Cindy Sherman’s only film (so far) came after years of notorious photography, most notably the Untitled Film Stills series. She is both the photographer and the photographed, the subject and the object. Through the years of photography that represent this particular series, one can observe a decided progression as Sherman critiques classic male gaze of woman. The images all borrow heavily from visual clichés, creating the uncanny impression that one is looking at stills from classic films – film noir, Hitchcock, etc. The photos move from basic objectification to depictions of the grotesque and the abject. They seem to cover the range of ways in which women have been depicted over the last half-century or so, from the saccharine housewife to the femme fatale to Thelma and Louise and onto the maternal/material (pop star) Madonna. Cosmetics become more of a factor, illustrating the way in which women were at one point expected merely to hide their imperfections to the point at which men expect a woman to be her cosmetics, i.e., unrecognizable without the makeup. As with any sort of tongue-in-cheek critiques, there’s always the question as to whether it’s counterproductive, but perhaps to those more aware of what Sherman is getting at, it’s effective.
Office Killer does appear to be the culmination of her photography work, in many ways. It’s clear that it came about in the 90s, when Sherman’s photography exhibited more overt symbolism through fractured grotesqueness. The film is at least as tongue-in-cheek as the photography, for lack of a better word; “satirical” doesn’t seem right. Its strong elements of camp along with its use of misogynistic clichés and horror film conventions create a somewhat surreal vibe. Suffice it to say, no one in the film seems very “real,” either by virtue of being a walking caricature or being a bizarre hybrid of caricatures. It’s this aspect of hybridity that seemed most interesting in the film.
In a way, Office Killer is about the destruction of boundaries. (As to whether this conforms to Sherman’s intentions or her ideology is uncertain to me.) Flashbacks to Dorine’s past show an abusive father, a man blurring the distinction between wife and daughter. He makes a comment while caressing Dorine’s leg about her mother being jealous. Her father, killed in the auto accident Dorine caused, began the company where she still works. On one hand, her mousiness represents the typical (i.e., “type”-ical) awkward office woman while simultaneously her presence as the daughter of the company’s founder represents the patriarchy. Part of her job entails copy editing, or the ruling of words, even while her social ineptitude prevents her from using words as a means to power – at least not orally.
The catalyst that triggers Dorine’s release of the repressed is the blurring of the boundary between home and work. A sinister twinkle appears in her eye when a co-worker sets up her work computer at her home and the man comments that some people love e-mail (at this point still relatively new) because they can communicate without having to see people. Prior to this point, Dorine’s attempts to keep boundary lines clear were mostly effective. Even her house – a tri-level – was divided: her mother lived upstairs, Dorine’s turf was the main floor, and below was the dark, dingy basement. Dorine even goes so far as to unplug her crippled mother’s lift that enabled her to ascend and descend the stairs. Once the office invades the home, Dorine becomes infatuated with the possibilities this presents. The accidental death of her male co-worker quickly turns into an opportunity to avenge his male chauvinism, symbolic of the inevitable female revolt against patriarchal powers. Most Dorine’s murders (at least the ones given attention by the film) are committed against women in positions of power over her. On one hand, the women seem punished for entering the male world and asserting themselves. On the other, the murders could be seen as Dorine’s attempts to assert her own power over those that threaten her. There is, of course, the token hysterical woman in the character of Kim. Kim is the only character whom Dorine attempts to murder unsuccessfully. Dorine’s failure could be related to Kim’s firing at the office (no longer a real threat) or the casting of Molly Ringwald to play Kim (keep the biggest star alive).
Dorine’s role as both monster and victim further illustrates theme of hybridity in the film. The extent of her actions call for obvious blame, but their source in Dorine’s abusive father offers a critical rationale for Dorine’s spree. Also, Dorine becomes more articulate as the film progresses; she speaks more confidently and learns to play by the rules of the game, especially lying and manipulation. Her artificially constructed family (composed of the growing number of bodies in the basement) gives her the haven she never had as a child. And as architect of this world, there is finally an aspect of her life that she is able to control, after years of domineering control from her mother. Not only does Dorine’s speech change as the narrative unfolds, but she makes use of the cosmetic to construct both her own world and her new identity. As the bodies decompose in the basement, Dorine applies tape to the sores. The grotesque comedy that results brings to mind Dorine’s inability to apply makeup to her own face the way other women do. The film’s final scene, however, recalls both Thelma and Louise and Psycho, as Dorine, sporting extra make-up, sunglasses, and a wig, holds a newspaper ad for an office job while driving away from the house-grave she set on fire.