Friday, July 17, 2009

If I Had A Million Dollars...With a Catch

"The Standard of Living" by Dorothy Parker

The ladies of Mad Men strike me as chums of Parker's protagonists.

Sure, polarizing figures evoke disdain. Whether third-world dictators, Hollywood socialites, or Dallas Cowboy wide receivers, when they stir the pot, America listens. The "Behind the True Hollywood Story" what-have-you covers their lives following their time in the limelight.

But what happens to the blips? The blahs. The nothings. The never-stood-a-chances. We all run across people who seem nice on the surface, very pleasant, kind, but slightly boring. Well, if telling the whole truth, they’re really boring. Other than pleasantries and generic common interests, no depth exists. I mean, how many times can you talk about the weather, inoffensive politics, mundane sports, etc.? Who really gives a fuck about what’s the proper stud needed in a standard household wall? These innocuous conversations don’t harm anyone on the surface, but really bore me to hell.

But we engage in them; pleasantries – despite root canal similarities – persist. No one gets harmed, and we go about our days. Then we, eventually (and sometimes thankfully), fall out of touch. Maybe a casual run-in at a convenient store or shopping mall transpires, but no scheduled meeting occurs. All parties benefit from the conversational exile – both the boring and the bored. But what lies in store for our forgotten almost-friends?

In my mind, that’s what the short story "The Standard of Living" by Dorothy Parker addresses. Simply, the narrative finds out what happens to the forgotten near-chums. It follows two bland if not slightly attractive (or slutty) friends who work as stenographers in post-World War II Manhattan. I picture the assistants that come on to the advertising executives in Mad Men, but with no emotional depth (meaning, these women don’t hold higher aspirations than serving as floozies).

Lacking an action-packed narrative arc, "The Standard of Living" deals with gluttonous, near-Gatsby gals and a Saturday-afternoon pallor game they play. The question: What would you buy if you had a million dollars? These ladies aren’t buying lots of macaroni and cheese, either (sorry Bare Naked Ladies). No, these dames – a term used in its most accurate way possible – possess a taste for the finer things: mink stoles, elegant pearl necklaces, perfume from Chesarie cats, you get the idea.

And the best part is the catch: you can’t do anything nice for others. As soon as you try to donate the money to an AIDS clinic or rescue adopted kittens or make sure the nuns in the Blues Brothers can run a school, it all disappears. The game’s purpose: act as entirely selfish as you possibly can.

Parker doesn’t fuck around with depth to these characters because there isn’t any. They want the best of the best and are chastised for acting altruistic in any way. The stories real purpose is about facing your fantasies and the world being harder (and more expensive) than you’d imagine, but I don’t care about that. Maybe I’m a lot like the Parker’s plump protagonists. I want what I can’t own, and I want to fantasize about it.

I mean, a million dollars is lot of money. It’s not what it used to be – a fact Parker alludes too – but if Regis Philbin digs it, I can too. I’d love a beach house, but that’s too ordinary – common as the ladies would say. Besides, an average beach house, even in today’s shitty economy, costs a few million. Once again, like the ladies in the story I won’t allow reality to sway my spending. Guitars cost some big bucks, but not to an excessive point. Easily, I can buy four brand new or vintage guitars (I’ll spare the axe-swooning details), and still comfortably count $950,000 in my pocket – a pretty liberal estimate. Sounds good for purchase number one.

How about a buffalo chicken factory? I love buffalo chicken, why not own a place that can serve me buffalo chicken all day, every day. Sounds good to me. I wouldn’t really want to get involved in all the murdering details, but as long as there’s some freshly-slaughtered yet delicious buffalo chicken, I’ll survive. That leaves me with like $100,000, give or take (Let’s all assume buffalo chicken factories cost $800,000).

Slowly these evolved into a genii’s three wishes, but so be it. I got a hundred grand to work with, and I’m going to make it count. I mean, season tickets to the Phillies or Eagles would be sweet. So would a private miniature golf club in my backyard. But, I really love my family. So I think a group trip to Ireland would make us all happy. There we could…

Wait, I didn’t mean it like that. They’d all be there supporting me. Any fun they partake in is purely supplemental. It’s still totally selfish. Oh come on. How could I go there by myself? You mean I LOSE IT ALL!

Maybe, I should have stuck to mink stoles like the Manhattan ladies.

