Coloring the Invisible: "The Assistant" and Workplace Abuse

Kitty Green's gut-wrenching recreation of a day of misogynist abuse at an unnamed film company echoes inside the industry and beyond.
Susana Bessa
“They cannot see that it is neither nature, nor gods, but human beings who create the conditions of their existence. Oppression goes unnamed and unchallenged. Revolt is silenced before it can even be voiced.”
—Debra B. Bergoffen, The Philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir
Everyone knew what he looked like. The power that face evoked. His face. How it was built. The way it creased. On a television screen, during an interview.  How it photographed on the cover of a magazine. The local newspaper. “I just saw him on TV talking about that French film you spoke about. There’s something about that man… he is somewhat repellent, isn’t he?” came out of my mother’s mouth every other weekend. People seldom saw him in the flesh. Everyone did hear him, though. Whether through someone else’s phone receiver or through a friend of a friend of a friend’s mind’s eye. And most working in the film industry had heard his screaming at one point or another, in my case echoing in the walls of the office, forcing giggles out of the outsiders who sat on the leather couch that made up the waiting room/lobby, and making those working in it tremble, suddenly lost in fear. I worked for an internationally famous film producer and distributor for exactly six months. During that time, I ate sad plastic-wrapped muffins for dinner, I heated up so many ready meals that I forgot I could eat anything else, and I let myself feel crushed by a man who used my eagerness to work as a tool to manipulate me into submission. The hours were long, the salary minuscule. And it all last what felt like an eternity: heavy and bloated with a desire to move, but too laden  to push forward.
Kitty Green’s The Assistant is a work day exposition of how the silence that protects the system aiding a powerful man in a renowned money-driven, hard-to-get-at industry, tentacling his way around the inner lives of the driven college-educated and cheap manpower he employs, by smashing their soulful individual autonomy, is built. She introduces her main character as a young woman (Julia Garner) about to enter a horror movie we immediately expect she may not get out of alive when, before the break of dawn and still half-asleep, we see her get into the back seat of a black car and travel across New York City to a muted, shadowy two-building Tribeca office. Still softened by sleep, her body moves around the office in an automated manner, as she goes about turning on the lights, one by one, room by room, printing out paperwork, opening up stacks of water bottles, cleaning up the producer’s office, scrubbing away at what could only be semen splotches left on his couch, only to then dive into a bowl of milk and Froot Loops and a morning cup of coffee in the Hug Mug cup hidden in the middle of all single-colored ones in the office cupboard. Her hands on her face holding her head keep it from falling. She works as a junior assistant for an entertainment mogul at a very busy film production company.
I’ve been a part of conversations where co-workers have tried to deny how the code of ethics their boss does not follow becomes part of that one definition of you by extension, the one splashed across social media platforms or concealed on your CV, whether you take it upon yourself to be consumed by your job or not. At this point, everyone who wants their life to amount to something more than their job will know you don’t have to be your job, but your job has to be a part of you, because that is how you chose to spend your life-binding time. But when it comes to emotional violence, something must be said of the difference between genders. It all becomes easier to grasp if we forsake the possible treason of language and go right to biology, looking into the problem of the genders in the workplace from the standpoint of internal and external placement, and how those dialog with behavior. The woman has been dealt with internal sexual organs that force the body to make itself smaller, to hide, to go back to a position that could possibly fill into its previous home, another human’s uterus. It tends to become more and more compact with time, an inner shedding of sorts. Think pedals rotting from the outside in. The externalized geography of male sexual organs, however, are placed in parallel with a freedom to take up as much space as needed. Spread-eagled seems to be the preference. This is a case for how both genders tend to behave as they go about their lives interacting with each other. It is not a coincidence that 95% of the people I worked with at the production company were women. One might delude oneself into thinking that because all those positions were in some way power-driven that the producer was actually putting himself on the line for us by choosing a talented and yet inexperienced group of women to attend to the company’s every need. So much responsibility, so much room to grow into whomever each one of us wanted to be. Of course, it turned out that most people working in the company had no previous training in film and were, let’s put it this way, people he felt could acquiesce to his every order. And no matter what any woman will tell you, inherent in all of us is a certain amount of editing. From cradle to bed, we’ve been edited by others. That editing gives a powerful, smart, sickly man the room to consolidate the fear necessary to build obedient cheap employees.
