Glengarry Glen Ross

OK, so it doesn’t take a salesman to say that Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) is a wonderful picture. It receives that exact kind of verbally old-school praise because it’s a classically good movie—based on a David Mamet play (1984), for which he won the Pulitzer and a Tony.

Salesmen are trying to peddle land deals. Yeah, they’re crooked, but it’s totally the chain of yelling with the true enemies offstage, only discussed with disdain or deference, like a little brother threatening to summon mom. The group desires leads for new clients. Overnight the office is burgled, and there’s a mystery. But I’m all 90s cynic, like “big whoop,” “plot schmot” and all that.

The movie is dialogue, spans about fifteen hours and only has men. (I mean, really, women say nothing in person, except for one Asian hostess making a throwaway comment about the paucity of diners in the restaurant). But two of the men, the most sympathetic (Jack Lemmon’s eyes!), are motivated by women, one a sick daughter, the other a smart wife.

Alec Baldwin gives one speech. Ed Harris does a decent job, with Alan Arkin playing off of him (in like a you think he [Arkin] is an idiot kind of way), until it is Arkin’s time to actually become a 3D character. Kevin Spacey was totally detestable: his character was snide, sure, but man I think anyone could do that role too, but it is Kevin Spacey, sharing the screen with 5 other A-listers. Maybe there just wasn’t the room, with Lemmon (my goodness, he’s really something!) and Pacino.

Thankfully, the force of Pacino was tempered. His character was seen early, but only referred to during the second act, not seen. Then he shows up with an absolutely wonderful monologue, which begins, “All train compartments smell vaguely of shit.” He gets the other sympathetic (practically mute because totally rapt with the Pac-man) character to sign a deal with the monologue; it’s really a mystifying and hypnotic piece of work, the dialogue and delivery.

GGR is short and filled with cursing—you just wish it were longer.

Two of the characters suffer so completely (the two men moved by the women in their families) in an office. Lemmon and Pacino were perfectly casted. And then there’s this terribly sad dude who shows up, the one to whom Pacino sold, playing this incredibly timid and self-conscious and worried husband who’s been tricked into making a purchase, and he cannot even trust himself (but doesn’t listen to himself about it, rather his wife [“my wife told me not to talk to you”]; he just wants to please—it is so sad!). But he was perfect, because hardly any man in Hollywood, especially now that PSH is gone, would open himself like Jonathan Pryce did. He just laid himself bare, but still, Lemmon eclipsed him.

There is something here though with movie stars. Spacey and Baldwin played assholes, and I cannot imagine them doing anything else. Arkin and Harris played sufficiently, bending themselves to the script, earning some credibility. Lemmon and Pacino stole their scenes—the best scene has them together. That’s all understandable and expected. And those are six actors whose careers have had incredible longevities, but Pryce, man that guy did well, because he’s a bit guy. He was able to open himself up because the audience didn’t need anything from him that was based on expectation. But also he’s a great actor. And I am tempted now to eulogize, to write some elegiac jeremiad about the loss of PSH, but we all feel it, I know.

Sans of Feel: These Men Aren’t Real

As an intermittent entertainment, I view movies in a theatre. To give you a sense of “intermittent,” the last 4 were Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 ; The Dark Knight Rises ; Django Unchained; and now, Man of Steel. Three (the first three) were highly anticipated. I didn’t care, not a bit nor ever, for the Man of Steel/Kal-El/Clark Kent. But why wasn’t I empathetic?

Three-fourths of his parental unit dies during the film. One “perishes” twice, and all three are taken by some sort of dissolution, in which each is seen painfully aware—even looking directly at the camera sometimes—of the audience (i.e., character or filmgoer or both) attending their annihilation.

Clark’s earthly father, Jonathan Kent, passes in a tornado: the Kent family is traveling on a Kansas road; Clark and Jonathan argue about Clark’s utilizing-thus-revealing his powers (which is SOP for the movie’s first hour) until they hit some traffic; the Kent troupe exits the car; Jonathan sends Clark and Martha (their wife/mother, respectively) under an overpass for safety; he struggles his way through the parked cars, heroically saving women and babies and even the Kent’s very own dog; from afar—under the overpass—Clark and Martha watch as Jonathan gets stuck in the car, precluding his escaping the twister, but he does have enough time to exit the car, stare at his family and hold his hand up—passing up the help, commanding Superman to restrain himself—just before he (Jonathan) is immersed in the stormy violence of thrown cars, etc.

Yes, Jonathan Kent is a martyr, who dies in statement for the case he’s preached hitherto. And this is the most touchingly beautiful scene in the movie for so many reasons. In the (self-insistence and self-)interest of full disclosure, the inherent emotional appeal of the scene itself is blind to this reviewer because of two closely related factors: the movie was viewed on Father’s Day and this reviewer will be a first-time father in approx. 28 days. So perhaps the effect was compounded by this reviewer’s context. But gosh, Jonathan Kent was played by Kevin Costner, of all empathy-resistant actors. I mean, I think even my father-in-law thinks KC a “cornball,” possibly even voicing the sentiment via this same cognomen. However, when Costner raised his hand—the universal symbol for “STOP”—my body went into anti-survival mode: i.e., it attempted to empty itself of saline H2O, to dehydrate itself—even utilizing the ducts under its epicanthic folds.

