A strip joint. A bedroom. An arcade game. An undisclosed CIA
If these don’t seem like run of the mill workplaces, it is because since TV has strengthened it’s stronghold on hospitals, courtrooms, police headquarters and even ad agencies, it seems Hollywood has stretched its reach to explore a wider variety of workplaces. While I could wax on about the political board rooms of Washington in Lincoln, the high-stakes financial world of Arbitrage, the covert lair of spies of Skyfall or even the futuristic & dangerous gig of the loopers in, well, Looper, I opted to look instead at four films that gave us instances where characters found themselves at once defined by but also strengthened by their work, however ambiguously their relationship to it was. Of the four films I picked, I found a good enough cross-section of decidedly American visions of work and the workplace: from the deterministic world of Wreck-it Ralph (you are your job), to seeing a job as a means to an end (Mike who imagines a world where he needn’t be “Magic” all the time).
Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh)Was there any mainstream movie more insidiously interested in the ways the economic meltdown affected small town business than Soderbergh’s stripper flick? Following the eponymous Mike (Channing Tatum), Soderbergh’s film eschews the gratuitous take on strippers that its marketing suggested to construct instead a look into the bleak — though arguably skintastic — world of Florida male strippers. Mike’s desire to leave the lucrative world of stripping is pit against the greed of both his boss Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) and his young protege Adam “the Kid” (Alex Pettyfer), both of whom represent a vision of the Xquisite bar as less of a workplace and more of a soul-crushing lifestyle — though Soderbergh’s lens doesn’t quite come down as hard on it as my sentence suggests. Indeed, while the film begins with images of backstage camaraderie, we are quickly presented with a world that values bodies and workers as solely money-bringers with expiration dates. While Dallas imagines a future that continuously recycles itself, never changing anything more than the bodies and venues around him, Mike’s entrepreneurial (and industriously artistic) vision is presented as ideal yet delusional (the bank scene dashes any hopes of our hero making good on his promising clothed career). Soderbergh’s film is an attempt to show how hard it is to work it when all you’re asked to do is flaunt it to get it.
The Sessions (Ben Lewin)There are many things I loved about this summery comedy focusing on the sexual blossoming of Mark (John Hawkes), a man living in an iron lung. That the bedroom is both Mark’s “workplace” (wherein he writes with a pencil in his mouth the article that would in turn inspire the film we’re watching) and Cheryl’s (Hunt’s sex surrogate character), is a subtle one I noticed only when I started thinking about it for this piece. Indeed, of the four films I chose to focus on, I believe it is the one that more sensitively treats the ways our personal lives can be enriched (and, of course, hampered) by our jobs. As I noted in my review, while the film skirts with the idea of pairing Cheryl and Mark as romantic foils, it never wants to diminish what Cheryl does as a sex surrogate. Her integrity is what eventually leads her to walk away (almost without getting her full payment for services rendered) even after the public/private, work/intimacy lines have been blurred. If nothing else, The Sessions‘s depiction of Cheryl’s work as a sex-surrogate, treated with such compassion and candor, makes the film worth watching despite the preconceived notions of what the film is about. As Cheryl reminds us early on, she’s not a hooker, though it does seem she has a heart of gold.
Wreck-it Ralph (Rich Moore)
When you think of Disney’s zany animated feature, you’d be hard pressed to not realize that despite its individualistic and seemingly self-asserting motto (Ralph, the villain of the Fix-it Felix game, learns to cope with the lesson that “I am bad, and that is good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad”), the film creates a pseudo-Marxian, if not outright Marxist, call to understand one’s work (in this case, arcade game villainy) as not only pre-determined but deservedly so. Belonging to a different Disney film, Lumiere’s “Life is so unnerving, For a servant who’s not serving” kept ringing through my ears as we saw Ralph wanting to break out of his mold, only to learn that his wrecking is necessary for the world of Fix-It Felix and the Nicelanders to continue prospering. Unwittingly, the film presents Ralph’s work and workplace as part and parcel of his personality. He has been, quite literally, programmed to wreck. If seeing an animated film as an allegory for the type of capitalism that wishes to keep unskilled workers in their status quo is a stretch, well, then I don’t know what else I’m supposed to get out of a film that so clearly delineates its characters by what they do rather than who they are. Wherever he is, he’s gonna wreck it!
Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow)
Hands down one of my favorite films this past year, Bigelow’s film is obsessively
constructs in Maya (Jessica Chastain) a cipher of a character whose behavior (if not outright personality) is so heavily tied to her work, that Boal, Bigelow and Chastain offer us little to no information about her life outside of her work hunting Bin Laden at the CIA. The critical last lines of the film (“Where do you want to go?”) are decidedly left unanswered. Maya exudes and is her job, yet the film doesn’t present this as an unabashedly positive ideal, nor does it condemn it. Boal’s script invites and creates these grey areas, so that while one of the characters suggests that Maya should be more social, we understand why she wouldn’t. Maya’s first line already speaks to the thorny negotiations that her work and workplace brings up. “You can help yourself by being truthful” shows her acknowledging and immediately shunning the motherly type her gender unnecessarily elicits in the people around her, while showcasing the way her impassiveness is not merely a pose. Thus, it is not surprising that Maya never wields her gender as a necessary weapon or a shield during the scenes of unashamed sexism scattered throughout the film. She is after all, not only (or just) a woman, but “the motherfucker” who found him.
All in all, these films, I hope, have shown that American filmmakers are interested in tackling the ever-vexing question of “Are you defined by your job?” in plenty of interesting ways, never wishing to see it as a foregone conclusion, nor letting a resounding “Yes” seem anything less than a reasonable answer.