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At a public records office, a seemingly normal boss has hired a new employee named Bartleby. Bartleby however, is eccentric and with each passing day, he begins to refuse his boss' orders which only gets worse. Eventually, the boss finds himself clueless as to what to do about Bartleby as he discovers even stranger things about him. Written by
Ordinarily when the industry tries to turn a short story like Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener" (which I haven't read since high school) into a "major motion picture," you can forget about it. The kiss of death. You want to see an example, watch Hollywood's version of "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" sometime, especially the scene in which Gregory Peck receives a message -- that famous floating pregnant italicized first paragraph of Hemingway's -- and reads it aloud between guffaws in a smokey saloon midway through the film.
I wasn't expecting much from this movie either. It has less action than Hemingway so I was prepared to switch channels on impulse. But I was surprised because it turned out to be very well done. Melville is often cited as a forbear of Kafka but I don't know how well deserved that description is. The fact is that after Melville and before Kafka there was an enormous interest in bureaucratization, the "rationality" of labor as Max Weber referred to it. It was the period in which small craftsmen were being replaced by the kind of gigantic corporations that "alienated" the worker. Henry Ford adopted Jackson's "assembly line" methods and -- well, you get the picture. Bureaucracy, as a social problem and as a literary subject, was in the air. Anyway there's a little touch of Ionesco in here too, in addition to Kafka.
Wardrobe is great. Everyone's dress reflects his or her personality but not in any obvious way. Art direction is equally well done. The acting could hardly be improved upon and the script is surprisingly well joined. The latter two points are important because this is hardly more than a staged play and is very dependent on those aspects of production. And, oh, I have to mention the score too. Most of the music is a tinkling solo piano straight out of a silent movie. The rest is most queerly orchestrated: percussion, piano, bowed bass, theramin, trombone and vibes. (It's as if someone had thrown the name of every possible instrument into a hat including the glockenspiel and drawn out half a dozen at random.)
There isn't space enough to get into the rewards this film offers but let me mention two anyway. The performances are fine, but Glenn Headly is outstanding with her hooded eyelids and her gaze which seems to drop unzippingly down a man's body when she speaks to him. Her voice is sultry, mellifluous, insinuating. And her posture! Well, it's easy to get laughs out of a funny walk. Monty Python built a sketch around the idea. But Headly's BELONGS to her character. Her pelvis and belly are thrust forward, her shoulders drawn back, a Venus of Willendorf minus two hundred and fifty pounds.
The script -- except for an overblown plea for something called "humanity" at the end -- is not only engrossing but at times extremely funny if it's listened to. (The director doesn't shove the comedy down your throat.) After Bartleby refuses to work anymore by simply saying, "I prefer not to," half a dozen times, the other three office workers pick up on the word and begin using it unthinkingly. "Would you prefer coffee or tea?" "Your wife is on line three, or line two if you'd prefer." It begins to drive the boss mad. Another line: "Business Park! What kind of address is that? Those two words should never be used together. There's a word for people who do that. Oxymorons." And a delapidated old drunken bum stops the boss on a street and asks him, "Pardon me. Do you happen to have an extra dollar and thirteen cents? I was just xeroxing my dissertation --"
Melville's symbolism could get a bit thin -- the lightening rod salesman -- but Bartleby is more like the white whale. I frankly don't know what he stands for unless it's the unknowable itself.
This film is really pretty good.
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