Bartleby (2001)

1969-12-31 (Limited release)

Generally speaking, movies about work — more specifically, movies about that blemish on the middle and upper classes, the office — make me run screaming. After putting up with coworkers, cramped quarters, telephone calls, and, of course, filing five days a week, I don’t feel the need to replicate these experiences in a darkened theater. But every once in a while, there’s reason to escape the real world workweek and watch one on celluloid.

For instance, Office Space, a very funny, very underrated little film, offers joy in its characters doing everything a real-life harried office employee would so like to do: smashing the fax machine and printer, telling the boss off, making it well known that what you do during the day in no way reflects on who you really are. In the best office movies, the everyday gets twisted and reformulated — suddenly, it has meaning, even if it’s not as optimistic as we might desire.

Bartleby, a contemporary update of the short story “Bartleby the Scrivener” by Herman Melville, is such a movie. This is despite the fact that its characters, in the end, never really escape the confines of work. In fact, it seems that most of them don’t really want to; they’re bored but comfortable. At least in the office they have a role to fulfill and a purpose to achieve, which is more than can be said for the rest of the fluctuating world.

Bartleby‘s opening credits buzz by in brightly colored, Twilight Zone spiral style. While unabashedly goofy, wailing theremin music completes the retro sci-fi feel, we quickly find that the film embraces surrealism of the most absurdly everyday sort. Although not taken to the extremes of The Trial or Brazil, Bartleby‘s office is over-stuffed with file cabinets, swivel chairs, and, most importantly, paper.

This small, unnamed, constantly humming record-keeping office is inhabited by the following: Vivian (Glenne Headly), the verbose and sublimely annoying secretary; Rocky (Joe Piscopo), the tough, colorful strong arm; Ernie (Maury Chaykin), overweight, incompetent, and way too descriptive of his personal life; and the Boss (the exceptional David Paymer), who tries, if not to improve his office, to just keep it functioning.

Enter Bartleby, played with expert droopy-eyed nervousness by Crispin Glover. His hair is full yet flops over his eyes in an unnecessary comb-over, as though he has resigned himself already to future baldness. In response to an ad placed by Vivian (“Dull job. Lo pay. Vibrating workplace.”), Bartleby offers ambiguous answers to interview questions about the vaguely defined job. When the boss asks what he is looking for in a new position, Bartleby responds: “This one would be fine.”

At first, Bartleby is an anti-social but hard worker who files “a week’s worth of records in just a few days.” Soon enough, however, his signature phrase, “I would prefer not to,” begins popping up at the most inopportune moments. Bartleby refuses to assist his boss in any matter, and eventually stops working at all. When, upon finding the window stuck shut, he tells Vivian that he would “prefer some air,” she points him to the air vent, and says, “If you listen closely, you can hear the ocean.” Bartleby then passes his days, even after being fired, staring blankly at the vent. His commission, it seems, is to stand guard in anticipation of some hazy purpose for living. Only the sound of the ocean might set him free.

Freedom, however, cannot really be found in the workplace. Perhaps the most laudable aspect of the film is the set designer’s keen eye for the absurdly normal, headache inducing office environment. Really, the office is the most obtrusive character in Bartleby: oppressively drab oranges, greens, and browns dominate the carpets, furniture, and walls, and the building sits on a large rocky knoll above interlocking highways, totally inaccessible to pedestrians.

A photo mural of a forest with deer covers one section of the office wall, but this representation of nature is even more claustrophobic than plain paint — it’s a perversion of freedom where leaves never fall, colors never change, and deer remain frozen in place. Beautifully old-fashioned, surreal matte paintings straight out of a modernized The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari constitute the outside through establishing shots. The sky that fills the top half of the shots, however, is never blue but always filled with gray storm clouds that bear down on the building with an almost palpable pressure. This office seems to exist in some limbo where the omnipresent threat of a storm is as dense and weighty as a prison sentence. It’s a penitentiary for the non-criminal, and a continually witty and dry visual joke.

In light of this horrendous environment, one wonders, along with the rest of the film’s characters, why Bartleby would choose to stay. While a film like Office Space replenishes our faith in ourselves by stating that we are not defined solely by what we do, Bartleby takes a grimmer approach. Bartleby himself only exists because the office exists.

The same is true for the other characters, although only the boss realizes this and only near the film’s end. If the workplace were to disappear they might too and fade into the forgotten yet orderly oblivion of shag carpets, coffee makers, and army green filing cabinets. In essence, Bartleby suggests that capitalist office culture necessarily defines people solely by what they do, i.e., by how they contribute product — and thus capital — to the economy. When their ability to produce is taken away (when, for example, Bartleby is fired), their entire self-definition is likewise removed — office workers thus depend on their office environment for meaning, for purpose, and even for existence.

The moment when Bartleby‘s viewers realize they know nothing of these characters outside the office environment is an unsettling one, for it resounds clearly in the real work-world. We know Bartleby‘s characters as well as we know our own coworkers; that is, only through their job description and the product they manufacture. This reduction makes us prisoners of the office mentality and creates an environment in which during daily social “interactions,” we never really interact at all.

When the boss does interact with Bartleby outside of the office confines, it is with disastrous results; he finds, in Bartleby, far too much of himself. And when he sadly murmurs, “Ah, Bartleby. Ah, humanity,” it is with the import and exhaustion of a thousand office drones decrying their place in life.

Funny, somber, absurd, and, finally, achingly sad, Bartleby is a fine, understated piece of filmmaking. Its final shot of identical knolls with identical buildings between identical highway stretches is a fitting end: inside each building are a thousand stories that will never be told. Free those stories, and the prisoners of the workplace might finally hear the ocean.