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An Exercise in Economic Realism

by KIM NICOLINI

I’m not going to tell you that Extract is a great movie. It’s not, but it’s also not trying to be. Extract is a funny, sincere, everyman narrative about work that will be familiar to anyone who has slugged away some hours in the workplace as the worker or the boss. Focusing on the perspective of the Everyman character Joel, a wimp of a guy who started Reynolds Extracts because he has always had an interest in flavorings, this little exercise in populist cinema has gotten a hell of a lot of unnecessary flack. Because Joel is the owner of Reynolds Extracts, he naturally is the boss. This fact has been quite a point of contention particularly from the liberal left who automatically deem this workplace narrative as ideologically suspect simply because the movie is largely from the perspective of the “boss”. Most critics phrase their critiques in terms of Mike Judge “taking sides” with the boss, but they couldn’t be more wrong. There is nothing about sides in this movie, or ideologies for that matter. It’s not a movie about us versus them or them versus us. It is simply a portrait of life in an American industrial workplace and about the kind of numbing and castrating effects of work on all sides of the work continuum. It’s easy enough for educated liberal leftists to criticize Mike Judge’s film, but this isn’t a movie for educated liberal leftists. This is a movie about working people for working people.

Extract, more than anything, is an exercise in economic realism, and as such it is pretty much apolitical. It shows how things are (albeit through a humorous lens) but refuses to cow down to politically correct ideas of how things should be. It doesn’t fall prey to assumptions about class and race, and it refuses to make any kind of overt political statement.  As in the best comic tradition, Extract puts a magnifying glass on the dynamics of ordinary life that are all too familiar and helps the audience laugh at things that otherwise would be depressing as hell. Extract walks that fine line between bleak and humane, between satire and sympathy. Bashing on the movie for making its characters, particularly the employees, into clichés, critics seem to forget that clichés exist and function effectively because they are based on real life. The employees in Extract comprise the kind of mixed bag of employees that frequently populate the American workplace – the pierced and tattooed garage band punk (the one who plays in bands with names like God’s Cock); the unconsciously racist older white woman (the one who wears kitty cat angel t-shirts and sports tutu teddy bear key chains); the quiet laboring Mexican (the one who comes to work, does his job, but is always quietly marked as “other” by his brown skin); the goofy grimy blue collar white guy (the one who drives a beat-to-shit truck and watches the Hunting Channel on cable). Many critics cite these characters as caricatures and state that Judge is being mean-spirited and making fun of them. Nothing could be more off the mark. All the employees in Reynolds Extract exhibit as much dignity and humanity as the boss, Joel, and they are based on the kind of real people who work wage labor jobs in real workplaces. Anyone who has spent any time in the workplace lately will recognize this mix. Hell, you don’t even have to work in one of those places. Just open your eyes and look closely at the people who are working in the places where you do business. Take my local Blockbuster, for instance. Go in there on any given day, and you will find standing behind the counter any one of the following – a semi-retired grandmotherly type white Christian woman with her cross and Jesus fish dangling around her neck, a pierced and tattooed punk slacker and wannabe filmmaker, a tough and muscled Mexican, a dorky takes-his-job-way-too-seriously white guy. I recognize these people because I see them at my day job. It’s easy to criticize a movie like this if you’ve never actually spent your days in the wage labor workplace. The characters in Mike Judge’s film are defined by work because the very large majority of Americans are defined by work. Unlike the vast majority of the characters you see in movies, these characters aren’t inflatable balloons of exaggerated characters; rather they are all too real in their banality, ordinariness, pettiness, and humanity.  And reality is an easy target.

One of the things that is causing such an uproar among leftist critics is show how Mike Judge dares to show that being the “boss” is work too. It’s a job. There is this assumption that just because someone is a “boss” that he is inherently bad or ideologically suspect. Extract, on the other hand, shows how the boss can be as beaten down by his job as anyone else. Joel Reynolds isn’t just any boss. He’s a small business owner, an entrepreneur, who had an idea – to make the best flavorings around – and grew it into a company that now employs a bunch of blue collar workers. Employing fork lift drivers, bottle sorters, cappers, etc., Reynolds Extracts is a rare and almost extinct American entity – the independent local business. Judge shows Joel as hard working and holding onto some kind of ideal of business and production that has pretty much stolen his life. .This isn’t glamour work that Joel is performing. He’s not a mega superstar evil boss like Michael Douglas in Wall Street. He’s a hard-working independent business owner. One of the reasons that Judge can paint such an accurate picture of the boss as well as the employees is that he personally has traversed the territory he is covering. He has worked on an assembly line making snack trays, worked in a cubicle testing products, and worked as a boss supervising the production of his animations. He has been the employee in the shit job, and he has been the boss trying to get the job done. Neither side is particularly pleasant or gratifying. They’re both work, but in the land of “politically correct” stereotyping, we’re not supposed to acknowledge that being the boss is work.

