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Work Is Hell

A wave of turn-of-the-century cult films shows that nothing is scarier than going to the office

By David King

A 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.

“So 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 much better.

“You’re 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 lacking.

Take this exchange from American Psycho between Patrick Bateman and his girlfriend, Evelyn.

“Patrick, we should do it!”

“Do what?”

“Get married. Have a wedding!”

“No, I can’t take time off work.”

“Your 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.”

“Because 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.

“Part 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?

“Oxygen 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.”

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