Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Every once in a while, the universe serves up someone who, in whatever field has been chosen for them, is a natural. Babe Ruth. Louis Armstrong. Mozart. After seeing his debut feature, Who's That Knocking At My Door, one is tempted to add Martin Scorsese to this illustrious list. He is now long firmly established in the canon of the great American filmmakers, but many of Scorsese's strengths, his skill for marrying music with striking, often unexpected imagery, his gift for naturalistic dialogue, his strong eye for authentic moments of urban ethnography, are in evidence in this maiden effort. However, Scorsese's weaknesses are also on rather ample display here as well, and their presence makes for a fascinating, the-more-things-change look at the first flowering of an American cinematic giant.
Who's That Knocking began life as a graduate film production during Scorsese's tenure at NYU film school in the mid-'60s (NYU film professor Haig Manoogian, who was the instructor for the first film course Scorsese ever took, is credited as a co-producer on this film; the filmmaker's 1980 masterpiece Raging Bull was later dedicated to Manoogian), and it was shot over the course of several years and went through numerous iterations as short films and truncated features under varying titles before finally emerging as this 90-minute feature in 1967. Not surprisingly, considering this extended gestation, not to mention the film's origins as a student project and its low budget (ultimately an estimated $75,000), the picture is rough around the edges in a classic first-indie-film tradition. Some of the sound work is quite harsh; an early barroom scene, in particular, could have greatly benefited from some overdubbing, as shuffling feet and the room's ambient tone bury many of the lines. Also, it's fairly easy to tell scenes shot early from those lensed later in the production by gauging the changing length of star Harvey Keitel's hair. Nevertheless, what is most remarkable about Who's That Knocking At My Door is how thoroughly engaged Scorsese is, even at this nascent point in his career, with the stylistic tropes and thematic concerns he will adopt as his own. Unlike many filmmakers' first works, and much more so than his subsequent feature, 1972's Roger Corman-produced exploitation Bonnie and Clyde rip-off Boxcar Bertha, Who's That Knocking has no trouble fitting comfortably on the shelf with Scorsese's extended body of work, representing the filmmaker's first crack at issues that would preoccupy him for a celebrated forty-year-and-counting career.
Who's That Knocking is the story, such as it is, of J.R. (Keitel), a rough-and-tumble Little Italy street tough who whiles away his days drinking, fighting, and causing trouble with his buddies, a road-company version of the petty hoodlums who would populate Scorsese's later gangland classics. It seems like a life destined to go around in relentlessly unfulfilling circles, until J.R. meets a Girl (Zina Bethune) on the Staten Island Ferry and slowly eases into a relationship. He's falling in love, but he's troubled by his own reluctance to sleep with her...and even more so by her subsequent admission that she is not a virgin (she tells him that her past partner forced himself on her, but he struggles to believe that it's true). It's the classic madonna-whore complex; if J.R. accepts The Girl as she is, he marks himself as willing to stoop to being with just a "broad", one of those runaround girls from the neighborhood, and maybe no better than the prostitutes that J.R. himself frequents, in classic hypocritical male fashion. Will J.R. do the right thing, or will he succumb to the pressures of his milieu and the guilt-riddled Catholic culture in which he was brought up?
