Tuesday, May 08, 2012
Pop Goes Precarity
I have unspecific recollections that other people I've listened to have said this before, but ... for purely commercial cinema, 2010's Morning Glory is shockingly decent. Not "subversive"; nothing "smuggled": it's simply a product with narrative content that is honest and expressive in contrast to most Hollywood releases: there's a faint trace of 1930s-40s classical Hollywood in this movie. (Perhaps it's because it depicts a world of busy invention and constant improvisation, not unlike the production plants of classical Hollywood themselves.) Rachel McAdams plays a 28-year-old morning show producer, Becky Fuller, who loses her job in New Jersey. She gets a shot at a low-rated morning show in New York at the station IBS. There, she is soon expected to raise flagging ratings considerably if she wants to keep her job and to keep the show on air.
The apartment she moves into in New York, while nice-looking, does not seem spacious in the way that commercial fantasies about "life in New York" often do; nor - if I recall - are there any guarantees that she even lives in Manhattan. (Imagine a happy professional woman living in - gasp! - an outer borough! One of the many execrable things about, say, Julie & Julia is how its contemporary scenes present Queens as a hellhole. For a movie about the magic of cooking, one would hope against hope that a movie would recognize the culinary miracle Queens represents. But I digress...) There's a tough scene in Morning Glory between Becky and her mother where the latter explains that this dream of "making it" in broadcasting was adorable at age ten, inspiring at age eighteen, and embarrassing at age twenty-eight. "Stop before it becomes heartbreaking."
This is a common gesture in recent cinema and television. The arrested hero or heroine confronts "maturity" through some task or job, a direction in life. This sense of direction seems to be everything. Or maybe we can say it seems to be everything in this Hollywood material that is not exactly about precarity, but is in fact profoundly informed by it in its premises and in its assumptions. This is, after all, a movie about an adult woman - still youngish - who loses her job abruptly, and feels lucky to get a chance at another measly job, for lower pay, at a struggling organization. This is not "political cinema," yet it is nevertheless a movie speaking directly to a public that knows what it is like to never get a lunch break or to see highers-up freeze pay raises and cut benefits.
A quick note on a name: Becky Fuller. "Becky" is plucky, it is forceful yet informal. In the 1930s, RKO adapted Vanity Fair under the name of Thackeray's heroine, Becky Sharp ('35). Fuller connotes plenitude, but also echoes a certain economic pluck (e.g., Lucille Ball in 1950's The Fuller-Brush Girl). Plenitude is what Becky Fuller is after, but the movie dramatizes this not as economic fantasy but rather the richness of community. If we can pay the bills, and eat all right, how many of us would not be happy - simply - with a workplace of labor from which we do not feel alienated?
Whether or not Becky's labor, and IBS's mission, is alienated in the Marxist sense is beside the point insofar as we're trying to figure out what the film does or says. (I certainly don't claim it's anti-capitalist, or anti-hegemonic.) But I think it is meaningful that the film designates as its goal a workplace where the feeling of community is important.
And it does something else interesting: it pictorializes the same relation to audiovisual content that I would imagine its audience also has. Well into the film, Becky Fuller pushes the segments at IBS's show toward the ridiculous, the attention-grabbing, the viral. We are treated to several shots of laughing Becky reacting to these clips, readymade for YouTube. (Matt Malloy plays a correspondent who gets pushed into segments on rollercoasters, skydiving, etc.) Harrison Ford plays a semi-retired serious evening news anchor who reluctantly takes on the role of morning show co-host; his character and Becky at a few points debate explicitly the merits of addressing what we might call the "public sphere" of old-school news discourse, versus the all-consuming and pre-emptive need to get ratings up by grabbing and keeping attention. Becky, in fact, must satisfy the demands of ratings in order for her and her co-workers to earn a paycheck, and therefore lack the material circumstances even to consider the cultivation of a serious, grave, and ethical journalistic culture. The movie does little to contextualize or question Becky's position, but what's interesting are the inferences we can draw from how it's all structured.