(Austria 2022; Dir: Total Refusal (Susanna Flock, Robin Klengel, Leonhard Müllner, Michael Stumpf))

Hardly Working

Film or elevated video game critique?

review by Vladan Petković

Hardly Working

length: 20

year of production: 2022

country of production: Austria

director: Total Refusal (Susanna Flock, Robin Klengel, Leonhard Müllner, Michael Stumpf)

production: Total Refusal (Susanna Flock, Robin Klengel, Leonhard Müllner, Michael Stumpf)

editing: Total Refusal (Susanna Flock, Robin Klengel, Leonhard Müllner, Michael Stumpf)

sound: Bernhard Zorzi

music: Adrian Haim

festivals: Locarno Film Festival 2022, Uppsala Short Film Festival 2022, Viennale 2022

© images: Hardly Working (Total Refusal)

The Austrian collective Total Refusal describes itself as a "pseudo-Marxist media guerrilla focused on the artistic intervention and appropriation of mainstream video games." In practice, this means these six people, roughly of the millennial generation, make short films, installations and live online performances that dissect video games from an ideological point of view, or more specifically, through the lens of a capitalism critique with a hefty, and probably necessary, dose of irony.

To start with, it is a question how much these products can be perceived as films. Total Refusal plays with various forms, a lot, with varying degrees of success, and they do not call themselves filmmakers. What they are making is not a film in the traditional sense. But in the context of one of their works screening at a film festival, like ‘Hardly Working’ now at Uppsala, they inevitably acquire this frame of perception.

For this film, they took the popular video game Red Dead Redemption 2, which they previously tackled with a live online performance. An action-adventure set in the town of St. Denis, a fictional stand-in for New Orleans at the end of the 19th century — an elaborate world that reviewers called "vast and staggeringly detailed" and "meticulously polished." For a non-gamer like me, it is indeed an environment that many blockbuster films would struggle to create. Aesthetically, it falls somewhere between the cyberpunk influences in the infamous Will Smith flop ‘Wild Wild West’ (1999) and the hopeless muddiness and filth of Sam Peckinpah's classic ‘The Wild Bunch’ (1969).

For gamers, the degree of realisticity in world-building is often a decisive factor to stay with the game. So besides the environment and the primary characters that the player controls, these worlds are populated by NPCs: non-playable characters, or extras. Total Refusal do not actively play the game or interfere with its world and instead observe four of these NPCs, commenting in a voice-over on their actions, and interpreting their supposed lives, psychological states, mental processes and desires — all this from an angle of a capitalist critique.

It starts with a carpenter, who, we learn, hammers about 120 nails in the wooden planks on the pier over his 11-hour workday, every day. His actions have no consequence, as he is just a background character, but the voice-over puts him in a political context: he is not interested in the product because the aim of capitalism is not to satisfy demand, but to accumulate. It is similar with the eternally drunk farmhand, who aimlessly cuts wood or fills an already full bucket with water, or with the laundress who scrubs clothes on a washboard, kneeling in the dirt, or with the street sweeper, who just stands all day in front of her house with a broom, cleaning caked mud on a very small patch of the sidewalk.

When they are not working, these NPCs just stand or sit around, and this is where filmmakers use the opportunity to infuse them with human qualities. When the laundress looks into the distance, they wonder if she is perhaps dreaming of a better life. When the street sweeper's broom is gone, they ask: “Is broom her tool without which she has no meaning, or is she actually the one who is the instrument of the broom?”

But this aspect — that these characters' lives consist only of working and idling — is in fact quite realistic. What else did poor people in 19th century New Orleans have to do? Men went drinking, like the farmhand does (getting smashed from a couple of sips of beer), and women either stay at home or keep working, sometimes as prostitutes. Their lives consist of repetitive actions, day in, day out, but when you think of it for a second, is it really much different in real life for the poor, both men and women, whether in the 19th century or today? Perhaps this could have been the way to go: there is more potential in this relation than in interpreting actions designed to be pointless and repetitive. Or maybe also touch further upon issues directly related to their target: they only mention that reproductive labour (meaning sex workers) produces nothing as there are no children in the game. Then, there are black NPCs in the game, such as the laundress, and at one point a white woman does the washing while she sits and looks on. Isn't this some meaty material for a capitalist critique of a video game set in 1899 America?

What Total Refusal does is clever and engaging, and also often funny but in quite a smug way. There is a convincing dramatic arc supported by a sparsely used and strategically placed sound design, but with this "I know that you know that I know" type of irony in the text, it all plays out like a condescending look at a piece of content that was never intended to have a function worth analysing. It is a bit like disparaging a film for using old cinematic conventions: how did this writer and his painter wife afford this huge mansion, or why does no one lock their cars or no one says bye at the end of a phone call. In the end, ‘Hardly Working’ really amounts to a smartly conceived, well-executed, but ultimately prosaic exercise in, well, pseudo-Marxist thinking.

After seeing Total Refusal's excellent previous film, 'How to Disappear', which premiered in the Berlinale Shorts competition in 2020 and later gained wider exposure as a Vimeo Staff Pick, this left me hoping for more. In ‘How to Disappear’, they used Battlefield V, a hyper-realistic first-person shooter game set in the Second World War II to tell the story of desertion. In this case, they played the game, and in it, when you try to leave the battle, you simply get shot. You can't kill yourself nor another soldier of your army. Trying to do this creates a comic effect, which is counterpointed with the voice-over interpreting the game's influence on the player from the anti-capitalist angle, supported by a fascinating narrative of how armies dealt with deserters throughout history. Indeed, desertion is not the topic of this game, just like capitalism isn't the topic of Red Dead Redemption 2, but by focusing on an element that decidedly belongs to the essence of the game's world and expanding on it, they created a powerful anti-war film. By comparison, 'Hardly Working' is more like an elevated critique of a video game.