches—human versions of the interchangeable jerks from Beavis. The king jerk is Gary Cole's bachelor-reptile manager (the license plate on his Porsche says MY PRSCHE), whose dopey smugness slowly reveals itself as sadism. This is a very funny satire with an undercurrent of gangsta and terrorist daydreaming that's scarily accurate and, if I may say this of Beavis's creator, sort of Godardian. Office Space gets lost in action-movie plot devices, especially in the regulation "third act" when all the dormant plot points bloom at once, but it redeems itself with exactly the apocalyptic ending its characters would want.
Shari Berman and Robert Pulcini's American Splendor is a riskier project: like Il Posto, it's a life-chronicle that doesn't "end" at all. For over twenty years, the file clerk Harvey Peker has been writing a comic book about his life, paying artists like R. Crumb and Joe Sacco out of his salary from a V.A. hospital. American Splendor is an intelligently faithful adaptation that assembles high points from the entire series into a coherent biography. It's Pekar's movie, really. It mixes animation, acted scenes (with Paul Giamatti as Pekar and Hope Davis as his wife), and footage of the real Pekar and his officemates, just as the comic runs a wide gamut from stylization to naturalism depending on who draws it. Pekar's work world resembles the office purgatories of Olmi, Sprecher, and Judge, but it's never glib or dehumanizing. Adventure comics fans used to call Pekar a narcissist (back before the comics scene got flooded with similar memoirs) but his vigilance in seeing his world and the people in it over years of drudgery is the opposite of selfish. The movie culminates with Pekar's real-life retirement party—office happy-talk with true affection behind it. This was my favorite movie moment from 2003. How often do we get to see a movie hero retire? Let's give Bond and all the others gold watches and start over, without the masks.
John Carnahan teaches film at California State University, Hayward, and therefore is paid to watch movies. As a freelance counterculture writer and editor he has also been paid to play fantasy games, describe the effects of marijuana, and read underground comix.