Friday, November 1, 2013

Do You Miss New York?

"My name is C.C. Baxter -- C. for Calvin, C. for Clifford.
However, most people call me Bud."
-- Jack Lemmon

No one in Billy Wilder's The Apartment (1960) calls him "Bud."

More than fifty years after its release (it would go on to win Best Picture Oscar for 1960), The Apartment seems an object found on a distant planet; or perhaps from the bottom of the sea. Who are these people? These voices? This way of dress and directness, this way of relating and falling in love?

We all know the story: C.C. Baxter wants to be the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and throughout most of The Apartment seems ready to do most anything to achieve it. Along the way he falls in love with a lost, pretty elevator operator played by Shirley MacLaine -- who's being used for sex by the Head of Personnel, Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), a man who also happens to be C.C. Baxter's boss. The girl's heart is broken, she attempts suicide (in Baxter's apartment), and Bud is forced to choose between love and his ambition.

Fifty years later, who notices the plot? For the real story of the movie is the time in which it was made; and most astonishingly, the city in which it is set: round and round we turn and beyond the Wilder narrative is the other narrative: Manhattan in 1960 still drifts with the Sweet Smell of Success, and her most characteristic quality is the remote and private air of a lady who has traversed some lonely terrain of experience, which leaves her isolated from the mass of others. In this collective vision -- the nights come low onto the steep and lonely city, with its pallid heavy facades up on stony inclines, and arches and great dark courtyards and outer stairways on unknown buildings. New York then was still saying goodbye to the impression that once some single power had had the place in grip, had given it an emotional and architectural unity and splendor now lost and forgotten.

They say decades don't start on time. The Sixties sure did, on January 2nd (the day after the movie's story ends).

It begins (after the credits, where we're first introduced to Baxter's apartment front and Adolph Deutsch's immortal theme) with a float over Manhattan island, less architecturally congested and vertical than it became. A narrator tells us it is November 1959 and the population of New York City is over 8-million people. We learn of the narrator's workplace (Consolidated Life Insurance, home to over 30,000 employees), his job (salaryman), and his apartment (West 60s, half-a-block from Central Park, $85 per-month rent!). It is Jack Lemmon's voice and we should listen carefully, because once we're filled in with the background details, we never hear from the narrator again. (Good job, Wilder.)

It is a movie made almost entirely of interiors. Literally, the title refers to the space within which C.C. Baxter's willing corruption takes place. (It also refers to Wilder's belief in the terminal "apartness" of Modernist life.) Baxter's agreed to basically allow his bachelor pad to be turned into a brothel -- only the customers are his married bosses and the ladies are Consolidated Life co-workers. We see why no one calls him "Bud."

In the conversation on the landing, Doc and Baxter watch each other as if watching a movie screen, forever separate from whom they're talking to and what they're hearing. Joe Dobisch's desperate call for cheap sex (so cheap he demands the taxi change back from the wonderful Joyce Jameson) occurs in a telephone booth which could be on the dark side of the moon, as much as it is just off a crowded and smoky bar. For Wilder, no one is anybody's true "Bud" in 1959 New York City. Yet we've seen the movie's first "object of light": the dissolve on the fading television signal, to the glow of Baxter's heating blanket control-knob. What are these objects: love, luck, faith, holiness, fate, God? Perhaps all things not-Modernist. Whatever they are for Wilder, they follow Bud and Fran around: angels of protection. They surround Baxter as he falls asleep in Central Park.

In the elevator on the ride up to glory.

Fran's boutonnière near his heart, for luck.

Later at The Rickshaw: ceiling lamps, the candle -- and the daiquiri (which seems to be made of the same substance that blew-up the world at the end of Kiss Me Deadly).

Christmas Eve and all is bright.

To 1960.

The Apartment -- as we can sense from the first scene in Sheldrake's office -- has no point-of-view regarding American-specific capitalism, corporatism, or patriarchy. Consolidated Life may just as well be the Kremlin, NASA, IBM, or Krupp Industries. For Wilder, evidently all power systems are the same. (In 1960!) One needs only to look at The Bad Sleep Well from the same year. 'Though mostly buried beneath Kurosawa's stale updating of yet another Shakespeare play (this one Hamlet), The Bad Sleep Well is a direct attack on post-war zaibatsu structure, ethos, and dominance of 1950s Japanese society. Unlike Baxter, whose sole motivation throughout The Apartment is a mealy and vague sort of professional ambition, Toshiro Mifune as Kurosawa protagonist Nishi burns with a vengeance against all things corporate. Unfortunately, most of this heat is redirected by Kurosawa (by Toho?) into channels of Freudian irrelevance.

Before we meet Jeff Sheldrake, let's take a look at the workplace architecture of Consolidated Life (and New York City in general): elevator operators (and starters!); hat and coat racks long as football fields; cigarettes and water coolers; zero security: workers overwhelmed by Modernism as Wilder and photographer Joseph LaShelle diminish them under long vistas of oscillation: corridors, angles, fluorescents, endless desks, and vanishing points which pre-Kubricks Kubrick for theoretical coldness. And like Kubrick, a mere aesthetic abstraction untethered to any interesting vision of society or power.