Basically, if Mean Streets and Raging Bull had a baby, and that baby was somehow older than both of those films, it would be Who's That Knocking At My Door. It's an amalgam of the former film's slice-of-life depiction of inarticulate Noo Yawk petty thugs and the later epic's chronicle of a man undone by jealous sexual fantasies about the woman he loves. Granted, Scorsese has grown by leaps and bounds since this initial foray into feature filmmaking, and Who's That Knocking is marked by this fact throughout its running time. His examination here of the life and crimes of petty hoods has nowhere near the verisimilitude of Mean Streets (or, for that matter, of GoodFellas or Casino). The Scorsesean bursts of sudden violence are fairly choppily choreographed, a few of the locations feel like obvious sets, and Scorsese's dialogue, from his own screenplay, has the later films' inarticulate, frequently circular cadence without their exhilarating profanity and gutter wit. Likewise, the street guys that surround J.R. here are manques compared to the explosive, larger-than-life personalities that would fill Scorsese's later work. The only characteristic the much put-upon Sally Gaga (Michael Scala) shares with his cinematic descendants is an amusing nickname (the emphasis is hard on the second syllable; he's "GaGA", not "GAga"), and the loudmouth troublemaker Joey (Lennard Kuras) has all the bluster and noise of Joe Pesci's tinpot martinets with none of the fire and nuance. Likewise, the examination of a relationship-destroying inability to accept a lover's past is handled here with nowhere near the subtlety and grace with which the same subject is addressed in Raging Bull. In that film, we knew Jake LaMotta suspected his wife of infidelity when he imagined her drifting towards other men in slow motion; here, J.R. expresses his lack of faith in The Girl's virtue by flat-out calling her a whore. (Worthy of note is the sketchy nature of the film's female characters; The Girl doesn't even have a name, and the only other prominent women are the prostitutes J.R. frequents, who have no lines, Gaga's hysterical and also nameless date (Wendy Russell) at a party-cum-brawl, and the nameless Italian mother, played by the much-beloved Catherine Scorsese, who makes a meat pie for some random children in the opening scene.) This lead-pipe-to-the-head lack of thematic subtlety reminds one both of Scorsese's European influences (Ingmar Bergman, for all the symbolism of his imagery, was also one for the thematically on-the-nose dialogue) and his simple naivete as a first-time filmmaker.
Nevertheless, given that this is a first-time feature, Scorsese's command of his medium here is remarkable, as is his already crystal-clear artistic vision. Who's That Knocking At My Door is full of performances, images and scenes that are undoubtedly Scorsesean in their style and thematic intent. J.R., significantly, does not woo The Girl with shows of strength or flagrant displays of wealth, but the way a young Scorsese himself might have, by engaging her in a conversation about westerns sparked by a photo of John Wayne in a magazine she's reading. (In a foreshadowing of one of Scorsese's own future films, J.R. name-checks Wayne's Searchers co-star Jeffrey Hunter and mentions that he played Christ in Nicholas Ray's King of Kings.) Movies also plant the seeds of the end of J.R.'s romance, as a discussion of Angie Dickinson's status as a "broad" versus a "lady" following a screening of Rio Bravo takes on added weight when J.R., arguing with The Girl about her sexual past, asks her if she's "that kind of broad". The film also features an unusual but thematically significant scene in which J.R., Joey and another pal drive to a small town outside the city and go hiking in the hills, only to spend their time at the summit bitching about what a foolish enterprise this is. You can take the boys out of the city, Scorsese suggests, but you can't take the city out of them, a fact that becomes painfully true when J.R. can only interpret The Girl's past through his ignorant "urban" perspective. The film also includes moments of telling ethnographic filmmaking, as in the opening meat-pie-making scene, and bits of typically blatant Scorsese symbolism, as when J.R., after forsaking The Girl, kisses the feet of a tiny crucifix only to come away with bloodied lips.
Most Scorsesean of all is the film's usage of music montage. Despite the wealth of quotable dialogue throughout his filmography, Scorsese himself often seems most comfortable as a filmmaker working with pure sound and image, and in Who's That Knocking, he indulges that tendency so frequently that at times the film almost plays like an urban tone poem set to music. Many key sequences are conducted with no dialogue at all, and the picture is remarkable as an early independent film for the rich variety of its pop soundtrack. The film's opening credits are set to a montage of a street fight cut to Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels' exhilarating "C.C. Rider", perhaps the first example of Scorsese setting a scene of urban violence to an incongruously upbeat music track. J.R. courts The Girl amidst the New York rooftops to the Bell Notes's "I've Had It". A party scene erupts in playful though still threatening slow-motion violence to the strains of Ray Baretto's "El Watusi". The Doors' hallucinatory "The End", used to such striking effect in Apocalypse Now, here makes an earlier appearance as accompaniment to J.R.'s dalliances with prostitutes. And, most memorably, as J.R. confesses his sins and prays for forgiveness after losing The Girl to his own ignorance, a montage of agonized Christ statues and downcast Mother Marys is set, almost blasphemously, to the Genies' soaring doo-wop rendition of the title song. Scorsese has always been among the most imaginative utilizers of source music in contemporary cinema, and Who's That Knocking shows that he possessed that gift for scoring his films right from the jump.
