American and European movies go to work

Thursday, Dec 2 2004

Like most American supermen, Bob Parr, hero of the brilliant new Pixar hit The Incredibles, toils by day at a soul-killing job, as a claims adjuster for a giant insurance company. Bob the bureaucrat, a.k.a. Mr. Incredible, has been forced out of saving the world and into a witness-protection program following a rash of frivolous personal-injury suits against superheroes, backed by bigtime lawyers and hyped by the media. Now he languishes on the corporate-suburban treadmill, his ballooning body both literally and metaphorically too big for his tiny office cubicle (one of hundreds), his boxy economy car and the tract home (one of hundreds) he shares with his wife, Helen, formerly Elastigirl, and their two children, who also possess special powers they’ve had to suppress. When Bob is fired for allowing his clients to "penetrate the bureaucracy" (he had shown an old lady how to play the system and get the benefits due her), he and his family burst out of their cocoons and square off against Syndrome, an old nemesis whose island laboratory, with its high-tech gizmos and row upon row of faceless drones, resembles yet another corporate headquarters. The Incredibles’ struggle with Syndrome is not just a show of physical strength, or a fight against terrorism: Like Bob’s subversion of company rules, it’s a war between individualism and creativity on the one hand and institutional mediocrity on the other.

Sound familiar? It should. Few nations have been as efficient a builder of giant corporations as the United States, and no other culture has grown as robust a hatred and mistrust — or expressed its hostility more floridly in movies — of those same institutions. Hollywood’s obsessive love-hate relationship with business and bureaucracy has a long and complex history. Beginning in the silent era and achieving its slapstick apotheosis in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), this animus persists in more ambivalent forms through the decades after World War II, when an expanding economy ushered in a relatively benign period in which government, business and unions (even in the most welfare state–shy society in the developed world) collaborated to shield working families from long-term risk through lifetime employment, generous benefits packages and the safety nets put in place by the New Deal. In the movies of the postwar period we see a ubiquitous small-is-beautiful theme favoring the common man’s struggle against the cruel indifference and crushing tedium of bureaucratic work. In the 1956 film The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, Gregory Peck plays a war veteran stressed out by Madison Avenue. Produced 10 years earlier and set during the Great Depression, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is often touted as the emblematic homage to the benevolently paternalistic family business, but it’s hard to imagine a more equivocal or despairing paean. Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey — reluctant head of a modest building-and-loan company who resists foreclosures, hands out cash to his clients with little hope of return, and creates affordable housing — finds himself pitted against the callous big banker Mr. Potter, an avaricious cheapskate. This resolutely populist movie’s famously euphoric Christmas ending, with George and his straitened family bailed out by a grateful clientele, is subverted not only by its implausibility — such struggles are always won by the Potters of this world — but by a striking subtext that’s rhythmically repeated throughout the narrative. George may love his clients, but he has always hated his work, and his inner life is dominated by fantasies of world travel, or even a college education.

Beginning in the late 1970s, both government and business beat a steady retreat from their responsibilities to workers into more market-driven notions of economic health, with globalization beginning to eat away at the power of politicians and place it in the even less reliable hands of multinational business. It’s no coincidence that since then the corporation itself has gathered steam as Hollywood’s bogeyman of choice, in thrillers, horror, action movies and, less frequently, comedies. And what better template for corporate arrogance and unbridled power than Gordon ("Greed is Good") Gekko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street? Released in 1987, this tale of a hungry young stockbroker (Charlie Sheen) corrupted into betrayal of his union-activist father by a crass, up-from-nothing mogul, plays as a remarkably prescient parable for the insider-trading excesses of the ’90s. With his shifty eyes and mailbox mouth, Michael Douglas’ Gekko is a slick preview of Donald Trump. Indeed, as driven by Stone’s characteristic vulgar Marxism, Wall Street fails to acknowledge what has been made abundantly clear on the reality show The Apprentice — that to millions of Americans, and possibly many of those who are unemployed, the Trumps of this world are heroes, at least until the ratings flag and the casinos go broke.

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