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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

"The Apartment" 1960 Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine

I'm blogging the definitive list of the top ten films ever made. One of those films is Billy Wilder's 1960 film "The Apartment." I wrote about "The Apartment" in my book "Bieganski." I'll repost those comments here. For the purposes of the book, I focused on the treatment of Fran Kubelik, the Bohunk character in "The Apartment."

The Apartment

The Apartment
won the best picture Oscar of 1960; Oscars also went to Billy Wilder for his direction and Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond for their screenplay. Bosley Crowther called it a " ... gleeful, tender, and even sentimental film," and praised its "ingenious" direction, "splendid" performances, and "action and dialogue tumbling with wit" (Crowther 1960). The New York Times named it one of the year's top ten.

The Apartment opens with a crisp aerial view of Manhattan's skyscrapers. In a voice-over, Jack Lemmon, as the movie's hero, C. C. Baxter, recites statistics: if all the citizens of New York were laid end to end they would reach Karachi. The narrator knows things like this because he crunches numbers for an insurance company. The camera cuts to Baxter's desk, one of hundreds in a starkly lit office, beehive-like in its uniformity and buzz. We soon discover what sets Baxter apart in this dizzying series of images of an imperial, dehumanizing, gray flannel America: he allows higher-ups to conduct illicit sexual liaisons in his one-bedroom bachelor apartment. This boy is going places.

In exchange for his compliance, Baxter's superiors put in a good word for him with the powerful Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). Sheldrake, when promoting Baxter, puts an end to the other men's shenanigans, only to reserve Baxter's apartment for his affair with Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine; "Kubelik" is a Czech name) an elevator operator. A series of alternately melancholy, comic, and near tragic scenes follow, centering on Baxter's brokering of his apartment for professional advancement, and the erosive effect this has on his humanity. Fran, depressed by her affair with Sheldrake, attempts suicide in the apartment; Baxter nurses her. A neighbor, Dr. Dreyfus, helps Baxter rescue Fran. Cabby Karl Matushka, Fran's brother-in-law, arrives to punch Baxter out. Eventually Fran and Baxter come to understand that they love each other, and unite, happily, leaving Sheldrake and the rat race behind them.

Fran Kubelik and Karl Matushka bear certain superficial similarities to the Bohunks described so far. They do blue-collar work; they abjure socially coded displays meant to impress as intelligence. Their physicality, in the form of Fran's sexual surrender and Matushka's violence, is essential to their characters. There is a world of difference, though, between the Bohunks of The Apartment and of the three previously discussed films.

Many Bohunks did work with their bodies, live in poverty, lack education, and sense that they were different and despised. That sense contributed to a discomfort that outsiders often read as irrational hostility or anti-cultural clannishness (Novak Guns xv, xvi). As we have seen, writers, producers and directors may, in getting these surface ethnographic details right, get the inner men and women wrong. Fran Kubelik and Karl Matushka, however, communicate to the attentive viewer that the circumstances of their lives do not define them, and that their manifest traits are their best option for dealing with the world as it has been presented to them, rather than evidence of inferior blood. Further, Fran, Matushka, and the Jewish Doctor Dreyfus are allowed eyes and mouths. They are allowed subjectivity. They are allowed to see and comment on the others who see and comment on them; they are allowed to implicate those they see and those who see them. Thus, they are as human as the viewer; it is possible to identify with them. Matushka, Fran and Dr. Dreyfus are allowed to present the very qualities Baxter's slice of America needs to save its own soul.

Fran disparages her own intelligence. She announces that she wanted to be a typist, but, "I flunked the typing test. I can't spell." Fran, though, is not as dumb as she protests, and one suspects that she is presenting the face that she needs to in order to survive her fate. In working her miserable job she shows a graciousness and dignity the white-collar workers lack; Baxter crosses hierarchical lines in order to point this out to her. While dealing with the wandering hands of executive Mr. Kirkibee in no uncertain terms, Fran brandishes a rapier wit that defuses what might otherwise be a precarious situation for a woman in her relatively powerless position. She identifies herself as a "happy idiot" to Sheldrake during a painful moment, communicating that she knows more about what's really going on than he does, but that she is powerless to make Sheldrake, the powerful one, understand; therefore, it is to her temporary strategic advantage to play the role assigned her. When she has finally gained the insight she needs to break free from Sheldrake's power, she tells him, "I'd spell it out for you, only I can't spell." With this sentence she rejects the cold profit-and-loss logic of Sheldrake's world and acknowledges the superiority of her kind of Bohunk logic, in which an unemployed shnook like Baxter is a better match for her than a wealthy and newly divorced executive like Sheldrake.

Matushka advertises his low intellectual status through his job: cabby, and his non-standard speech: "My sister-in-law she runs", and, "on account of", flat vowels and dropping of "R's." Matushka's broad shoulders, athletic stance, and slight stoop offer an obvious visual contrast when he enters a glass-walled office of unmuscled, suited executives. He wears a hip-length leather jacket and leather gloves; other than his rugged, angry face, no humanizing flesh is revealed. That Matushka's personality is no one-dimensional stereotype, but that it is Slavic, multi-layered, potentially confusing to Westerners, and possessed of gender-crossing maternal, as well as stereotypically macho qualities, is hinted at in his last name. "Matushka," or "little mother" is of course, one name of the traditional Russian doll, aka "matryoshka," that stacks one within the other. In any case, Baxter's fellow executives immediately size Matushka up as a threat and sic him on Baxter to avenge Baxter's revoking of their apartment privileges.

