Monday, April 30, 2018

Corporate rocket

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 1999)

I am no great symbol of any aspect of corporate culture, but the new satire Office Space catches me at a convenient time in my personal history. After twelve years on the ladder, I recently quit, and at the time of writing I’m serving out an extended notice period. I have a feeler on another job, representing a modest change of direction, but it may very well not work out, in which case I’ll be looking in the short term at unemployment. What could have possessed me? Frustration, arrogance, idiocy, idealism? Certainly all of those. But perhaps it was primarily an act of imagination. I’d been complaining for years on and off about my career track, and how I felt I was painting myself into a corner, but it kept meeting various objective measures of success, so I kept going. I needed to evolve a vision of how to quit, to approach my dilemma creatively, to craft a vision of how my soul would hold up under all the alternative scenarios. After that it became easy, even inevitable. Right now I feel great. Of course, that may not last (see above comment re unemployment).

Downsize this!

This all gives me a greater than academic interest in the central conceit of Office Space: the idea of packing it all in, of not playing the game anymore. Variety predicted in its review that the movie might become a cult comedy for office workers, with repeat viewings tacked on to happy hour. I went to see it on a Friday lunchtime – a perfect time to spot such individuals playing hooky (I hasten to clarify that in my closing days on the job I’m being paid only for a 75% week, making my own presence there quite legitimate). But there wasn’t a tie or briefcase in sight. Of course, casual Fridays are so pervasive now that it’s hard to tell who’s working and who’s en route to the golf course. I’ve always refused to do casual Fridays. Before I quit, that was my primary act of rebellion (that and the Exposed movie poster in my office), and you know you’ve been around too long when your primary act of rebellion involves choosing to wear a tie.

Anyway, the central character of Office Space, drowning in a monotonous corporate culture, finds himself suddenly liberated, to the point of recklessness, after an overstimulating hypnotherapy session. He starts coming in to work only when he feels like it, speaking his mind without caring about the consequences, dressing casually (and I don’t mean business-casually). He just doesn’t care anymore. But instead of getting him fired, even as the firm downsizes ruthlessly around him, his candor and individuality earn him a promotion. Not that it makes him care a jot more. When his by-the-book buttoned-down buddies get the axe, the three decide to take their revenge by ripping off the company. And then there’s more plot-driven kind of stuff.

The grass is greener

When you hear that his new attitude also enables him to reel in Jennifer Aniston as his romantic interest, you may guess that Office Space allows itself a little too much latitude in the area of wish fulfilment. The film’s early stretches contain some reasonably effective potshots at the usual Dilbert-type targets, but the second half is little more than an extended wrap-up (with developments such as his break-up and reunification with Aniston leaving as much impression as an empty toner bag). And if there’s a message more profound in there than that corporate life kind of sucks and it’d be kind of neat to do your own thing, it bypassed my in-tray.

But there are obvious reasons of self-preservation for why most of us stay at our desks. Maybe Office Space is just a big whine about the grass being greener (it persistently mocks a waiter who immerses himself too ingratiatingly in his restaurant’s upbeat ethos, but what’s wrong with adapting to your situation?) I don’t want to get all pious about this, but another new film reminds us how lucky we are to have the desk and the commute and, maybe most of all, the air conditioner. In October Sky, based on a true story, a teenage boy dreams of escaping from his dire home town, where a career down the local coal mine is taken to be as inevitable as night following day. It’s 1957, the time of the Sputnik launch, and the protagonist and his friends start to experiment with homemade rocket science.

Alternative histories

This has the practical upside of providing a possible ticket to the science fair, a winning scholarship, and escape. But much of the film’s surprising emotional punch comes, I think, from the potency of the recurring images of the homemade rockets – once they’ve got them to work – traveling crisply into the heavens, their scissor-straight tails slicing the blue sky. It’s a compelling, sleek evocation of limitless escape, touching as a contrast to the soul-destroying grimness of the town. The movie gets so much play from the wretched existence represented by the mine (embodied through a standard-issue conflict between blinkered father and dreaming son) that it’s almost Dickensian, although in the end – perhaps aware of the dangers of condescension to the blue-collar segment of the audience – it makes a game attempt at asserting that the mining life isn’t inferior; it’s just different.

