Sunday, March 4, 2012

"The Efficiency Expert" - a film review

An efficiency expert will almost always play the villain or the fool in any fictional scenario. His rigidity will be mocked, and he will eventually proven to be narrow-minded. The people he sets out to study and correct will teach him some valuable lesson about how there are things that are more important than efficiency. He will throw away his stopwatch at the end, and fall in love. Or something similar.

So it’s no surprise that Mark Joffe’s 1991 film “The Efficiency Expert” sets out to follow this well-traveled path in its nostalgic look at labor, management and “modernization” in 1960s Australia. The theme of the movie can be grasped virtually entirely through the first few scenes, which contrast the old-fashioned, companionable folks of Spotswood, a humble Melbourne suburb, with the dour and by-the-book efficiency expert brought in to “modernize” a failing footwear company. Yet, curiously, Joffe hasn’t bothered to make his workers sympathetic, nor his efficiency expert unreasonable. In fact, he’s done quite the opposite, and yet has allowed the scenario to play out as if this weren’t the case.  

Errol Wallace, the efficiency expert portrayed by a wondrously deadpan Anthony Hopkins, knows how to work a stopwatch, but is so overworked that he barely has any time to spend with his family (the irony!). It is telling that it’s not until about ¾ through the film that the viewer even learns that he has a daughter. 



What Wallace finds at the Ball moccasin plant, meanwhile, is a confounding mess of a company, but one where the relationship between the owner and his humble, unassuming employees, seems closer and more loving than Wallace’s relationship with his family. So far, par for course.


But the company is struggling, and despite Wallace's efforts, he can't get to the bottom line to figure out what the problem is. He observes plenty of things that confound his orderly brain, including men dancing, repairing cars and reading magazines on the job, and women who spend more time taking breaks for tea than they do sewing up moccasins. But the financial records Mr. Ball provides him don't seem to reveal any problems.


Thanks to a slimy salesman played by a young and dapper Russell Crowe, Wallace learns that Mr. Ball has been propping up the company by selling off his holdings, and that the end is near. But when Wallace confronts Ball about his bottom line, the kindly old man is unwilling to make the hard choices needed to keep himself in business.  

Ball: Robert … Gordon … they’d have to go too. I’d be losing 60 percent of my people.

Wallace: The Asians can do it for half the price. Importing is the future. You simply cannot afford to be in manufacturing.

Ball: But we must. People need to make things. We can’t just import everything.

Wallace: You’ve been a very kind employer, Mr. Ball, but I’m afraid your people have let you down. They haven’t paid you back in kind.

Ball: No. You’re wrong. You don’t understand. You never could. With respect, Mr. Wallace, they’ve paid me back double - treble. If you’d been here when the place was busy, you’d have seen them working day and night, no overtime. They did it because they believed in the place. They trusted me. It’s not their fault. I won’t have that.

Wallace: No. It’s your fault. You haven’t helped these people, letting them live in a fool’s paradise. What did you think was going to happen in 18 months’ time when you’ve run out of money?

Ball: You cannot see past the dollars and cents, can you? Work isn’t just about money, Mr. Wallace. It’s about dignity. It’s about treating people with respect.

If anyone had bothered to make this film make any sense, Wallace’s “improvements” would be cruel and unreasonable; the workers would all pitch in to make a better go of it; and everyone would realize that the old, tried-and-true way of doing things was better in the end.

But Ball has no real retort to Wallace’s very legitimate question about what will happen to the employees when the company runs out of money. And the old way of doing things is, in this case, quite rubbish. While Mr. Wallace’s recommendations may seem cruel -- laying off people who have worked at the factory for decades -- there seems to be no realistic alternative.

There is a bit of foreshadowing here, where Mr. Ball approves the design for a dressing gown and tells Mr. Wallace that he plans to branch out into clothing. Mr. Wallace has no comment.

Running alongside Mr. Wallace’s seemingly fruitless work in Spotswood is his work with the Durmack auto company. Wallace and his young associate are meant to be preparing this slick and modern company for a possible sale, and need to make the balance sheets look a bit better to a prospective investor. Unfortunately, someone has leaked the news of possible layoffs to the union, exaggerating the figures to suggest that as many as 1,000 workers could lose their jobs. Things get ugly, with crowds picketing the plant and a brick thrown through Wallace’s window. (His wife comes downstairs to hiss at him, nonsensically, “Are you satisfied?” before storming back upstairs with their mute daughter.)

Even back at Spotswood, things are heating up from tepid to lukewarm. Wallace enlists the help of Carey, a young man whose job is not entirely clear, to take some time and motion studies of the workers. Carey is the sort of de facto protagonist of this weak narrative; the film opens with him biking to work with his pal Wendy, played by a very bland-looking Toni Colette.

“I’ve chosen you, Carey, because I think you’ve got the right attitude,” Mr. Wallace explains. “You could have quite a future, if you set your mind to it.”

