Rhythm Thief  
David Mamet and the dangerous art of the con
By Daniel Kraus

From Gadfly April 1999


David Mamet, by the numbers: forty plays; twenty-four screenplays, five of which he has directed himself; eight nonfiction books; three children's books; three novels; two Oscar nominations; one New York Drama Critics Circle Award; one Obie Award; one book of poetry; and a Pulitzer in a pear tree. He was born November 30, 1947, and bred in Second City (Chicago), and, according to his copious barbed and whimsical essays, he held the 873 most romantically awful jobs that have ever been hiring.

Add it up and what do you get? A really hard guy to criticize. The man has up-front integrity and style, not to mention a wave of copycat writers all after his patented brand of brawny pathos. Some of his plays, like American Buffalo, Sexual Perversity in Chicago and Glengarry Glen Ross, are the stuff of off-Broadway legend, and today he continues to push the limits of dialogue in his plays—breaking theater audiences' hearts with desperate American tragedies starring characters who can't or won't say what needs to be said.

I do not intend, here, to go on about the virtues of, say, his domestically apocalyptic play The Cryptogram, because you haven't seen it, won't go to see it, and my recommendation probably isn't going to make you see it. And guess what: Almost nobody else has seen it either. You don't need to be in with the intellectuals to have been affected by Mamet's work. You know the cinematic and popular David Mamet (ever heard of The Untouchables? The Edge? Wag the Dog?) and might even know the slightly-less-popular (Hoffa, Glengarry Glen Ross, Vanya on 42nd Street); this is the David Mamet that we writers have wet dreams about being—manly, vulgar, smart and really, really popular.

Donny (offstage): I'm alright...
Del: what?
Donny (offstage): I'm alright...
Del: did...
Donny (offstage): What? Did I what?
Del: Are you...
Donny (offstage): What? I've spilt the tea.
Del: Do you want help?
Donny (offstage): What?
John: Do you want help he said.
Donny (offstage): No.
Del: You don't? (To John.) Go help your mother.
The Cryptogram, 1995

In a 1984 interview, Mamet commented, "The language in my plays is not realistic but poetic." In his book on the nature and purposes of drama, 3 Uses of the Knife, Mamet claims that we all unconsciously speak in iambic pentameter, Shakespeare's weighted five-beat verse-speech. Mamet merely inserts the tedious language of modern daily life into Shakespeare's iambic lines. Therefore, he reasons, it is natural for his characters to anticipate and finish off each other's sentences to fulfill this rhythm, thereby resulting in his trademark "Mametspeak."

This philosophy may or may not be true, and this methodology may or may not work. Either way, the common assertion that Mamet's dialogue is realistic is way off the mark. His dialogue could hardly be less realistic. No one on Planet Earth has ever spoken like a Mamet character. If they did, they would be dragged into the street and shot. Mamet's characters speak with an engaging but maddening rat-a-tat machismo, repeating, overlapping, rephrasing, insulting, repeating, interrupting themselves, starting over and repeating. Realistic, no, but impressive, yes—his vulgarity and "common man" verbiage zings off the page, stage and screen and demands attention. Mamet's dialogue is so confident (even when spoken unconfidently) that it always seems to be heading somewhere explosive. This makes us nervously anticipate where the somewhere is and when the explosion will happen. Sometimes, agonizingly, it never does.

It is the opposite of realism. It is hyper-real. It is the minutiae of how we speak, painstakingly recorded by Mamet and blown up larger than life. If it were one hundred percent realistic, it would be boring. Mamet's dialogue is not boring. Instead, it's incessantly banal rhythms—iambic pentameter or not—make us cringe, because deep down, we recognize them as our own and hate our sloppy selves for it.

Overtly, all of his movies are about a con. In execution, though, all of Mamet's movies are about his true passion: language. The two are inextricably tied. Language exists to make someone understand what you know and feel what you feel. A comment as rudimentary as "I'm hot" may seek reciprocal assurance, solving of the problem, sympathy, what have you. To talk, especially in the way that Mamet's characters talk, is to con. Stunted half-sentences and droning repetitions aren't there just for the fun of it. They are successful and less successful attempts at persuasion, and successful and less successful instances of understanding or pulling away.

The top-secret business plan that everyone is after in The Spanish Prisoner, "The Process," is a language of its own, a new and exciting one, a clear one, a language that works and persuades and actually communicates what it needs to communicate (unlike most Mamet characters). Appropriately, we never see this plan, we just hear everyone talk their way around it.

Even if you haven't seen the humbly successful Mamet-directed films, you should be familiar with David Mamet, for he is the model many striving screenwriters are emulating and putting on the screen. At its most successful, it's Mr. Pink sparring with Mr. White. At its least successful, it's the vast wasteland of Tarantino wannabes. Mamet, at least, has the conviction and commitment to dog you long enough to make you believe that his characters really do speak this way. And at least he cares enough to give them different (be they unrealistic) voices. Unlike most of his tough-guy descendants, Mamet is careful to add a character like Aaronow to Glengarry Glen Ross, a man who continues to question not only his worth as a man, but "worth" as defined by his masculine world.

