Monday, August 5, 2013

Bureaucrats in Movies -- the list

Again, I need to stress that I am not including standard office workers who deal with files nor librarians, even though librarians usually do work for a branch of the government.  I'm finding it hard to be completely consistent, but these are the rules I'll try to stick to.  I will probably include social workers if it is clear they are working for the state (and not a private/religious charity) but not hospital workers and definitely not the police or active spies, though both groups are directly employed by the state.  I might, however, include backroom clerks in these types of agencies if they have a meaningful role in the film and are not simply there as local color.

In many films the bureaucrats are just there to deny the hero some critical assistance and/or information, and then the movie moves on.  I've included a few examples of this but may add more as I recall them.  Just in general, European cinema is slightly more realistic in showing such scenes in addition to the fact that the state has a larger role in society in Europe. 

Before get too deep into this, I will share an unusual documentary on the bureaucrat in his native habitat: Paperland by Donald Brittain (1979).  In a particularly wry twist, it can currently only be bought from the National Film Board of Canada for the institutional market and not for home-use, but it can be viewed in its entirety here.

Bureaucrats who personify the all-knowing state:
(It's hardly a surprise that science fiction movies with a generally distopian bent have these all-knowing bureaucrats.  While I am tempted to add in Enemy of the State or the Jason Bourne movies, these are just a bit too tied to spy agencies.  The main point is that, in the future, there are no boundaries between the spy agencies and everyday government departments.)
Minority Report
Cloud Atlas
Brazil (though we also have a nod to the notion of the fallibility of the state, in particular the one typo that kicks off the events of the entire movie)

Bureaucrats who set off the action/quest/narrative:
Blues Brothers (also the classic ending while Jake and Elwood have to cool their heels in order to pay the back taxes -- having dealt with Chicago and Cook County bureaucracy, this movie captures the frustrations well)
Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies (perhaps a bit of a stretch that the case worker who informs Hortense about her mother's identity is a bureaucrat but in a society with more socialized medicine and a stronger safety net, she probably is at least a quasi-bureaucrat).
Raising Arizona (how different it all would have been if the adoption agency had thought they would have made good parents from the start)
The Castle
Green Card
Crossing Over (more of a dramatic approach in representing immigration agencies and their actions)

Bureaucrats as obstacles (minor or major):
Gridlock'd (an almost Kafkaesque urban fable about two men and their efforts to get into a rehab clinic)
Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom
Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mister Lazarescu
De Sica's Umberto D (this could just as easily fit into the bureaucrat kicking off the action when the man finds his pension has essentially been revoked, but I recall several other meetings with bureaucrats who can do nothing for him)
Abdellatif Kechiche's The Secret of the Grain
Spielberg's The Terminal
Aki Kaurismäki's Le Havre
Moscow on the Hudson
Thomas McCarthy's The Visitor
City Hall
Wall Street (here the SEC get involved at a turning point in the film)
Boiler Room (it appears as though it is mostly the FBI that are involved in backing up the SEC)

Bureaucracy played for laughs:
A Matter of Life and Death (how droll that we will be dealing with bureaucrats in the afterlife)
Beetlejuice (ditto)
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (I particularly chortled when I heard that the removal plans were on display at the local planning office the next galaxy over.)

Bureaucrats who end up helping the hero, generally by bending the rules:
Aki Kaurismäki's The Man Without a Past
Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mister Lazarescu (only to a limited degree -- mostly the red tape and unfeelingness of the doctors finishes off Lazarescu)
Hirokazu Koreeda's After Life (this is hard to summarize, but apparently after death we encounter helpers who construct a perfect moment from our memory to help us move to another level -- far more moving and enjoyable than my notes suggest) 

Bureaucrats who become part of the action or indeed become the hero:
Brazil (Sam Lowry actually takes a job with a different department in order to spy more effectively on his dream girl)
A Bell for Adano
Kenji Mizoguchi's Sansho the Baliff
Costner's The Postman
Neill Blomkamp's District 9

The ultimate bureaucrat who finds a way to use his/her office to help others:
Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru (it really does stand alone -- more soon on this incredible film.  Here's Ebert's take.)

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