How do movies communicate times of peace and economic stability...and the dreary boredom that comes along with it?
Something cool happened in U.S. in the 90s. Everything was...pretty good.
The economy was booming. Jobs were plentiful. Michael Jordan came back to basketball. The internet became a thing!
It was a time when Fridays were reserved for prime time family-friendly programming blocks and baristas, chefs, and...whatever Pheobe was...could afford sprawling apartments in Greenwich Village.
But too much of a good thing has its effects, those of which we can see clearly in the films of the late 90s when all that peacefulness and economic comfort reached critical mass. People started to get super, super, super-duper bored, and thus, the "cubicle movie" was born.
In this video essay, Jack Nugent of Now You See It takes a look at which films captured the soul-crushing ennui of this time in American history and how filmmakers managed to communicate it on screen.
How can one describe what the 90s were like? The political unrest of the 80s had ceased and the anxieties of terror attacks had yet to come. In a way, the 90s were both the end of the storm and the calm before the next one—a time of prosperity (for some) and peace (for some) before the next wave of global and national shit hit the fan.
"The 1990s were a darned good decade, and everybody’s now coming to realize this, but people also need to know that when the 1990s began, it felt like anything but a decade with a unique tone and texture and attitude. It felt like nothing. It felt blank."
The films from the 90s, namely the late 90s and more specifically those from 1999, capture that tone entirely.
"It felt like nothing. It felt blank."
Films like The Matrix, Fight Club, Being John Malkovich, American Beauty, and especially Office Space are perfect examples of the "cubicle movie," in part because, yeah, each one features a character that works in a cubicle, but they also capture the bored, unfulfilled, and listless attitude that represent the strangely dissatisfied 90s American...characters that live lives as dull and unsatisfying as the color of their cubicles.
- The Matrix: Neo is a computer programmer/hacker that feels as though there's something not quite right with the world he's living in.
- Fight Club: The Narrator (Edward Norton) feels unfulfilled in his cubicle life as a vehicle recall specialist.
- Being John Malkovich: Failed puppeteer-turned-office-clerk, Craig, longs to live a more exciting life.
- American Beauty: Lester hates his boring cubicle job as a magazine executive.
- Office Space: Peter is completely unmotivated at his computer programming job.
Each of these protagonists finds a way to escape their drearily comfortable lives...a way that actually puts them in harm's way. Neo takes the red pill and the simulated reality of the Matrix is revealed to him. The Narrator "meets" Tyler Durden and starts a fight club. Craig continuously enters a portal so he can take over John Malkovich's life. Lester quits his job, buys his dream car, and sexually assaults a teenage girl. Peter fucks off at work and decides to steal money from the company.
Aside from Neo (because, hello, he's The One), the decisions of each one of these characters almost (or does) lead them to catastrophe or death without some kind of good to redeem their actions. The Narrator's entire reality is turned upsidedown when he realizes he and Tyler are the same person. Craig gets stuck inside Lotte and Maxine's daughter subconscious and is forced to watch the two live out his dream of being Malkovich. Lester dies. Peter narrowly escapes being caught for his crime but only thanks to Milton, who is basically Peter 10 years in the future, when he decides to burn Initech to the ground.
It's a fatalistic view of the 90s. Their lives were dull and unsatisfying and will continue to be dull and unsatisfying until they die a dull and unsatisfying death.
And it will feel like nothing. And it will feel blank.
And escape is futile.