The writers who strive to be like Mamet are immediately saddled not with Mamet's successes but with his primary handicap—unrealistic dialogue:

Jolly: Fella comes up to me, I'm driving, fella comes up to me I'm drivin' the girls somewhere, "Don't you know," No. "Did you know. This is a One-way Street..." I'm... never in my life, Bob. I'm sick. I'm a sick woman. I know that. I'm aware of that, how could I not be. My mind is racing "Did you know," "Didn't you know..." Did I drive down on purpose? I did not know... Is your question... what? The proper, I would say, response, is "One-way Street!" Smiles. One way. You, we would assume, did not know that you are, why would I, and even, I had, how terrible is that. Some piece of shit just like me.
The Old Neighborhood, 1997

Anything else copycat writers put on top of this is whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles.

Mamet's characters are usually broken or breaking men, hurling out insults like life preservers, so desperate to look out for #1 that so what if #2 or #3 drowns:

Blake: First prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Anybody wanna see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you're fired. You get the picture? You laughing now? You got leads, Mitch and Murray paid good money, get their names to sell them. You can't close the leads you're given, you can't close shit, you are shit, hit the bricks pal and beat it 'cause you are going out.
Glengarry Glen Ross (film), 1992

Teach: Only (and I tell you this, Don). Only, and I'm not, I don't think, casting anything on anyone: from the mouth of a Southern asshole ingrate to a vicious nowhere cunt can this trash come.
American Buffalo, 1976

Their terse, idiomatic insults show, one would assume, how "bad off" they are. The danger is—to impressionable writers hungry for Mamet's accolades—finding this delivery, this style, "cool" and its legitimizing of fun words like "faggot" and "asshole" a permission to be their childish, impulsive selves. This is a gross misrepresentation. Your goal should be to win the game, not to dunk the ball.

Interestingly, his film theories, based on his work as a director (House of Games, Things Change, Homicide, Oleanna, The Spanish Prisoner and the new The Winslow Boy), seem (yes, seem) to have next to nothing to do with writing and dialogue. They appear to have everything to do with a simple list of camera angles called a "shot list," and they go far in helping us understand why Mamet-directed films are ultimately stultifying.

When watching a Mamet-directed film, you find yourself drowning in the dialogue. But it's a good death and you cling to it, for it's the closest thing to "character" that Mamet allows us. His own directing theories strictly mandate unobtrusiveness and, it often seems to us, dullness. Strangely, he gives us dialogue that screams, "Wow, listen to me write!" even as he whispers "Psst, ignore my directing," which, of course, is quickly thrown into suspicion by his publishing a very ego-driven manuscript entitled, of all things, On Directing Film, wherein he lays out his itemized construction of the product we call a "movie."

Mamet sees acting (set down, again in almost numbing detail in his book True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor)—and, even more so, directing—as a technical skill not unlike building a house. There is a right way to do it, and that way is the simplest and sturdiest way. Don't be inventive, don't be imaginative, because the inhabitants are going to be a lot happier with simply a well-made house. Says he.

His theory on acting: "Acting should be a performance of the simple physical action." If the actor wants to know how he should walk to a door in the scene, the director should tell him, "Go to the door," and, if the actor presses on: "Go to the door. Quickly." Don't "act." Don't "emote." No "motivation." No "backstory." No "character arc." No "discovery." These are indulgences that cannot possibly be manifested physically. Just go to the door. Quickly. Cut. Print. Go home.

His theory on directing is even more mathematical. The "directing" is done before the director ever steps onto the set. Directing means coming up with a shot list. Directing is sitting down with a pen and paper three months before shooting and creating a shot list full of "uninflected" shots. No single shot should "mean" anything until cut with the next shot. Don't have a single shot in which the camera cranes across a highway and Steadicams through a window, whereupon a man stands up from his sofa and says, "I hear a car. I am alert and ready for it to arrive." Instead, a shot of car wheels. Then, a shot of the man's head turning. Result? "Alertness." Each shot is a building block. Several shots are a "beat." Several beats make up a scene. Ad infinitum.

And please, by no means ever shoot anything in an "interesting" way. This is something one does only to hold the audience's attention when the hero's story isn't enough to do it alone. (Does this mean, then, that we are to take the irrelevant carousel set piece in Spanish as merely a parody or homage to Hitchcockian "interesting" set pieces?)

All in all, a sound theory, surely. It wouldn't be Mamet if it weren't sound. The man is smart. Smart enough, in fact, to make it seem like all these theories are unrelated to writing simply by never mentioning writing. But once you've canceled out a director's "vision" and an actor's "interpretation," what is there left but the writer's words?

By constantly restructuring his own intellectualism into How-To books, Mamet has become bogged down in the logic of his own theories. One of the basic failings of his films are that they are soulless, dry and impersonal—taking their only guilty pleasure from the words spoken by the actors, the "con." By frightening his actors into becoming monosyllabic and by making directing an exact science, he has, implicitly, decided that this science is "logical" and "true" and "correct." Other methods are, therefore, "incorrect." That leaves no room for improvisation, exploration or other touchy-feely stuff; no room for anything except the uninflected shot list in your back pocket.

