Men at Work
The filmic depiction of work—as in labor or employment—is a fraught task. The actual experience of a day’s work is generally fragmented, inconclusive, often dull, sometimes fulfilling or maddening, certainly not structured in any quickly digestible manner. We turn to art and entertainment for the satisfactions (and occasionally satisfying subversions) of coherence, form, meaning, and for the concentration of drama and humor in consumable packets. A depiction of the actual act of working, no matter how glamorous the job, would be impossibly tedious. For this reason, movies invent all sorts of shortcuts and fabrications when depicting people at their professional occupation. The actual unadorned representation of labor is, in fact, so impossible an act that those few films that have attempted it—for example, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles—are typically seen as radically avant-garde, as deliberately provocative experiments in boredom.
Four films released at the end of the year observe men at work with varying degrees of verisimilitude. All engage in standard filmic shortcuts, most notably editing that elides long periods of time into short segments that represent a lengthy occupational task: for example, performing a scientific calculation, painting a picture, or sitting on a stakeout. Coincidentally, two of the films, both prestigious awards-bait works, deal with British scientific geniuses who faced unusual and specific health challenges but nevertheless managed extraordinary achievements that still resonate today. Both films are slickly made, impeccably acted, absorbing and engaging yet suffer from predictable, by-the-numbers conventionality, and from a failure to solve the problem of depicting the work of these men in convincing ways. The other two films, while extremely different from each other, more successfully convey the reality of their protagonists’ occupations.
Directed by Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game tells the still-too-little-known story of Alan Turing, the mathematical genius who, along with a team of brilliant colleagues holed up at a top-secret estate in rural England, broke the Nazis’ “Enigma” Code, thereby allowing Britain to eavesdrop on German communications. Historians estimate that Turing’s achievement reduced the length of the war by two years; Winston Churchill deemed him the single person most responsible for the Allied victory. The prickly Turing made few friends in the government, however, and his homosexuality, about which he was unusually open for the time, became a problem in the paranoid and conservative postwar climate. Arrested in 1952 for homosexual acts, he was sentenced to forced chemical sterilization and died within two years, an apparent suicide.
The film jumps among three time periods: Turing’s last, tragic years, his awkward adolescence as a bullied boy in love with his best friend, and his heady days during the war. The bulk of the film depicts the stop-and-start process of breaking the code. Calculating that there are 158 quintillion potential encryption keys, Turing quickly realizes that the only hope is to build a machine that can do the work, a proto-calculator (which the film perhaps too winkingly calls a “digital computer”). The actual process of watching a machine being built, not to mention said machine going through innumerable calculations, is, of course, not remotely cinematic, so the film instead focuses on the tension between Turing and his colleagues. These men (plus one woman) are initially put off by his superior and unfriendly attitude and at first resist his ideas; they ultimately embrace them, however, forming a bulwark of defense against the uncomprehending military brass who keep threatening to shut the project down. Inevitably, the film, like so many before it, cannot resist attributing the breakthrough moment not to deliberate, repetitive work, but to a flash of inspiration. Overhearing a secretary at a pub talking about how she feels she knows the German soldier whose coded messages she is transcribing thanks to his quirky pattern of transmission, Turing suddenly realizes that he can use this personalization in his calculations, all but shouts “Eureka!” and dashes into the night, followed by his scurrying, thrilled colleagues. It is a classic movie moment, as exhilarating as it is clichéd.
Benedict Cumberbatch, the buzzy British actor who plays Turing, has made something of a specialty of a character-driven genre that might be dubbed “Asperger-chic.” Turing, like Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes in the wildly popular BBC series Sherlock, displays traits that are typically associated with Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning disorder on the autism spectrum. People with Asperger’s tend to have trouble reading social cues, particularly non-verbal cues, and thus have difficulty with everyday interactions that most people conduct naturally and unthinkingly. They also have trouble understanding and expressing empathy. At the same time, some people with Asperger’s display extraordinary ability in highly specialized areas, such as mathematics or music, and can become obsessed and inflexibly talkative about arcane subjects, despite others’ lack of interest. The character of Sheldon, played by Jim Parsons on the popular television sitcom The Big Bang Theory, is a gently drawn example of the syndrome that has helped popularize its depiction in the culture. Cumberbatch, with his odd ability to be both cold and passionate, both off-putting and charming, has further popularized the type, becoming an unlikely sex symbol in the process. There is perhaps something alluringly unattainable in his characters’ brilliance, their lack of interest in endearing themselves to anyone. Cumberbatch’s Turing is a quintessential Asperger’s type, avant la lettre. He does not register his colleagues’ attempts at friendly engagement and then cannot understand their subsequent exasperation. The film fetishizes this character trait, connecting it directly to Turing’s astounding abilities. It makes a great deal out of the congruity between the various types of codes that Turing has to navigate: cryptographical, sexual, social and political. His Asperger’s may have helped him with the first code, the film indicates, but it left him ill equipped for deciphering the other three.