The film is also significant in forging several relationships that were to serve Scorsese well throughout his career. Keitel, who gives a sometimes uneven but nevertheless persuasive performance here, went on to a prominent, Oscar-nominated career that included appearances in four more Scorsese films, most notably Mean Streets (playing a character very similar to J.R.) and Taxi Driver (as the pimp imprisoning Jodie Foster's underage prostitute). Scorsese's assistant director, Mardik Martin, went on to receive co-writing credit on the director's New York, New York and Raging Bull. Co-cinematographer Michael Wadleigh would subsequently direct the groundbreaking documentary Woodstock, on which Scorsese would serve as an editor. Also an editor on that film was the woman who cut Who's That Knocking, and with whom Scorsese has had arguably his richest collaborative relationship: Thelma Schoonmaker, who has edited every feature Scorsese has made since Raging Bull, and who has taken home three Academy Awards for her trouble (for Bull, The Aviator and The Departed).
Oftentimes, a filmmaker's first work is more notable simply for being their first than for any artistic merits it may possess in its own right. I don't know a whole lot of people who are lining up these days to watch Steven Spielberg's 1968 debut feature Amblin', and Robert Altman kicked off his celebrated career with the trashy 1957 exploitation thriller The Delinquents. Of course, a few filmmakers do hit a home run their first time out of the gate. I am one of the rare people who thinks Quentin Tarantino has never topped Reservoir Dogs, and Kevin Smith has yet to duplicate what he achieved in 1994's Clerks with nothing but twenty-seven grand and a brilliant script. Who's That Knocking At My Door, however, falls on neither side of this equation. It is certainly not a film to rank with Scorsese's best, but neither is it a negligible footnote to an otherwise significant career. It is a rough and patchy but nevertheless engaging work, and an endearing snapshot of the earliest cinematic attempt to come to terms with the themes and issues that would spark one of the most celebrated careers in contemporary film. Few would argue that Scorsese hits this one entirely out of the park. But it definitely got him well into the game.
OFFICE SPACE (1999)
Mike Judge; based on his "Milton" animated shorts
Why It's Here
It is hard to remember, considering the fervent following it has developed over the years, but Office Space was not a financial success upon its original release. Hell, it's almost hard to recall that it even received a release, as most of its fans, present company included, first encountered the film on DVD well after its non-event of a theatrical run, during which the film just barely recouped a budget of only $10 million. Several factors may have accounted for the film's initially indifferent public reception. Fox's ad campaign for the picture was admittedly uninspired, with a hackneyed poster featuring an anonymous figure covered in Post-It Notes, commercials that were not exactly chock-full of memorable, sock-'em-home comedy highlights, and a tagline ("Work sucks") that any mongoloid on a street corner probably could have come up with. The film was also somewhat lacking in star power, the only marquee presence provided by Jennifer Aniston, who audiences at that point could have been forgiven for writing off as just "Rachel from Friends", which was then still in the midst of its ten-season run. But films with even less going for them than Office Space have been much bigger hits...and other, just-as-worthwhile films that received an equally lukewarm theatrical reception have not gone on to receive the passionate fan base that has accumulated around this dry, un-flashy, sometimes flat-out bleak workplace satire. What is it about Office Space that has kept audiences seeking it out on DVD and cable TV airings when many more comedies of its era have fallen through the cracks of cinematic limbo?
Two words: Mike Judge. Best known as the mind and voice behind MTV's megahit mid-'90s animated series Beavis and Butt-Head and the long-running working-class Fox sitcom King of the Hill, Judge made his live-action writing / directing debut with Office Space (he also, under the pseudonym "William King", portrays Aniston's corporate-stooge restaurant-manager boss). The film's screenplay, inspired by a series of hand-drawn shorts that appeared on MTV's animation omnibus Liquid Television (the show also gave birth to both Beavis and Butt-Head and Aeon Flux, the anime-style future-female ass-kicker that inspired a megaflop Charlize Theron film), reminds audiences of a fact that was often neglected by narrow-minded viewers who blasted Beavis and Butt-Head as glorifications of adolescent rage and stupidity. Judge is a satirist, and quite honestly, a frequently brutal one. Beavis and Butt-Head, far from being celebrated by Judge for their mindless metalhead ways, were shown as exactly what they were: ignorant, violent children destined to grow up into ignorant, violent adults (I recall a flash-forward to them as fat, toothless slobs, still sitting on the same couch, recalling their greatest triumph in life...spying on some naked people from a clump of bushes at a nudist colony), and even King of the Hill, which was comparatively mild in its approach, nevertheless needled Hank Hill and his buddies at every turn for their love-America-first, ask-questions-never philosophy. Office Space is never as savage in its satire as B & B or as Judge's subsequent feature, the scathing, barely released, now fellow cult favorite Idiocracy, which portrays the world of the future, the world we're gleefully marching towards, as one of almost fascistic corporatism, id-driven excess, and society-strangling stupidity. No, all Office Space does is tell us that the jobs that we put so much of our sweat, our spirits, our lives into? Yeah. They're killing us by inches, and short of supernatural or divine intervention, we're powerless to save ourselves. Put like that, it's little wonder that people didn't queue up after a hard week at the office to watch a movie about just how hard that week could be...even if it was a comedy.
