Glengarry, Glen Ross; Moral Clarity v. Moral Ambiguity

This was an unlikely film, but more than worth the price of admission, if only to see this scene:

You don’t have to be a fan of Alec Baldwin to appreciate the talent that went into that soliloquy.  This was back in the days when Baldwin was a handsome up and comer on the Hollywood scene; his looks had a unique combination of sensitivity and menace that made him perfect for this role.

What is the story about, though?  On the surface, it’s about the tough life of real estate salesmen.  Their grit, their drive, their will to “succeed”, or at least make a living.

But underneath – and there’s always an “underneath” – it’s about moral compromise and the slippery slope from there to moral depravity.  This aspect of the story is illustrated not so much by Alec Baldwin’s brilliant scene but by Al Pacino’s:

Of course, this being a movie about salesmen, Pacino’s musings are not even genuine:  they’re a sales pitch.  In fact, it’s all a sales pitch, or a sales pitch within a sales pitch – even Baldwin’s harangue.  But, the bottom line is that Pacino – agnostic about heaven and hell in the usual sense – refuses to live in “hell” on earth, which he believes in because he has seen it.  You vaguely get the sense of what he means:  to be poor, to be deprived of life’s pleasures like women and fine dining, is to be in hell.  If moral compromise is required to avoid that, then so be it.

If moral abrogation is required, so be that, too.  Glengarry Glen Ross ends up precisely there.

The counter-narrative to this story is the uncompromising hero, the man who will not bend to moral ambiguity in the face of a clear moral choice.  These can often be shallow tales with simple conflicts and a happy ending, but there are more nuanced examples as well.  One such is “The Year of the Dragon”, a big production but oddly obscure film in which a police officer played by Mickey Rourke takes on the well connected Chinese mafia of New York City.  The first few minutes of the following clip poses some of the issues the film explores:

In reality, refusing to compromise can be damaging, even devastating, to those around you.  The Rourke character’s zeal to see justice done has gotten his wife killed, his girlfriend raped, alienated his long time friends and colleagues, isolated him and nearly killed him.  Refusing to compromise can exact a terrible price.

And so there is irony as well.  The effort for moral clarity itself produces moral ambiguity:  is it right or proper or just to inflict, or accept the infliction of,  so much destruction and pain and suffering for the sake of some principle?  Even assuming you are right and everyone else is wrong, is it worth it?

Pray that you not be put to the test.

More fundamentally, do we live in a world where neither alternative is tolerable?  That is, a world where after a point we cannot tolerate the moral ambiguity of compromise, but then neither can we tolerate the ironic moral ambiguity of moral clarity?

Maybe Scorsese has it right:  We each have to decide for ourselves how much sin we can live with.


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