The on-going comic trope in the movie is the absence of sex in Joel’s marital life. Joel works so hard and such long hours that he never makes it home in time to get laid by his wife. This trope is coupled with the story of one of Joel’s employees, Step, who suffers an accident on the job when a bolt flies across the factory and cuts off his testicles. The whole sex thing and testicle thing may seem cliché, but they’re also very funny, and they’re funny because they are based on reality. Both Joel and Step, two men from the opposite sides of the desk (employer and employee), have been castrated by the workplace, and by weaving these two narratives through the film, Mike Judge, in his quiet and funny way, is showing the demasculation of work. Everyone is so busy beating up Mike Judge for “siding with the boss” that they have failed to see the fertile castration narrative cutting through all sides of this movie. The bottom line is, after all the sex chokes, drug jokes, and bad neighbor jokes, Extract really is a movie about work and how it cuts your balls off. It cuts off the balls of the employees, and it renders the balls of the bosses impotent. In a way, Step and Joel are one and the same, both men who have lost their balls to their jobs.   It is also important to note that Step is only promoted to floor manager because he lost his testicles, so in a way losing your balls is perquisite to becoming a boss.  But it’s not just the men who have their balls cut off. We learn that the main reason Joel’s wife Suzie doesn’t have sex is because her work life has left her feeling sexless. Suzie spends her days designing consumer coupons, while Joel spends his days running the extract factory, and the repeated image of Suzie’s knotted sweatpants is the image of their knotted lives which have been sucked away by work.

Despite what critics say, the image of Joel and Suzie’s life is not one of exorbitant wealth. Sure, Joel drives a BMW, but isn’t that the ultimate penis car for the emasculated male? And sure, they live in a gated community and have a swimming pool, but the material manifestation of their monetary success all bears a tawdry hollowness. The furniture that stuffs the rooms of their house is hideous, the kind of generic crap that you buy at the local department store. The house isn’t exaggeratingly hideous, but  the kind of banal hideous that a working class guy who’s brought himself up by the boot heels aspires to.  The pool is dirty and unkempt. The kitchen is stuffed with appliances like badges of success. Even the horrendous nosy neighbor is an indicator of how Joel is not exorbitantly wealthy but rather just chained to his material existence and his job. The neighbor wears ugly JC Penney jeans and polo shirts and hawks tickets to Rotary Club dinners. This is not the lifestyle of the rich and famous. It is the lifestyle of people who have lost their lives to work and material acquisition.

Part of Joel and Suzie’s castrating dilemma is being trapped by all the material confines of their “new class.” They both experience nostalgia for earlier “simpler” times of their existence, for example when Suzie bemoans missing the time when they “lived in a condo and could walk to 7-11.” In fact, she suggests that she and Joel go to 7-11 for pizza sticks to put some spark back into their love life! Part of this class narrative is a class consciousness and recognition of the burden of outgrowing your class. Suzie’s nostalgia for living close to the 7-11 is a longing of going back to a more “real” substantively human life which, while less materially successful, somehow seemed more alive and free. (I bet the guy working at 7-11 would beg to differ!) In this movie, work is castrating, and success is suffocating. The whole drug trope in the movie, with Joel’s ventures in horse tranquilizers and bongs, is a way of Joel escaping the burden of his new “boss” class. In those moments, drugs lift the numbing life-sucking burden of responsibility that Joel endures in his present life.

