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Office Space (Mike Judge, 1999) - Nihilists Have More Fun

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  • Office Space (Mike Judge, 1999) - Nihilists Have More Fun

    Office Space comically portrays the all too familiar story of Peter Gibbons, a disgruntled employee working a nine to five desk job in an almost unsettlingly relatable way. Peter’s tedious computer software desk job subjects him to clichés such as “Hawaiian shirt days” while being repeatedly patronized by his boss for not adhering to the ever important memo. Peter’s dissatisfaction with his career manifests itself everywhere he goes. This is illustrated through the opening scene in which Peter is shown inching his way to work through stop and go traffic, until he decides to make a lane change which leaves him completely stuck in his lane. What message is Office Space attempting to convey to the viewer by punishing the main character for making an effort to get to work on time?

    Peter’s lack of enthusiasm is a result of his dull work environment which is exaggerated by Office Space’s use of symbolism through color and shape. The office’s color palate consists of slight variations between neutral greys and blues, with its structure being made up of mostly boxes and squares. The office is arranged as a giant box holding box shaped cubicles, are filled with even more boxes inside them. Peter’s creatively restrictive work environment forces him to jump at any opportunity which allows him to slack off and talk with his co-workers Michael Bolton, and Samir. In one of their conversations Peter brings up the question of, “What would you do if you had a million dollars?” This is certainly a targeted question at Peter’s character, given the fact that a million dollars represents freedom from his job, enabling him to do anything of his choosing. Peter’s only problem is that he doesn’t want to do anything at all, thus resulting in his initial inability to answer this open-ended question in the first place. Eventually Peter comes to the conclusion that if he had a million dollars he would want to do nothing, absolutely nothing. Does Peter’s paradoxically profound conclusion imply that he is in fact a nihilist? Does portraying such a relatable character in Peter as a nihilist have any implications for the intended audience?

    In a surprising turn of events, Peter’s apathetic outlook on his job and his laissez faire policy on attending work is rewarded by giving him a big promotion. Peter’s mentality is juxtaposed with his co-workers’ who genuinely want to keep their jobs. However, Peter’s co-workers concern for their jobs is instead punished, resulting in many of his fellow employees being fired. What does Office Space think about the value of caring in the modern world? And is Peter’s ending a “happy” ending? It certainly appears to be a nihilistic ending, but who’s to say nihilists can’t be happy?

  • #2
    In his response (i.e. “Nothing”) to the question, “What would you do if you had a million dollars?” Peter seems to have a nihilistic disposition by implying that, if all of his means of subsistence were met and he could do whatever he chose, the world would still offer no meaningful ends to be pursued. While this response does come across as nihilistic, upon closer examination of his character and with special attention given to the philosophies of Marx and Kant, Peter is shown to not truly be a nihilist. The film thinks of Peter as a character who has been alienated from the product of his labor, the activity of his labor, and the human species-being itself; and who initially, because of this alienation, has not been able to reflect upon and freely choose any ends to pursue. However, the film also thinks that this alienation can be overcome, evidenced by Peter’s blossoming relationship with Joanna.

    For the majority of the film, Peter fails to see any humanity in the capitalist environment he faces, and thus does not believe that there is any intrinsic value to being human. This is an example of the nihilistic view fostered by capitalism which Marx warned of, i.e. one in which humans view themselves and others as objects with only a use value. At the time that he answered “Nothing,” Peter was not aware of his ability to be the creative source of his own ends. This view begins to change upon Peter’s being hypnotised, and the film shows this initially in the scene where Peter lays in bed all weekend. The focus of the camera shifts from Peter to his phone, which is full of voicemails from Lumbergh and thus a symbol of his alienating job; This has the effect of separating Peter from his labor for the first time in the film. One of the first things that Peter decides to do after rejecting his work responsibilities is to visit Chotchkies and ask Joanna out on a date, which is a desire that he freely chooses to pursue. The film thinks of their lunch date as opposed to Peter’s life of alienated labor. This is seen in the red color scheme of the restaurant they eat at, which is in stark contrast to the bland colors shown in the Initech office. This use of red (also employed through Milton’s stapler) shows a spark of desire in Peter’s life which he has chosen to pursue, now that he has come to see himself as having more than merely use value for Initech. Near the end of the movie, Peter’s comedic, faux-impassioned speech to Joanna suggests that, while he understands that he must work a job to meet his means of subsistence, he has decided that his relationship with Joanna is something worth pursuing. Granted, this end may not be the sort of creative one that Marx envisioned, because Peter is not creating through nature or defining humanity in his relationship with Joanna; but in a Kantian view it would be considered good, because it is an end Peter freely chose (esp. free of Initech). Overall, while his response to the question, “What would you do if you had a million dollars?” expresses a nihilistic outlook of the capitalistic society, the film uses Peter and his growth as a character to show that this outlook is wrong, and one can find meaningful ends to pursue in a world of alienated labor.