Monday, July 6, 2009

James Dean Ain't Got Shit on Me

#92 A Place in the Sun, directed by George Stevens

Fonzi eventually became a corporate hack, right?

A leather jacket, greased backed hair and disregard for the English language. In 2009 these dudes are relics, but forty to fifty years ago they were it -- the shit. Riding a motorcycle with no place to go made you the coolest mother fucker in the world. The less direction and ambition you possessed the better. And why was that so cool?

It’s part of Americana to be aimless (The song “'Aaay'mless” was even sung by American rebel Fonzi in Happy Days the Musical). Maybe that’s because, as a nation, we’re a little aimless ourselves. We’re the rebels, the whippersnappers breaking away from old man Europe. Eventually, though, we became the man. Just like we know Fonzi eventually married Pinky Toscadero and stopped bagging preteens. Fonzi got a suit and tie and invaded Iraq like the rest of us.

Even in the literary world there are the cool cats. Writers like Ernest Hemmingway and Jack Kerouac seemed just as likely to smash your face in as to pen a sonnet. But these drifters all are part of our larger cultural history.

Rebels can be mainstream, too. That doesn’t make them less rebelish, though. Shaquille O’Neal is still a super bad-ass basketball player despite aging. In addition to his presence in the paint, Shaq is a pop culture icon. And he tweets. And his tweets are interesting and honest and give a glimpse into the world of a man that wears size 23 shoes. Twitter certainly is a fad that some (me!!!) have latched on to. To think that I could easily be in communication with Shaq anytime I want boggles me. It probably took Shaq eight seconds to set up an account, but with that action, he made him accessible to the world. I mean, can you picture Michael Jordan doing that? Plus, he doesn’t fake it like Britney Spears does. Shaq latched onto a mainstream idea and -- as a celebrity -- that makes him a rebel.

And I guess that’s the paradox of a rebel. The only people who really want to be outcasts are the most Plain Jane people among us. Fonzi pined for acceptance. Sure, his bravado was too much sometimes and he hated to admit he was wrong, but he never really wanted to escape. From his garage-attic apartment he yearned for the love and familiarity the Cunningham’s often took for granted.

And that’s what the film A Place in the Sun examines. There are no rebels without a cause. I’d argue that only true aimless people are drug attics. Rebels always possess some motivation, however veiled in may be. Even if it’s crazy, there’s still a driving force. The Joker loved chaos, Dean Moriarty loved to wander, and George Eastman from A Place in the Sun desired acceptance.

As a movie, A Place in the Sun was mediocre at best. The plot contained lots of holes and dragged at times. Lead actor Montgomery Clift – much like that Clash song about him – failed at evoking empathy from the audience. The idea behind his character and the questions his actions posed were enough to sustain me.

Playing a country boy, Clift wants to work in his wealthy, famous uncle’s factory. He doesn’t want a handout or to be included, he just wants a job and to orbit the celestial body that is his family. He’s dark, mysterious and kinda good looking. But that’s really all you know about him. Throughout the entire film, there’s really not too much revealed.

And then he goes out and murders someone. And all this shit hits the fan and all of a sudden, now he’s a big rebel. But I think he’s less, though. Murder is common, and it’s the easy way out – especially if it’s a crime that makes sense. OJ Simpson isn’t a rebel (especially since he got off), he’s just a little nuts. However unjustified he might have been, it totally made sense. Simpson found his ex-wife shacking up with some dude. What makes more sense that to kill him/her? Not right, just kinda logical. Like the Unabomber and Tim McVeigh are mass murdering, political message driven murders – they’re rebels. A crime of passion involves just dudes that overreacted at the wrong time when dangerous elements were around.

In the film, George lives a double life and finds himself in a love triangle. While a poor boy, he knocked up his nice, innocent girlfriend (Shelly Winters). Now he’s found moderate success and a fancy, rich lover (Elizabeth Taylor). What are you gonna do with the preggers broad? The obvious answer may not have been taking her out to the woods for a “romantic” getaway, renting a boat, and capsizing it, causing her to drown, but it worked. Until he got caught and stuff.

Which is even more interesting. If he wasn’t such a bumbling idiot rebel, he totally could have gotten away with it. His problem was that he drew attention to himself (with a laughable fake name) and interrupted a scout camp out by looking like -- or being – a crazy murderer roaming the woods in the middle of the night.

