21.10.13

Don't Touch It, It's Just Some Accounting: Office Killer (1997)

It is quite near impossible to find works directed by women in media, let alone a film that is decided entrenched within genre.  Having just read the highly informative and critical essays "Woman With a Camera" and "Woman With a Camera: Redux" I decided to slightly shift my plans for the month and remove an anthology horror film in favor of Office Killer, a horror/slasher directed by a woman.  What makes Office Killer particularly worth consideration is that it is not only a work within the horror genre that is indeed female directed, but the director is none other than Cindy Sherman the prolific and quite fascinating feminist photographer whose series Film Stills, already play upon the conventions of filmmaking at what it means to be a woman both in front of and behind the camera.  Indeed, the set up of the film is very much something that exists in narrative comparison to her earlier photography, using the camera to record events in a very personal way, while also being hyper-aware of the manner in which the camera also serves as a tool of voyeuristic looking, even when in the hands of a female director.  One could look at the IMDB rating for this film and think that it is a film far short of enjoyable or rather bad, but I would mount much of the rejection of this film to its losing out financially by being directed by a woman, something that is inexplicably still off-putting to cinema goers who seem intent on still wholly supporting the male-oriented framework of directorship.  While Kathryn Bigelow is far from the ideal signifier of feminist filmmaking, actually quite far from it, she still serves as an example of the issue, in that despite winning an Oscar and being afforded her own degree of auteur status, she is still less sought out by moviegoers, even considering how profound and well-executed Zero Dark Thirty is a piece of cinema.  There is also another issue at play with Office Killer in that it does not subtly subvert the horror genre, but outright rejects it allowing its protagonist to also be the point of threat in the film, suggesting a wild degree of radical feminism within the context of the film, never once branching into a point of pity and curiosity instead representing the individuals in questions break from sanity to be an understandable action, merely a rebellion against a barrage of socially oppressive forces.


Office Killer is rather straightforward in its title and quite indicative in regards to what occurs, however, the story does have a few layers allowing for it to flow comfortably and succinctly.  The film centers on an office that produces a monthly magazine, facing yet another downsizing, this time leading to employees not being fired, but considerably cut down on hours.  The workers, excluding the big wigs like accountant Norah Reed (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and head editor Kim Poole (Molly Ringwald) seem comforted even in the dire times, Norah engaging in small scale embezzlement with company money, while Kim engages in romantic acts with a higher up member of the company expecting it to assure her safety.  In contrast is Dorine Douglas (Carol Kane) a slightly above middle age woman who has spent sixteen years of her life at the company without an ounce of respect or advancement.  During a night of late work, expected to finish an editorial, despite being cut back on days allowed to work, Dorine and and coworker Gary (David Thorton) attempt to complete the task, despite some awkward sexual advances on Gary's part, yet when an issue arises with some of the computers and Gary gets fatally electrocuted, Dorine hesitates in calling in medical help, instead choosing to drag Gary's corpse back to her home, where she hides him in the basement from her cats and invalid mother.  The narrative then reveals that this is far from Dorine's first experience with a violent death, suggesting that she witnessed, an directly led to what resulted in, her father drive his car into a power line.  This act of passive murder was in revolt, viewers are led to believe, to her father's sexual advances on his daughter.  Regardless, this reawakening of death leads to Dorine systematically planning a means to take out her competition in the office, primarily Kim who constantly berates Dorine, as well as Norah when she eventually realizes that it is her thieving of the company that has led to her underemployment.  Also, mastering the use of email, Dorine is able to pass as various members of the office, tricking higher ups into believing that she is solely responsible for the success of the recent issue.  Accruing a considerable amount of corpses in her basement, Dorine creates an idyllic space in her basement, clearly intended to return to a simpler time in her youth, complete with her mother now dead eating cookies and friends watching TV late into the night.  Given the non-threatening nature of Dorine, the narrative closes with her looking for a new job and a narration warning that she might be emerging at an office near any one of the people viewing the film.


It is this confrontation with the viewer without directly subverting the gaze that makes Cindy Sherman's involvement with Office Killer particularly intriguing.  Indeed, the opening of the film notes that the gaze is a thing well-established, blocking the cameras ability to completely objectify bodies by placing props in the line of view, or by using such wild angles, which constantly, change as to never provide viewers with time to situate their gaze. However, this is only a minimal element to the film, instead, Sherman whose visual ability is undeniable also excels here at drawing out the narrative forms of oppression and Dorine's breaking away from this internalized identity as lesser.  This emerges first in her moving from a woman who constantly keeps her head down, literally focused on her work, ignoring the negative views directed at her by coworkers, yet when she is made aware of the lesser status she is viewed under when receiving the cutback letter she becomes cognizant of the bodies in her office responsible for her exploitation, whether it be the unwarranted sexual advances of Gary or the matriarchal bargaining with patriarchy to achieve a degree of exploitative power, occurring on the part of Virginia Wingate (Barbara Sukowa).  It is a literal destruction of the hegemonic power structures, one could argue that Dorine realizes that her assumption that by playing into patriarchal gender roles and established norms she would eventually make it to be illogical.  At this point the film becomes violent in the sense that it undermines patriarchy in a very visceral manner, at times by accident, while at other very purposeful, but is also worth noting that not all of the rejection occurs within the space of violent engagements, indeed, Dorine is able to appropriate technology, a thing traditionally deemed masculine, and use it to undermine her oppressors.  She accrues the bodies, not incapable of objectifying her and making them part of her new post-patriarchal world, although there is something to be said about having the group watch white snow on the screen.  In this reading the only thing that could be deemed remotely problematic would be the murder of the Girl Scouts, which while troublesome play into ideas of infanticide, not out of spite but out of fear for the girls' future in a world of oppression, not justifiable, but certainly understandable coming from Dorine's framework of the world.

Key Scene:  There are a couple of segments where Sherman just lets Carol Kane perform for the camera in strokes of genius, two being her sharpening of pencils, as well as the hand tapping scene, which is only understood when seen.

This is a hidden gem on Netflix right now and it could use some love and a bit more word of mouth, for it is a rather brilliant piece of feminist filmmaking.

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