Perhaps you are heading to the beach this Labor Day weekend? Perhaps you aren’t, because man was not meant to risk death and swim in Earth’s vast oceans? Either way, you might find yourself sitting around looking at your Netflix options and wondering what to watch. Never fear, for I have assembled a quick list of work-themed films available on Netflix (and other streaming services) that you can use to program your own private, Netflix mini-film festival. Because what better way to celebrate Labor Day than to watch movies about work?
Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)
A recent addition to Netflix’s catalogue, Zodiac is the story of the failed investigation into the Zodiac killings in San Francisco in the 1970s. “Failed” is the key word. This is a movie about procedure, often painstakingly detailing the work done by the police and journalists on the case. The characters swirl seemingly closer and closer to a solution but never quite get there. It remains David Fincher’s best film, a portrait of obsession and paranoia that marries form and content in a genius if maddening way.
Young Mr. Lincoln (John Ford, 1939)
Options for John Ford films on Netflix are very limited (an issue I plan to write about in the near future), though The Grapes of Wrath, which is also available, would seem like the obvious choice for this list. Nevertheless Young Mr. Lincoln, while not be about “work” in the same obvious way as Grapes of Wrath, is, like Zodiac, a film about process and investigation. If the crimes of Fincher’s film destroy the men who work on it, Lincoln’s defense of some innocent country folk in a murder trial does the opposite and builds the future president into the man he needs to be. Last year’s Lincoln, also about procedure and legacy, is a direct response to this one in many ways. (Spielberg seems to be going through a John Ford phase at the moment.) Henry Fonda as Lincoln deserves at least half of Day-Lewis’s Oscar.
Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2011)
I’ve written about this one before, but seriously, you need to watch it if you haven’t. It was the most fun film of last year, even if in some ways the most depressing. (Actually, I suppose that honor goes to Amour.) Work as life. Reality as performance. It’s an ode to cinema, too, but even more so it’s about the power of the imaginative to shape our selves, for good or ill.
Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944)
Our third film about a crime. One of the classic noirs, and the pre-eminent example of a film where a man attempts to escape a hated job by using said job as part of a scam. In this case, that job is selling insurance, and the scam involves Fred MacMurray helping Barbara Stanwyck bump off her husband. It all falls apart, of course, but in glorious fashion thanks to Edward G. Robinson. You can’t con your way out of your job; your job will get you in the end.
Strike (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)
What is Labor Day without some good old-fashioned workers’ revolt? This story about a factory strike doesn’t match the formal brilliance and emotional crescendos of Eisenstein’s Potemkin, made later that year, but it still includes some great sequences, such as the factory riot and subsequent crackdown. (That poor baby.) A more obviously didactic film than Potemkin, it also includes a more honest ending: the workers slaughtered, literally, like cattle. Like Double Indemnity, probably not a film worth emulating in the office.
Barton Fink (The Coen Brothers, 1991)
The lesson of a number of these films seem to be: work will make you crazy. Perhaps there is no better example than Barton Fink, written by the Coen Brothers when they were stuck in an epic writers’ block while working on Miller’s Crossing. Part satire of Hollywood, part allegory of the Holocaust, and part dramatization of the egomania and neuroses brought on by the creative process, it remains one of the Coens’ weirder creations. It’s buoyed, however, by some fabulous performances, especially John Goodman as the friendly traveling salesman cum Satan. “I will show you the life of the mind.” Indeed. Back to work…
Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover is a 3-D film without having been shot in 3-D. Perceptions of visual depth and breadth are key to the film’s narrative and thematic progression, but it’s not just important how space in used in the film but how the characters and the audience interact and understand them. Sound acts as a particularly important resource for how this space is controlled. One is used to control the other, though ultimately it is mastery of visual space that allows the characters to resist the power wielded by speech. The film traces a power struggle between husband and wife not through psychology or emotion or even violence, but through the dominance and control the characters are able to exert over these two elements, the two foundational senses of the cinema.
The film links space and speech early on. Spica, the thief of the title, hardly stops talking the entire film. His endless prattle, complaining about and mocking nearly everything and everyone around him, is entrancing, even horrifying, and the audience is forced to account for his presence as much due to his speech as with his position in the frame. People listen to him (though often reluctantly) and allow him to run things seemingly because they can’t get a word in edgewise.*
* He does display acts of physical cruelty, including in the opening scene, though these acts of actual violence become much more necessary as the film goes on and his power begins to wane. For the first half, Spica’s power is almost all vocal.
