Friday, August 14, 2020

Seeing the Better and Doing the Worse: The Assistant and Work


Kitty Green's The Assistant was immediately greeted as the film of the #metoo movement. It is hard not to see it that way. The film, referred to by the director/writer as "scripted non-fiction" deals with one day in the life of an assistant to a Hollywood producer, who, for all intents and purposes, seems like a Harvey Weinstein character, right down to the supply of aliprostadil syringes he keeps stocked in his office. What is interesting about the film is that we never seen this character, only hear his yelling voice and see his manipulative emails, the film is not interested in the proverbial "bad apple, " as Green puts it, but on structural conditions that make such a person possible. 

The film also does not focus on the direct target of sexual harassment or abuse. Its focus is the assistant of the film's title, Jane (Julia Gardner). Who is both the newest of the group of assistants, and the only woman. The film followers her in a day of the life, beginning in the predawn hours in which a car picks her up in Astoria to take her to Manhattan. She is in the office before anyone, turning on the lights, making the coffee, and cleaning the office. What we see most of all is the extreme variety of the things that she is expected to do, and deal with, from making copies to scheduling travel. In some sense she is the very personification of the virtuoso that Paolo Virno wrote about, her work is defined by a constitutive familiarity with the contingent, the unforseen, and the possible. We see her adapt and invent new responses to situations, as she uses a translation app to talk to a Spanish speaking housekeeper. Her ability to adapt, invent, and create responses to every situation is curtailed by the way she is constantly brought back to her status as a young woman. That she is the one to go out to get salads and sandwiches for lunch could be because she is the newest assistant, only working there for less than two months, but when her boss angry yells "Why don't you stick to what you are good at, ordering salads" he makes it clear that this task is not just because she is the junior assistant. Later when someone, it is not immediately clear who, brings their kids to the office it is made abundantly clear that Jane is expected to take care of them because she is a woman. The job of an assistant, of a female assistant, is a combination of abstract indeterminacy, one is expect to deal with various unexpected situations utilizing creativity, and ingenuity, and concrete particularity, as she is constantly forced back into what people expect of her because of her gender and age, to care for kids, to clean up, and be deferential.  

Jane has aspirations of becoming a producer. At one point we see her stealing away a few moments to read a screenplay she is copying. Although the film only takes up one day at her job we can already see the subtle discrimination that will hold her back. All the time spent looking after kids will keep her away from important meetings or trips, and her role of talking to the boss' wife, of being the filter between him and her, will eventually undermine her position in the company. Because a job of an assistant is entirely about personal relationships, about how well she deals with others, its evaluation and status is almost entirely dependent on how her boss will evaluate her. As Virno writes, “How can one evaluate a priest, a journalist, a public relations of person? How can calculate the amount of faith, of purchasing desire, of likeability that these people have managed to muster up?”The more interpersonal the work the more it takes on the character of personal domination. 

The film slowly builds towards her confrontation with her boss' sexual harassment of women. For the most part these clues build up like the slow boil of a horror film. She finds an earring on the floor of the office, a producer makes a joke about "never sitting on the couch," there are unlabeled payments of large sums of money, and an attractive young woman is brought into the office to sign some intimidating legal documents. It is a little like one of those movies where everyone in the town knows about the monster except the newcomer. The Assistant is a kind of ripped from headlines work horror film in some ways much like Compliance. Whereas the latter went out of the way to go over the top, the former keeps its horror well within what is recognized as day to day life.

Jane finally confronts the horror when she notices that things are strange with the newest assistant. The young woman is hired fresh from being a waitress in Boise, Idaho, can barely figure out the phones, and is put up in a fancy hotel. When Jane learns through the jokes and leers of her coworkers that the boss has spent most of the afternoon at that hotel, she decides to speak with Human Resources. I should mention right now that the film is currently streaming on hulu because the scene with the HR manager clearly needs to be seen. In a few moments he goes from sympathetically listening to quietly destroying Jane. He points out how flimsy her evidence is, suggests that she might be jealous of the new assistant, and reminds her that there are hundreds of people ready to take her job. She leaves the office tearful and so flustered that she almost forgets her scarf. This is clearly the central confrontation of the film, its big showdown of an understated sort. It is all the more understated in that we do not really know how it ends. 

The film ends with Jane stopping at a bodega to get something to eat, finally calling her father to wish him happy birthday, and then walking off into the night. We do not know if this is just another day or if she will walk off never to return again. We do know the constraints that she is under, not only the fact that she needs this job in order to survive, but this particular job is tied with all of her hopes and dreams.We know the better, but fear the worst. As much as one hope that her walk at the end is also walking away from the job, one can also fear that she will return the next day and every day after that. One can imagine Jane becoming all the more complicit, learning, as her coworkers do, to simply look away from the particular horrors of their workplace. Earlier I briefly wrote about this film as giving a socio-economic backdrop to Spinoza's formulation of "seeing the better and doing the worse."For Spinoza this formula describes ethical life, as the affects and the imagination overpower what we know to be right or true. In The Assistant this formulation is less one of an ethical failure than a description of life under capitalism. We know what is right, what is wrong, but often our jobs, jobs which pay our rent and sometimes even position themselves as the condition of our dreams, demand that we do otherwise. Or, as Marx put it, we are caught between the political economy of ethics and the ethics of political economy; one tells us that doing the right thing is a luxury few can afford and the other tells us that right thing is whatever makes us money. 

Corey Robin and Melissa Gira Grant have both written about labor relations as the unstated condition of much of what is labelled as #metoo. It is a matter not just of the power of men have over women, but the institutional power of bosses over employees, or more to the point, the way the two are interwinned. The Assistant does the same thing, by showing us that complicity is produced at the level of the base not the superstructure. Having to sell one's labor to survive has an acid effect on even the most basic human qualities such as decency and care for others. 

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