Introduction: Cinema and the Realities of Work

By Mazierska, Ewa | Framework, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Introduction: Cinema and the Realities of Work


Mazierska, Ewa, Framework


Despite being a staple of most of our daily lives, work has received surprisingly little coverage in critical studies of cinema. This scarcity can be explained by two seemingly competing hypotheses. According to the fi rst one, presented at length by Martin O'Shaughnessy in his article opening this dossier, this is because cinema itself rarely engaged with work in a serious way, opting for less mundane and more adventurous and escapist topics. O'Shaughnessy draws on Jean- Louis Comolli, the veteran critic and fi lmmaker who points to the fact that the fi rst fi lm shown to the public, La sortie des usines Lumière (FR, 1895), shows workers leaving the factory, not entering it or being there. However, what Comolli really objected to was not cinema's shunning of work altogether, but representing it in a "wrong way," which does not account for the true, living experience of work:

When it shows work, cinema is drawn to its spectacular dimension, the dance of body and machine that obscures salaried labor's oppressive nature. This is the typical fodder of the kind of fi lms that companies make about themselves, which concentrate on work's choreographed gestures to the exclusion of its duration, its harshness, its wear and tear of the worker, and its fatigue. Because of this, a cinema that really wishes to engage with work must, as Comolli says, "fi lm against cinema," or, in other words, fi nd ways of fi lming that refuse to be drawn to the spectacular surface.1

From this fragment, we can deduce that behind Comolli's rejection of cinema's engagement with work stands a par tic u lar understanding of "work." He equates work with what is conveyed by the term "labor," which is derived from the Latin word for crushing and imparts a sense of pain that is often associated with toil and giving birth.2 O'Shaughnessy's use of words such as "labor," "toil," and "fatigue" also points to this understanding. Simultaneously, his argument evokes the Marxist concept of "alienated work," which encompasses the negative aspects of "labor," adding to them those resulting from power relations pertaining to capitalism: the oppression, submission, and silence suffered by the worker and the im mense power enjoyed by the capitalist. 3 If we treat work only in such terms, then we have to agree that it is indeed marginalized in cinema and only natural that fi lm critics and historians would not grant it much attention. Moreover, as O'Shaughnessy suggests, the most "productive" way to approach it is through trying to see the "invisible," paying attention to the corner of the frame, offscreen space, gaps in a dialogue, and such elements of the mise- en- scène as the gates and walls dividing the work of labor from that of leisure.

In line with the second hypothesis, which I favor, work is neglected in the critical studies of fi lm because, in a sense, it is present in practically every fi lm concerning humans. The pro cess of laboring might not be shown, but work is usually mentioned in dialogues; it affects the construction of characters and the choice of mise- en- scène. When reading even rudimentary synopses of fi lms, we typically learn that the character is a factory worker, clerk, artist, politician, or house wife. We divide fi lms into specifi c genres, such as the western; gangster, police, and war fi lms; even science- fi ction fi lms and biopics on the basis of the occupations of their main characters. In the fi lms, we tend to see factories, offi ces, and scientifi c laboratories, or private homes where house wives and maids work. Furthermore, if we interpret certain genres meta phor ical ly, we can argue that they provide a deep insight into issues such as the labor- capital division and an effect of work on modern people. A case in point is horror, with its iconic vampire and zombie fi gures, where the former can be interpreted as an alienated worker and the latter as a capitalist. Why, then, does work presented or alluded to in these fi lms appear to be overlooked by the majority of critics? …

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