The paranoid pot smoking scene, while one of the most hilarious in the movie, is also one of the most effective in showing the tension of growing  out of one’s class position. Here, Joel finds himself partying with the “working class.” The set details of the apartment – the green vinyl chair, the big coverless speaker, the old stereo equipment – are like ghosts of Joel’s class past. The tension between his tidy work clothes and the grit of the pot dealer’s apartment leaves us with enough sense of discomfort even without the added dose of pot smoke. When Joel mentions that he finds the grifter Cindy “sexy in a working class way,” the tension notches up as the pot dealer leans over and asks “what do you mean by working class sexy? Do you mean nasty?” When we read Joel’s character as Mike Judge (which to a large degree he is), this is a brilliant, awkward and tense recognition of the fetishization of the working class that Mike Judge is often accused of and perhaps feels a bit guilty of. There is definitely a trace of recognition mixed with the paranoia in this scene, but also a hell of a lot more class consciousness than you usually find in the movies.

It’s interesting that the most unbelievable or exaggerated characters in the movie are the ones who aren’t impotent. Brad, the moronic gigolo, is like a penis without a brain. It is no wonder he can so easily seduce Suzie since he is the physical embodiment of primal man without any conscious sense of his responsibility. It is also interesting that Brad is the one that garners the most sympathy from the audience. Here he is, a muscle bound gigolo fucking the boss’s wife, yet we feel bad for him because he is exploited by Joel and is also embarrassingly sincere and naïve. It is only when Brad goes to work for Joel at the factory that his character becomes defused. Welcome to the world of castration! Likewise, the grifter Cindy is a narrative exaggeration. A gold-digging opportunist, Cindy and her counterpart the ambulance chasing lawyer Joe Sadler (Gene Simmons of KISS) are ball eaters. Both Cindy and Adler are walking testicles who have balls bigger than anyone and feed off the castrated men at their mercy. Again, both these characters – Cindy and Joe – by virtue of having big balls are the least “real” of the characters in the movie. Real life people in the workaday don’t have testicles!  Joe Adler’s whole hilarious rant about slamming Joel’s testicles in the door of his office is pretty much an illustration of life in the workaday world in which we slam our testicles in the door, day in, day out. Certainly getting your testicles slammed in the door by the workaday world is something that most people can relate to. Even the unconsciously racist employee Mary, who blames the Mexican Hector for Cindy’s crimes, acts out her racism as a reaction against her castration. Those who have their balls cut off like to find someone else’s balls to cut off.  Racism works for that.

Though seemingly apolitical, I think that at the end of the day, Extract comes down on the side of the worker and the independent business. It recognizes both the employees and the individual business owner as hard workers, and it provides a nostalgia for local industry.  One of the underlying narrative components of the movie is the proposed sale of Reynolds Extracts to the corporate conglomerate General Mills. It is clear that this corporate takeover would be the real crime in the movie. Joel, as an independent business owner, hires locals, knows their names, defends their interests, and does not discriminate. He refuses to belittle the punk rock musician and refuses to participate in racist accusations of Hector. Despite what many critics say, Joel and in turn Mike Judge are never demeaning to any of the employees.  They are all treated with empathy and humor, but they are also not watered down to appeal to some kind of politically correct standard. When the employees get wind of the sale of the business, they organize and decide to revolt. Interestingly, it is Mike Judge in an uncredited cameo appearance who makes a speech in favor of organized labor and employees standing up and demanding to be given stock in the company. In one of the final scenes, after Joel decides not to sell the company, he tells his employees, “If you need anything or want to talk about anything, come see me. I’m right here.” In other words, he reminds us of a rare and nearly extinct entity in the United States, a locally owned business created by a local individual and which hires a local workforce rather than outsourcing labor.

All in all, the movie is much more sincere than people have given it credit for. I think that a lot of the sincerity comes from the fact that Mike Judge sees a lot of himself in the movie. In a way, it is an allegory of his own trajectory from slugging away at shit jobs to making his “art” into a business and having to contend with being a boss. It is precisely because it is infused with Judge’s real life experiences that gives the movie such a populist appeal. It is not a movie of extremities. It is a movie for and about regular working people. I was in the audience full of them, including myself, and it gave us plenty to laugh at even if ultimately what we are laughing at isn’t very funny.

KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. Her work has appeared in Punk Planet, Berkeley Poetry Review, Bad Subjects, and Bullhorn. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about being a teenage runaway in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at: knicolini@gmail.com.

 

 

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Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently completed a book of her artwork on Dead Rock Stars which will was featured in a solo show at Beyond Baroque in Venice, CA. She is also completing a book of herDirt Yards at Night photography project. Her first art book Mapping the Inside Out is available upon request. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.

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