But few career hazards could hold the sheer disgust of having one’s lungs fill up with coal dust. My Welsh ancestors were primarily farmers, but my grandfather was a minister, spending much of his career in mining towns. He went down the mine shaft once, and never forgot the experience. It all seems pretty distant, sitting in downtown Toronto. And one can’t measure one’s own happiness by dwelling on the alternative histories that were narrowly missed by the accident of a generation here or a bloodline there. Still, October Sky almost made me inclined to reconceptualize the downtown office core as my personal Cape Canaveral, and to rush to beg for acceptance back into white-collar security. Almost, but not quite. Even after writing this article, and thereby thinking about the whole thing too much, my imagination’s still buzzing. For today, I’m still wallowing in the idea of escape.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Target (Arthur Penn, 1985)

During his rather brief but glorious heyday, Arthur Penn seemed incapable of generating a merely functional scene; his work was at once thrillingly intimate and engaged and yet full of weighted, often melancholy implication. His work has the quality of a cinematic barometer - at its most vivid in the sixties; silent for much of the misbegotten seventies and then disillusioned and wayward; and then never fully himself from the eighties onward, as if America had lost its power to stimulate. Target is no doubt one of his least-cherished films, although by some measures (the more conventional ones) it's among his most proficient - it's seamlessly plotted, compellingly paced and entirely on top of its action scenes, especially the car chases. Gene Hackman's Walter Lloyd is a small-town lumber yard owner, so boring he won't even accompany his wife on a European vacation, until she disappears and he heads over with his son (Matt Dillon) in search of her: the first dead body shows up at the baggage claim, heralding Walter's past identity as a CIA Cold War super-operative, the detritus of which now provides a resurgent threat. Hackman is surely in tune with the broader idea, that however much the 80's might have seemed like a time of settling and resignation, nothing had been resolved; the surface might still crack both for worse (undermining all concepts of stability and predictability) and for better (Walter's resurrection of his buried self, and the consequent rewrite of his relationship with his son, portends a healthier and more vibrant future for the family). It’s no surprise of course that the peril turns out to be caused by rot within the system, by duplicity and weak character. I suppose the degree to which you think the climactic fire symbolizes a broader possibility of cleansing might depend on how optimistic you felt at the time about peak-Reaganism. But it seems certain that the younger Penn would have found stranger and groovier patterns in the flames.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Les plus belles escroqueries du monde (1964, Horikawa, Gregoretti, Chabrol, Godard)

At least in its current form, the five-part movie’s most beautiful swindle perhaps arises when you arrive at where Polanski’s segment should be (as per the opening titles) and get only a caption saying it’s been removed at the director’s request – a nice reminder, at least, of the contingent nature of the supposedly finished film. This leaves ninety very easy to take minutes, barely held together by the notion of “beautiful swindlers” though – at least two of the four segments present women who are ultimately victims (but then isn’t that always the way). Horikawa’s Tokyo sequence is lively and sexy, but doesn’t amount to much more than the sum of its parts. Gregoretti’s Naples sequence instantly announces itself as being more socially grounded, and ultimately almost vicious in its turning of the self-serving tables. Chabrol’s breezy segment depicts a scam to sell the Eiffel Tower to a Paris-obsessed German, and amounts to exactly as much as meets the eye (although the recessive nature of Deneuve’s participation is a bit of a mystery in itself). And then comes Godard’s Moroccan sequence, of course turning the project’s dynamics on their head. Jean Seberg (“Patricia,” as in Breathless) plays a TV documentarian from San Francisco, moving through Marrakech with her camera, briefly accused by the police of passing counterfeit money, and then finding the real perpetrator, whose motives turn out to be complexly yet dreamily philosophical and subversive. Patricia’s unexamined faith in the camera as a captor of truth, and in subsequently reporting these events to the police for the sake of her conscience, stand as profoundly unequal to the counterfeiter’s complex imaginings, and as Seberg’s camera turns in the final shot to stare back at us, Godard subtly indicts whatever easy pleasures we might have gleaned from the movie to that point. No surprise then that the movie’s original American release was missing this section rather than Polanski’s.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (Christopher Petit, 1982)

