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The Store

Posted by martinteller on May 31, 2013

For his first color documentary, Frederick Wiseman takes us inside the Dallas Neiman Marcus store on the eve of the Christmas rush.  In his typical “direct cinema” style — no titles, no narration — he shows us the workings of the high-end department store.  We see meetings among the managers, trying to find new ways to get their “best” customers into the store.  We see people motivating their sales staff with finger calisthenics (the better to input orders) and smile practice.  We see salespeople handling customers.  We see the bowels of the store, where workers (mostly ethnic minorities) work sewing and packaging.  We see Stanley Marcus get praised by humorist Art Buchwald at a gala 75th anniversary celebration of the store.  We even see a female employee get visited on her birthday by a singing strip-o-gram man dressed in a chicken costume.

Some people will see this movie and take away good things.  They’ll leave thinking of the high-quality work Neiman Marcus does, marketing its brand by associating itself with luxury, pamper-yourself items.  Their staff is enthusiastic and forward-thinking.  The management has a lot of business savvy, and the store fills a particular niche in the American Dream.

Others will see it as an example of the ugly side of consumerism.  Salespeople aggressively pursue their targets, calling big spenders who haven’t been in the store recently and tempting them with “deals” (i.e., a mere 35% markup for the store).  They shamelessly flatter customers, playing on their vanity and gullibility, posing more as friends with advice than someone trying to make a sale.  There’s a clear disparity between the glitz and glamour of the sales area and the dingy, sweatshop atmosphere behind the scenes.  Prices are exorbitant for crap that no one needs.  While I wouldn’t go so far as to say the 75th anniversary gala resembles a Nuremburg rally, there is a certain fascistic air to it, with Stanley Marcus as the grinning dictator telling us in song, “I did it my way”.

And I think it’s clear that Wiseman knows it.  There are edits that highlight the class differences, or the predatory nature of the sales staff, or the gender and racial inequalities, or the comical gall of a company executive comparing the impact of one’s first visit to Neiman Marcus with the Kennedy assassination… or the single-minded obsession with the bottom line.  The film opens with a managers’ meeting where they are told their role is like that of a doctor.  The doctor’s job is to cure, and their job is to sell.  The analogy is meaningless, but there it is.  They only function to sell things, to get people to spend their money in the store.

To me, the most compelling scene involves a woman applying for the executive training program.  When asked what she’s most proud of, she doesn’t list any of her personal accomplishments.  Like a good disciple, she says what she’s most proud of is the store.  She goes into a long speech about the greatness of Neiman Marcus, and how strongly she embodies the store’s spirit.  It seems clear that she’s parroting the company line, prostrating herself at the altar of luxury retail for a chance to become a slightly bigger cog in the Neiman Marcus machine.  Rating: Good (74)


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