We’re pulling an all-nighter this time — four movies, all of which turn fifteen this year. Their thematic similarities make them flow together beautifully, and viewed in a certain order, they make perfect sense for the wee hours. Each has at least a touch of surrealism to it, but right about the time you start feeling drowsy (or your body’s reserves kick in) is when things really get weird. It can also be argued that the philosophical density of these films increases from one movie to the next. In other words, this will feel just like college, I promise. Certainly at least a couple of these films served as touchstones for a generation of young movie lovers. They present the mood of the domesticated American male at the turn of the millennium: lassoed with a necktie, sitting in a cubicle or leaning over a filing cabinet, stuck in a corporate job that means nothing to him. These movies view this predicament on a continuum that measures up pretty well with Dante’s Inferno. The stories are about four men who decided hell wasn’t the place for them. In attempting to rise out of it, they tumbled down a rabbit hole.
First off is Mike Judge’s Office Space. We are not yet in Inferno Proper; the employees of Initech sit on the near side of the river Acheron, where reside the damned who in life did neither good nor evil. Dante envisions these souls endlessly, pointlessly chasing a banner. Office Space, of course, is a comedy — well, these are all comedies of one kind or another, but Office Space is the lightest. Peter Gibbons, our hero, is suddenly struck by the meaninglessness of his job and decides simply to stop working. The joke is that Peter’s lazy rebellion impresses the higher-ups as a kind of integrity, and they promote him. Working diligently to improve the world in some small way is never a viable option. The problems these characters face — recalcitrant printers, redundant bosses, cubicles that block access to windows — never amount to much, but they’re comparable to being constantly stung by insects, as Dante has it. Perhaps the only escape is through fire.
We skip ahead now to the fifth circle of hell, on the muddy banks of the river Styx, home of the angry and the sullen. The unnamed protagonist of David Fincher’s Fight Club is both. He works for a “major” car company, flying across the country to inspect cars that have been in accidents so he can determine if a recall is warranted. The job isn’t meaningless, but his responsibility is to the company’s bottom line, not the safety of the motorists. On a flight, he meets Tyler Durden, a charismatic soapmaker who inspires him to reject the shallow consumerist mindset of Clinton-era America. Together, they organize Fight Club, where men can reconnect with their primitive instincts for survival. The movement grows prodigiously, morphing into a terrorist campaign against the capitalist superstructure called Project Mayhem. Durden’s disciples start to resemble the enchanted brooms in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice — without said sorcerer to pull the plug, they might not stop until they drown themselves. But finally, the protagonist takes a stand, and here the movie takes a surprising turn by revealing itself as a romance at heart. The protagonist’s odyssey is in fact an attempt to pull himself up to the level of an extraordinary woman, Marla Singer. Women, always outsiders during these men’s quest to reclaim their manhood, somehow find a way to be very important to that quest. But the anger at the corporate system remains, and it’s only becoming clearer that something must be destroyed.
Next, there’s the eighth circle, the cavern called Malebolge, the final section of which is reserved for liars. What is the Matrix? A fraudulent world. Thomas “Neo” Anderson, hero of the Wachowskis’ The Matrix, discovers that the world he knows is nothing more than a computer simulation. His mind is kept active in this dream world while his body is harvested for energy by a machine civilization. Neo’s job at the software company Metacortex is thus both meaningless and morally suspect, working in the interests of a society that has enslaved the human race. Peter Gibbons and the Fight Club narrator were each allowed to take small steps toward improving their station, but Neo breaks out completely. He is allowed to look down on his former life from another plane of existence altogether, having been “unplugged” by a band of human rebels. Continuing the hell analogy, then, it is not Neo who is damned, but Agent Smith, a computer program who participated in the fraud called the Matrix and now feels trapped in the simulation. That’s poetic justice worthy of L’inferno.
Last of all, we come to the paralyzing ice of Cocytus, the ninth circle of hell where traitors are kept. The treachery in Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich is of a kind that may have exceeded even Dante’s profound imagination. Aspiring puppeteer Craig Schwartz, working as a file clerk at a company called LesterCorp, discovers a portal that leads him inside the mind of the actor John Malkovich, seeing the world through his eyes for fifteen minutes before being forcibly removed. Thrilled by this bizarre discovery, he tells Maxine Lund, a woman from the office building whom he’d been trying to impress, and together they make the portal a tourist attraction. Soon, Craig learns that with enough concentration, he can control Malkovich. Successfully taking over the actor’s body, Craig runs into a cabal of senior citizens who plan to inhabit Malkovich so they can extend their lives. Like The Matrix, this movie shows the enslavement of a person’s entire being. The difference is that in the other film, the characters are given at least the illusion of agency, and eventually a real choice between continuing a simulated life and starting a real one. The “vessels” of Being John Malkovich can only watch someone else live the life that was once theirs. Like Dante’s Satan, forever beating his wings to escape the ice but only making it colder, Craig learns the cost of treating people as puppets. Personal identity is officially finished.
Office Space, Fight Club, The Matrix and Being John Malkovich capture with remarkable intensity the various anxieties surrounding the new millennium. Consumerism and corporate culture run amok, the rise of terrorism, the singularity of artificial intelligence, the increasing obsession with celebrity at any cost — many of these themes are even more relevant today. At the same time, there is cause to laugh at these protagonists. Comparing the lives of white male American office drones to Dante’s Inferno is overdramatic and shortsighted, but I’ve exaggerated the tone of these films to some extent. As Tyler Durden would say, the characters in these stories have inherited a world in which all the significant battles have already been won. Only the battle against insignificance is left. The problem with that battle is that, when the dust settles, you might only be hitting yourself.