But that’s not what the original author – Theodore Dreiser in the novel An American Tragedy -- wanted to convey. He wanted a book about right verses wrong; if the murderer gets away at the end it looks like wrong wins – which makes for a bad Hollywood film, especially in 1951. I’m not sure if the novel made it so wishy-washy, but the film even makes the murder ambivalent. Eastman never denies that he refrained from helping his Baby Momma, but claims he didn’t kill her. This raises the question of whether inaction worse is than action. I mean, he gets the electric chair in the end, so I suppose the author/director/screenwriters decided inaction’s pretty bad (like in Seinfeld). What’s more interesting is the trigger happy capital punishment system in 1950’s America. It’s tough to put someone away without an eyewitness and all.

This movies really not worth watching, but its title provides ample fodder for discussion. What would you do to secure a place in the sun? The proposition of murder makes people cringe at first, but a guarantee that you’ll never receive an earthly punishment sweetens the deal. Rebel or no rebel, it’s definitely worth considering.
(#92) My Fair Lady directed by George Cukor

Friday, June 12, 2009

Thomas, Mary and Joseph!

(#89) Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Uncle Tom and Hannibal Lector are just misunderstood is all.

Some novels became so iconic and historic that the prose and some of the work's greatest ideas become lost. For example. sometimes people forget that Hannibal Lector isn't the villain in Silence of the Lambs or that Jaws is more of an internal struggle for Chief Brody than an action-packed, shark-hunting adventure. With Uncle Tom's Cabin, I feel the mischaracterization of what an "Uncle Tom" is undermines the influence or general feel of the novel. Because of this negative sentiment, I think Harriet Beecher Stowe's masterpiece have been bastardized by people who may never have even read the book.

Uncle Tom's Cabin may be the best book I ever read. It didn't leave me wanting tune in next week like Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy did or rethink my existence like some other varieties; Stowe left me with a different, hard-to-describe, but more profound feeling. Her novel is sad in a "oh fuck slavery's evil" sort of way, but sweet and rewarding, too. Numerous characters possess great depth -- slave and slave owners alike. As for a storyline, Tom's tortured tale of being sold down river makes you laugh, pulls at your heart, and forces you want to want to hug him, a lot. And that's where this whole damn Uncle Tom thing came from.

Bottom line: Uncle Tom is a nice guy. He exhibits Christ-like patience, while enduring Christ-like suffering. A devout Methodist, Tom always, ALWAYS turns the other cheek. He's nice to everyone: slave, slave owner, slave auctioneer, slave trader, whatever. No matter how cruel or much pain they inflict on him, Tom remains dutiful and kind. His faith in God is astounding, even at the lowest points in his life. Ultimately, Tom just wants to be returned to his wife and children. Although many sold slaves pine for their lost families, Tom's desire goes beyond this world. It doesn't matter if he dies before seeing them again. For him, if death under righteous means occurs, then that's part of God's plan. He's a humble servant to all; the catch, and what earned his name a negative, demeaning connotation, is that he appears resigned to his system and his role.

Because of his religious background, Tom's does as he is told. When his original master (who Tom held in his arms as an infant) sells him to pay off debts, he goes off without complaint. Internally it crushes him, but he rationalizes that his master wouldn't do it unless it was absolutely necessary. Tom just goes with the flow. Looking at the situation literally, you sometimes get angry at Tom for his loyalty. But in his head, he is doing out of love. You can fault him for it, but Tom's loves everyone (even him).

Even when the insanely evil master Simon Legree beats him within an inch of his life, Tom still forgives him and obeys. And people hate that. How can you accept constant torture and still line up, lock in step?

Without reading the novel and understanding Stowe's tone throughout, people misunderstand what Tom is all about. She wants people to think Tom is behaving out of the norm. Intentionally, she names several characters in all different walks of life, Tom. Even though he lives on society's lowest rung, he is still the most virtuous Tom. She does that with other lesser-appreciated groups, as well. The simple kindness within the hear of the little girl Eva and bravery displayed by the fringe, despised Quakers are Christianity in practice. Of all the Christian values people in the 19th century claimed to embody, Tom the so-called "savage", the young ignorant female child, and the backwards, soft Quakers actually lived Christ's message.

After fully digesting the character, it seems foolish to chastise Tom for being too nice.