Inevitably, The Imitation Game falls victim to the urge to “cure” Turing, or at least to vindicate him. Much of the emotional arc of the film involves his gradual softening and his growing friendship with his colleagues. We all want to believe that with attention and time, we could break through the shell of the unreachable mad genius, but there is dishonesty to the film’s pandering to those desires. The Imitation Game shows Turing getting in touch with his feelings, but there is no historical indication that that ever happened. In particular, the film’s Turing develops an intense bond with the only woman on the team of code breakers, Joan Clarke, played with fierce brilliance by the marvelous (and inaccurately gorgeous) Keira Knightley. Screenwriter Graham Moore even provides a cringe-worthy scene at the end of the movie in which Clarke enumerates to the distressed Turing all of the ways in which he saved the world, a moment that is as superficially satisfying as it is maudlin and false. Ultimately, The Imitation Game gives us very little sense of Turing’s actual work, preferring to emphasize instead his emotional state, his quirky relationships, and his status as a martyr. The mathematical complexities of coding certainly render the minute details of his process impossible to dramatize, but an attempt to go beyond the broad strokes would have been welcome, as would an attempt to avoid the standard clichés of depicting brilliant men at work.
The Imitation Game, for all its flaws, works as cinema thanks to its superb cast, its high production values, its storytelling cleverness, and the indisputably fascinating story at its core. It is a more complex and nuanced work than The Theory of Everything, a hagiographic depiction of the brilliant Stephen Hawking. A physicist and cosmologist who made major contributions to the understanding of relativity and quantum mechanics, Hawking popularized astronomical science with his massively successful book A Brief History of Time, a compulsively readable treatise on black holes, time travel and other irresistible scientific subjects. Hawking has spent almost his entire adult life living with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a progressively crippling condition that has left him almost completely paralyzed and unable to communicate except through a speech-generation device. When he was first diagnosed at age 21, he was given two years to live. Over 50 years later, Hawking is still alive, a minor celebrity and an undeniably inspirational figure. The film focuses on his relationship with his first wife, Jane, whom he met shortly before his diagnosis and with whom he lived for 25 years, fathering three children. Jane Hawking has written extensively about the challenges of her marriage, of being a full-time caregiver, and of the need for physical and emotional companionship that eventually led her into the arms of a family friend. Stephen, for his part, eventually fell in love with his nurse and left Jane and his children, causing a rift that subsequently healed only when he divorced the second wife.
Given this subject matter, The Theory of Everything (a portentous title inspired by Hawking’s attempts to unify the disparate strains of relativity and quantum physics) cannot quite help but end up as a classy soap opera cum movie of the week. A pair of superb performances anchors the film, particularly Eddie Redmayne’s meticulous depiction of the scientist’s gradual descent into paralysis. This young actor (a Tony winner for the play Red), by necessity had to film the role out of sequence, requiring him to diagram the character’s ever-changing level of disability and then employ a specific physicality depending on where in the chronology a given scene was taking place, a task he achieves with complete success. He also beautifully conveys Hawking’s sly wit and nerdy passion, even when reduced to acting with nothing more than subtle eye movements. Felicity Jones nicely underplays Jane’s angst and her anger, creating a wholly sympathetic character out of material that does little to give her an inner life. Neither Stephen nor Jane have much of an outer life either, at least when it comes to their work. Jane’s work as a Professor of Romance Languages barely receives mention, and Hawking’s groundbreaking work gets only cursory treatment and most of it in science-movie cliché at that. For example, early on, he challenges a conservative old guard that finds his new theories to be heretical nonsense. Later, he basks in the standard worship of adoring colleagues and students. But just what exactly makes Hawking’s work important, and just how he achieves his insights, what his process looks (or at least feels) like—all of this remains invisible. It is ironic that the filmmakers did not trust their audience to understand or relate to the actual work of a man who has done more to popularize complex physical science than almost any other scholar of the last century.