Office Space's "hero", for lack of a better word, is Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston, in a beautifully droll, deadpan performance), a dead-eyed drone for the monstrous Initech Corporation, one of those brutalist cubicle farms where rows of people work very hard for indifferent pay doing jobs that make no logical sense. It's telling that, while Peter has a definite role at his office (he is, in a slightly dated but still reasonable plot detail, assisting with updating bank software for the Y2K changeover), it's nevertheless kept entirely vague exactly what it is that Initech does. Do they manufacture anything? Sell anything? Who the hell knows? What companies like this do, Judge seems to suggest, is simply provide people with income, nothing less, and quite certainly nothing more. Peter's life is a meaningless farrago of soul-deadening dreariness punctuated by brief moments of intense impotent rage, mostly directed at his bosses, who insist on telling him over and over about the most meaningless infractions. In one of the film's first scenes, Peter is approached by no less than three supervisors who scold him about his failure to put a particular cover sheet on a particular report; these three people, we later learn, are among the eight bosses that currently make Peter's life a miserable experience. His personal life is no more glorious, consisting mostly of sneaking out of the office to steal coffee breaks and commiserate with software techies Samir (Ajay Naidu) and Michael Bolton (the marvelously defeated David Herman), whose name is in and of itself a form of cosmic punishment; he spends a frustratingly large portion of his work day explaining to people that it is merely a coincidence that he shares a name with "that no-talent ass clown". Peter also pines for Joanna (Aniston), a waitress at a T.G.I. Friday's-ish chain restaurant, even though he's dating the imperious Anne (Alexandra Wentworth), who he and, disconcertingly, everyone else he knows suspect is cheating on him. Finally, after being asked to come in on the weekend by Bill Lumbergh (the transcendently unctuous Gary Cole), a weaselly, faux-buddyish VP with a coffee mug permanently welded to his hand, Peter decides to go see an "occupational hypnotherapist". He's hoping the guy can "maybe just kind of zonk me out so I don't realize that I'm at work", but the doctor (Micheal McShane) instead promises to implant a subconscious hypnotic sense of complete apathy about Peter's job or its consequences upon his life. It works like a charm...but the big-boned doc drops dead of a heart attack before he can snap Peter out of it. Peter Gibbons is a new man. A man who couldn't give less of a shit about his job if you put a loaded gun to his head.
The new Peter's workplace rebellion is a harmless but still crowd-pleasing rendition of what we'd do if we stopped caring about work. He blows off his weekend overtime, and it's no more shirt and tie for him. Jeans and sneakers all the way. He goes fishing during office hours, guts the fish at his desk (in a nice throwaway gag, he dumps the discarded guts on a stack of those oh-so-important report cover sheets), uses an electric drill to remove a metal doorknob that persistently shocks him, and knocks down the wall of his cubicle to allow him a window view... that looks out, admittedly, to a not-that-impressive access road. But it's better than particleboard. And not surprisingly, in a reflection of good old-fashioned American failing upwards, Peter's benign neglect of responsibility is rewarded with a promotion from the Bobs (John C. McGinley and Paul Willson), two "consultants" hired to weed out unnecessary "human resources". Unfortunately, two of those useless cogs are Michael and Samir, and when Peter finds out that his friends, the two best software people at Initech, are being cast aside, his rebellion shifts from prankish to blatantly criminal, as they install a software virus allowing them to steal fractions of leftover, usually rounded-off pennies from bank transactions (Michael cribs this idea from Superman III, which he calls an "underrated movie, actually"). It's a petty, victimless crime that will net them a never-missed few hundred thousand over the course of a few years...or over a weekend, when Peter discovers that the virus has stolen over three hundred grand in two days. Suddenly, Peter again cares very much about his job...or at least about the fact that it just might send him to a "federal pound-me-in-the-ass prison".
