Happy in Your Work
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Like everyone in L.A., I try never to be content. I know it's crucial never to succumb to job satisfaction or a general sense of happiness. That would be a crime against ambition. Worse, to be content would be to agree to type-casting: you know, where an actor has to play the same character over and over again.
Fortunately, everyone here keeps you on your toes: "Still CEO of that Fortune 500 Company?" they ask. "What's it been? Like five years already? Anything better on the horizon?"
I know a therapist who works with the Hollywood elite, and she tells me about famous directors who have all the success and money anyone could apparently desire, and yet still consider themselves failures. Me, I ask, "Do they have a film in the AFI 100 best or even the IMDB top 250? No? So what's to be so proud of?"
I can totally understand why Hugh Jackman didn't want to host the Oscars again. Surely, he's ready to host something with more prestige.
It's exhausting, but here in L.A., all cooks have to become chefs. All doctors have to become medical corporations. All cops have to open security companies contracting to the CIA. Otherwise, we're all failures.
Which brings me to the Irving Penn photo exhibit now at the Getty. Friends kept telling me I had to see it because it held some clue to human happiness, and today as I roar up the 405, I glance, as I often do, through the tinted windows of other people's cars to see how happy they are. And damn if it's not true that the better the car, the happier the occupant appears to be. Really: it's a disturbing experiment, but you should try it some time. Me, I wonder, "Was this always true, or was there a time when even unfamous, unsuccessful people could be happy?"
Irving Penn was a Vogue photographer in the Golden Age, but this exhibit is called "Small Trades," and it's portraits of genuine working class people: butchers, bakers, pipe-fitters, bricklayers, street sweepers, news-sellers, car washers. Penn pulled these folks into the studio and posed them like fashion models in their dirty work clothes. This was around 1950, but the people are mostly middle-aged products of an even earlier time—maybe, as they say, a more innocent time.
And sure enough, just as my friends had warned, the small tradespeople in these pictures all look strangely...content. They stand with a curious dignity — smiling, backs straight, apparently proud of what they do — longshoreman or furnace tender; milkman, plasterer, carpenter, seamstress.
My favorite picture is of two London "Lorrie Washers:" Tall skinny guys in their sixties with flat caps and hip boots. Their body language is light-hearted, theatrical, even arrogant. Me, I could stand in my pre-torn designer jeans staring at these guys for hours. I mean they look so perfectly certain of their place on earth. I'm pretty sure they would say they were uninterested in cornering the lorry-washing market or even creating a lorry-washing reality show.
Pretty sure, anyway. I mean, it might all be an illusion. Penn is dead, so I can't ask if he faked all this contentment. If he had to take a hundred pictures to get the lorry washers smiling.
Now I buy the catalog of the exhibit and I go sit out on the vast and magnificent Getty Center plaza, at this hour almost empty. As I'm flipping through the pictures I pause to admire an antique London Road sweeper, snappy cap and tie, holding a bushy broom with all the aplumb of Caruso holding a soprano.
I notice a movement, and I look up to see a young Getty janitor sweeping up not five feet away. Has he seen me staring at this picture? I give him an awkward smile, and he gives me back a look that says, "Hey, this is not my life's ambition."
Copyright © 2009 Marc Porter Zasada. All Rights Reserved.
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