Thursday, February 21, 2019

20th Anniversary Watch: Office Space (1999)

Watched:  02/20/2019
Format:  a very, very old DVD
Viewing:  8th or 9th
Decade:  1990's

In February 2019 I was about 9 months post-graduation and working in a very strange job for - what I figured out - was literally poverty wages (the job required a 4 year bachelor's degree, so... don't major in radio-TV-film, kids).  This week marks not just the 20th anniversary of the release of  Office Space (2019), but late 2018- early 2019 marks the start of my 20th year in the workforce as an FTE, I suppose.

Office Space was a product of Austinite Mike Judge, who had risen to fame first with Beavis & Butthead on MTV circa 1993, and brought Arlen, Texas to the small screen via King of the Hill. Upon arrival, the movie mostly flopped.  Critics were relatively kind, but the film had no major stars except Jennifer Aniston in the era of Big Stars = Big Profits, and a workplace comedy about hating your job wasn't exactly groundbreaking.  But at the time I felt a certain loyalty to the Texas film scene and Mike Judge, so we went to see it around opening weekend and... yeah.

As Jamie said when we were talking about the movie after: this was the first movie I saw that I may not have related to 100%, but it was the first movie I saw about adults that I could relate to as an adult.

I had graduated with two degrees with no obvious financial value in Spring of 1998 and sent out a hundred resumes on really nice paper, all with individualized cover letters (this was before email resumes, kids).  I received exactly zero calls thanks to my submissions and follow-up calls and doing what you were supposed to do in 1999, so far as I knew.  I'd hung around the office where I'd been a student worker, now as a part-time state employee, when in November I was brought aboard full-time for the aforementioned poverty wages and UT's honestly pretty nice benefits package.

While my job was far from the drudgery of Y2K updates, it wasn't a picnic.  The part of being a cog in a much bigger machine, a machine which cares for you not at all, which comes at you with management approved inspirational slogans, mandatory birthday parties and eight different people calling you when you make a paperwork mistake?  That I could jive to.  Add in co-workers who seem alien in their unironic casting of "a case of the Mondays" and seemingly utterly at peace in a labyrinth of cubicles - plus that one twitchy guy you know everyone should be keeping an eye on...  all totally familiar.  That feeling you aren't sure how your job is adding anything but the pushing around of  paper?

Yeah.  It's more or less the reality of how I think a lot of first or second job-havers feel, just part of the grist of the mill.

And if you weren't an office drone, whether it was a restaurant or retail job - if you'd worked anywhere in a customer-facing job as part of a large, branded corporation, you knew the cool gaze of the manager who thought you weren't fully embracing the persona they wanted out of their minimum wage employees as they made vague threats and gave non-specific advice about corporate spirit (let me tell you about working three summers at The Disney Store sometime).

The movie was shot in Austin, and (I've heard but don't see much record of) San Antonio, as well as seeing Dallas location managers in the credits.  Some of the locations I knew at the time, like Old Alligator Grill, which they used for the interior of Chotchkie's, which was a Cajun place not too far from my first house with Jamie (now Baker Street Pub).  The movie does capture some of the bland new-build nothingness of 90's-era Austin, when corporate strip-centers proliferated and kinda glossy but honestly pretty shoddy apartment buildings sprung up wherever a plot of scrubby land once hosted a couple of acres of juniper trees (I lived in a shoddy apartment that also had the benefit of being old, gross and horribly run.  Central Austin!  Woot!).  Oddly, the field where they take out the printer is the thing that makes me nostalgic the most - all those scrub trees are how a lot of foliage looks around here, but good luck finding an open field like that anywhere within the city limits.

The cast is oddly great, made up of mostly "I know that dude from somewhere..." type talent but devoid of 90's comedy superstars with one notable exception.  I'll wonder out loud here about why this movie didn't catapult Ron Livingston up the actor food chain.  Jennifer Aniston seems to be slumming - she was super famous at this point and didn't need the gig, but she is honestly hysterical and very, very real here.  David Herman has gone on to do great voice work, but his Michael Bolton is legendary.  Ajay Naidu manages the role of the immigrant colleague perfectly and has some of the best lines.  Gary Cole is... a genius and I won't hear otherwise.  And, yeah, Stephen Root as Milton delivers on the promise of that twitchy co-worker in ways that led all of us to give that guy a second, third and fourth look at the office and led to Swingline making red staplers a real thing.  (plus a dozen other great actors playing specific but recognizable roles)

I *assume* everyone here has seen Office Space at this point.  I won't belabor the details or run over the jokes for you.  But upon a review of the movie now, and knowing the film's relative ubiquity through rentals, basic cable presentation and as a mainstay of DVD discount bins, I do wonder how much the movie wound up impacting corporate culture in both the halls of office-drone employers and on the floors of national-chain restaurants.

