Culture clash

Documentary examines corporate generation gap

Aug. 30 at 8:30 p.m., The Earl

A self-professed alternative music fan who played in a band until he had to seek gainful post-grad employment, The Target Shoots First is director Chris Wilcha's guerrilla video documentary of his first real job. Twentysomething Wilcha finds himself trapped in a canyon of banal Manhattan skyscrapers as an assistant product manager of music marketing at corporate behemoth Columbia House Record Club — annoying purveyors of those mail-order circulars shilling bargain bin Aerosmith and Credence Clearwater Revival CDs. Wilcha chronicles his square peg in round hole fit into the corporate slot, dragging his high-8 video camera to strategy meetings, shoving it in the face of the mailroom clerk, recording depressingly "festive" office birthday parties, revealing the oddly tranquilized personalities of his fellow wage-earners and turning it on himself as he expresses his growing high-rise ennui: crouching under his desk or inexplicably shuffling dice in his mouth. Manhattan has never looked as unsexy, dull and drab as it does in Targets. Wilcha's film takes all the shine off the myth of the badass big city to show the worker bee's subway-to-sick-building shuffle, which defines many New Yorkers' existence.

Part of a cinematic subgenre of white guy corporate angst (see: Office Worker, Fight Club, American Psycho, In the Company of Men) Target has the analytical generation confronting the dog-chasing-its-tail bureaucracy and half-wit absurdity of the racket their fathers bought hook, line and sinker. While another generation would have swallowed the hypocrisy and power trips of work as evils tolerated for a paycheck, Wilcha's generation merges the anti-establishment mentality of the '60s with the whiny self-absorption of the '90s, wondering why life can't just be more "punk rock." As the voice of his "grunge" generation, Wilcha may appeal to some and strike others as one of the dime-a-dozen rebels clogging the state university system while mom and dad foot the bill.

But Wilcha is not without his redeeming features as the Marlow heading down the Columbia House river, an often astute observer of office life and its soul-crushing effect on consumer and worker alike. But it's also clear from Wilcha's interviews with other co-workers that he has a tendency to smugly lord his youth and "alterna cred" over others — in some ways he seems perfectly suited to the dog-eat-dog corporate life. And though the film ends with Wilcha defiantly chucking his job, Target's postscript fails to mention that after a stint in graduate school, he returned to work at Columbia House, the better to leave us on an anti-corporate upbeat.

Wilcha amusingly details the nonsensical tensions and rivalries between co-workers based on the floor they occupy, the grating conservatism of the company and a world that is in every conceivable way, shockingly out-of-touch with the passion and angst and rebellion of the music they sell. When Wilcha and a group of like-minded youth culture cohorts come up with an irreverent, Gen X way to package the new phenomenon of alternative music, it looks like Columbia House has finally managed to reach the market it wants to sell to. But as you'd expect, Wilcha soon realizes he's just a cog in a changeless machine, just using a savvier strategy for the same old mission of pimping another CD.

But most of the hipsters who will identify with Wilcha's account of selling the alternative soul of America have probably already figured out it's a hypocritical world out there, with little regard for the individual and every concern for the bottom line. Wilcha's account is ultimately yesterday's news.

The film in some sense links Wilcha's final disillusionment with the suicide of Kurt Cobain — another casualty of a soulless music business. The attempts by Columbia House corporate types to work Cobain's death into their marketing copy before it goes to press is as disheartening a summation as any of how callously and stupidly the music industry packages real life and how ultimately futile and sad Cobain's suicide really was. It would have been nice if Wilcha had delved more deeply into that connection and how alternative music was also co-opted by the Man, but his lens remains consistently trained on his own navel, a vantage that turns a potentially scathing, culturally resonant story into an egocentric one-guy-tells-you-what-happened-at-work anecdote.