I first heard of The Assistant from critics who had watched it at this year’s Berlinale and who described it to me as "an excellent Weinstein film,” a film that came under the wing of the #MeToo movement and was eager to find its place in the sun, spotlighting the woman at its center as a way into unlocking all the muffled humiliation that made up the days of all people working jobs under in-built power structures. The situation of the woman in question is however that much important given her frail entry-level position at the company, the one parents speak of as the “opportunity you can’t waste away,” that rocket you wish could propel you into space. However, after several viewings I now find that any categorization of the kind could actually harm the film’s freedom to speak. Though inspired by the Weinstein case, it would be far too reductive to see Green’s through the lens of that monstrous case of sexual abuse. Notice how no names are ever mentioned throughout the film. The main character’s name is, according to IMDb, Jane, but does anyone ever address her by any name? I would have to stealthily examine the film in order to discover, but I don’t remember any acknowledgement of her existence from other people that come across her for that one day. There is also no verbalization of what is happening at any given moment. But I knew every time who was on the phone or who was calling the character without the film’s script ever resorting to guidance. And the man in question, the producer of abuse in his employees, is never shown. We hear his yelling, we hear his voice on the phone, but we can’t make a visual description of him. I feel this is more an attempt to note the anonymous universality of the portrayal rather than a lawyer-advised clean version of actual events. In real life, a man or a woman in power who wish to induce a relationship built by fear in the workplace often want to make their employees believe their insight goes beyond ordinary human knowledge. They want to be as dangerous as a high-rise, mostly concealed while we walk down the street, but terrifying if we think of it falling on us. Not being seen makes the man into the tyrant. The invisible becomes visible by not being so. For this reason, many will most certainly fight the film for the frustration it induces. The viewer is never comforted, the film’s highly ominous highly portentous tone is never balanced.
As she goes about her day, printing out schedules, scripts and actresses’ headshots, taking care of her boss’s dry cleaning, preparing checks for him to sign, opening his mail, ordering lunches, washing dishes, aiding his Spanish-speaking housekeeper to troubleshoot the vacuum cleaner, staking up his vials of Alprostadil (used for erectile dysfunction), she is made to calm his crazed wife on the phone by one of his other assistants, a nerdy preppy 20-something man who wishes not to deal with her again, and to babysit his kids while the nanny is in the producer’s office. Her job is to assist, after all. So, she assists in the repetitive motion required of her, hamster-wheeling her many tasks. Her desk becomes her home. A volatile, unsafe space to inhabit. That phone on top of it is the gateway into all unpredictability, which switches a brain into a hyper alertness, a Pavlovian-induced goal-relevant stimuli that decides her survival in that environment. She is to be an appendix of him. She is to anticipate his every wish and necessity. She needs to forego of her own needs in favor of his, and, as an extension, of the company. All the while, she witnesses. She knows what girls go through there. She knows what the earring she finds on his office floor means. She skims through the scripts. She knows his personal problems. What his wife is like. What goes on in their home. The violence inflicted into every other human present in his life. She overhears conversations. She puts the puzzle together. She is the most dangerous of employees, if she so desires. His life is her property now too. She handles it, she molds it. And yet, she lingers on the periphery. Forced to endure that limbic space, claustrophobically swaddled in the tension created between being ambitious and wanting to belong, but also of needing to be understood. The hoax of a job like hers, in that stifling environment, is that while it is supposed to socialize ambition, it only succeeds in killing it.
Kitty Green is a director of proximity. She offers no respite to the film’s intense, humming tension. Instead of wielding it into an action or reaction, her film is made taut throughout, like ice that doesn’t evaporate in the sun. The viewer never finds any comfort. Two times the assistant calls her parents, and both times she aims at interrupting the hum. The people on the other side of the phone, however, do not give her an opening to confide in, to release some of that pent-up anger. The film shifts into third gear when a new assistant shows up from Idaho. A very young girl, a former waitress, travels across the country to accept the job of his assistant (his fourth one, taking into account that Jane will not be fired that day). Naive and beautiful, she signs a contract and is put up at an expensive hotel where he later meets up with her. The currency exchanged is presumably sexual, which alarms Jane. More than protecting herself, she wants to protect the girl. But not even then, not even then does Kitty Green grace us with space to breathe. When Jane leaves her desk and goes over to the second building to ask Human Resources for help, she is verbally manhandled. It is perhaps the strongest scene of manipulation I’ve encountered in recent years in a film, which very easily equates to one of those scenes in Mafia movies where the outsider, unaware of the lay of the land, tries to have their voice heard in the territory of those who take out the tongues needed for the act of speaking. In letting her guard down, the man (Matthew Macfadyen) on the other side of the table advances onto her, like a predator to its prey, clouding her sense of morality by putting the story together and showing her how innocuous her accusation is. He seems to be saying there’s not a possible segue into an accusation of any sorts because the one doing the accusing is dependent on the situation she’s detailing. Too easily, perhaps, he manages to change paths in the conversation, in order to make it all about her and obfuscating the truth, the horrifying truth he complies with. He’s not a free man, even though he most certainly doesn’t know it. People stop knowing what freedom feels like when they stop being free. Their vocabulary changes, it refreshes itself. But in the way his eyes shine when he explains her she ought not to file that complaint, we know, the same way Jane learns, he is vigorously strengthened by his position, one which I’m sure he feels he has allowed to place himself in. Her chin trembles. Her eyes filled with tears that will not fall down her face. She leaves. 
In one scene, the filmmaker manages to convey the equation of workplace violence. It is not the morally corrupt boss. It is the people he manages to hold captive in his reality, normalizing these conditions, making them ordinary, pressing the button into a numbing process, inducing a fix in a human’s internal chemistry, making him or her accept their boss’s violence, from the afternoon yelling to the more criminal transgressions, fully destroying one’s sense of scale.
