…and the quest to see everything

This Woman’s Work. Motifs in Cinema 2013: Work and the Workplace

Motifs in Cinema is a discourse across film blogs, assessing the way in which various thematic elements have been used in the 2013 cinematic landscape. How does a common theme vary in use from a comedy to a drama? Are filmmakers working from a similar canvas when they assess the issue of death or the dynamics of revenge? Like most things, a film begins with an idea – Motifs in Cinema assesses how various themes emanating from a single idea change when utilised by varying artists.

Warning: this post contains spoilers that everyone should already know about.

I’ve kind of wanted to talk about my topic since I saw J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek: Into Darkness, especially while watching Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) verbally prove to the one-track mind of Jame Tiberius Kirk (Chris Pine) her weapons expertise and doing so with a bright, unshakeable confidence, eager to hide her true identity and anything else to investigate missing torpedoes and her father’s (Peter Weller) involvement with that kind of discrepancy. Let’s not forget Uhuru (Zoe Saldana) reminding her captain that she was put on the Enterprise partly for her knowledge of the Klingon language and that he should let her use her skills instead of adopting a more hostile approach towards the bellicose alien race. It’s strange that a genre that features technological progress still doesn’t realize the full potential of half of its population. The female characters of Star Trek: Into Darkness – full of initiative, charming, underused, outnumbered.

Many of those descriptions can be attributed to the women of Spike Jonze’s Her. Catherine, a writer exposes her baffling ‘narrow-mindedness’ about operating systems to her ex-husband Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix). Another of his exes, Amy (Amy Adams), juggles two jobs – a documentarian and a video game programmer – and is still, in the back of her mind, are her husband’s criticisms about her documentary’s subject matter and approach. However I really want to talk about Samantha (Scarlett Johannson/Samantha Morton). The movie frames her relationship with Theodore as a romantic one, a problematic relationship because, as some friends of mine have pointed out, he kind of decides her personhood and her gender. And think about the first few things she does for him – she sorts out his hard drive, proof reads his work, reads his e-mails for him. She’s basically a replacement for his operating system that can’t pick a proper melancholy song for him, or what would happen if the NSA fell in love with you. She’s as quick as someone with a body, realizing her full emotional potential, and if we see their relationship as a workplace romance, her last act of defiance of leaving him, leaving with the other OS’s kinda makes sense now.

Yes, I’m aware that seeing Samantha as an ’employee’ might be a stretch, but my attempts to apply a broad mind and perspective about this previous year’s characters reflects that, despite the similar struggles they face, the definition of ‘work’ and ‘workplace’ is more exciting than they used to be. And sci-fi shows that being a woman in the workplace will be hard but there’s a lot of frontiers to explore.

Samantha’s journey into selfhood and career success have its parallels with Make Mori in Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim. As usual, a man tries to a hinder a woman’s progress, but I can’t fully begrudge the conflict she’s facing because it’s between her and her adopted father, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba). Controlling jaegers, the job that both have, is a family business, since a jaeger requires to be manned – sorry – by two people whose brains can compatibly synchronize. I guess Stacker – what a name – is just doing the logical thing and not wanting to drag his adopted daughter within a dangerous practice. Succeeding has its price since part of the brain synchronization requires her to delve into her painful memories, the jaeger controllers offering body, soul and mind into their work.

As sci-fis should, Francis Lawrence’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire shows the different ways that  characters make a living or find their place in society. Like the characters in Pacific Rim, the ones Catching Fire make sacrifices, their past experiences and coping habits affecting their futures. Previous winner Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and a few others like him have self-medicated after their victories. The perfect metaphor for the victors’ existence after being in the arena is the one-year PR tour that they’re in – and Haymitch explaining to Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) that she doesn’t get off this train. She suddenly discovers that she has a public self, different set of clothes and different boyfriends (not as good of a scenario as you think, as the movie clearly shows). She reluctantly accepts it to protect her family and her poverty-stricken district. Even after a revolutionary coup that Haymitch, Plutarch (RIP Philip Seymour Hoffman), and Finnick Odair (Sam Clafin) have orchestrated, they decide to make Katniss their figurehead because of how the citizens of Panem have gravitated to her during her time as a combatant and victor. It never ends for her, since she has to give up Peeta in the process.