Like most of the comedies previously featured on this countdown, Office Space is not on this list because of its plot. The script's structure is admittedly pretty unpolished. Peter's hypnosis is merely a convenient excuse for his rebellious behavior; the doctor is barely mentioned again once he drops dead, and there is no effort made to de-hypnotize Peter and turn him back into a "functioning" soulless drudge. Likewise, the penny-stealing scam, for something that takes up such a strong percentage of the film's back half, is not really adequately built up to early on; Michael has a throwaway line about being able to program a virus that could rob Initech blind, but until Peter gets the idea out of the blue, it never seems like the film is building to some kind of scam like this. The plot thus proceeds in fits and starts, a symptom perhaps of Judge's previous extensive experience with short-form episodic material. He also struggles a bit with handling exposition, finally throwing up his hands and bringing in Drew (Greg Pitts), a fellow office hack who shows up out of nowhere more than halfway through the film and who exists solely to provide exposition about a car accident that befalls sad-sack customer service rep Tom Smykowski (Richard Riehle) and about Joanna's past romantic exploits, which throws the one monkey wrench into her otherwise smooth-as-silk relationship with Peter. Drew is admittedly funny, mostly thanks to Pitts's portrayal of him as the office's designated frat douche, but even the other characters seem to recognize his superfluous nature; when he suddenly appears in his first scene, Peter's reaction is an almost surprised "Oh, hi, Drew..."
But the devil here is in the details, and Office Space is a worthy rival to Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's masterful Britcom The Office in its dead-on dissection of the manner in which the simple act of having a job in America seems designed to grind you down into a fine dust. Judge realizes that one of the keys to effective satire is to overplay the absurdity just enough for us to recognize what it says about the naked ridiculousness of our own everyday lives. It's all there in Judge's script. The infuriating mundanity of "inspirational" corporate slogans and signage (one of Peter's first acts of rebellion is to tear down an office-spanning banner that reads "Is This Good for the Company?"). The way bosses abuse their employees by couching unfair work demands in the form of a request for a personal favor (Lumbergh is fond of telling his employees that if they could just do this or that annoying, frustrating, pointless action, "that would be greeeeaaaaat"). The way the little nothingnesses of everyday office life, accumulated over time, induce near-psychotic levels of irritation (witness Peter's reaction to his co-worker's incessant chirping of "Corporate accounts payable, Nina speaking...just a moment..."). And, of course, the way in which the mechanics of life in the corporate world turn us into petty, grasping, territorial beasts, a fact embodied brilliantly by Milton Waddams (Stephen Root), a pockmarked, poorly dressed schlub whose entire life has been boiled down to a numb-from-the-neck-up quest to defend his right to listen to the radio while he's collating (naturally and hilariously, he's listening to a droning news broadcast about a sinking battleship...much like Initech itself), his right to a piece of office-party birthday cake, and of course, his beloved red Swingline stapler. Peter, Michael and Samir are not immune to this sort of pettiness, either. On the software guys' last day, they drive out to a field and take their revenge on their greatest office nemesis: a malfunctioning fax machine that they brutalize with a baseball bat and (in the case of a hysterical Michael) their bare fists, a slo-motion sequence hilariously scored to the Geto Boys's viciously profane gangsta-rap "Still".