When he arrives at the apartment, Matushka's mere presence agitates Baxter into a comic tailspin of faux macho, expressed in the only form available to him: self-incriminatory verbosity. He, in shirt and tie, prattles on and on, while Matushka glares at him, arms crossed, silent, his sheer physicality statement enough. When he doesn't like what he thinks he sees, Matushka punches Baxter to the ground. As he watches Baxter silently, menacingly, he radiates the presence not of a man who can't speak, but who disdains the feeble verbal efforts at self-aggrandizement and female-disparaging male bonding that Baxter produces as if they were Madison Avenue jingles. Matushka looks like a working man who's been lied to before, who knows when he's being lied to, and who will use what power he has, his body, to articulately and efficiently say what needs to be said when he needs to say it. His aware and communicative silence, apparently, says much to the better-educated, white-collar Baxter; it is what drives Baxter into his verbal tailspin. Unlike Stanley Kowalski, who affects elite speech when trying to coax ownership of Belle Reve, Matushka is too intelligent, dignified and self-satisfied to ape the vocabulary of another class. Rather, Matushka's very silence and physicality present the world through his eyes, and his class superiors as they look to him – that is, inferior.

The sexual exploitation of Fran's working class, Bohunk body by an upper class WASP, and her own self-deprecation of her mind, could render a woman who is only her physicality. We are told in so many words, however, that Fran is the decent one. While higher ups carouse at a Christmas party, Fran is shown sober, dignified, and apart. Fran resists the rush and anonymity of elevator traffic to take note of Baxter's elevator courtesies. She gives him a flower for his lapel on an important day; she gently requests that Baxter not speak indiscreetly of her to other men in the office. Fran's body is sturdy like Stanley Kowalski's and other Bohunks: "I never catch colds." But she is self-aware and witty about this: "If the average New Yorker catches two and a half colds a year and I don't catch any, some poor slob is getting five!" Her genuine love for Sheldrake, combined with the disempowered's wistful, wishful ability to see the reality she needs rather than the harsh, hopeless truth that confronts her, are what make the affair possible for her. Even so, she is never seen unclothed while with her married lover; she never kisses or embraces him; she attempts to end the affair and only continues because of his calculated seduction. Like Baxter, she temporarily trades the commodity over which she has power to a cold, powerful WASP's empty promises. Fran feels deep grief and disgust when her fantasy weakens and reality becomes evident. She persists in using a mirror broken during a fight with Sheldrake. "It makes me look the way I feel."

Even Fran and Matushka's relative poverty are positively valued. Baxter moves and lives in a frigid, amoral vacuum, where he can do what he wants because nobody cares. The poorer Fran, by contrast, must live in the same domestic arrangement as Blanche du Bois: with her sister and brother-in-law. This domestic setting is not a prelude to degradation and rape but to caring and protection of honor. Matushka goes to Fran's workplace to check on her when she doesn't come home; he travels to Baxter's apartment, collects her, and punishes the man whom he believes hurt her.

In fact, it is Baxter's world, a WASP one of hypocrisy, anomie, and pointless dog-eat-dog competition, which must change. It is in the eyes of Bohunks and Jews that Baxter is informed that there is something wrong with his life. Protesting suspicious goings on in Baxter's apartment, Jewish neighbor Dr. Dreyfus warns Baxter that he won't live long, and exhorts him to become a "mensch." (The uncommon name "Dreyfus," of course, because of the historical Alfred Dreyfus, will always be associated with the outraged society-correcting cry, "I accuse!") In Fran's broken mirror, Baxter sees the painful ridiculousness of his splintered reflection, as he models his newly-purchased bowler, the power hat he had bought to celebrate his hard-earned promotion. It is at that moment that he confronts the compromises he and others make to achieve "success." Baxter's moment of truth, when he finally takes a stand for himself and for what he is discovering he believes, is made clear by Fran's irrational Bohunk sentiment and inspired by love for Fran. For the first time in nearly two hours of acting like a compromised doormat, Baxter says a firm "No" to a demand for his apartment. He takes this stand because he knows that Sheldrake wants to bring Fran there. When Sheldrake threatens to fire him for this, Baxter says, "I'm just following Doctor's orders. I've decided to become a mensch. The old payola won't work anymore." The necessary ingredients for Baxter's redemption, and, by extension, his glass-and-steel America, are Ashkenazi philosophy and Bohunk love. In a baton-passing gesture, Baxter pauses in his escape to place his power hat atop the head of an African American janitor.

This is a complex and sympathetic portrayal of Bohunks; how did it come about? Billy Wilder was a Jew from Sucha, Poland. Fran Kubelik's cinematic older sister is Sugar Kowalczyk, the sweet, sexy, conniving but self-advertised dumb blonde played by Marilyn Monroe in Wilder's 1959 hit, "Some Like it Hot." Wilder's depiction of loving Bohunk women brings to mind Noble Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer, through whose works parade a series of such Bohunk heroines: Wanda in The Slave, Jadwiga in Enemies, a Love Story, and Tekla, in Shosha of whom Singer wrote:

These are the real people, the ones who keep the world going, I thought. They serve as proof that the cabalists are right ... An indifferent God, a mad God, couldn't have created Tekla ... .Her cheeks were the color of ripe apples. She gave forth a vigor rooted in the earth, in the sun, in the whole universe. She didn't want to better the world as did Dora; she didn't require roles and reviews as did Betty; she didn't seek thrills as did Celia. She wanted to give, not take. If the Polish people had produced even one Tekla, they had surely accomplished their mission. (Singer 1982, 325)

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