BOB GARFIELD: This summer, Hollywood is offering us close-ups of a variety of American workplaces, ranging from the silly to the sadistic. WNYC's Sara Fishko shares her take on the daily grind on the silver screen. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
SARA FISHKO: They say that life is divided into three more or less equal parts – the hours you sleep, the hours you work and the hours you spend in other pursuits, recreation, I guess you'd call it. How you apportion that time, assuming you have the luxury of making decisions about it at all, where you put the work part of it, that's the stuff of conflict. Most movies are about the recreation part of life. [AMERICAN BEAUTY FILM CLIP]
CAROLYN BURNHAM: Your father and I were just discussing his day at work. Why don't you tell our daughter about it, honey?
LESTER BURNHAM: Janie, today I quit my job.
WOMAN: [LAUGHS] [END FILM CLIP]
SARA FISHKO: The movie starts when the protagonist leaves work, because for many people, that's where life begins. [FILM CLIP]
CAROLYN BURNHAM: And I marvel that you can be so contemptuous of me on the same day that you lose your job!
LESTER BURNHAM: I didn't lose it. It's not like, whoops, where did my job go? I quit! Someone pass the asparagus.
SARA FISHKO: And nobody ever really does much working on screen. Lately, though, work itself seems to be rising to the surface of pop culture again. A movie like "Clerks 2" shows us work in scenes from the lives of the monumentally unambitious. [CLERKS 2 CLIP]
MAN: Thirty-two and you're flipping burgers? [CRASHING SOUND]
MAN: Is anyone else from our graduating class back there? [END CLIP]
SARA FISHKO: And The Devil Wears Prada shows us the behavior at work of the phenomenally, insanely driven. [FILM CLIP]
MERYL STREEP: I don't see my breakfast here. Are my eggs here? Where are my eggs?
MERYL STREEP: Where's that piece of paper I had in my hand yesterday morning? [END DEVIL WEARS PRADA CLIP]
SARA FISHKO: As entry-level types try to figure out what price they have to pay to break into that working world- [CLIP]
ANNE HATHAWAY: My personal life is hanging by a thread. That's all.
STANLEY TUCCI: Well, join the club. And that's what happens when you start doing well at work, darling. Let me know when your whole life goes up in smoke. That means it's time for a promotion. [END FILM CLIP]
LISA BELKIN: Work used to be, you know, Dad coming home at 5 o'clock on "Father Knows Best" and eating dinner. And it has not been that way [LAUGHS] for a very, very long time.
SARA FISHKO: Lisa Belkin writes a New York Times column on life and work.
LISA BELKIN: Now we've become obsessed. All these things we invented – I've got the BlackBerry and I've got the laptop and I have the cell phone, and I'm very proud of myself that I can go and work in a hammock on the beach, but I'm working in a hammock on the beach.
SARA FISHKO: It's well known that work has changed for some of us. The 40-hour week is history, they say, and it's more common to work 60 or even 80 hours a week from wherever you happen to be. What's interesting is that with all that, popular movies reveal the same concerns now as they did practically at the dawn of talkies and before - [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] - the repetition of work and the amount of work that we actually have to do. In the mid-30s, Charlie Chaplin pretty much said it all in "Modern Times" with the Tramp, whose wrenches keep moving in his hands as he twitches, even after he gets off the job. [CLANKING SOUNDS] [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
AL GINI: That perhaps is the universal claim of dissent from the workplace, the repetitive, robotic activities of work, which, again, could be from a brain surgeon to working on the assembly line.
SARA FISHKO: Al Gini is a professor of business ethics and author of My Job, Myself.
AL GINI: In fact, I often think of work as erasure, like the nickel erasers that we could buy at the dime store, the Five and Ten – that it would just wear us down.
SARA FISHKO: Just a couple of years after "Modern Times," in 1938, an old '20s play called "Holiday" was made into a movie, and that's almost like an answer to Chaplin -- Cary Grant, crazy in love, he thinks, with a rich, social-climbing woman but not quite ready to pay the price for joining her and her father in their quest for what they consider the good things in life. [HOLIDAY CLIP]
CARY GRANT: I don't want too much money.
MAN: Too much money?
