On August 11, 1992, the writer Douglas Coupland made an appearance at the grand opening of Minneapolis’ Mall of America, the largest shopping mall on Earth. Against his interviewer’s expectations, Coupland delivered a paean to the ostensibly hyperconsumeristic scene around him, claiming that “future generations are going to look at images of today here in Minnesota and see them as a sort of golden age of American culture. The peace. The calm. The abundance. The bottomless goodwill of everyone here. I’m unsure if it’s going to last much longer and I think we should appreciate it while it’s here.”
What made the 90s the 90s? “Money still generated money. Computers were becoming fast easy and cheap, and with them came a sense of equality for everyone. Things were palpably getting better everywhere. History was over and it felt great.” From the end of the Cold War until the fall of the Twin Towers, North America and Europe enjoyed a stability and prosperity that, to many of us in the 2010s, now seems somehow implausible. But cinema remembers the 90s, especially the cinema of the decade’s final year, differently. Unlike “monster movies showing cold war anxieties and 21st-century horror movies conveying fears of acts of terror,” the films of 1999 “were not about surviving the present, because the present was actually going well. They were about being tired of that stable present and looking for a radically different future.”
Those words come from “Why All Movies From 1999 Are the Same,” the video essay from Now You See It above. Those of us who were moviegoing that year remember The Matrix, Office Space, Fight Club, American Beauty, Being John Malkovich, and all of the other major Hollywood releases featuring “a main character tired of the stability, monotony, and uneventfulness of their life,” almost always involving a steady, dull corporate job. That era, recall, was also when Scott Adams’ comic Dilbert reached the top of the zeitgeist by satirizing the elements of office existence: incompetent bosses, slacking co-workers, and above all, cubicles.
Calling 1999 “the year of the cubicle movie,” this video essay describes its cinematic portrayal of office-worker frustrations as “a perfect mirror of what America was like in the late 90s.” Not that those portrayals were literally “the same”: the terminally bored men of Fight Club “go to great lengths to manufacture conflict and chaos”; Office Space makes comedy out of suspenders and paper jams; Being John Malkovich “exaggerates the oppressive corporate imagery in films like Office Space by creating an absurd office with low ceilings” that “literally bears down on its employees”; American Beauty “criticizes the perceived stability of the era, suggesting that it’s simply a mask that hides the true self.”
And in The Matrix, of course, that veneer of stability and prosperity exist only to conceal the total enslavement of humanity. Modern humanity may never cast off its dystopias, but it’s fair to say the dystopian visions we entertain today look quite a bit different than the ones we entertained twenty years ago, and it’s also fair to say that many of us entertain them while dreaming of the relative safety, stability, and prosperity — real or imagined — that we enjoyed back then, not to mention the secure desk jobs. But as the films of 1999 remind us, those very qualities could also drive us into a kind of madness. Coupland may rightly call the 90s “the good decade,” but even if we could return to that time, we’ve got good reasons not to want to.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.