The Heart of an Enigma | Movie Review | Chicago Reader

The Heart of an Enigma 

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Bartleby

** (Woth seeing)

Directed by Jonathan Parker

Written by Parker and Catherine di Napoli

With David Paymer, Crispin Glover, Glenne Headly, Joe Piscopo, Maury Chaykin, and Seymour Cassel.

Jonathan Parker's first feature adapts Herman Melville's eerie 1853 novella "Bartleby" (also known as "Bartleby the Scrivener") with the kind of fidelity to mood and feeling that's rare among movie adaptations of literary classics. The action has been updated roughly a century and a half, the setting transferred from Wall Street to a building perched on a hilltop over a freeway in an unnamed American location. Characters have been added, significant plot details altered, and a strategic part of the exposition shifted from the end of the tale to near the beginning. Yet the story still has much of the same maddening mystery, conviction, and unsettling comedy that Melville gave it.

The added epilogue is harder to justify and much less successful, and the filmmaking throughout, starting with the early use of slow motion, is needlessly fussy and self-conscious. But these are forgivable flaws in a first feature, one that updates Melville's story and conception without betraying it.

The nameless narrator of the original is a lawyer on the verge of retirement looking back on the events he describes from a distance of many years. (The opening sentence is "I am a rather elderly man.") He recalls his small legal firm on Wall Street, whose business was mainly "rich men's bonds and mortgages and title deeds," where he employed two copyists and an office boy with the Dickensian names of Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nuts, each briefly profiled in Dickensian fashion. He then recounts placing an ad for an extra copyist and hiring Bartleby, whose surname is never given, described as "pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn."

Assigned a desk not far from the lawyer's, beside a window with a view of nothing but a blank wall, Bartleby does an enormous amount of copying during his first couple of days on the job. But when the lawyer asks him to check the copy of a short document, Bartleby replies, "I would prefer not to," and says the same thing when he's asked a second time. A few days later, after being asked to examine a longer document that he's copied himself, Bartleby refuses in the same manner. With a few minor exceptions, this is all he has to say for the remainder of the story--when asked to perform other tasks, explain his behavior, answer other questions, leave the office after being fired, accept severance pay, or anything else.

After discovering that Bartleby is living at the office, apparently subsisting on just ginger nuts, the narrator, who notes that "nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance," goes so far as to move his offices to another location--only to be told by the old office's new tenants that Bartleby is still there and refuses to leave. In an attempt to help out, he visits Bartleby on the landing outside the office and suggests that he seek another kind of work. But Bartleby says he would prefer not to, though he also says, repeatedly, "I am not particular." And he refuses to move temporarily into his former boss's home.

The narrator subsequently learns that the police have arrested Bartleby, then visits him in prison, where he finds Bartleby no less recalcitrant, even refusing to eat. "I know you," Bartleby tells the narrator without turning around, "and I want nothing to say to you." The narrator tries to persuade him that life in prison isn't necessarily so bad, and Bartleby replies, "I know where I am," then refuses to say anything more. Returning to the prison a few days later, the narrator finds that Bartleby has starved himself to death. The narrator mulls over a rumor he heard after Bartleby's death that he once worked as a subordinate clerk in the dead-letter office in Washington, D.C., a job he suddenly lost when there was a change in administration. He concludes the story with the enigmatic exclamation "Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!"

In some ways, the narrator's musing about the hypothetical dead-letter office is the most poetic and the most disquieting thing in the story. It's worth noting that in the film Parker has essentially verified the rumor and made it part of Bartleby's resume when he first appears. Parker has also astutely realized that the narrator and his desire to do the proper thing regarding Bartleby are the true subject of the story--something that may not occur to the reader or viewer at first because it seems clear that the inscrutable title protagonist will make a fool of the narrator. Yet Bartleby, as Elizabeth Hardwick observes in her essay "Bartleby in Manhattan," isn't a character in any ordinary sense; rather he's something of an unfathomable principle: "In the end, Melville's structure is magical because the lawyer creates Bartleby by allowing him to be, a decision of nicely unprofessional impracticality. The competent, but scarcely strenuous, office allows Bartleby, although truly the allowance arises out of the fact that the lawyer is a far better man than he knows himself to be. And he is taken by surprise to learn of his tireless curiosity about the incurious ghost, Bartleby."

Crispin Glover, who's made a career out of playing weirdos, is certainly effective as Bartleby (updated here as a file clerk): he's pale and dressed throughout in the same pale suit and tie, and he manages to give all sorts of different tortured inflections to his key line, "I would prefer not to." Yet David Paymer, as the nameless narrator/boss (here in charge of a public-records firm), steals the show. Paymer can't quite recite the story's final exclamation in a manner that makes it both contemporary and credible--a regrettable lapse, since a surprising amount of the language of the original story has been retained without such awkwardness. Apart from this, he's fully believable, though his character's patience and concern for Bartleby remain as far-fetched as Bartleby's passivity.

Bartleby's three other office mates--Vivian (Glenne Headly), Ernie (Maury Chaykin), and Rocky (Joe Piscopo)--are mainly this film's invention, and they're just as important as he is in establishing the sort of monotonous and alienating work climate that makes him meaningful. For all their eccentricities, Ernie and Rocky are plainly updates and elaborations of Turkey and Nippers. Turkey's excess energy, which makes him prone to drip ink on documents, yields a very funny slapstick sequence involving Ernie wrestling with a toner cartridge; variations on Nippers's sporty clothes, irritability, and wheeling and dealing are all evident in Rocky. But Vivian--a flirtatious word spinner who can't be described as any version of Ginger Nuts--is plainly an addition to Melville's story, and Headly plays her with such comic flair that she's a welcome supplement. Her flirtatiousness and her fancy way of talking are made to seem functions of her boredom, and to give her more room to exercise them, another figure--Seymour Cassel's Frank Waxman, a client--has been added to Melville's small group of characters.

Curiously, Parker and cowriter Catherine di Napoli (who appears in a cameo as one of Rocky's three girlfriends) haven't retained the highly evocative Wall Street setting of the original. Melville's brothers were lawyers who had offices on Wall Street, and Hardwick reports that a close friend of his was worn down by his "incessant writing" in a law office. Even without these autobiographical underpinnings, I don't think it would be much of a stretch to call Melville's novella a story about capitalism or Bartleby's enigmatic refusals a strangled protest against capitalist compulsions. This theme could even be tied to the comparisons that have been made between this story and Franz Kafka--I'd say the most pertinent references are "A Hunger Artist" and The Trial--though I suspect it's more relevant that "Bartleby" was written only two years after Moby-Dick; that is, after success with best-sellers such as Typee gave way to commercial failure and obscurity, which would last the rest of his life.

Most of the film was shot on sets built inside a former video store in an abandoned strip mall in San Rafael, California, so the production facilities may explain the shots of a freeway and an ugly fenced-in overpass. Or maybe they're the result of a conviction that freeways are more suggestive of contemporary lifestyles. Whatever the reason, they lend a note of unnecessary and distracting surrealism to the piercing elements of realism in Melville's story.

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