This is puzzling, given that Wallace’s interactions with Carey up to this point in the film are virtually nil. They share the screen in a couple of scenes, but do not speak to each other, nor does Carey say anything of significance. Apparently Wallace’s business acumen is such that he can discern these things from thin air.

When Wallace learns it was his partner who tipped off the union as part of a scheme to ensure that the company agrees to their recommendations, he responds by falling into a sort of halfhearted depression. He walks out of a meeting and stares mutely at his car, which has had paint thrown on it by the union protesters. From all this, we are presumably to understand that he is weighing the particular costs of his chosen field. Or maybe he’s just weighing the costs of having his car repaired.

Meanwhile, young Carey spends a few short scenes observing his fellow workers working, or, more accurately, imploring them to get on with working so that he can take some notes on his fancy clipboard that has a clock embedded in it. They go along with it, but when Mr. Ball announces the first of Wallace’s major changes -- that workers will take their lunch breaks in shifts, rather than all at once -- Carey feels the sting of being on the wrong side of things. (The Spotswood equivalent of throwing paint on Wallace’s car is letting the air out of Carey’s tires.)

After his sad chat with Mr. Ball, Wallace gets what should be good news from his partner -- the Durmack folks have gone along with the deal and have come to an agreement with the union that includes some job cuts (but stops short of the 1,000 figure). At a posh cocktail party thrown to celebrate the deal, Wallace gets drunk and belligerent and lets his partner have it.

“Tell me something,” Wallace says. “Did you ever talk to any of these 500 people we’ve put out of work? Did you ever find out how many kids they had? Or what they did in their spare time? Or if they ever raced slot cars?”

Touche! The answer, presumably, is no. But were it yes, it’s hard to imagine what would change here. Wallace’s partner would still be a jerk; Wallace himself might be saddled with the same sort of remorse that is visited upon him from his work in Spotswood. But what would really change?

The viewer is expected to sympathize with the workers of Spotswood, and to understand that they are somehow noble, or that their way of doing things would be better than whatever Mr. Wallace was going to propose -- which is never really made clear anyway, except that it involves layoffs. And certainly, these seem to be kind and generous people, with the exception of the slimy salesman played by Russell Crowe. But as workers, they deserve not sympathy, but contempt.

These workers are not like “Schmidt,” the dull-witted pig-iron handler who F.W. Taylor sets right in his “Principles of Scientific Management” -- too stupid to analyze the simple tasks they’re being asked to perform. Nor are they canny unionists who know better than to work too quickly, for fear they will be expected to keep up such a pace at all times. They are simply bad workers. They barely work at all, instead spending most of their time gossiping, drinking tea and engaging in extracurricular pursuits, such as preparing for a model-car derby. (Through a fairly improbable series of events, Wallace winds up participating in the derby and, naturally, winning it all for the Spotswood team.)

Yet all this is presented as charming and quaint, as though the only thing standing between the Ball company and success is a bit of luck -- maybe a new product line to catch customers’ eyes again.

“There are other approaches,” Wallace tells Ball rather bashfully after turning up on his doorstep, half-drunk, pleading with him to throw out the layoffs plan he had recommended only hours earlier. “Not foolproof, but …”

The two men then proceed to talk about adding clothing to the Ball product line. At no point does either man reference the fact that Mr. Ball was already planning to do just that. And the company is thusly saved, with everyone back to their old, tea-drinking, knitting, slot-car-racing ways.



If this story has a moral, it's not clear what it is. The tagline for the movie is, curiously, "He's about to teach big business that there's more to life than the bottom line." How exactly Mr. Wallace has done this is not clear. 


What "The Efficiency Expert" does, then, is trade on some vague tropes about "efficiency experts," labor and management, and corporate greed, without really exploring any of these things in any real sense. But the power of these tropes is sufficient to cause Urban Cinefile to call the film "charming ... a minor classic of Australian cinema." So powerful is the idea of the cold, calculating, Grinch-like efficiency expert that the writers need not even set this character up with a reasonable foil. Errol Wallace could be playing against a labor union composed of a liar, a thief and a lout, and the audience would still root for the union.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Leap second decision put on hold

The International Telecommunication Union recently postponed a decision on whether to do away with the leap second -- which means, by default, it will remain until at least 2015.


The leap second is artificially inserted into the stream of time every now and then to account for the slowdown of the earth's rotation. Like the leap year, this system speaks to a fundamental clumsiness inherent to our system of timekeeping -- however precise it may seem on a day-to-day basis.


Felicitas Arias, director of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, is among those arguing for the abolition of the leap second, as she explains in this interview from December. But scientists could not agree at the ITU's recent summit, so the decision got put off.


"We are using a system that breaks time," Arias argues. "The quality of time is continuity." 


True, but it is hard to accept Arias' unwillingness to come up with an alternate system, instead leaving it to future generations to puzzle out. Does the insertion of a "leap second" truly interfere with the continuity of time, in any real, perceivable sense? 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

'Slow' cycling in the Guardian

Peter Walker of the Guardian muses about the journey vs. the destination, via bicycle, in this recent blog post.