Politically, no one doubts the impact of
Uncle Tom's Cabin. Possibly the most influential American novel ever, Stowe does not sugarcoat her feelings on slavery. What separates the novel from being preachy is her "show not tell" style. For the most part, she paints such vivid pictures of suffering that the reader would be truly unfeeling to remain stoic. Constantly, she compares a slaves injustice with that of a normal citizen in a "how would you feel if ALL 10 of your children were taken from you" sort of way. Stowe employs so many different examples that the novel is hard to read at times because of its graphic nature.

Best of all, Stowe carefully casts the blame on all, not just the South. Having lived in Ohio, Maine, and Florida, Stowe saw both the South's direct shame coupled with the North's head-in-the-sand mentality. In that way, the novel is comparable to the previously-reviewed
Gone With the Wind. However, she approaches that differently than author Margaret Mitchell does. The North's parallel guilt doesn't absolve the South of its wrongs. Mitchell almost portrays slavery as a Northern misunderstanding of Southern ways. Stowe flat out says everyone -- North and South alike -- is wrong.

The one point continually hit upon by Stowe is her feeling of hypocrisy toward the Southern thang. She admits that a majority of slave owners are really nice and treat there slaves well. Proportionally,
Uncle Tom's Cabin reflects that generalization. However, what happens when the nice slave owner dies? Often, dept, death, or illness splintered plantations and shattered families. Stowe's comments questioned the ideal of slavery as property and shamed all her read her novel into admitting its evils.
(#88) The Last of the Mohicans by James Fennimore Cooper

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Let's Be Frank: A Guest Blogger is at Work

#92 Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
The only monster here is a neglected and scornful child.

There are those who would have the American reading public believe that Frankenstein is a ghost story, a tale about a fearsome beast and the man who must attempt to defeat him out of a sense of guilt and duty. While the book does prominently feature an undead monster assembled from assorted body parts in various stages of decay, the story is no more about ghouls than Animal Farm is about cuddly animals come to life.

Frankenstein is a story about ambition, failure, self-delusion, self-esteem and internal hate projected outward. It is a family drama between a father and son, dressed up in an ill-fitting suit and decked out with neck bolts.

Of course, to compare the monster from Mary Shelley's masterwork to a Halloween mascot is more of a perversion than anything occurring in the book. The Frankenstein monster of Shelley's world is a far cry from the slow dolt portrayed in movies and pop culture. He is a specimen to behold, cunning and brilliant in the kind of dark way that only comes from a life of neglect and ugliness. He is fast and strong, so much so that no captor can hold him, no pursuer can run him down. This is a creature without peer, without equal, whose inner hurt and isolation have driven him to bitter, brilliant madness.

His excellence is a testament to Victor, the story’s protagonist and abusive Mr. Muntz to the monster’s lonely neglected Nelson. Victor, a young man possessing intelligence beyond his years, becomes obsessed with the dark arts and strives to solve the mystery of life and death through a blend of modern science and witchcraft. The author goes to great length to outline her character’s obsession only to side-step his crowning achievement, never revealing to the reader how Victor was able to reach his goal of reanimating life. The “how” or “why” isn’t nearly as exciting as the “what” that follows.

The relationship between Victor and the monster is one for the ages, so complex and nuanced that scholars have spent years of their lives analyzing their connection to each other. To summarize: the two are chained. Victor sees in the monster his dark ambition personified and distorted, his once-noble goal stripped of its romance and bathed in the brutal light of reality. He sees in his monster the ugly result of man trying to play god. He is disgusted in his creation and in himself for wanting it so badly. He wishes to kill it and, by extension, himself.

The monster, on the other hand, is created tabula rasa with no ambitions, aspirations or agendas outside of being loved by his creator, being accepted by the one who breathed life into his flesh. The monster’s initial quest is a religious one, as a pilgrim looking for the embrace of god. Upon realizing Victor’s initial reaction, which is one of loathing repulsion, the creature is without a center, lost to a strange world that makes no effort to accept him. He sees in his father the cruelty of humanity and strives to end him and, by extension, cure his own self-hatred.

And so, the father repulsed by the son, the son scorned by the father, the two characters set out to destroy each other.

The real horror of the story is not so much in the acts of brutality that man and beast unleash upon each other but in the all-encompassing stubbornness of Shelley's two main characters. If only the father would accept the son, if only the son could forgive the father’s cruelty, both characters could find peace. Instead, the story unfolds with Victor pursuing his child across the frozen caps of the North Pole, the two forever locked in a battle of who can tear the other to shreds, physically and mentally.

