Analysis of ‘Office Space’

Office Space is a 1999 comedy film written and directed by Mike Judge (who also plays a small role as a restaurant manager). It stars Ron Livingston, Gary Cole, Jennifer Aniston, Stephen Root, David Herman, Ajay Naidu, and Diedrich Bader. It’s based on cartoon shorts named “Milton” that Judge created for Saturday Night Live back in the mid-1990s.

Though a box office disappointment, Office Space has since become a cult film.

Here are some quotes:

“Mother…shitter…Son of an…ass. I just…” –Samir (Naidu), stuck in traffic

“Corporate accounts payable, Nina speaking. *JUST* a moment.” –Nina (repeated line)

“Hello, Peter. What’s happenin’?” –Bill Lumbergh (Cole)

“…So, if you could do that, that would be great…” –Lumbergh

***********

Female Temp: Michael…Bolton?

Michael Bolton: Yeah, that’s me.

Female Temp: Wow! Is that your real name?

Michael Bolton: Yeah.

Female Temp: So are you related to that singer guy?

Michael Bolton: No. It’s just a coincidence.

Female Temp[visibly disappointed] Oh.

Samir Nagheenanajar: No-one in this country can ever pronounce my name right. It..it’s not that hard. Na-ghee-na-na-jar…Nagheenanajar.

Michael Bolton: Well, at least your name isn’t Michael Bolton.

Samir Nagheenanajar: You know, there is nothing wrong with that name.

Michael Bolton: No, there was nothing wrong with it, until I was about 12 years old and that no talent ass-clown became famous and started winning Grammys.

Samir Nagheenanajar: Why don’t you just go by Mike instead of Michael?

Michael Bolton: No way, why should I change? He’s the one who sucks.

***********

Peter Gibbons: What would you do if you had a million dollars?

Lawrence (in all seriousness): I’ll tell you what I’d do, man: two chicks at the same time, man.

Peter Gibbons[laughs] That’s it? If you had a million dollars, you’d do two chicks at the same time?

Lawrence: Damn straight. I always wanted to do that, man. And I think if I were a millionaire I could hook that up, too, ’cause chicks dig dudes with money.

Peter Gibbons: Well, not all chicks.

Lawrence: Well, the kind of chicks that’d double up on a dude like me do.

Peter Gibbons: Good point.

Lawrence: Well, what about you, now? What would you do?

Peter Gibbons: Besides two chicks at the same time?

Lawrence: Well, yeah.

Peter Gibbons: Nothing.

Lawrence: Nothing, huh?

Peter Gibbons: I would relax, I would sit on my ass all day, I would do nothing.

Lawrence: Well you don’t need a million dollars to do nothing, man. Take a look at my cousin, he’s broke, don’t do shit.

***********

“Hello Peter, what’s happening? Ummm, I’m gonna need you to go ahead and come in tomorrow. So if you could be here around 9 that would be great, mmmkay?…oh oh! and I almost forgot ahh, I’m also gonna need you to go ahead and come in on Sunday too, kay. We ahh lost some people this week and ah, we need to sorta play catch up. Thanks.” –Lumbergh

“So I was sitting in my cubicle today, and I realized, 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 that you see me, that’s on the worst day of my life.” –Peter

***********

“What would ya say…ya do here?” –Bob Slydell

“Well-well look. I already told you: I deal with the god damn customers so the engineers don’t have to. I have people skills; I am good at dealing with people. Can’t you understand that? What the hell is wrong with you people?” –Tom Smykowski

***********

“I did absolutely nothing and it was everything I thought it could be.” –Peter

“You see, Bob, it’s not that I’m lazy, it’s that I just don’t care.” –Peter

***********

Bill Lumbergh: Milt, we’re gonna need to go ahead and move you downstairs into storage B. We have some new people coming in, and we need all the space we can get. So if you could just go ahead and pack up your stuff and move it down there, that would be terrific, OK?

Milton Waddams (Root): Excuse me, I believe you have my stapler…

***********

Peter Gibbons: It’s not just about me and my dream of doing nothing. It’s about all of us. I don’t know what happened to me at that hypnotherapist and, I don’t know, maybe it was just shock and it’s wearing off now, but when I saw that fat man keel over and die – Michael, we don’t have a lot of time on this earth! We weren’t meant to spend it this way. Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about mission statements.

Michael Bolton: I told those fudge-packers I liked Michael Bolton’s music.

Peter Gibbons: Oh. That is not right, Michael.

************

[drunk singing] Back up in your ass with the resurrection.” –Samir

Tagline: Work sucks.