If you follow Mamet's rules, your film may be engaging and smart, but will it stick inside people's heads and hearts?

Mamet claims that he wouldn't even want that: "People have tried for centuries to use drama to change people's lives, to influence, to comment, to express themselves," he writes. "It doesn't work." Even if Mamet is right, isn't it precisely this hope that we can change people's lives—no matter how naive it may be—that drives us to create anything at all?

So his movies are criticized, and rightly so, for being emotionally empty. They're enjoyable enough to watch but, to use a mushy term, not fun to feel. Yes, there is something to be said for the house that is well made. But there's also something to be said for the house that we remember, that sticks in our brain and conjures up how we happened to feel on that particular day when we saw it and how it changed those perceptions. A quite different feeling from when we merely saw the blueprints and said "Mmhm. Aha. Yes. That'll do." When we see the Great Actor cry in a scene, insists Mamet, we are moved not by her performance but by our own capacity to be moved. At their very best, Mamet's views are authentic, but still cold.

He's against sex scenes, too. He says that there are two possible audience reactions, both undesirable, both of which draw you out of the film. One is, "Oh, they're faking sex," and the other is, "Oh, they're actually having sex!" Intimating it is stronger. Perhaps that is true, but there are certainly instances where the how and why of the sex is important, as in, say, Kids or David Cronenberg films like Crash or Shivers. And, along that same logic, what about death scenes, like William Macy's dying-in-his-friend's-arms scene from Mamet's Homicide? Doesn't that have the same effect? "Oh, he's faking dying," or, "Oh my God, William Macy's really dying!"

It's futile to nitpick Mamet's theories. They're just theories. The thing is, he has one of these damn theories for everything. And he follows them always. He has a Zen-like belief that a steadfast following of self-imposed rules frees the unconscious to be truly creative. One can only assume he has no love for the improvisational, dream-like (and rule-free) stylings of David Lynch, John Cassavetes or Harmony Korine (Gummo). "Contemporary American films are almost universally sloppy, trivial, and obscene," opines Mamet. "The more bizarre [the filmmaker's] explanation must become, the end of which development is psychosis—or 'modern filmmaking.'" He would find these works the on-screen equivalent of a freak show--interesting just for the sake of it and contributing to the "depravity," as Mamet calls it, of today's culture. Mamet's ego allows for only one type of film to save us from this depravity: his. Thus, Mamet's films are a noble attempt to keep our country clean and respectable. Thank you, David.

I was at the Sundance Film Festival the same year that Mamet was there showcasing The Spanish Prisoner. Walking down Main Street in Park City, Utah, I saw an exclusive press party of some sort for the film on a second-story balcony (which was funny, because it was freezing outside, but nothing at Sundance makes sense anyway). I tried to spot Mamet, but I couldn't. I was too low, and the angle was all wrong. I could only see the backs of necks and drinks in hands.

The film they were all jabbering about was the logical culmination of Mamet's directorial outings to date. Tight, entertaining, practically G-rated and filled with pointlessly clever dialogue, The Spanish Prisoner was the Mamet-est Mamet yet made. I guess it is what Mamet wants—a harmless, fun piece of celluloid, to be thoroughly enjoyed and then forgotten about in approximately one to three years. I wanted more, of course, from the man who hammered at us until we were squirming uncomfortably with such striking works as American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross and Oleanna. That was, sometimes, powerful writing.

With The Spanish Prisoner, he has followed his own course of withholding everything that might hook us emotionally and adding nothing "interesting" to the essential thrust of the film. By this universal and uninflected "accessibility," he has become, oddly enough, almost inaccessible, a scientist working in his lab, aloof, far away. Now, by his own design, I can only see the backs of necks and drinks in hands. He used to invite us to the party, or was at least good enough to slam our heads in the door a few times before kicking us out.

So is he getting softer? No, just "smarter"—a common artistic disease. Mamet the Filmmaker is playing to a different audience than his Playwright alter ego. Let's face it, the folks going to a Mamet-headlined play and a Steve Martin-headlined movie (see The Spanish Prisoner) are a somewhat disparate bunch. Because his films are regulated (his own regulations, though!) by the stricter constraints of the film medium and the presupposed lower patience level of the audience, they do not carry the tsunamic energy of his plays and, in fact, have become almost parodies of David Mamet the Playwright. They tip their hat to his style and mannerisms but do not fully commit to them and give in, structurally, to their bend and sway. Instead, David Mamet the Filmmaker is not that easy to distinguish from his imitators. Put him beside a talented imitator, like Neil LaBute of In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors, and it is hard to tell not only who is who, but who is copying whom.

Ultimately, we need folks like Mamet out there, true philosophers of their art, both talented and gravely concerned about the direction their art form is heading—just as we need the easy emotional yank of the latest Meg Ryan romantic comedy. However (and try to follow me here), Mamet may be unconsciously trying to pay homage to the Mamet that is being paid homage by writers like LaBute. And, if this is true, mass confusion may be the final price of success and the ultimate consequence of being conned by your own con.