Billy Wilder’s The Apartment is a fine film

by zunguzungu

I watched and am blogging about The Apartment as an attempt to purge my cinematic soul after having viewed Terminator Salvation, which I declare to have been an existential wrongness in the fabric of narrative pictures. Let us not speak of that terrible, horrible, no good, very bad movie again, not even to explain why this post is my effort to strike through the mask which may not even be coherent anyway.

When I watch a Hollywood movie, I can hardly help but “read” it by reference to an inherited distinction between “classic” and “contemporary.” I recognize myself, my particular cultural and social makeup, in the movies you can go to the theatre and see right now; when I’m watching the new Star Trek, for example, or the latest Judd Apatow flick, its social vocabulary is so clearly my own that I feel comfortable filling in all the unspoken subtexts and interlocutors. I know them, because they are about me and about my world.

When I watch a movie from the 1940’s, on the other hand, or a movie like Y Tu Mama Tambien, something else registers, the shadowy presence of interlocutors and references I can’t follow. I’m really talking about Hollywood here, but I mention Y Tu Mama Tambien because when I watched it the other day, it occurred to me that it was something of a Judd Apatow movie translated into Spanish (in the broadest possible metaphorical sense) and that something crucial had been both lost and gained in the translation. And that’s part of the poetry of it, part of the experience: reading it through the lens of the Apatovian helps me conceptualize what it is doing, but it also brackets off the parts of it that are less legible to me, the cinematic and narrative vocabularies I can only partially register, the way subtitles tell you an essence of what is being said while reminding you that much remains untranslated.

I started out talking about Hollywood, however, because 1940’s America is also something of a foreign country to me. Yet what can foreign mean here? After all, like a subtitled Mexico, it is foreign but certainly not untranslatable; in fact, it is precisely through the filters which distinguish it from my world that it most registers as a legible thing, the contrast that makes it visible.

To put this another way, I see what I see exactly because it registers as foreign. And while we often have the assumption that to understand a “foreign” place or time, we have to see from the inside, to occupy the “native’s” point of view, I wonder how true that really is. There are good reasons why we think that, of course; a great quantity of bullshit has been thought and said and written and done by people who had an inflated sense of their own ability to see into the hearts and minds of others. Yet at the same time, there’s a baby that tends to go out with the bathwater when we un-critically assume that in-group sight is the only kind of seeing that matters. Critical distance, too, has a virtue.

Partially, I wonder whether the very idea of an “insider’s perspective” isn’t basically flawed from the start (as biryanilady’s great quote from the other day argues). After all, we all regard “our” culture through a mixture of distance and identification, and while the ratios of that mixture might vary dramatically (with dramatic consequence), there is no such thing as being purely of and from a particular cultural makeup, nor can any cultural experience be completely foreign to us. And in the absence of black and white, can the continuum of shades of grey really represent something so unambiguous as “us” and “them”? After all, we always both socialize and individuate ourselves, simultaneously and paradoxically; we both are and are not of “our” culture. It is only in the most willfully obtuse Republican hive-mind that it’s possible to imagine being American as demanding uncritical identification with the American government, as Republican willingness to level accusations of un-American activity at Democrats always demonstrates. Everyone strikes a balance between identification with the group and individuation from it.

I say this, too, because while the makeup of that balance is important, it’s a quantitative curve that bends towards an asymptote of qualitative distinction, but it never quite reaches it. A Republican might strive to uncritically identify with his country, right or wrong, but Mark Twain’s pithy argument to love your country always and your government only when it deserves it is not only just as dependent on a sense of self mediated by group membership and the problem of identification, but is (in practice) exactly what Republicans do. We are all, inevitably, a text woven from things we see as outside of ourselves and things we see as internal, and we register, mediate, and negotiate those dissonances in our actions and in our words.

Which is a roundabout way of saying something much more simple: I wonder how much the critical distance I have from a Hollywood movie in the 1940’s is dissimilar from the ways moviegoers saw it back then, and how much it’s a thing to be frustrated by, or try to overcome. And I notice that while I have a knee-jerk skepticism when white people claim to understand other cultures  — especially, perhaps, when it’s me — I am also very, very interested in what Africans perceive of non-African cultures, in the true things that can be seen precisely by not being bound by the cultural blinders of in-group membership. By the same token, does the fact that John Ford movies speak to the present day in ways Ford himself could never have seen (see Ford on GWOT here, here, here, and here) not also imply that, maybe, we see those movies with a kind of epistemological privilege conferred precisely by our foreignness to it?

Maybe that’s why I find a movie like The Apartment so fascinating; it’s such an interesting blend of classic and contemporary, and a blend that makes it very hard to think those terms as discrete, coherent categories. A 1940’s movie can seem utterly different from a 1980’s movie, like Platonic essences, but I see reflections of both in Billy Wilder’s movie from 1960. This story of a good corporate soldier who turns his apartment into a brothel would be unthinkable in the classic era, yet doesn’t it simply use sex as a metaphor for something the moviegoers in the forties would have understood quite clearly, that the domestic space created as nursemaid to corporate America would also be its first casualty? And, too, it’s a risky business that might seem wholly different from Tom Cruise’s, yet it answers that problem with the same re-commitment to an Eros cleansed of corporate taint as a Pretty Woman or its ilk, or which Risky Business registers as a traumatic absence, transferred into the formative nostalgia of adulthood.

