For many people Labor Day has become a marker for the end of summer, but let’s take a moment to remember its original purpose: to celebrate the hard work that people perform year-round. The movies have long been treated as an escape from the working world, which makes the subject of work something of a taboo in entertainment. Yet many films and television programs have still tackled the subject, often for humor—indeed, the workplace comedy constitutes its own subgenre. More serious films, ranging from WPA-era American documentaries to more recent Chinese features like Blind Shaft, have generated drama from sequences of people engaged in backbreaking, even life-risking toil. And then there’s the arena of labor union narratives, with movies like Martin Ritt’s Norma Rae or the recent French drama At War, that valorize the efforts of working people to fight for the rights they deserve from their employers.
In one sense, images of work are among the most subversive that movies can present. To find visual interest—or even splendor—in scenes of people plugging away at their jobs is to separate work from its social function for the sake of aesthetic beauty. The Italian neorealist filmmakers were pioneers in this area, as they created glorious passages of people engaged in physical labor. (Luchino Visconti’s La Terra Trema, considered below, represents a high-water mark for this kind of thing.) One of the key films of the neorealist movement, Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (like Chaplin’s Modern Times before it) considers the struggle of a man trying to find work—which, as many people will aver, can be a job in and of itself. The documentaries of Frederick Wiseman abound with scenes of people at their jobs, whether their careers are blue collar, white collar, or artistically inclined. Taken as a whole, his oeuvre represents a symphony of working life, presenting the innumerable tasks required to keep society in motion.
Below are five capsule reviews from the Reader archives of movies about work in some shape or form. Keep them in your hearts as we return to the working world today.
La Terra Trema This 1948 film by Luchino Visconti, an exercise in a kind of operatic neorealism, was to be the first part of a trilogy on the crushing economic burden carried by the Sicilian poor. Unfortunately, Visconti never got beyond the first episode, but in its lyrical grandeur and masterful compositions it’s still an impressive achievement, a genuinely poetic social document.—Don Druker
The Working Girls The last film to date of the highly talented Stephanie Rothman, whose disappearance from active filmmaking ranks with the most regrettable developments of that nose-dive decade. Unfortunately, The Working Girls finds Rothman plainly fed up with the limitations of the exploitation genre, and the wit, stylistic assurance, and feminist subtexts she was able to insert in her earlier work in the field (The Student Nurses, The Velvet Vampire) are largely lacking here. Sarah Kennedy, Laurie Rose, and Lynne Guthrie are three overeducated women looking for some kind of employment in the wasteland of southern California; Solomon Sturges (son of Preston), Mary Beth Hughes, and Cassandra Peterson costar (1974). —Dave Kehr
Welfare One of Frederick Wiseman’s strongest documentaries, this nearly three-hour look at a New York welfare center (1975), which concentrates on the interactions between clients and social workers, is both pungent and unbearable in its depictions of frustration and anger on both sides of the counter. Wiseman’s customary refusal to add an offscreen commentary makes the film even more compelling, though it may irritate viewers who feel they need to know more about the cases to decide how they feel about them. Throwing us into the thick of things without a map, Wiseman dares us to reach conclusions according to the evidence of our eyes and ears. It’s impossible to emerge from such an experience unscathed. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
Moonlighting Conceived and shot in the space of a few weeks due to the Solidarity crisis of December 1981, Jerzy Skolimowski’s black comedy (1982) is much more than a political tract: it’s a profound, gripping comedy of terror and isolation, oppression and entrapment. Jeremy Irons, in a performance worthy of Chaplin, is the head of a Polish construction crew doing illegal work on a flat in London; when the military coup occurs back home, Irons—the only member of the group who speaks English—must keep it a secret from his men. Though the film is founded on a metaphor, it is never forced or abstract: Skolimowski’s direction is a concrete creative response to these actors in this setting at this time, making full expressive use of the details, gestures, and situations at hand. It is, in short, a film—unimaginable as theater or literature—and very possibly a great one. —Dave Kehr
Man Push Cart Haunting and touching, this 2005 feature by Iranian-American filmmaker Ramin Bahrani focuses on a former Pakistani rock singer (Ahmad Razvi) who hawks coffee and bagels from a pushcart in Manhattan. Bahrin follows him as he sells porn on the side, reflects on his estranged son, takes a house-painting job, and befriends a young Spanish woman (Leticia Dolera) who works at a nearby newsstand. This is somewhat fuzzy as narrative, but it’s a potent mood piece, and its portrait of urban loneliness has some of the intensity of Taxi Driver without the violence. —Jonathan Rosenbaum v