When artists make movies: The case of Cindy Sherman's "Office Killer"

When Office Killer (1997) first came to my attention a while back, completely by accident, my first thought was, “Cindy Sherman made a movie?  On one level, it makes perfect sense.  Sherman, who qualifies as one of the most important visual artists of the past fifty years (if you don’t know her work, you should), is obviously well versed in the visual language as well as the semiotic codes of cinema, to which many of her photographs attest.  She understands that movies work by combining familiar tropes and types, and she references them in her witty, strange pictures.  I was immediately intrigued at the thought of her having authored a full-length film.  But the fact that it had never before shown up on my radar gave me pause.   

It turns out that Office Killer is a fascinating wreck of a movie—proof positive that an artist’s brilliance in one medium does not always translate to another.  By objective standards, it’s disastrously put together, and yet Sherman’s signature is so unmistakably present throughout that one is tempted to say that it’s almost a success.  It’s perfect, for instance, that Sherman decided to make something of a feminist horror film, one that allowed her both to indulge her attraction to lurid, disturbing images and to interrogate images of women—particularly the notion of female “types,” with the figure of the spinster at the center.  Dorine Douglas (Carol Kane, magnificently off-the-rails) is a repository of so many cultural associations surrounding undesirable women that she’s almost overdetermined as a character.  She’s middle-aged, sexless, not conventionally attractive, unfashionable, brainy, talks in a weird voice, lives with her elderly mother, and is fond of cats (see above, pictured).  She works in an office alongside various type-A women with flashy jewelry and hard bodies played by the likes of Jeanne Tripplehorn, Barbara Sukowa, and ’80s sweetheart Molly Ringwald, here made over in the image of one of the high school bitches from Heathers (dir. Michael Lehman, 1989).  Now that I think about it, Office Killer is something of a corporate makeover of Heathers, as meek little Dorine gets downsized and, after accidentally electrocuting a nasty colleague, decides to off the rest of her co-workers. 

The problem with Office Killer is that Sherman is better at exploring ideas through images and broad scenarios than through dialogue and character.  The film, which uncomfortably positions itself between realism and expressionism, fails to handle its characters in any believable way, and its script is a clunker.  While the concept of a “crazy cat lady” getting revenge on her glamorous office-mates is a delicious one, Sherman can’t translate it into the continuity logic of realist cinema.  What she does manage to give us are some beautifully gruesome images (such as the one below) which resemble the photographs from her fabulously creepy “Fairy Tales” series (pictured, bottom).  Nevertheless, I wouldn’t advise her to quit her day job.

No comments:

Post a Comment