Representations of labor in cinema: Skvirsky's The Process Genre reveals that which was always there.

review by Sam Smucker

Skvirsky, Salomé Aguilera. The Process Genre: Cinema and the Aesthetic of Labor. Duke University Press, 2020.

Harun Farocki explains in his insightful article about his short film Workers Leaving the Factory (1995) that

“films about work or workers have not become one of the main genres… Most narrative films take place in that part of life where work has been left behind.”[1][ open endnotes in new page

The result it seems is that few scholars have attempted to theorize systematically the relationship between the world of work and media. When they do, generally speaking, they read media for its relationship to realistic depictions, as representations that conform to or vary from reality in particular ways, and because of that, inform us about work or culture. For instance, Ewa Mazierska’s excellent edited volume on work and cinema attempts to map these representations in various ways, stretching what is understood as work or its depiction, and frequently contrasting them with the realities of capitalism or neoliberalism.[2] 

In contrast to these approaches, Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky’s ambitious and compelling new book The Process Genre challenges us to re-think the relationship between labor and cinema. Instead of starting from the point of view of realism, she analyzes a cinematic phenomenon she calls the process genre, which is rooted in the formal characteristics of and spectatorial reactions to a particular kind of presentation of labor. This approach yields revelations about how filmmakers depict labor across a wide variety of media, the way these depictions are utilized by political actors, and their ideological effects. Her insights suggest that attending closely to formal qualities of media is methodologically critical for developing theoretical perspectives. It is this move, starting from the point of view of formal qualities of the depiction of work, that allows Skvirsky to decenter indexicality for questions of the social and political nature of this representational mode.

The Process Genre is compelling in its argument because it mobilizes a myriad of transmedial examples to illustrate its claims. I found it impossible to read a chapter without watching the often mesmerizing or amusing video references. Skvirksy is doing serious theoretical work as she develops an apparatus to analyze examples of labor in the media. Such a project is ambitious and revelatory enough, but Skvirsky proposes nothing less than a film genre. It is that kind of bold claim that keeps you on your toes throughout, making this inspired book a pleasure to read.

Skvirsky defines the process genre as a particular kind of representation of labor. The process genre is

“the sequentially ordered representation of someone making or doing something…. The represented processes are typically, though not always, processes of production, and crucially, they are represented as having a sequentially ordered series of steps with a clearly identifiable beginning, middle, and end.” (2)

The genre’s formal qualities include the display of “successive steps or phases of a process” which produces “a surprising degree of absorption in the spectator.” (15) Human labor is central to this definition as the genre produces a “sensuous encounter of the human body, instruments and materials.” Finally, the genre conveys to the spectator the “impression of having provided —knowledge about the world.” (15) An example of the process genre might consist of an entire film focused on a single process like a video on industrial production (as in A Visit to Peek Frean and Co.’s Biscuit Works (1906)) or it might present multiple unrelated processes (such as in Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) or Nanook of the North (1922)), or it might be a narrative film in which process is given a small amount of screen time yet serves as the “thematic center of the film” (such as in films like Rififi (1955) or Pickpocket (1975)). (16)  The five films above serve as her canonical examples and she uses them in the following chapters, to demonstrates the genre’s unique affectivity, its mechanism of aestheticization, and its social and historical impacts.

Jeanne Deilman (1975) consists of multiple process sequences including a 5-minute scene in which the protagonist prepares veal cutlets.

Watch excerpts of the book's iconic examples of the process genre film.

