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Cubicle Ennui

December 29, 2014

A Look Back at the Y2K Freakout Through 3 of 1999’s Most Enduring Films

Possible mild spoilers, but if you haven’t seen these films, well, get on that.

The Internet may be the greatest feather in humanity’s cap, and it belongs on the Mt. Rushmore of inventions right up there with Fire, The Wheel and Sliced Bread (ok, ok, maybe the Printing Press or Electricity over Sliced Bread, but you get the idea). It’s easy to forget now, but there was a brief time when many people thought the techie world would be our undoing. This proud era of human history occurred 15 years ago and is known as Y2K.

In case you happened to not be on Rumspringa in 1999, what Y2K boiled down to was this: In both digital and non-digital file-keeping, four-digit years tended to be abbreviated to two digits (i.e. 1995 = 95). In theory, computers would not be able to differentiate between centuries when dealing with two-digit dates (i.e. “00” could mean 1900 or 2000). According to Consumer Price Index, over $300 Billion was spent, worldwide, on preparations for all the world’s digital clocks hitting midnight on the morning of January 1, 2000.

Of course, the fear wasn’t just about files getting a little mixed up. The real fear was that computers would get confused, delete our financial records and fire off all the nukes. Sounds like science fiction, right? While these hyperbolic outcomes would obviously have been terrible, there was a human element that, while not talked about as much, might have been even scarier. How could the “powers that be” really be so shortsighted that they didn’t plan better for this? In hindsight, Y2K was rather well-prepared for, therefore also rather anticlimactic. But that didn’t prevent people from constructing doomsday shelters and filling their bathtubs with drinking water just in case. The very idea that society could be burnt down over something as mundane as choosing to abbreviate years down to two digits makes you ponder likelihood that humanity is meant to destroy itself.

Courtesy www.tnooz.net

Movies have always served as a fun house mirror reflection of the real world. Societal fear and angst have always had a way of worming into popular culture. Science Fiction is associated with this more than any other genre. What better way to dissect humanity’s fear of the unknown than to show them them the terror of things that could soon come to pass? For decades, this was one of the defining characteristics of Science Fiction. But in 1999, in the face of an impending worldwide computer meltdown, real human beings were suddenly living in a science fiction movie. In the run up to the 21st Century, this pervasive fear bubbled over into non-SF film as well.

Though Science Fiction still reigned over the proceedings, the Y2K Freakout was conveyed in films of all genres during this era. We are going to focus on three of 1999’s most enduring films; one sci-fi game-changer, and two satirical dark comedies. The latter two are not science fiction, but that Y2K tension remains palpable and delicious. Let us get the obvious one out of the way first.

The Matrix

The Matrix is the latest in a long line of cyberphobic film. 2001: A Space Odyssey and HAL-9000 taught us to be mistrustful of computers back in 1968. The Terminator gave us nightmares about how increased automation could take a turn for the worst in 1984. Cyberphobia is not new. Its parent, technophobia, actually goes all the way back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818. 1999’s The Matrix suggested that we might already be controlled by our own technology, and without the opportunity or wherewithal to even resist.

What The Matrix did was wrap centuries of science-fiction-inspiring fears up in a new Y2K-friendly package. A man, Thomas Anderson (played by Keanu Reeves, the immortal), works in a nondescript cubicle in a high-rise building in an unnamed city. Computer programmer by day and hacker by night, somehow he can tell there is something nefarious about the world in which he lives. The trouble is, no one else really seems to notice it. We all know the story by now, but Mr. Anderson, a.k.a Neo, needs to shed his cubicle life to get to the bottom of things. He does this by literally trying to escape from his office with guidance from someone who has already escaped their own. Though Neo ends up needing a little help from his friends, he does manage to leave his cubicle behind, which becomes symbolically important in the context of the films of 1999.

Man escapes cubicle and becomes savior for all mankind. That is the basic model. In The Matrix, the cubicle is a construct representing the control technology has exerted over man.

What does mankind need saving from? Though Neo thought it was 1999, time had actually advanced well into the 21st Century to a time when intelligent machines are harvesting human beings as a power source after a global man vs. machine conflict. The event resulted in the enslavement of humanity save the few who were able to continue living under rubble. Hmm, a catastrophic worldwide tehno-apocalypse… sound familiar? This narrative runs with the fear that we aren’t truly the masters of our creations, our technology. This theme is perfectly in line with The Matrix’s film progenitors and yet updated for the present by pitting man in a desperate race to master its own creation or to be mastered by it. A funhouse mirror of the times.

