The James Clayton Column: Movies presenting a career path

If you're looking for inspiration for your next job, then your local multiplex might have some answers, reckons James...

Films are influential things that shape people’s perceptions and tastes, telling us what’s ‘cool’ or desirable. Movies impact upon our lives and can make us reassess things, even potentially reconsider our identities and all we hold to be true. They may even provide extreme moments of epiphany where you realise “Yes! I now know exactly what I want to do with my life!”

That might be something as mundane as “I’m going to go and get a milkshake!” (Pulp Fiction and There Will Be Blood could inspire that decision) or something significant, like being convinced to completely change direction on one of life’s crossroads and pursue an alternative path. Movies could potentially open the door to your destiny and urge you to step through.

These desires may just be temporary flights of fancy, or they may end up being formulated properly as serious career trajectories. As Inception showed us, by planting an idea in someone’s mind you can powerfully alter an individual’s reality. Every time you go to the cinema a whole set of suggestive seeds are sown in your subconscious. Some of those seeds may sprout, strangle your senses and guide you to the University of Paris to study the Architecture of the Mind under Professor Michael Caine. Inception convinced you you’ll make a living as a subconscious extraction artist.

For me, personally, watching Whip It made me want to become a roller derby transvestite. Likewise, watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show made me want to be a musical mad scientist transvestite. Watching The Silence Of The Lambs made me want to be a serial killer transvestite. Unfortunately, these ideas never got further than fantasy. They’re totally unfeasible and I don’t want a criminal record.

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Those films aren’t likely to be seen by children (younger, more impressionable minds) who instead end up watching the Toy Story series and announcing “I want to be a space ranger!” Alternatively, they might see Nacho Libre and say “I want to be a lucha libre wrestler!” or watch Shrek and proclaim “I want to be an ogre!”

Killjoy adults then destroy these dreams, because parents don’t want their precious kids to play rough with Mexican bodybuilders and there’s no place for space ranger training or ogre anthropology in the narrow confines of the national curriculum.

Teachers and career advisors take fantastical ambitions down to more basic professions, but the influence of movie can still prevail, even as older children come to understand that they’re unlikely to make it as a superhero or jujitsu soldier of fortune-cum-rap star. They can pursue these ideal aspirations in their spare time while they study ‘practical’ courses at school, college or through vocational training and apprenticeships.

Careers like teaching, policing, writing, driving, businessperson-ing and many other a-nings are all ways to make an income and all still carry an essence of cinematic glamour, if you’ve seen the relevant films. A career in the police force sounds unappealing if it appears to be all about issuing speeding tickets and getting abuse from juvenile delinquents. Think about Dirty Harry, John McClane and Jackie Chan super cop stunt action, however, and the occupation suddenly becomes a pretty cool proposition.

Additionally, movies may be a source of motivational help for all the students currently going through the academic hell of exams and dissertations. When revision is a drain and you’re wondering why you decided to study this boring drivel, calling to mind great film characters linked to your chosen field can be an invigorating kick.

Your science course, for example, might be a drag, but thinking about sci-fi flicks, monster movies and Ghostbusters (“Back off man! I’m a scientist!”) reminds you that science is actually really hip and something that you want to excel in. Look at British TV’s ‘rock star scientist’, Professor Brian Cox, and astrophysicist, Natalie Portman, in Thor. Scientists are beautiful, attractive people with perfect smiles. Fact.

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The most loathsome and boring history lecturer becomes more bearable if you keep Indiana Jones and Lara Croft in the back of your mind. Raiders Of The Lost Ark is responsible for ninety-five percent of enrolments on university archaeology courses. Not a fact, but you know it’s true.

There’s a problem, though, if a particular career path or occupation lacks an idealised screen icon or movie. Among the kids screaming about how they’re going to grow up to become super law enforcers, pop stars and space rangers, I don’t hear any ambitious announcements about wanting to be an accountant.

There are no flicks on the marketplace actively encouraging young people to aspire to work in the financial sector or public relations, for example. Even though I’d rather expose children to crimefighting lucha libre space transvestite movies than stories about selling mortgages, I figure it’s only fair that these sectors get represented, considering they offer the jobs most likely to make you rich. There’s no money in vigilante law or amateur wrestling, but there’s a massive amount in insurance services and corporate finance.

Bravely attempting to fill the gap is Cedar Rapids, which sends repressed dweeb, Tim Lippe (Ed Helms), to the title town for an annual insurance convention and in doing so seeks to sell the insurance industry to the audience. Tim’s a naïve fish out of water who has to juggle the expectations of business honchos, sexual temptation, encounters with alcohol and drugs and the wicked amorality of his fellow convention guests (most crucially, John C. Reilly’s ‘Deanzy’).

It’s an enjoyable, feel-good film and underscoring the gags and gross-out comedy touches there’s a sweet-natured streak, sympathetic characters and a sense of human warmth. I don’t usually associate the insurance industry with the words ‘human warmth’. Cedar Rapids, then, is clearly doing something positive for this particular area of employment.

But does it make you want to become an insurance salesman, saleswoman or sales droid? No. Not at all. It reminds you that people aren’t just what they do for a living and that a dull job doesn’t automatically mean no sense of humour, no personality or no human spirit. I like Tim Lippe and his convention buddies, but I wouldn’t like to work with them and follow their career path.

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You never know, though. Maybe somewhere out there right now there’s a young person watching Cedar Rapids and having an epiphany. As they hear “Insurance Man” Tim’s heartfelt speech praising his industry colleagues as America’s true heroes, their destiny becomes clear. “I’m going to sell insurance! I’d have made a lousy crimefighting lucha libre space transvestite anyway.”

James’ previous column can be found here.

You can reach James on his Twitter feed here, see his film cartoons here and more sketches here.

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