Dorine, learning how to use email.
Success! First email forged.
Dorine using technology to cover her tracks. She writes a note to Kim from Gary.
This is the closest the movie comes to being “outdoors.”
More foreground imagery. The composition echoes Sherman’s photography.
A rare moment of physical contact in an otherwise barren film.
Dorine and Kim forced to work late together.
Another rare exterior shot. We never get to see the full outside of the office building, but at least we get the full outside of Dorine’s home.
Dorine’s mother, using her wheelchair ramp, an emphasis on the separation between upstairs and downstairs. The upstairs is the mother’s domain. The first floor is shared space, and the basement belongs to Dorine.
Dorine deals with the Girl Scouts.
Dorine deals with the Mail Boy.
Primping a knocked-out Norah.
Kitty cat enjoys a lick or two.
The only camera we see in the movie, this is Dorine’s mother photographing father and child.
In the male business world, fashion makes men look the same, matching clones in mono-chromatic suits and ties. In American Psycho (book 1991, movie 2000) and Wall Street (1987), the determining factors are the maker of the suit or white shirt (Ralph Lauren vs. Bill Blass). Such differences, miniscule and unnoticeable to anyone but those with the most practiced eye, are the splitting point between employment/ unemployment, life/death, queer/straight, establishing the break between dressing and posing, between Patrick Bateman and the hookers he hires, the men he works with and the man who comes onto him. In contrast, for the women of Office Killer, dress is loaded with metaphor and personality on a much broader, more conspicuous scale. If you want to look different (and why wouldn’t you?) what you wear is how you define yourself and separate yourself from others. In typical Sherman fashion, the personalities of the women in Office Killer, much like the narrative, are built on implication and reference, with a dose of satire. Much like in Sherman’s photographs, the women of the film represent character types conveyed by the language of mannerism and costume — translated through codes of stereotype, all of which makes sense, in part, because it’s a melodrama.
It is Virginia’s black leather which helps set her apart from pink-suited Norah, Kim’s vibrant fashion which separates her from the otherwise muddy brown pack, and Dorine’s dowdiness which makes her outsider status visible. The same theory applies to another women-in-business movie, Working Girl (1988)—it’s Tess McGill’s growing fashion sense which gives graphic metaphor to the changes occurring within her mind, representing her grasp on the corporate ladder, starting both with her ability to put on her boss’ clothes and morphing into her ability to present and sell herself. Dorine’s lipstick, at the end of the film, combined with cigarette and new hairstyle, are all we need to see to know she’s come a long way, baby.
Norah and Virginia are, auspiciously, the two symbols of power in a company of browned-out, beaten-down employees, at least until we realize that Dorine is actually the one with power over them. However, before we realize Dorine’s hidden dominant tendencies, we see Norah and Virginia as company dictators, one issuing the pink slips, the other delivering them, one bitching out fellow employees while the other embezzles funds. They are obviously both women, and very feminine, with their slick suits and long hair, but also aggressively so, one very pink, in contrast to the other’s long black nails, echoing a witch’s talons.
Are we being set up to think Good Witch, Wicked Witch? The two women’s power struggle leaves no room for any male hero, either in the office or in the film, and it would be impossible to see Daniel or Mr. Landau playing a leading role. This is a movie about women, while also remaining inherently misogynist in the sense that there are no real likeable, admirable, sane female characters. The plot establishes the conflict of power between the “Good Witch,” resplendent in pink, and the “Wicked Witch,” resplendent in black leather and cigarette smoke, both eventually replaced by Dorine, as the Dorothy surrogate. Much like in the filmic rendition of The Wizard of Oz, the Good Witch is a “trilling pain in the neck,” while the Wicked Witch is “lean and mean,” their clothes “frilly pink versus slimline black.” Salman Rushdie even points out the wimpyness of Glinda, while Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch,
Sound familiar? Virginia’s proclivity towards putting down her female co-workers (echoed also in the ease with which Norah and Kim call each other names) references Glinda’s speed to criticize her Witch sisters. This, combined with her sniffling, sneezing, and obviousness selfish greed, all make Virginia a not-so-good Good Witch. While Norah initially appears nice, and she is the only one making a show of trying to befriend Dorine, her embezzlement also leads to the downsizing of Dorine’s job, among many other company employees. There is something childlike and blank about her, with her neat, razor-sharp bangs, and her Jackie O suit. Her eyes are a little too wide, looking somewhere between lost and vacant. We never get a sense of who she is or what she cares about; even the embezzling seems just a ruse to give her a character. Despite the pink, she exudes a coldness, a lack of warmth, to her friends, her co-workers, and her boyfriend, another parallel to her Jackie O counterpart, a First Lady who was also always impeccably and femininely dressed but still seemed devoid of real tenderness. It is appropriate that she is the one who “returns to life” in the basement, since she’s been most zombie-like in the rest of the film. She is fresh-faced and ineffectual in front of Virginia, her brown eyes wide and blinking, just another useless pretty face. Norah thinks there is no difference between technology now and technology of several years ago, and she also obviously does not recognize the danger of Dorine. Glinda, like Norah, is hopelessly naïve: “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” she asks Dorothy. She is vacant and bubbly, literally floating down in her little orb of soap suds. Glinda gives Dorothy the ruby slippers which help enable her personal transformation; Norah gives Dorine her old clothes, which help enable her transformation.
