Mamet Plays Moses Again, Laying Down Hollywood Law

Let’s be blunt, as befits our author.

David Mamet has directed more than a dozen movies, none of which suggest he has much of an affinity for the job. Things Change (1988), Homicide (1991), The Spanish Prisoner (1997), State and Main (2000) and the rest are all pleasant or even mildly diverting, but how many of them would you want to see twice?

So Bambi vs. Godzilla, Mr. Mamet’s take on the world of Hollywood filmmaking, is a considerable act of hubris, right up there with Jerry Lewis’ The Total Filmmaker. (For one thing, the animated short he’s alluding to in the title was actually called Bambi Meets Godzilla, but let it pass.)

Mr. Mamet loves Preston Sturges, film noir, Shadow of a Doubt and Roger Livesey (“the British Henry Fonda—the perfect actor, incapable of falsity”). His list of admired films includes The Godfather, A Place in the Sun, Dodsworth and—wait for it—Galaxy Quest. His favorite dramatic portrayal in film is Vittorio De Sica in Rossellini’s General Della Rovere.

In other words, he likes his movies with the density and character shadings of a good novel—Galaxy Quest excepted.

His dislikes are equally extensive, and they are headed by critics (“a plague”) and Laurence Olivier (“He is stiff, self-conscious, grudging, coy and ungenerous …. In general, I’m hungry for lunch and all he’s serving is an illustrated menu”).

So he doesn’t appreciate second-guessing or acting in the heroic mode—I could have figured that out from watching his movies.

He’s something of a classicist, which means he reacts to his daily exposure to movies, TV and books as Martin Luther did to the depredations of Rome—all that indulgence! He sees the problem of Hollywood not as the fox taking over the henhouse but “the doorman [taking] over the bordello.”

The odd thing is, although I don’t like this book, I think that Mr. Mamet is right about a lot of things. I agree with him that “the perfect film is the silent film just as the perfect sequence is the silent sequence. Dialogue is inferior to picture in telling a film story. A picture, first, as we know, is worth a thousand words; the juxtaposition of picture is geometrically more effective.”

Somewhere, the shades of dead movie moguls are nodding. In the golden days of which we speak entirely too much, Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner and the rest knew that they were primarily in the business of putting asses in seats. To do that, they made movies they themselves would have paid to see—movies that would outrage, entice, seduce. On occasion, if there was no other way around it, they would make a movie that even the critics would applaud. For the most part, they were the audience, the audience was them.

So far, so good. But there’s something closed and unpleasantly doctrinaire about Mr. Mamet’s attitude; he doesn’t want conversation, doesn’t make modest proposals and rarely seeks to amuse. Charm is not a quality he values, let alone exhibits. What he really wants to do is bludgeon the reader with the blunt instrument of his prejudices.

The book to which this bears the most resemblance—William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade—is written in the voice of a wise-guy big brother, a tummler who wants us to have a good time while we’re (hopefully) learning something. Mr. Mamet prefers the voice of Moses, sternly handing down the severe commandments, lecturing the stiff-necked tribe at the bottom of Mount Sinai about the proper subjects and manner of worship, brooking no second opinion. He’s the self-important rabbi from hell.

His suggestions for further reading on the subject of myth and dramaturgy are instructive: The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim; The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell; and Three Uses of the Knife (1996) … by David Mamet. From this we can only deduce that Mr. Mamet has the enthusiastic self-appreciation of a precocious 8-year-old whose parents have never told him to sit down and shut up.

None of this is to say that Mr. Mamet can’t be funny. At one point he writes, “As the writer changes, year to year, his or her perceptions and interests change. At twenty he is interested only in sex, at thirty in sex and money, at forty in money and sex, at sixty in money and validation, et cetera.” There’s a pretty good Lubitsch movie contained in those two sentences, or perhaps even a play, but one by Noël Coward or Terrence Rattigan—not David Mamet.

The core problem is that, just as Mr. Mamet used his eminence as a playwright and scriptwriter to become a director, he now feels free to expand his brand to discursive—read “rambling”—books about filmmaking, religion and Yahweh knows what else. There’s a little bit here about screenwriting, a little bit about directing, a little bit about the chaos endemic to the craft of making movies, from which the art derives.

My objection isn’t so much to the content, diffuse though it is; my objection is to the attitude the author projects. He’s the stern parent and we’re the errant teenagers, stubbing our toes in the carpet and looking abashed while what we’re assured is his authoritative brilliance floods past, even though none of it can be substantiated by his own films.

But I don’t feel abashed; I feel irritated.

Scott Eyman’s most recent book is Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer (Simon and Schuster). He reviews books regularly for The Observer.

Mamet Plays Moses Again,  Laying Down Hollywood Law