Tom Hodgkinson picks his favourite matinée idles
There is a noble tradition of films that portray the spirit of rebellion against conformity and submitting to the demands of “the system”. So this week I’m proposing my top seven anti-work movies. Here they are in no particular order. Let me know if you have any suggestions to add to the list or comments.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Deliciously wry yarn from John Hughes about rich kids skiving off from school. The Socratric reflection it’s best remembered for goes: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
We all love Phil Daniels as Jimmy Cooper, the mod who seeks freedom through sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll and scooters. He embodies the mod’s dilemma: they have too much dignity to work, but need money for a decent haircut and clothes. His free spirit gets him a telling off from his boss at the advertising agency where he does the post. Jimmy reminds me of another great anti-work artist, Jason Williamson of Sleaford Mods.
Mr Fulford: You’ve a good steady job here, Cooper. Plenty of young men would give their eye teeth to be in your shoes.
Jimmy: Yeah? Well, find one, then!
Mr Fulford: I beg your pardon?
Jimmy: You heard. I said find one, then! Yeah, I’ll tell you what you can do with your eye teeth and your job, you can take that mail and that franking machine and all that other rubbish I have to go about with and you can stuff ’em right up your arse!
Terry Gilliam’s brilliant portrait of a future dystopia follows poor young Sam Lowry’s battle with a bureaucratic and cruel government. The citizens of Gilliam’s world are kept in a state of fearful subservience by the threat of terror, prompting critics to make comparisons with George Bush’s War on Terror. Lowry rebels and is punished in a horrifying manner by his friend Jack, Michael Palin’s brilliantly played amoral torturer. But the film also shines a light on the perils of the wage slave: when Lowry is having dinner with his awful ambitious mother, he expresses the disillusionment with the world felt by nihilistic young people everywhere.
Sam Lowry: I don’t want dessert. I don’t want a promotion. I don’t want anything.
Mrs Lowry: Of course you want something. You must have hopes, wishes, dreams.
Sam Lowry: No, nothing. Not even dreams!
Tony Hancock is the bored clerk who quits his spirit-crushing job and pursues a career in Paris as an artist. He hangs around with beatniks who wear blue lipstick and sleep on wardrobes. The artists he gets involved with are revealed in the main as ridiculous narcissists and he eventually returns home to work on his sculpture, Aphrodite at the Waterhole, in peace. Sad to think that Hancock was only 44 when he died.
Dazed and Confused
This was one of the films I imposed on my children during lockdown and they actually enjoyed it. School’s out for the summer and we follow a group of high school students as they drink beer, kiss for the first time, drive around aimlessly, fight and philosophise. It’s really a film about being alive. “I’d like to stop thinking of the present as some minor, insignificant preamble to something else,” says red-haired geek girl Cynthia, again in Socratic mode, adding: “God, don’t you ever feel like everything we do and everything we’ve been taught is just to service the future?”
Chaplin’s 1936 film about “the tramp”, his character who is alienated by factory work during the depression of the 1930s, is obviously in the Idler’s canon. It’s hilarious, joyful, sweet, romantic and troubling all at the same time. I love the portrayal of the “Big Brother” type unsmiling capitalist who runs the corporation where Chaplin works. I think our hero must have read William Morris as the film is all about the dehumaning effects of work and consumerism.
Another must-watch for the free-spirited from Mike Judge, the genius behind Beavis and Butthead. It was described by critics as a “comic cry of rage against the nightmare of modern office life”.
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The Big Lebowski by the fabulous Coen Brothers is another good one. A fitting quote for all the idlers is delivered by the stranger in a Stetson hat: “It’s good knowin’ he’s out there. The Dude. Takin’ it easy for all us sinners.”
I’d like to put the case for Two-Lane Blacktop, Monte Hellman’s road movie in which no one has a job aside from some impromptu drag racing of street hot rods, and travelling for the sake of travelling. I see it as a reaction to the end of the Sixties, an echo of that decade and the age of the hippy. It captivated me when I first saw it, and I’ll watch it every couple of years.
Does Withnail and I count?
I love Work is a Four Letter Word starring David Warner & Cilla Black. It’s a real off-centre quirky 1960s comedy.
Does The League of Gentlemen count as an anti-work movie? The characters take on the heist as a rejection of the world of unsatisfying, demeaning graft they’ve been thrust into after military service. Also, it’s brilliant.
Spud’s job interview scene in Trainspotting… Pretending to be super eager while being obviously unemployable in order to remain on the dole! It’s really an Idler “How To” tutorial.
Nice list. I would add Billy Liar, the 1970 version of Bartleby, and Alain Jessua’s award-winning but now-forgotten La Vie à L’Envers, about a man who gives up work (and, slowly, everything else) to stare at a white wall.
All terrific films, but what about Cool Hand Luke, shot through with the spirit of rebellion to its tragic end.
Thanks for the film recommendations. Office Space is a gem. Also, not seen it for ages, Glengarry Glen Ross.
How about Clerks, basically a celebration of people without any talent or ambition!
Thanks for those movie recommendations! My boyfriend and I are trying to find anti-work movies but it ain’t easy! He thinks Easy Rider is an anti-work film but I think it’s more a movie FOR freedom, not openly against work. I think Mary Poppins is an anti-work movie. Just think about the dad, who works in a bank and just wants his children to save money, not enjoy their life…
I nominate Holiday from 1938, with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, as not only my favourite anti-work movie but also one of my top five movies full stop. Cary’s character has been working successfully in “the system” but doesn’t think making money should be his most important objective and wants to take time off to explore the world and find out more about what’s going on out there, a decision that elicits enormous opposition from his fiancée and her father. Timeless!
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning – “Don’t let the bastards grind you down” – classic anti-work movie. The Edukators, a fantastic film reflecting on changing ideals as we age, love and the meaning of life. I recommend this movie to everyone.
I remember from way back a charming French movie called Very Happy Alexander (Alexandre le Bienheureux) with the great Philippe Noiret. Defiantly anti-work.
For a great Idler rebel movie check out If, another wonderful portrayal by Malcom McDowell in a Lindsay Anderson produced movie. Even A Clockwork Orange might meet the criteria. Malcolm was great as the bug eyed creepy revolutionary.
Nine to Five with Dolly Parton.