Talking Pictures

True Grit

Office Space, the new Dilbert-meets-Kafka office-worker comedy

By David Templeton

Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This column is not a review; rather, it’s a freewheeling tangential exploration of life, alternative ideas and popular culture.

A cold, February snow is falling in Cincinatti, Ohio. Heather Shea–dancer, actor, CEO, consultant, and first-time author–is on the line, ready to talk about Office Space, the witty but taste-impaired new live-action comedy from Mike Judge, the witty but taste-impaired creator of King of the Hill and Beavis & Butthead.

After a few intitial pleasantries, Shea warms right up to the topic at hand.

Office Space was fun,” she allows, “in spite of it’s being really bad. It was bad. But it made some good points about working in an office that is stealing your soul–and who hasn’t been there?”

Part Dilbert and part Kafka, the film is about three friends who hate their jobs. One of them, Peter (Ron Livingston), is stressed-out and unmotivated. When he seeks help from an occupational hypnotherapist–who keels over in mid-session–Peter is blissfully stuck in relaxation-mode. Suddenly, his don’t-give-a-damn, never-tell-a-lie attitude changes his life. He even gets a promotion. Then his friends are laid off. Revenge occurs.

By the way, the movie’s fictional corporation seems to employ almost no women–with the exception of one secretary with a very annoying voice.

“Wasn’t that interesting?” Shea says. “Wasn’t that SIllicon Valley?”

Before relocating to Ohio, Shea spent several years in Palo Alto, as president and COO (her business cards read “Playground Director”) of Tom Peters Group. She’s currently the CEO of Inspiritrix, a training and consulting firm, and vice president of Pope & Associates, the Ohio-based company that pioneered the concept of diversity training. A classically trained dancer and actresss (she studied with actor and drama coach Lee Strassberg, who trained Marlon Brando and others), Shea has parlayed her performance skills into a successful side career as a sought-after motivational speaker.

“The managers in the movie were pretty hellish,” I point out. “They played deliberate mind-games on their employees, all of whom they clearly despised. The employees, therefore, were all on the brink of a serious psychotic break. Was this far fetched?”

“Well, do you have a copy of my book?” she replies.

“Right here,” I say, flipping open my copy of Dance Lessons (Berrett-Koehler, $24.95). Co-authored with Chip Bell, the new book is a nifty antidote to all those other motivational business books that use sports metaphors to pump up the reader. Shea’s decidedly quirky, entertainingly-composed volume, side-steps all the testosterone-fueled “dont-drop-the-ball” lingo, employing instead the graceful metaphor of dance. And it works.

“Open up to page 134,” I am instructed. “There’s a wonderful quote in the sidebar. ‘To dance, put your hand on your heart and listen to the sound of your soul.'” The quote is attributed to Eugene Luigi Facciuto, I notice, waiting to see how this relates to my observation about emotional distress on the job.

“I love that quote,” Shea says. “Luigi was one of my mentors, a dancer. He’d been crippled in a horrible car accident when he was relatively young. He was told he’d not only never dance again, he’d never move again. But he believed that if he could somehow keep on moving, he’d be okay. And he went from being crippled to being one of the greatest dancers and choreographers of early Hollywood. He talked a lot about the soul. He said that if you believe in something, if you have passion about something, then you can move.”

“So when Peter was hypnotized,” she continues, “he was put back in touch with his soul. And when he listened to his soul, everything fell in line. Because the person who listens to his soul has something that others are desirous of. The Bobs [the smarmy, Michael Bolton-loving efficiency experts in the film] didn’t know what was going on, but they knew this guy was listening to his soul. He was being completely honest with them, and so they kept promoting him. The other guys–remember the one who lied about liking Michael Bolton–he got fired.

“If you come from your soul, you will begin to succeed. People might not understand what you’re about, but they will promote you, they’ll stay with you, and you’ll get ahead.

“So, yes,” she returns to my point, “it was accurate, because the modern workplace is full of people who have lost touch with their own souls. Turn to page 103.”

Flip. Flip. Flip.

Shea has gided me to the chapter that lists “the protocols,” unofficial rules that she and Bell discovered at the heart of every good business realtionship they could identify. The protocols work as a kind of Six Commandments for the dance of partnership.

” ‘Expect the best. Stay on purpose,” she reads. “Honor your partner. Assert the truth. Keep your promises. Be all there.’ Think about it. When those guys were at the office, were they really all there? When the office comes together to sing happy birthday to their awful boss, were they all there? No. But when they were just hanging out together drinking beer, or smashing the fax machine with a baseball bat–then they were all there. They were there–100 percent present.

“Now, let’s be real,” Shea says with a laugh. “This move was not that deep. But Peter was all about learning to stay on purpose. Once he got very clear about what his purpose was, he said, ‘I want to be true to myself,’ and everything started working for him.

“Once we know what dance we want to dance–are you a ballet dancer, a break dancer, a tap dancer? Do you want to be a programmer, or would you rather be a construction worker clearing up burned-out buildings?–once you’ve found your dance, then you can start dancing–and guess what? Life will be easier, and people will follow you.

“Because people who are true to their souls are very attractive people.”

Web extra the March 4-10, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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