Sunday, August 4, 2013

Bureaucrats in Movies -- the theory

So this is a bit of an experiment. There are a number of topics that I thought would make good journal articles, but I haven't had the willpower to write them out, particularly with the level of sourcing one needs for academic articles. I am going to put up the outline here to see if that satisfies my need to get the idea out (circulating in public), or if I need to just buckle down and write the darn thing. The one that keeps pushing to the fore the most is a project that I was going to call BIM: Bureaucrats in Movies. I even had this idea that I would convince the journal to steal the typeface from the Men in Black posters like so:
 

Well, that gives you a sense of how long I have been kicking this idea around (since the late 90s).  When the sequel came out, I thought, hmm, this doesn't invalidate my original argument, but it could actually be used to enhance it.  Even the anti-bureaucrats of MIB (I'll explain below*) end up requiring the functions of a bureaucracy, though their approach is still far more personalized than one would ever find in a proper bureaucracy.  Of course, I didn't write the paper then (2002) and it's a decade gone already (and the far superior MIB III is now in the rear-view mirror).  So if I keep at it at this rate, I should be ready to publish when MIB IV comes out! 

To be fair, during this period, I had done some actual research, i.e. compiling lists of films that I thought would be useful and watched nearly all of them.  But that's as far as I had taken it.  Let me see if I can outline my argument and group the films into their proper categories (in itself a very bureaucratic thing to do). And then I can decide if this still merits a paper, or if this blog post is sufficient.  I may end up splitting this into a theory post and a post with the movie list, as I think it will be too long for one post.

Going all the way back to Max Weber, he distills the needs for bureaucracy as follows: more than anything else, modern state government requires information and a way of systematizing rules.  When one is in a completely personalized society (a smaller society based on inter-personal relationships and/or one run by a charismatic leader), then developing rules doesn't matter.  Everything is handled on a one-on-one basis, and there is no reason to worry about "fairness."  However, as societies grow larger, it is simply inefficient for things to be handled in such a way.  Codifying rules (even rules that a majority of the population may object to) becomes essential.  While it may not be inevitable, modern societies tend to crave information, esp. information that allows them to ensure rules are being followed.  Bureaucracies are the manifestation of this drive, filing away information for retrieval at a later point.  While modern society probably could not function without bureaucracy (and filing systems more generally), there is always a tension between the populace and the bureaucrats who comprise "the system."  Fundamentally, bureaucrats serve "the state" first and the public second, although it may not feel the public is being served well at all (though generally most experiences with bureaucrats aren't quite as bad as those depicted when Thelma and Selma (of The Simpsons) are behind the desk).  In that sense, there really is a divide between an office worker, even one with clerical duties, and a bureaucrat who is part of the government.  I am not going to consider the broader category of office workers in this post/essay/paper.

Some of the secondary (and negative) aspects of bureaucracy, such as secrecy and an unwillingness to engage the public, are not inherent in society's need for bureaucracy, but are more of an outgrowth of specialization and the way that public service careers are made (agencies grow or shrink for reasons that are only tenuously linked to how they serve the public).  James Q. Wilson's Bureaucracy, Jeffrey Pressman's Implementation, Guy Benveniste's The Politics of Expertise, and John Kingdon's Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies are all worth reading for a more in-depth look at bureaucracies in action -- or inaction, as the case may be.  To be fair, Weber himself claimed that hierarchy was an innate outcome of growing bureaucracy (and these johnny-come-lately are just building on this), but hierarchy is only indirectly germane to most movies featuring bureaucrats, so I didn't focus on that.

It is very important to note that inflexibility, while often considered a negative, is actually at the heart of bureaucracy, that is it specifically built into the system (a feature and not a design-flaw).  The whole point of the system is that the government should not be set up in such a way that too much discretion is afforded to low-level employees, since too many exceptions and work-arounds make a mockery of the law.  The way bureaucracy is supposed to work is that when claimants come to the desk their needs are slotted (if imperfectly) into an existing structure.  For those whose situations are quite unusual, a different department may get involved, or a higher level manager may be found to see if exceptions can be made.  It is much harder than people imagine to come up with a system of rules that can handle all cases.  It actually seems to me to be the case that a great deal of red tape emerged from trying to be flexible in the past and having these special cases codified.  Also, the fact that different state functions were requested in the past, leading to the minute record-keeping (which I will admit is exasperating) that is required to show how the department covers both X and Y.  Yet it doesn't seem that way from the other side of the desk, and bureaucrats who won't budge or be flexible are often considered heartless.  I wouldn't say this is true; most bureaucrats care about their work, but some care more about the institution than the individuals before them.  They probably take a longer view and possibly have more of a collectivist viewpoint than most people do.  (To be fair, some are "lifers," who truly don't care about things one way or the other, like Thelma and Selma...)  Still, some bureaucrats are more willing to bend the rules than others, and of course those are the ones most interesting from a filmic perspective.

