Based on Herman Melville's 1853 magic realist novelette "Bartleby the Scrivener," Crispin Glover plays a modern-day Bartleby who comes to work in a public records office. He passively refuses to do any work & lives ghost-like in the office building, never leaving.
He is an "anti-menacing" creature so harmless & useless that his ability to annoy reaches horrific depths. Melville described the character as "incurably forlorn" & as Glover plays him, Bartleby is veritably a personficiation of forlorn depression, spiralling ever downward into himself.
The script is not a first rate rendition of Melville's first rate original, but excellent casting makes up for the weaknesses. If the director/screenwriter had known a bit more about creative writing, the ability of a character to recite synonyms from a thesaurus would not have been retained in the script. If the author mistakenly thought memorizing the thesaurus was wonderfully funny & kept this method of speech as the eccentricity of one character, it might have been more effective not to have a second character speak in the same manner of stringing out synonyms to make a point, highlighting not the characters' eccentricities but only the probability that the screenwriter keeps his own thesaurus far too near to hand.
Glover's performance is extraordinary. He has an eerie nerdy beauty (the same as when he played Willard) & when seen standing in a corner of the office like a flowerpot scarsely moving, quietly replying "I'd prefer not to" when asked to do anything at all, well, he's both unnerving to the story's characters, & a visual delight for us, the audience.
It's hard to pull a moral out of either Melville's original story or this film. Some have speculated that Bartleby was some sort of ghost or elemental being. Others view the story as entirely realist, about an office worker who assessed the merits of his entire life & decided there was no good reason to continue. And a very few have even fancied Bartleby the Scrivener some kind of Christ figure taking our inadequacies onto himself & suffers in our stead.
The original story was a conscious exercise in presenting the ultimate transcendentalist in a harsh or jesting parody, & was inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson's earnestness on the topic. That it is also about the dehumanization that occurs in the business world is only the most superficial of the tale's intentions. In tone the orginal story builds on such absurdist fantasies as "The Overcoat" by Nikolai Gogol & bridges short story art between Gogol & Kafka.
But as a film it is more wholly a tale of the most profound degree of alienation. It is uncomfortably easy to relate to Bartleby even while being totally creeped out by his passive innocuity.
Special mention has to be made of the soundtrack which makes good use of a theramin, such as is so often heard 1950s science fiction films. With a couple exceptions the theramin is only heard when Bartleby is on screen, enhancing his strangeness, while other characters have ordinary instruments, notably a piano, representing them. There are a couple extras on the DVD including a brief theramin performance; an entire theramin concert would've been nicer.
A nod of appreciation also has to be given the set design & art direction of Deborah Stairs Parker. Offices are subtly strangely colored, adding to an altered sense of reality. The skyline of the imaginary & symbolic city is glimpsed rarely, but enough to show that even the buildings are alienated from one another, a city of office parks each on its own hilltop. For a story that takes place mostly in office interiors, the film takes on captivating visual dimensions.
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