By 2003, could an employer, in any kind of good conscience, really start talking to their minimum wage employee about how they weren't properly filled with the magical spirit of fake-fun as evidenced  by inadequate "flair"?  Could a middle-manager saunter over to someone's cube and tell them they were working all weekend because of issues totally outside of that employee's control?  At least as anything other than an emergency?  I mean - probably.  If they saw the movie, they knew they now looked like an @$$hole, or if they hadn't, they had to wonder why the employee was now laughing at them.  But I don't think it's a total coincidence that employers are now freaking out in online articles about employees who "ghost" (ie: get a job elsewhere and don't quit... they just quit showing up once they've got something else).  I mean, if you've never been shown a hint of respect as an employee and wouldn't use that employer as a reference, why *would* you care?

Office Space didn't spark a revolution or anything, but it did a phenomenal job of showcasing the absurdities of what was expected of us Gen-X'ers as we rolled into the workforce, and how it looked at the time from the POV of one of deeply expendable cube denizens. And, of course, as we looked across the way at our colleagues who were in their forties and fifties, who were still in the trenches, and the paranoia and crushed spirits (if they hadn't slipped into survival mode and become a "case of the Mondays" dropper).

Unlike Millennials, Gen-X was still tyring to make the old white-collar corporate game work for them, as designated by their Boomer managers. I mean, where else were you going to go for a paycheck and 401K?  Oddly, this movie was released just as the internet was really taking off, so the pre-production and production was all occurring before most people even had an email address and is reflective in some ways of a pre-internet culture which changed the game, jobs-wise, for a lot of us Gen-X'ers.  And with that came big changes in keeping and attracting talent that looked a lot like the three dudes from the film.  The movie's release took place a full year before the 2000 "bubble pop" (yeah, Millennials, you don't have the market cornered on trying to find work in shaky economies.  We got a crash then and then again in 2008 when we were trying to get some traction.) when the tech sector cratered pretty badly and those guys would have been more worried about their gigs.

I mean, wanting to do "nothing" really did hit home with me.  I won't go into it, but the last time I'd had "nothing" on my docket was, by then, years in the past.  I was working a gig that regularly required weekend hours and it was not unheard of for me to be up at the office til 10 at night fixing something.  Or, on one evening when my new boss asked me to finish a video, not realizing "editing takes time", 2:30 AM, and back in the office by 8:00.  So, yeah.  A day in bed?  Uninterrupted?

I did figure all of this out.  I got used to much of it, and a lot of it matters if you get a job where you have some say and sense of control over your own destiny.  Also - finding jobs with a variety of responsibilities, not just the Mr. Bucket job of doing the same thing all day, every day.*

Of course you have to do *something* and the movie acknowledges that.  From the dreamy, hilarious first half, the plot does kick in and - fortunately - doesn't derail the joy or tone of the preceding part of the film.  While it never quite reconciles that maybe those happy office drones figured something else out and that's why they're okay at work, it's a good fire to have under your butt as you figure out what you want your life to look like.

If I take exception to anything in the movie, it's the poor description of a Project Manager.  I mean, it's played for laughs that all they do is hand off specs, but as a PM by 2001, it was a nightmare inserting myself between the project client and the developer without my developers using the movie as their evidence this wasn't necessary.  (It was and is absolutely necessary and I will fight you on this.)

I'll go ahead and claim this movie for Gen-X'ers as I point to the amazing influence it's had.  I'll argue that countless TV shows have tried to grab the same vibe of quiet madness/ subversive revolution in the work place since.  As generational-defining media - while Douglas Coupland is more highly regarded and accidentally coined us Generation X - and Microserfs was probably 4-5 years ahead of its time exploring a similar environment, he was talking to a narrower channel of people in some regards.  Generation X was the ironic generation's quest for something like authenticity and may have spoken broadly to the culture, but maybe in a way that was not going to click with even vast swatch of that generation.  But, dammit, everyone goes to work.  And, in your youth, only guys who wore penny loafers to class in college didn't think their bosses were all insane in those first peon-level jobs.  Office Space wasn't everyone, but it was a lot of folks.

Most of Office Space has aged very, very well.  The kids may not recognize a 3.5" disk, and cultures that allow for t-shirts and jeans and working from home are a far cry from the button-down, late-20th Century corporate cultures of old, but work is always going to be work, and having a target on your back as a low-rung employee never *really* changes.  Last I was in an office, we were still expected to show up for terrible sheet-cake and stand around for whatever the opposite is of a pep-talk.

But the movie is worth it for nothing more than Diedrich Bader's nextdoor neighbor character Lawrence.  And, also, the sweet release of taking down a late-90's laser jet printer.

*this image has haunted me since I was a child and first read the book 

1 comment:

Paul Toohey said...

This oral history of Office Space is great. And sparked me rewatching it this AM.