I wonder whether it doesn’t look forward and backwards at the same time. Which is interesting. It’s clear that a movie like Once Upon a Time in America wants to lay waste to everything that John Ford represents, and that movies like The Wild Bunch or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid begin not with a desire to speak with the dead, but to bury them. And while I think all Westerns are anti-Westerns — a generic continuity is related to the ideology under girding the logic of western expansion itself, the presumption that old gives way to new — I wonder whether the difference I’m highlighting isn’t less chronological than generic. What if domestic fictions like The Apartment are exactly the inverse of the Western in the manner in which they theorize temporality, emphasizing not the violent conflict between the old and the new but the manner in which individual difference becomes familial unity? Maybe, for example, that was exactly the point when Quentin Tarantino transformed the over the top violence of exploitation films and Western cinema into the pathos laden domestic drama of Kill Bill, an effort to make the violence of theft into a love of otherness? 

In any case, watching The Apartment is like coming across the missing link that makes monkeys suddenly seem human. References to Castro, a scene that takes place in a Chinese restaurant, the odd moment where Jack Lemmon gets called a “Beatnik,” and an unnecessarily emphasized (and therefore interesting) moment where Fred McMurtry gets his shoes shined by a nameless, wordless, de-individuated black shoe-shine boy are each moments that can be read through the lens of the past or the present, and seem to be there for exactly that reason. Just as Jack Lemmon longs to watch a classic movie on TV but gets thwarted by the constant commercials — and registers the loneliness of the TV dinner when he talks about eating dinner with Mae West (“but she was much younger then”)  — the movie’s temporality is that safely established narratives of place aligned with the past being scrambled by the futurity of the present, and Lemmon’s self-narration is his struggle to evolve and make sense of it.

In fact, the movie employs exactly this narrative vocabulary of primitive to human evolution. The office Christmas party, for example, is a baccanalian excess which Lemmon jokingly translates into a Kurtzian idiom when he invites his lady fair with “shall we join the natives?” But that’s exactly what it is, and while we still — this early in the movie — see the goings on of the office party through the Lemmon’s own “buddy-boy” blindness, the Christmas party turns out to be the site not of joyful celebration but of an ominous, dangerous heart of darkness; it’s a time and a place where carnivorous men prey on the lambs to the slaughter that are the various female office functionaries. And the little Heart of Darkness jokes — “Why not?” she says “They seem friendly enough,” to which he responds “Don’t you believe it; after a while, they’re be human sacrifices” — are exactly on point. These natives seem friendly enough, but there will be human sacrifice, as Fred McMurtry’s hundred dollar bill transubstantiates Shirley MacLaine as a commodified expression of reified labor, not an elevator operator but a prostitute.

MacLaine, of course, can only become human by getting married, and in this way the movie is nothing new: female characters are still mirrors reflecting aspects of male humanity. But there is something fascinating in Lemmon’s personal evolution. When he suddenly reveals that he once attempted to commit suicide out of romantic despair — and wryly notes that the gunshot wound kept him off his feet many months, but that he got over the girl in three weeks — he suddenly becomes human in a way he hasn’t been for the entirety of the movie to that point, both as a character and as a representation of character. All the darkness that he’s hitherto been totally unable to perceive — and as I watch it again, actually, his failure to see the pathos of the events around him is painfully grating — is suddenly pervasive, and we are able to place him as a human being in a world containing an incredible amount of loneliness and despair in precisely the moment that he, too, is able to see it, and say it.

In this final sense, in fact, it’s important to note that Lemmon finds salvation when he moves outside of his apartment — the titular play on being “a part” and “apart” — by building a crucial, if understated, friendship with his neighbor, the ostentatiously Jewish doctor next door. And this neighbor gives him the most crucial advice of the film: “be a mensch,” he says “a human being.” But that directive — which Lemmon repeats to his uncomprehending boss later — is not merely a kind of becoming-human narrative that sets on its head the many coming-to-America-by-undoing-otherness narratives from the first part of the twentieth century (for example, Superman as the essence of Americanization by secularizing Jewishness as a positive — and American — version of orphanhood), though it certainly is that. It’s also, and much more importantly, the claim that familial inclusiveness (and neighborliness) is to be found in the very act of translation, the simultaneity of legible and illegible, the dialectic between foreign and domestic. And while this sex-drenched movie has no actual sex in it, this is precisely what it makes its version of good sex (the long uncompleted game of gin rummy) into a metaphor for the creation of affective communities: intercourse and the conversation between inside and out, both the physical and metaphorical intimacy of belonging.