In The Wizard of Oz, the Wicked Witch is mean and angry, but it is an understandable anger, since her sister has just been killed, and she is curiously helpless, frightened by the notion that a house might fall on her, too. While the munchkins joyously proclaim their liberation from their witch, Munchkinland seems so delightful and colorful just moments after her death, it’s hard to imagine that she was such a terrible ruler, which, by proxy, makes one wonder how bad her sister could be. In addition to the evil cackle, long black nails, and bitchy demeanor Virginia shares with Margaret Hamilton’s witch—we hear “I’ll get you, my pretty,” when Virginia spits out, “Now listen, sweetie”—she, too, is propelled by a righteous rage. After all, Gary hasn’t turned in his article at deadline and is nowhere to be found. She is wed to her magazine and shares no other solidarities, exhibiting also a peculiar frailness in her fear of germs. Again, Rushdie:
If we replace Glinda with Norah, and the Witch with Virginia, a strangely frail, cigarette-ridden, asthma inhaler-reliant, technology-ignorant supervisor, the same applies. It makes the viewer wonder if Dorine brings Virginia home to care for her, to take her under her wing, to protect her, as well as the magazine, from Norah, the not-so-nice Witch in pink? Dorine seems almost maternal during the moment when she removes Virginia’s fake nails, humanizing Virginia as well as herself, as she murmurs that Virginia will find it much more comfortable to type without them—while also releasing Virginia from the confines of typical feminine molds. Suddenly, there is tenderness for Virginia, and one more way of looking at Dorine/Dorothy.
Office Killer, like Johnny Mnemonic and The Matrix, plays on the rupture that occurs when things slip, when fantasy and reality come up against each other, one exposing the limits of the other, when what’s inside and private conflicts with what’s outside and public. All Dorine really wants is to re-create the family tableau, to construct the ideal workplace on her own terms, in her own basement. “This is just like old times,” she tells her bodies as they snuggle on the couch in front of the flickering TV screen. “I put mother to bed early so we can stay up as late as we want.” She’s in control, she’s created a situation that she produces and maintains. And in order to “preserve” her bodies, to keep them in tip-top shape, Dorine does not shirk from her cleaning responsibilities, sealing up gaping holes with scotch tape and spraying Windex over exposed intestines. There is a literalization of the body as a material thing that demands upkeep. Her bodies, with their flaws and messiness but consummate personalities, have become her assembled diorama. In many ways, it is the high point of the film to see all the figures decaying in the basement, and watching television with her new friends is clearly the high point for Dorine. There is even a gleefulness in her voice at being able to stay up as late as they want, forcing one to question, is it television or death which is bringing them all together?
The importance of television to the death equation is clear when the basement scene featuring all the bodies artfully arranged begins not with a shot of any of the bodies, or Dorine herself, but with a close-up of the flickering blue screen. Only after lingering here for a moment do we cut to Virginia’s fingers, which are being stripped of their excessive fake talons before being methodically arranged on the typewriter keyboard. The next shot is of two little girl visitors, carefully positioned so as to look like Siamese twins, two heads coming out of the same body, while Dorine carefully pours them one glass of juice—the assumption being that twins can share. Continuing her nurse-like rounds, Dorine next crouches down to “touch up” the Mail Boy, who is no longer feeling “fresh as a daisy.” With the same dark wit, Dorine tells the Mail Boy that his hands will get a little rest as we cut to a shot of his bloody and dismembered hands, resting on a pile of Constant Consumer magazines, the connection between his hands and consumption clear for the world to see, the dark comic tone pervading even the goriest moments. The same wit, staging, and satire which permeates most of Sherman’s photographs can be found throughout Office Killer, especially in the basement scenes.
Mr. Michaels’ maintenance requires some aggressive scotch tape and Windex, the only background sound a fly buzzing around his body. The television, despite being on, isn’t tuned to anything other than the flickering blue screen, and it’s still tuned there when we next visit the basement, after Norah has ended up down there, begging the question if television is the domestic act for the dead or if watching television makes you dead? And, if the act of tv viewing is so important, why is there nothing on? It is clear that the point of the basement assembly is to emphasize its disconnect from the world upstairs. Dorine is arranging her trophies to be her private dollhouse, arranging them in ways similar to how Sherman must have arranged both herself and the body parts she has used in her photographs. A connection to the world at large would defeat Dorine’s purpose, would detract from the assemblage she has worked so hard to create. The insular environment of the basement, with the dim lighting and the flashlight spotlight, is her playroom. Sherman herself said that the movie is, more than anything else, about
It is again and again “the ostensible opposition between humanity and technology, the driving apart of private interiors and public spaces…governed by a deepening intimacy with machines” that not only defines the 20th century but also is an essential component of a certain species of horror film. In Office Killer, however, it’s not just about the driving apart of private and public, it’s about the sickness that happens when they intermingle. It’s especially crucial to note that the bodies are killed at work, and then doctored and collected at home, that the recreated workplace is in the basement, that the falling apart bodies are cared for in order to maintain a working environment in the home. The only death in the film which causes real grief is that of Dorine’s mother, who dies organically and naturally, in her bed, and whose body we never see after death. Why is this? Primarily because the other bodies aren’t really dead in Dorine’s mind. Because the other bodies are different. Because they’re still being cared for. Because no one notices they’re gone.
