Kenneth Lonergan, the Apolitical Bard of Service Workers

The Oscar-nominated Manchester by the Sea director has a long history of portraying the lives of doormen, janitors, and waiters. But he seems uninterested in social change on their behalf.

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Over two centuries, many a novel or film has investigated the various corners of oppression in a capitalist world, issuing powerful protest on behalf of slaves, farmers, and factory workers. In the 19th century, Western literature saw the publication of the great slave narratives, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the works of Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo. In the 20th century, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and movies like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Chaplin’s Modern Times brought the artist’s critique of capitalism up to modern speed.

Today, Americans live in an economy dominated by business and commercial services, but they still don’t have a great protest novel or movie (or any other cultural work) about service workers. Sure, there are Wall Street and The Big Short on bankers, real-estate protest art like the right-leaning Death Wish or the right-wing conspiracies in the left-leaning Chinatown. But these works were all challenging, in some way, the dominance of business services. There are great books, movies, and television shows about consumer services, but Grand Hotel, Mildred Pierce, Alice, Cheers, and Waitress never advocated for immediate socioeconomic reform, let alone revolution.

Kenneth Lonergan is perhaps America’s greatest artist of service work, and yet he likely won’t deliver that protest movie. In Manchester by the Sea, nominated for six awards at the Oscars on February 26, as in many of his past projects, the playwright and director goes out of his way to avoid the economic roots of problems his service-sector protagonists face. Viewers see troubled people at work, but not how these characters’ conditions of work shape their problems, or how they might make work better with collective action.

Among the millions of America’s service workers are law enforcement officers, healthcare aides,  maintainers of buildings and grounds, and providers of personal care and service. There’s plenty of love in popular culture for cops and fire fighters, doctors and nurses. But the lack of protest art about other kinds of service workers, their clustering at the bottom of the national range of incomes, and the emotional force of Lonergan’s portraits of them make his apolitical stance all the more notable. He doesn’t seem interested in social change for the doormen, janitors, waiters and masseuses at the center of his stories.

In Manchester by the Sea, a Boston janitor named Lee Chandler (played by the Oscar nominee Casey Affleck) returns to his hometown on the North Shore to face his past. The intensity of later scenes overshadows the early jewel-like portraits of him at work in Boston. He overhears phone calls and confronts an angry and underdressed tenant in a bathroom. He gets bawled out by his supervisor in a cramped office overflowing with files. He shovels snow.

These scenes say so much about the conditions of labor under service capitalism: the varied and unpredictable interactions with customers, the intense emotional toll of keeping one’s temper and holding one’s tongue, the claustrophobia of some tasks, the one-way privacy of service work in which a janitor can learn so much about his tenants and they can know so little of him, the relief of solitary physical labor. Next to Lee Chandler, the shallowness of Good Times’ Nathan “Buffalo Butt” Bookman and other TV janitors becomes more apparent. Viewers also see the sexual tension in customer service that Lonergan charted in his earlier plays and movies—a celebrity country western singer and a hotel masseuse in last year’s Hold On to Me Darling, the flirtation between bus driver and pedestrian in the 2011 film Margaret, the nurse-patient relationship of 2009’s The Starry Messenger. But despite the difficulty of these characters’ work-related circumstances, audiences see nothing resembling a critique of capitalism.

Lonergan’s turn to service workers began with his 2001 play Lobby Hero. Though it’s not quite F. W. Murnau’s classic silent film Der letzte Mann or Franz Kafka’s “Before the Law” (a story published in his lifetime that was included in the posthumous publication of The Trial as the parable of the doorkeeper), Lobby Hero might still be the best American art ever made about a doorman. The protagonist, Jeff, learns a secret and his loyalties spin back and forth, buffeted by friendship, desire, a sexist police force, and a racist judicial system. There’s plenty of politics, but no political message.

There is even an extremely subtle undercurrent of anti-union hostility in Lonergan’s work. Sometimes this is explicit, as when Jeff tries to flirt with a female cop, making conversation about the inconvenience an upcoming sanitation strike will cause. Sometimes it is by omission. As Jeff tells the officer, “Hey lady, I am not a doorman, I’m a security guard. I told you three fuckin’ times already—In fact, I’m a security specialist!” The distinction—between a security guard and a doorman—is subtle, but important. While most playgoers probably didn’t know the difference, Lonergan likely does. He grew up on Central Park West, near the top of 37 almost unbroken blocks of unionized doormen. Because of that union—Local 32BJ, Service Employees International Union—most Manhattan doormen get better wages, better conditions, and more power and respect than security guards who do the same job elsewhere in Manhattan and the outer boroughs.

