wave of turn-of-the-century cult films shows that nothing
is scarier than going to the office
By David King
pale-faced man dressed in workman’s clothes is ground up,
pulled through, stretched and pulverized by the gears of a
great machine. Levers and gears push and pull his skinny frame,
his face defined by a stare of grim concentration as he desperately
works to fix the cogs with his wrenches before he is sucked
back out by the power of the grinding steel. There is no blood
or guts, no decapitation; he comes to no terrible end. No,
this hell is one he survives, only to relive it day after
day. They call it work.
The scene is from Modern Times and stars Charlie Chaplin
as the tramp. It’s hard to think that Charlie Chaplin was
at the center of one of the most horrifying scenes in the
history of film. Caught on the cusp of a new industrial age,
audiences were not sure whether to scream or laugh about the
realities of the modern workplace.
Nearly a hundred years later, audiences have a similar dilemma.
While the decline in heavy industry means fewer people are
worried about losing a limb at work, for the contemporary
office worker, it’s all about losing your mind.
Some of the most popular current cult films have to do with
fear, as you might expect, but they are not traditional horror
flicks. Instead, they deal with the dread caused by the modern
workplace. Films such as American Psycho, Fight
Club, The Machinist and Office Space are
as terrifying as they are funny.
Ask Peter Gibbons from Office Space about life in the
modern office and he will tell you how bad it is getting.
Go ahead, Peter, tell ’em.
I was sitting in my cubicle today, and I realized, ever since
I started working, every single day of my life has been worse
than the day before it. So that means that every single day
that you see me, that’s on the worst day of my life.”
Wow, Peter, that is pretty messed up!
You see, there is a new style of tramp, and his name is the
Psycho. He is still the haphazard hero trapped in an overwhelming
world of big business. Gone (in most cases) are the gnashing
gears and angry steel, only to be replaced by cubicles, TPS
reports, Armani suits, agonized-over business cards, khaki
pants, memos, dysfunctional Xerox machines, and bosses who
can’t quite get a clue. And the psycho is not getting ground
helplessly through gears. In Patrick Bateman’s case, he is
stalking the streets in a homicidal rage. Ask him about it;
and he will tell ya, “I like to dissect girls. Did you know
I’m utterly insane?”
Well, perhaps someone a little more on the straight and narrow
like Tyler Durden should weigh in. Tyler: “Fuck off with your
sofa units and green stripe patterns, I say, never be complete,
I say stop being perfect, I say let’s . . . let’s evolve,
let the chips fall where they may!”
The psycho is not as happy-go-lucky as the tramp. Damaged
instead by the soulless, fluorescent, sanitized world of the
office, the psycho generally develops an alter ego. See Fight
Club’s Tyler Durden, American Psycho’s Huey-Lewis-reciting,
ax-wielding Patrick Bateman or Office Space’s embezzling,
copy-machine-destroying Peter Gibbons.
Cult followings have grown up around movies like American
Psycho and Fight Club. Internet sites devoted to
the films are filled with tributes to every detail of each
script. Durden and Bateman are worshipped as idols. And just
as though they were mainstream horror films, merchandising
companies have churned out video games and designed T-shirts
with catch phrases like “Do you know Tyler Durden?” You can
even sleep on your own set of American Psycho bedsheets.
According to University at Albany sociology professor Richard
Lachmann, it is no aberration that these films have the following
they do. Lachmann insists the workplace is simply becoming
a scarier place. “People work longer hours, get less benefits,
wages are stagnant and dropping. These movies are really speaking
to something that is going on.”
In a sense, these movies are speaking to the unyielding consolidation
of power of the American corporation. In 1889, the Supreme
Court ruled that corporations had the same rights as a person
for due process and equal protection, but conveniently forgot
to give them all the responsibilities of citizenship. Meanwhile,
citizens have been transformed into, simply, consumers. There
seems, in fact, to be a subconscious revolt by many Americans
against the materialistic system that dominates their lives.
But that’s all psychobabble bullshit. Tyler Durden puts it
not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank.
You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your
wallet. You’re not your fucking khakis.”
Thanks for that, Tyler.
So as corporations take control of us, their strategy seems
to be a bit of the old “divide and conquer.”
In Fight Club, the lead character, tormented by his
time spent commuting on airlines—his only contact: his “single
serving” friends, airline personnel and hotel staff—decides
he needs to spend time with people worse-off than he is. So
he begins attending support groups for people who are terminally
ill. He discovers that what he has been lacking at his job
is a community, a human connection.
According to professor Lachmann, in a way, art is imitating
life, and films such as Fight Club may be a way for
people to connect in lieu of being able to discuss their situations
with others. “I think part of it is people do not have as
many strong community links as before. People can’t just go
and talk about their worries and concerns and about what work
is like, what communities are like. These movies, in a sense,
speak for them.”
While Fight Club and Office Space mostly deal
with the mid-level cubicle drone and his disgust with being
penned in to an Ikea world, American Psycho deals with
the fear of the culture of upper-level corporations. It also
exposes the conflict inherent in American culture where corporate
culture is seen as both success and simultaneously morally
Take this exchange from American Psycho between Patrick
Bateman and his girlfriend, Evelyn.
we should do it!”
married. Have a wedding!”
I can’t take time off work.”
father practically owns the company. You can do anything you
like, silly! You hate that job anyway. I don’t see why you
just don’t quit.”
I want to fit in.”
Such films suggest that what is most frightening about the
office is not what goes on inside of it but what the office
can do to you. The worry is no longer about losing a hand
in an unsafe machine or being beaten by an angry factory taskmaster.
Instead, it is about the loss of one’s self while becoming
a worker drone for an all-powerful corporation. But Lachmann
says the theme of questioning whether one knows oneself has
been around for quite some time. He does note, however, that
films like Fight Club and American Psycho, which
leave the protagonist in a wave of confusion, unsure whether
even to trust himself, may speak to viewers who are left numbed
by the current political climate.
of it is they don’t feel leverage over their government. The
government is doing all these bizarre things that are hard
to explain. When you are living under those sorts of conditions,
then bizarre conspiracies become more popular, and people
want to see movies that give expression to that.”
Tyler Durden: “You know why they put oxygen in plane masks?”
No. Why is that, Tyler?
gets you high. In a catastrophic emergency, you’re taking
giant, panicked breaths. Suddenly you become euphoric, docile.
You accept your fate. It’s all right here. Emergency water
landing—600 miles an hour. Blank faces, calm as Hindu cows.”
Speaking of cows. . . . If you’re feeling like one, herded
into your cubicle pen, caged in by your inescapable desk and
that mesmerizing screen, you might want to go home and pop
in one of these modern cult classics. Hell, you probably already
have. And if that doesn’t work, you might want to just go
ahead and quit before life starts to imitate art and you turn
into a multiple-personality-disorder nut job. Remember, Tyler
says, “It’s not until you lose everything that you are free
to do anything.”