The guys at the The Q Filmcast do a podcast every week where they pick a film on Netflix to discuss. It is a surprisingly good show. There are five of them and they never seem to agree. Thus far, I have agreed the most with their producer Adam Rodgers, who the rest of the gang seem to think is a cinematic philistine. I don’t consider myself a philistine, but I do constantly rebel against what I think of as the professionalization of mediocrity. If you have the money to hire professionals, it is trivial to tell a standard story in a standard way. In general, I’m more into psychotronics and more generally personal art that is thrilling but often inconsistent or worse.
So when I heard that the Q boys were going to watch Glengarry Glen Ross, I was excited. I’ve been meaning to watch it for years, but I hadn’t gotten around to it. So I curved up with it Friday night and watched. It is everything that you expect from a David Mamet film. And if you like him, I don’t see how you can go wrong. Unfortunately, I don’t like Mamet. That’s not to say that I always hate his work. For one thing, when I read American Buffalo when I was a kid, I thought it was fantastic. But that was my introduction to him. Since then, I think everything that Mamet has to offer is on display in that play.
I remember reading that in his original script for The Verdict, Mamet ended without the jury coming back. I admire this. The story is about the personal redemption of Frank Galvin. It doesn’t matter that he wins the case in practice; we’ve seen that he has won in the eyes of Galvin. But it does have a resolution because Mamet is constrained by Barry Reed’s novel. When Mamet is not constrained by someone else’s story, he doesn’t bother to even come up with a story. Generally, he writes stories that are “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
This is entirely true of Glengarry Glen Ross. It tells the story of four salesmen and an office manager. The owners of the company have decided to have a sales contest where the top two win prizes and the bottom two are fired. We only get two days into the month before the entire office is destroyed. As is typical of Mamet, he seems not at all interested in the absurdity of the situation. Nor does he seem to be aware that ultimately the owners are to blame—you make people too desperate and they will turn on each other. Of course, they already have, just in smaller ways. We learn, for example, that the office manager has been giving out good leads to agents he likes and bad leads to agents he doesn’t. In fact, my reading of the script is that the agents’ sales are totally determined by the leads given to them, just as they allege throughout the film.
All of this conflict is in the service only of the conflict itself. The thematic core of the film comes when a once great salesman (Jack Lemmon) asks the office manager (Kevin Spacey) why he is trying to destroy him. The office manager says, “Because I don’t like you.” That’s the tautological message of the film: people are cruel because people are cruel. I don’t doubt that Mamet sees the world like that. But that isn’t the way the world seems to me. People are cruel to each other mostly because they get an advantage from it. Mamet’s take on the world is the simplistic mentality of pubescent boys who haven’t learned how to manage their hormones.
Along with the unrealism of the plot, we have the highly stylized Mamet dialog. In small doses, it’s fine. But I’ve been inundated with it for decades. It hasn’t grown. It’s the same thing we always get from him. And sadly, it is the same thing we get from a lot of writers who have followed after him. If it weren’t for how foul it all is, I’m sure critical opinion on it would have changed and more people would admit to how annoying it is. But okay, it is what it is. What is is not is realistic.
I know that Glengarry Glen Ross would work much better as a play. That was especially true of the scenes between Moss (Ed Harris) and Aaronow (Alan Arkin). These are very funny, fast paced dialogs. But the director James Foley decided not to do them in a two shot or similar. So we cut back and forth between the characters very fast. It not only makes one’s head spin, it distracts from the dialog. There is no continuity. I have no idea why it was done that way. I am rarely even tempted to say something I don’t like is wrong, but here it is hard to escape that conclusion.
The film does not expand itself very much from the play. At times, I think that works rather well. The opening in payphones worked really well, for example. It reminded me of the art direction in the 1996 version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But the vast majority of the film takes place in the office. And other than it looking totally like something built on a sound stage, it had nothing of the otherworldly feel of the other locations.
There are things to admire in the film, however: mostly the acting. It is great. Kevin Spacey as the small minded and hateful office manager was wonderful. Al Pacino gave a slightly muted performance, which was perfect for the flamboyant “closer” of the office. (Am I saying that Pacino usually over-acts? Yes!) Lemmon, Harris, and Arkin were all excellent. Alec Baldwin tried very hard but was not properly supported by the direction. The standout performance was Jonathan Pryce in a small role with almost no dialog. Throughout the film, I felt he was the human ombudsman, looking on in horror, “What kind of creatures are you anyway?”
I know that a lot of people will like Glengarry Glen Ross. And there is no doubt that Mamet is probably more in tune with American attitudes toward drama than he ever has been. But I think a close viewing of the film shows its problems. It is ultimately empty socially and spiritually. It has nothing to say and it says it in the most offensive way it can. And as much as that is modern America, I don’t want to be reminded. So in the end, my feelings about the film are the same as Adam’s: I just don’t like it; it makes me feel bad without any enrichment. Regardless of how we dress up our feelings about a film post facto, that’s what it all comes down to. It would seem that Adam is just being more honest than the rest of us.