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150 Films #8: The Apartment (1960)

This movie used to fill me with hope.

Not long ago, I found myself locked in a pattern that seemed inescapable. I only seemed to attract, and be attracted to, what I later termed “the three A’s”: addicts, assholes, and/or actresses. At the time, I knew it didn’t make me happy, but I couldn’t see any other choice but remaining alone. I often did, but that didn’t make me happy, either. It took a great deal of introspection, not to mention psychological and philosophical learning, to realize I had a say in the matter. My attractions were not an accident of fate, and I could break the pattern—and not just with loneliness.

At the time, though, trapped as I felt, The Apartment became the sole beacon on an endless, eternally stormy shore. The story of my relationships tended to unfold very much like C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) and Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), to the extent that, yes, sometimes the meet-cute involved a suicide attempt (or several). Often, it would begin with pining for an acquaintance or friend involved with a real Fred MacMurray-style asshole. The pining wouldn’t even begin with thoughts of romance. It started with me as the sympathetic shoulder to cry on, happy to offer comfort and advice. That would turn into something resembling pity, always a great foundation for romance: “Why does she stay with this clown?” I would wonder, sometimes aloud to her. Pity would turn to thoughts of rescue, what my friend Tarini calls “White Knight Syndrome”—and that, my friends, would start a romantic attraction brewing.

As the attraction built, so would my efforts to demonstrate my value—through kindness, compassion, helpfulness—and I would play the waiting game. I never made aggressive, calculated approaches. Having such little self-esteem made me assume nobody would want me, which made it hardly worth questioning. I only held out a small amount of hope that one day, after her toxic relationship exploded, she’d give me a second look. She’d see that I’d treat her well—already did—and realize that was more valuable than some super-handsome guy with high-income potential and one of the major personality disorders. But she would have to come to the realization on her own. I would be all I could be for her, but I wouldn’t apply any pressure. Because, you see, when you have low self-esteem, acceptance by other human beings becomes a test. I couldn’t help her cheat, because otherwise I’d have a question nagging in the back of my head like a burrowed tick: does she really love me, or did I trick her into it? I couldn’t deal with a question like that.

When Fran Kubelik asks Baxter, “Why can’t I ever fall in love with someone nice like you?” it felt like a knee to the groin. How many times have I heard variations on that, during painful conversations about how every guy was an asshole except me, yet I simply was not lovable enough for anything but brief, idle consideration. That’s how I perceived it, at any rate, answering their question inside my own head.

Then, the relationship would end, and sometimes the woman would look at me differently. She really wanted to make a serious go at love with a “nice guy,” and I was the nicest guy she knew. It wouldn’t take long for the problem to creep into the relationship: we both wanted chaos, but I didn’t bring any to the relationship. I was “a rock,” I was “too stoic,” I was “too nice,” and that made her feel unloved. To them, and to me, hostility and abuse meant passion. It meant he cared. Sometimes, it meant she could do the same terrible things, because his behavior gave her license. Me? I was too nice. When she cheated on me, she felt guilty that I trusted her. When she went on a binge, she felt guilty that I worried. She goaded me into participation, upping the ante to push me into getting angry and saying something vicious. When I started to play into her hand, I felt like the monster she would then tell me I was, and we would both live out a relentless psychodrama that made Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? look like Hannah Montana, embattled and embittered, until one or both of us crossed a line, and we were done.

Regardless of who was “at fault,” I’d inevitably feel guilty. I understood completely: she tried, but I just wasn’t what she really wanted. She and I wanted the exact same thing, so I couldn’t fault her for wanting more, even if “more” proved toxic. It never occurred to me that “less” also proved toxic, so really, neither of us would ever win. That also made me feel guilty, because at the time I didn’t care about me; I just wanted her to be happy.

And then would come the next one. Rinse. Repeat.

During this period, of course, I ranked The Apartment among my all-time favorite movies. Watching it again, I can’t argue against its craft. Every frame is beautiful to look at, the performances are top-notch, the script goes to unexpected places, and Billy Wilder’s direction is equally fearless, willing to play dark and serious as such instead of trying to keep it light. It is, objectively, a great movie. For a long time, the way I saw the myself and the world made it even greater. It served as a testament to the power of “real love,” that one day I would find my Fran Kubelik: an unstable, unfortunate, unpredictable woman who really did want to settle down with a nice, boring guy. And what I was looking for, then was not a break to the pattern, but a perfect version of it: someone who saw me and said, “Yes. I will be the Dharma to your Greg.”

Maybe that happens. My point is, I don’t want that anymore, and I feel like I wasted a lot of time thinking I ever did. And because I don’t want it, I found this viewing of The Apartment nearly impossible to sit through. Its very plot brought up a lot of bad memories, the way I used to feel about the movie and my relationships made me feel even worse about it, and most importantly, I no longer view it as a hopeful story. Maybe if it had a Graduate-style ending, leaving the characters on an uncertain up note, I might still be able to… No, I probably would call it more honest but still not be able to sit through it.

Is it dishonest, though? That’s the one question I can’t answer, because The Apartment is so rooted in ’50s sensibilities. Maybe that was a time when a well-meaning “elevator gal” felt the only way to land a decent husband (her civic duty, duh) was to allow a married executive to paw her, hoping he’d get a divorce. And maybe such women weren’t inherently chaotic and really did want a nice guy to settle down with—but it was not a great time to be a woman, and the culture worked against them. They worked with what they had, and what they had kind of sucked.

For me, though, what separates The Apartment from the ’50s mores is Fran Kubelik’s Seconal overdose. Even if it that was a commonplace reaction to brutal rejection (and I’m not sure I’d buy that even with a lot of sociological papers as evidence), I personally find it difficult to watch. Regardless of the times, it says something about Fran’s character, and it brings back very, very, very bad memories. These memories will always be a part of me, but that doesn’t mean I get a thrill from dredging them up.

This is different from a film like Alien, which brought back some uncomfortable memories but is still, at its core, a movie I can watch without thinking it presents a message and set of values that I reject. I don’t fear uncomfortable memories or emotions; on some level, that’s why I go to the movies. The Apartment, on a subjective level, presents the blossoming of a toxic relationship as a joyful romance for the ages. Love conquers all, and they live happily ever after, playing gin rummy and straining spaghetti through tennis racquets.

It’s also different from a song like “Forever Baby” by Juliana Hatfield, which chronicles this sort of relationship with a palpable sense of irony. A line like “I see the end of the road in his eyes / He sees a nice hotel in mine” adds an element of self-awareness that The Apartment entirely lacks. What I reject most about the film is its misguided, doe-eyed sincerity. I can’t accept that anymore.

Keep or Sell? Sell! Sell! Sell!

Up Next: Back to the Future (1985)

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  • […] the question, “Why did I like this in the first place?” With my other two Sells—The Apartment and Being John Malkovich—I know exactly why I loved them, and I think I have a pretty good […]

    150 Films #21: Brick (2006) | D. B. Bates 4 years ago Reply Link

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