Some characters are killed. Others are confined to a life of emotional imprisonment and isolation. As it was written in another classic about ugliness and personal pettiness’ victory over love and understanding, “All are punished.” This certainly applies in Frankenstein, a tale about the unyielding decay that can lie in the deep ends of faith.

---Nate Adams is the owner and operator of Left of the Dial. Formerly he was the head designer and fashion editor for The People's XPress News.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Drunk and Windy with Ernie

"The Three-Day Blow" by Ernest Hemmingway

Don't listen to Blue Oyster Cult, the reaper is the only thing to fear.

In literature, the medium of a short story is hard to compare to other arts. Would a television mini-series, a brief radio documentary (like an account on This American Life), or a blog post be comparable? I feel like that’s not the case.

With Ernest Hemingway’s barely eight-page story “The Three-Day Blow,” a full narrative springs from a seemingly innocuous drunken evening between two acquaintances. The episode consists of the pair mundanely imbibing and talking. No action climax occurs; however, one character internally wrestles with a recent break-up.

The title refers to an autumn wind striping previously lively trees of their leaves. Protagonist Nick discusses the relevance to his break-up:

“'All of a sudden everything was over,’ Nick said. ‘I don’t know why it was. I couldn’t help it. Just like when the three-day blows come now and rip all the leaves off the trees.’”

Hemmingway’s point is that life – or elements of life -- can suddenly cease to exist. Nick internally whines about his seemingly hopeless situation. But Hemmingway won’t let it be that bleak. His simple approach toward the two intoxicated men allows for the other character, Bill, to provide Nick an epiphany, unbeknownst to his crack-brained mind.

Bill warns Nick that if he isn’t careful, his relationship could be rekindled. The warning is slightly a joke because these burly men in the vein of Hemmingway’s code hero aren’t outwardly discussing feelings. Bill simply means that Nick could get trapped by monogamy; this is exactly what Nick wants to hear.

“Nick had not thought about [them getting back together]. It seemed so absolute. That was a thought. That made him feel better.”

Using deception, Hemmingway makes the reader think the short story will end tragically. Nick and Bill grab rifles and run out into the wilderness at the pinnacle of their stupor. Nothing happens – or it’s not written anyway – but the author’s point does not relate specifically to the pair’s story. Instead, unlike other Hemmingway works I’ve read, it seems positive. Other than death, nothing in life is final. Even if Nick screwed up his relationship, it is never technically beyond repair until someone dies.

Although morbid, the theme is hopeful.
Short story: “The Standard of Living” by Dorothy Parker

Monday, May 11, 2009

Jim Tome-y: Eat Your Heart Out

#90 Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

There's nothing brief about Hugo's massive novel.

I don’t think I properly understood the word “tome” until I read the unabridged version of Les Miserables. Previously adjectives like “humongous” or “gigantic” seemed sufficient in describing books over 800 pages. Now I can recognize the negative connotations that are associated with those terms. “Tome,” on the other hand, provides the correct dignity related to a masterpiece like Les Miserables.

Not surprisingly, Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel was written while the Frenchman vacationed abroad. I thought Tolkien knew imagery: Hugo throws nine kitchen sinks of compound modifiers into every description – clearly, the man had time to kill. Although sometimes a little too detailed, his novel excels because – among many other reasons – it is so comprehensive. After reading Les Miserables I feel as if I could navigate both Paris’ roadways and sewer system, discuss in-depth French history from the revolution through Napoleon to the mid-1800s, and even speak French (sorta).

Ironically, Hugo’s tome was involved in the “shortest correspondence in history” (whatever that means), according to Wikipedia.

"The shortest correspondence in history is between Hugo and his publisher Hurst & Blackett in 1862. It is said Hugo was on vacation when Les Misérables (which is over 1200 pages) was published. He telegraphed the single-character message '?' to his publisher, who replied with a single '!'."

Anyway, the life and crimes and repentances of Jean Valjean and his pals certainly deserves the lengthy time commitment needed to read the 1,200-page book. That does not mean that everything Hugo included was necessary. In high school, I read an abridged version and wondered what I was missing out on. The Kingsway Regional High School addition clocked in at 600 pages, what could the other 600 be about?

