I fought it for a while, but the machine got me. Ten years ago, life mostly consisted of reading Henry Miller in Berlin Mietskasernen, and sipping Bitburger by the canal. Now I’m a production honcho at the Guardian, trying my best to scotch the newspaper’s reputation for flagship spelling mistakes and marshal a mutinous crew of subeditors. If that wasn’t enough Sisyphean stuff to get on with, then there’s the latest directive:search engine optimisation (SEO). Tailoring headlines, standfirsts and captions to best propitiate the eternally evolving Google algorithm, and propel Guardian articles up the search rankings; ever fearful of the baying mob of journalistic upstarts at our heels, with their listicles and multiple-video embeds and nouveau-web capitalised headlines, waiting to hack us to pieces down in the digital abattoir. The machine’s grip is tightening.
So I enjoy it when, in The Matrix, Agent Smith cracks. When the sharp-suited enforcer – torturing Morpheus, the thorn in the side of his dream of a perfect, machine-run world – reveals he is himself tortured. “I must get out of here,” says Agent Smith. “I must get free. And in this brain is the key. I have to get inside Zion, and you have to tell me how.” It’s as much plea as threat. For an AI apparatchik whose purpose is to maintain order in a simulacrum of our reality, he’s displaying a surprisingly erratic, human side.
I feel Smith’s pain. I’m convinced that the perfect article is out there, orthographically exact, syntactically harmonious and garnished with elegant SEO. I will publish it – to acquiescent silence below-the-line – the internet will be completed, and just over one-third of the way into my projected working career, I will be free. Ah, Zion!
But such thoughts are the hubris of the jobsworth. Hugo Weaving, playing Agent Smith, is brilliant at conveying hints of these delusions. I especially like the vain double-wrist flare with which Smith commences his first encounter with “Mr Anderson”, and all the ironic vocal inflections in the interview that follows. (“You have a social-security number, you pay your taxes, and you … help your landlady carry out her garbage.”) They are not just a machine’s synthetic approximations of emotion, or infinite robot bemusement at human trifles; they are him relishing his duties a few megahertz too much. Unlike his blank-faced agent colleagues, he’s a bit too personally invested. He’s an overclocked CPU, a loose cog. He’s given, as we hear later, to pompous holding-forth. It’s all, come the advent of a pesky messianic hacker with a copy of Kung Fu for Dummies, about to come tumbling down.
Once upon a time, I had more aspirational heroes. I cracked an imaginary bullwhip with their best of them after seeing Indiana Jones. I once coveted River Phoenix’s quiff and existential drifter cool in My Own Private Idaho. “Dude” became (and still is) my greeting of choice post-Bill and Ted. But these are fantasies, and reality always wins in the end. I began to identify with Agent Smith and other movie jobsworths; their control-freakery, pettiness and pedantry; their self-congratulatory leanings and barely-hinged despotism.
Chief Inspector Dreyfus, from the Pink Panther series, is perhaps the archetype for this sort of character: one who must combat a formidable nuisance. Herbert Lom, as the series became progressively more ridiculous, became more skilled at portraying Dreyfus’s delectable moment of breakdown – the point where he acknowledges the overwhelming, almost metaphysical agent of chaos arraigned against him: Clouseau. (In the original entry featuring Dreyfus, 1964’s A Shot in the Dark, the hammy facial tic gets a bit of a hammering from Lom.)
So it’s weird that it’s Clouseau – actually just as officious about his duties as Dreyfus – who seems to be the starting point for my other favourite movie jobsworth: Principal Rooney in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Rooney works the same moustache-and-beetly-eyes combo, the same crackpot grin, and suffers from the same high pratfall susceptibility. Playing him, Jeffrey Jones teeters expertly on the brink: highballing glee at his imminent outing of Chicago’s most famous truant one minute, fathomless frustration the next.
I’ve got my highs and lows in my job, like anyone, so I appreciate seeing the whole work pantomime shoved under a proscenium. And Agent Smith is a big old panto dame, really. Before the sequels liberate him and make him a bore, the first film catches him at his peak, in those anonymous G-Man threads, divulging the great open secret of the workplace: the Matrix, the machine, traps everyone, including the trappers. He’s a modern middle-management tragicomedy, a bullet-time David Brent. His quest to suppress individuality was sadly doomed – as seen by the trench-coated Neo wannabes wandering Camden market circa 2003.
But the self-important arcs walked by Dreyfus, Rooney and Smith are so much more satisfying for the salaryman to identify with than the quixotic ones of Clouseau, Bueller and Neo. There’s a Žižekian aperçu in there about reality crushing childish magical thinking I would tease out, but to be honest I’ve got a mountain of paperwork on.