Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
Written by David Mamet
Directed by James Foley
Capitalism. What a nightmare. We don’t talk enough about avarice in America. That frenzied, hateful greed fuels some people’s minds & souls. They can never find fulfillment in contentment, being happy and appreciative of what they have, spurred on by institutions that depend on this hunger to never be satiated. Playwright David Mamet does an incredible job of depicting this inhumanity in Glengarry Glen Ross. His characters are trapped on a broken hamster wheel, given expectations they cannot possibly meet, and punished for trying to find a loophole in the system to avoid the inevitable outcome. Unemployment is not an accidental byproduct of capitalism but an intended outcome. It makes people live in terror that they will fall to the bottom of the ladder, and they learn to treat everyone else around them with hatred as they see them as competitors for the same crumbs.
A group of real estate salesmen are competing with each other. Only the top two salesmen will be kept on at the end of the month (a week away when the film starts), and the rest will be fired. The office manager, John (Kevin Spacey), hands out several leads that the other men immediately & accurately assess as no good. Shelly Levene (Jack Lemmon) is a veteran who has run out of steam, the old tricks don’t work anymore, and he doesn’t know how to work with leads from people who aren’t serious about selling their property or buying any. Richie Roma (Al Pacino) isn’t worried as he is the firm’s golden boy, able to seemingly sell anything. Dave (Ed Harris) and George (Alan Arkin) grumble at the Chinese restaurant/bar across the street about how to get ahead. They know John keeps the good leads locked up in his office. If they could just get in there and grab them, they could make some big money by selling them to a rival firm. The story plays out over two crucial days in these men’s lives that culminate in their realization that they cannot win and that the game was fixed against them from the start.
I began thinking about the Maysles Brothers’ incredible documentary, Salesman, while watching this film. They would make a hell of a bleak double feature about what capitalism does to the men who wholly give themselves over to it. In both instances, we have people selling things whose value is dubious from an outsider’s perspective. Even from the salesmen’s point of view, they are trying but not too hard because without saying it out loud, they know this is all a big joke. They convinced themselves long ago that they were smarter & better than the rest of the workers because they could trick some of them successfully. Now decades into this career, their soul has experienced deep rot, yet they cannot escape. They don’t know how to do anything else, even if they aren’t doing it well anymore.
Each character is so distinct. Shelly can’t seem to be in any mode other than “desperate salesman.” Roma is coolly confident and arrogant, so he doesn’t see himself in these other salesmen. Realistically, it’s only a matter of time before someone younger and even more cutthroat comes along and unseats him. George is the human equivalent of Eeyore, old like Shelly but no longer exuding desperation that anything will get better. Dave is an animal caught in a bear trap, backed up into a corner, snarling & snapping at anything he perceives as a threat. In the back of his head, he knows he’s done for.
Motivation in such a system doesn’t make you feel better; it threatens. Yes, there are some prizes for the top two salesmen, but the fire that gets these people moving is the threat of losing their job. The topper is all the leads they are given are known duds. A speaker (Alec Baldwin) is sent in by the bosses Mitch & Murray to “motivate” the men, and this speech consists of berating & insults. The men leave motivated, yes, but not to sell property. Instead, they start having conversations about ways to break the system and screw over their employer before getting screwed. Roma is successful because he’s erased all morality from his mind, but I wonder if he or any of these other guys have lives outside of the job. It doesn’t seem like it. They exist to trick people into buying bad real estate. Hardly the stuff that emboldens the human spirit.
David Mamet, a somewhat controversial figure, especially after remarks he made post-9/11, does (or at least did) have a sense of the immortality of capitalism. In an interview about Glengarry, he said, “We are spiritually bankrupt — that’s what’s wrong with this country. We don’t take Sundays off. We don’t pray. We don’t regenerate our spirit. These things aren’t luxuries; they’re necessities for humankind, for modern men and women, just as they were for ancient men and women. The spirit has to be replenished. There has to be time for reflection, introspection, and a certain amount of awe and wonder. There are certain things we need to survive — food, shelter, and spiritual security. We can’t get along without it. But we’ve become so materialistic, so avaricious, that our capacity for love has become injured.”
While we may disagree about the exact prescription for the malady, I wholeheartedly agree with Mamet’s statement here. America is a society wholly lacking in introspection. We aren’t afforded the time to sit and be within ourselves, contemplate what we are alive for, and why we wake up in the morning. Even when we have “spare time,” that’s often taken up by gorging various distractions. We consume content, not art. The media is constructed to never mirror the conditions of our world but be “aspirational” or “escapist.” The human mind needs to confront itself occasionally to assess the value of how we have invested the most essential currency in our possession, life. We are born with an account whose balance is unknown until the end. Each day we wake up, we spend from that account that cannot replenish. As I see it, the goal is to come to death and feel satisfied with how you invested that life and how you spent your limited time. The pursuits we are encouraged to go after in American society leave us sick of ourselves and what we have done, exchanging life for hollow objects and unfulfilling relationships.
For me, Glengarry Glen Ross’s Death of a Salesman and Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a perfect trilogy on the state of the American soul. They showcase how empty the lives we are instructed to live ultimately are and that the commonly offered remedy is “just don’t overthink it,” which translates to “don’t think at all.” Humans are the animal with the most potential to become something incredible. I don’t think that happens by continuing with the system as it is. Neoliberalism tells us we live at “the end of history,” that all ways of thought have been explored & discovered, and that there are no new ways to live that existing in a collection of marketplaces is the best we can hope for. Our species, at least the ones found in Western civilization, have had blinders strapped on that dull our imagination for what life could be. They limit how we think about work & consumption. It’s no way to live, but it’s certainly a way to die fast & of a broken spirit.