Magazine article The American Prospect

Film Business: Labor as Art: Cantet's Time out and Human Resources. (the Critics Work)

Magazine article The American Prospect

Film Business: Labor as Art: Cantet's Time out and Human Resources. (the Critics Work)

Article excerpt

WORK IS THE DIRTY secret of contemporary life--to judge by the movies, at any rate. Although work is where people experience roughly half their waking hours over the course of four or five decades, working life is not considered glamorous or electric enough to hold the attention of audiences. Filmgoers, after all, treat the movies as a respite from (among other things) working life. Yet much of our experience of human relations takes place at work: the victories and defeats, purposes and routines, thrusts and counterthrusts, lies and impositions, passions large and small, affections and disaffections, actions, reactions, ambitions, thrills, and disappointments that frustrate and animate life.

Not only that. Working life doesn't stop when people punch out. People take the workplace home with them, for better and worse. It gives them a literal and even spiritual place in the world. It shapes satisfactions and dissatisfactions off the job. The workweek surrounds the weekend. Even in a service economy of free agents scrambling from one disloyal company to another over the course of a lifetime, work remains a top answer to the question "Who am I?" It imparts a shape to life and serves as a marker of who we are, were, and hope to be. It imposes habits and disrupts them, channels feelings and thwarts them. For good reason, Freud thought love and work the psyche's essential needs.

Yet scarce are the movies that take seriously working life, the ideas that people have about it, its moral dilemmas, its satisfactions and obstacles. Movies, after all, have other objectives--to dazzle us, deliver passions and jolts, play with our hunger for glamour, fill our emotional lives, and relieve us from our surroundings. Mainly, life on the job is represented as filler: the pro forma occasion for a plot point, the quick explanation for a character point, the pretext for a one-liner, the occasion for props and locations, the route to the interesting place--the courtroom, the prison, the battlefield, the spaceship, the bed. The job is the gray zone that the character exits on the way to a life in living color. There's only enough of the workday left on the screen to suggest what it is that the characters are getting away from after hours.

In other words, rare is the movie in which characters do much work or think much about it--with two main exceptions: criminals and police (in which category I include the currently hot subvariant, soldiers). Their on-the-job choices and career moves seem dramatic, offering suspense, visible high stakes, character clashes, and a range of emotions. Their working lives feature surprises, betrayals, pleasures, and conflicts petty and large. The safecracker assembles his team, figures out how to get around alarm systems, decides what to do when a colleague makes a mistake, recovers from the mistake. The old cop comes out of retirement to deal with a burdensome case, only to find himself thrown in with overambitious, corrupt, and incompetent juniors. In the worlds of cops and criminals, we find all the entrepreneurs, the bankers, the hirers and firers, the work teams, the rivals, the rising and falling stars whose actions propel life-and-death stories.

Insofar as the white-collar world features at all in the movies, the prevalent mode is satirical. Business is conventionally a background for murder, extortion, larceny, fraud, and rape. The big tycoon devours the little tycoon. The defense engineer who gets fired goes ballistic. The big shot is the bad guy. A shot of the office is purely a way to introduce a leading character or perhaps to illustrate the grind that the characters are scheming to flee. As for factories, they might as well not exist. With the exception of the occasional film about a strike or an organizing drive, the movies have been postindustrial for most of their century-plus history--not only in Hollywood, but virtually everywhere.

COULD IT BE THAT THE WORLD OF work, its pressures and meanings, is intrinsically too flat, too tedious, for the movies? …

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