That this film is a searing indictment of capitalism is so obvious, it hardly needs mentioning. There are, however, certain nuances that deserve mention, in particular, how liberalism acts as an illusory cushion of capitalism, which we see, for example, in the ‘soft’ bossing around of the managers, among other such examples.

The agonizingly slow commute to work in the morning, with the frustration felt by Peter and Samir is symbolic on so many different levels. No progress is made getting closer to their job at Initech, except in movements so slight that an old man using a walking frame gets further ahead than the cars.

This inability to move forward symbolizes how all liberal attempts to reform capitalism do nothing substantive to help the working class. Peter tries making quick lane changes to take advantage of openings in the road, only to find himself stuck in a newly stagnant line, the one he’s left now moving. Samir just curses ungrammatically (see first quote).

The image of a bunch of people in their cars, close to but cut off from each other, is a powerful symbol of the alienation of workers from each other, of social alienation in general. Michael Bolton (Herman) attempts an escape from this misery through a narcissistic identification with the rappers he’s listening to in his car (part of a desperate attempt to forget having such an ill-starred name). The absurd phoniness of this is exposed when he, a white man, turns the music down, stops rapping along, and fearfully locks his car door…because a young black man is approaching. Liberal sympathy for blacks is so hypocritical.

The boss, Bill Lumbergh, arrives at Initech in his Porsche, then looks back at it in admiration as it sits in his designated parking space. (One is reminded of memes like this.) Peter has to park further away from the building, and so he is seen plodding toward it, just like Shakespeare‘s “schoolboy…creeping like snail/Unwillingly to school.”

The theme of worker alienation is further developed in the layout of the Initech office, with its maze of cubicles separating everyone like the walls of jail cells. Peter is nagged by Lumbergh, Dom Portwood (played by Joe Bays), and another manager on the phone for having forgotten to put a new cover sheet on their TPS reports, a new policy for which he seems not to have received the memo. What should be noted about this nagging is how ‘gentle’ it is: nobody in management openly expresses anger with Peter; a conservative boss would be more inclined to growl at him for the mistake, whereas we have a more liberal representation of capitalism here, with its ‘have a nice day’ smiley face. It’s no less irritating to have to put up with, though.

Other annoyances for him include a woman repeating “Corporate accounts payable, Nina speaking. Just a moment,” in the exact same intonation every time, like an automaton. Furthermore, Milton won’t be cooperative and turn his radio down as a favour to Peter. The proletariat is a mutually-alienated and alienating set of human machines.

This worker alienation is intensified when Peter’s exasperation is mocked by a temp saying he has “a case of the Mondays.” This unsympathetic attitude toward the first and worst day of the workweek and its drudgery is repeated by an irritatingly cheerful waiter at a restaurant that Peter, Michael, and Samir escape to. Peter’s next-door neighbour Lawrence understands that “You’d get your ass kicked” saying someone has “a case of the Mondays.”

The point is that in showing no empathy for one’s fellow workers and their frustrations starting yet another oppressive workweek, a worker talking about “a case of the Mondays” is, however indirectly, being sycophantic to his or her boss, an attitude of class collaboration, which actually is an attitude promoted by fascists.

If the workweek didn’t involve long hours (i.e., over eight hours a day on average, as is typically the case in East Asian countries like Taiwan, where I live, where people work some of the longest hours in a year, with stagnant wages) and low pay, “the Mondays” wouldn’t be so bad.

This kind of problem is but a small taste of what we socialists might call ‘the tyranny of work.’ Right-wingers scoff at such a concept, straw-manning our argument by claiming that we dream of a utopia in which we never have to work, and everything we want is handed to us on a silver platter. THIS IS NONSENSE. We socialists are so in favour of work that we aim for one hundred percent employment; we just want better working conditions, better pay, and reasonable hours.

It’s the right-wingers who want to keep a reserve army of the unemployed, “to scare the shit out of the middle class” (as George Carlin once said) and make them work harder out of fear of being fired. Hence, worker sycophancy to bosses, class collaboration, alienation between workers, the tyranny of work, and “a case of the Mondays.”

Adding to the tension at Initech is the introduction of “the Bobs,” Slydell (played by John C. McGinley) and Porter (played by Paul Willson), who are “efficiency experts” pressuring each member of the staff to justify his or her employment. Anyone whose job is suspected of being in any way redundant risks being fired.

The tendency of the rate of profit to fall (TRPF) pressures capitalists to maximize profit; so when capitalists feel the pressure to cut costs, it’s the workers who feel the cut of the knife first. All the boss needs is a reason to fire you: the Bobs provide that reason.

