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'Bartleby' brings out the funny side of Melville

Friday, March 07, 2003


You don't normally think of Herman Melville as a laugh riot.


RATING: PG-13 for some sexual content

STARRING: Crispin Glover, David Paymer, Joe Piscopo, Glenne Headly

DIRECTOR: Jonathan Parker


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Neither he nor his Ahab left 'em rolling in the aisles. Having read only "Moby Dick" and "Billy Budd," I never quite liked or "got" him. One of his many works that eluded me was "Bartleby the Scrivener." I always vaguely confused its title with "Nicholas Nickleby" and its author with Charles Dickens.

No more! "Bartleby," Jonathan Parker's wonderfully eccentric film rendering of a wonderfully eccentric short story finally lured and shamed me into reading it. Go thou and do likewise. The discovery is akin to Gogol's "Dead Souls": a masterful little gem you steered clear of, assuming it to be a grim tragedy, when -- come to find out! -- it's really a nice, nasty black comedy.

We think of Melville as a hoary old 19th-century morality-tale teller obsessed with whales and the South Seas. To his own generation, he was "the man who lived among the cannibals" -- the morbid Moby moper and Margaret Mead of his day. But he was also a sophisticated Manhattan man of letters, a cutting-edge critic, and a psycho-literary innovator whose controversial views on sex, incest and atheism were often censored out of his fiction.

The full title is "Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street," written in 1853, when Wall Street was New York's legal as well as financial center. A scrivener was a clerk-copyist with the tedious job of hand-duplicating and filing documents. His boss had the "not very arduous and pleasantly remunerative" sinecure of chief "conveyancer," who checks records to be sure there are no encumbrances on property titles and draws up deeds of transfer -- then as now, an officious racket that ties up estates in prolonged litigation to the delight and profit of lawyers, whose real job is to obfuscate and complicate rather than facilitate such transactions.

Parker shifts the time and place to something resembling "the present" in a surreal industrial park perched like a citadel high above a maze of freeways. At the outset, The Boss (David Paymer) is happily ruling his roost and daffy staff: Rocky (Joe Piscopo), obsessed with his ergonomic chair and sex; fat, bumbling Ernie (Maury Chaykin); and Vivian (Glenne Headly), the oversexed, over-qualified secretary ("I'm an accomplished equestrienne and play the bassoon"). This dysfunctional trio is in need of a fourth. Vivian's want ad ("low pay, no benefits") produces a single applicant: weird, silent Bartleby (Crispin Glover) -- hired on the spot.

He's a model employee/copyist. For a while. But the first time he is asked to do something different, he replies, "I would prefer not to." And the second time. And every time thereafter.

He's not insolent. He doesn't exactly "refuse" to do the thing he's asked; he just never does it -- or explains why. The affable Boss is stunned to paralysis. ("Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance," writes Melville, using a term and concept that I thought belonged to the 20th century.) Boss fires Bart -- or tries to: He'd prefer not to leave.

The story is just 40 pages, and the film is just 80 minutes. The "presentiments of strange discoveries hovering around" on the page are nicely converted to dream sequences on the screen by first-time director Parker, hitherto known as a San Francisco musician specializing in ironic sci-fi type theremin compositions, which he supplies here.

He and we couldn't wish for a better cast. Creepy Crispin Glover is already a minor cult figure, and will become more of one after this bizarre performance, in which he spends much of his time staring catatonically at an air-conditioning vent.

David Paymer does a brilliant deadpan turn as the most-reasonable-boss-in-the-world, desperately trying to get rid of Bart by suggesting other vocations ("pest control? museum guard? telemarketing? beekeeper? directory assistance?"). Piscopo, Chaykin and Headly are marvelously funny. Nice cameos are supplied by Seymour Cassel (the city manager), Carrie Snodgress (a book publisher) and Dick Martin (the mayor -- who says things like, "The last thing we need in city government is accuracy getting in the way of reasonableness").

"Bartleby" is an absurdist satire on bureaucracy and the mind-numbing drudgery of employment therein -- thematically related to the workplace alienation and mutinies of Chaplin's "Modern Times" and, more recently, "Office Space" (feature debut of Mike Judge, creator of "Beavis and Butt-Head"). And to "Dilbert"!

Melville meets Kafka here, brooding over not just social but his deeper metaphysical concerns about the American character. Either way, as comi-tragedy or tragi-comedy, it is welcome, thought-provoking, non-mainstream fare.

Barry Paris can be reached at 412-263-3859.

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