Doesn’t it seem like kids’ movies, or those movies marketed as kids’ movies, are the only ones really interested in depicting and scrutinizing what it means to work? The last two movies my kids rented, The Bee Movie and Ratatouille, have revolved almost exclusively around questions of work and its relationship to life (to the extent that there is distance between the two under capitalism).
Of course it’s not strictly true that movies don’t concern themselves with work. Movies like, say, Michael Clayton take place in lawyers’ offices. But isn’t that mostly because movies have to take place somewhere and because lawyers’ offices provide a platform for making Important Points about social issues? Superhero movies, action movies, crime (cop) movies, and caper movies, on the other hand, are about nothing but labor. There is no outside to work in these movies, and there is certainly never a separation between work and life — all relations, even and especially sexual relations, take place within and as a confirmation or betrayal of occupational norms. What distinguishes many kids’/animated movies is that labor is never mere backdrop and that they strongly affirm, and often play with, the difference between work and nonwork.
At times, The Bee Movie comes really close to offering a refusal of work. When Barry first learns that bees must chose an occupation they will have for the rest of their life, he is appalled and flees the hive. On the outside, he encounters the forbidden humans and the pleasures of leisure time. Back inside the hive, he refuses to work because he doesn’t like the idea of “being worked to death.” Eventually, he discovers that humans are stealing most of the bees’ honey, which forces the bees to toil endlessly in order to provide for their survival. He appeals to the law, which declares it illegal to harvest bees’ honey and says that bees can keep all of it. The bees have attained relative freedom from labor and they seem to be very happy with the arrangement.
This freedom, however, is a violation of a higher law: nature. The bees’ refusal to do work means that trees, plants, and other animals are dying. So Barry convinces the bees they must go back to work, and due to their incredible efforts, the world is restored to its greatness. Intense, neverending work is natural and right. QED. But The Bee Movie goes beyond merely reconstituting nature: By the end of the movie, the bees’ labor has changed social relations so completely that the lines between species, once clearly defined and impenetrable, are broken down — humans interact with bees, which interact with mosquitoes, which interact with cows, and so on. Labor, as only it can, has utterly transformed nature, the way we conceive of what is natural.
Ratatouille isn’t quite so transspecies in its outlook, as by the end of it those lines are still rigid. The main transformation in Ratatouille occurs not between species but to the rats themselves, who through their hard work in the kitchen become “makers, not takers,” in the movie’s productivist motto. Work has set them free, not from their position in the mode of production, but from their wretched scavenging, nonproductive subjectivity. As in The Bee Movie, work is ontology. Making is being.