The Mystery of Cindy Sherman’s Newark Movie: Office Killer (1997)

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Cindy Sherman is known for many things, but filmmaking isn’t generally one of them, and shooting movies in Newark really isn’t one of them. But hey, IMDB said it, so it must be true, right?

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Office Killer met with near-unanimous critical derision, and I will admit, I’m among the chorus of denouncers. I want to like it, I really do, but it never finds its footing, stumbling between comedy and horror but unable to commit to either, leaving it trapped in some bad 90s-irony limbo. Even the opening credits look like something you’d see on 120 Minutes one time and never again.

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It’s nominally about meek-mannered Carol Kane wreaking vengeance on the workplace assholes around her at a struggling magazine, but Sherman isn’t very interested in the narrative and neither am I. It probably works best as a visual record of a specific historical moment; my memory of the mid-90s, as a provincial teenager stranded in small-town Midwestern hell, was the perpetually anticipatory quality of all the new technologies still shrouded in a near-mystical aura—we all knew that World Wide Web thing would change everything, but other than making naked pictures of Brad and Gwyneth available, it wasn’t yet clear how. The present was never quite fully there, the future always beckoning and incipient . . . or maybe I was just reading too much Baudrillard, which was new and exciting to me at the time (“I Was an Undergraduate Wanker”: my autobiography, vol. 1).

In any case, Office Killer shows the emerging incursion of things like email, a newfangled communication method that provides some central plot movement, and while the film mostly falls flat, it does tap into some of the excitement laced with a huge undercurrent of dread that brings vividly back the structures of feeling that I recall from that era.

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When it comes to the question of shooting in Newark, though, the film gets cagey. It’s a very set-bound piece, and this office could be anywhere:

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So could this house:

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And that’s about it, other than a driving flashback that does look like some Meadowlands backroad.

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The end-credit acknowledgments mention a few New Jersey things, but nothing Newark-specific. Googling around yielded little useful information for concretely locating the film in Newark. Producer Christine Vachon seems to have largely scrubbed it from her memory, barely mentioning the film in either of her two books (it gets a fleeting reference in Shooting to Kill, and another in her first book, A Killer Life—and mostly there to acknowledge that her company “ripped off” its title from Sherman’s film, which is otherwise wholly elided; bad call, by the way, since she also produced Velvet Goldmine, which in addition to being one of my favorite films of the 90s, seems like a way cooler production-co. name).

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I did also come across her diary of the contemporaneous I Shot Andy Warhol shoot, which apparently began with one day in a Newark hotel (mostly wasted waiting for Stephen Dorff to get made-up as Candy Darling)—so that suggests some sort of Vachon/Newark connection, but doesn’t go into further detail (except to reveal that director Mary Harron “is getting nervous about Yo La Tengo. She has suddenly decided they are all wrong as the Velvet Underground,” which is almost unthinkable—what other band could do better?!).

Meanwhile, the uniformly negative reviews were of no use. In the New York Times, Stephen Holden called it “a crude, laugh-free horror spoof about a mousy copy editor. The San Francisco Chronicle said the film couldn’t decide what it “wants to be — slasher fest, social satire or revenge comedy — and ends up being an awkward goulash.” And a few years later Nathan Rabin complained for the AV Club, “Although it runs a mere 83 minutes, Office Killer, photographer Cindy Sherman’s disastrous debut film, still seems at least an hour too long.” The Newark Question, as it were, remained unaddressed throughout these complaints.

At this impasse, enter Dahlia Schweitzer: novelist, doctoral student in film, and, improbably enough, author of a new book-length study of Office Killer:

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In the book, Schweitzer offers an impassioned, polemical defense of the film—one that I kept agreeing with as I read, until I remembered the actual film itself. But no matter; I don’t agree with Ray Carney that Cassavetes is the Second Coming of JesusWilliamJamesThoreauandEmersontoo, but I still enjoy his spirited arguments as to why some half-assed scene in Minnie and Moskowitz transcends Kubrick by briefly invoking him. Schweitzer’s analysis is more grounded than that; she very effectively situates Office Killer within Sherman’s evolving aesthetic projects, and also historicizes it—the film “could be a record of evolving work conditions in America … at its core, Office Killer is about the workplace and the real damage done there.” She also links it to anxieties about HIV/AIDS and contagion. I agree with all of that completely, though just as every film is an accidental documentary of its own making, every film is a rich historical record in its own way. I fear that Schweitzer is collapsing thematic richness into aesthetic effectiveness, or using the former to argue for the latter. But that said, I enjoyed disagreeing with the book more than I enjoy agreeing with, oh, formalist analyses of Godard’s Maoist films or whatnot.

The comparisons Schweitzer draws are to Working Girl, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, and others. Again, it’s smartly argued, though I can’t help drawing up my own comparative list: dreary mid-tier filler flicks like Swimming with Sharks or SFW or Four Rooms or Albino Alligator or Chazz Palminteri and Cher in Faithful, stuff with Eric Stoltz in it, the listless Miramaximinimalism of my bored adolescence, the dull 90s that doesn’t condense into a screencap from Reality Bites. Maybe I’m taking it all too personally; why did I ever watch all of those? Point being, Schweitzer’s book is a lot of fun, even if one disputes the merits of the film itself. How she got an entire book on a maligned, mostly forgotten film published, I do not know, but it’s an impressive feat unto itself. And the reading of the colossally underutilized Jeanne Tripplehorn—playing, Schweitzer argues with fervor and without a distancing wink, an extension of her character in Basic Instinct—is fantastic. The world needs more of that sort of thing.

Cindy Sherman’s Office Killer: Another Kind of Monster covers almost every aspect of the film, from production to scene-by-scene breakdown to reception. You can read an excerpt at Jump Cut, and should. But what it doesn’t have is information on locations. So I emailed Schweitzer; why not, it’s really in the spirit of the film’s whole email-spectacle anyway. And she generously responded, but wasn’t sure. She did offer to reach out to Sherman herself.

Cindy Sherman, as it turns out, doesn’t remember where it was shot. Or at least, said she didn’t remember. Her life is assuredly busier and fuller and vastly more accomplished than mine, but at the same time, come on, I could show you exactly where I shot scenes from the camcorder-horror short Those Who Have Puked 25 years ago in elementary school in rural Alaska, so it defies belief slightly that she wouldn’t recollect where she made her one feature film. But considering how poorly the film fared, maybe it’s a sore spot. End result: no confirmation of its place of origin.

But Schweitzer, rising well above any call of (nonexistent) duty, persisted, and tried Christine Vachon’s office. Finally, someone from the office confirmed: Office Killer was shot in Newark (The exact words, from Killer Films: “”We do not have a record of the exact location…but it was shot in Newark, NJ..hope this helps!”). My deeply obscure quest, resolved at last!

So, in closing, a) you should pick up and read Dahlia Schweitzer’s book, and b) the one flickering shot of a cityscape comes during the very closing seconds of Office Killer, as the screen fades to black. I have no idea what or where this is, but I like to think, improbable as it appears, that it’s the ephemeral specter of Newark, haunting the film and waving goodbye.

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