Jobs undone

INHUMAN COLD is collapsing my holiday balloon fast. But it’s fine weather for filmgoing, by way of the budget cinema and the wonders of Instant Netflix. I found special resonance in the last three flicks, “The Hurt Locker“, “Time Out” and “Up In The Air.” As someone preoccupied with issues of work and personal identity (My job does not define me! Oh wait, it does! Do I even want that? Maybe!), I enjoy watching people in professional turmoil.

“The Hurt Locker” follows American soldiers in Baghdad whose daily routine is to avoid being killed, intentionally or by accident. They ride around with their heads down looking for improvised explosives to disarm. If they aren’t blown up or shot, they move to the next cache. The film asks you to question your own fortitude in the face of unremitting tension and death, and the soldiers showcase the full range of reactions, from paralysis to casual indifference. You can’t help but admire the talent and technical expertise required of modern warriors—or wonder, as one does with any job, what if anything their efforts are worth.

A stable corporate breadwinner unravels in “Time Out,” a French film from 2001 about a recently fired executive who deceives his family into thinking he’s still on the job. He leaves home in a suit each day only to drive around in circles, stopping to wander the hallways of companies where he doesn’t work, creepily invisible. You almost think his charade will magically redeem him, but when it inevitably collapses, you’re reminded that escape from work is impossible (at least for us middle-class suckers).

“Up In The Air” sheds light on the blindness of vocation: how we ignore the consequences of what we do, excusing ourselves because we do it well. Competence trumps compassion. George Clooney’s supremely confident “employment termination expert” dispatches soon-to-be-former employees with a wink and a packet. But despite the “first day of your new life” pitch he gives the people he cans, he’s not doing anyone a favor, himself included. His self-proclaimed freedom from obligation (about which he gives motivational lectures) seems enviable at first, then starts to look clueless. If success is the ultimate virtue, why bother?

> Listen: Gang Starr – Work

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