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.
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.
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.
(offstage): I'm alright...
(offstage): I'm alright...
Donny (offstage): What? Did I what?
Del: Are you...
Donny (offstage): What? I've spilt
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
—The Cryptogram, 1995
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
writers who strive to be like Mamet are immediately
saddled not with Mamet's successes but with his
primary handicap—unrealistic dialogue:
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.
Old Neighborhood, 1997
else copycat writers put on top of this is whipped
cream and chocolate sprinkles.
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:
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.
Glen Ross (film), 1992
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.
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
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
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."
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.
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.
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.
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"
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?
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.
you follow Mamet's rules, your film may be engaging
and smart, but will it stick inside people's heads
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?
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.
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!"
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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