As somebody who was growing up as anti-union backlash was giving way to decades of full-blown Reaganism, I feel like everybody in my generation had already started to take for granted all the benefits of the labor movement by the time we entered the workforce. And as somebody who’s spent most of his career working in the game industry — which desperately needs to be unionized, but is bafflingly resistant to it — I’ve never been a direct member of a union, but of course I’ve spent my entire professional career enjoying the benefits of unions. For instance:
9 to 5
I loved this movie as a kid, but I think the full weight of the feminist message was probably lost on me. Which is probably my mother’s fault, because I had no perception of a world in which women weren’t smart, independent-minded, and capable of anything they wanted to do as a career, so the movie was more or less preaching to the choir. But even if you’re having to work for a sexist jackass, the entire concept of the eight-hour day is thanks to unions.
This movie is about Federico Fellini’s frustrations making his ninth movie, with Marcello Mastroianni as a barely-fictionalized stand-in for Fellini, and the events of the movie refusing to distinguish between what’s really happening and what’s in Fellini’s imagination. I thought this was a masterpiece of post-modern cleverness back when I thought post-modern cleverness was the highest thing you could achieve. The title of this movie has nothing to do with the eight-hour work day, but it’s nice to be reminded that if you did work 8 1/2 hours, that extra 30 minutes could be considered overtime.
Another classic I likely never would’ve seen without film school, this one is Jean-Luc Godard making a show of his mockery of filmmaking, bourgeois urbanites, politics, activists, and maybe all of humanity? Maybe most known for its long sequence showing a never-ending traffic jam that gets more and more silly as it goes on… until reaching the cause of the traffic, a gruesome, fatal crash. That mentality carries throughout the film, combining violence, gore, and absurd humor. It’s a satire of western civilization but doesn’t make explicit that the only reason western civilization has the concept of a weekend as separate from the Sabbath is because of the work of labor unions.
Joe vs the Volcano
Even in the 1980s, when I had a much higher tolerance for on-the-nose earnestness, I felt like this movie was a little too much. But I didn’t really enjoy You’ve Got Mail, so this was a great celebration of how much I liked both Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. The story is an allegory for Hanks’s character breaking out of his dull existence and finding his spark in life, and the misery of his work environment made more of a lasting impression on me than anything else. “I’m losing my sole” was a pretty on-the-nose pun, but it’s still the first thing I think of whenever I start to suspect that my job is taking advantage of me.
Kind of similar to 9 to 5, but this one is more classist and a little less explicitly feminist because the evil boss is a woman (Sigourney Weaver playing a villain that I actually liked better than the hero). Of course, the larger undercurrent is that patriarchy works partly by pitting women against each other, as Weaver and Griffith are both fighting for Harrison Ford’s approval, so maybe it’s even more feminist? Anyway, this movie remains fascinating to me because I still have no idea how self-aware it is. It’s got some of the worst dialogue, even by 80s standards (“I am not a steak. You cannot order me.”), and a lecture I saw from the screenwriter suggested that he wasn’t interested in subtext or any kind of layers at all. But that last shot, showing one corner office in a sea of thousands and re-contextualizing the entire “victory” of the movie — I can’t tell if it’s actually as sardonic as the ending of The Graduate, or if I’m just reading too much into Mike Nichols’s directing credit. Anyway, the title is a double entendre comparing secretaries to prostitutes, in a way that manages to be insulting to both. The 80s were not kind to unions, but movies like this at least helped keep the idea alive that workers were as crucial to a business as executives.
Bring it On
Another weird movie with a baffling tone: simultaneously a predictable, fatuous teen movie, and a self-aware satire. It puts its cheerleading teens in a high school called “Meat Ranch” without comment. It’s directed by Peyton Reed of the increasingly good Ant-Man movies and a couple of fantastic episodes of The Mandalorian, so of course its self-awareness is intentional. I love any movie where different people on set at the same time each thought they were making something completely different. For several years, I had myself convinced that I couldn’t possibly be gay since I enjoyed a movie about sexy young female cheerleaders so much, which is a poignant story about the power of denial. The best character in this movie is Isis, played by an actress who always knows what she’s doing and is always in on the joke, Gabrielle Union.