Mamet Madness

I once worked in an office with someone on top of the sales department who was the biggest asshole, a musclebound jerk who thought the world revolved around him. He would yell at his sales team in such a cutting way I would get an urge to yell back at him, though I was but an underling in a completely separate department - perhaps I should have.

At the start of Glengarry Glen Ross, Alec Baldwin, brought in to pump up sales at a real estate office, lays into these people he doesn't even know with a speech that would make Mr. T weep. His announcement of a sales contest doesn't meet with the usual enthusiasm, for though the top prize is a car, number three is being fired.

David Mamet has a gift for florid dialog, and Baldwin's speech reaches heights I've never heard in real life. At the same time, though, such well-spoken, rhythmic prose creates a slight distance from reality. When I hear someone laid into from a few scant feet away, I know exactly how low that person is considered. When it's through a screen, I'm left wondering how anyone could hold up that level of anger and antipathy while sustaining such a mastery of the language.

Now, movies aren't a direct translation of reality, and I'm only talking slight degrees here. This film is an adaptation of Mamet's play to the screen, and it shows in terms of language, and your average scene length. Or perhaps I should even say mean scene length here (don't blame me for having a math background). The frame is exploited well enough by director James Foley, but such long scenes are somewhat antithetical to the artistry of film. The quicker pacing of scenes in so many movies is often as much about art as it is about keeping an audience from being bored. Is this a big problem? Not at all, but it's there as a reminder that we are not watching this material in its native habitat.

On the other hand, the language brings the characters alive. They swear up and down, and roughly every second or third line. They are real, and this stable of actors is unlike any brought together before or since: Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Kevin Spacey, Alan Arkin, and Ed Harris all work in the office, and deal with the spreading gloom and doom in their own individual ways. These actors truly inhabit the characters, and make the somewhat challenging words real and in the moment.

The plot isn't there so much to tell a story but for the characters to reveal themselves with. Normally, I'd write down at least a few sentences to let you know what to expect, and with most films, it's not a real issue - you probably even know as much from the trailers already. Here, though, I'd be giving away character traits that are much more enjoyable when they are discovered. In all honest, there are many more character revelations than there are actual plot points in this film. Mamet is one of the few who can pull off this kind of stunt writing.

The title refers to two different real estate developments - "Glengarry" and "Glen Ross". Getting away with referencing two such similarly named items in a script is hard to do, as people will tend toward confusion. Here, though, it works because people are aware of the title, and there's a certain subtle, wry humor in it. Usually, I'd rail against such naming, but it's not that bad here, perhaps because of how it works as play title.

I wonder how my old coworker (somehow the word seems too benign to describe him) would react to seeing this film - I don't think it at all likely as I'm sure his tastes would lie elsewhere. Would he recognize himself? Would he get off on the cutthroat nature of the situation introduced in this office? I can't quite say, as I hardly pursued any contact with this fellow at all. I would hope it would cure him of his particular brand of social darwinism, though the content could just as easily reinforce his existing perspective. Those who are determined have a tendency to interpret the world from their own viewpoint only. And that, in a sense, is the lesson of this film.

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