March 12, 2012

Employment in film

Due to the unfortunate timing of my birth, in 2009 I found myself graduating from college smack-dab into a recession. With a film degree, no less. Needless to say, I had a rough couple years there before I wound up in Los Angeles and miraculously snagged an entertainment industry job. It's a temporary position, however, so I'll soon find myself out on the proverbial streets again.

Granted, I didn't have much hard job-searching experience before I graduated, but I can say with confidence that the system has become Kafkaesque and absurd. Applications for menial, minimum-wage positions get thousands of applicants within an hour. You need 2-4 years experience doing PRECISELY the job you're applying for if you are even going to CONSIDER bothering anyone with an application. If you're lucky enough to get an interview, employers ask trick "Google questions" to suss out vague and undefinable characteristics. Or sometimes you just need to be attractive - I've been to interviews where they clearly just wanted to look me up and down, and nothing else.

It wasn't always this way. How do I know? Well, my job-searching experience prior to the recession was relatively painless. A few emails, a few questions, and boom, I'm behind the counter of some retail establishment. But I also know because of movies. One of the many reasons I love cinema is that is gives you a glimpse not only into the more exciting and prominent aspects of a time and place (war, culture, social customs, etc.), but the mundane as well. From an anthropological standpoint, I love watching people in older films go about their everyday business. So as someone who has frequently felt the hopeless, infuriating frustration of unemployment, I have particularly latched on to depictions of work acquisition in films. Now, I understand that narrative films don't always show things exactly as they are - either to streamline them or make them more interesting. But you can still learn a lot about the employment culture of a period from its cinema. Therefore, I present a rough history of American employment as told through the movies:

Obviously, in the way-back times, getting a job was a cinch. This becomes apparent from watching silent comedies, where a hapless hero would often have several jobs over the course of a single film. Normally, the process goes like this: Keaton/Chaplin/Lloyd etc sees a "Help Wanted" sign in a window, goes in to inquire, is asked "can you do (x)?" to which they naturally respond yes, and are hired on the spot. Now, I would imagine this has something to do with storytelling efficiency, especially since these films are often quite short. But the 1920s especially were bountiful times for America, so it's not hard to imagine that many blue-collar workers were hired in this way. (In College [1927], Keaton even manages to find work as a "colored waiter" by applying greasepaint. Naturally, it backfires.)

But then, of course, came the Depression, and suddenly things weren't so easy. Even more upbeat films tended to always have the Depression in the background, such as in Gold Diggers of 1933. Four sassy showgirls are between gigs, and never know where their next meal is coming from (frequently, it's the neighbor's windowsill). They understand that job-searching is a full-time job, so they spend every waking hour cajoling, persuading, manipulating and seducing producers and backers in order to get a new show off the ground. Their resourcefulness serves as an inspiration to modern-day job-seekers (well, perhaps minus the seduction part).

Alternately, if you were an employer in the 1930s looking to hire, you could literally pluck men off the streets. That's the approach taken by wealthy families in both My Man Godfrey (1936) and the eerily similar Merrily We Live (1938). Both have daffy women in search of household help - in the former, she finds a butler at the city dump, and in the latter, a tramp on the doorstep becomes the new chauffeur. Irene Bullock in Godfrey finds the titular butler as part of a scavenger hunt, the item in question being a "forgotten man" (a common term at the time for victims of the Depression). Matriarch Emily Kilbourne in Merrily, by contrast, has a patronizing habit of "collecting" and reforming vagrants. There were certainly enough to keep her busy.

The economy improved with WWII, but men returning from overseas were often faced with the unsavory reality of either finding a new job or being stuck with the same one. Dana Andrews' character in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) is forced back into the same minimum-wage soda jerk position he had before the war, working under a younger man he had previously trained. His disillusionment eventually gets him fired, and despite attaining the rank of captain in the Air Corps, he can find no corporate or civilian equivalent. Broke and refusing to parade around in uniform, his hastily acquired wife leaves him. Fortunately, he eventually convinces a fellow veteran to give him a job building houses, foreshadowing the growth of suburbia and the economic boom of the 1950s.

Things get easier in the 50s. Smooth-talking Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) creates a position for himself at a newspaper in Ace in the Hole (1951), despite having been fired from many previous employers (no background checks or references!). The deal is sealed by the brilliant but desperate line, "I can handle big news and little news. And if there's no news, I'll go out and bite a dog." In Imitation of Life (1959), Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) rather suddenly hires Annie (Juanita Moore) as a live-in nanny simply because Annie found Lora's daughter on the beach and looked after her for a bit. Letting a total stranger live in your house? People were just more trusting then, I guess...


In 1961, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying opened on Broadway; by 1967 it had gotten the silver screen treatment. Although the musical is a Pulitzer-winning satire, it's actually based on an autobiographical account of a man working his way up from the mailroom to the vice-presidency of a company. Its fundamental premise is that success is entirely contingent on saying the right things to the right people - words to live by to this day. A more direct form of deception was practiced by Frank Abagnale Jr, in the 60s-set true story Catch Me If You Can (2002). Starting at the age of 16, Abagnale conned millions of dollars by impersonating doctors and pilots. Con artists obviously still exist, but I'd imagine that technological innovations have made it exponentially more difficult (in case you were considering it as a career path).