    • #3
      I believe that Peter is meant to resemble a blank state in many ways so that the audience can superimpose their own identity to his character. For example, he wears neutral colored attire, overcomes the 9-5 rush hour of stop and go traffic most people has experienced, works in a grey toned cubical office, and deals with coworkers that have stereo typical quirks as in any office in the world. So, when it comes to the point in the film where Peter explains how his high school counselor would as, “what would you do if you had a million dollars,” his friends instantly begin to state what they would do with a million dollars. With the film introducing our main character as a person we can easily assimilate with the audience will find themselves answering the question as well, when in fact Peter only ever asks the question to his neighbor.

      Peters own answer to the million-dollar question is an interesting one however. He claims that he never had an answer, and states “maybe that’s why I work at Intech.” Later in the film he answers the question when talking with his neighbor and states, “I would do nothing, I would relax and do nothing.” His answer is strange in that he seems to already do this at work. He dodges actual work as much as possible and makes every effort to do as little as possible in his job. Thus, leaving the audience to assume that if given a million dollars that Peter would still be unhappy. As he grows through the film by changing his environment we see Peter achieve what seems to be a fulfilled life especially when he dates Joanna. I think what the film is saying in this point is that although a million dollars would seem to make us all happy, it is our environment, both at work and in our personal lives, that is what makes us truly happy. Therefore, the film does not mean to propose that we are all nihilistic, instead it seems to enlighten us that there is more meaning to life than chasing after our careers, that seem to bring us down, and furthermore money, that seems to never be enough in general and instead chase after the environment and relationships you wish to fill your life with.


      • #4
        The original post brings up really interesting points about nihilism and the manner in which our perspective completely transforms our reality. I would disagree, however, with the original poster’s interpretation of Peter as a nihilist. A true nihilist would believe in a valueless world, in which nothing can ever be of worth, known, or communicated. While Peter certainly seems to be lacking meaning or purpose in his life, he seems to be a far cry from nihilism. His post-hypnosis actions are driven by personal motivations in which he displays his value of autonomy, money, relationships, and the well-being of his friends. Though he is newly and markedly apathetic towards TPS reports, memos, and his new job – he still has room for the concept of value. While Peter rejects the value system at work, he finds new meaning within his own personal development and relationships.

        Lastly, the original poster left us with the questions, “What does Office Space think about the value of caring in the modern world? And is Peter’s ending a “happy” ending?”. I think that Office Space exposes the agency that we all have when we recalibrate our value systems. By choosing to align his actions with his wants, Peter shuns the hollow and meaningless world of Initech. In the modern world, it often feels like we are forced to care about things. From arbitrary grading systems to contrived beauty standards to complex social hierarchies, we are far too frequently tricked into disassociating choice with value. Office Space asks us to consider what happens when we own our decisions, dilemmas, and desires? Who do we become when we free ourselves of artificial value? And to answer the original poster’s final question, I would like to believe that Peter’s ending is indeed a “happy” ending. I previously stated that I do not read Peter as a nihilist, but even if he is/was a nihilist, true happiness can be separated from the confines of value systems.


