Thursday, March 26, 2015

Salesman **** (1968)

Stories about salesman are the barometer American culture. From Arthur Miller's tragic Willy Loman to David Mamet's sleazy real estate firm in Glengarry Glen Ross to Scorsese's crew of amoral stock brokers in The Wolf of Wall Street - all expose an evolving American ethos.  Unlike the others, The Maysles Brothers documentary Salesman captured the real thing and exposed the false promise of capitalism in the process.  What better subject than using the bible as a profit making tool?  As Dylan wrote in "It's All Right Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)", "It's easy to see without looking too far/that not much is really sacred."

Cameras follow four bible salesman and record their interactions among themselves and customers. Typically they interact with housewives, but sometimes others enter the picture.  In a bizarre moment a husband starts playing loud music (Muzak versions of Beatle songs) on a gigantic stereo as the salesman performs his pitch. The camera captures every nuance as they employ every means necessary to sell their bibles.

Early on in Salesman, their boss, a humorless motivational speaker, delivers a soul sucking speech basically saying if you cannot make the sales you are a failure as a person. Meanwhile other salesman stand up and deliver "motivational" speeches about their prowess with sales, each trying to top the other.  That is their world.

The film pays particular attention to "Badger", an aging salesman in a serious slump. As he observes his younger colleagues achieve success, he grows increasingly cynical. So he starts to use questionable methods such as putting customers on guilt trips, shaming them, even going for their sympathy.  Despite his pettiness, we oddly identify with him and root for him to get the sale.

Unlike modern documentaries, Salesman's not an op-ed piece. The camera simply reveals a reality.  There's no talking heads, animated sequences, or stock footage from old movies. What you see on screen is what you get.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Stardust Memories *** (1980)

Stardust Memories follows fictional director Sandy Bates (Woody Allen) as he attends a retrospective of his earlier, funnier films.  Gordon Willis shot the film in pristine back and white.  Allusions to Bergman and Fellini are plentiful in Allen's satire of film culture. At the festival, Sandy finds himself assaulted by hangers on offering him scripts, out of work actors begging for parts in his films, critics asking pretentious questions, and his legion of movie geeks. There's a great irony there, because the geeks now run Hollywood and every one's a critic these days. Meanwhile, he juggles relationships with two women and gets advice from Martian visitors.  Set at the beginning of the 80s, in a world free of i-phones and instagram, Stardust Memories looks even more refined in 2015.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Lazarus Effect *1/2

The Lazarus Effect begins as a Sc-Fi parable and erupts into a full fledged horror film. With two charming leads in Mark Duplass and Olivia Wilde (who deserve better material), The Lazarus Effect quickly goes off the rails into total incoherence. Duplass and Wilde play medical scientists who dabble with a serum that can revive the dead.  After their lab is closed by a mysterious corporation, they perform the experiments on their own with painfully predictable results. The Frankenstein theme goes nowhere. Then the film inexplicably transitions into a zombie movie without any explanation!  At 80 minutes, The Lazarus Effect at least ends soon enough.