Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky, The Process Genre: Cinema and the Aesthetic of Labor. 2020. Duke University Press, $28.95.
Watching someone work is hypnotizing. We might not always enjoy working, but something about the spectacle of work has held audiences captive for centuries. This claim might not be self-evident at first, seeing how scarce the representation of work is within the Western film canon, but consider the success of workplace videos online and a different picture emerges. Before the controversy surrounding Bon Appetit’s hiring practices, Gourmet Makes’ popularity was proof of our hunger for mediatized labour. The series showed pastry chef Claire Saffitz re-enacting supermarket classics – from Oreo cookies to Twinkies – meticulously showcasing every step of the process. The web series became incredibly popular, garnering millions of views and crossing over to non-baking audiences. Why Gourmet Makes and not the dozens of other cooking shows on the Bon Appetit channel? The answer to the question might lie in the representational syntax of the web series. While the first half of the videos showed the trials and errors of recipe development, this was rewarded in the second half with a smooth and unsoiled representation of the recipe from start to finish, resembling the” hand and pans” videos that populate almost every corner of social media. The notoriety of Gourmet Makes and other step-by-step cooking videos suggests that viewers enjoy watching stylized representations of work.
This fascination with process-based representations of work animates Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky’s book The Process Genre: Cinema and the Aesthetic of Labor, which recently won the Best First Book Award from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. Published in 2020, the book’s primary intervention is to delineate and theorize a cinematic genre that has heretofore “gone largely unremarked.” The genre encompasses cultural objects that feature processual representations: films, tv shows, recipe books, and other texts whose contents show processes and whose form mirrors the chronological, step-by-step nature of processes. Nevertheless, not all processes are depicted equally, and not all processes are depicted processually. An essential feature of process genre texts is how they organize the representation of processes in “sequentially-ordered series of steps with a clearly identifiable beginning, middle, and end” (p 2). The phrase “process genre” recalls Tom Gunning’s term “process film,” which refers to early 20th-century industrial films, but the category proposed in this book expands beyond this specific cinematic tradition. Indeed, one of the book’s most impressive features is its expansive historicization of the process genre, leading Aguilera Skvirsky back to the 15th century through Diderot’s Encyclopédie and all the way to YouTube and DIY videos of today. Since it precedes cinema, the process genre is transmedial, but Aguilera Skvirsky also proposes that it is primarily a cine-genre because “it achieves its fullest expression in moving image media, not least because of the medium’s constitutive capacity to visually and analytically decompose movement and to curate its recomposition” (p. 3).
The book begins by tracing a rough genealogy of the genre with six films that have processual sequences: Cricks and Sharp’s A Visit to Peek Frean and Co.’s BiscuitWorks (1906), Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955), Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959), Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), and Natalia Almada’s El Velador (2011). This selection of diverse films demonstrates the elasticity of the genre proposed, and it highlights that Aguilera Skvirsky’s generic schematization is not necessarily tied to visual conventions, character tropes, or thematic similarities but to a processual grammar. Can any movie with a processual sequence be described as a process film? The book does not grapple with this question directly; it never explicitly determines how much focus a film must give to processes for it to fall within the category. Nonetheless, it is clear that not any movie with a process is part of the genre. As Aguilera Skvirsky writes, “at the heart of the process genre – its secret – is its capacity to absorb us in the drama and magic of labour” (p. 30). These texts produce in the spectator “a singular wonder and deep satisfaction,” they instigate absorption not by eliciting psychological identification but through the narrative of process as such: the steps by which humans give form to matter. The author recounts her own experience of being transfixed while watching Vladimir Carvalho’s Quilombo (1975), which helps to explain her investment in the genre and the stakes of her intervention. If images of work can be mobilized for aesthetic pleasure, does it mean that the process genre is aligned with capitalist productivity?