        • #5
          When Peter asks the question “what would you do with a million dollars” he answers the question by claiming that he would do nothing. Peter would simply relax, maybe throw on a kung-fu movie, spend time with the beautiful waitress from Chachkies, and enjoy a beer or two. Although this lifestyle seems parallel to nihilism it is more so tangential. The term nihilism is derived from the two latin roots “nihil,” meaning nothing, and “ism,” meaning practice, system, or philosophy. A true nihilist believes in “nothing” i.e. there is no meaning in anything. Disregarding the inherent paradox of believing in not believing we can see that the true nature of nihilism is anarchy. To fully subscribe to nihilism one must set aside all forms of holding an ethos, any belief in morality, self-value, social norms, family, loyalty, and so on. The list could possibly go on forever since the philosophy itself makes such an absolute claim. As the Dude in the Big Lebowski puts it: nihilism “sounds exhausting.”

          Returning to Office Space and whether the fantasy Peter desires of relaxing all the time could be described as a form of nihilism I believe that the answer is no, Peter’s fantasy is not nihilism. While a nihilist may argue that since existence is meaningless there is no harm in doing nothing, the nihilist himself would most likely not do nothing. For the true nihilist literally anything goes. Oh I’m stuck in traffic? Let me just mount the curb. Someone asked me if I have a case of the Mondays? I don’t like that so I’ll kick her ass. My girlfriend might have slept with the one man in this world I hate with my entire being? Oh well, it doesn’t matter. My friends are getting fired while I get a promotion for not showing up to work? Sucks to be them, friends don’t exist anyways. As you can see Peter doesn’t do any of these things because nihilism by nature is self-destructive. People inherently want meaning, we want order, we want to feel as though our lives are worthwhile even if it just means trying to stay happy. This claim is expressed most sharply in the dream sequence as Peter contemplates his responsibility to his friends. In the darkly lit, hazy dream Peter, who is drenched in his own sweat, looks upon a towering judge only to hear the words “you’ve lived a very trite, meaningless life. You are a bad person.” Although I think calling Peter a bad person is going a little too far we can see that even Peter who believes he wants to do nothing all day still wants his life to derive meaning. Even if nihilism is right and there is no meaning to anything, to establish a lifestyle around such a belief is unsustainable. To be a nihilist is to have no friends, no family, no home, and no future, to have nothing that could reasonably cause you to justify your miserable life simply so you can get out of bed. To be a nihilist is to live in pain.


          • #6
            In this post you discuss that Peter from Office Space is a nihilist and how the movie seems to send that message, however I think that there are certain parts of the movie that suggest that Peter values his and others existence. The first example of this is his drive to work in the opening scene. In this scene that Peter clearly cares about going to work in order to make money. He does hate his job, most of his coworkers and his bosses but he still values the money he makes from it and the few friends he has at work. You bring up that on the drive to work he is punished for trying to get to work on time when he tries to go into the lane that is moving the fastest but I think that the movie was sending a different message. To me it seems that in that scene the movie was telling us that staying the course can sometimes be the best option and that changing your mind over and over can have long term negative effects in your life. Another example of something Peter clearly cares about his girlfriend at the beginning of the movie he is going to hypnotherapy with to fix their relationship. If he did not care or value anything he would not make this amount of effort to stay in a relationship.
            Despite my prior argument there is a decent chunk of the movie where Peter does seem to act like a nihilist. This occurs after his appointment at hypnotherapy because the therapist has put him into trance that seems like should not be able to be undone because he says he will remain in a state of relaxation where he does not care about the stress of work until the therapist snaps his fingers. The therapist dies almost immediately after putting him into the trance and for much of the rest of the movie he does not care at all about his job and stops going. This however does not mean he is a nihilist at heart. I think this trance is on him for the rest of the movie because he does not seem to give any care about his job at Intertech for the rest of the movie. He does show that he cares about others things such as money and Joanna. He cares about money because he teems up with his friends to steal from Intertech so that he doesn’t have to work there anymore. He cares about Joanna because he apologizes to her for caring who she slept with in the past. In conclusion it seems that Peter really just hates his job and is not a nihilist.