Thursday, February 22, 2007

Book: Bambi vs. Godzilla, by David Mamet (2007)

It should come as no surprise that yours truly is a David Mamet fanboy. Once when Rosemarie and I passed the carousel in New York’s Central Park, I reenacted from memory a scene in The Spanish Prisoner that had been filmed there. I called Spartan the best movie of 2004, an opinion I hold to this day. (It’s odd how many people I’m working with on film projects speak of Spartan with reverence. I should use that movie as a yardstick: like it and you’re in.)

Naturally, I’m interested in whatever Mamet has to say about, as the subtitle has it, “the nature, purpose, and practice of the movie business.” The book’s tone, a blend of arch academic lecture and Victorian novel, occasionally obscures Mamet’s point. I read the essay on the cop movie twice and I’m still not sure what he’s talking about.

But what comes through loud and clear is Mamet’s abiding respect for craft, for those who take “pride in working toward perfection through the accomplishment of small and specific tasks perfectly.” (He puts this belief into practice on his sets; on the State and Main commentary track, William H. Macy notes that during downtimes Mamet will ask for a round of applause for the contributions of ‘below-the-line’ personnel like production designers.) As such, Mamet doesn’t cotton to those producers and executives whose life’s work is apparently interfering with those who simply want to tell a story.

Those sections of the book are getting all the buzz, but it’s Mamet’s observations about storytelling that fascinate. Like his explication of the difference between gangster movies (“a film as written by a criminal, which is to say a sentimental, self-servicing, pleasant lie”) and film noir, which “depicts a cold, Darwinian, zero-sum world ... (a) film, if you will, written by a cop.” Or the three simple questions that will allow one to write a successful scene:

1. Who wants what from whom?
2. What happens if they don’t get it?
3. Why now?

String enough successful scenes together and you may have a movie. Perhaps even a perfect film. Mamet defines them, saying that they “start with a simple premise and proceed logically, and inevitably, toward a conclusion both surprising and inevitable.” He even names a few – The Godfather, A Place in the Sun, Dodsworth, Galaxy Quest.

Hang on. You mean like me, David Mamet also thinks Galaxy Quest is a perfect film? Great minds really do think alike.

Mamet also offers an essay in which he suggests that Tony Curtis is a better film actor than Laurence Olivier. As it happens, I agree. But I mention it as an excuse to run a quote I have never forgotten. It’s from a March 2000 interview Curtis did with Jeffrey Wells, now of Hollywood Elsewhere.

“Can I tell you a story? In 1948, when I was 23 or 24, when I first came out here I lived in a house on Fountain Avenue ... I rented a room there. And they had a swimming pool. I had an appointment and I got on a trolley car ... they were running right down the middle of the freeway back then.

“Then I got back, I jumped in the pool, I took a shower, got dressed and got into the car, and drove up here to meet you. That’s how quick these fifty-fucking-two years have gone ... quick as that.”

I hear you, Tony.