I’d always had mixed feelings about David Mamet’s work. Some of his films are far too preachy and all the characters’ voices blend together into one long expletive. Others are quiet meditations on a subject with underpinnings of truth about life in general. It wasn’t until I read his book, “Bambi vs. Godzilla”, that I really understood what was going on in Mametville.
The book is basically an existential rumination on filmmaking. I can easily picture it as the cornerstone of a film school theory class. It’s funny, thoughtful, clever and honest. Just like the best of Mamet. But what really struck me was the voice of the writing. I’d heard it somewhere before…And then it hit me.
My favorite Mamet film, and one of the best films about filmmaking period is State and Main. It’s considered the least “Mamety” of his films. It feels toned down. I think it’s due in large part to having found a cast that perfectly grasps the tone of his dialog. In particular, he found the great Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman is downright adorable in the role Joseph Turner White; an earnest playwright turned screenwriter who is frustrated by having to rework his script. The film is called “The Old Mill” but the crew, having been run out of the previous location thanks to the errant actions of their leading man (Alec Baldwin basically playing himself) now must complete production in a town which does not have an old mill. This is the film industry exposed, forsaking story for drama and dollar signs. White doesn’t want to lose the heart of the story. The director doesn’t care what happens so long as the producer is happy. In short, White is Mamet is why Mamet prefers to direct his own films.
Turner White is also a gentle, soft spoke, thoughtful man. He is charming and morally upright. He falls for a like-minded local girl (the quintessential Mamet actress Rebecca Pidgeon who, by happy coincidence, is married to Mamet). She is a fan of his plays and attempts to help him find his new story without selling out. They both have an old-timey manner of speaking which shows that they are cut from the same cloth. There is not an expletive uttered between them. They are clearly meant for each other.
State and Main could have just as easily been called Mamet in Love. And when one reads “Bambi vs. Godzilla”, one hears Joseph Turner White.
But the true revelation occurred when I watched Mamet’s new film Redbelt, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor. Ejiofor is another incredibly gifted actor. Like Hoffman, he can convey a rainbow of emotions with a simple look. His deep, dark eyes are pools of insight. In Redbelt he plays Mike Terry, a teacher of Brazilian Jui Jitsu who lives by a very strict moral code. But he sees only truth and justice which allows him to be taken by evil men. Like Joseph Turner White, he speaks softly, earnestly and without profanity. The profanity is reserved for the bad people. People like Tim Allen’s spoiled aging Hollywood star and Joe Mantegna’s corrupt producer (tell us how you really feel about producers, Dave). They drop the F-Bombs like Nagasaki. And that is your clue to the Mametverse. As a viewer you know they are nefarious the minute they open their mouths. Swearing is the mark of corruption. Mamet has injected a natural spoiler into his scripts. The good people control their speech and their volume. They choose their words carefully. They speak like David Mamet.
For most people, Mamet is a love-him-or-loathe-him kind of guy. I have always been on the fence. I don’t care for Glengarry Glen Ross’. But I adore State and Main and I similarly took to “Bambi vs. Godzilla” and Redbelt. They always say you should write what you know. Now that I’ve cracked the Mamet code, I can safely say that he is at his best when he’s just being himself.