Herman Melville became wealthy and famous by writing adventure novels (based upon his own experiences as a young man – deserted a brutal whaling ship, was captured by cannibals, the usual stuff). Then, beginning with Moby Dick, written in 1851 when he was 32, he began turning out works that so mystified his readers that they turned away from him. By 1866 he had sold his farm and taken a poorly paying job as a clerk. He died in obscurity in 1891. His collection Piazza Tales (1856) included the story “Bartleby the Scrivener.”


“Bartleby the Scrivener” seems an unlikely choice for Hollywood. The story is bleak, the hero unsympathetic, the ending is unhappy, and in any case it is an allegory whose meaning is still debated nearly 150 years after Melville penned it. But film it they have, under the shortened title Bartleby. This is, in fact, the third time around. The Brits did it in 1970, and the French six years later. This latest version carries last year’s copyright. Someone may have feared that the movie would not sell many tickets, and I fear they may be right.


David Paymer plays The Boss, head of the Department of Public Records in an unnamed city. One of the subtle jokes is that the department’s location has rendered it almost completely inaccessible to the public. The office is small, the rooms are haunted by a strange vibration of unknown source, and the only window, in the Bosses’ private office, overlooks a dumpster. Toiling there are: Ernie (Maury Chaykin), a woeful mass of a man, three parts misfortune and one part food stains; Rocky (Joe Piscopo), who may have seen Goodfellas once too often; and Vivian (Glenne Headly) who tries to seduce the Boss by explaining that “there is so much more I could be doing,” and then goes on to enumerate, “I play the bassoon.” None of them seems to have much work to do, but as a new department head, the Boss decides it is time to expand. Vetoing the Bosses’ ad “dynamic self-starter wanted for exciting…” as setting up unreal expectations, Vivian rewrites it to “…dull work, vibrating office…” Who would answer that, The Boss wonders. Enter Bartleby (Crispin Glover).


It is apparent from the first that there is something wrong with Bartleby. He brings a glowing recommendation from his previous job in the dead letter office. “When I see such a recommendation, I always wonder what the man did to make his boss so eager to get rid of him,” the Boss laughs, but there is no answering laugh in reply. There are very few answers from Bartleby, but he is the only applicant, and soon is seated at a desk just outside the Bosses’ door. Quiet and unsmiling, he is nevertheless a whirlwind filer. He is the ideal clerk, until the day that he is asked to check a record before filing it. “I’d prefer not to.”


 Those four words become his mantra, and as time goes by the list of things Bartleby would prefer not to do grows until he will do nothing except stare at the ceiling’s air duct. The Boss is a reasonable man, and tries every bit of logic, flattery, threats, or bribery, that might persuade Bartleby to do some work, whether he prefers to or not.


If no definitive explanation of Bartleby has appeared in a century and a half, I can’t claim to be offering one now. I believe that Melville was examining two themes. First is the dehumanizing nature of work in the modern age. The original Bartleby was a legal copy clerk, doing by hand what is now done by machine. The five characters share an office, but there is no human connection between them. Only Bartleby perhaps grasps this, but by opting out he is merely embracing the inevitable, entering directly into the void rather than dancing unknowingly on the precipice.


Melville also asks: what do we owe to other human beings? On the surface the Boss should have no problem. He can fire Bartleby, and if he refuses to leave, have the police remove him by force. He really doesn’t know Bartleby, he insists he doesn’t “owe” Bartleby, why should he help him? A question asked frequently is what does society owe its most unfortunate? Bartleby is quite literally one of the homeless and mentally, awkwardly (for the Boss) taking up residence in the office, and refusing to disappear out on the streets with the other castoffs. He is a stranger, he is unlikable, and he refuses utterly to cooperate in his own redemption. The simple answer might be that the Boss owes him precisely nothing, but the Boss, the only character who seems to sense that he is human, and to struggle with the problem of existence, feels the tug of common humanity, and cannot escape the duties he assumes for himself.


In another movie, in almost any other movie, this second theme would trump the first, Bartleby and the Boss would enjoy a shared redemption just in time for the happy ending. In Bartleby what comes is too little, too late. Maybe what was needed was always too much, and the time it could be given was already long past. In the end all that the Boss can do for Bartleby is to embrace his philosophy, and opt out himself.


This film will not displace Blue Crush at the top of the week’s box office scores. The millions who stay away are wise: they don’t want to contemplate existential angst, and might not get the jokes that make it bearable. For the few thousand of us who seek it out, it will stay with us, a memorable film, memorably done.