Spica’s authority is reflected in the film’s shot compositions. At the restaurant, he appears like Christ in Leonardo’s The Last Supper (deliberately, of course, especially given Greenaway’s interest in Renaissance painting):
Note the red column behind him, as if Spica is holding up the restaurant with his head. As he talks, Spica is usually placed at the center of things, not just the focus of attention but in the seat of power.
But how much of his power is real, and how much of it is based on momentary control over the visual and auditory elements around him? The introduction of the restaurant itself begins to provide an answer, though it takes some time for its broader implications to become clear. The set appears laid out in a horizontal line, stretching from a loading dock behind the kitchen to the front dining room. The camera tracks with Spica and his entourage as they pass through, the sort of traditional establishing scene meant to make you feel that you have a good grasp of the location’s geography. The restaurant feels large and open, albeit with lots of human activity and an elaborate set design. It’s a busy set but easily navigable in two dimensions with very little three-dimensional depth. By the time the camera reaches Spica’s table, you’ve received a solid orientation of the place. You know how all the pieces of the restaurant fit together, and that we will be observing our characters in the sort of shot seen above, their relationships clear based on the shot’s composition.
This is similar to the kinds of compositions favored by Wes Anderson, who also frames his subjects and locations in flat, often theatrical, spaces, often as part of similar-looking tracking shots. But where Anderson sets up visual space as a framework for investigating character, as if laying them out for examination, Greenaway investigates the space itself. For it becomes clear, not too far into the film, that the restaurant does, in fact, have three dimensions. Within it are many nooks and crannies, rooms and corridors and hideaways away from the straight, horizontal lines we’re initially presented with. Away from Spica’s gaze and speech.
The power of speech to offer a degree of independence becomes more pronounced as the characters weave through the film’s architecture, with Michael and Georgina gaining more lines and more autonomy as they find ways to get away from Spica’s dominance.
Since his speech cannot be directly opposed, it is only by finding and colonizing their own private space that Georgina and Michael can have their affair. These spaces are fragile, obviously, constantly under threat of being discovered by Spica. But away from him they are able to start speaking to one another, building their own reserve of strength, offering up some kind of resistance.
(Music is an important site of resistance, too, boiling underneath the action, building, and finally exploding at the film’s climax. The singing kitchen boy also provides a sonic counerpoint to Spina from the very start of the picture.)
Late in the film, they are able to escape from the restaurant entirely and hide out in Michael’s apartment, where for once Spica has absolutely no control. At about this time Spica’s grasp over his own authority begins to fade. Underlings begin to speak up, Spica’s balanced shot compositions are thrown off, and other characters begin to step into visual spaces where they are the ones in control.
Spica will reassert his control violently and ironically. When Michael is killed, Spica stuffs pages from his books down his throat, simultaneously silencing him and drowning him in words. But it won’t last. The damage is done: the power of sound and space are transferred from Spica to those he has abused. In the final scene Spica is completely stripped of visual and auditory dominance. He is isolated at the front of the dining room (which he enters though a door he had never used until then) and up against the full cast of wronged characters who have taken over the restaurant and its menu. He is also silenced, not through force but through a visual horror. He has lost control of sight and sound, and thus of the movie.
Cook, Thief is a great distillation of and metaphor for cinematic craft, using the audio/visual as the metric for and means by which stories, characters, plots, themes, etc. are measured and judged. t’s a highly stylized film, obviously, but that only helps to highlight the film’s symbolic project. Power in Cook, Thief lies in the hands of the ones who control the cinema.
…because hopefully blogging will soon be resuming. New fatherhood has unsurprisingly limited my time to everything except the basics of my own survival, though our family is now on something of a schedule (and we are returning to work) so it will actually be easier for me to find time to write.
(Unexpectedly, I have been able to watch a fairly healthy number of films the past few months, since it’s about the only thing to do when holding a baby at 2:00 in the morning, especially when that baby needs white noise to fall asleep. Some of these I’ve chronicled on Letterboxd, but hardly all. There are a few things I’ve seen that I’d like to talk about here in the coming weeks.)
Here’s some pieces, most half-finished or otherwise sitting in a draft folder, that you can expect to see soon:
- A short post on Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and her Lover, the most recent of the films I’d plan to write about as part of the Streaming Project
- A review of Glenn Frankel’s book about the pre-history and production of The Searchers
- Some thoughts on developing auteurist cinephilia through the use of streaming services
- An essay on The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, which I recently watched for the first time on Blu-ray
Obviously, some of these posts expand beyond the original mission statement of this blog, but as my time is fairly limited I’d rather write about things I’m currently thinking about than try to wait to come up with “on topic” posts.