Anyway, this moment in the film and my experience thereof protrude as the only memorable/meaningful part(s). This isn’t to say I don’t recall portions (even large useless portions) of the film, but the contrast between my involvement or investment in this moment and all the others summoned a deeper consideration of the film. Jonathan’s resistance to Clark’s revealing himself was indeed the logical act, predicated on the prior actions, but still, why was it—coming before the film’s midpoint—so different?

 

My real beef with MOS: I don’t relate. To whom am I supposed to relate in this film? I tell my students that empathy is the deep secret of literature—I think I learned this from Eliot, but he’s not telling. I say, hey literature is about humans and how to live and what life is, etc. And we look to the humans to show us these things, but if a story doesn’t have any human-characters, then we shall consider the other characters (be they animal or alien or objects, et al) as avatars. At any rate, a real world/-view should be presented, and the audience granted access to navigate said world/-view through the story’s characters.

One could persuasively argue that I spend the majority of my professional life proving to skeptical students that we can actually relate to stories, so I have a little experience and, more importantly, genuine investment in the matter. But Man of Steel doesn’t do this. It presents these 2D characters throughout, who even claim to be 1D sometimes (most Kryptonians [think: Zod explaining his now-purposeless existence, etc.). Superheroes must be embattled, sure, but so must most other characters. Isn’t life inherently embattled?

The film shows Clark Kent saving lives from 0:00:01 to the oh-so-distant end. Is he too good to be relatable? Here we could investigate the Superman-as-Jesus discussion (a cursory Googling will inform you). And we could consider if stories that follow Jesus—as main character—are relatable, etc. The overwhelming answer here is yes; for more than two millennia large groups of people have found the story of Jesus compelling. Sure, this is for a variety of reasons, but I’ll take up one: the people who mostly find the story enjoyable are those who are affected by it, those who believe they are part of it. In other words, the story forces a group of people (depending on audience’s awareness/beliefs) into the story; this is ‘auto-empathy.’ In Jesus’ story (affectionately known as a/the gospel), there are some real humans around the guy: the disciples, Pharisees, a whole retinue of sinners, etc. And again if the reader is so inclined, she can insert herself into the story.

MOS shows characters who are not embattled; the characters haven’t internal struggles but are rather negotiating their relationships to externalities (e.g., a boss who doesn’t want Lois to print a story, the impending destruction of Krypton/human race, etc.) The characters react to these events in such prescribed and obvious ways that there really is no conflict. The ubiquitous air of absent conflict ruins MOS and Superman-as-story. Not only are the non-titular characters facile, but Clark Kent is also: his two problems in the film were discovering his origin and defending humanity. In a way, Jor-El (Russell Crowe; Clark’s heavenly [God-the-]father) solved both problems for his son, like pre-solved/predestined. Empathy demands suspense [I think I believe this currently]. But I was never suspended, never actually contemplating Superman’s survival, wondering whether or not this grandiose moneymaker will end itself by killing the MOS. Plus, he’s Superman.

I think the real problem here was that the film didn’t spend enough time with the characters. The audience is denied the truth of the characters. At one point, as NYC-proxy Metropolis endures the wrath of Zod’s world-builder, etc., a colleague/intern of Lois Lane’s is trapped inside a cage of concrete and rebar. Laurence Fishburne unsuccessfully struggles to extricate her, but I don’t think he ever does (this was late in the movie mind you, as my attention began to wane); she did eventually survive though. Anyway, I was sitting there, watching an actress act like she was close to death, in the same way that KC was trapped in the path of the tornado, and I did not care. I knew she would be saved, because the movie isn’t about her or the frailty of human life or loss. It’s about the MOS, a story so much bigger than my day-to-day affairs that it’s fundamentally inhuman, and thus unidentifiable.

Maybe, this is less an observation of the film than it is of the film’s audience. The movie’s substance (sic; “LOL”)—I don’t have the will nor stomach to check the numbers—is its action; I’d estimate that more than half of the movie was fighting—yes, physical(ly) on-screen battle. There were possibly more punches than pronouncements, more destruction than dialogue, more kicks than candor, more eye-lasers than I-love-yous—more violence than viability. So if you like Transformers (Bay) or UFC, or you belong to the I-only-watch-sport-x-for-the-crashes/fights, then go see MOS. And if you revel in the cerebral, prepare to do much of the work yourself during your viewing of MOS, because it does mention some very important themes, which ironically come from the mouths of Kryptonians, the film’s de facto human-like avatars.

 

 

Note: this reviewer’s expectations/judgments could be a result of having finished Season 4 of Breaking Bad the night before viewing the film at hand.