Bureaucracy in Art and Culture

A Collection of Rare Encounters

Category: Movies

Bureaucracy In the Loop

Not all representations of bureaucracy involve boredom, doom and gloom. Sometimes bureaucracy is just hilarious, hysterical absurdity.

In art and popular culture, bureaucracy is often tragedy; when it is is not, it’s farce.

And bureaucracy has rarely been more hilarious and farcical than in the the 2009 British comedy In the Loop. The movie, directed by Armando Iannucci, is based on the cult British TV comedy series, The Thick of It (which deserves a separate post) and also inspired the later US TV adaptation Veep.

The plot turns around the attempt of the US President and UK Prime Minister to prepare the ground for a war, and the efforts of bureaucrats and political operatives on both sides to prevent it. But the plot hardly matters, as the real story is about the mishaps of everyone involved  in their actions to  outmaneuver their opponents by organizing fake committee meetings, forging documents, giving TV interviews that go horribly wrong, and so on.

The main character, Malcolm Tucker — a foul-mouthed spin doctor (Director of Communications for the UK Government) played by inimitable Peter Capaldi — has already acquired a cult antihero status in popular culture due to his short temper, brash manners and colorful language delivered with a strong Scottish accent. Ironically, as unreal as Malcolm Tucker’s language and behavior seem, I have personally had in my short career as a civil servant a boss who was as brutish and even more foul-mouthed than him (and, coincidentally or not, my boss was also Director of Communications but for another government).

Never underestimate the power of reality to outdo even its most preposterous artistic representations.

Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison in In the Loop (2009). Photo by Nicola Dove/Nicola Dove – © In The Loop Productions 2008

For students of bureaucracy, the movie is interesting for a variety of reasons.  First, there are the battles between politicians (like Simon Foster, the weak-willed British minister for international development at the center of the plot) and top brass administrators, such as  generals, directors, and secretaries of state. Second, there is the ambiguous role of the political entourage of the politicians. These political aides and advisers mediate between the politicians and the bureaucrats, which leaves them exposed to all kinds of hilarious abuse and  ludicrous demands from both sides. Third, the movie is a wonderful illustration of policy making as driven by accidental politics, untended consequences, personal animosities (and amorousness), crises, scandals and sheer stupidity.

Policy making ‘in the loop’  is a world away from the iron cage of cold rationality, rules, and bureaucratic procedures, yet it is equally unsettling in its chaotic madness. At least, it’s fun.

You can get the movie from Amazon. Highly recommended.

 

 

 

The Death of a Bureaucrat: how bureaucracy is laughable but makes you crazy

(Note: this is a guest post by Caterina Preda presenting the movie The Death of a Bureaucrat (1966) by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea)

Tomás Gutiérrez Alea is one of the best-known filmmakers of the post-revolutionary Cuban cultural landscape. In several of his films, he discusses the problems of the new revolutionary society and criticizes the remainders of the pre-revolutionary period. One such example is the film Death of a Bureaucrat (1966), released seven years after the victory of the Cuban revolution and, as the director acknowledged, expressing his own experience in confronting the absurdities of Cuban bureaucracy and their opposition to the professed revolutionary ideals.

The film targets Cuban bureaucracy, but its underlying critique could also be relevant for other national bureaucracies. For 1 hour and 25 minutes, we follow the protagonist of the film, the nephew of Francisco J. Perez (or Paco, for short). As Paco is  buried, the first scene shows the speech of his boss. The boss speaks about Paco’s life, who was a proletarian, ”a paradigmatic patriot”, and praises him for having invented a machine to speed up the production of revolutionary busts of José Marti. (warning: spoilers ahead)

 

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Ikiru: Kurosawa’s take on the bureaucrat at the end of his life

Akira Kurosawa is world-famous for his movies about samurais, but he has also written and directed a great movie about the life of a bureaucrat, Ikiru (1952) [To Live] .

 

Ikiru (1952 Japan) aka To Live aka Living
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Shown: Takashi Shimura as Kanji Watanabe

The movie follows the last days of Kanji Watanabe, a petty bureaucrat working in the same dusty office for the past 30 years, who is suddenly diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer. Facing death, Kanji attempts to truly live, for a first time after all these years of monotonous and meaningless existence. And he decides to fight the bureaucratic system that has provided him with numbing comfort over the decades, in order to finally get something done – a small public children’s park – that would become his legacy to the world.

The movie is considered a real masterpiece. The acting is superb. The cinematography, pacing, and editing all bear the marks of Kurosawa’s genius. (You can watch two critical analyses here and here.)

In Ikiru, bureaucracy is portrayed as the epitome of meaningless work and the anti-thesis of life itself. The piles of papers in Watanabe’s office have crowded out all joy and purpose. They threaten to fall any moment and crush the protagonist, after having consumed his soul already.

“Busy, always so very busy. But in fact this man does absolutely nothing at all, other than protecting his own spot. The best way to protect your place in the world, is to do nothing at all. Is this really what life is all about?”

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