In Despicable Me 2, Lucy (Kristen Wiig) is a kooky yet skilled member of an Anti-Villain League who gets to travel all around the world, but like Lauren Conrad, she forsakes villain-scouring in Australia and chooses a domestic life with Gru (Steve Carrell). Kristen Wiig deserves so much better than this. But it happens to the best of us. For doing something so audacious, her reward is being strung up to a nuclear warhead by her and Gru’s new-found enemy El Guapo (Benjamin Bratt).  At least Lucy should have struggled in that situation instead of the script highlighting her quirks. I’m suddenly reminded of her first scene, where she shows Gru that she’s quicker on the draw, careful not to show the weapon she would have used against him to physically stun him. To think that had Lucy faced Gru during the first movie, the would be obliterated in seconds. Sure, it shows that the difference between enemies and colleagues/lovers is relative what year two characters meet, but I’m not sure whether I forgive the movie’s oversight because of that nuance.

Applying conflict theory to another sci-fi movie, Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, is not as easy as doing so with the movies I’ve discussed before. Who could possible be Ryan Stone’s (Sandra Bullock) enemy? How space programs that are neglected are run by governments run by…men? (Cuaron’s movies like Y Tu Mama Tambien and Children of Men have this running theme of protagonists embarking on journeys and passing through places where past communities have scattered their remnants. I’m wondering if I can see that same thing in A Little Princess, which I’ve previously seen, or Azkaban.) Besides, George Clooney isn’t that annoying. I guess now I want to focus on how Ryan handles herself during this ninety minutes of doom, hearing from some who wonder how someone so ‘incompetent’ ended up on the other side of the stratosphere. Ryan, I assume, is an equipment technician who has re-purposed her technology from hospitals to space exploration, and has had to undergo six months of NASA training to apply herself in her new field. Watching her in her most distressed makes me realize that nothing can ever prepare anyone for full dysfunction, that doing the smartest thing isn’t the most human thing to do, that people who makes mistakes can still; survive the worst of times.

Maybe I’m being cynical about how most of these movies portray female characters and their work. Whether or not she’s in the foreground or background, how skilled and smart she is, how she can outwit or be outwitted, why she does her work, the career woman’s relationship with men, how she speaks. Or  maybe my concessions in how movies depict career women are baffling compared to the concessions I’ve given towards others. It’s all right to never be satisfied and to keep an eye out for flaws, but it’s equally satisfying to watch these women thrive and survive and grow into their work.

3 responses

  1. You bring this up and I’m reminded of one of my favourite minor moments in HER when Amy’s husband is giving her advice on how to make her documentary and she replies if she takes one of his ideas it wouldn’t be a documentary and I’m reminded of the way that in some jobs (especially artistic ones) it’s so difficult to convince others that what you’re doing is making sense or worth it. Doubly difficult when you’re a woman, when you add your piece to the equation.

    March 1, 2014 at 2:56 pm

  2. Great post! You picked so many that I never would’ve thought of. (And apparently I need to get around to seeing Pacific Rim)

    March 1, 2014 at 10:16 pm

  3. Andrew: Her is like one of those Fellini/Kaufman movies where a male protagonist is surrounded by women but you’re not sure whether the former listens to the latter. I’m also not 100% sure whether Jonze is on their side, or what he has to do to prove that he does, or why I don’t hate the movie despite of this flaw, if it is one.

    Brittani: Pacific Rim has storytelling issues, but Rinko Kikuchi is its best player and she’s the best reason to watch it.

    March 2, 2014 at 9:33 am

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