The answer to that question: interesting – but ultimately dispensable – background. The novel is divided into six volumes that possessed about 15 books. The books then are further broken down into chapters. Hugo’s flow is sometimes disrupted by the back-and-forth dynamic created by his layout and adherence to rigorous background. Book 5 would be a breathtaking romantic tryst between Marius and Cosette; Book 6 follows with a lengthy 50-page description on the history of a bell tower. The see-saw almost had the feel of a commercial break. The plot developed so seamlessly, you would not dare put the book down. The following exposition would bore you like Sunday afternoon at Aunt Betty’s house.

That complaint is essentially petty in comparison to all the remarkable aspects Hugo’s novel commands. Today, a qualified yet potentially harmful editor might have weeded out the heart and genius while trimming the expository fat.

Hugo’s attention to detail in characters astounds me; I’m certainly envious. Nearly every seemingly insignificant character has a climatic moment in the story – sometimes hundreds of pages or numerous years later. Gardeners, childhood enemies, and irrelevant backgrounders affect the central plot constantly. Every time Hugo reintroduces an esoteric character from page 278 shocks me like defibrillator. If Hugo took the time to give a character a name, then he was going to make sure that he or she was important. Otherwise, the character would be labeled simply as an attendant, innkeeper, or ukulele player (you’ll have to see for yourself if he’s in the book).

And all that is with the minor characters. 600-page essays have been written about each major player in the Les Miserables game. In lieu of that, I will provide an elementary explanation of each character. I am going to attempt to guess what each character symbolizes.

Jean Valjean (The Working Man) – An ex-convict who now lives a life of propriety, he constantly runs from the law. Every step forward he takes and every good deed he does is nearly always countered by a negative event in his life. He dies a beleaguered man frustrated by society yet ultimately pleased with the small but loving family he secures.

Cosette (Goodness) – An orphan girl cared for by Valjean who brings peace to all associated with her. Her love stings Valjean, though, when she succumbs to youthful temptation and falls for Marius. Although devoted to Valjean, she betrays him by neglecting him near his death.

Marius (Youth) – The grandson of a wealthy bourgeois, he rejects his wealthy upbringing upon discovering his father was a hero during the Napoleonic era. He devotes himself entirely to his passions (his deceased father, Cosette) in an almost pathetic manner; he always remains a good person, though.

Javert (Rigidness) – A police inspector who obsessively hunts for Valjean. His lack of a personal life balances with his strict adherence to all authority and regulation. Javert is my favorite character because of his almost entire lack of compassion.

Thenardier (Evil) – A con-man who takes Cosette in as an orphan, he plagues both the girl and Valjean throughout the book. He attempts to extort, murder, and defraud all he encounters.

While my review itself is not nearly as lengthy as Hugo’s work, it should provide at least a basic insight into why Les Miserables is so much more than a successful musical. The proper time needs to be dedicated to savor the 1,200-page masterpiece.
Up next, (#89) Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Not Wilder Than Today's Standards, Still Awesome

(#93) The Apartment -- directed by Billy Wilder

Thankfully for prosperity's sake, Wilder avoided discussing Ike's cue ball.

Ever since I've heard the name "Billy Wilder" I've associated the famed director with the root of his surname: Wild. In my mind, Wilder is associated with the taboo, the extreme, the wild. His comedies shocked audiences in the early 1960s prior to the more liberal comedies that Hollywood would soon churn out at decade's end. While TV was still portraying Dick Van Dyke sleeping in a separate bed from his wife, Wilder latched onto the reality that people have sex for reasons other than procreation. People engage in intercourse for, gasp!, pleasure. Wilder is widely credited with expanding the bounds of acceptable entertainment.

Wilder, along with Woody Allen, has the distinction of having the most films (five) on
AFI's Funniest Movies List -- including number one, Some Like it Hot. On the particular list I refer to, Wilder lands four (along with SLIH: Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity and, the film of this post, The Apartment), so I'll be spending a decent amount of time on this German-born director. Web sites laud Wilder for his simplistic directing style, often allowing the written word and the actor's nature to carry his films over fancy cinematographic techniques -- like contemporaries Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles. In total Wilder owns seven Oscars and was nominated another 15 times. His expertise went beyond comedy, as his court-room dramas (Witness for the Prosecution), film noir ventures (Sunset Boulevard) and war movies (Stalag 17) also received recognition from the academy.

In short, Wilder's got it going on.

