Desk Set is a delightful romantic comedy starring Katharine Hepburn as a TV network reference librarian who is worried about being replaced by a computer and therefore clashes (and later matches) with its inventor, an efficiency expert played by Spencer Tracy. For a film from 1957, the topic of computer automation, albeit in the form of a giant machine, seems rather timely. Fun fact: The screenwriters of this film are Phoebe and Henry Ephron, the parents of Nora Ephron.
Mindy Kaling went from working at The Office to working in an Ob/Gyn office on The Mindy Project. Like The Office, Kaling’s character is surrounded by a hilarious outfit of misfit co-workers on The Mindy Project.
This week’s theme focuses on what an average person spends about one third of their life doing, working. While the ongoing pandemic may be forcing a rapid reinvention of what work looks like in the coming years, traditional “9 to 5” work was a staple to many people across industries and ages between the years 2015-2019, according to in-depth data available by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 is an upbeat anthem to the daily grind experienced by many Americans. The film by the same name has been in my queue for far too long but from what I can surmise it is a consequential film for its representations of women in the workforce and the willingness to confront social issues.
Unsurprisingly, art forms like film and music often use poetic imagery and visceral experiences to engage their audience, to entertain, and even perhaps affect change in a society that the artist may feel needs improvement. Songs like El Barzón, (available on Freegal) written in 1936, helped inspire a grassroots movement in México by the same name focused on addressing the economic exploitation suffered by the working class. Even so, the song itself is a light-hearted and humorous interpretation of that struggle by refusing to succumb to bitterness. Amparo Ochoa’s and Luis Pérez Meza's versions are my two favorite renditions due to their authenticity and interpretative nuance.
Music can also help us tap into an internal source of strength when having to face the drudgery of unfulfilling labor. For example, Loretta Lynn’s Coal Miner's Daughter is an inspiring tribute to the resourcefulness and grit that many working class families are well acquainted with. Songs that are unafraid to describe harsh realities and yet are able to remain hopeful are some of my favorite kind of music. I would be remiss not to mention that African-American spirituals are born out of a desire to endure and to thrive in spite of the extreme hardships of slavery. Clearly, the relationship between work and music is a rich topic that merits further exploration. Please explore our catalog and apply your particular lens to this topic. As always, we are happy to assist you with any of your research or questions you may have. Hope to see you soon at the library!
Norma Rae, still powerful more than 40 years later, won an Oscar for Sally Field in the title role. Based on the true story of Crystal Lee Sutton, it follows Norma Rae, a single mother who works at a cotton mill, as she comes into her power advocating for a union among her fellow workers.
Harlan County, USA, directed by Barbara Kopple, won an Academy award for best documentary in 1977. It tells of the miners' strike against the Duke Power Company in Harlan County, Kentucky. Rather than use narration, she let the words and actions of the people themselves tell the story and it's quite dramatic. The miners' wives are especially articulate and courageous on the picket line. As the strike became violent, guns were drawn and the film crew was knocked down and beaten. There were fatalities. In one scene, one of the leading women pulls a pistol from her bra.
American Dream won another Oscar for Barbara Kopple. This one follows the 1985-86 strike by meatpackers against Hormel Foods in Austin, Minnesota. Hormel had cut the hourly wage from $10.69 to $8.25 and cut benefits by 30 percent, despite posting a net profit of $30 million. But unlike in Harlan County, there was less solidarity and violent conflicts broke out among the members and their resolve flagged after years of financial hardship. Eventually 80% of striking workers were replaced. This film interviews people on both sides of the conflict and seeks to answer the question of what caused this erosion of blue-collar middle class well-paying jobs.
Salesman on bluray and dvd is an early documentary by the Maysles bothers, most famous for Grey Gardens. The film follows 56-year old Irish-American Paul Brennan as he goes door-to-door in poor neighborhoods, trying to sell large, expensive bibles to people who can't afford them, but who are reluctant to refuse someone "associated" with the church. The directors themselves had been door-to-door salesmen at one time, selling everything from cosmetics to encyclopedias.
Glengarry Glen Ross from a play by David Mamet. Brilliant ensemble acting with Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin and Jonathan Pryce. Desperation, lying, cheating and a whole lot of profanity - all in a day's work as real estate salesmen. Apparently the cast called this film "Death of a F---ing Salesman."
I was reluctant to watch The Assistant until I realized the brilliant Julia Garner is Jane, the junior assistant to a powerful entertainment bigwig. It's her dream job as she aspires to be a film producer. The movie follows her through one very long work day as she makes coffee, takes calls, etc. She also can see that something is "off" with her boss - a character who is never seen, but we see the fear he inspires in his employees, and the shadow of Harvey Weinstein looms large. On DVD and streaming on Kanopy.
I've picked up books that were slept and drooled on, but this doesn't seem so bad compared to some of the "world's dirtiest" jobs in Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe. Some highlights from Collection 4 include Turkey Inseminator and Dump Truck Cleaner. If a workplace comedy fits your taste better, try Superstore. This show takes place in the world of retail hell at a Walmart type department store. Better yet, why not watch Clerks and Clerks II? Writer/director Kevin Smith reveals the shenanigans convenience store, video rental and fast food workers get into.
"Up every morning just to keep a job
I gotta fight my way through the hustling mob
Sounds of the city pounding in my brain
While another day goes down the drain"
So begins The Vogues "Five O'Clock World" (on Freegal and CD).
Work can give us purpose and allow us to provide worthwhile service to each other, Melanie Griffith finds self actualization partially through work in Working Girl, likewise Parker Posey in Party Girl.
Much of the depiction of work in movies is mostly a negative. The earliest image of work in movies I think of is Charlie Chaplin being fed along the cogs of an assembly line in the great comedy Modern Times. (also streaming on Kanopy). I also think of the long, distant, sad gaze of Jennifer Aniston as she contemplates her work in the hilarious Office Space (Aniston manages to turn the tables and dole out the misery in the work oriented Horrible Bosses).
More serious, historical and abusive conditions are explored:
North Country which is highlighted by Oscar nominated work by both Charlize Theron and Frances McDormand. The film looks at the working conditions of women at a steel mine in the 1980's.
Movies & Music - Question of the Week
In The Office, which character NEVER acted as the regional manager at Dunder-Mifflin's Scranton branch?
Last Week's Trivia Answer: Nine Inch Nails