TGIM – Mamet

I didn’t know what to watch yesterday, but knew I wanted to get through at least one movie. Redbelt was among the choices, and David Atchison was the first to respond via twitter so it got the nod. I’m a huge fan of David Mamet, so I’m not really sure how I missed Redbelt in theaters. I’m surprised more people aren’t still talking about the movie given the continued proliferation and success of UFC/MMA in the mainstream. And the fact that’s it’s amazing, and stars the always excellent but perhaps always improperly pronounced
Mamet kills me. He really does. There’s always something I can take away from his movies that makes me want to get a thousand times better. I’ve decided that rather than calling him a writer-director, he’ll now be referred to as a Master Dramatist. No other way to describe him.
Most people credit him with having distinct dialogue. It’s realistic, unique, and often perfectly delivered. He’s well-known for rehearsing actors with metronomes to get the timing down right. His background is as a playwright, but he’s been writing films since ’81 and directing since ’87. There’s a difference between his work when directed by others and directed by himself. Something just feels much more authentic when he’s the one getting the performance. Not to say he hasn’t written some amazing work for others (The Verdict, The Untouchables, and Pulitzer Prize winner Glengarry, Glen Ross), but for a truly Mametian experience I recommend letting the man do his thing.
One of the many things of his I’d like to integrate more into my own work is his use of repetition. Oleanna is an early film, based on one of his plays (one room, two actors) that for all intents and purposes isn’t a good film. It’s just not visual enough for film and I didn’t particularly like the girl in it, but as a dramatic exercise it really works. There’s a scene (or more than one, I only watched it once on LaserDisc) where William H. Macy keeps repeating the words, “What would you have me do?” And somehow, they manage to take on new meeting the more he says them. Same thing in Spartan, when Derek Luke keeps telling Val Kilmer, “I saw the sign.”
In Redbelt, we have the following exchange, which is a better representative example because it shows how each character in the scene has a different dramatic need, and they’re pretty much unwavering. It’s not really communication in the typical film/scripted sense, but it’s how people talk and makes for something much more interesting.

Gini Collins: Joe still inside?
Mike Terry: No, he just left.
Gini Collins: Left?
Mike Terry: Yeah, maybe he went to the club.
Gini Collins: What happened to the window?
Mike Terry: Isn’t he on at the club?
Gini Collins: Um, that’s funny.
Mike Terry: Weren’t you going to the mountains?
Gini Collins: Why would he go to the club?
Mike Terry: Isn’t he working tonight?
Gini Collins: The club? No. No, no, no. He hasn’t worked at the club in months. Listen, uh, I have to tell him something. Okay? Tell him.
Mike Terry: Why?
Gini Collins: Why what?
Mike Terry: Why hasn’t he been working there?

Gini Collins: Yeah, I know. Listen, I gotta get home.

Mamet does much more than great dialogue though. His plots aren’t always 100% what you would expect structurally (probably due to the difference in act structure in plays), but he always seeds and pays off properly. I think his tightest script might be The Spanish Prisoner, criminally out of print on DVD. It’s pretty much perfectly executed, with the twists and turns never stopping until the end credits roll. I haven’t really been studying him of late so I can’t talk more, but thematically he often deals with duplicity, seedy underworld stuff, and magic/deception. Somehow his stuff, despite being very plot heavy, is always character-driven. He’s great that way.

I have reason to believe he probably has a hard time trusting most people. It’s because he gets them so well in his writing, and their often duplicitous nature. He’s spent enough time in the underbelly and dealing with magic and trickery that it must be hard to ever just look at the surface of things. And while I just made that up based on the content of his work, I did find this in an article he wrote:

And, I wondered, how could I have spent decades thinking that I thought everything was always wrong at the same time that I thought I thought that people were basically good at heart? Which was it? I began to question what I actually thought and found that I do not think that people are basically good at heart; indeed, that view of human nature has both prompted and informed my writing for the last 40 years. I think that people, in circumstances of stress, can behave like swine, and that this, indeed, is not only a fit subject, but the only subject, of drama.

I highly recommend his book, On Directing Film, based on a series of lectures he gave at Columbia. I’ve read it twice, and will probably read again this week (only 107 pages) since I’m on a Mamet kick. It’s really interesting the way he lays out questions, has the students toss answers, and then gives simple, much more effective solutions to problems. Like I said, he’s a Master Dramatist (pretension inherent in such a statement, of course), and learning from him is something more people should do.
His films do have one downside, though. His wife, Rebecca Pidgeon, is a frustrating actress. Sometimes she’s perfectly cast, and other times she feels like the only amateur in an otherwise flawlessly cast picture. Obviously he’s not just giving her the work as he could just cast her on stage, but I just think he overestimates her type on screen. There’s something about her delivery that does it. It might be perfectly Mametian (how many writers get their own adjective), but it’s often frustrating.
I highly recommend his whole catalog, as even his lesser works have great things in them. Disclaimer – I have yet to see quite a few of his written by only films, like The Edge. And he also doctored and made Ronin good, under a pseudonym.
Interesting Mametian semi-trivia, my copy of Spartan broke, snapped in half, the first time I pulled the DVD out of the case. I later mentioned this to Troy, who had the exact same thing happen with his. Crazy.