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Book on ’60s film has insight on work in modern times

In her new book, “Clocking Out: The Machinery of Life in 1960s Italian Cinema,” professor of Romance studies and comparative literature Karen Pinkus explores themes of labor and automation and society reflected in Italian cinema, and what they can tell us about alternatives for living and working in today’s world.

Karen Pinkus

“I think all of [today’s] questions about what the future of work is are raised by this look back at this very interesting moment,” said Pinkus, a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences. “The book is using that period of cinema to think about a lot of issues like, what is the dividing line between work and life?”

The book is organized around scenes from “Renzo e Luciana,” which opens the 1962 four-part omnibus film “Boccaccio ’70.” One of a number of “boom comedies” depicting society and work life in Italy’s economic boom circa 1958-1963, director Mario Monicelli’s film begins at one such dividing line – quitting time at a factory in Milan.

The story follows a young couple employed there, a mailroom worker and an accountant, as they make plans for marriage and a better life. Pinkus offers detailed analysis of the signifiers within each scene of Italy’s industrial, political and social culture of the time.

Research for the book took Pinkus to Italian archives, including those of the office machine company Olivetti, and to documentary films featuring interviews with factory workers.

“Olivetti and Fiat are the two big Italian companies that provide different paradigms for the worker and the factory,” she said. “In the ’60s in Italy, the levels of separating management from the workers were nowhere near as extreme as they are now, so there was still the possibility that a worker could become management. That made it a more egalitarian society in a way.”

Pinkus also writes about gender equality among workers of the time.

“With the need for workers in northern Italy, women were very much working alongside men in the factories,” she said.

But when jobs in manufacturing and other industries left the West for other parts of the world, “that moment was essentially over. And in Italy, when it started to be over, you had massive unrest and political turmoil later in the ’60s and into the ’70s and beyond,” Pinkus said, adding that she tries to avoid romanticizing the boom.

By the end of Monicelli’s short film, Renzo and Luciana are working night and day shifts at different factories, their middle-class aspirations intact, for now.

“So what of their future?” Pinkus writes. “Would Renzo and Luciana have burned out or dropped out? Would they have participated in massive strikes …? Would they have joined in with social movements tied to the ‘refusal to work,’ or kept their heads down and tried to go on?”

The book also references other films (as well as novels) depicting workplace culture, such as Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment” (1960) and Michelangelo Antonioni’s “La Notte.” The latter was filmed on location in Milan the same year as “Renzo e Luciana,” and featured a character loosely modeled on industrialist Adriano Olivetti, a progressive industrialist who died in 1960.

Pinkus notes that the Italian government began experimenting with guaranteed minimum income recently, and Italy is now considering many of the questions about work restricted by a pandemic that other societies are facing. “They’re talking about what is an essential worker and whether factories should reopen, even if it means that health could be at risk,” she said.

“My hope for the book is that readers would come away thinking about what it means to work, especially when there’s this constant and recurring threat that automation is going to take over,” she said. “That fear/hope was present in Italy in the ’60s. And during this pandemic, automation has been ramped up in certain sectors to avoid having humans have contact with certain products, for example.” Fears of automation also lead, cyclically, to populism or nationalism, she said.

“To open up a genuine discussion about the future of work is, now more than ever, a crucial, crucial question,” Pinkus said. “Capitalism is not actually on hold contrary to what some say … but it’s true that this is a moment, a pause, that could potentially allow people to reflect on these bigger questions.”

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Gillian Smith