The Apartment
does not depart from Wilder's style of letting actors act. His job is to coax the most out of his talent and allow the excellent script (of which he co-wrote the screenplay) to do its job. Because of Wilder's subdued approach, Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine soar.

Bud Baxter (Lemmon) stars as an unimportant, young accountant in New York who has one link to the great movers-and-shakers at his company: an apartment. At Bud's well-furnished yet small apartment, (male) executives from work come to take their mistresses and have affairs. That's it. The whole crux of the film is based on the fact that rich, powerful, white men have sex with women who aren't their wives and the complications that this causes on Bud's life.

Initially, the problems were small (Mr. So-and-so took too long; he's locked out in the cold; his neighbors complain about noise). However when the most-powerful man at the company starts using Bud's apartment to have an affair with Fran (MacLaine) the elevator girl, (to whom Bud is in love) the real dilemma start.
What is more important to Bud? The new-found (and probably undeserved) success his apartment has given him or staying true to his feelings by resisting his boss and proclaiming his love for Fran. The humorous scenarios caused by the apartment is checked by the real-life issues it causes. Wilder never lets the film get too serious (which is hard to do when Fran attempts suicide, still he manages), but he is also well-aware of the important subject matter he attempts to address.

A few thoughts on the film.

The past seems so glamorous. Everything about New York in 1960 appears awesome. The clothing, the manner of speaking, the formality everything has in it. I know Wilder made the movie as present day, but to a viewer in 2009, the time capsule is complete. The attitudes of all characters in the film are very unlike people today; however everyone feels authentic. Not that I would really know the appropriate way to behavior, but I feel like I do now. By using the strong-clarity of 1960's black and white film technology, Wilder makes the simple (a middle-class apartment) feel like a whole world unto itself. Bud's office building filled with innumerable adding machines, desk jockeys and Boller caps is a visible phenomenon. Wilder transforms the mundane to grand by doing nothing more than filming it. Visually, that's the beauty of this movie.

Indeed, what used to be considered risque is now tame. As natural as that sounds, this topic must be considered. With HBO, R-rated movies and, my lord, the Internet, people's attitudes towards sexuality sure have changed. Even when watching the seemingly-harmless sitcom Scrubs, for example, the viewer is still given large doses of sex. In The Apartment, I don't think the word sex is even uttered. No skin is shown, no cursing, no over-the-top innuendo -- just allusions carry the film. Maybe that's why the film is so funny. The viewer is never hit over the head with sex; it's omni-present.

That being said, comedy is comedy. Jokes about President Eisenhower's chrome dome might not be funny, but the elements of comedy are still the same. Relatable scenarios with humorous takes, zanny conflicts with exaggerated characters and unexpected, well-timed reactions remain funny. Bud straining spaghetti with a tennis racket made me laugh. Fran's melancholy delivery of the mantra of a mistress, "When you're in love with a married man, you shouldn't wear mascara," is sad, but nonetheless funny. Bud's neighbors with heavy-German accents thinking that he's a sex deviant because they see a different woman leave his apartment every night and accusing him of being a bastard is funny. Unlike TBS, Wilder knows funny.

On the other hand, an example of Wilder's appropriate infusion of seriousness into the comedy is during Fran's suicide attempt. The scenario surrounding her attempt is that she learns her man is stringing her along and will never leave his wife (like he promises he'll do). So she over-doses on sleeping pills. When Bud finds her unconscious in his apartment, he must ditch the train-wreck of a lady he drunkenly brought home (funny), convince his Jewish-doctor neighbor to aide Fran -- despite the fact the doctor hates him for supposedly being a womanizing play boy -- (funny), and later keep her from attempting suicide again by essentially removing all items in his apartment she might use to ax herself off with (sounds serious but once again is funny).

Mixed in with the humor is the handling of the suicide itself. Wilder artfully juxtaposes the callousness of the business man who feels her attempt is a nuisance with Bud's silly but honest feelings towards her. The film portrays women as more than just objects used by the wealthy to achieve cheap pleasures. Although Bud may loses out financially by choosing love over success, he wins morally as his happiness with Fran far outweighs the alternative.

Moral of the story: Love can make you do some crazy things, but remember that it all hinges on whether the other person loves you for the real you. A Full House-type ending doesn't take away at all from mastery that is The Apartment.


Up next, (#92) A Place in the Sun, directed by George Stevens