Saturday, August 26, 2006

Bartelby (2001) review



"I would prefer not to."


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. The movie is updated to be contemporary, taking-place in an office. Like the short, it's a funny story that becomes more-and-more disturbing and weird. Naturally, Crispin Glover was born to play this role, and gives a performance for the ages.

But what makes "Bartelby" so amazing and chilling is that it resonates so strongly today, it hasn't aged as a story about America. 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. "What kind of a people do we want to be?" asks Melville and the director of this adaptation.

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, and a reminder of why we have to continue-on. 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.