“The Salesman”: dramatic film from Iran layers with an American classic stage drama

The Salesman” is Asghar Farhadi’s candidate in the Oscars, and at this writing it’s unclear whether he will be able to attend, given Donald Trump’s political and now judicial crisis over immigration.

It comes as a surprise that Iran, with whom the US has no formal diplomatic relations and considerable official antagonism, looks as modern as it is in film and that the people live rather self-interested lives, with relatively little reference to Islam.  True, in the opening scene an apartment building starts to collapse because of construction next door, and the flat that the lead character, actor and teacher Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and wife Rana (Taraneh Aldossti) move to looks cramped and cookie-cutter.  The improbable house “fall” does satisfy a tenet of screenwriting, that a film should open with the characters being put in a real crisis, in order to hook the viewers. I don’t think that’s always necessary.

The film provides an excellent example of layering:  the top level story, leading to a tragic death of a older theater principal and landlord, embeds scenes from Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”, and from the Persian story “The Cow” (Gholem-Hossein Sa’edi) which Emad teaches to his teen boy students in his day job (with a BW film excerpt).

The 1949 Miller play, especially the scenes shown in the film (in Farsi) certainly plays on the values of “sales culture”, where the husband proves he can manipulate customers to indulge a dependent family. In the play, that culture produces tragic results.

In the highest level of the story, Emad and Rana find that a female prostitute had lived there before, and the possibility of johns returning creates the tragic unraveling of the high-level plot.

Wikipedia link for scene in Tehran similar to film.

Name:  “The Salesman”
Director, writer:  Asghar Farhadi (Iran)
Released:  2016
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Angelika Mosaic 2017/2/5, small audience, late afternoon (Super Bowl competes)
Length:  126
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  Cohen Media Group, Amazon Studios
Link:  official

(Posted: Sunday, February 5, 2015 at 8:30 PM EST)

 

“Collateral Beauty”: this time, personal grief and metaphysical meditation don’t mix so well

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Name: “Collateral Beauty”
Director, writer: David Frankel, Alan Loeb
Released: 2016/12
Format: 2.35:1
When and how viewed: Regal Ballston Common, 2016/12/16
Length 97
Rating PG-13
Companies: Warner Brothers, New Line Cinema, Village Roadshow Pictures
Link: official site

Collateral Beauty” (directed by David Frankel and written by Alan Loeb) is the third straight film here dealing with the loss of a relationship, and unusual ways to deal with the grief (two of the three settings are straight). But this movie, from its billing by Warner Brothers and New Line, seems to aim to replace “The Tree of Life” (2011) as a mystic mediation. It falls far short. It doesn’t goes as deep into the cosmos as Terrence Malick would take it.

Will Smith plays Howard, the president of a Madison Avenue agency (although most of the film seems shot in Brooklyn) lecturing his staff about the three components of life: Love, Time, and Death. He has this hobby of setting up domino waves to fall. (Model trains would sound so much more constructive).

Three years later, he’s in deep depression, over the loss of his daughter to a brain tumor. He lives alone in a Brooklyn efficiency, without phone or Internet or friends. He’s behind in rent. He writes letters to those three components of life The board of the company wants to have him declared incompetent, and hires private detectives to tail him for evidence.

They also hire his subordinates to break into his mailbox to steal the letters, and to impersonate the three Characters as actors. (Sounds like a “Retake”). Soon we learn of the losses of some of the other characters, especially Simon (Michael Pena) who has his third bout of multiple myeloma after two remissions.

There’s an all star cast, comprising Edward Norton (“Primal Fear”, “The Illusionist”), Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley, and Naomie Harris.

The orchestra music score by Theodore Shapiro sometimes echoes a passacaglia theme resembling Hans Zimmer’s music for “Inception”.

The film, to its credit, does dramatize the emotional intensity of interpersonal loss, something I have never experienced this way (but then again, there is “Manchester” to compare this to).