Films of the 1970s featured many drifters who seemed to pick up employment with ease. As with prior decades, jobs that now require advanced degrees and certifications were entry-level - such as Pinky's (Sissy Spacek) new gig at the start of 3 Women (1977). She works at a physical therapy facility for the elderly, but based on the lackadaisical attitude and lack of qualifications among of the employees, it could just as easily be a roadside diner. Today, any physical therapy position (even an aide) requires two-year certificate. Lawsuits much?

The 1980s saw Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie (1982) dressing up as a woman to get work as an actor (well, actress), and succeeding. I would not, however, recommend this as a course of action for job-seekers.

The freshly graduated slackers of Kicking and Screaming (1995) have mostly themselves to blame for their unemployment, but there is a moment that inadvertently foretells the current insanity: "You have a second interview - for a video store?" For the most part, though, the 90s are a boom time, but with abundance comes discontent. Thus in 1999, a significant trio of anti-establishment, job dissatisfaction films were released: American Beauty, Fight Club, and Office Space. Beauty focuses on a more all-around unhappiness, but does feature its protagonist theatrically quitting his corporate job and rebelliously taking up at a fast-food restaurant. (How ironic that many workers today are following similar patterns involuntarily.) Edward Norton's job in Fight Club could not seem more soul-sucking - greenish lighting, sickly-looking employees. Office Space takes a comedic approach, but still depicts the white collar workplace as a unique form of hell from which one must escape.

Career abundance continued into the 2000s, which is why Seth Rogen's character in Knocked Up (2007) gets a cushy tech job despite having never worked anywhere before.

...And we all know what happened next.

Not many films have dealt with the recession head-on. The ones that have, such as Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010) and Margin Call (2011), explore the actual happenings of Wall Street as opposed to the effect on the common man. More peripherally, Wendy and Lucy (2008) focuses on a young woman who's out of money and trying to relocate to Alaska, but the circumstances of her situation are vague. Tiny Furniture (2010) chronicles a mopey underemployed grad who mostly has herself to blame. The title character in Larry Crowne (2011) sets off on a journey of self-discovery after being laid off from the business where he has worked for 20 years. Shawn Levy's Interns will soon go into production, starring Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn as two laid-off businessman who start back at square one as - you guessed it - interns. 

Ultimately, what it comes down to is that recessions don't make for great cinema. You can't have forlorn hobos wandering through dusty roads, Grapes of Wrath-style. You can't have repressed office drones rebel, like so many movies of the 90s did. From my experience, recessions just create a million little frustrations and disappointments. Perhaps when something or someone breaks through the lingering effects of this recession, we can have a film about it. Another con artist, perhaps?

This is by no means comprehensive - please chime in with more employment-related cinema. How has the recession treated you? Any wisdom and/or horror stories gleaned from movies?


The Kid In The Front Row said...

haha, I think your view of employment in the past is a bit rose tinted -- but hey, maybe it was a bit easier back in the day. Thanks for doing such an imaginative post!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a very enjoyable blog post! As someone who also graduated around the time of the recession, I can empathise with your struggle. To date, I have yet to establish a career despite decent university grades and TA experience.

The struggles of Kristen Wiig's character in _Bridesmaids_ are partially her own fault, but I imagine that many viewers can identify with the lack of motivation she exhibits in place of employment. There she is, in her late 30s, working a low-down retail position (that her mum's connections got her!) after her bakery closed due to the recession.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you should look into a little film called 'Up in the Air'.

Bob G said...

Two omissions from the 60's (both from 1961): Billy Wilder's "The Apartment" dealt superbly with issues of ethics in the workplace and the sacrifices one faces in the light of success. The Sam Peckinpah western "Ride the High Country" deftly handles the subject of age discrimination. Former lawman Joel MacRae is hired to escort a shipment of gold from the mines in California to the bank offices. When he reports to duty his hiring manager says "I was expecting a younger man." MacRae replies: "I was one once."

TalĂ­a said...

Up in the air dealt with these issues.

Anonymous said...

I've noticed that every character in every mainstream Hollywood movie is always in the advertising business and he or she is always working on an 'account.' It's so ridiculous: In real life, I meet very few people who are in advertising, but in contemporary Hollywood movies -- it's everybody! The reason? The screenwriters don't know about anything outside of the movie business, and making the characters 'ad execs' is as close as they can get. Plus, they don't have to do any research!

Anonymous said...

Also in Knocked Up, Seth Rogen's character, somewhere in the film, says that he is an illegal alien from Canada. So when that employment bit came up, I asked myself, Isn't it illegal to hire immigrants in the United States?

Anonymous said...

er...I meant to say illegal immigrants...

Anonymous said...

I keep reading about how the United States is in the middle of a recession, or "is coming out from a recent" one.

The USA hasn't had a real recession since the late 1920's-early 1930s.

Yes: things might get tougher, prices go higher, employment rates decrease, but you should see how the rest of the world is dealing with REAL recessions. Real hunger, real lack of employment, exponential increases in bankruptcies, etc.

The USA is still afloat. Stop whining.