Of course, when Lumbergh introduces Bob Slydell to the Initech staff, he does so with his usual phoney attempts at seeming congenial, saying the workers must ask, “Is this good for the company?” (Translation: are their jobs worth saving?)

Even the most sycophantic employees can smell the danger to their jobs; so when Lumbergh reminds them that “next Friday is Hawaiian Shirt Day,” as if this would raise worker morale by even as much as a millimetre, the faces of the entire staff present keep their frozen frowns. Even Lumbergh has an awkward expression, knowing his attempt to cheer them up has failed miserably.

This attempt by management to put a happy face on such a blatantly cutthroat act is typical of the liberal approach to capitalism; at least conservatives are honest (more or less) about wanting to screw workers over.

We see something similar going on in Chotchkie’s, the restaurant that Peter, Michael, and Samir go to, where Joanna (Aniston), a waitress Peter likes, is being nagged by her manager, Stan (Judge), about not wearing enough flair. He doesn’t directly order her to wear more; he asks if she wants to express herself, and says that the management encourages such ‘self-expression’ by wearing more flair.

Again, this is liberalism concealing capitalist dominance over workers by pretending to be progressive. “I thought I remembered you saying that you wanted to express yourself,” Stan says to Joanna. (Translation: I thought I remembered you saying that you wanted to dress flashier to draw more customers in so we can make a larger profit.)

That irritatingly cheerful waiter, Brian (played by Todd Duffey), is favoured by Stan because of his “thirty seven pieces of flair” and his “terrific smile.” Again, this is the liberal way of being a capitalist: put on an outer façade of friendliness and goodwill, but inside, be a total prick.

Each working day gets worse and worse for poor Peter until Friday, when his worst fears are realized: Lumbergh wants him to work on Saturday. Worse yet, on Sunday, too! Lumbergh’s stretching of his back when he asks Peter to work on Sunday suggests it’s actually difficult for him to ask…well, almost difficult.

That night, Peter goes to a hypnotherapist. He’s at the lowest of the low, near despair. The hypnotherapist is a big, heavy fellow who looks far from physically healthy. In the middle of getting Peter into a deep state of trance, the obese man has a heart attack, falls to the floor, and dies right there.

If you’ve read my posts on how I interpret the symbolism of the ouroboros, you’ll know that I use it to represent the dialectical relationship between opposites, which meet where the serpent’s head bites its tail, and the coiled middle of its body represents all the intermediate areas between these opposite extremes on a circular continuum. Peter, having hit miserable rock bottom (the bitten tail), wakes up from his trance in a blissful state (the biting head). All of his anxieties have magically disappeared.

The next morning, he ignores his alarm clock and answering machine messages from Lumbergh, who asks why he hasn’t shown up for work on Saturday morning. With a blithe smile on his face, he couldn’t care less.

Instead of going to work, Peter goes up to Joanna at Chotchkies’s and asks her if she’d like to join him for lunch in another restaurant. They bond over their shared liking of Kung Fu and disliking of their bosses.

Meanwhile, the Bobs plan to fire Tom Smykowski (played by Richard Riehle), Samir, and Michael. This is even after the last of these three has degraded himself to pretending to like the music of his namesake, a pop singer Slydell likes so much that he “celebrate[s] the guy’s entire catalogue.” (This is brilliant character acting by McGinley, by the way: imagine the method-acting work he had to do to dumb his musical tastes down that much!).

And as for poor Milton Waddams, who keeps having his desk moved by Lumbergh, he was already laid off a while back, but neither did anyone inform him nor did he stop receiving pay-checks, due to a glitch in accounting. The Bobs have fixed the glitch, and nothing else is being done. Lumbergh will keep him on as his own personal slave.

This leads to a discussion of workplace bullying in Initech. We saw a form of this bullying with the managers on the one side, and Peter and Joanna on the other. With Lumbergh and Milton, though, workplace bullying is taken to a whole new level. Minor forms of this bullying include his being the only staff member not to get a piece of Lumbergh’s birthday cake, and Lumbergh wresting Milton’s fetishized Swingline stapler away from him.

(As for that birthday party, note how the moping staff mumbles the Happy Birthday song, except for such grinning boot-lickers as Nina; while Lumbergh looks on with a smug smirk as if to say, ‘N’yeah, if you could just go ahead and keep on kissing my ass, that would be great, m’kay? You wouldn’t want your job security to be jeopardized in any way, would you?’)

To add insult to injury, cake-deprived Milton not only hasn’t received his pay-check, he is also asked by Lumbergh to move his desk again…into the basement! In the basement, he’s asked by Lumbergh to get a can of pesticide and spray the cockroaches; though this of course isn’t part of his job description, since Milton’s become Initech’s unpaid slave, why not?

