Occupations in Movies

After posting my thoughts about the movie JULIE & JULIA, it occurred to me that how I react to TV shows, films and books, is largely based on whether it feels “real” or not — and a big part of it boils down to the protagonist’s occupation as portrayed in that story. Does his or her job/work experience seem authentic?

In many high concept Hollywood films, the characters’ jobs often seem generic or fall into “fantasy” categories: superheroes, super cops, secret agents, lawyers who bear little resemblance to actual attorneys we encounter, or slacker types who are gross exaggerations of young adults.

(I’ve also heard Hollywood agents and script readers complain they get lots of screenplays by aspiring screenwriters in which the protag is an aspiring screenwriter. Ugh. There is nothing more boring than watching a writer at work — it’s mostly procrastinating and reading blogs/message boards on the internet, with occasional spurts of typing in between.)

Two movies I highly recommend are foreign films in which the protag’s job is significant to the plot: DEPARTURES, a quietly moving Japanese film about a young man who loses his Tokyo office job and winds up in the business of preparing the deceased for funeral services; and AMREEKA, a heartbreaking depiction of Middle Eastern people trying to adapt to life in this country. Ultimately, both are heart-warming films, largely because the characters find their identities through their work and the people they work with.

DEPARTURES shows us an unusual occupation with rituals that allow the living to reflect on loved ones who have died. In a way, it reminded me of the Showtime series, SIX FEET UNDER, which was set in a family funeral home business. But SIX FEET was more of a soap opera about the living, and used the gimmick of dead people talking to characters at times. DEPARTURES is a simpler, straight-forward tale about dealing with death.

AMREEKA shows us what it feels like to be a Middle Eastern person in post-9/11 American. Ugly racial profiling… subtle and blatant forms of discrimination… and not surprisingly, a tough job market for anyone who looks Arab or might be a Muslim. The protag is a charming, overweight, college-educated divorced mother from Palestine, who moves to a Chicago suburb with her teenage son. (Funny scene: upon her arrival, the U.S. gov worker looks at her passport and asks, “Occupation?” She replies, ” Yes. Forty years we have been occupied!”)

Although she has several years of experience working at a bank, she can’t get a bank job here — nor any other kind of office work. She winds up at a White Castle flipping burgers alongside high school drop-outs. Ashamed, she deceives her son and relatives they’re living with, telling them she’s been hired by the bank next to the fast food joint.

Yet she makes the best of a bad situation and befriends co-worker Matt (she cheerfully says his name means “dead” in Arabic — he responds, “Cool!”) the blue-haired guy with the pierced lip, while introducing him to her version of a falafel burger. It just rings true, like the writer knows what it’s like to have a crummy job. And the way she handles herself seems so… American. Instead of complaining, she goes online in search of better job opportunities, and falls for the old multi-level “HerbalLose” health product scheme that offers a chance to make big money working from home.

But if you watch American-made movies and TV shows, you’d get the impression that we are primarily a nation of sexed-up doctors/lawyers, witty cops, cleavage-baring criminal scene investigators, rogue government agents, and highly-paid corporate executives who never have to worry about their mortgages.

My advice is to skip the high concept crap and add DEPARTURES and AMREEKA to your Netflix rental queue.

BONUS WRITING TIP: As a UCLA screenwriting professor said in a workshop class I attended, all good movies are about the main character finding out who he or she really is. And isn’t that what life is all about too?

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One Comment on “Occupations in Movies”

  1. Thanks alot for sharing ..

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