Michael Hayward's Blog

WFF 2022: "Corner Office"

Michael Hayward

Corner Office opens with an exterior shot that would make almost anyone from the Greater Vancouver area smile in recognition, as a figure carrying a cardboard box makes his way from a snowy parking lot and through the distinctive Arthur Erickson-designed architecture of SFU’s campus atop Burnaby Mountain, a setting which has appeared in many other films, from The Groundstar Conspiracy to The 6th Day. He walks through the concourse, and up the steps towards the Academic Quadrangle, to which CGI has added an ominous ribbed tower in brutalist style, which looms upwards and disappears into clouds.

The figure we are watching is Orson (Jon Hamm), who will narrate the entire film, and we are watching him as he checks in for his first day of work at The Authority Inc., the company name displayed on a wall behind the receptionist in the building’s lobby. He sports a Tom Selleck moustache, his hair is combed forward and carefully arranged across his forehead. He wears a boring suit, a nondescript tie, oversize glasses; he is a beige man in a grey-on-grey setting. Yet he has dreams. Orson’s narration reveal his hopes of becoming “a person to be reckoned with” in his new workplace.

We meet Orson’s co-workers, beginning with Rakesh (played by Danny Pudi from Community, with Mike Nesmith sideburns) who shows him around the office: demonstrating how the coffee machine works; showing him the location of the pencils, the rubber bands and the paper clips, each of which is stored loose, in mounds, in its own dedicated filing cabinet drawer. The coffee room has one permanently flickering fluorescent light; the windows are covered with vertical venetian blinds, and Orson flinches when Rakesh demonstrates how they work, sunlight flooding in. There’s also Shannon, “the kind of person who laughs at everything, even when whatever’s just been said isn’t funny at all”; Carol (“the sort of person who thought she knew everything”; and Mitchell (“who had been there longer than the rest combined.”) Orson quickly establishes his own timetable and gets to work: 55 minutes of concentrated work, followed by a 5 minute break; the pattern is repeated hourly.

Despite this industriousness, Orson’s duties and those of his co-workers are never quite made clear. Everyone is working diligently towards unknown ends. Folders are moved from one stack on a desktop to another; people type away at computer keyboards, and gaze earnestly at their screens. A wall sign, posted just above a machine that dispenses protective blue shoe covers, reminds staff to “Think about the floor.”

At one point Orson is asked by his boss to explain just what he’s been working on for the last few days. “I’m working on an improved metric for customer service here in the division.” He is directed to other tasks: compiling a list of phone numbers; then, a list of those projects which have gone through QA, and those which haven’t. This is a workplace designed and interior-decorated by Kafka, and the reasons for anyone’s being there are veiled, the tasks at which people work apparently meaningless. There’s more than a touch of Severance here, and the prison factory on Narkina 5 in Andor.

The mysterious “corner office” of the film’s title is first discovered, unoccupied, by Orson when he is on his way to the bathroom at the end of a 55 minute stretch of concentrated work. Entering it tentatively, he finds it panelled in dark walnut wood, and furnished with mid-50s modern furniture. There’s a turntable, and a selection of vinyl LPs. Orson is immediately at ease. “Inside the room there was a calm, a concentration that felt like early mornings at school.” It becomes Orson’s special place, a sanctuary of sorts. When he’s inside this mysterious room, “my suit fit better than I thought it did, and there was something about the way it hung that made my body look virile.” He takes a folder to the corner office to work on, and the work he produces while in the room is of the highest order. “Is this what monks feel like as they walk the corridors of their monasteries?”, Orson asks. He soon becomes a person to be reckoned with.

The problem is: no-one but Orson can see “the room.” When he’s inside, his co-workers see him simply standing in the hallway, staring at a blank stretch of wall midway between the elevator and the bathrooms. Mitchell: “Why on earth are you interested in this wall?”

Directed by his boss to see the company psychiatrist, Orson explains the room’s appeal: “Everything is exactly in the right place. It’s nice, but it’s not showy. It’s comfortable, but it’s not worn out. The upholstery is soft and springy. The designs, the details, the patterns, are unique and tasteful. The light is soft and warm, and it hits your face just the right way, never glinting into your eyes. Even the records on the shelves, and the books, perfectly chosen by someone who I can only assume cares very much.”

Corner Office is a gentle black comedy about office culture generally, and could be seen as a surreal, Black Mirror-like take on the office culture of the Mad Men era in particular—which is what makes Jon Hamm as Orson such inspired casting. As you watch the film, try imagining Orson as a hall-of-mirrors take on Don Draper, Hamm’s Mad Men character.

In fact, in this era where multiverses are multiplying like rabbits, try thinking of Corner Office as a feature-length Mad Men episode, but one set in a parallel universe, and narrated by a less-than minor character from the original series: one of those slightly out of focus background figures whose lives we are never shown, whose thoughts and fantasies (and delusions) we are never called upon to imagine.

Corner Office will screen at the Whistler Film Festival on December 3rd and 4th. See here for more information, and to purchase tickets.



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