The labor of art is arguably easier to portray than the labor of science. Painting is an inherently physical act, at least in its material manifestation. The depiction of fine art on film has a long and honorable history, including multiple biopics each of Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Goya, da Vinci, and van Gogh, not to mention Andrei Rublev (in Andrei Tarkovsky’s austere masterpiece) and Michelangelo (in the pulpy The Agony and the Ecstasy). More recently, Frida Kahlo and Jackson Pollock have found successful cinematic representation. Standing above all is the thrilling documentary The Mystery of Picasso, which gets us closer to the actual act of artistic composition than any film ever made. Now comes the new film from director Mike Leigh, Mr. Turner, which concerns the last quarter century of the life of J. M. W. Turner, the great British landscape artist. Leigh thankfully leans more toward the art than the biography, as is his wont. As evidenced in his colossally entertaining, enormously insightful film Topsy Turvy, which examined the collaboration of the lyricist W. S. Gilbert and the composer Arthur Sullivan, Leigh is mostly interested in process, in how a work of art, for example a comic operetta, moves from conception to transcription to casting to rehearsal to performance. In Topsy Turvy, Leigh assiduously avoided false theatrics and artificial story arcs, refusing the clichés of genre, such as the tormented artist tamed by audience approval, or the misunderstood artist vindicated by popular success, or the battling collaborators who come together for the good of the show. “The problem is that he doesn’t dramatize anything,” a friend of mine complained after seeing Topsy Turvy. “The genius is that he doesn’t dramatize anything,” a wiser friend averred.
Mr. Turner takes much the same approach, paying very close attention to Turner’s artistic process, to what he pulled from the world around him, to how he studied and replicated light, color, perspective, and to how he displayed his work for critics, fellow artists, and patrons. The film paints a remarkably complete picture of the artistic ecosystem of its day (that is to say, the early nineteenth century), including the exhibitions, the financing, the professional, social and political networks, and the ways in which an artist would live and travel in order to maximize his capacity. What Leigh does not do is set up conflicts just in order to resolve them and provide catharsis, gratification or relief for the audience. Problems come up naturally, such as a late-film indication that the London cognoscenti are starting to find his work too challenging, but they pass without explicit resolution, certainly without an apologetic mea culpa from society or its representatives, such as Alan Turing gets at the end of The Imitation Game. Leigh’s refusal of the standard tropes of artistic biography and his concomitant focus on the practice and structural economics of artistic creation itself will be frustrating to some viewers. Like many of his films, Mr. Turner can feel episodic and shapeless. Scenes lack big payoffs, characters appear and disappear without explanation, and planted seeds do not bear dramatic fruit. Depending on one’s viewpoint, these tactics are either vexing or refreshingly honest and lifelike.
Leigh’s Turner is gruff and crusty, but also fair and mostly honorable. He is kind, even courtly, to some and cruel to others. He visits brothels and palaces. He is, in short, completely human, and Leigh blessedly spares us the psychological backstory that would explain his contradictions, allowing us just to accept them as givens and as context for his art, which remains the focus. Even the interpersonal relationships, such as a touching bond that Turner develops with the widowed landlady of a seaside inn (endearingly played by Marion Bailey), chiefly exist to show us how Turner managed his life in ways that allowed him time and space to create. As the film begins, he receives a visit from his angry ex-mistress and their two daughters, whom he can barely bring himself to acknowledge. They are distractions from his work, useless to his unceasing artistic drive. Most troubling is Turner’s relationship with his timid, adoring housekeeper Hannah (a superb Dorothy Atkinson), whom he sexually exploits and then ignores. Her devotion enables not only his artistic labor but also his lack of engagement with society and with real feeling.
The great British actor Timothy Spall plays Turner as a massive stew of tics, grunts and bluster. Spall has worked frequently with Leigh in the past and has made forays into Hollywood (appearing as Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter movies and as the Beadle in Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd). Here he surpasses himself, carrying in his pained countenance and his hunched, shambling frame all of the psychology that Leigh wisely avoids explicating. Spall’s Turner is a misfit, quite possibly a sufferer of Asperger’s syndrome, a man who only finds contentment in his work. The performance is all the more remarkable when one understands Leigh’s artistic method, which relies heavily on long and intense periods of improvisatory rehearsal and research. He begins each project without a script, gathers his actors, and asks them to investigate their characters, involving them in every detail of speech, action, costuming, and so forth. The scripts develop from months of extensive role-playing and extemporization, with much material developed and cast aside. Eventually a script consolidates and filming begins. For this role, Spall worked with professional painters to develop his brush technique, ensuring that the frequent scenes of Turner at work would resonate as authentic and not just dramatic. Mr. Turner lacks The Imitation Game’s narrative vigor and The Theory of Everything’s engaging central characters, but in its comprehensive and analytical illustration of Turner’s labor, it supplies a more profound and lasting artistic experience than the other two films.
