Friday, 24 February 2012

Motifs in Cinema:11 for ‘11 (completed)

...a mini-blogathon examining themes in 2011 cinema...
Year after year the movies of the year pass by and we talk about them. We talk about them individually, we compile lists of our favourites and we talk about them some more. We might even talk about them comparatively as in X is better than Y because Z…and so on. But, oftentimes I feel we never really analyse them – especially comparatively. And, cinema is so rich thematically – we don’t consider it as we do things of literary origins – but even the films with the worst “story” are driven by themes and motifs.

So, in celebration of this 2011 I invited ten great bloggers for a blogging event, eleven cinematic motifs for 2011. I was tasked (no, really, no one picked this one) with looking at the workplace in 2011. Here goes.

A job is not just a job. It's who you are.

Sure, Repo Men is a film better left forgotten but it did provide me with the quotation. In olden days your surname was an indication of your job, so you essentially were your jobs. But, how many of us could say that the job we’re currently signifies any true details about ourselves? In fact, there’s another adage to combat the one above – “Don’t bring your work home with you.” Easier said than done. At first I thought I’d have a paucity of films to choose from when it came to looking at the workplace, but then I began perusing the eighty something films I’d seen this year and began to notice how “work” became dovetailed into a larger theme of “life”. So, consider that quote from the auspicious Repo Men as my hypothesis…herein I’ll try to prove or disprove it.

The Help took the world by storm (or, maybe just the United States) in August last year. Six months later people are still talking about them and one narrative that keeps regurgitating is the fact that the black women are relegated to playing maids. I’d rather not enter into a dissertation on the way race is addressed in cinema what that treatment suggests for different people, but it’s a bit curious how “maid” is being seen not as a job but as an indication of a person’s identity. Being a maid becomes not just something they’re doing to live but something they’re living to do. The job of being maid, because it’s so interpreted with historical perspectives and waiting on people, almost doesn’t emerge as a job because the home is the workplace which already presents a sort of quandary, but really shouldn’t…it’s not as if the maids aren’t doing a job. Thus, even if the narrative plays out like an oversimplified version of…well, everything it addresses, I like that it has the foresight to address the importance of the maid’s role immediately.
You is kind. You is smart. You is important.

It’s not unlikely to imagine that were it not for Aibileen little Mae Leefolt would never consider herself to be kind, smart or important. And, though on one hand it would, perhaps, be best if the ladies of The Help weren’t identified with their jobs, maybe it’s good that they are. Celia Foote is smart enough to know, “I really need a maid.” And, as much as Aibileen identifies with the children she takes care of, she’s able to walk away from her job at the film’s end. But, what happen after the credits roll, I wonder? What comes after work…? So much of Aibeleen’s nature seems inextricably linked to her desire to care for others…and one of the film’s single most poignant moments was Mae’s earnest utterance – “You’re my real mommy, Aibe.” Maybe Aibileen’s mothering nature is inextricably linked to the job she plays, and if being a “maid” means being a beacon for girls like Mae…maybe that’s okay?

And, it would seem that that’s the running theme of work in 2011 cinema. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s narrative is inundated with Smiley’s attempt to find that mole, and it’s a laudable task, but there’s the pervasive sense that he’s doing it less for the purpose at hand, and more because he has nothing else – just his jobs. Those few scenes after the credits before he’s brought back to the Circus are teeming with despondency – taking a swim, going to the optometrist, walking through the park. Without his job, he is nothing. In theory, it’s not bad to be dedicated to one’s job but in a film examining the sadness beneath the glamor of the espy Smiley’s non-existence outside the Circus is that much more sad. Yet, we cheer Smiley on for his dedication to the job. It’s in that same vein that we cheer on Jennifer Ehle’s Dr. Hextall (Contagionwho injects herself with a drug that’s in its testing stage and then exposes herself to the deadly virus. We would shirk at such foolhardy dedication in real life, but on film we applaud it. None of us would really die for our jobs, would we?

But, then, maybe that’s the kind of commitment which comes from having a job that means more to you than a pay check. And, the pleasures that come from such dedication must be good. Hextall’s foolishness aside, she’s happy being the guinea pig. And, even if it’s killing you, at least you like it. Which makes Stephen’s trials in The Ides of March that much more unfortunate. He starts out doing it for the love of it, believing in the good of the politician he’s campaigning for. I tend to shrug at the criticism of The Ides of March not treading new ground because, sometimes, the desire for something avant-garde makes us miss the things that are just simple. Paul Zara (Hoffman) and Tom Duffy (Giamatti) are on different sides of the team – yet, incidentally, on the same plane in terms of temperament – representing the future for Stephen if he doesn’t manage to detach himself from the jadedness his job requires. Of course, he isn’t able to which becomes the film’s tragedy. It’s the same tenets which apply to Jung in A Dangerous Method. It’s not so much an issue I have with the film (which, upon re-watch proves itself to be probably the best “biopic” of the year) as an observation. There seems to be devastatingly little enjoyment for Jung to elicit little tangible excitement in Jung’s experience as a psychoanalyst. Clearly, he’s interested in the development of psychoanalysis, but his general reticence as a charcter is in such firm contrast to Sabina who, when she develops in her career, observes the entire thing with such palpable curiosity that Jung and Freud can’t help but come off as older boors who’ve lost the ability to espy the wonders in the little things. Time and experience makes you jaded, they’d probably tell her. Stephen in Ides learns it early.

