Cubicle Rebellion, or Three Ordinary Guys with Nothing to Lose…
Published on February 7th, 2011 | by Charles H. Meyer3
As every Oscar buff knows, Sam Mendes’s “American Beauty” received the 1999 Academy Award for Best Picture. But Mendes’s film was merely the second installment in “Cubicle Rebellion,” or “Three Ordinary Guys with Nothing to Lose,” a three-part treatment of American white-collar male existential ennui that began on February 19 with Mike Judge’s “Office Space,” picked up on October 1 with “American Beauty,” and concluded two weeks later with David Fincher’s “Fight Club.” Perhaps the Oscar recipient should not have been the four producers of “American Beauty,” but rather the single producer of “Cubicle Rebellion”: our collective unconscious, begetter of all unconscious film trilogies.
An unconscious film trilogy consists of three uncannily similar films made around the same time by three different filmmakers. Culture itself, or the zeitgeist, could be said to author these trilogies. As such, the unconscious film trilogy approach offers itself as an alternative to the auteur theory, according to which a director is demonstrated, through the identification of formal and thematic consistencies, to be the organizing consciousness behind all of his or her films. The present approach instead posits an organizing unconsciousness behind at least a trio of films (although quartets, quintets, sextets, etc. are certainly conceivable), indicating a cultural phenomenon that cannot easily be dismissed as mere coincidence.
Unconscious film trilogies are best regarded, however, not as replacements of auteur studies, but as complements to them. “Cubicle Rebellion” is a collective unconscious film trilogy, the three parts of which form the intersection of three personal unconscious film trilogies, those of the directors Mike Judge, Sam Mendes, and David Fincher. All three directors specialize in tales of American social dysfunction. Judge’s trilogy—“Office Space,” “Idiocracy” (2006), and “Extract” (2009)—focuses on dysfunctions of the workplace; Mendes’s—“American Beauty,” “Road to Perdition” (2002), and “Revolutionary Road” (2008)—focuses on dysfunctions of the family; and Fincher’s—“Se7en” (1995), “Fight Club,” and “Zodiac” (2007)—focuses on dysfunctions of the individual.
Thus, Judge’s, Mendes’s, and Fincher’s respective takes on the sufferings and liberations of white-collar American males come together to form a three-film cycle that moves from the public sphere of the workplace, to the private sphere of the home, and finally to the intimate sphere of the individual. Work, home, and individual are at play in all three films, but the emphasis shifts as we move from one film to the next.
Each film’s protagonist is trapped in a life that he hates. “So I was sitting in my cubicle today,” Peter Gibbons tells his hypnotherapist in “Office Space,” “and I realized [that] 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 you see me, that’s on the worst day of my life.” Likewise, in “American Beauty,” Lester Burnham narrates descriptively, “Look at me, jerking off in the shower. This will be the highlight of my day. It’s all downhill from here.” Finally, the narrator in “Fight Club” describes his own pathetic state: “Like so many others, I had become a slave to the Ikea nesting instinct. We used to read pornography. Now it was the Horchow Collection.” All three of these men feel emasculated, and part of what they stand to gain from changing their lives is the recovery of a sense of manliness through the conquest of beautiful women who admire them as strong, assertive men. So when Peter’s domineering girlfriend Anne dumps him, he doesn’t care, and he uses that same attractive nonchalance to acquire his nicer, more easygoing new girlfriend, Joanna. When Lester catches his perfectionist, workaholic wife Carolyn (who, like his daughter, treats him like a child) with the local real estate king, he is emboldened more than ever to pursue Angela, his teenage daughter Jane’s flirtatious friend. And, at least until the final shot of “Fight Club,” the narrator at once remains his former woman-less self and leads (without knowing it) a double life partly occupied by having non-stop sex for days with the perpetually suicidal, addicted-to-pretty-much-everything Marla Singer.
Each protagonist is initially freed from the bonds of his loathsome life with the help of a teacher drawn from within the film’s specific sphere. Thus, a professional hypnotherapist hypnotizes Peter to make him not care about work and thereby alleviates his chronic depression; Ricky Fitts, the teenage drug dealer next-door, helps Lester relearn how to party; and in “Fight Club,” the narrator’s inner-superman Tyler Durden teaches the narrator how to be a master instead of a slave. As each protagonist breaks loose from his workaday shackles, he transforms from white-collar wimp to blue-collar hero. Peter, jobless after the presumable dissolution of his employer, Initech, switches from software programmer to construction worker; Lester, a writer, blackmails his boss at Media Matters Magazine, walks off with a year’s worth of paychecks, and becomes an entry-level employee at the fast food restaurant Mr. Smiley’s; and the narrator, a recall coordinator for a major automobile company, violently blackmails his boss, walks off with several cartloads of computers and a year’s worth of paychecks, and eventually becomes the leader of “Project Mayhem,” a proletarian anti-consumerist terrorist group.