Edie Adams. What a likable and talented gal -- she and Ernie Kovas must've made a wonderful couple. Here, Wilder turns her into a bitter Modernist clown, right down to those ugly glasses. Being Mr. Sheldrake's gatekeeper (and ex-lover), she nastily waves Baxter into the inner sanctum.

And what a sinister hothouse it is. Most sinister being the man behind the desk, Fred MacMurray, in amazingly thick eye-makeup. (How did this monster get the TV role of uber-dad Steve Douglass?) Four hand-chairs match the strange painting at the back of four love-seats, matching the four users of the Baxter apartment, with some African-cum-Modernist print on the adjacent wall, also of four male heads. There's a wood-carving of a stronger naked man holding a weaker naked man over his head. "I sorta wondered what you look like, Baxter." Indeed. An appropriate setting because the scene is a flat-out seduction, rape-wise, to the point of the victim finally cumming with his hand-held nose-spray.

Fran leaves the Consolidated coldness, into the warm embrace of autumn New York. Before the city came down with Zagat's disease, she was honeycombed with hidden places, like tuning forks, vibrating with mystery: profoundly sophisticated with a deep acceptance of magic; places with a warm imagination and a gift that can lead to marvelous paths of coming to know someone else well. The movie seems to know the secret truth: that New York was sad before it was busy -- that it was a kind of inverted garden, with all the flowers blooming down beneath the ground. Like crystal notes or sparkling water, New York was still the potent formula of city lights, early death, and sounds at night. The Rickshaw is such a spot (is it Wilder's nod to Susan Alexander's nightclub?), embracing emotions the culture no longer has any use for. The heart turns over and produces a sorrow. Hardly any places are left to do that.

She enters, and this is different. There's an element of tenderness in Sheldrake's voice, and something veiled and remote in his eyes that Fran has never seen there before. He really is in love with her.

At the end of the scene, does Wilder "pull his gimp string," in the famous words of the ever-sour Manny Farber? -- by inserting a shot of Edie Adams as Jeff and Fran leave. Does Wilder pull it tighter by moving the movie's theme from major to minor key, as if embracing a suffering, wounded heart? Too bad, Manny. A beautiful and deeply-felt moment.

The Consolidated Life Christmas Eve Party, on the cusp of the 60s, wonderfully violating every sexual harassment rule imaginable.

Yet even during the party, the city beyond the windows is ominous, de-populated -- comparable to the mood of a landscape just before something awful is about to happen, or just after, one cannot tell. The grim buildings form a cemetery of Modernist tombs.

And so, in a rather unmotivated turn of events, Miss Kubelik attempts suicide in C.C. Baxter's apartment, after being abandoned there by Sheldrake on his way home for Christmas. (And after giving Fran $100 for her time.) Bud and Doc save Fran, and something in the two Consolidated employees both ache. Baxter lets his heart yield again towards her -- and his eyes, which have never left her face, which have never closed, slowly fill with tears. And his heart seems to burn and melt away in his chest.

Bud's apartment is an isolating arena of lonely experience. A sort of passageway like a sarcophagus angles through the central area. There's a strange stillness about the rooms, in their drabness and mostly rococo design. Among the Modernist prints on the walls and the Ella Fitzgerald albums, there lingers a kind of loneliness and happiness, as if it were a sunken place, and a feeling that it is good for one's heart to be there.

Cue the ominous music: enter cabbie Karl Matuschka, perfectly played by Johnny Seven. Wilder's idiotic stereotype of an "outer-borough" untermenschen truly does show him pulling the elitist gimp-string. Are Wilder's dead buildings actually walls to keep out the unwashed? (For the director, only Manhattan is New York City.) This class stupidity begins to mix with the expected smarmy cynicism, as the movie teeters.

                               Martin: "Why are you running?"
                               Anne: "Don't you know?"
                               Martin: "No."
                               Anne: "Because I am longing. . . ."
                                                                       Dreyer, Day of Wrath
As we approach denouement, there's a sense that The Apartment will end (as we expected all along) in some love cul-de-sac -- but who's to believe in it now? Coming after Buddy Boy informs Sheldrake that "the old payola won't work anymore" and quits, and after Karl the Kabman, why not just end the movie with Baxter grabbing hold of the fat new job, handing Fran off to the more than willing Sheldrake, and banging a couple hundred Consolidated Life gal Fridays?

The world of Billy Wilder's The Apartment is detached from everything we don't actually see in the movie itself: the worlds beyond Consolidated Life, beyond the island of Manhattan. Only now can we feel its longing to not be "apart" from what was soon to be born (and smothered in its crib): the feeling that the country was now part of the daily concern. One cared about it for the first time, the way you care about family or work, a good friend or the future, and that is the most exceptional of emotions.

Fran runs to Bud, as Billy Wilder ends as an unalloyed romantic. Stars are bright overhead and the buildings outline themselves on the sky. Below, the city is a black gulf. Winds blow, and limousines crawl through the night. Outside, the first day of the 1960s was in all its glory.