Monday, November 15, 2004

Death of a Salesman Directed by Volker Schlondorff

Willy Loman has become an iconic figure in American society. He is the everyman, bandied about by big business, struggling to provide for his family, and king of the self-defeaters. All this and more is apparent when reading Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, but it rains in spades in Schlondorff’s filmic version.

Loman (you have to love that name: low man) is played by Dustin Hoffman, who wears the part like a familiar suit and tie. He is an absolutely beaten man – a former sales star, now on the verge of being terminated by his company. Loman’s identity is his job. He is a salesman, and, in his own eyes, a well-liked one. The heartbreaker in this, which is more apparent when viewing the film or play rather than reading it, is that even Loman’s memories of himself as a great man are false. All the flashbacks take place entirely inside Loman’s head, rendering them suspect. Through his family, especially his son Biff (John Malkovich), the audience learns the truth that Willy Loman isn’t even a has-been; he’s just a never-was.

Schlondorff (The Tin Drum, Coup de Grace, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum) has an assured and influential directorial hand here as well, at least with respect to the look of the film. The Loman house, like any good American house, is full of holes both physical and metaphorical, although, in this case, the metaphorical holes make their physical presence known as well. Each interior wall is free standing, with a 2 ft. gap in-between it and the next wall. This gives the impression that we are peering into Lomans’ lives, through holes that are not supposed to exist. Schlondorff’s imagination continues into the rest of the set design. Rather than make than set the film in an actual town, it takes place on a soundstage. The backdrop is simple yet hauntingly effective: rear projections of silhouetted decaying cities foregrounded with a cemetery. This is Willy Loman’s world; he’s stuck between death and a crumbling job.

The film culminates with Biff telling Willy, his own father, the frightening truth that they are both nobody, and that they will never be somebody. It’s a frightening prospect, and one that deserves a great deal of contemplation, but if Willy Loman is an everyman, doesn’t that make all of us Willy Loman?


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