The United States of America
“If you want to make a documentary you should automatically go to the fiction, and if you want to nourish your fiction you have to come back to reality.” ― Jean-Luc Godard
The first job that I ever had was working as a cashier at a McDonald’s located right outside of the church where my father worked. The hours were long, the pay was low, and the work was incredibly tedious. Over the years, I would switch jobs several times, working as a Starbucks barista, a telemarketer for my college, and even doing a two year stint as a custodian for an elementary school. Though the jobs would change, they all had something in common: during particularly long shifts, after a few hours my mind would effectively turn off and I would start to do my work mechanically and automatically. In essence, it was as if my body went into autopilot. The whole world would glaze over as I would sink into the specifics of my routine. Little snatches of casual conversation would become islands in a sea of monotony. Fifteen minute breaks would become miniature vacations worth their weight in gold. And after a while, you learn to stop looking at the clock. I believe that anybody who has ever worked such a tedious kind of job has had experiences like that. Until you have actually gone out and done such work yourself, it is impossible for somebody to know what it feels like.
Don't mind us...we're just living what corporate America tells us is the American Dream.
Such a thing is virtually impossible to replicate in a fictional film. True, a director can get his actors to get all sweaty and greased up and do location shooting at a factory. Director Michael Cimino used this technique to transform Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken into steel workers in The Deerhunter (1978). But on a subconscious level, we all knew that once the shot was over, De Niro and Walken would retire to hot showers and a rest in their trailers.
Well...maybe not so much for Robert De Niro...the guy took his work kinda seriously.
Documentary filmmakers are somewhat more successful in capturing such experiences. Memories of the Maysles’ Salesman (1969) comes to mind. However, the inherent problem with the traditional documentary format is that they serve to witness a subject completely objectively. Discounting instances of documentaries designed to promote a political agenda, the documentary is designed to be a silent spectator. We can see people work monotonous jobs, but we can’t truly experience it.
After all, who wouldn't want to experience the life of a door-to-door Bible salesman?
So enters the role of the experimental filmmaker. Unfettered by traditional rules of cinematic orthodoxy, the experimental filmmaker can create works of art that are capable of transmitting atmospheres and emotions that fiction films and documentaries cannot. For proof, one would need to look no further than Chick Strand’s illuminating film Fake Fruit Factory (1986).
Another day, another fistful of pesos.
Bringing an “ethnographer’s eye” to the realm of documentary filmmaking, Strand creates a fascinating portrayal of Mexican women who toil to create decorative papier-mâché produce for a small handicraft company. Though barely 22 minutes in length, Fake Fruit Factory is the closest that I have ever seen a film come to truly capturing the atmosphere of mind-numbing, blue collar monotony.
It turns out not everything is made in China.
Made during a four year period of wandering between 1981 and 1985, Fake Fruit Factory watches as these poor Mexican women spend their days kneading plaster, painting fake watermelons, and watching their children. The women are employed by an American who casually jokes with them only to be mercilessly scorned and laughed at behind his back. Idle chat fills the air, usually about sex. We catch random figments of their various conversations:
-”Let’s do it again or else we’ll have to start from scratch.”
-”Patti is pregnant. The boss did it.”
-”They never cut them right.”
-”Are they good?...Two times?”
-”Their wives work and they sleep all day.”
At one point, the women are granted a brief reprieve when the boss takes them all to a pool where they bring their children and flirt with the men.
Surprisingly, they aren't quoting a song by The Beatles.
But it doesn’t last. Before long, they are back to hanging small pieces of fake fruit to dry in the sun. At the end of the film, a subtitle informs us that two weeks after the last pieces of footage were shot, the American boss skipped town with a blond blackjack dealer and his Mexican wife became wealthy after taking control of the factory. But I doubt that the women working under her really care. Different boss...same job...every single day.
I'm sure I could make a joke about scarcity of food in Mexico with this image...but I'm too classy for that.
So how does this film truly capture what it is like to work a mind-numbing job day-in and day-out? It does so by breaking almost all of the rules established by the majority of filmmakers who attempt to transcend the cinematic medium and capture a glimpse of real life. First, it is shot almost entirely in close-ups, focusing particularly on their hands and faces. The use of close-ups breaks the traditional role of the audience as mere spectators. We constantly squint and adjust our eyes to try and comprehend what we are seeing, transforming the act of viewing Fake Fruit Factory from being passive to active.
Second, it frequently uses edits to carve up scenes into smaller pieces. Traditionally, edits create a distancing effect as they jar the audience from one image to another. In addition, the use of editing in and of itself denotes a subjective, and therefore biased, hand in the construction of a film, as they are used to focus our attention on scenes, locations, actions, and lines that (traditionally) serve to promote and further the film’s narrative. But when Strand combines her close-up shots with the liberal use of edits, we see a fragmented world that simultaneously captures real life and ignores it to create a symbolic one that encapsulates all members of the working class. It is both truth and lie, twisting our perception of the workers’ reality into something that we can truly experience alongside of them. This is how Fake Fruit Factory perfectly captures the zen of the 9-to-5 grind.