In Paris in 1969, a young American film editor (Jeremy Davies) works on a dumb European SF thriller set in the year 2000 while trying to film his own life in his spare time; he lives with a French stewardess (Elodie Bouchez), but spends a lot of time fantasizing about the lead actress in the thriller (Angela Lindvall), who plays a secret agent. Asked to replace the director of the thriller (Gerard Depardieu), he goes into overdrive. Writer-director Roman Coppola (son of Francis Ford Coppola) may rely too much on David Holzman’s Diary (a key pseudodocumentary of the 60s) for the hero’s own film — a debt he seems to acknowledge by casting that film’s writer and lead actor, L.M. Kit Carson, in a bit part — but he has a field day with the tacky SF movie. It’s sort of a blend of Barbarella, the Matt Helm movies, and Modesty Blaise, and Coppola imagines it in hilarious detail, bringing it the same kind of devotion shown the equally imaginary Hotpants College II in Love and Death on Long Island. As energetic silliness, this gave me a good time. 91 min. (JR)
Juan Jose Campanella, who splits his time between making features in Argentina and directing TV episodes in the U.S., cowrote and directed this Oscar-nominated comedy-drama, about the midlife crisis and diverse family dealings of a restaurateur (Ricardo Darin). (There are a few anticipations of Argentina’s current economic crisis in the plot, but they’re incidental to the sitcom situations.) The other characters include his girlfriend, estranged wife, remote daughter, mother (in a nursing home, afflicted with Alzheimer’s), and father (who sentimentally wants to renew his wedding vows). This has the sort of good-natured mildness I would associate with Paul Mazursky on one of his less energetic outings; I didn’t feel I was wasting my time but I started looking at my watch long before it was over. With Hector Alterio and Norma Aleandro. In Spanish with subtitles. 124 min. (JR)
From the May 24, 2002 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
** (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 resumé 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.
Jacques Demy’s first and in some ways best feature (1961, 90 min.), shot in exquisite black-and-white ‘Scope by Raoul Coutard, is among the most neglected major works of the French New Wave. Abandoned by her sailor lover, a cabaret dancer (Anouk Aimee) brings up their son while awaiting his return and ultimately has to choose among three men. Chock-full of film references (to The Blue Angel, Breathless, Hollywood musicals, and the work of Max Ophuls, among other things) and lyrically shot in Nantes, the film is a camera stylo love letter, and Michel Legrand’s lovely score provides ideal nostalgic accompaniment. In his third feature and biggest hit, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Demy settled on life’s disappointments; here at least one major character gets exactly what she wants, and the effect is no less poignant. With Marc Michel, Jacques Harden, and Elina Labourdette (the young heroine in Robert Bresson’s 1945 Les dames du Bois de Boulogne). A restored 35-millimeter print will be shown. In French with subtitles. Music Box, Friday through Monday, May 24 through 27.
This poetic masterpiece (1988) is the crowning work of Joris Ivens, the great Dutch documentarian and leftist, who made it in collaboration with his companion, Marceline Loridan, shortly before his death at age 90. (In fact there’s reason to believe the film was mainly written by Loridan, though this makes it no less Ivens’s own testament.) Neither a documentary nor a fantasy but a sublime fusion of the two, it deals in multiple ways with the wind, with Ivens’s asthma, with China, with the 20th century (and, more implicitly, the 19th and the 21st), with magic, and with the cinema. Ivens was born only two years after Georges Melies screened his first work, and this imaginative, freewheeling, and often comic film reflects on that fact, and on the near century of intertwining film, political, and personal history that made up Ivens’s life. For all its cosmic dimensions, it’s funny and lighthearted rather than pretentious and ponderous; it may even renew your faith in life on this planet. In French with subtitles. 78 min. Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, Friday, May 24, 8:00, 312-846-2800.