Skvirsky argues that the process genre encompasses far more than feature films. Perhaps its most robust contemporary representations are found in instructional how-to videos on YouTube and reality television shows such as Top Chef (2006 —) or Fixer Upper (2013-2018). (3) She gives us examples across the subgenres of educational, industrial, and ethnographic films from early cinema but also observational documentaries like Frederick Wiseman’s Meat (1976), art cinema like A Man Escaped (1956), slow cinema like La Libertad (2001), and Edweard Muybridge’s chromophotographic motion studies. The process genre is transmedial, although Skvirsky argues it finds its fullest form in cinema. Yet, it’s visible in Renaissance visual manuals such as Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (Encyclopedia, or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts (1751–72)), craft demonstrations at museums and fairs, as well as the modern corollary of the airplane safety manual and IKEA assembly instructions. She introduces counter-examples to demonstrate the formative qualities that give the genre its aesthetic and thematic power. While reading her book, I found myself testing her definition against my own set of examples, including contemporary heist films such as Ocean’s Eleven (2001), which seems like it would easily fit her genre category. The Queen’s Gambit (2020) series seems to resist its potential for processual representation probably because producers wanted the series to appeal to people who don’t know how to play chess. Finally, I wondered about the processual nature of live video game streaming on platforms like Twitch.

Skvirsky claims that the process genre, while transmedial, finds purchase in visual media because it so elegantly displays its two critical attributes—visual representation and sequentiality; images and duration. This leads Skvirsky into a discussion of the process film as a genre and the depiction of labor and technique as one of its central characteristics. This is a topic I will return to at the end of this review, as the pleasure of wrestling with her bold claim of discovering a new genre and the its relationship to work deserves more space. However, I want to give the reader a sense of her entire argument in the chapters.

In the first chapter, The Process Film in Context, Skvirsky traces the history of the process film from the early days of cinema; it is connected to, although not synonymous with, industrial, educational, and ethnographic films. Her contention, though, is that “processual syntax” was developed much earlier than film as a medium, a product of the early modern period and utilized to standardize practical knowledge for “growing, urbanizing, modernizing societies” such as Diderot’s Encyclopédie. (76) In the 19th century, it’s adapted for the display of crafts and machinery at large public fairs and exhibitions. Consequently, “processual syntax was already available to be adapted by the film medium.” (65)

The iconic How People Make Crayons (1981) documentary featured on Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. Skvirsky argues that the focus on a well-known household item like the crayon structures into the narrative the effects of surprise, suspense, and curiosity.

In the second chapter, On Being Absorbed in Work, Skirvinsky connects the absorptive qualities of the process genre with narrative structures especially those involving surprise, suspense, and curiosity. In this way, the process genre contrasts the viewer’s knowledge of a commodity like a crayon in the infamous How people make crayons (1981) segment on Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood with the viewer’s lack of knowledge of how this common household item is produced to create a narrative structure. To this end, human labor plays a vital narrative function adding an element that is not perfectly mechanical. She compares the crayon sequence to Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Mystery of Picasso (1956) in which the outcome of his artistry is not pre-known and in which each step is, in fact, a new work of art. Picasso’s process demonstrates that repeatability and closure is crucial to the process genre. Consequently, audience familiarity (the importance of the crayon in the life of a child) with the final product is essential for creating the effects of surprise, suspense, and curiosity.

In the third chapter, Aestheticizing Labor, Skvirsky argues that process syntax centers on two essential elements: the skillful execution of technique and physical (concrete) labor. The aestheticization of work in the process genre takes on an aura of magic which contrasts the difficulty of the feat accomplished with its depiction as ease. This perspective generates two kinds of “worries,” which she uses as the axis of the chapter: first, she asks, is the process genre indelibly linked historically to Taylorism? and secondly, is one of its most important effects to separate toil from work? Her answer to these questions is a cautious No. She invokes the idea of a “metaphysics of labor,” which functions as a “shorthand phrase used to characterize the view that a flourishing human life has labor—capaciously understood—at its center. The metaphysics of labor opposes the idea that (transhistorically) the truth of labor is toil.” (121) This idea serves to push against linking process syntax with just one kind of production: the Taylorist organization of early 19th century capitalism. In one of the more tenuous lines of her argument, she attempts to re-read the decentering of labor (for instance, depictions of hands but not faces) as dehumanizing. Instead, she proposes that reading is just one of many possible interpretations.