Labor Day is just around the corner. And contrary to its name, you, the reader, more than likely do not conduct your said labors on that day. But film never sleeps, you see, and consequently the characters within them work every time they’re watched. Their actions are recorded and ultimately looped ad infinitum. Whether their hard work yield social change, the dissolution of the individual and/or family unit or to change at all, the films are centered on the fruits of their labor, if you will; fruits both poisonous and sweet.
To all you laboring cinephiles out there, this is for you.
On the Waterfront (Kazan, 1954): That’s right, we’re keeping it classy to begin with. Terry Malloy, legendarily played by Marlon Brando, finds himself traversing the almost arbitrary line between working on the New Jersey docks and being right-hand man to mob-boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). True, a job is a job whether it be legal or illegal, but this film is, I believe, particularly focused on incompetence and failure. The failed dream, the failed achievement to become a boxer [“I could’ve been a contender!”] and the insecurity that brews within Terry in acknowledging his fate. In fact, Terry never seems to cohere well in the streets or on the docks, rather only when isolated atop a roof caring for a kit of pigeons. Indeed, there are what we may call “just desserts” for Johnny and his goons in the end, but Terry well never truly be the same. A steady job on the docks can only reach so far. Despite a scarred past, Terry heroically gains a successful victory in the crumbling down of a hustling mobster regime.
The Godfather: Part II (Coppola, 1974): I must say, I have quite a soft spot for Gangster films, reveling in the murky noir style through which they exist. So, we come to number two on our list. The second part of Coppola’s Godfather trilogy is so tragically beautiful it makes one’s knees buckle. While Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) fully takes on the role and persona of ‘Godfather’, the film intercuts to the origins of a young Don Vito Corleone (Robert DeNiro) and the rise of his family. It would be appropriate to recommend The Godfather itself, and I do, however the second part is keen on the very notion that a capitalistic society leads to the dissolution of the family. Where it rose in the past, falls in the end. At what cost does Michael take over the family business? Familial trust, his moral compass, his soul? The film is a study in power, a study in the American work ethic where legitimate corporations can gather at the same table as organized crime. The latter “business” may be as American as they come.
Dirty, Pretty Things (Frears, 2003): Where the clock never stops and the guests never sleep. Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an undocumented immigrant from Nigeria, works as a London hotel attendant wherein he uncovers a rather dark side of an otherwise luxurious temporary stead. I would reveal more, but in the spirit of suspense-sustaining I will refrain. Nevertheless, the film seems to convey that people will do most anything to buy forged passports, to leave the country in pursuit of the ‘American Dream’ (as envisioned by the character Senay (Audrey Tatou)). The working conditions are less than tolerable and the undocumented are preyed upon by the Mephistopheles-like hotel manager Juan (Sergi López) who acts on their blind desires for a better life. A perspective in the fictionalized life of involuntary labor and unending toil.
There Will Be Blood (Anderson, 2007): Work at the hands of blood and greed or, as it’s known to Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis), just another day on the job. These are the themes Daniel faces as he does his handy work in oil, drilling the land dry until nothing’s left. His only motivation seems to be that of an inner voice that screams “competition!”. Dedicated, “pulled up by his own boot straps” as they say, Daniel Plainview is a self-made man, the kind that can validate his existence through the work he himself has conducted (evidenced by the first silent sequence of the film). It’s the isolated, empty and erosive nature of capitalism, conducive to over-consumption. It’s a dog-eat-dog world and Daniel is always hungry.
Nightcrawler (Gilroy, 2014): Last on our list here is fairly recent and highly recommended by this spectator. While we’re on the topic of consumption, the same applies to Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) whose mind is filled with so many random facts and factoids from the internet that he truly makes no humanistic sense at all. He’s a sociopath so consumed by the digital age’s wealth of information information in the digital age that his final and ultimate career choice is being head of a “professional news gathering service” in a world where “if it’s not exciting, it’s not news.” An eerie world in which the once-informative news aspires mainly to entertain its viewers. But for Louis this is all in a day’s work. Despite obstacles, humiliation, and several casualties, it’s another day and another dollar.
Hopefully, after taking a gander at these films over your holiday break you won’t feel terribly reluctant to return to your labors the next day.