Office Space

Office Space is about employees of a fictional tech company, and it’s far from science fiction. Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) hates his job (again, not exactly a novel concept). Lately, he has been updating endless lines of code for for the Y2K switch and enduring abusive relationships with his boss, Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole), and girlfriend, Anne. Peter has an epiphany during an absurd occupational therapy session and begins reclaiming his life. Anne? He doesn’t need her anymore when he can chat up the cool waitress (Jennifer Aniston) at his favorite chain restaurant. Lumbergh? Peter doesn’t think much of working anymore so he’s just gonna stop going. No biggie though, Lumbergh will get the idea.

Courtesy Reddit

In a surreal twist, when Peter explains his new carefree outlook to Bob and Bob, Initech’s efficiency consultants, they decide he is richly deserving of a promotion. Peter accepts the promotion and promptly turns to his soon-to-be-laid-off software buddies Michael Bolton and Samir (David Herman and Ajay Naidu) to rip off Initech with a virus inspired by Superman III. Like Superman III, the virus scheme probably seemed like a better idea on paper. Endlessly-quotable hilarity ensues.

In Office Space, the cubicle represents the evils of working for the sake of it and not following your passions. Given the portrayals, it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume writer/director Mike Judge also wants us to think cubicles may be a direct cause of insanity. Peter, our hero, escapes his cubicle to enjoy life’s simpler pleasures (fishing, construction, and generally getting dirt under your fingernails).

Taking this idea to the extreme, Peter extols the virtue of sitting around all day doing nothing. His problem with Initech, however, is two-pronged. Not only would Peter rather do nothing than work at Initech, he feels the need to escape from under the soul-crushing gaze of Lumbergh, the kind of boss who likes to speak in a cool, laid back manner as he mistreats his employees.

In a system that sees productive employees like Samir and Michael get discarded and soulless middle-managers like Lumbergh get free reign, Office Space assumes an Orwellian tone. Initech doesn’t even feel corrupt, just incredibly mismanaged. Seriously? Who’s in charge here? The hilarious degree to which Lumbergh, “the Bobs,” and Peter’s seven other bosses are out of touch with reality shows the lack of faith the middle class had in “the system” back in 1999.

To put a finer, Y2K-sharpened tip on it, when Peter, Michael and Samir were discussing their plan to rip off the company, Michael mentioned that they had their “thumbs up their asses” preparing for Y2K and would be too busy to notice the theft.

Meanwhile, Tom Smykowski (Richard Riehle), a customer service employee prone to ranting about layoffs and other persecutions, exclaims in his meeting with the “the Bobs,”

I have people skills; I am good at dealing with people. Can’t you understand that? What the hell is wrong with you people?”

It’s a very funny scene, but it can be sad and a little scary if you can relate to an inability to convince someone of the value you know you have. The scenes featuring “the Bobs” smack of something you’d see in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. They also serve as a functional definition of dystopia.

The fear of technology, or at least the threat of it, is consistently present. While Office Space is one of many pre-Y2K films to display such a fear, it is on a much shorter list of films that explicitly invoke the turn of the century. The way many films turn their setting into a character of sorts, Office Space turns Y2K into a secondary bogeyman. Even in a no-tech scene like the one at Tom’s, the water tower looms in the background as a reminder of who is really in charge (and that they are probably morons).

The mundane detail of misplacing a decimal point that nearly lands the three friends in jail echoes the fear of being unable to master our own technology. The scene when everything blows up in their faces is their own peresonal Y2K. A microcosm of doomsday itself.

And, of course, this scene:

Fight Club

Fight Club is not science fiction. It might even be a stretch to say that it’s about technology. What makes Fight Club perhaps the brightest beacon of Y2K fears is its mastery of subtext. On the surface, Fight Club is the gleefully nihilistic parable of masculinity that convinced millions of college students to run out and by movie posters (ironic, given the film’s premise). It’s the story of a nebbish insomniac (Edward Norton) who flies all over the country consulting on auto-recall scenarios. He exhibits open contempt for how he makes his living, and yet is far more concerned with completing his wardrobe (which was getting pretty respectable) and figuring out which sofa best defines him as a person.

