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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.

 

As the 20th century wears into a globalized new millennium, and as global markets for American films iron out all sense of locality in our homegrown movies, big business remains the top movie bad guy, holding its own even against terrorist networks as the perceived threat to the American way of life. Since George W. Bush took office in 2000, the gulf between employers and workers has widened into an abyss as corporate executives "go forward" (to use the currently fashionable argot of managerial spin) into huge salaries, private jets and obscenely inflated severance packages, while those below them slide backward into sporadic employment, sudden layoffs, overwork for those who remain, weakened unions, a fraying Social Security safety net and imploding 401(k)s. The job as we know it may be a dinosaur; the world is going freelance. As company towns, shrunken by outsourcing into husks of their bustling former selves, vanish off the map, one grows nostalgic for the George Baileys of this world.

In movies, perhaps the most glaring example of how far this trend has progressed is the journey from John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962), in which a band of American soldiers is captured and brainwashed by communists in Korea, to Jonathan Demme’s remake earlier this year, in which the Manchurian Global Corp. tries to reprogram soldiers in the Gulf War as part of a conspiracy to take over the White House — a plot that dates quickly for those who believe that big business already has Washington in its pocket. These days it’s hard to think of a studio thriller or drama that doesn’t use multinational corporations as a dartboard, the most striking being The Matrix movies, in which Keanu Reeves’ computer hacker suspects that reality itself is a façade created by an evil cyber intelligence. (By contrast, Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report and The Terminal, both of which feed off paranoia about big government, seem positively old school.) In life, as at the movies, the battle between red and blue America increasingly appears as a sideshow to the more insidious ambitions, realized in Michael Mann’s The Insider and Collateral, of the Corporate Creature from the Black Lagoon.

There’s a surface irony here — Hollywood, corporate culture incarnate, flagellating big business for all the world to see — that pundits on the right have seized on to pummel Hollywood’s so-called liberal elite. In fact, it’s more a case of the willingness of industry executives, from limousine liberals to right-wing conservatives, to embrace almost any theme that will sell to a mass audience. And in the face of widespread workplace volatility and a rash of scandals involving corporate greed, what more suitable bête noire than global industry?

Still, American pop culture’s antipathy toward business is for the most part curiously abstract and unspecific, mapped as a struggle for power rather than a battle over the process and meaning of work itself. In prime-time television, where workplace situation comedies have mushroomed since the 1970s, offices, newsrooms and garages offer little more than excuses to house a cozy family of friends who seem to do anything but actually work. (To be fair, NYPD Blue, Law and Order and other descendents of Hill Street Blues still offer American viewers some of the same satisfactions, though the violence of their imitators has grown so extreme as to eclipse all emphasis on context.) Compare the situation here to the extraordinary British series The Office, whose brilliant skewering of the stupefying boredom of white-collar work, the banal idiocies of managerial language ("We invest in people") and the heedlessness of bosses toward employees is so painfully close to the mark, it would barely qualify as comedy were it not so screamingly funny.

On the domestic-movie front, there are some analogues. In the bitterweet comedy The Good Girl, Jennifer Aniston gave the performance of her career as a young salesclerk whose zest for life and love has been flattened by the rigors of working at the Retail Rodeo superstore. (In the end, of course, it’s love rather than more-fulfilling work that springs her from a lifetime of indentured servitude.) Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt, an independent film which would never have gotten studio backing without Jack Nicholson in the lead, boasts a funny, pained performance from Nicholson as that most obsolete of modern workers, the organization man who has devoted his entire life to one company, and who, after being waved into retirement with a tacky testimonial dinner and replaced by a gung-ho business-school hotshot, has no idea what to do with his life. Which is also Mr. Incredible’s dilemma.

In general, though, America has few filmmakers able or willing to explore — as European directors like England’s Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, France’s Bertrand Tavernier and the Belgian Dardenne brothers all routinely do — the quotidian rhythms of labor, or the workplace’s tumultuous emotional significance in a time of rapid socioeconomic change. Perhaps because so many European filmmakers grew up in welfare states, they are also quicker to voice their anger at the callousness with which governments and corporations, local or global, blow off the workers on whom their insane appetite for profit depends. Earlier this year, Danish director Per Fly’s The Inheritance offered a searing account of the carnage that ensues when the young CEO of a family business takes the company into a brave new corporate world.

 

Still, I have seen no more rigorous or chilling portrait of the crisis of modern work from above and below than that depicted in the first two parts of French director Laurent Cantet’s heartbreaking trilogy examining class divisions in contemporary France. In the 1999 movie Human Resources, released this August on DVD, Franck, a bushy-tailed young college graduate, returns from Paris to his provincial hometown to take up a junior managerial post in the manufacturing company where his father has worked the assembly line for 30 years. Franck grew up attending company-sponsored summer camp in an era of relatively benign cooperation between management and labor. Assuming that this mutual trust still obtains, Franck sets out to wow both his bosses and his subordinates by polling employees about their opinions of the cost-saving 35-hour workweek which the company, in line with French national policy, is about to set in place. In short order he finds himself caught between the union and a savagely predatory management, which has used his survey to generate a secret list designed to lay off workers who have been with the company long enough to make a decent living. Franck’s father, who is only three years shy of retirement and fiercely loyal to the company, is on the list. When the disillusioned young man breaks the news, the older man doggedly continues to show up for work, and the family is torn apart by conflict until the union calls a strike.

Human Resources offers a powerfully subjective evocation of what it feels like to fall prey to the sea changes that, with shocking rapidity, are altering the face of corporate-run workplaces the world over. Cantet makes us feel the daily stress of a hostile working environment: the chronic insecurity of wondering who, and how many, will have the boom lowered on them; the inner struggle between self-preservation and worker solidarity; the poisonous erosion of trust within and between levels of the organization; the toll taken on productivity, as well as on family and other long-standing friendships. As the movie ends, Franck gloomily asks a young black striker who’s married with twins what options he has if he’s not hired back after the strike. The question is never answered, but by then Cantet has placed us in the shoes not just of powerless workers in de-fanged unions, but of the hapless Franck, caught inescapably between serving his masters and screwing his subordinates. In today’s corporate structure, it’s hard to imagine a more thanklessly self-contradictory job than human-resources manager, which involves letting the workers eat cake on birthdays and holidays while serving as the axe that falls when top brass decides it’s time to shave the budget.

Time Out (2001), the second film in Cantet’s trilogy — the third is still in production — takes on the cripplingly inhuman nature of corporate work at the upper levels. In this masterpiece, which is based on a true story, Vincent, an executive recently fired from a job he hated, drifts around the country, sleeping in his car, pretending to his increasingly uneasy family that he’s still employed while enlisting friends in a grandiose and fraudulent global-investment scheme. He’s a monster in a monstrous world, and the movie is told from his point of view as he grows more and more detached from the reality of his situation. At the end, we see Vincent, his cover blown, calmly interviewing for a senior job in a firm indistinguishable from the one for which he had previously worked. He walks the walk and talks the talk, but his face is a spiritless mask of quiet despair.

In real life, this man went home and killed his entire family.


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