I am now experiencing my second bout with un/under-employment in late career. I have spent most of my working life primarily as a Campus Religious Advisor (Chaplain), part-time (adjunct) College Instructor, and a Cultural Programmer (film festival director). The loss of a job (with its prolonged absence of a daily routine, dynamic interaction with colleagues, regular paychecks, frequent frustrations incumbent in a work situation, anticipations of completing projects or finishing assignments, the satisfaction of making a contribution to a reality larger than self) can be deeply disturbing—really messing with one‘s (my) equilibrium. Many remedies exist to help one get through the fear, stress, anxiety, and depression. I have found some helpful, others not so much.
Myself, like most I surmise, search for companions that can guide, understand, offer insight and compassion. Most find this in other human beings, often those experiencing similar circumstances. Family and friends, can play a significant role in this much needed and desired process. I am thankful for being fortunate to have such people in my life.
I, also, have found reading, culinary adventures, walks, gazing on beautiful images, driving, contemplation, and long naps, even idleness/silence to be reliable partners in surviving the un/under-employment blues. Going to the motion picture theater, I have discovered, delivers the most satisfying resource in the search to locate a vibrant life in the death of a job and interruption in a career.
While, for me, the cinematic experience, in and of itself supplies the life buzz I just referred to. There are, however, particular films that resonate with me as companions on the way to feeling hopeful during the jobless season. In my first episode of joblessness, I screened (several times) “The Wrestler” (2008), and “Crazy Heart” (2009). In my current installment of un/under-employment, I have engaged “Birdman” (2014). These cinematic treasures have provided visual soul-mates that engender some relief from the feelings of misery, self-pity, as well as generating perspective and opening up for consideration the possibility that the glass of life is half-full.
“The Wrestler,” directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Mickey Rourke as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, is an aging and over-the-hill professional wrestler whose career and personal life is in disarray.
“Crazy Heart,” directed by Scott Cooper and featuring Jeff Bridges as Bad Blake, a washed-up country music performer whose life is the poster image of dysfunctionality.
“Birdman,” directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu and showcasing Michael Keaton as Riggan, an actor whose career is on the skids and in steep decline.
This piece of reflective writing focuses on unemployment and how these 3 films intersect with that reality. It is not intended to give full treatment or summary of each movie. For reviews and descriptions, go to IMDb.com, or www. Rottentomatoes.com on the internet.
I selected these films with the three lead characters as examples of careers interrupted. The resulting gargantuan struggle to find meaning, re-invent identity, and re-capture a sense of well-being in the chaos of late-career employment disruptions is the base line story. The movies do project a more or less happy ending with Randy “The Ram” scoring one last marquis match; Bad Blake a headliner concert gig, and Riggan a Broadway play. The narratives of each motion picture differ in several important ways from each other as well as from the details of my life. What I am interested in is how the cinematic experience of watching a film creates an occasion for companionship. The images cast an environment where I am involved in an active dialog with the characters discussing the joys and sorrows of a life that is scrambling to end well. As indicated, the details of each life differ dramatically but the search for significance, belonging, contributing, mattering, connecting, winning is a shared one.
What I am curious about, is how movies more than other story-telling art forms, can produce the intense companion encounter. I am attempting to capture or describe something that is significantly more than the movies just functioning as fellow travelers in a support group manner where the unemployment stories are told and caring and understanding are received. Films don‘t cry, touch, rant or express sympathetic gestures among those suffering the plight of unemployment. So, why is the sensation of these movies as companions so real to me? Why is the public screening in the theater more helpful and preferred than the presence of friends, family, support network, and real human contact? Cinema is not a place of escape but a space for thought, reflection, contemplation, and transport to an alternative location.
It is a sacred space where encountering one‘s interior comes into direct contact with the play of light, the spectacle of sights and sounds that enlarge and envelope one‘s experience. The dismal situation of unemployment, with all of its attendant negativity, is backgrounded as the moving images present lead characters suffering with similar fates are fore-grounded. I am confronted with screen companions—but not only confronted, I am with them on a cinematic-companion adventure. Randy “The Ram,” Bad Blake, and Riggan are not mere entertaining actors on a screen—I have joined with them looking for a future. I have left my seat and jumped onto the screen to share in the quest to keep working – to have a vocation of doing good in the world.
“Why do people go to the cinema? What takes them into a darkened room where, for two hours, they watch the play of shadows on a sheet? The search for entertainment? The need for a kind of drug? All over the world there are, indeed, entertainment firms and organizations which exploit cinema and television and spectacles of many other kinds. Our starting point, however, should not be there, but in the essential principles of cinema, which have to do with the human need to master and know the world. I think that what a person normally goes to the cinema for is time: for time lost or spent or not yet had. He goes there for living experience; for cinema, like no other art, widens, enhances and concentrates a person‘s experiences—and not only enhances it but makes it longer, significantly longer. That is the power of cinema: stars,‘ storylines, and entertainment have nothing to do with it.”
–Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time