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May 1, 2006



One of my favorite elements of David Mamet's dialogue, by which I think I might recognize it even if I didn't know he wrote it, is his use of the word yes. Where you or I might choose the cautious ellipsis of a yeah, Mamet's characters support their logical conclusions or their passions or both by punctuating their syntax with that extra bit of sibilance, uttering it much in the same way that they drop invectives with that trademark gratuity. The word does not so much signify commitment or confirmation; rather, it is a desperate attempt at conviction, a way for a small man to feel bigger. He can say he wants something and sound like he means it, and in Edmond, when Joe Mantegna tells William H. Macy that he needs to get laid and Macy responds with an firm, emphatic yes, he sounds convinced that he has, at the very least, given the right answer, with the enthusiasm expected of him; he can think about the consequences later.

The film is written by Mamet, and directed by Stuart Gordon. Since premiering at Venice last fall, it hasn't been seen outside of the festival circuit, and so for those in the dark, I'll offer this much exposition as to the plot: it concerns the titular character, played by Macy, suffering from a bout of white-collar angst, spontaneously deciding to leave his wife and job and embarking on a long night of attempted debauchery, sudden violence and twisted enlightement that cannot quite be called a downward spiral. His journey takes him to peep shows and brothels, but getting laid is not what Edmond needs, and Mamet and Gordon know this. When he finally does manage to have sex, the camera is not complicit in the act; his desire - or instigation for desire - is not so irrelevant as to be labeled a MacGuffin, but it is a narrative gateway through which Mamet puts Edmond exactly where he wants him. He's not the type of writer who lets his characters live; he may let them speak their minds, but their thoughts are always his, or at least always defined by his purpose. And his purpose, in this case, is to vent.

His screenplay is based on one of his earlier plays, written circa 1982, when he was living in a pre-Guiliani Manhattan and going through a divorce; it is presumable from this material that the separation wasn't terribly amicable. One can imagine the younger, less refined Mamet sitting at his typewriter, spilling the dogmatic contents of his overburdened head and finding his guts going with them, for the play is a barrage of lofty rhetoric soaked in bile. This is Mamet with blood rushing to his cheeks; the philosopher's attempt to reconcile rage with logic. I'm not sure if he's entirely successful, necessarily, or if the chain reaction of existential syllogisms represent a cohesive argument, but they are arranged - and, in the film, delivered, largely by Macy - with a grace that is fairly breathtaking.

Now, to be certain, some of the ideology is a bit simplistic, of the live-your-life-to-the-fullest variety, but even in those cases, it has two things going for it: one is the fact that it's written by Mamet, who can make an old hat seem not new but newly impassioned, and the second is that social vitriol that surges beneath the dialogue's sense of reason. This goes beyond rage and becomes something dangerous, something verging on hate. Looking at a basketball game on television, Mantegna notes that "niggers have it easy, because there are certain responsibilities they've never accepted." This is the first of many instances of the word 'nigger' in the film, and Mamet is quick to bring closeted prejudices to the surface with uncomfortable ferocity. We're not dealing here white business men casually dropping the word 'nigga' because mainstream rap has made it acceptable; these characters use the word because it represents something that legitimately disgusts them. They mean it when they say it.

The film isn't specifically about racism - the hatred towards blacks is also extended towards women and homosexuals - but even in this limited context, it offers a far more believable, far more upsetting portrayal of that particular social ill than something like Crash. At the screening I attended, producer Lionel Mark Smith, who is black, talked about seeing the show the first time it was staged in Chicago and how, upon hearing the line of dialogue quote above, he wanted to find David Mamet and throttle him for writing such a thing. And then the play progressed, and Mamet being Mamet, the content was justified. Smith has been trying to produce this film for the past twenty years, partially because of that dialogue and his response to it (and it's very likely that it is for that same reason that the film took so long to get off the ground)

