Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Philip Levine, and Two Films about Work

You probably think I've been lazing around all weekend. That I drove up north with Hilary to Woman Lake, cooked some good meals, skied a few miles and then sat around a rented cabin reading about the Blaskett Islands or "The Narrow Road to the Deep North."

Well, it was sort of like that.

We even ate some bacon--rare treat--with our wild-rice pancakes from the White Earth Reservation.

We arrived back home to find that the poet Phillip Levine had died. He was adept at drawing our attention to things we might otherwise never know about work. When I read the news, I immediately pulled out his book of poems, What Work Is, and read a good ways into it. I should have done it sooner. These are vivid and lyrical creations drawn from his experience at a number of industrial occupations that you and I would shy away from.

And this reminded me that two films I saw recently were both about that subject which Maynard G. Krebs used to refer to in a terrified squeal: work.

Virunga, is a documentary about a national park in the Congo that provides habitat for a healthy but dwindling population of rare mountain gorillas. The keeper obviously loves his animals, and the gorillas love him.

The park's director is cut from a different piece of cloth. His bearing is aristocrat, his language complex. Yet it's obvious he's as dedicated to the gorillas as anyone, and prepared to sacrifice his life for them if necessary.

And it may be necessary. Park rangers are killed by poaches regularly in those parts, and the park is also under siege by British oil interests that are drilling nearby. Meanwhile, a group of rebels who refer to themselves as M23 are operating on the northeast fringes of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the park is located.

 What began as a documentary about animal protection is now bringing itself to bear on the disregard for both wildlife and human life in the vicinity. A French journalist involved in the project interviews oil workers and rebels while equipped with a hidden camera to record their disregard for law and their collusion with one another.

It's a nasty situation, and when the rebels advance, moving past the park headquarters while artillery booms in the distance, the uncertainty and fear are palpable.

Virunga remains a compelling story about the perils and rewards of wildlife preservation, but it also gives us a first-hand look at how unstable the underlying political terrain really is. Between the danger to the gorillas and the violence perpetrated against the villagers, we hardly have time to ask ourselves how much of the profit from the oil will ever reach those whose lifeways are being ruined to gain access to it.

The second film about "work" I saw was more personal. In Two Days, One Night, Marion Cotillard plays Sandra, a emotionally fragile woman who's been on medical leave for depression. She returns to work only to find that she's been the focus of a bizarre campaign. The company has informed its employees that it cannot afford to pay the traditional year-end bonus unless Sandra is dismissed. Forced to chose, all but three of her colleagues vote for the bonus.

Due to irregularities in the way the vote was presented,  and with the urging of a friend, Sandra arranges to have a second vote taken the following Monday. That gives her the weekend to visit her workmates individually and try to convince them to forgo their bonuses.

The bulk of the film deals with how Sandra's friends and colleagues respond to that request. But it's no less seriously concerned with examining Sandra's own lack of confidence and self-worth. She suffers from anxiety attacks and pops Xanax with startling regularity. It's all she can manage not to start crying in front of her children.

Her husband drives her from house to house, lavishing his support in ways that Sandra finds almost patronizing. "Why would anyone want to give up their much-needed bonus for me?" she asks herself repeatedly. Yet she forges ahead.

We soon become mesmerized by Sandra's fluctuating emotions. And it's also fascinating to catch glimpses of how her co-workers and their families live. By the time Monday rolls around, Sandra has made contact with most of them. The argument she presents is not compelling. Yet in her unassuming way Sandra forces her workmates to recognize the very human dilemma they all face, whichever way they decide to turn.   

Then there's the vote. Happy ending? Perhaps, but not in the way any of us could have anticipated.  

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