Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Rulebook Casefile: Unintended Consequences in The Apartment

Welcome to a new occasional series in which I present in-depth case studies of Rulebook rules.

In Rule #96, I proposed that fiction that aims to be pure entertainment is generally about intended consequences, whereas literary fiction tends to be about unintended consequences. The implication of this might seem to be that only depressing dramas with unhappy endings could be considered literary, but that’s not the case. The Apartment is a comedy with a happy ending, but it deals almost exclusively in unintended consequences. It’s no coincidence that this was the first comedy to win Best Picture.

This isn’t to say that the movie is all about folly or the heavy hand of fate. The characters all act in their own self-interest and accomplish much of what they set out to do, but because none of the characters can see the web of duplicity connecting them as well as we can, they don’t realize what consequences their actions will have beyond their immediate gratification.Here’s one chain of unintended consequences:
  1. Even though he’s already played host to one tryst that night, Baxter agrees to loan out his apartment key again.
  2. The unexpected consequence is that Baxter comes home to find that the executive has left the wrong key under the mat. The next day Baxter must route and re-route keys through the building.
  3. Unexpectedly, all this traffic results in Sheldrake finding out about the scheme, and Baxter gets told to cut it out
  4. Unexpectedly, Sheldrake then reveals that he wants the key for his own exclusive use. This pisses off the other execs.
  5. Later, Baxter takes care of Kubelik but one of the execs unexpectedly shows up and discovers her there.
  6. Kubelik’s brother-in-law then shows up at the workplace looking for her. The execs are still pissed at Baxter for kicking them out. The unexpected consequence of that anger is that they tell the brother-in-law where to find Kubelik.
  7. The brother-in-law shows up at Baxter’s place, fetches Kubelik and punches Baxter out, but this unexpectedly causes Kubilik to finally realize what a great guy Baxter is, so he’s happy to have the black eye.
Everyone is self-dealing, but the result is a series of results that nobody sought, ending in unexpected happiness for our hero. Not every chain of consequences has to be a downward spiral.

Here’s a completely different chain of events, in which a series of seemingly positive developments has a negative consequence:
  1. Sheldrake chooses to take Kubelik, his latest mistress, to the same Chinese restaurant that he took his previous mistresses.
  2. Unbeknownst to him, his secretary, one of those former mistresses, still eats there and sees them there.
  3. The secretary unexpectedly decides to confront Kubelik at the office Christmas party.
  4. Kubelik herself then decides to directly confront Sheldrake with the secretary’s accusations, something that the secretary clearly hadn’t expected her to do. This results in the secretary getting fired
  5. The secretary then does what Sheldrake hadn’t expected: she tells his wife everything. For the audience, this feels like a stand-up and cheer moment: the villain has gotten his just deserts...
  6. But our expectations are reversed again: this turns out to be a disaster for our hero, because now Sheldrake is free to be with Kubelik, ruining Baxter’s hopes.
This is a series of largely positive developments in which the villain’s scheming catches up to him and the truth comes out, but it has unexpectedly negative results for our hero. 

The unexpected consequences in The Apartment raise the film out of the realm of pure entertainment and into the realm of literature. Rather then simply identify with the characters, our privileged position allows us to see more, feel more, and understand more about life than anybody onscreen.


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