Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Phoning It In

By Jonathan Alexandratos

Okay so: I don’t want to start by insulting an entire profession.  I want to start by offering that I know, being a professor and a writer, that I can’t afford to insult any profession, especially not one that I’ve once worked in.  As a professor and a writer, my life sort of loops minutes 22-24 of KOYAANISQATSI: a lot of haunting music and foreboding images, but nothing to directly tell you that you’re a hair’s breadth away from toiling in some dungeon in let’s say Boise (no offense) slinging burnt coffee in quasi-personalized cups (“I gotta venti latte for a uh, ‘Geehoan’?”) for the rest of your days.  I do realize this.  So in that context, absorb the following:  working in a call center, as I have done, is the nearest approximation of hell that the Forces of Good (i.e. angels, Karma, Pat Sajak) will allow on God’s Green Earth.  8 typically odd hours a day.  Constant supervision.  All that communication, saying nothing.    

This is why Fisher-Price makes those little plastic telephones for kids, the ones with the Gobstopper colors.  Because they know it’s fun to bullshit.  It’s easy to bullshit.  Callers (alt. “Phoners”), in call centers, know this, too.  That’s why Management installs various devices to make sure that the bullshit you’re spouting isn’t *your* bullshit, but *their* bullshit.  Calls are monitored for frequency, duration, pick-up rate (how many people answer their phone), and quality of content.  Here’s a typical call in what I’ll consider the Caller’s Paradise:

(Sound of telephone ringing…
(Sound of telephone ringing…
(CALLER dicks around in the Internet while looking like he’s one the phone…
(Sound of telephone ringing…
(Sound of ringer just sort of giving up…
(CALLER continues to dick around, phone-to-ear, occasionally breaking to say to a dial tone:)

CALLER:  Uh, yeah, hey, this is so-and-so from such-and-such magazine, would you like to I dunno take a survey for us?

Now that’s pretty obviously bullshit.  Here’s the same call in what let’s think of as the Manager’s Paradise:

(Sound of telephone ri/
(Ring is interrupted by an EAGER CONTACT pretty much right away.)

CALLER:  Hello there sir or madam!  My name is So-and-So I work for such-and-such magazine.  You may have  seen us on a newsstand near you!  We need your help.  See, we’re working on an article about this-or-that and we can’t complete it unless we get feedback from our most vital of customers.  It would mean the world to us if we could use your input.  What do you say?

(Sound of hopeful murmuring on the other end of the line.)

CALLER:  Oh you’ll be such a help, thank you!  It’ll only take a moment…

And off the Caller goes, taking this poor octogenarian on a trip down Bullshit Highway.  Yep, it’s all nonsense, but it’s Managerial Nonsense, so it’s okay.  I’ll call this the Fisher-Price Principle: the notion that the phone is the Most Bullshittable Device Ever Manufactured (MBDEM), and the History of the Call Center can, thus, be written as one giant struggle between plebian and patrician to figure out whose bullshit gets to infest the cobwebby inner workings of nearby MBDEMs.

Now that the above is surely more expounded upon than you ever hoped it would be, I have to say that the way two Canadian films have portrayed the job of calling people has struck me as particularly poetic and illuminative.  Don McKellar’s LAST NIGHT (1998) and Robert Lepage’s FAR SIDE OF THE MOON (2003) both present the call center – or, at least, the for-profit task of calling for a corporate purpose – as a place where every shred of humanity is so regularly marginalized to the extent that, within the contexts of each film, a breaking point is reached, and raw emotion rears its head from under the veritable landfill of industrial-grade bullshit into which it has been exiled.

In McKellar’s LAST NIGHT, Duncan (wonderfully played by David Cronenberg) spends the day before the world ends cold calling every customer of the gas company at which he works to thank them for their years of patronage, and assure them that the company will keep the gas flowing as close to the end as possible.  The office is sterile, and one gets the sense that one’s career there grows in proportion to his detachment from fellow employees.  However, here, on the last day of life as we know it, Duncan’s warmth enlivens his calls, and his final words with office subordinate Donna (played by Tracy Wright, a fine actress who we lost too soon) are, one speculates, the apex of Duncan’s office-contained emotional dialogue.  I won’t spoil the other way in which Duncan’s calls are important – it’s too close to the film’s emotional center – I’ll only hasten to say that, through its treatment of the telephone, LAST NIGHT converts frigid, office dialogue into life-affirming emotion pushed to the surface by the knowledge of the ultimate end to mankind.

Lepage’s FAR SIDE OF THE MOON is slightly different, in that the protagonist in fact works at a call center, and there’s no apocalypse.  Instead, this film is an attempt to “reconcile the infinitely banal with the infinitely essential,” to quote the movie’s main character, André, played by Lepage.  This conflict is LAST NIGHT’s conflict, and the conflict of emotional beings who work in call centers.  The setting is infinitely banal, and it is the mission of the infinitely banal to suppress emotion, the infinitely essential.  The two, I suppose, can be reconciled, but, in call centers, the tendency is toward confrontation.  This happens in Lepage’s film, resulting in André losing his job as a caller, and embarking on the adventure of the movie.  In both, it is essential that the aforementioned characters work in this particular profession, as nothing else (aside from maybe critic – oop!  Sorry!) involves saying so little, by saying so much. 

I am not surprised that LAST NIGHT and FAR SIDE OF THE MOON took such a stance on the call center setting (there isn’t really any other one to take), but I do believe that the way both films were able to make such a mundane, inert setting so theatrically dynamic is cinematically significant.  Lepage’s film was first a play, and that may have contributed to his flair for the theatrical, but, surely, both directors used a device, the phone call, that quite literally chains characters down, knowing that this object, and the profession that most uses it, also has the ability to free.  In the above films, two directors violate a common rule of Playwrighting 101 – don’t put characters on the phone – and do so in a way that creatively allows the non-expository, very dramatic (and poetic) revelation of characters’ wants, needs, and desires.  The phone does not tie them down, it provides a dull sounding board against which their vibrant dreams juxtapose, and are therefore most clearly seen.

There’s more to say about these two stellar films – Lepage’s FAR SIDE OF THE MOON is the basis for my and Tracy’s project BREAKING ORBIT, and is thus a huge influence in my artistic life – but, as of this writing, I’m about 40 minutes out from the start of a class I’m teaching, and I don’t want to tempt the Call Center Furies any more than I already have.  Though, perhaps, as a final thought, consider the following cinematic fortune cookie: creatively utilizing the most stagnant of places can sometimes lead to the most dynamic of scenes.

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