Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Rulebook Casefile: Milking the Unique Relationship in The Apartment

In the finale of The Big Idea, I concluded that unique characters are overrated, when it’s more interesting to simply write about a unique relationship. 

In The Apartment, C.C. Baxter and Miss Kubelik are both familiar types: the shnook and the strung-along other woman. But their relationship is utterly unique: She is having an affair with Baxter’s boss in his own apartment. The entire story is fueled by the uniqueness of this relationship. 
At first neither is aware of their unique relationship. Rather than reveal the true nature of their relationship all at once, Wilder and Diamond parcel out this reveal very gradually over the course of the movie, milking this unique relationship for all it’s worth.

What if neither Baxter nor the audience had been aware of the situation until Baxter came home one day to find Kubelik and Sheldrake, in flagrante, covering themselves up in embarrassment? That would have delivered the maximum amount of shock, but so many emotions would have come flooding out at once (for the audience, for Baxter, for Kubelick, and for Sheldrake) that the moment would have been overwhelming. Instead, screenwriters Wilder and Diamond proceed slowly and deliberately:
  1. First, when we in the audience see Kubelik at the Chinese restaurant, we feel the shock of realizing that Baxter’s crush has been sleeping with another man in his own apartment, No one onscreen is experiencing this revelation at the same time we are, so we get this moment to ourselves. Now that we know more than any of the characters do, we can fully appreciate the irony of this situation...
  2. Later, Baxter recognizes Kubelik’s broken mirror at the Christmas party, and realizing that she is his boss’s mistress. Because she does not know what the mirror means to him, he gets this painful moment all to himself.
  3. Later, when Baxter finds her “asleep” in his bed, his anger flares up. Because he does not yet know she has taken too many sleeping pills, he gets to have this much-needed cathartic release, before he has to suddenly shift back to feeling sympathy for her as he tries to save her.
  4. Later, the doctor slowly wakes Kubelik up. With Baxter out of the room, she gets a moment to experience the shame of her failed suicide attempt. After that passes, she sees Baxter there and experiences an entirely different sort of shame as the final revelation finally falls into place: she realizes that she been carrying on her affair in the apartment of the man who really loves her.
What is the result of stringing out this series of revelations so deliberately? Lets try another “what if?”: What Baxter had discovered Kubelik trying to hang herself instead of taking pills? His anger and his instinct to save her would have kicked in at the same time and gotten mixed up with each other, plus we’d also be dealing with her shame at being discovered and her shock at realizing that this was Baxter’s apartment. The mirror and the pills allow each of these four sets of feelings to hit separately, one after another. 

The unique relationship between this shnook and this other woman is slowly revealed over the course of the movie, and Wilder and Diamond milk this painful situation for all it’s worth.

Well, thats it for The Apartment, but I could go on. I was all prepared to write a piece about token objects (the apartment key, the mirror, the bottle of champagne...) and how they advance the plot and enhance the subtext every time they change hands, but I think you all get the point. Suffice it to say: Skip film school and just watch this movie a hundred times. I wish I had.


Matt Phelan said...

"Suffice it to say: Skip film school and just watch this movie a hundred times."

That is excellent advice. It's a flawless movie, all the way up to that great last line. "Shut up and deal."

Julie said...

The relationship is definitely unique, I was able to see that the third time I saw it. I just can´t get enough of this story. You may not believe this, but I first watched it when I was in Argentina on my vacatios. I had this apartment for rent in buenos aires that had come with a videotape so I said: what if...?
I´m glad I did that!

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