In the Company of Men
Neil Labute, 1997
#2, 1997 Skandies

In Washington, a 410-pound convicted killer is fighting his execution on constitutional grounds. He claims that, if he is hanged, his head will be completely torn from his body, which would amount to "cruel and unusual punishment." Now, having your head completely torn from your body is cruel, I'll grant you. But is it really that unusual?
—Norm Macdonald

In this movie there's a guy named Howard who looks like an even nerdier version of Niles Crane: small, glasses, receding hairline. So it comes as a surprise when he explains that he got into college on an athletic scholarship. "Blew out my arm sophomore year," he laments. "That's when I nabbed the business degree."

Business schools in the United States generally require applicants to take the Graduate Management Admission Test, or GMAT. As it happens, that's one of the tests I teach; I just started a new GMAT class in San Francisco town last week. The first thing students have to learn is how the Computer-Adaptive Testing format works, and the lesson plan calls for teachers to explain it a couple of different ways. Step one is to walk students through the relevant page of the manual: "So, as the chart indicates, Amy starts with a score of 30, and so the program serves her a 30-level question. She gets it right, so her score gets bumped up to 35, and now she gets a 35-level question, which is a little harder. Meanwhile, Brian gets his 30-level question wrong..." Step two is to take a different angle. "...this goes to show that on the GMAT, first impressions are really important. It's like dating. Say you've been seeing someone for a while, and it's time to meet the parents..." And though I'd never thought about it this way before, now I'm never going to be able to teach a GMAT class again without thinking of Roman Jakobson.

Jakobson famously advanced the notion that metaphor and metonymy basically define the space within which communication takes place. Metaphor in Jakobson's schema encompasses all comparative figures and would therefore include the simile above. Why use a simile? Because we want students to have not just an intellectual sense but a visceral sense of how important it is to make a good first impression on the GMAT. They generally already have a visceral sense of how important first impressions are in dating; the simile says, "Transfer that over, and you've got it." But the simile is our backup plan. Our first approach employs synecdoche, which as an associative figure falls under the heading of metonymy. Why use synecdoche? Because most people don't understand the abstract principles of Computer-Adaptive Testing, presented on their own, nearly as well as a concrete account of how those principles shape the moment-to-moment experience of taking the test. And since we don't have enough time to convey the experiences of all 100,000+ people who take the GMAT each year, we pick a couple of representative members of that group and let the part stand for the whole.

Synecdoche is also the means by which a lot of narrative operates. Take the one movie that beat In the Company of Men in the '97 Skandies, The Sweet Hereafter. It's about a small community in the Canadian Rockies that loses most of its children to a school bus accident. Through synecdoche, the families we meet in the film stand for everyone who's suffered through such a loss. And thus the movie is able to make statements about what it means to lose a child, and about the human compulsion to find someone to blame for accidents, that reach far beyond the confines of one little fictional town. But even a cursory look at narrative shows that metaphor is also frequently at work. Sometimes it's a simple one-to-one correspondence dropped into an otherwise non-metaphorical story (as with the speech in Sideways about the fragility of pinot grapes that might as well be accompanied by a bright flashing caption saying "HE'S TALKING ABOUT HIMSELF!!"); sometimes the entire premise of the story is metaphorical on a number of different levels (as in Being John Malkovich, whose titular activity simultaneously stands for body dysphoria, celebrity worship, remaking of oneself to appeal to others, and writing fictional characters, to name just the ones I can think of as I type this sentence). And there's nothing that prevents metaphor and metonymy from working together! One of the many things I love about Pleasantville is that the monochrome world suggests America in the 1950s both through metaphor (the absence of color standing for emotional repression) and metonymy (for what represents '50s America nowadays more than those black-and-white sitcoms?). And one of the things I find most interesting about In the Company of Men is that it presents two parallel storylines, one metaphorical and one synecdochic... and a lot of the reviews I've read treat the metaphorical one as synecdochic and seem not to notice that the synecdochic one is there at all.