Safe, a film written and directed by Todd Haynes, who also worked on the script for Office Killer, came out in 1995, two years before Office Killer. It also looks at our inability to communicate with other people, especially those with whom we are supposedly close, combined with the difficulties of defining ourselves outside of the home—or, in Norman Bates’ case, outside of the home/hotel. Carol White, our protagonist as played by Julianne Moore, seems incapable of having any but the most superficial conversations with her husband and girlfriends. No one even wants to touch each other; the first time Carol is hugged, the film is two thirds over, and she has gone to a special “safe space” to heal.
Safe (1995) opens with Julianne Moore’s Carol White sneezing in her garage. Office Killer’s first scene establishes that everyone has a cold. Everyone is sneezing and blowing their nose. Norah is sick for the whole film, telling Kim that she has caught Kim’s cold. Kim retorts that it is Gary’s cold. Mr. Landau tells Gary, “Don’t kiss anyone, half the office has your cold, including myself.” “That asthmatic bitch Virginia,” as Gary describes her, spends most of her scenes either dripping Echinacea/Goldenseal onto her tongue, shoving an inhaler into her mouth, or lighting up cigarettes. Is her name an intentional reference to the similarly lanky cigarette icon, Virginia Slims? Her desk is covered with pill bottles. Gary’s desk has a pill bottle front and center. Dorine’s mother requires constant care, confined to her wheelchair and bed. This is clearly not a movie full of healthy people.
In 1997, the Center for Disease Control declared a total of 641,086 AIDS cases had been reported in the United States for 1996 and 1997. At the same time, they also cite a report by HHS Secretary Donna Shalala, which declared an unprecedented decline in AIDS deaths. Death rates from HIV fell 47 percent from 1996 to 1997. Fewer people were dying, which meant more were living—with the disease. AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) literally called attention to the vulnerability of our immune systems, in addition to creating a whole culture of managing health, of preserving an existence based on regular medicinal cocktails, constant maintenance, and heightened caution. Being sent home to work could be seen as little more than a death sentence—you need to be out of the office, you need to be away from other people, because your clock is ticking. Or, the flip side: by being sent home, you are spared having to show up at the germ hotbed of the workplace. Regardless of the motivation, isolation is the result.
In Safe, we see the disconnect that contemporary culture has wrought upon our lives and the direct result of AIDS on interpersonal relationships in the mid-nineties. We see the disconnect that happens during sex, how we have lost the ability to be properly intimate, emotionally or physically. We are reminded of our body’s ability to malfunction as Carol White doesn’t sweat, is allergic to milk, her body literally betraying her as it collapses under the stress of living, as well as our inability to do anything with these malfunctions but learn to live with them. We see the pervasiveness of contaminants and pollutants, carcinogenic and otherwise (perfumes, exhaust, perms, hairspray), combined with the general sterility and lack of genuine warmth with which society dictates we surround ourselves. On one hand, our immunities are evaporating, broken down by the constant siege of modern living, while, on the other hand, we are fundamentally detached and disassociated, unable to touch or connect with each other. The timing of the AIDS crisis is intrinsically tied to the moment when the Internet exploded, to the normalizing of a form of neutered communication where no physical contact is not only normal, but preferred.
Office Killer deals with many of these same issues, not only commenting on the irony of ineffective band-aid solutions, as Virginia offers Norah more Echinacea to kill her germs before lighting up another cigarette, but also dealing with the lack of physical contact and constant threat of potential contagion, such as when Norah tells Dorine to wipe the copy machine ink off her face. “It’s probably toxic,” she says, and she herself won’t touch it. She won’t actually help Dorine. Dorine has been contaminated. She’s probably inhaled toner, toner that has exploded in a Wicked Witch-like puff of black smoke across her body and neat sweater. No one wants to touch her, then, before, or after. We even see this scene transpire from such a distance—far outside the building, peering in across the alley—that it’s as though Sherman herself didn’t want to get too close. The ink is toxic because it can be inhaled. The very air itself has become deadly. The toner literally tones, covering Dorine’s face with a fine black dust, literalizing people’s inability to see her, to recognize her, concealing her identity behind that of the contagion. She is a victim. She is toxic, too. Communication is also frequently ineffective between the various characters, as everyone consciously maintains a “healthy” distance, and no one’s bodies (other than Dorine’s) seem strong enough to withstand anything from colds to decomposition.