Wednesday, December 5, 2012

And You Thought Your Job Was Bad...

In September, the Castro had very enjoyable double feature.

Office Space starring Ron Livingston; with Jennifer Aniston & Gary Cole; directed by Mike Judge; (1999)
Secretary staring James Spader & Maggie Gyllenhaal; directed by Steven Shainberg; (2002)  - Official Website

Office Space is a modern day classic.  People in my office talk about the film and were surprised that I had not seen.  I've now rectified that situation and can attest that it is very funny.  Set at software in the months leading up to Y2K, Office Space stars Ron Livingston as Peter Gibbons, an unmotivated tech worker.  His best friends are Samir (Ajay Naidu) whose last name no one pronounce and Michael Bolton (David Herman) who hates having the same name as the singer.  The three of them are subjected to the petty tyranny of VP Bill Lumbergh (great performance by Gary Cole) but that's nothing new - same shit, different day.

A few things occur to change their live.  First, the two Bobs (John C. McGinley & Paul Wilson) arrive.  Consultants who specialize in corporate layoffs, their presence sends shock waves through the office.  The second thing to happen is that Peter undergoes hypnotherapy at the urging of his girlfriend (whom everyone suggests is cheating on him).  Under hypnosis, Peter is to imagine not feeling any stress and to imagine removing everything that causes him stress.  The hypnotist dies before bringing Peter out of the trance so Peter rest of the movie avoiding stress which is pretty much everything at work.

Rather than costing him his job, Peter new attitude impresses the two Bobs who find his calm demeanor and candor qualities of upper management.  They recommend Bob for promotion but Samir & Michael Bolton aren't so lucky.  They decide to plant a virus in their accounting system.  An oldie but a goodie, they will divert the fractional cents from all the transactions being processed into a their bank account.  Executed on Samir and Michael's last day, the scheme is more successful than they could have imagined which makes them worried that they'll get caught.  Peter decides to take full responsibility for the crime and writes a letter with cashier checks for the diverted amount.  A fire at the office destroys all evidence of the crime and Peter's admission.

I've omitted the character of Miton (Stephen Root), a meek employee who constantly ends his sentences in an indecipherable mumble.   Milton is the most abused of all employees in the office.  The two Bobs discover he'd been laid off years ago but through a payroll glitch he's been receiving paychecks all that time.  First, they cut off his paychecks and Lumbergh refers to Payroll which becomes one of Milton's Seven Rings of Hell.  Lumbergh next shrinks his cube until he is forced to work in electrical closet of the basement.  Finally, Lumbergh confiscates his prized red Swingline stapler because it is not standard company issue.  Root's performance is probably the most memorable which is saying a lot because there were a lot of quirky characters in this film.

It's quite ridiculous but there is enough basis in reality to make an office worker recognize him/herself, a co-worker or a work situation.  I'm certain that's what made the film a cult classic.


I recognized aspects of the workplace in Office Space but the office shown in Secretary was completely foreign to me.

Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a cutter (i.e. self-injury with razor blades if I recall correctly).  Awkward and overly sensitive, Lee gets out of a hospital to live with her family.  Not fitting in at home and keeping her cutting supplies hidden under the bed for stressful moments, Lee decides she needs to make a change.  Acquiring a certificate from a secretarial school, Lee gets a job for attorney E. Edward Grey (James Spader).

With office in what appears to be a converted barn or church, Grey is eccentric but the audience doesn't know the half of it yet.  Struggling to keep his emotions in check, Grey & Lee settle into a routine but after one typo too many, Grey explodes.  Typos are his pet peeve.  He sternly tell Lee to correct the typos and to make sure she doesn't forget, he has her bend over his desk and spank her while she reads the mistyped letter aloud.  That never happens in my least not during working hours.

Rather than filing an EEOC complaint against Grey, the incident has a profound effect on Lee's self-esteem.  Although she has a boyfriend (a timid high-school acquaintance), Grey's attention arouses sexual feelings which Lee was unaware she possessed.  The two settle into a routine where Lee dresses better and occasionally slips in an intentional typo in order to receive her "corrective feedback" (to use the parlance of my workplace).

All is well for the time being but Lee desires more than a physical relationship with Grey who has some issues of his own.  Ashamed of his own sexual habits and fearful of a committed relationship, Grey is unable to give Lee the emotional support and romance she needs.  The situation at work becomes intolerable for Grey who fires Lee to remove the object of his dysfunctional desires.

Rejected, Lee agrees to marry her boyfriend.  While being fitted in her future mother-in-law's wedding gown, Lee bolts for Grey's office and tells him she loves him.  As a test, Grey makes her sit in a chair without getting up until he returns.  This goes on for days as family and acquaintances visit to dissuade or encourage her.  Even the local television news sets up a vigil.  Eventually Grey returns and carries an exhausted Lee to the second floor of the office where there is conveniently a clawfoot bathtub.  The film ends with the two happily married with clues of their continuing S&M activities.

Secretary has a dreamy, fairy tale like quality to it which belies the sexual acts which are so crucial to its plot.  Even the poster for the film is provocative.  Showing a woman (we can't see her face but it is implied to be Gyllenhaal) "assuming the position" for a spanking, the poster plays up the prurient aspects of the film.  The filmmakers took care to retain a sweet-naturedness in the characters presumably because the S&M scenes could lead to some darker implications.  This dichotomy (an S&M fairy tale) gives the film much of its unique atmosphere.

Gyllenhaal and Spader are very good in their roles.  The film was a complete surprise to me.  I had never heard of the film before.  I went to the Castro Theater to see Office Space and stuck around to see Secretary as an afterthought.  I remember between shows wondering if I should just go home so I'm glad I stuck around.

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