“Hacks is like most stories about creative work: It avoids really showing any.”
B.D. McClay, New York Times Magazine
B.D. McClay’s epigram works like any good hook: it grabs your interest. So here is another: “In order to entertain audiences, most films about workers avoid really showing much work.”
Oscar-award winning Nomadland provides a ready example. Many find the film (based on Jessica Bruder’s book of the same title) a poignant portrayal of the struggles of its aging, migratory subjects. That’s not surprising: creating individual characters for viewers to identify with is what Hollywood does best. Unfortunately, that also means the actual work and the underlying systems that Amazon uses to structure and foster itinerant labor are a secondary emphasis at best.
Which raises an interesting issue. Given the very large impact of film on attitudes toward labor and laboring, what happens when film does present a more direct experience of what workers actually do? Three non-fiction films about the fishing industry offer some answers: Drifters (1929), Pescherecci (1958), and Leviathan (2013). Together they offer a brief overview of methods for portraying work, and they also help us think about a common format of reality television: the fishing program.
Directed by John Grierson, Drifters immediately established a central strand in documentary as a whole and, more to the point, films that address workers and working. Like Granton Trawler (1934), Drifters was made in the now-classic documentary style of Grierson and his era. Such films are visual records of the activity they capture, often mainly silent, with any voiceover or accompanying soundtrack used primarily to foster viewer interest and understanding.
At the same time, Grierson’s films also established the audience’s primary role within this particular non-journalistic documentary mode: passive viewing and learning. This shifts audience response from individual identification to communal association; viewers are encouraged not to see themselves as singular questers occupying a workplace but as members of a unified working community. Grierson aimed to encourage a civic — perhaps collective if not outright socialist — attitude toward workers and the enveloping society.
Vittorio De Seta follows Grierson while also reducing the overtly pedagogical bent of Grierson’s formula. Known as a realist filmmaker, De Seta displays the mid-century belief that the clearest representation of the real, not to say the true, is found in simply recording what is before the camera and letting viewers form their own opinion. As in observational or direct cinema, De Seta’s non-intervention in Pescherecci’s world of fishing lets the ‘real world’ simply unfold. Workplace sound and conversation allow the narrative to progress in what seems to be direct linear time. The drama — such as it is — results from workers interacting with the larger natural environment (there is a storm) and the narrower world of their workplace.
De Seta’s work and workplace are also ethnographic in their own way. As in his mining film Surfurara, the workers perform their labor in front of the viewer, while mundane scenes of eating and sleeping in crowded holds provide a sense of the communal nature of the work. Individual characterization takes a decidedly back seat.
Both films thus emphasize not individual workers but how work forms and fosters interaction. At the same time, their basic approaches also reduce some of the emotional connection between viewer and subject that Hollywood manages so well. Working and workers are equally present, but their action is still more observed than engaged. The space between viewer and screen inherent in cinema may be less than in a Grierson film, but the gap is still larger than that created by identification with a primary figure.
Film can create other connective bridging, however, as Leviathan makes clear. Deeply uninterested in character-based representation, Leviathan makes full use of a highly experimental, non-narrational mode that is better experienced than described (see the trailer). Directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel of the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University, the film eschews almost all character development along with any readily noticeable narrative point-of-view or progression, preferring instead to highlight the visual and auditory experience of trawl-fishing. Together Leviathan’s soundtrack, cinematography, and editing serve to disorient and immerse an audience in an auditory and visual experience of the workplace, including not only fishermen, fish, gulls, but also sea, weather, and the very machinery that underpins the activity. Individual point of view disappears, along with the usual character identification pursued by most narrative films. In their place is pure environment.
In its experimentation, Leviathan aims for immersion not into a community but into a sensory experience. The response is much more visceral, more physical, as the viewer is bodily connected to the film in ways beyond fictional identification or non-interventionist observation. Interestingly, it establishes a form of connection that points to yet another possibility for portraying work: the highly popular fishing genre most readily identified in Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch.
The appeal of shows like Catch lies in blending action with characterization as viewers follow individuals and their stories across episodes. But the reliance upon character once again gradually overshadows the action of work. The physical labor of fishing becomes an often-repeated visual trope, a dramatic but repetitious activity which eventually fades into the background. Viewers ultimately focus on traditional masculinist drama and tensions among predominantly male characters.
A more useful example of representation of work and workplace immersion might be Discovery’s less action-oriented Dirty Jobs. Running for eight seasons on Discovery, and in various forms for several years after that, Dirty Jobs offers both visceral experiences of work and identification with a heavily emphasized character, Mike Rowe. Importantly, it also offers much less aggressive drama than many action-oriented series like Catch. And it appears to be popular among workers in what is often broadly called “skilled labor,” even as many of the dirty jobs often delve into work and workplaces that do not seem to fit Department of Labor classifications.
That popularity returns us to our original question. Does Dirty Jobs dual emphasis on working and character raise awareness of actual work conditions and the systems underlying labor? The answer to the first part of the question is fairly easy: yes. The answer to the second is more mixed. Dramatizing work, whether communal or individual, does not adequately answer the question of how to portray the highly complex systems underlying most work. For better or worse, Hollywood’s ultimate answer to that issue is, of course, more characterization. After all, what film doesn’t benefit from having a recognizable villain?
James V. Catano
James V. Catano is producer/director of Enduring Legacy: Louisiana’s Croatian Americans and author of Ragged Dicks: Masculinity, Steel, and the Rhetoric of the Self-Made Man. He is Professor Emeritus of English and Screen Arts at Louisiana State University.