I don’t know anything about the P D James source material, but Chris Petit’s film of An Unsuitable Job for a Woman has a dark and unexpected take on its catchy title. As the detective doing the unsuitable job – engaged by a rich man to find out why his son hanged himself – Pippa Guard’s Cordelia Gray unearths clues and follows leads as capably as any man probably would, and has sufficient physical agility and determination to escape at her major moment of peril. But she embodies little of the classic authority of the investigating protagonist: she expresses herself untidily and allows herself to identify too much with the dead man (to the point of almost accidentally replicating his suicide), and she’s much more watched upon than she is the watcher – the fact that the dead man was found dressed as a woman contributes to the sense of destabilization. When she finds her way to the truth, it yields little sense of actual or figurative light – the denouement takes place in darkness and in near-silence, as the culmination of a long-standing familial fracture. The fracture isn’t just that though – it’s that of an England in which the stability of the grand houses and the bucolic cottages and the very proper accents is rotting from within, eaten away by avarice and evasion and hypocrisy (the solution to the mystery lies, literally, in the blood). Petit’s minimizing of narrative in favour of mood and intuition has elements both of diagnosis and potential cure - given the movie’s period, it’s hard not to think of Margaret Thatcher as the overwhelming national reference point for any assessment of unsuitability, and for considering how that assessment might or might not correlate with gender identity. Certainly Thatcher’s public persona was largely built on denying the intuitive, often - so to speak- un-Guarded openness that characterizes Gray here. 

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Identification of a Woman (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1982)

Identification of a Woman is hardly one of Antonioni’s most galvanized or necessary works – it often seems mired in bewilderment (or in figurative - and in a couple of its most striking scenes literal - fog). It seems all too obvious that the protagonist, Niccolo, would be a director uncertain about his next project – at one point saying he’s no further along than knowing it will be about a woman, and later on seeming bogged down merely in searching for striking faces. But uncertainty isn’t the same as resignation, let alone surrender, and the film has a constant sense of reaching for something potentially transformative, and of welcoming the accompanying frustrations. In the first section, Niccolo’s relationship with the aristocratic Mavi exposes him to threats from unknown presumed competitors, to a social group he’s uncomfortable with, and ultimately to her unexplained disappearance; the sex scenes between them often carry a sense of wanting to conquer the surrounding space, or to break through it. In the second section, he meets an actress, Ida, who embodies quieter and more intimate mysteries. Antonioni shows us little of the development of either relationship, and the film has a constant sense of roads not taken or threats narrowly avoided – long looks exchanged with other women, warnings of pending violence – or of understandings from which Niccolo is excluded: he certainly seems here like the most passive of filmmakers. In the end, the film suggests his artistic (and perhaps personal) redemption must lie in transcending earthly mysteries, to move into science fiction, where the investigations are celestial; describing the project in his closing voice-over, his imagination for the first time seems free and his wonderment unjaded. The film certainly feels strained at times, and never approaches the glories of L’Avventura or The Passenger; its strange poignancy lies in the sense that Antonioni no longer thought himself capable (or worthy?) of aiming for them.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Mr. Patman (John Guillermin, 1980)

John Guillermin’s Mr. Patman (identified on the print I saw as Crossover) is one of the more interesting legacies of the late 70s Canadian tax-shelter boom. Like most of the films that came out of there, it has an imported star and director, and although filmed in Vancouver it’s mostly vague about its setting – nothing about it tries to evoke or illuminate “Canadian” themes or issues. Coburn’s Patman is a night-shift nurse in a psychiatric hospital, empathetic and easygoing and popular, in severe contrast to most of the self-absorbed, tight-assed doctors; women seem to fall into his lap, although his primary emotional relationship is with his aging cat. Patman starts to see things, to imagine people watching his apartment, or colleagues turning up dead: a conversation with one of the patients – suggesting most of them can turn their conditions on and off at will, if there’s ever a reason to (the movie makes several ominous references to the grim state of the world) – sets him thinking increasingly about the relative virtues of their life versus his own, and from there on the plot’s general trajectory is never in much doubt. Although it has elements of conventional psychological thrillers, the film never commits very passionately to such genre mechanics, seeming happiest with odd bits of business involving the patients and doctors, and with finding ways to inject a bit of nudity. Coburn seems far too imposing for his role, but he gives a real performance, at once engaged and brooding; despite (or in part because of) Guillermin’s murky visuals, he turns Patman’s, uh, crossover into a largely plausible existential journey. And that’s why the film might stand as a symbol of that maligned cultural era – almost everything about it is ultimately about denial, of Canada, of its star, of sanity, of possibility, of rationality…many (not me of course) will choose to add: of meaningful entertainment. It’s an embodiment of the insecurity and benign confusion that spawned the ill-fated tax-shelter policy, and that shapes much of Canadian policy today for that matter. Perhaps then it should be reclaimed as a great Canadian movie, albeit largely because of its denial of any such identity.