Cindy Sherman and “Office Killer”

Here’s a poser for all you aesthetically philosophical journalists out there: which photo of Cindy Sherman does one use to go with the story? There are thousands, all different. I chose the one above because it seems pretty neutral yet still makes a statement. Bricks say “downtown” to me. Windswept hair says “glamour”. And her facial expression looks like she’s thinking up a scheme.

Others may ask why do a post about her on a show biz blog at all? But that would be tipping your hand about your perspective — that you either don’t know Sherman’s work or haven’t thought about it, for she was extremely influential on my generation of performance artists. I don’t often write about photographers here without a show biz angle (Irving and Arthur Penn and Gordon Parks are on my to-do list) but Cindy Sherman HAS a show biz angle. Since the mid ’70s her photo series, with her costumed self as the obsessive subject, have captured the imaginations of both fans and detractors. Much like Warhol, Sherman’s work combines themes of repetition, mass production, the machinery of glamor, and a kind of surface infatuation with the self that reveals even as it seems to conceal. Her work seems to speak about objectification, although the message is elusive, spawning debate among feminists. But above all it is performative, and the fact that she makes art on both sides of the camera makes her similar to any stage or screen actor who has ever self-directed, only she approaches the question from the opposite direction. The fact that her work is often fun or funny seems to make her suspect to some in the visual arts world; but I’m here to tell you that in the PERFORMING arts world, she is highly regarded. Sherman’s first New York show was at The Kitchen (a multi-arts organization) in 1980. And the ’80s and ’90s were all about the costumed performing artist. That’s the soil from which your correspondent emerged.

Now we’re in this weird place where everyone in the entire universe takes selfies, so in a strange way Sherman is the Mother of Everything We Know. But yet both photography and performance have been inflationarily devalued as forms (since everyone engages in them constantly as a matter of course) and so her primacy too seems hard to evaluate. Was she the mad scientist or just Patient Zero? I like rhetorical questions, and I like them NEVER answered, and that’s why I like Cindy Sherman. I’ll think very poorly of you if you have cut and dried answers (interpretations, solutions, explanations) about any work of art. That’s not why art exists. That’s why science exists.

Anyway, the foregoing is not the ONLY show biz related topic Cindy Sherman inspires. There’s also this:

In 1997 Sherman directed an indie movie called Office Killer! Did you know about this? I didn’t at the time of its release, but my wife and I came across it on Criterion during Halloween season and immediately watched it, of course. And it was co-written by Todd Haynes! With music by John Lurie’s brother Evan Lurie! Needless to say its a sui generis, a black comedy with an attitude reminiscent of the No Wave, David Lynch, early Coen Bros, and other self-conscious but fun experimentalists.

Office KIller starts out as a workplace satire like Jill Sprecher’s Clockwatchers (which came out the same year), and Mike Judge’s Office Space (released two years later), and then gradually becomes quite a disturbing horror movie. That dichotomy between the beginning of the film and the end may be one of the reasons the film remains an obscurity. The tone is all over the place in terms of the narrative but also in the playing styles of the heady cast, which includes no less than Carol Kane, Molly Ringwald, Jeanne Tripplehorn (shades of Basic Instinct), Fassbinder favorite Barbara Sukowa, a pre-Sopranos Michael Imperioli, and Eric Bogosian. The women in particular are a gas, broadly costumed in ways that remind us of Sherman’s own photos. Are these women slivers of herself? The office politics in the film are like high school, with bitchy, fashionable popular girls stepping on nerds, represented above all by the twisted, almost nauseating Kane — who gets her revenge in a manner not unlike Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion. There’s lots of graphic grossness that I’m sure Sherman and her staff had a hoot designing and shooting. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll throw up your microwave pizza!

The film got terrible reviews by mainstream press when it came out, but I’m certain they were just punishing her, as many like to, for being Cindy Sherman. The movie is far too interesting to be dismissed, as it has been, for decades. The rejection I’m sure is why Sherman hasn’t made another narrative film, though she dabbles in documentary. But there are consolations. In 1998, John Waters gave her a cameo in Pecker.