In "Bartleby," Melville's tale gets a '90s makeover with '60s cosmetics.

James Plath's picture

Herman Melville is best known for having written "Moby-Dick," an enormous literary classic that tends to swamp most undergraduate readers. His novella, "Bartleby the Scrivener," produces only a slightly different student response. So might this film.

Before photocopiers there was the mimeograph machine and carbon copies. Before those, there were scriveners, people whose job it was to reproduce documents which, more often than not, were long and tedious legal proceedings. At first, students are delighted to stumble across this work-a-day schmuck who says one day, "I prefer not to," and keeps repeating that mantra in order to dodge the work and confound his boss. On the one hand, Bartleby is an Everyman who voices what all workers dare not say, but wish they could. He's a pre-Gandhi version of passive resistance, a pre-sixties symbol of revolt. On the other hand, he's a poster child for mental illness and the way that people can become numbers and automatons in an industrialized society, a pathetic victim of the rat race. It's when students begin to sense the latter that they begin to feel the stifling atmosphere of office work and would "prefer not to" keep reading.

In "Bartleby," Melville's tale gets a '90s makeover with '60s cosmetics. Producer-director Jonathan Parker did a lot of things right in his update, including paying tribute to Melville before the title shot and noting the ironic similarity between Melville's end and Bartleby's (when Melville died, no one knew of him; it was in the ‘20s when his work was rediscovered). Parker also assembled an ensemble cast of quirky character actors, was inspired by a vacant office building with vintage '60s décor to allude to that period of rebellion through the use of psychedelic sets and shots, and found compatible Scooby-Doo and Ravi Shankar-like background music produced by a Theremin bought on E-bay. There's plenty of style, and for serious film buffs that will be enough. But casual viewers may find themselves wishing for quicker pacing, less staginess, and more substance. This was, after all, just a long short story to begin with, and the plot line itself, about workers in a Wall Street office, is as short as a coffee break. Here it is: An odd fellow is hired whose office has no window, and so he stares, often, at a stream of light filtering in from the ceiling. His "preferring not to" progressively worsens, to where we see it cause a series of different reactions from the boss and co-workers. One of them thinks he has ADD. Not knowing what to do about the Bartleby problem, the boss finally decides to move the entire office. Does that work? Not in Melville's story, and not in Parker's film.

As the director observes, the story is less about Bartleby (played over-the-top disturbingly by the temperamental Crispin Glover) than it is about his boss (David Paymer), who is forced to reevaluate his beliefs and reconsider the people who work for him. The novella and film are meant to inspire a host of questions. For example, Is someone who politely refuses to do work really that much worse than the unproductive slackers who coast through each work day? You be the judge: there's the flirtatious Vivian (played tongue-in-cheek by Glenne Headly), who seems better suited to a phone sex company than a county recorder's office, and moves at a body-conscious secretarial pace not seen since Jennifer managed to avoid real work in the popular TV sit-com "WKRP in Cincinnati." And there's Ernie (Maury Chaykin), who ties in neatly to the Sixties' theme because he's either drug-damaged or still on drugs, and quips to Bartleby, "Maybe you're a conscientious objector. If that's the case, maybe you should flee to Canada!" Speaking of psychedelics, Dick Martin (one of the hosts of the popular "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In") has a brief cameo as the mayor. Rounding out the cast: Carrie Snodgrass has a small part as a book publisher, veteran character actor Seymour Cassel plays the city honcho who oversees this hapless unit, and Joe Piscapo seems a bit lost as Rocky, one of the workers whose quirks aren't as well-defined. Here's the big question management faces: how do you deal with folks like this, especially when one of them politely refuses to do anything? And what effect will a single bad apple have on the barrel?

Inevitably, there will be comparisons to "Office Space" and "The Hudsucker Proxy"-the former, because of office antics, and the latter because of the fabulistic treatment and surreal elements (such as the office building set ominously high on a hill rising high among freeway cloverleafs as commuter cars roll along). But this film lacks the laughs of "Office Space" and the complex plot of Hudsucker. Watching it, I couldn't help but think of an old Jimmy Buffett lyric, "Living and Dying in Three-Quarter Time." This is life in the slow lane.

It would have been a real disappointment, given the psychedelic treatment, if the colors in this film had not been strikingly vibrant or if the picture wasn't sharp. Fear not. Parker's crew produced a visual treat, and the sensory overload is almost jarring against so much slow-motion activity. And maybe that was his goal. The aspect ratio is 1.85:1, which is broad enough to handle such a wild palette.

You have a choice between Dolby Digital Stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround. The tonal quality on the Stereo option is flatter than the Surround, and a bit heavy on the treble. Rear speakers aren't just used for ambient office sounds. They help distribute the pervasive Theremin soundtrack evenly throughout the room, so that it begins to feel like interactive video. No complaints here-but be warned that the Theremin produces a "wooooOOOOOoooo" sound, over and over again, that may find you thinking it's eerie and cool one minute to thinking it's nerve-wracking and annoying the next.

This disc contains a real mixed bag. There's a click-on filmography for each member of the six-person ensemble, which is always useful. But then there's a click-on interview with each cast member, in character. That would be fine, if what the actors said somehow revealed how they got into their characters or gave us more insight than we could get from watching the film. But that's not the case. This lame feature just gives us talking heads telling us what we just saw. Then there's the obligatory trailer, where it's fun to see how a film is packaged. But the best of the extras are two small featurettes: "Mini-Director Commentary with Jonathan Parker" (and friends), and "About the Theremin." The commentary is really a making-of feature with talking heads and background shots interspersed with footage from the film, but as such features go it's above average. The real treat is the Theremin feature. I hadn't even heard of the instrument until this movie, and it was nothing short of a Sixties' trip to watch a musician play this thing by moving his hands too close to two antennae so that they caused weird feedback (and, thus, the strange-sounding music).

Parting Thoughts:
While Parker remained faithful to the circumstances of the Melville fable, he opted for an eerie tone and surreal atmosphere. As a result, the film has the feel of a Ray Bradbury story: "Something Reluctant This Way Comes." But that, coupled with the anti-establishment theme, the psychedelic colors, and the slowed-down pacing should be enough to make this film a cult classic. Who knows? It may even evolve into another "Rocky Horror Picture Show," with audience participation and a new zest for the anti-office life.


Film Value