The premise of the movie is that the corporation Howard works for has sent him to one of its offices out in flyover country for six weeks; it's not exactly a plum assignment, but it's his first time in charge, so he feels like he's moving up the food chain. Accompanying him is Chad, an old friend from school who now works with him and will in fact be reporting to him. Half the plot unfolds when they swap stories about their troubles with women, and Chad proposes that while they're out in the sticks, they find a young woman who's hard up for dates — one who's damaged in some way — and simultaneously woo her, then dump her hard, for the sport of it. "She'll be reaching for the sleeping pills within a week," Chad says, "and we will laugh about this till we are very old men." Howard hesitantly agrees to the plan, and they spring it on a deaf secretary. And those commentators who took this as a synecdochic plot wrote that the movie was all about — glancing through Rotten Tomatoes here to refresh my memory — "misogyny," "sexual politics," "male anxieties," "the case against men." And normally this would be the part in which I'd let my favorite hobbyhorses out of the barn and talk about how really this is all just superstructure and we should be talking about how our socioeconomic system selects for sadistic, hypercompetitive assholes like Chad. But in this case I don't have to. Because the other half of the plot addresses precisely this topic!

Why is Chad such a sadistic, hypercompetitive asshole? He tells us flat out: "That's what business is about — who's sporting the nastiest sack of venom and who is willing to use it." Half the movie has nothing to do with the poor deaf secretary or gender relations. It's about Chad's attempt to climb over Howard in the corporate dominance hierarchy. More broadly, it's about what happens when the skill a society selects for in distributing rewards is the ability to ascend dominance hierarchies — you get people like Chad. Chad's life is an endless string of stupid little power plays. The arrival of the morning donuts represents a daily renegotiation of the office pecking order. Someone's dropped change represents an opportunity to secretly pocket a quarter before handing the rest back and thereby score 25¢ worth of dominance points. Every trip to the photocopier involves a delicate calculation: will "losing" a few pages help me undermine anyone ahead of me in the hierarchy? Those who have any scruples about playing the game — those with ethics, those who genuinely like other people, those naive enough to trust anyone, those who find that having to be in competition mode all the time adversely affects their quality of life — inevitably fall by the wayside. Those who hate everyone and enjoy inflicting suffering have a huge advantage.

The thing is, we know this. In certain contexts we are taught to admire it. As hypercompetitive assholes go Chad can't hold a candle to Michael Jordan, who was worshipped in the media for twenty years for his "killer instinct" and "win-at-all-costs mentality"; it wasn't until just recently, when Jordan flashed his personality on a podium rather than a basketball court, that mainstream commentators dared to suggest that, hey, y'know, maybe those aren't actually admirable qualities. The change of context opened some eyes. In the Company of Men functions the same way. Labute lays out his two plots side by side. Chad acts the same way in both of them. But in the corporate world — which Labute diagnoses as frathouse culture writ large (note the hazing scene, and Chad's pitch to Howard that his proposed prank is just "the same crap we played in school, only better") — that type of behavior is so common that half the people who watched this movie seem not to have noticed it. (As of this writing, the Wikipedia plot summary for this movie makes no mention of the office plot at all!) The purpose of the parallel story is to reframe Chad's behavior in the unusual arena of courtship and thereby allow even the jaded to notice that it is cruel. And to hammer home that, yes, this is a metaphor, Labute concludes the film by having the synecdochic plot swallow the metaphorical one up.

Though I suppose Chad's plan to devastate a randomly selected woman isn't that unusual either. I went to 4chan just now to see how long it would take me to find something similar. Here was the third thread down on the very first page:

Your Friends & Neighbors
Neil Labute, 1998

And, to wrap up my trip through the '98 Skandies, here's Labute's followup, which won a couple of acting awards but was distinctly less popular overall than its predecessor. I was less impressed this time around than the first couple of times I saw it, but I still think I liked it more than most. Many reviews I've read scoffed at the title, with its adolescent implication that the characters are soulless cretins, pairing up solely in order to use each other's bodies as masturbation aids, because that's what everyone's like, maaan. But it seems to me that the movie is mainly about that awkward stage of a relationship when crazy lust isn't getting it done anymore and you find yourself in fumbling conversations about The Sex and how it could be better, or not, or, um, yeah, so... and to the extent that the title suggests that other people out there might be able to relate to this, I have to give it a thumbs-up.

That said, the story is pretty shapeless, and Labute does seem to be going for shock more than anything else. And unfortunately, Labute's subsequent career makes Your Friends & Neighbors, which at the time looked like a mild case of the old sophomore jinx, appear to be simply the first step from movie-nerd adulation for In the Company of Men to Youtube infamy for The Wicker Man. In the '90s Mike D'Angelo could write that "For all of his evident intelligence, confidence, and skill, I don't get the impression that Labute has quite found his own voice yet. When he does, I suspect that four stars may well seem like too few." Little did we know at the time that when Labute found his voice it would sound like this.

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