Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Losers In Gengarry Glen Ross

David Mamet once referred to some of the characters he writes about as being at "the bottom of the food chain." In the film version of Glengarry Glen Ross, Alec Baldwin's character seems to exist for the sole purpose of telling the real estate salesmen played by Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris and Alan Arkin that they are losers, driving that point home in a extraordinary torrent of abuse. (Al Pacino plays a 4th salesman working in the same office. He's not present for Baldwin's tirade, which seems appropriate, as he has been selling much better lately than the other 3.)

Technically, Baldwin's talk with the salesmen might be called a motivational speech, except that its intent seems to be to de-motivate. He tells the salesmen they're all fired, and that two of them have one week left in the month to win their jobs back. First place in the month's sales contest, as they already know, is a Cadillac; second place, a set of steak knives. Baldwin drops the package of steak knives onto the table and tells them that third prize is they're fired. Harris responds to some verbal abuse by asking who Baldwin is, and Baldwin responds by intensifying the abuse. He tells Harris that he came to the meeting in an $80,000 BMW, while Harris drove a Hyundai. (This was 1992, the range of Hyundais available in the US was considerably humbler than it is today.)

Baldwin takes off his watch, tells Harris it's worth more than Harris' car, sets the watch down next to Harris and walks away as if he's forgotten all about it, continuing with the verbal abuse about how the salesmen in the office are losers, how they aren't really men.

I haven't seen this since long before I became daffy for watches, so I couldn't tell you a thing about the watch. Anybody who's watched the scene can tell you how intensely Harris stares at the watch, as if he sees nothing else, as if perhaps he no longer hears Baldwin either. He wants that watch so badly, the watch or the level of success that would allow him to wear one like it. He looks as if he's right about to snap, and --

And what? Pick up the watch? What if he did, what would Baldwin do? Was Baldwin really so oblivious to the watch and Harris so crazed that he'd just steal it, put it in his pocket without Baldwin noticing?

Or maybe he'd just hold it for a while and look at it. Maybe Baldwin would notice very well, and say, "You like that, huh?"

Harris, exhaling in a gasp: "Yes."

"You like how heavy that is? You can feel it's solid gold. Go ahead, put it on. Go ahead, do it, live a little. Nice, isn't it?"

"Very nice."

"Glad you like it. It's yours."

"You're giving it to me?"

"I said it's yours. I'm not fuckin with you. I'm giving you that watch. Your gift from me to you. You feel good?"

"...Yeah!"

"Lotta positive energy flowing through you. Okay. That's selling. You saw something you liked, you reached out and took it. Congratulations. That's selling! Okay, stand up, get out of here, keep that energy flowing and sell the shit out of those leads. Just him." Baldwin motions for Lemmon and Arkin to sit back down. "His sit is over. I'm not done with you clowns yet." He calls after the departing Harris, "You better do good, son. I see how much you like that watch. It'd be a shame if next week you have to sell it to a pawnshop for grocery money while you're looking for your next job."

Dramatic, but not really Mamet-level drama. Maybe when Harris picks up the watch Baldwin reacts negatively, puts his hands on Harris, maybe Harris punches him and then suddenly everybody in the office is in a melee.

I think both of those alternate scenarios occurred to me because the scene hurts so much and I want it to be different. But pain is the point of the scene, and Mamet doesn't wimp out: Harris never touches the watch. It's a carrot that's being dangled in front of him to make him work hard. Maybe he even knows it's a carrot, and doesn't expect to ever reach it, and still can't stop sitting there and staring and hurting. Harris' face is so expressive in that moment, he makes the viewer feel his desperate rage, but also his despair.

It really is too bad that since 1992 Mamet has flipped out and become a Tea Party Republican asshole.

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