Even after I quit, the topics of conversation with ex-coworkers I ran into were of how glorious the team the producer had assembled was becoming. “I’m part of the family,” I would hear. “We’re all a family. We support each other. We work for each other. For our family.” The heartbroken part in me wanted to cry every time the word “‘family”was used to describe the way the film producer abused his power. As if dealing with him was the same as dealing with the abusive drunk uncle you only see at weddings and manage to run away from. "You have to work in the national holiday. We’re a family. Do not forget that,”’, he said to me once. That’s when I stopped complying. It had seemed surreal to me how no one was coming to my aid. How condescending the behavior of grown women became when I decided to jump ship. All I could think of was how deep the wells located inside these people were… Are they hollow? They have families. Most of them are mothers with young daughters. Would they tell their daughters to do the job I was doing? To be spat on by a man who seemed to nurture pleasure in telling me how I was nothing, how meaningless all my achievements as a professional woman in the industry had been until then? I sent the e-mails Jane sends apologizing to him. I was insulted one too many times in far too many languages in his name. I got the call she gets when she returns from the other building and resumes her work. Everyone has gotten that call:
I’m not gonna yell at you.
Am I yelling? No.
Because you’re not someone even worthy of that.
Because you didn’t even have the fucking courtesy to talk to me about whatever the fuck fantasy you decided to spew all over me.
So, let me ask, do you want to keep this job? (…)
Then send me a fucking apology.
 “You know you can always come to us, right? Come to us first, ok?” the other two assistants had told her when she arrived. They know. They all know. She sits down and they crowd her by her desk, putting together sentences for her to use as an apology via e-mail. The second that day. The camera is there, right in Julia Garner’s face, all blue eyes, freckles, and golden hair, her whole body still and stiff in disbelief, her jaw thickened, as she types on the keyboard how much she appreciates the opportunity to work with him. How sorry she is to have taken liberties she shouldn’t. How much she’s willing to do to stay. Her eyes keep shutting mid-way, countless times over, as if adjusting to the changes in the light. The cherry on top of the ice cream of oppression. It’s one of those nightmares you feel you are sleepwalking through, but can’t seem to wake yourself up from it. Because every character is you. They all know what you’re thinking because they are you. They’re thinking it too. They’re trying to wake up too. But they can’t. Not anymore.
No other image could ever go through my mind at that point in the film than that of artist and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz’s sewn mouth, a poster image that acts as an agent of change whenever I think of those months spent at that job. The uncomfortable stomach-turning meals with people who I knew were trying to entice me to belong to a collective that unlearns how to speak up, that unlearns how to voice their concerns because if they are listening, they no longer understand your tongue. You stop being able to travel beyond that which you get tightly inserted in. You become a migrant in your own country. You start practicing the act of unbecoming, tainting all other parts of your life you will inhabit. Your co-workers only help you with it, standardizing the world, nursing the grey into the black and white, creating an army of people who will never require to maintain any kind of awareness of their own identity. They won’t need it anymore.
She’s the first to arrive and the last to leave. When he tells her he no longer needs her, she dumps the microwaved meal she was readying herself to dig into in the trash. The heat from the vibration emanating from a day surrounded by computer ’hums is replaced by a freezing snowy dark New York with its sequined traffic lights and the noise of those who, unlike Jane, are hurrying home. Jane? Jane Doe. With a plastic-wrapped muffin in her hands, all we know of her after being with her for the entirety of the film is that she’s gone to Northwestern, she’s been working at the company for five weeks and did some internships before that, her parents seem to be well-adjusted human beings and are still together, she lives in Astoria, and she forgot her father’s birthday because she was working that weekend. Oh, and that she missed both the sunrise and the sunset that day. Hers is an artificial life whose skin barely greets the sun. Just before she leaves her muffin unscathed on the counter of the deli, she closes her eyes for a moment. As if rebooting, refreshing her brain before yet another day of work arrives the following dawn.
The question that ought to loom over her shadow as she walks down the street, distancing herself more and more from us, never shifting from the office girl we know into another girl, for she is one and the same here, walking down the street with a presumable closed face, is "what can she do?”Can she quit that job? Or can she erase herself into oblivion? She doesn’t want to. We know that. Nobody does. But do we ever know we’ve been erased? I know I haven’t because I am writing this. I decided I wanted to choose for myself the kind of condition my work could dull me into. I am also aware of the power I’m giving him and everyone else still working there by putting these words down. He certainly wishes to be spoken of. For the good and the bad. Everything he still does seems to revolve around that. David Wojnarowicz said: “I think what I really fear about death is the silencing of my voice.” That’s why I wrote this. But through my mouth. With my voice. My tongue still intact. Such as is my spirit. The feeling of acting as if all is well and normal just so things will magically become so is not the way I wish to go through life. I choose to embrace the unknown. Accept it. Start from scratch. Try to find a place in the sun without hurting myself or others.
In Kitty Green’s coloring of the invisible and how it moves, prolonging itself, she appears to be calling out to all Jane Does out there, imploring them to ask themselves that one question: “What can I do?.” Ultimately what should matter is that we ought to wake up to the fact that only by speaking up are untruths and wrongdoings taught to be so. But often voicing oppression comes in the form of taking yourself out of the situation. So, in the impossibility to do all else, start running

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