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May 28, 2011

Let Right Be Done: David Mamet, Genius, Conservative Convert

I always liked Mamet. He was different. Although I usually didn't like straight dramas, I liked him. I guess because he didn't actually write straight dramas. His works were always, of course, of the drama category, but there was also always something else going on in them. To trick you into liking it, even if you were generally anti-emoting-and-shouting type dramas.

I've seen exactly two Broadway shows, and walked out of one (the Dirty Rotten Scoundrels musical, which I agreed to see because I thought it would be like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and guess what, it wasn't. They even changed the characters' names. What? And how do I say this without sounding like an idiot? I guess there is no way, so I'll just say it: There was a lot of singing I could have done without).

The other one I saw was Speed the Plow, with the late great Ron Silver, Joe Mantegna, and, er, Madonna.

A lot of his films lately have fallen into the "compelling almost-great misfire" category for me. Flawed, but easily better than 95% of the dreck Hollywood churns out, just because they're so different.


Spartan wound up with an unconvincingly baroque secrets-and-lies resolution, but before that, it was a very weird movie which accomplished something I always respond to: Postulating a world which is just different enough from the real one to make you notice it's all askew, but with a veneer of deadpan realism and plausibility that you sort of scratch your head and wonder, "Wait, is this real?"

In Spartan, the weirdness was about our domestic covert forces, where agents working for no particular agency (at this level, it's all just on a personal, last-name basis; there is no organization, just "guys you know who can handle it") could literally do anything they wanted inside the borders of the U.S. in pursuit of their objective. Cut out a man's eye to compel him to talk? "You bet your life."

Odd. And presented so matter-of-factly, without any overly-dramatic crap like But then we'll be no different than the terrorists! "issue presentation" dialogue. Rather than offer an explanation and oversell it, he offers no explanation whatsoever and undersells it, prompting me to wonder: Does this guy know something I don't?

(Parenthetically, I should say there are exigent circumstances here -- the President's 19 year old daughter has been kidnapped, most likely by terrorists -- but the movie doesn't really push the idea that this mission is particularly different from others. Val Kilmer never lets on that he's doing this stuff for the first time.)

Another remarkable odd-duck of a movie is Redbelt. Mamet sets out to make a genre martial-arts movie, drawing inspiration from both American-style Martial Arts Training movies like Karate Kid, as well as Chinese kung-fu operas. The movie has clear analogues for the Reluctant Warrior, the Broken Princess, the Greedy Duke and the Evil Wizard, for example.

But this genre martial-arts movie is written, filmed, and acted like an independent "real" drama, like a real movie movie, not a genre action movie with the most superficial nods towards dramatic arcs and such, with a European naturalistic sort of feel to it. A very strange take on the material, and pretty compelling, even just as a technical exercise. I actually think it's more than just a technical exercise but a minority of critics don't seem to agree.

Then of course there are three movies that are high on my all-time list: the strangely affecting-by-being-so-disaffected con artist/world-turned-upside-down movie The Spanish Prisoner, which is so good I really don't even need to mention it, Glengarry Glen Rose, also in little need of introduction. Both of those movies are in the category of "If you haven't seen them yet, with everyone proclaiming them to be brilliant, one more proclamation probably won't help."

There's another movie a lot of people don't even know about, The Winslow Boy, easily Mamet's warmest work (I think it's his only warm work), which is really a must-watch for conservatives.

For one thing, the plot is about a family which bankrupts itself to vindicate the honor of their son, a young kid in a British military academy accused of the minor, and yet grave, crime of stealing a two pound postal note. For another thing, it doesn't have a peep of profanity beyond a "Hell" or two (and I sort of think it doesn't even have that); it's rated G, despite being an adult drama.

For a last thing, the hero here is an explicitly conservative barrister. Of course, he's offset by the heroine, a "radical" feminist (and by "radical," I mean she thinks women should be permitted to vote and work-- the movie's set in 1910 or so).

Spanish Prisoner and Winslow Boy, by the way, feature Mamet's wife Rebecca Pidgeon's best movie work. Well dog my cat, she is outstanding in these, just a sunshine-smile off-kilter Nancy Drew in one and a general righter of wrongs (i.e., a pain in the ass) in the other.

One more movie worth a watch: the film-of-the-play Oleanna, which is a strong prefiguring of Mamet's much-later conversion to conservatism. The film isn't for everyone -- it's clearly just the play, with minimal settings (90% of it is set in a single office), and features a trope of Mamet's stage work, human characters who deliberately do not speak like human beings. The plot is that a young female student comes to her professor for advice on her poor grades, and has a misunderstanding which leads to him being accused, harassed, and vilified for sexual harassment.