This carrying-on, to a comical extreme, of the bullying of Milton is symbolic of all that a wage slave has to suffer in any job in capitalist society, be it a job like that in Initech or in a sweatshop in the Third World. Milton and Peter have become the most class-conscious of all the employees in Initech, and while Peter’s “religious experience” is wearing off (that is, he has shifted from that blissful place at the ouroboros’s biting head down to the upper middle of its coiled body, enlightened but dissatisfied), he is still motivated to stick it to the Man, as he was in his ignoring of Lumbergh and his outrageous bluntness during his interview with the Bobs.

Peter, Michael, and Samir decide to fight back at management by stealing fractions of cents from the company’s accounts and putting the stolen money into an account of their own. A miscalculation–a wrongly-placed decimal point, it seems–means they take out much more than the unnoticeable amount they’ve intended.

This appropriating of money is a step in the right (left, rather) direction towards the road to revolution, but it isn’t enough. The exploitive structure of capitalism, here symbolized by the Initech building, must be brought down. Peter, Michael, and Samir are too chicken to go through with this (though their evisceration of a hated photocopier is a delight to watch).

Here’s where Milton comes in…sort of.

We never take seriously the milquetoast’s threats to burn the Initech building down…until it finally does burn down, we like to think, at his hands. Up to this point, Peter has been moving further clockwise along the length of the ouroboros, that is, he’s been growing less and less happy, and approaching the bitten tail of despair when he decides to take full responsibility for having stolen the money. He slips a check for the full amount of money taken, along with a written confession, in an envelope under the door of Lumbergh’s office.

We see the cyclical return of his deep sadness when he apologizes to Joanna for having judged her for sleeping with (he mistakenly thinks, Bill) Lumbergh. He asks why he can’t just be happy, though he’d be happy with her.

Luckily for him, the burning down of the Initech building means the destruction of the evidence of his theft of the money; so Peter has again shifted past the serpent’s bitten tail of despair and returned to the biting head of happiness. Milton waddles away with a…guilty?…look on his face and the check in his pocket.

Peter’s, Michael’s, Samir’s, and Milton’s problems with Initech are over, but not their problems with wage slavery and capitalism in general. Michael and Samir get jobs in Intertrode, which by its name alone sounds as bad as Initech, if not worse. Peter would rather work with Lawrence as a menial labourer, a not-so-glamourous job with lower pay, but at least Peter’s out in the sun.

One cannot end capitalism only locally, but rather internationally. The burning down of the Initech building provides only temporary relief. To end worker suffering, the hierarchical structure of Intertrode (aptly called “Penetrode” by Peter), and every other manifestation of private property must be abolished. Even the hierarchy of Peter’s new job with Lawrence must be done away with.

There’s a deleted scene of a foreman telling Peter and Lawrence, in fluent Lumberghese, “Yeah, if you guys could just go ahead and sorta pick up the pace a little bit, that’d be great.” Peter is again slipping down from the biting head of bliss, down the length of the serpent’s body, to a not-so-happy frame of mind. I’m guessing one of the reasons they cut this scene was that liberal Hollywood, apart from allowing Peter’s story to have a straightforwardly happy ending, would have us all think that there are still some decent jobs out there in Capitalistan.

In the final scene, Milton has spent his newly-acquired booty on a much-needed vacation to a resort in Mexico. Relaxing on the beach, he complains to a waiter about having been given the wrong drink, and one with salt. The waiter, exasperated with the petty gripes of the spoiled “gringo,” must apologize, but then leaves Milton without correcting his order.

Annoyed at seeing the Mexican walk away, Milton mumbles, “I won’t be leaving a tip, ’cause I could…I could shut this whole resort down. Sir? I’ll take my traveler’s checks to a competing resort. I could write a letter to your board of tourism and I could have this place condemned. I could put…I could put…strychnine in the guacamole. There was salt on the glass, BIG grains of salt.”

Sorry, Milton: you aren’t the victim this time. There’s a huge difference between the proletariat in the First World and that of the Third World. A labour aristocracy exists, thanks to capitalist imperialism, that divides the workers of the world (i.e., workers in developed countries vs. those in developing countries) and stops us all from uniting in international solidarity. Mexican workers have it much worse than you do, Milton.

Helping only workers in the First World, at the expense of those in the Third World, isn’t legitimate socialism: it’s mere liberalism, not all that much different in principle from the snarky would-be charm of Lumbergh and Stan. We can do a lot better than that; so, to you liberals out there, if you could go ahead and try to help us out with making real progressive change, that would be great, m’kay? Thanks.

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