Sunday, October 01, 2023

The Prison House of Emotional Labor: On Red Eye

Red Eye is destined to always be something of a footnote. Everyone involved in the film will always be known for something else, Wes Craven for the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, and the entire cast from Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy to Brian Cox will always be known for other films. Moreover, its premise, which spends over two thirds of the film not just on a plane, but on two seats of a plane--a sort of bottle episode of a movie--seems hard to imaging being made today in which it is always bigger spectacles that get audiences. 


All of this is unfortunate, because it is not only a decent film, but one which has more to say than it would first appear. Most of this has to do with emotional labor. This is not just that the film takes place on a plane, the locus classicus of emotional labor since Arlie Hochschild wrote her monumental study, The Managed Heart. In that book she focused in part of the flight attendant a a kind of vanguard of emotional labor. Much of the work of the flight attendant has to do with performing and maintaining the right mood and and attitude, first with themselves, cultivating a warm smile, and then with the passengers. It is a labor that utilizes an emotion, or at least the display of an emotion, to produce an emotion, to create calm passengers and happy customers. Hochschild's study was written over forty years ago, and not only has flying changed since then, caught between the profit squeeze that has undermined the conditions of emotional labor and a post 9/11 regime that adds security and surveillance to the emotional labor of "service with a smile." Emotional labor has changed as well. It is no longer reserved for a vanguard of flight attendants, bartenders, bill collectors, and others; it is now distributed throughout the workforce, even those workers who never interact with customers are expected to smile and appear to be professional.

When we meet Lisa (Rachel McAdams) she is shown to be adept at both waged and unwaged emotional labor. While in a cab returning from her grandmother's funeral she juggles two phone calls. One is from a coworker dealing with some difficult customers at the hotel where she works. She reminds her coworker that there are "no difficult customers, just customers with special needs." The other call is from her recently divorced father, who is struggling with insomnia and an empty nest. That Lisa is returning from a funeral suggest that she has some emotional needs of her own, but we never really hear or see them. Even her father's offers of support, which include the gift of a Dr. Phil book, are more about placating him than helping her. Lisa embodies the selfless care and concern that is situated at the intersection of waged and unwaged emotional labor. As she puts it, "That's me, people pleaser 24/7." 

Lisa is not just a seller of emotional labor; she is also a consumer of it, as we all are, as she arrives at the airport to find that her flight is delayed and she is part of a group of frustrated and tired travelers now being managed by a airline representative. There is solidarity of sorts between emotional workers; Lisa is quick to intervene when one man takes out his frustrations on the airline representative. This leads to Lisa meet Jackson (Cillian Murphy) another passenger on her plane. Their airport meeting could be considered a kind of "meet cute" and one might think that they are watching a romantic comedy at this point, if it was not for the opening scenes of stolen wallets and smuggled rocket launchers.

After Lisa and Jackson board, and end up seated next to each other, we learn what connects their airport meeting to the rocket launcher and theft. Their meeting was no accident.  He is there to make sure she uses her hotel connection to move the Deputy Director of Homeland Security to a room with an ocean view. The better to target him with a rocket launcher for a dramatic. These days apparently even international mercenary groups have need for emotional labor. He refers to himself as a manager, however, in that his role is not so much to perform his own emotions but to manage the emotions and perception of others. His job is to be threatening and menacing with Lisa, telling her that her father will be killed if she does not do what he says, while at the same time convincing every else on the plane, including the flight attendants, that nothing is wrong, that Lisa is just being emotional. 

At this point Lisa finds herself desperately trying to express her need, to tell someone the truth, in order to save her father and the Deputy Director of Homeland Security. This pits emotional laborer against emotional management as Lisa tries to get the word out about what is happening, and Jackson tries to keep her in line. He has an advantage, however, in that part of the emotional labor of patriarchy is claiming that one does not have emotions, making women seem to be emotional, and relying on "facts and logic" as he puts it. He is also not above using a quick head butt when the situation calls for it. Lisa's struggle is as much with herself, with overcoming the desire to be a people pleaser, to think of others first, as it is with Jackson. 

I won't give the rest of the plot away, only point out that my focus on emotional labor is in some sense legitimated in the final scene of the film when Lisa tells the difficult customers at the hotel to shove it up their ass. Wes Craven is no doubt most famous for the Nightmare on Elm Street, a film which posited that monsters could follow us into our dreams and kill us there; Red Eye shows us that our jobs, what we do for a living, follow us into the very core of our being, making us "people pleasers." Sometimes we have to kill the manager in our head (or at least stab it in the throat). 


Arsh said...

Sir, would you please tell me what the phrase 'unemployed negativity' actually means, please?

unemployed negativity said...

It is a phrase which comes through Kojeve, Bataille, and Queneau. In some sense it was a discussion of Hegel and the idea that if struggle, the struggle for recognition, defines all of human history, then the end of history, whatever that means, would entail a kind of unemployed negativity. We would not know what to do with our capacity for struggle. I just like it because the way it ties in the idea of critical work that is not put to work, in the sense of writing a book or essay.