So let me switch away from the needs of the state to the needs of the (despotic) director.

In the vast majority of films, bureaucrats are simply obstacles, either clueless or sinister individuals who keep the hero(es) from doing something important.  I'll list a few of these, but this isn't actually a particularly interesting approach.  It is somewhat more interesting if a bureaucrat willingly or unwittingly sets the hero off on a journey/quest.  For completeness, I will include some examples of bureaucrats as the state personified where they really are seeking all knowledge and all control -- sort of taking Weber to the extreme.

The next set of bureaucrats are those who decide that they should bend or break the rules based on the extreme urgency of whatever is happening to the hero.  They may start out as minor antagonists but can be converted over into being minor assistants.  This seems particularly common when the bureaucrats are associated with the justice system (like a clerk in a police office), since heroism is contagious in filmworld.  (I'm not sure where I should include the more "realistic" cop movies where the police have to file reports and such.  While they clearly interface with the system, police really are not bureaucrats by definition.  Anyway, it's such a cliche for them to throw the paperwork at some clerk and walk away.  I can think of at least a dozen such cases.)  Perhaps the most rewarding (to a director at any rate) is a bureaucrat who ends up swept up into the action and becomes an action-hero.  There aren't too many of these, but a few.  (Incidentally, I started working on a SF novel along those lines but have gotten concerned that it is actually cliched.  I'm still pondering it.)  A quick update: I actually found a paper published in 2001 in an obscure journal that finds 20 movies out of some 20,000 that have a bureaucrat as a proper hero.  So this isn't common, and actually I would probably exclude many of them by arguing that bureaucrats in the FBI, military and/or NASA don't really count, since they aren't viewed as bureaucrats by outsiders.  But I will probably grab two from their list to add to mine.)

The final category and perhaps the rarest is the bureaucrat who actually finds a way to help others but remains completely within the system.  Hermes Conrad (from Futurama) is fairly close to this ideal, although his interventions are usually just to help out the Planet Express crew, to whom he has been assigned (apparently a future where bureaucracy is so rife that all private companies have a bureaucratic interface with the state).  The only one that really comes to mind is Kurosawa's Ikiru.  I've been meaning to watch this again and post on it, so now I have another compelling reason to do so.  (While I wanted to watch it this summer, perhaps it is more of a fall-weather movie.  Just like I might as well wait even a few more months beyond that to watch Bergman's Winter Light...)

I will try to dig out my notes and classify the movies that I can recall into these general groupings and add some commentary here and there for my follow-up post.

* Ok, so in my teaser, I consider the Men in Black to be anti-bureaucrats since they go around and interfere with the information-gathering aspect of normal bureaucrats (and their police agents).  In extreme cases, the MIB goes into existing records and alters them (obviously for the higher good of humankind's continued existence on planet Earth).  Since every Earth-endangering crisis situation was so unique, it didn't seem that they would benefit that much from keeping their own records.  K seems to allude to that in a speech to J where he tries to instill some perspective about just how many threats the Earth faces.  Of course, it turns out that the MIB do have their own records.  We see them the most in MIB III actually, though the relevant records are erased once time-travel is invoked.  In MIB II, we learn that some alien threats do come back around and that records do come in handy.  However, for some reason that escapes me now K thought it was best to erase all evidence of this particular threat not only from the MIB files but from his own memory.  Thus the individual acting on his own is more effective than the state (even the secret state agencies) with its massive bureaucratic filing system behind it.  The message remains remarkably the same in all three movies.  It fits far better into the standard narrative (of escapist films) than a message that the bureaucracy has its own advantages and purposes.  Incidentally, I'd kind of like to see a film like that, but I imagine I am one of only a handful of people receptive to such a message...

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