It's not just the flora, but the fauna of modern American office life that Judge gets brilliantly right in Office Space. Each of the film's characters represents a different, familiar attitude about the world of work. Peter is the classic bright young man made bad, the kind of guy who you could imagine had all the hope in the world when he got out of college, and who has, through years of work, seen his idealism die the death of a thousand Xerox-machine paper cuts. He morosely tells the hypnotist that every day since he has started working at Initech has been worse than the day before. "That means," he concludes, "that every time you see me, it's on the worst day of my life." One can see how that sort of feeling would make Peter blow his job up into the embodiment of evil, "everything that is soulless and wrong", and how even the simple act of playing Tetris in front of Lumbergh comes to seem like a major victory to him. Samir, on the other hand, is the just-happy-to-be-employed guy; when Peter laments about what it would mean if they were still at Initech when they were fifty years old, Samir responds, "It would be nice to have that kind of job security," and when presented with the hypothetical "what would you do with a million dollars" question, all he can offer up are sensible investment opportunities. (Judge nicely avoids making Samir a raft of Indian software guy cliches, although his co-workers do have a tremendous lot of trouble with his last name.) Smykowski is your garden-variety office Chicken Little, who sees every little change sent down from the top of the corporate ladder as a direct attack on his employment status. He is so beholden to his corporate paymasters that he attempts suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning (he is only saved by the sudden arrival of his wife...only to back out of his garage and be smashed into immediately by an oncoming drunk driver). On the other side of the coin is Lumbergh, who has been assimilated by the corporate hive-mind and who seems to have no identity outside of a job that is basically meaningless (after all, like most higher-ups, we never see Lumbergh doing anything but walking around with his mug). For all the humanity he projects, it might as well be poisoned Kool-Aid he's incessantly sipping from that mug. And, of course, there's the perkolators, the office "rays of sunshine" who seem to exist merely to give their co-workers someone to agree to hate. Initech has the bubbly secretary who tells a complaining Peter that it "sounds like somebody has a case of the Mondays", and Joanna is plagued by Brian (Todd Duffey), an insanely upbeat fellow restaurant server whose excessive "flair" (funny buttons on his uniform suspenders) are an endless thorn in her side. The only person in Office Space who seems to have a healthy relationship with his job is, significantly, the only person who seems to do real work for a living. Peter's neighbor, itinerant construction worker Lawrence (Diedrich Bader), is admittedly a stereotype, a blue-collar schlub with a mustache and mullet who lives for beer and fishing, and who would use his hypothetical million dollars to pay two women to have sex with him at the same time. Nevertheless, he doesn't sweat his job when he's not on the job, he gets to leave for the day with something to actually show for his labor, and if someone where he works said you were having a case of the Mondays, he'd be on the receiving end of an ass-kicking. Lawrence seems to have a lot figured out, but it can't be an accident that he seems so much like a grown-up Butt-Head. These, Judge seems to be suggesting, are our only options: constant, pointless, unwinnable war against the corporate machine; total immersion in the Borg-like life of an office drone; or blissful, bad-haircut ignorance. Put like that, it's no wonder that Office Space failed to find an audience initially. It's a comedy, yes, but an often grim and harshly realistic one.
But sometimes we laugh that we may not cry, and one of the things that makes Office Space a comedy that people (including myself) return to again and again, like a life-raft against the madness is that it's just nice to know that we're not alone, that someone gets it, that someone sees the way we live now and realizes that it's wrong, disspiriting, inhuman. As I've previously mentioned, I do not write this blog for a living, nor do I make any kind of living in the literary or entertainment fields. I have worked for a major corporation for over a decade now, I have done my time in a cubicle, and I have personally gone through every peak and trough of the emotional roller coaster that Peter Gibbons rides in the course of this film. When he fantasizes about coming into work one day and just laying waste with a machine gun, I can relate 100 percent (as recently as last week, I joked that my last day at my job, should it ever come and oh please let it, will probably result in someone having to shout at me, "Stop hitting him, he's already dead!"). I too have taken those "mental health days", where you wake up, look at the clock and just realize that, healthy or no, work just can not happen today. I've spent plenty of time on the job spacing out, plenty of days where I only put in "about fifteen minutes of real, actual work". So I, like many people, can entirely relate to where Peter's coming from, and I appreciate Office Space as an accurate and incisive depiction of modern American corporate misery. But I also know that Office Space is over in ninety minutes, and I'm still staring down the barrel of this job for who knows how long. And I don't know about you, but if I saw a guy like Peter, blowing off work, not giving a damn, and being kicked upstairs into management for his trouble? He might very well be the guy I was turning my machine gun on. We often look at suffering movie characters and say, "There, but for the grace of God, goes I." Office Space just might have failed in its original release, and might have found its small but fervent cult, because this film's protagonist could look at its viewers and say the exact same thing.