(Part 3 of an ongoing series)
…it’s not that I’m lazy. It’s that I just don’t care.
Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston)
If I wasn’t so convinced by the idea that we’re essentially helpless against the eternal, spirit-crushing march of industry, I’d shudder to think of how unimpressed- if not outright embarrassed- that 1999 would be by 2012. Surely the future will see its share of dingbat preachers predicting apocalypses that won’t come, but 2012 is basically the last “official” apocalyptic year. And while most people think of the apocalypse as the end of the world, the word “apocalypse,” as Alan Moore demonstrated in his millennial comic Promethea, actually comes from the Greek for “revelation.” As our previous apocalyptic year, 1999 gave us a cornucopia of revelations for us to learn from, but so far 2012 hasn’t really applied those lessons very well.
The idea of corporate America as a heartless, soul-sucking behemoth wasn’t exactly novel in 1999, but the movies of 1999 did their best to bludgeon us in the face with more warnings and helpful tips. When doing battle against The Man, 1999 protagonists often started by retreating into adolescent rebellion. But where American Beauty, Fight Club, and The Matrix advanced into bleaker, more dramatic theaters of war, Office Space channeled its cubicle-fury into lighter, wackier, more optimistic wish-fulfillment.
There’s truth, for instance, in Mike Judge’s barb that those who are invited to climb the office ladder are often the least deserving. Yet we need a powerful suspension of disbelief to buy that Ron Livingston’s Peter would get promoted after weeks of aggressive, devil-may-care slacking. Try doing that at a job you hate in the real world and watch how quickly the axe falls.
Still, there’s a good lesson there: one of the first steps toward enlightenment is to stop giving fucks you shouldn’t be giving, while still giving the necessary fucks. As they say in Richard Linklater’s Slacker– a 1991 film that’s one of 1999’s cool older brothers- “Withdrawing in disgust is not the same as apathy.” In Office Space, Peter’s biggest mistake is that his withdrawal goes so far he becomes petty and criminal. And though he eventually sees the error of his ways, he only gets off the hook because he’s lucky enough to have Milton torch all evidence of his misdeeds.
Milton’s deus ex machina may not be terribly satisfying in a narrative sense, but if Office Space is a fable, the resolution feels like a good moral. As in, the cognitively-dissonant upper-management Lumberghs kept swiping our staplers and telling us yeah, I’m going to need you to go ahead and come to work on Saturday, and we the Peters didn’t do nearly enough to subvert the system. So inevitably, the Miltons will just burn the Initechs to the ground. (Not saying I condone arson, necessarily, but seriously, the Lumberghs are totally begging for it.) And in the end, maybe the best we can do is shovel up the rubble and construct another office building.
But hey, we’ve still got a whole quarter left in the year, and that whole Mayan calendar mythology says our apocalypse/revelation isn’t due til late December. Maybe there’s still time for us to make 1999 proud.