These radical personal transformations entail fragmentations of subjectivity that intensify over the course of the three films, from Peter’s hypnotherapeutic jettisoning of his office persona and full-on embracing of his hedonistic self, in which he shows complete indifference, and then cybercrime-justifying hostility, towards his boss; to Lester’s narration from beyond the grave of his boss-blackmailing, mid-life-crisis-induced break with his unfulfilling job, which exacerbates the tensions already present between him, his wife, and their daughter; to the narrator’s self-empowering personality split, which gives birth to Tyler Durden, who proceeds to liberate through trial-by-chemical-burn the narrator’s Ikea-loving, group-therapy-addicted, bourgeois self.
The three narrators express their newfound worldviews in telling ways. Peter, like the narrator, realizes that he is just one of many sad individuals who hate their jobs and what those jobs have done to them: “It’s not just about me and my dream of doing nothing,” he declares to his co-worker friends, “it’s about all of us.” Lester, not unlike Peter, wants to do as little as possible: “I’m looking for the least possible amount of responsibility,” he says as he inquires about employment to the drive-thru window employee at Mr. Smiley’s. The narrator, however, takes a more philosophical view: “I found freedom,” he realizes as he hugs the bitch-titted former bodybuilder Bob Paulson, “Losing all hope was freedom. Babies don’t sleep this well. I became … addicted.” Later, Tyler Durden makes the narrator see things differently: “Self-improvement is masturbation,” he declares, “Now self-destruction…” he counters, trailing off, alluding to the earlier destruction of his own (i.e., the narrator’s own) apartment, suggesting, as the narrative’s logic, of course, ultimately requires, that the narrator’s addiction to group therapy was a necessary step towards Fight Club and Project Mayhem. The importance of losing everything, a lesson the narrator learns continually throughout the film, is a key component of Durden’s philosophy: “It’s only after we’ve lost everything,” Durden tells us, “that we’re free to do anything.” Durden is careful to point out, however, that this newly acquired freedom is not for the faint of heart: “Hitting bottom isn’t a weekend retreat. It’s not a fucking seminar,” he warns. And, in a sentence that could be used to describe the attitude shared by Peter Gibbons, Lester Burnham, and Tyler Durden (whose names, I can’t help pointing out, go together remarkably well), he advises, “Stop trying to control everything, and just let go.”
Each film concludes in a way that resolves the protagonist’s fragmented subjectivity in relation to the primary dysfunction at play in his life. The destruction of the Initech building in “Office Space” puts a decisive end to Peter Gibbons’s Tetris-playing, fish-gutting, boss-ignoring charades; the murder of Lester Burnham occurs just when he has achieved a moment of Zen-like peace, at last disintegrating what little remains of the already broken Burnham family; and the simultaneous explosion of the credit card company buildings in “Fight Club” occurs just after the narrator destroys/subsumes Tyler Durden, reunifying his subjectivity.
The films’ respective attitudes towards capitalism suggest an overarching thematic development, shifting from a side character’s destruction of a company’s physical plant in “Office Space,” to the protagonist’s undermining of a company’s authority in “American Beauty,” to the protagonist’s even more extreme undermining of a company’s authority as prelude to the overthrow of capitalism as we know it in “Fight Club.” More specifically, “Office Space” and “American Beauty” each use a company’s downsizing initiatives to motivate the rebellion of their protagonists, while “American Beauty” and “Fight Club” feature boss-blackmailing scenes whose striking similarities have already been widely noted.
So why did this unconscious film trilogy’s centerpiece, “American Beauty,” rather than “Office Space” or “Fight Club,” receive the Best Picture Oscar? Perhaps the reason is that “American Beauty” addresses the tensions between the three spheres—the public, the private, and the personal—most successfully, not just through Lester Burnham, but also through all of the other characters: Carolyn Burnham, Jane Burnham, Ricky Fitts, Angela Hayes, Colonel Frank Fitts, Barbara Fitts, and Buddy Kane. Each character wrestles to some degree with public, private, and personal problems. The private sphere of the family assumes a central place in “American Beauty” because it is the central place between the public world of work or school, and the personal world of self-doubting, self-realizing, and self-knowing.
A more cynical explanation for “American Beauty”’s winning of the golden apple in the Judgment of Oscar would point out that “Office Space”’s and “Fight Club”’s more explicit, more subversive anti-capitalism handicapped them. Furthermore, unlike “American Beauty,” the other two installments in “Cubicle Rebellion” were box-office failures. The low turnout in theaters was probably due to insufficient promotion (making their failures self-fulfilling prophecies), however, as both “Office Space” and “Fight Club” quickly ascended to cult-film status with their subsequent DVD releases. The poorly handled initial marketings of “Office Space” and “Fight Club” at least partly explain why the Academy snubbed them.
This column has only just begun to highlight the extraordinary resonances between these three films. My hope is that it has inspired you to watch “Cubicle Rebellion,” or “Three Ordinary Guys With Nothing to Lose,” from start to finish. Please feel free to post any responses that you may have, including any unconscious film trilogies that you have identified and would like to see discussed on Cinespect.