Things start to change when this unnamed character meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). Durden is wild and impulsive, and for some reason, Norton’s character can’t help but relate to him. The twists and turns of the plot aren’t really important to this discussion, but suffice to say that Norton’s character goes on a journey of self-discovery and bare-knuckle boxing as he tries to figure what’s really important in life. While the fighting and mayhem are pure farce, the self-discovery stuff is where we begin to get at what really makes Fight Club tick.

Courtesy www.movieswall.com

Keeping with the theme of this piece, let us get to the cubicle portion of Fight Club. For Norton’s character, the cube represents the insecurity and emasculation he begins to feel when he compares his dutiful consumerist ways to Tyler’s more freewheeling approach. Norton’s character’s desire to be more like the Pitt character emboldens him and causes him to rebel against his cozy existence. In an iconic scene, the protagonist stages a blackmail setup in his boss’s office. Thanks to his ingenuity and fearlessness, he is able to quit his job, but continue to be paid. He escapes the cubicle system and in his words, secures “corporate sponsorship” for his new hobby, Fight Club. Not seeing the Y2K connection yet? Hang with me, we’re almost there.

Once it’s revealed that Norton’s protagonist is really Tyler Durden and the Brad Pitt version of Durden is just Durden’s subconscious, we begin to see that Y2K sausage getting made. The very existence of the Pitt version could credibly be described as one huge Freudian slip. Pitt’s character represents the subconscious running wild and rejecting the pre-packaged single-serving lifestyle Norton’s character was content to perpetuate. He convinces his less confident alter-ego to break free of his cubicle and the rest of cookie cutter corporate America to become the man he (or his subconscious) wants to be.

Durden knows that something about his life is a bit off, it just takes his hyperactive subconscious being awoken by insomnia for him to do something about it. Just like Neo and Peter Gibbons, Tyler Durden saw the issues of the day and, after a point, wasn’t going to take it anymore. Similar to the other films, but adjusted for context, Durden was running from an unnatural over-reliance on automated convenience and the idea that everybody else were sheep who wouldn’t do anything about it. This is a very familiar narrative in film, but in 1999, these three cubicle-tinged apocalypse survivors were reacting to the same fears we had approaching Y2k.

Fight Club may express only tangential fears of technology and inept leadership but there is a generous helping of circumstantial evidence:

  • Durden blows up his IKEA-sponsored “filing cabinet for young professionals” of an apartment to live in a dank squatter house.
  • He shows annoyance at his boss’s insistence on incorporating more “cornflower blue” into the workplace.
  • He leaves his cushy-though-sleep-deprived consulting career to manufacture soap and knock people’s teeth out.
  • He hatches a plot (subconsciously, of course) to blow up various Big Credit headquarter buildings to erase financial records and cut everyone back down to zero.

Despite what millions of dorm room posters might lead you to believe, Fight Club is not about what it means to be a man. It is director David Fincher’s version of a romantic comedy set in a fearful and uncertain time (Y2K), then gilded by mischievous, shirtless men. It’s a masterpiece that inspires several interpretations, and looking back, has become one of the defining films of the 1990s.

We have just lost cabin pressure.

Conclusions

Because the main premise of the Y2K Freakout never really came to pass, we now have a sense of having mastered technology. Not coincidentally, nebbish characters like those played by Reeves, Livingston and Norton are essentially extinct in film. We are in the age of the all-out geek hero, and that goes for both men and women. Even in the James Bond series, the vanguard of stodgy masculinity in film, has recast the role of “Q” as a twenty-something hacker man-child. This a role formerly played by such adorable curmudgeons as Desmond Llewellyn (octogenarian) and John Cleese (hexagenerian at the time). It’s a sign of the times: we are no longer afraid of technology.

To an extent, we are perfectly willing to withdraw and live our lives online. In 1999, many thought “living off the grid” meant the only way to ensure Y2K survival. Nowadays, “off the grid” is basically a joke about folks who don’t have a smart phone yet. We are happy to text rather than dial a rotary phone, and you get the impression there’s no longer any middle ground between the two. We are happy to play Words With Friends rather than Scrabble (they are not the same!). It’s funny how we are almost living out the very existence The Matrix made us fear. But we survived Y2K, so we are not scared anymore. Maybe it’s yet another frontier conquered by man, or maybe we’ve all just been living in the matrix for the last 15 years.

“Bosnia. They don’t have roads, but they have Facebook.” – The Social Network (2010)

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