CARY GRANT: Well, more than I need to live by. You see, it's always been my idea to make a few thousands early in the game and then quit for as long as they last, and try to find out who I am and what goes on and what about it, now, while I'm young and feel good all the time. [END CLIP]
SARA FISHKO: After World War II, of course, the daily grind was just something you wanted to get back to. [MILDRED PIERCE CLIP]
WOMAN: Short stack, easy on the butter. [CROWD SOUNDS]
WOMAN: Adam and Eve on a wrap. [END CLIP]
SARA FISHKO: Mildred Pierce and her restaurant, paying the bills, grateful for the work. [FILM CLIP]
WOMAN: We've been jammed ever since the doors opened. [END CLIP]
SARA FISHKO: But it wasn't long before the soul searching started anew - [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] - and people in movies – and in life – started to wonder how to rise to the top and stay human, in films like "The Best of Everything," from 1959 - [THE BEST OF EVERYTHING CLIP]
WOMAN: You work for Miss Farrow today. Gregg Adams' regular girl is out sick. [END CLIP]
SARA FISHKO: - with Joan Crawford as a woman possessed. [FILM CLIP]
AMANDA FARROW (JOAN CRAWFORD): I told Mr. Shalimar that you were not qualified, Miss Bender. You're too soft. I don't think you could stand up to a writer and say, your work is no good. I don't think you have the guts. CAROLINE (HOPE LANGE): Thank you for your confidence in me. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] [END FILM CLIP]
SARA FISHKO: But, of course, you were never quite sure what those people actually did. It was a generic kind of work, which, amazingly, dominated the film while still remaining in the background. In the foreground was the romance. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] And we heard a little bit about work in the '60s, but as satire. [FILM CLIP] [SCORE TO "THE GRADUATE"]
MAN: I just want to say one word to you.
SARA FISHKO: And only again in the background of the real story.
MAN: Plastics. [END FILM CLIP]
LISA BELKIN: It never got in the way. It never was a problem. I think where that changed was probably "Working Girl" and "Nine to Five" – [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] - where suddenly work was the issue and fighting back at work was the issue. I mean, this was all an '80s thing, with the Wall Street movies, the idea that what you did was what you were. [FILM CLIP]
WOMAN: I am your employee, and as such I expect to be treated equally, with a little dignity and a little respect. [END FILM CLIP] [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
AL GINI: It's about how we parcel out power, who we let in and how we manage our jobs.
SARA FISHKO: There are popular films that have sweetly captured the real stuff of work – only a few. "Broadcast News" is one, I guess, which gets at the attraction some specific types of people have for work of a certain kind. [FILM CLIP] [SOUND OF TAPE RECORDER FAST-FORWARDING]
WOMAN: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Speak to you later. Okay, Bobby, go back to 9:45-46, a sound bite in the alley. It starts, so why were you in Angola?
MAN: We could go - [OVERTALK]
WOMAN: Please, Bobby! We're pushing! [END FILM CLIP]
SARA FISHKO: And even an old classic, like "The Red Shoes," which shows us people who live and die for their work. [FILM CLIP]
MAN: I want to create, to make something big out of something little -- to make a great dancer out of you. [END FILM CLIP]
SARA FISHKO: But the one thing all of them have in common, from Charlie in the factory to Benjamin Braddock in the swimming pool and beyond, is the quest for the dream job on the dream schedule -- the current American dream, our professor tells us. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
AL GINI: Thirty hours a week with six weeks off [CHUCKLES] every year at an extraordinary fee, and doing something you absolutely love and are recognized as being successful [LAUGHS] at it -– it's not a possible American reality.
SARA FISHKO: The fact is all of us, the burger-flipping clerks and the Prada-toting fashionistas, and everyone in between, we're all looking for the right balance, and maybe even for a partner who agrees with us on what the right balance might be. And reaching that point, the perfect balance? Well, that is as boring on film as it is in life. Which reminds me, got to go. Got another recording session back to back with this one. Then I'm off to the airport. Really sorry. For On the Media, I'm Sara Fishko.
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jamie York, Mike Vuolo and Mark Phillips, and edited – by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer, with extra engineering help from Ed Haber. We had more help from Noah Kumin. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.