Thousands of miles and hundreds of years away from Turner’s early-Victorian England lies modern Los Angeles, a favorite of noir-inflected filmmakers who love the city’s endless streets, lit as if by an expressionist artist, and its prodigious and contiguous variety, from gated suburb to third-world slum, from Spanish hacienda to postmodern tower. “L.A. Noir” is a rich genre, and writer-director Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler is the best in a while. A transformed, virtually unrecognizable Jake Gyllenhaal plays Louis Bloom, a petty loser, desperate for work, who finds himself at the scene of a car crash one night. The grisly sight has attracted several videographers, who make a living selling footage of newsworthy incidents to local newscasts. The more shocking and violent the video, the more the station will pay: “If it bleeds, it leads,” a weathered cameraman tells Bloom. Realizing that he has found his calling, Bloom quickly becomes one of the most accomplished and ruthless nightcrawlers in the city, monitoring police scanners and racing to crime and accident scenes. In this endeavor he is encouraged by Nina Romina (a superb Rene Russo, too long denied such a juicy role), a desperate news director who craves the ratings that Bloom’s shocking videos guarantee. Bloom’s lack of principles eventually leads to his rearranging injury victims to allow for more aesthetically powerful camera angles, and ultimately to his stage-managing an entire grisly scene of violence. Romina ignores Bloom’s obviously unethical, if not criminal, methods, a damning but not undeserved commentary on contemporary television news.
Nightcrawler feels like one of those wonderful late-’70s/early-’80s dark-city films that came out in the last, sputtering days of the Hollywood Renaissance, such as Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver or Brian De Palma’s Blow Out. It has those films’ surprising humor, their bursts of horrendous carnage, and their fascination with the detritus of the big city. (It is lacking only those films’ brazen cinematographic stylization; not for Gilroy the split screen or the slow-motion tracking shot). What makes Bloom almost as fascinating a character as Travis Bickle (from Taxi Driver) is his insistence on treating his job as a structured profession, subject to the same regulations and guidance as any office job. Bloom hires a young assistant to help him on his nightly rounds, a young man named Rick (Riz Ahmed), whom he lectures and counsels as a banker would a summer intern, extolling the benefits of discipline, ambition, punctiliousness and loyalty. Much of the movie’s humor lies in Bloom’s earnest self-image and his equating of his work with traditional, legitimate occupations. But at some point midway through the film, the joke curdles, and it becomes clear that there is something very wrong with Bloom. His discourse, all self-help platitudes and how-to-win-friends-and-influence-people bromides, sounds less and less goofy and more and more chilling. Bloom is, ultimately, a person without any interior life. He is instead an almost robotic amalgamation of uncontextualized advice he has read on the internet and misunderstood attitudes he has witnessed in popular culture. Gyllenhaal’s performance is masterful. He defaults to a tight grin, as if constantly reminding himself of a rule of thumb he once read about a smile being your best accessory. As the depths of Bloom’s emptiness become clear, Gyllenhaal sticks to his shtick, resisting the urge to play evil and thereby becoming even more chilling. By staying cool, the actor is able to maintain character when Gilroy raises the film’s emotional and kinetic temperature in the final, electrifying scenes.
Gyllenhaal’s Bloom has no time for theatrics, for emotion, or for empathy; for him it is all—and only—about the work. Gilroy’s camera follows him on his nightly rounds and is not afraid of showing false starts and longeurs. Certainly he engages in filmic condensation, making particularly felicitous use of several montage sequences that help us track Bloom’s ascent. But these shortcuts feel artful, not dishonest. We gain a deep understanding not just of Bloom’s motivation, but also, as with Leigh’s depiction of Turner, his process and, more, the socioeconomic context of his labor. Gilroy delves into the financial transactions that underlie the creation of the news, as well as the legal calculations that shape how far a newscast will go to get a story. He recognizes that these details are what give a film its weight and its impact. Like Turing and Turner, Bloom is a misfit who, for better or worse, finds a job at which he is incredibly capable. The detailed and insightful depiction of that vocation is what helps Nightcrawler transcend its genre roots. It engages and transcends the standard tropes of its type of film and wraps us up in the process.