What Is It? is a bewildering, unnerving, surreal, blackly comic film from the visionary mind of Crispin Glover that tells the inner and outer struggles of a young man facing villains and demons on multiple planes.
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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
Herman Melville was a pessimist, which should be unsurprising to anyone who has read him. Taken from his short, "Bartelby the Scrivener", this is the second of two-attempts to translate this story to film. The first was a good British-version (1972) that is much-closer to the original story, but suffers from being placed outside of its American-context. "Bartelby" is about America, and is Pre-Marxist in its criticisms of American-capitalism. What is remarkable is that it was written in the 1850s (unlikely to have been influenced by Marx in any way), when we were gradually becoming a business-run nation, and moving-away from being a purely-agricultural one. This process would commence more-fully after the Civil War, but for someone like Melville, living in New York City was the writing-on-the-wall.
But what makes "Bartelby" so amazing and chilling is that it resonates so strongly today. The problems we face now, due to the distortions inherent in our economic system, are still with us.If Melville said anything in his short-story, it was this: "What will become of the Bartelbys of the world?" Not everyone fits-into this job-system, and this should be no-surprise regarding an economy of "winner-takes-all", money-Godism. Under our profit-motive economy, people are simply left-behind, and Melville challenges our indifference to the needy.This was a very small-production, so I can understand why it is almost unknown. These are often the best films.
The character Bartelby is more than just a non-conformist--he represents everyone who is neglected by our culture and economy. He reminds-us of the inhumanity in our daily-lives. Melville enjoins-us to help the next Bartelby we see, and acknowledge our responsibility for the way things are. The office-boss character feels he isn't responsible for Bartelby and his "I would prefer not to" difficulties, but Melville is really saying that he IS. There is an implied collective-guilt in the story that would not be addressed adequately until the Holocaust, which helps it retain a sense of the contemporary. Melville even prefigures Kafka and the school of absurdism in his story, it is genius. This film is an expert updating of this story, and it works well! It's both funny and pitch-black in its despair regarding modern life. Crispin Glover is inspired, with the qualities of a silent-film actor (Lon Chaney, or Conrad Veidt from Caligari) in his expressiveness, and there are some great slapstick-gags. This is film-making at its best, it's what you need. You will feel vindicated.
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