Which brings it all the way back to Moneyball, which gave me the idea for this entire series. I asked on twitter – what are the themes of this film? I wasn’t sure. (Kuds to Jose for his typically tongue-in-cheek response, money and balls. I can’t remember who it was that said the workplace, and I realised that work has moved from the office to peripheral places you’d least associate with “work”. Lisbeth traversing across Europe was “work”, Will taking Caesar home was initially “work”, when Mike Flaherty takes in Kyle in Win Win it’s really about work. It became clearer that the way the workplace was treated in 2011 was rooted in the inability to separate it from our personal lives. Thus, Billy Beane’s issue with his team become a way of life for him – an ideology, if you will, which in turn is why I think Moneyball to be one of the most zeitgeist films of the year. What is work, after all? As Stephen Sondheim said, “It’s not so much do what you like as it is that you like what you do.” No wonder all these “workers” in 2011 seemed unable to distinguish between work and life.

And, now, on to the real good stuff. Some great bloggers look at some more interesting themes....

Amir (Amiresque) realises that cinema on the whole may ultimately be about navigating between reality and fantasy link

and CS (Big Thoughts from a Small Mind) loves the way that the cinema celebrates the trials of the creator in rendering art (and other artistic pursuits) link

Nick (Cinema Romantico) wonders whether being a misanthropist is the answer…only the lonely… link

Craig (Dark Eye Socket) scrutinises the marriage bed, and he isn’t impressed link

Joanna (For Cinephiles by a Cinefille), though, thinks that there’s goodness to be found in solidarity and loyalty. link

Yojimbo (Let's Not Talk About Movies) ruminates on what really constitutes a coming of age link

Jose (Movies Kick Ass) takes a long-hard look at disillusionment in the 2011 cinematic landscape. link

Paolo (Okinawa Assault) ponders about relationships between parents and children link

Candice (Reel Talk) celebrates ♪friendship, friendship. It’s the perfect blendship. ♪ link

David (Victim of the Time) questions the manner in which the aging is examined link

So, that's everyone!

There you have 11 articles examining 11 motifs in cinema for 2011. A hearty thanks to these great bloggers, and I urge you to go read their articles, all of them good stuff examining that thing called cinema we all love.

Go. See. Talk. What motifs will remember most about 2011 in film? Sound off below.


Yojimbo_5 said...

Here's the link, Andrew:

The Late Yojimbo (who was at work when this sucker should have published!)

Paolo said...

Yay for talking about Contagion and A Dangerous Method, movies that I love and admire respectively, when I somehow couldn't!

The thing that caught me in that section of The Help is Aibileen walking away, which is a walk of sanity, so to speak. It sort of reminded me of Stella Dallas but difference is that, spoilers, Stella's job is done while Aibileen is done with the job. That selfhood is the reward for all those years of sacrifice of motherhood or care giving. Stella is closing up towards us while Aibilieen isn't given a face of victory, walking into the foresty part of that street in Jackson. I can read it as her embracing that world and its dangers, but that's me at almost 2AM speaking so I don't know if all of this makes sense.

CrazyCris said...

What a great idea Andrew! Although I shouldn't be thanking you.... 'cause now I have ten more interesting-looking posts to read today! :p

Jose Solís said...

I watched "the Moment of Truth" a few days ago and it struck me as quite "odd" how the bullfighter in the movie kept saying he was doing his job. I think too often people grab on to the concept of what we do for a living as a description of who they are as human beings. Love that you brought it up with your lines on "The Help".

Nick Prigge said...

Ah, fine piece, my man. As someone who extravagantly strives never to take his job home with him it's safe to say this hit home. I always fear trying to do what you most love for a living will you make love it less and these films you cite I think both prove for and against. That shot of Smiley at the optometrist, just sitting there and's nothing really but something about that blank, bored expression on Oldman's face stayed with me. Going.Through.The.Motions.

And damn if you didn't write something to make me look at The Help in a whole new light. I knew you would. Harumph.

Candice Frederick said...

workplace was definitely a huge trend this past year in film. you thought of really good ones. i think ides of march is especially a great example. and thanks for including all the links here! i have a lot of reading to do now :)

ruth said...

Sorry I bailed out on this one, Andrew, this is really a splendid blogathon. Well, for what it's worth, I don't think I could do nearly as good a job as what Amir did with the 'reality and fantasy' post. Great job everyone!