Stuart Gordon was also at the screening. I presume that most people are aware of Gordon first and foremost as the director of Re-Animator and other Lovecraft adaptations; I thought this was a fascinating change of pace for him, until he informed the crowd that he'd been working with Mamet on the stage for thirty years, had been one of his earliest champions, and had directed the very first production of Sexual Perversity In Chicago. Along with Smith, he's been trying to make this picture for years; he talked about how, even with William H. Macy and Julia Stiles (not to mention Denise Richards, Bokeem Woodbine, Bai Ling and Mena Suvari) attached, it took twelve production companies to cobble together the financing (all of whom are represented, rather humorously, in the opening credits sequence). It's clear that Gordon understands the play, because his direction of it is invisible. That's the best tact when adapting Mamet for the screen, I think, and while, as with the film versions of Oleanna and American Buffalo, one is never unaware of the theatrical source of the material, the quality of that material exceeds the boundaries of the medium. As with Mamet's best work, it works, regardless.

The film will be opening on one screen in New York City in July. And here I am at the end of this post, and I've forgotten to mention how I'm still wondering whether Mamet was sincere when he gave Edmond the surname Burke.

Posted by David Lowery at May 1, 2006 1:24 PM


David, I look forward to seeing this. Thanks for writing about it.

I'm wondering which of the Mamet-directed or Mamet-written films you like more than others? Just curious.

Posted by: girish at May 1, 2006 8:34 PM

I studied Mamet avidly while I was in high school, and developed quite an affination for his directorial work (thanks in no small part to his book, On Directing Film, which I still re-read frequently). Of those he's helmed, I love House Of Games, State & Main, Oleanna and (I'm in the minority here) Spartan. But I like all the other ones, too (the only one I haven't seen is Homicide), with the exception of the rather tepid Heist - but even that, with its terrific Gene Hackman performance, wasn't completely unworthwhile.

Of those based on his plays or screenplays, I suppose Glengarry Glenn Ross sets the bar (although it's been so long since I've seen that one that I'm basing my opinion on the general consensus that it's great - I need to watch it again). Edmond is certainly up there. I was also fond of his screenplays for The Edge, Frankenheimer's Ronin (which he did under a pseudonym) and Wag The Dog.

I'm not as enchanted with him as I use to be, but he still certainly manages to impress me, both in film and on print, and he definitely had a big impact on the way I write dialogue - which isn't to say that I imitate him in any way, but merely that he made me realize that a writer could create a distinct and recognizable voice, which appealed to me quite a bit.

I'd kinda like to see the TV show he created, The Unit. I'm sure it'll be on DVD before too long.

Posted by: Ghostboy at May 1, 2006 9:10 PM

Ah, very interesting, David.
I too used to be a more avid fan than I am now, but I still enjoy his work.

I'm probably in the minority here, but I greatly enjoyed Heist, a knowing send-up of heist films, nearly a self-reflexive essay on the genre. Spartan I liked also, but a bit less because its genre elements seemed less knowing and self-aware to me, but I may be way wrong on this, and probably I need to see it again. I'm sure I'd appreciate it more on second viewing. I've never seen Oleanna, and Homicide was very uneven.

Posted by: girish at May 1, 2006 10:36 PM

this blog makes me very happy. :)
ah, how Mamet has made an impact on me....

Posted by: frank at May 1, 2006 11:15 PM

The wonderful thing about Mamet, which is also the very thing that doesn't appeal to me as a filmmaker anymore, is that he is so perfectly precise in his form, and there is absolutely no room for mistakes. He allows no accidents, happy or otherwise.

Posted by: Ghostboy at May 2, 2006 1:07 AM

that's true.....all the realistic quirks that cassavetes would encourage with his actors (away from the script) instead is ALL in the script, every "um", "er", "fuck", or "...."....even puncutation plays so much....and his use of capitalization is the only i've seen in any modern playwright....i wouldn't say that i've outgrown him completely, but yes, you're right---
he doesn't appeal to me as much anymore....i prefer to think of him as an old friend....if only the guy gave some room to breathe....my friend used to make the same comment about mamet as a writer and about kubrick as a director----
everything seems "too perfect" in its realism so that there is no room for messiness, the kind of slopiness that humans embrace with everything they do....
the shoot went well by the way....i can't wait to start editing....i couldn't be any happier....the HD looks so great....can't wait to show you some of it....and kelly was a godsend....great stuff.

Posted by: frank at May 2, 2006 2:33 PM