In the first chapter, Aguilera Skvirsky contextualizes the process genre, comparing it to other film genres to affirm what the process genre is not. She first traces a history of processual representation in industrial, educational, and ethnographic films, all of which resemble process films but cannot fully conform to the generic criteria outlined by the author. She then offers a genealogy of pre-cinematic iterations of processual representation in printed how-to manuals and craft demonstrations, which leads to the critical claim that the process genre is a genre of modernity made necessary “by the changes to the sphere of production in 15th century Europe” (p. 52). In Chapter 2, Aguilera Skvirsky provides a fascinating account of the absorption the genre produces in its viewers. Focusing on narratological considerations, she tries to decipher how the genre produces engagement without using storytelling devices like psychological identification and character development. Thankfully, a fascinating visit to a Crayola factory from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood helps us realize that our fascination with process films comes from the “expositional narrative structures of curiosity, suspense, and surprise” that exploit “the repeatable, protocol character of processual representation (p. 81).” In other words, these films play with our knowledge and ignorance of the processes depicted to capture our attention.
Chapter 3 addresses the political implications of the process genre and its absorptive effects. According to Aguilera Skvirsky, the process genre shows human activity as a display of technique and skill, making the labour look good rather than toilsome. Processual representation requires curation to efface hardship, dead time, and sweat, thus presenting a magical and hypnotizing chain of causality. Since the process genre aestheticizes labour, it is imbricated in the ongoing theoretical debate on the nature and value of work. Aguilera Skvirsky notes that for filmmakers and scholars like Harun Farocki and Jean-Louis Commoli, the truth of work is toil, and an adequate representation would not aestheticize it. Similarly, the antiwork tradition – exemplified by the Autonomists, Baudrillard, and Kathi Weeks – argues that labour is something that humans should liberate themselves from. That is, labour is not only bad when it is alienating; it is oppressive as such. Under this framework, the process genre, and its Taylorist division of labour, would be seen as serving nefarious – or at least capitalist – political purposes. However, Aguilera Skvirsky disagrees with this view. She tries to find a middle ground by pointing out that the genre has been mobilized for right-wing and leftist causes, but ultimately, she contradicts the view that labour is wholly toilsome. To this effect, she brings up the “the metaphysics of labour,” a belief in the principle that “flourishing human life has labour – capaciously understood – at its centre” (p. 121). The glorification of work in those films is not necessarily Taylorist propaganda, it is a utopian insistence to revive the fulfilling aspects of producing something from start to finish.
But what if flourishing human life can be attained without labour? By using a “capacious” understanding of labour as a “form-giving activity,” the book’s argument muddles the boundary between the concepts of leisure and labour in a way that benefits the latter concept, allowing it to embody positive attributes that are not intrinsic to labour as such. It is not evident to the reader how leisure activities preclude “form-giving activities,” especially considering that famous quote from Marx’s German Ideology where he writes that in a communist society, people will “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” Here, Marx speaks of a communist society where the category of leisure can include form-giving activities, if leisure is given the generosity of being as capaciously understood as labour. To be sure, this can be traced back to ideological disagreements over the metaphysics of labour, and Aguilera Skvirsky’s argument is substantive enough for either side to draw an informed conclusion and engage in a productive theoretical contemplation. Still, The Process Genre’s theoretical framework would benefit from a further delineation of the critical terms of work and labour and leisure. Understandably, the book cannot exhaustively contextualize every concept; like a process genre filmmaker, Aguilera Skvirsky had to shed many considerations in her writing process to create a smooth argumentative flow. So, this book opens several avenues of future exploration, one of which could explore the differences between labour and work within the process genre.
