I rode the bus for an hour towards Williamsburg with my roommate to see Kitty Green’s The Assistant. It was one of my first nights out since moving to New York City. I watched as Julia Garner, playing Jane, climbed into an Uber and rode from her apartment in Astoria towards Manhattan. It’s dark, she’s first to an office that looks cold, the audience listens as a pot of coffee bubbles.
Last spring I climbed into Ubers at five most mornings. I took other people’s cars to the Highland Park Station in Los Angeles, got on to the Gold Line, transferred to the Metro, jumped on to the Blue Bus. Taking public transit in Los Angeles is no easy feat: bags hung beneath my eyes, and my toes were always pinched in too-tight-loafers; my “work pants” from Goodwill almost fit, sagged a bit, and weren’t meant for me. But I learned how to sleep sitting up with an ear open. I learned how to wake up by Santa Monica.
The Assistant is a film concerned with silence: the stillness of an empty office, an elevator ride that makes you very small. Everything is quiet sans the clacking of a keyboard, the groan of a blender. Jane, a recent college-grad at an entry level position, wants to be a producer. Instead, she is working as an assistant for a man with power. She brings his sandwiches, dodges his wife’s anxious calls. “He” is an executive that viewers never see, whose name we never hear. “He” is not interesting, is not the subject, not the issue in question. We already know who “He” is.
The film mirrors the silence of abuse—and instead of seeing the power wielded by Jane’s boss, his presence becomes exhaustive without his physical presence.
I took the train to the subway to the bus, Eagle Rock to Santa Monica, on dark mornings while my housemates slept, because I wanted to write for television. I rode to my internship where I delivered mail and photo-copied books and stocked a kitchen with enough kombucha to cover my non-existent salary.
On my first morning at the job, I wore a yellow blouse that I felt good in. It had small ruffles and was bright without being young. As I walked from the Metro towards the Blue Bus, my top button burst open, fell off and towards sludge covered tracks. I showed up at the office with more cleavage than I’d intended. I sat at my central desk with the other interns, most of whom were male, located in the center of the building’s top floor so anyone could use us. A man halfway between my father and my dead grandfather’s age walked towards me with a sharp gaze, talked about my breasts, called me sexy before he went into the executive meeting. After, he followed me to the kitchen.
As I left that evening, a female assistant pulled me towards the bathroom and said I should Google him—that she shouldn’t say anything. That was how I learned that he was a top executive, “brought down by #MeToo,” offered a second chance that was likely his hundredth at a new and major production house, with power over all but one other white man. I wanted to quit, but could not quit and still graduate.
My housemates said I should quit when I was groped and flashed on the Metro. My coworkers were worried about my time spent on trains. But I was just as scared in a well-lit corner office with a potted Fiddle Leaf Fig and Cactus.
The Assistant is a film about silence and a film about capitalism and a film about exploitation—of sex, of bodies and of labor. A prolonged gaze towards a closed door with a couch behind it asks what we are willing to sacrifice, what we’re willing to tolerate, what we have to tolerate, when we are choiceless, when we exist in a system that requires our silence in order to buy food.
The film makes us watch what normal people ignore and question what we tried to see as normal in our own lives. Two male assistants who sit near Jane laugh at explicit phone calls between a woman and the executive, tell Jane she can come to them but never bring her a bagel. They leave the office at the end of the night and can drink and laugh—because they are able to leave. Because for them, experiences from the office don’t reverberate and echo on endlessly. For them, leaving the office behind is that easy.
In one scene, Jane calls her mom from the office and tells her hours are long. Her mother says the first months are hard. Jane forgets her dad’s birthday, who over the phone says how proud he is of all that she’s doing.
I ate my lunch in the dog park near my internship even though I didn’t have a dog. I ate old and sad and microwavable burritos that I found towards the back of the office freezer, slightly burned. Burritos that no one with a salary would consider eating. I called my mom, said that I was doing fine. I tried not to cry and listed famous people who have came into the office that day. I put out a cigarette on my leg. I needed to be happy in order to be grateful, to justify moving away from her, moving where she never did.
Jane’s lips twitch towards a smile for the first and only time during the day we witness when that faceless executive, in whose office she finds artifacts and remnants of earrings and hair ties and women and hurting, says she is smart, that this is why he’s hard on her. She knows who he is, what he does, but she still fights for his approval. She prints out glossy headshots of women to fan out on his desk, from which he’ll select his next victim, while a human resources representative tells Jane not to worry, because she isn’t the executive’s type. The film shows this sense of difference, the way women who are silent feel safe and superior. They are smart and on his side. Their difference from the women behind a door and on a couch will keep them safe. They exchange side-long glances, don’t actually believe things are alright. They drop trash on the floor for someone else to sweep up.
After my internship I decided that I didn’t want to work for these executives, didn’t want to listen to clacking heels in silent hallways, didn’t want to press myself up a wall and out of the way of a man who wants to touch me, whose way I can’t be in. I work service jobs now in a new city. On my first day, my boss kissed me, and I called my mom and tried not to cry from an even colder park than last time. I tell her he is nice enough, maybe a bit eccentric.
The Assistant is quiet, unavoidable, haunting. It condemns Hollywood, but in doing so it also condemns all of us—our silence and our worried stares that we melt into smiles because we need to be liked, because we need to work, because we must be likeable in order to work. The Assistant stands apart from films such as Bombshell because nothing is resolved. No plot-twists jump towards you and cause you to turn towards your neighbor, mouth slightly agape. The pace is slow. The action often invisible. The Assistant is about harassment and exploitation against ordinary women who take Ubers to sit in cubicles.
I watched six months of my life reflected in a film that lasted one hour and 27 minutes. It felt too long. My roommate and I couldn’t laugh and return to regular chit-chat once it had finished.
Instead, I rode the bus home in silence.