(Posted: Friday. Dec. 16, 2016 at 7:15 PM EST)

“American Honey”: teens sell door-to-door to support an on-the-road commune

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Name: American Honey
Director, writer:  Andrea Arnold
Released:  2016
Format:  1.37:1
When and how viewed:  2016/10/11 Angelica Mosaic evening small crowd
Length 163
Rating R
Companies: A24, Film4
Link: official

American Honey”, by Andrea Arnold, presents the world of door-to-door selling, which I had thought antiquated, with a twist:  it’s done by a vagabond of teenagers and young adults with a kind of on-the-road intentional community.

Star (Sasha Lane), some “white trash” from Texas nearly gets arrested by security in a suburban Kansas City supermarket, when she gets “hired” by the crew in the parking lot.  It’s led by Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and Krystal (Riley Keough), who labels her as a “honey”.

“Hiya” Shia is now 30, and begins to look it, with just a slight pot,  You want him to remain perfect, a role model, even with his past scuffles with the law.  Imdb says LaBeouf got twelve tattoos during the filming (or were they the new temporary digital tattoos from Microsoft, the so-called DuoSkin?)

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Most of the rest of the teens are tattooed and rather guttural, although that doesn’t always hold when they hit the road.

The crew has a business selling magazine subscriptions.  I can remember being approached and buying one of these around 1979 after moving to Dallas, and I even bought an unnecessary life insurance policy this way.  Two of the salesmen, it turned out, played chess, and I actually lost a game with White to one of them (I think to a Two Knights Defense – slurp!).

The crew starts out by canvassing one of the most opulent neighborhoods in suburban Kansas City, around the fountains.  I would think rich people, having a lot to lose, would refuse to admit door-to-door people out of fear of home invasion.  Even saying that is dangerous and seems to invite radical class warfare – insularity of the rich would keep a lot of people from being able to make a living at all.  But this one rich woman admits them and offers them refreshments out of Christian radical hospitality – until Star acts up around her kids and everybody gets kicked out.  The sales pitches play up the hokey poverty and charity angles.

Later the crew goes on the road to the North Dakota oil fields, with a stop in the Bad Lands.  Here it’s appropriate to note the artistic decision to shoot this 16-minute Altman-like film in 1.37:1, in order to focus on the closeups, 40s style.  But I wanted to see the outdoor stuff.  There’s a spectacular shot of downtown Kansas City, which I remember well from my graduate school days in the 1960s at KU (in Lawrence, KS).

With oil workers, the crew encourage blue collar mentality, which could make sales easier;  and finally they wind up selling to poor native Americans, who have nothing to lose (except diabetes).

Gradually, and predictably, Star begins to offer her body to make sales.  She starts developing an uneven relationship with Jake.  She teaches Jake how to use his pistol, which Jake uses to rescue Star from a barbecue where she may be about to be raped.  But the “home invasion” never happens.  The kids actually don’t want to harm anyone.

The film also shows a couple thunderstorms, and I wondered if there was going to be a tornado sequence (like the frogs in  Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia”.  This movie also reminded a bit of Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” (1993).   Another comparison would be Brent Huff’s 2002 comedy “100 Mile Rule”, about the “always be closing” aspect of sales culture.   (There was another Brent in the screenwriting group in Minneapolis in 2003 who was floating a script “I Hate Speed-dating”.  I wonder if it got anywhere.)

Near the end, there is a curious scene where a female bear accosts Star outdoors, and lovingly sniffs Star, as if to tell Star that she (Star) is pregnant.  Will animal mothers know these things about moms of other species.

As for the sales culture in the film – it presents the idea that a lot of people live in a world where everything is about manipulating others to play ball with you.  That’s how Donald Trump (who gets mentioned) thinks.

Pictures: Mine, 2006 (Flint Hills, KS and KC Star press)

(Posted: Wednesday, Oct, 12, 2016, 10:30 AM EDT)