In the last chapter, Aguilera Skvirsky makes a useful distinction between manual labour and emotional labour to explore the process genre’s limits. Comparing Jeanne Dielman with Enrique Rivero’s Parque Via (2008), the author suggests that “affective labour cannot be represented processually” (p. 218) because those labour processes are opaque; it is not visualizable or codifiable. Still, some films come closer than others: Akerman composes single-take sequences, shot in medium shot or close-up and always from the same angle perpendicular to the set, which provides a clear view of Jeanne’s work. In contrast, Rivero portrays domestic worker Beto with two-dimensional long shots, almost like he is part of the setting, making his actions undecipherable. Aguilera Skvirsky attributes this difference in representation to a fundamental incongruency in the nature of their “jobs”: Jeanne’s is “unremunerated domestic labour, with its quotient of satisfactions, in the service of social reproduction,” while Beto’s is paid “affective labour that shapes the subject that performs it even when the boss is out” (p. 216). Hannah Arendt’s schematization of the concepts of labour and work suggests there is something else at play. For her, labour refers to the activities by which we produce goods required for survival and are thus repeated daily, while work refers to the activities by which we create durable objects. Arendt framework is relevant because labour is not necessarily processual; it is circular and cyclical, which would, in turn, affect the analysis of films like Jeanne Dielman. In isolation, each sequence of Akerman’s film shows a process from beginning and end, but as a whole, the film also exhibits the cyclical nature of labour. It comments on the fact that once we finish a process of cleaning or cooking, we have to start cleaning and cooking all over again.
Gourmet Makes features productive activities that are both processual and cyclical. It shows the failures, successes, toil, pleasure, alienation, and actualization of work, along with the playful and awkward social dynamics of the workplace. The series illustrates the pleasures and frustrations of our working lives, which are increasingly becoming our entire lives. Through all her tribulations and successes, Claire Saffitz pushes through thanks to her love and passion for her baking. In a way, her love for pastry reveals that it is more than her work: it is her hobby, her calling, her craft. But more relevantly, Gourmet Makes shows the repetitious, trial-and-error nature of labour before it shows a curated, causal, and processual representation. Technically, this makes the web series more of a variant or a spoof than a text of the process genre, but as Aguilera Skvirsky notes, sometimes the spoof proves the rule. In the epilogue, the author examines spoofs of the process genre like Chick Strand’s Fake Fruit Factory (1996) and Mika Rottenberg’s Dough (2006), and concludes that the existence of these spoofs confirms the solidity of her generic categorization. After all, “successful spoofs reveal the object of parody to be a coherent stylistic template that achieves a calculated effect” (p. 222). In other words, they only work as parodies because the viewer already has clear expectations of the process genre. But these spoofs also subvert the genre’s clean aesthetic; “they refuse the satisfactions of processual representation along with its consolations and utopian horizons.” “They seem to declaim,” she writes, “the process genre is dead. What will the process genre become?” (p. 237).
So, the book ends with the death of the genre it birthed, but this is only the beginning. The Process Genre has given a new life to the considerations of process, labour, and genre in film theory. The concept of processual representation has implications that reverberate across the whole field of film studies. In a way, most narrative films follow a loose model of causal, sequential representation. In his essay “Acinema,” Jean-Francois Lyotard argues that most, if not all, narrative cinema is constructed around productive movements, at the expense and exclusion of aberrant and useless gestures. Narrative films usually undergo some process of curation to streamline threads and create a legible chain of events. Aguilera Skvirsky’s efforts to schematize this gesture in the concept of processual representation reminds us of the importance of incorporating labour into film studies. The moving image is a medium of action. It is crucial to understand how the actions depicted in cinema determine humans’ actions in life, work, and rest. In The Process Cinema, Aguilera Skvirsky outlines a legible, credible, and compelling genre of film, and she creates a set of concepts that are robust enough for future exploration. The Process Cinema is the labour of love of a cinephile and academic pursuing a passion; it proves its own point by showing the great ideas that can sprout when humans engage in intellectual work. In this way, it also shows the ethical and political importance of extending this privilege to everyone, whether in the form of work or play.
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Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Translated by Danielle Allen. University of Chicago Press, 2018.
Lyotard, Jean-François. “Acinema.” Essay. In Acinemas: Lyotard’s Philosophy of Film, edited by Graham Jones and Ashley Woodward, 33–42. Edinburgh University Press, 2017.
Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The German Ideology. Lawrence & Wishart, 1965.