Union jobs mean job security and lower labor turnover. Management companies come and go at the whim of co-op boards, but doormen stay in their positions for decades, nodes of community and institutional knowledge, friends to children, trusted and good judges of whom to trust. During rare strikes and pickets for better contracts, tenants bring coffee to picketing doormen and support their demands to the management companies, the consumer siding with the worker against the boss. In Lobby Hero, Jeff doesn’t seem to know any of this.

Lonergan’s apparent skepticism of unions appears elsewhere in his work. In Margaret, the movie Lonergan made before Manchester by the Sea and his most explicit investigation of law and government, the Transit Workers Union is a sinister force in contract negotiations with the Metropolitan Transit Association, demanding reinstatement of a bus driver whose negligence killed a pedestrian. Though the movie wasn’t released until 2011 because of conflicts between Lonergan and his producers over a final cut, it was first scheduled to appear in 2007, just a couple of years after a big, inconvenient, and successful MTA strike. As a careful viewer, it’s hard not to wonder: What does Lonergan think about the unions of the costume and set designers, carpenters, electricians, actors, and others he hires to make his movies? During the 32BJ apartment house strike of 1976, when Lonergan was 13, did he help man the elevator and sort the mail?

Aside from all this, Lonergan’s psychological bent sometimes foreshortens sociological and political interpretations of his work. Lobby Hero and Lonergan’s other plays and movies identify service workers’ marginality within the traumas of their pasts, not the socioeconomic facts of their labor. Kicked out of the Navy for smoking pot and living with his brother’s family, Jeff works the nightshift to get his own place, pay off his debts, and emerge to do something else. His supervisor William urges him to stay in the industry but move into management. Manchester by the Sea’s Lee Chandler escapes society through his janitorial work, and a weirdo waiter from Lynn, Massachusetts, in Lonergan’s early play The Waverly Gallery thinks he’s finally broken into the art world and can leave service behind. Lonergan’s service workplaces are way stations or refuges for damaged loners—not the vibrant communities that often coalesce among the staff at hotels, restaurants, barbershops, and the like.

The central tension in each case is whether the protagonist will overcome the trauma enough to leave the service job. Perhaps this is a metaphor for succeeding as an artist. Glenn Fitzgerald, who played Jeff in Lobby Hero, waited tables earlier in his career, and Lonergan worked a stint delivering liquor, which is how he got to know the man who inspired the character William. Lots of artists work service jobs as they try to establish their careers, and see the transition to full-time artist as a triumph over personal challenges. Maybe this makes them less likely to create characters who deliver liquor, wait tables, or man a lobby with no casting calls the next day, no screenplay on the laptop at home, no plans for another career, content not to move into management, and not because of some past trauma that left them too broken for other occupations.

One day someone will write a great protest novel or make a great protest movie about service capitalism. The pieces are everywhere. There’s love of spectacle at the heart of service entrepreneurship in Steven Millhauser’s 1996 novel Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer. Sexism and women’s liberation are charted in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and its TV spin-off Alice, in Miwa Yanagi’s Elevator Girl photo series, and in Stephanie Danler’s recent novel Sweetbitter. Roseanne offered a depiction of a late-20th-century career arc from manufacturing to services. A lively but incomplete debate on the ethics of tipping crops up in such works as the short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and Reservoir Dogs. Big Night shows the family drama in the lives of service entrepreneurs, and indie sitcoms Whites and Party Down offer promiscuity and backstage goofiness. Cheers and Barbershop show audiences service firms that build communities away from home, cultivate intense loyalty from customers, and give equal or higher social status to those who serve.

Whoever puts all these pieces together, it probably won’t be Lonergan—though, given his broader sensibility, that isn’t exactly a bad thing. Lonergan’s favorite outcome is failure: He prefers characters who try to transcend individual psychological traumas (whether a sibling’s murder or a grandmother’s Alzheimer’s disease), but who cannot ask for enough help and do not succeed.

Still, the characters’ failures are never a total loss. At the end of The Waverly Gallery, Lonergan’s protagonist says, “It’s not true that if you try hard enough you’ll prevail in the end. Because so many people try so hard, and they don’t prevail. But they keep trying. They keep struggling. And they love each other so much; it makes you think it must be worth a lot to be alive.” Lonergan loves his characters, and because of his artistic genius, so do people who see his plays and watch his movies. It’s enough to try and to love. But how much better to try, to love, to organize, to improve the world, and maybe to learn.