Actually "misunderstanding" isn't quite right -- she's almost simply insane, and, looking for support, quickly gets indoctrinated by some radical feminist group on campus, and begins speaking (IIRC) of "We the Collective" thinking this and "We the Collective" demanding that. It's entirely about PC persecution, and, to the extent critics find fault with it, it's because it's not just a he-said/she-said "issues" movie: It plainly takes sides. And the side it takes is "this is inhuman, preposterous, lunatic, and evil."

All this is prelude to Mamet's new book, Please Stop Giving Me Work In Hollywood Immediately, which was quickly retitled as The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture, a title I find a little more optimistic, even at the expense of accuracy.

Hear him take on the left's sacred cows. Diversity is a "commodity." College is nothing more than "Socialist Camp." Liberalism is like roulette addiction. Toyota's Prius, he tells me, is an "anti-chick magnet" and "ugly as a dogcatcher's butt." Hollywood liberals—his former crowd—once embraced Communism "because they hadn't invented Pilates yet." Oh, and good radio isn't NPR ("National Palestinian Radio") but Dennis Prager, Michael Medved and Hugh Hewitt.

The book is blunt, at times funny, and often over the top....

He starts, naturally, with the most famous political convert in modern American history: Whittaker Chambers, whose 1952 book, "Witness," documented his turn from Communism. "I read it. It was miraculous. Extraordinary hero-journey of this fellow that had to examine everything he believed in at the great, great cost—which is a cost I'm not subject to—of abandoning his life, his sustenance, his friends, his associations, and his past. And I said, 'Oh my God. . . . Perhaps it might be incumbent upon me to see if I could get my thought and my actions into line too."

...

On the left, Mr. Mamet is accused of having ulterior motives for his political shift. The New Republic's Jonathan Chait writes that the story is a familiar, Zionist one: "An increasingly religious Jew with strong loyalty to Israel, he became aware of a tension between the illiberal nationalism of his right-wing views on the Middle East and the liberalism of his views on everything else, and resolved the tension by abandoning the latter." Mr. Mamet calls this a "crock of s—."

The Slate website has run with the "Rich Person Discovers He Is a Republican" narrative. And then there's the jiu-jitsu theory offered by a film blogger: "Mamet's escalating interest in martial arts—traditionally the domain of right-wing nutjobs like Chuck Norris—has pointed toward this new stance for some time." Obviously.

Obviously. Note the rapidity with which his stated reasons for embracing conservatism are discounted as false not even considered. There must be some mental defect at work here or somethin'.

You can tell this is a bit of a blow for the left, losing someone who is plainly brilliant, in their rapid-fire response to it, attempting to explain it all away with a cute narrative about a martial arts psychotic break, in case any of Mamet's cadre of smart-set fans begin to wonder about all this.

Two reviews of the book, one by writer and superlative sarcastiste Andrew Klavan, and another by writer and PJM founder Roger Simon. You can tell Mamet's got some fans when both of the conservative writers in Hollywood basically throw a party upon realizing there's a third, and a rather good one, too.

He's just a compelling, smart guy. If I were compiling a list of Hollywood guys I'd like to see out themselves as conservative, he'd be in my top two. (And I think we may have actually already got the other one.)

Alec Baldwin's Greatest Role: A few notes about this. First, when people saw this in the, what, mid-90s?, everyone was talking about this scene. One funny thing I remember is that people started passing around a transcript of this scene, with Alec Baldwin's lines in red, like the words of Jesus.

The other thing is that this scene wasn't in the play. He added it for the movie. Hard to imagine. It's like that story, that happens over and over again, where a band is about to release an album and at the last minute they add in a song they wrote in an hour that becomes a hit for the decade.

Lastly: Profanity warning.

Corrected: It was Oleanna, not "Oleander." I always get that wrong.

Time Machine: Since erg is accusing me of having a time machine, which is preposterous (I have a limited time-linked temporal displacement superdimensional coupling, that's all, nothing like a "time machine" for crying out loud), I just wrote (am now writing) this old (brand new) piece in which I pretended to interview (will pretend to interview) David Mamet. Profanity Warning and/or Paradox Warning.

I used my time-linked temporal displacement superdimensional coupling to write this back in, oh, let's say early 2004 (five minutes ago), that should do the trick. The post being linked is a re-post; this was (will be) from the first month of the blog, sometime circa Jan '04, unless the circuits give me some static in which case I'll have to slip it into a less paradox-restricted chronostream.


How Did I Forget... ...The Untouchables?

Well, that's a work-for-hire thing so not really Mamet-Mamet.

digg this
posted by Ace at 04:49 PM

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