Small Rooms and Social Class in Management Narratives

In this post I will discuss two of the questions on the exam in the graduate narratives course. The first question, noting that some movies about managers are filmed almost entirely in indoor settings while others often use public spaces and outdoor settings, asked students to give two examples of each and discuss the advantages of both narrative approaches.

The second question asked students to discuss the significance of social class in four movies: Twelve Angry Men, North Country, The Class, and Remains of the Day.

The dramatic advantage of the prolonged use of an indoor setting, especially one room, is that it turns up the emotional heat of the narrative by focusing it on the interaction among the characters occupying the room. If that interaction is intense, confining it to one room makes it more intense. Facial close-up shots are often used and the audience is forced to zero in on dialogue, gesture, and body language. The two prototypical “small room” narratives we watched were Twelve Angry Men, where the entire movie takes place in a sweaty and claustrophobic jury room, and The Class, where most of the movie takes place in Monsieur Marin’s crowded classroom.

In contrast, the dramatic advantage of filming outdoors and in public spaces is that the movie incorporates panorama and spectacle. The narrative itself can be large, encompassing many places and many people. And the variety of settings should hold the interest of the audience. The two classic examples we watched were Charlie Wilson’s War, which moved between Washington and exotic Middle East locales (Afghan deserts, Pakistani palaces, and Egyptian belly dance lounges) with occasional stops in Houston, and The Insider, which after an opening scene in Beirut, wandered all over America. Some students noted that outdoor and public settings are better places to hold secret discussions than rooms which are being watched and possibly bugged, an observation which is correct, but misses the bigger point.

One advantage of using small rooms that, surprisingly, none of the MBA students discussed, is that filming in a studio is a lot less expensive than filming on location, especially if there are several locations, as well as hundreds or thousands of extras, involved.

Now, the second question about social class. The four movies treat social class in a variety of ways. In Twelve Angry Men, ethnicity and social class are markers that precondition the jury’s initial presumption that the accused is guilty. The jury deliberations, however, do not split along class lines. Starting with the upper middle class, the architect thinks the accused is innocent, the stockbroker that he is guilty, and the advertising man can’t decide. The working class jurors also split, with the ethnic and working man soon joining those favouring acquittal, while the salesman, garage owner, and messenger service owner hold out until the end for a conviction. Had the jury split along class lines, a deadlock and hence a hung jury would have been more likely.

North Country really is about sexism, and we find that all the men in the mining company, whether middle class executives or lower class miners, are sexists, with the difference being that the former were more subtle and less physical in their expressions of sexism. Thus class was not really at the core of this movie (call it a trick question).

In The Class, it is immediately evident that most of the students are lower class and of colour. But what struck me was the nature of their teacher Marin’s enterprise, which was to teach them “correct” grammar, usage, spelling, and accent. In effect, he was teaching them how to conform, linguistically, to middle class expectations. But the students were often resisting. This makes a for sharp contrast with other transformational teacher movies, most notably Stand and Deliver, in which Jaime Escalante was teaching his Latino students calculus because it would enable them to get ahead in Anglo middle class America, without necessarily buying in to the culture.

Finally, I see The Remains of the Day as a cautionary fable about class deference. The butler Stevens is deferential to his master and ultimately comes to realize he has drastically and unnecessarily limited his own life as a result. Mr. Benn, who ultimately weds Miss Kenton, is of the same class background as Stevens, but more assertive in every way: sexually, occupationally, and politically, and while his life was far from perfect, he had much more of a life than did Stevens. This contrast presents one of the main themes of the narrative, and Ishiguro’s novel can be read as a critique of deference and defense of a democracy in which the common-sense instincts of ordinary people are of equal value to the articulate but misguided musings of well-educated aristocrats.

Business schools are populated by students who are striving for wealth and ignore the existence of status gradations (and sometimes barriers) in society, and narratives are effective at pointing out this reality.

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