In one of the most amazing scenes I have ever experienced in cinema the past decade (for that is what MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is: not a movie – but an experience) Max wakes up after a traumatic accident that would make me shit my pants, most of you lie about how you reacted to it and cause the worst form of post-traumatic stress on par with surviving storming a beach of Normandy, surviving a home invasion by ISIS or sitting through three and a half minutes of any Justin Bieber song.
George Miller, the Director, must have used 48 Frames per second and slowed down the film to recapture the image at the standard 36 (I imagine this would be a lot easier to do in the world of digital). You can see each individual sand grain move in waves off of Max’s head as he slowly comes to the conclusion that he is in fact alive. After snapping to and undergoing an immediate panic of “where am I?” “Who am I?” “What happened?” “What is going on?” he realizes he still has a steel mask on his head that he cannot remove and a chain connecting it to something buried in the sand. Attached to this chain and imbedded in his neck is an IV which he removes and follows the chain to its' source: a teenager in a car submerged in sand who is unconscious and the recipient of Max’s blood. Max then hears a noise and like a desperate animal he searches for the source: the enemy who put him here is on the horizon, barely visible, but is organizing. Max does not have a lot of time. Opening the door he tries to pry the chain connection off the boy but cannot. BUT he finds a double-barreled shotgun, checks the ammunition, and hesitantly but in a very “me or him” mindset he places the gun against the wrist of the boy and pulls the trigger. The shells are duds, worthless, and Max is exasperated. He must get away from the boy and away from the psychopaths tracking him down in the next few minutes. Then he hears another sound from behind him. He frantically turns his head to see an 18-wheeler trying to start its engine. Max’s only hope is for whoever is there to help him get the chain off the boy and the mask off his face. He tries to lift the boy but the chain goes through the door and he cannot fit the boy through the door. In a struggle that would tire me out for the day, Max puts every effort of his life into wedging the door back and forth until it comes off the hinges (the door is rusted, the car is obscenely old). With the door free, Max pulls the boy out of the car and hoists him on his shoulder. Then he picks up the door with one hand and the shotgun that does not work in the other. Faced with certain death if he is caught, he fights with every step to approach the rig to gain help. When he rounds the truck he is faced with six women who have no interest in helping a man with anything (nothing sexist here, it’s just the plot). With the shotgun that doesn’t work, a dude over his shoulder and a door chained in-between the dude and himself, Max now has to bluff his way in order to force people to help him get free and stay alive. That’s all you need to know for now.
There are a billion other reasons why I love this film, but I am only going to focus on the above scene as a metaphor for my last job in the Oil Patch. When I sat in the theatre last year watching this play out, I watched with great interest not because of my loyalty to George Miller or my fandom of The Road Warrior or because Tom Hardy surprised me in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or even (gasp) because of Charlize Theron. I watched with great interest because despite the post-apocalyptic scenario, despite the simplest of plot lines, despite the end of the world apparently taking place in the Australian Outback – despite all of these things…I knew exactly how Max felt. I empathized with his character more than any other that I could think of. More than Luke Skywalker. More than “Jack,” the Narrator of Fight Club. I sympathized with him because that was what it was like to work in the energy service sector of the Oil Patch.
There is a great Dilbert cartoon panel by Scott Adams(I’m not sure if it’s real or not) but Dilbert tells his mother he worked to midnight. His mother says “well, at least you made extra money” and Dilbert replies that he doesn’t get overtime. “Well, at least the work was important” his mother comments and Dilbert responds that it wasn’t because his boss changed presentation slides that made the presentation worse. “Well, at least you’re prepared for your meeting” she says and Dilbert informs her that it was cancelled…which is fine because the project had no funding anyway. “So you worked for free to worsen a presentation for a meeting that won’t happen for a project that doesn’t exist?” Dilbert confirms this. “Oh…you must work for… (Insert Company Name Here).”
I would come to work in the middle of a firestorm. The instant knee-jerk reactions to anything a client said – no matter how subtle – freaked everyone the fuck out. Instead of communicating with a client over how best to serve their needs, the earth was moved no matter how much, no matter how far, no matter the effort in time, the cost in labor, the sacrifice to the company or families, the application to accounting rules, the risk to the safety of employees, etc. It had to be done. And after it was done, the client normally said: “Oh…right. Thanks…” and immediately put the problem out of his mind because in the grand scheme of what he was dealing with it was never really much of a footnote to begin with.
I worked, on average, about 60-80 hours a week my first two years in the Oil Patch and again in the first two years of my transfer to Canada. In between that and since then I worked on average about 50-70 hours a week not because I had too many projects or because stuff “just had to get done on time,” but because it was always easier to ask your employees to accomplish the impossible than it was to explain to the client the issue wasn’t as catastrophic as it looked or cared to present another solution after consulting with the people who had to execute the outrageous promises made. It was easier to disrupt a set system of process to achieve a result than it was to tell a client “this is a lot of trouble for zero billable hours.” 99% of the time, these issues were never invoiced for. Usually this was because the system set up to invoice our clients was not flexible enough to allow such “add ons.” The Project Manager didn’t want to tell the client it cost something, the Sales Representative didn’t want to put his commission in danger, the Accounting Department didn’t want to create new line items, the Legal Department didn’t want to renegotiate contracts, and management didn’t want to miss a lunch that day.
So I came to work most days neutered. And as the price of barrel fell my language changed from “No, that’s crazy” to “can I talk to your client” to “we’ll have to work that out” to “sure, when do you need it by?” This attitude stole revenue not from the decision makers, but from the blue-collar workers who needed it to feed their families. In the end if you had a degree and no common sense or experience you were inherently more valuable than someone with no degree but loaded with common sense or experience. There was in most cases nothing I could do: no more hours I could work, no more money I could save, no more promises I could make, no more tricks up my sleeve. All because the fear generated by 22 dollars a barrel turned an “idea so fucked up it proves he doesn’t know what he’s talking about” to “I’ll have it done today by noon - for free.” This is the interpretation of service in the Oil Patch. The absolute groveling and debasement of people and their labor to a single factor above all else: safety, morale, business ethics. It’s not about the bottom line. It’s about control and fear. It’s about using the barrel price to get what you want.
It was like showing up to work chained to a dude over my shoulder, a door hanging on the chain, and a gun that did not work in my hand and being forced to use that emasculated object to bluff someone in an effort to force them to help me. Help me, I would ask. Please, I’m trying to make money. I’m trying to contribute, to create ideas for revenue. I’m trying to save my job, your job, as many as we can. Please, I’m begging you, can you talk to the client about billing for this? Talk to HQ about adding this service, about increasing our profit? About cutting our costs? And the answer from the multi-billion dollar service giant? Fuck you. You’re fired.
And so I completely empathized with Max. He just wants to survive. I wish I was as smart as Max.