by Tom Roush
I first came in to contact with the work of David Mamet when I was a college student and saw a production of Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize winning play “Glengarry Glen Ross.” It was a brilliant production that captured the desperation of a group of real estate salesmen forced in to a stupid sales contest that offers unemployment to the third place finisher and below.
There was a lot of smoking in that play. Cigarettes formed the perfect prop as the actors let Mamet’s staccato dialogue about the angst of masculine life slither out of their smoking mouths. Cigarettes used as pointers, as reasons to pause, and smoke blown through flared nostrils as the realization that failure is imminent sets in. Mamet characters, mostly men, smoke, curse, and fail. If you want to be inspired, Mamet isn’t your man.
After several awards both for stage and screen, Mamet is out with another film titled “Redbelt.” The setup is classic post-Chicago Mamet. It’s set in Los Angeles and involves a lot of Special Forces types. The lead is a jiu-jitsu teacher who has to fight against his will in order to save his business and honor. In short, “Redbelt” is “Glengarry Glen Ross” in the ring.
Most people don’t know David Mamet by name and many don’t know his work, but still, he has been there for 30 years influencing other writers, epitomizing the angry tough guy Jew. He won an Oscar for writing “The Verdict” in 1982 about a washed up lawyer who gets one more chance to show he has the goods (“Glengarry Glen Ross” in the courthouse). He was nominated again in 1997 for “Wag The Dog” about a Hollywood producer who concocts a phony war to cover up a presidential sex scandal. Who’d a thunk it in 1997?
Hollywood has proven to be rich grounds for Mamet to let his demons loose. Arguably his best play is “Speed The Plow” about a movie executive who must choose between making another blockbuster action film or adapting a meaningful novel. The executive’s attractive female secretary seeks to influence him to pursue the more meaningful work, but his friend points out that she is just like the guys, seeking to use advantage, in this case her sexuality, to secure her place in the business world.
Mamet is not kind to women. One movie industry executive very much like the character in “Speed The Plow” told me that Mamet was a misogynist of the tallest order and also a miserable wretch. This would not be hard to believe. To me, Mamet is a boomer version of Norman Mailer. Both have an eye and ear for the naked ambition of men and the compliment in women, which is ambition linked to sex. To the degree that Mamet is right, and ambition is sadistic pleasure in seeing others fail in men and the use of sex to manipulate in women, then OK, Mamet is a misogynist and cynic. In other words, he’s a realist.
Europeans love Mamet because he plays in to their belief that Americans aren’t really that different from them, except when it comes to taste in cloths and food. Mamet’s harsh criticism of American capitalism has been popular in the Euro-zone for years, which will make it puzzling to digest another of Mamet’s side projects. Long a contributor to several political magazines, Mamet was predictably liberal in his leanings given his core feeling about what happens inside corporations.
But in a recent contribution to the Village Voice, David Mamet came swinging out as a born again constitutional free market conservative. He describes his Road to Damascus moment in a typical Mametillian way that occurred as he and his wife of many years were on vacation: “We were riding along and listening to NPR. I felt my facial muscles tightening and the words beginning to form in my mind: Shut the fuck up!”
Mamet goes on to offer up his most hopeful view of life and people that he has ever written, with inspiring gems like this: “Strand unacquainted bus travelers in the middle of the night, and what do you get? A lot of bad drama, and a shake-and-bake Mayflower Compact. Each, instantly, adds what he or she can to the solution. Why? Each wants, and in fact needs, to contribute to the pot what gifts each has in order to achieve the overall goal, as well as status in the new-formed community. And so they work it out.”
In other words, leave people alone and let them work out their imperfect solutions to their myriad of problems. Stop trying to fix everything and stop trying to sell government hope from on high.
Mamet is an amateur at politics but a professional when crafting the drama of human interaction. For proof, review the movie based on his play titled “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” which showed up in the theaters as “About Last Night” staring Brat Packers Rob Lowe and Demi Moore. For all his verbal machismo, Mamet gets how people fall in love, how petty yet brilliant it all is and how people keep getting up and swinging for the fences even when they are covered in emotional blood. David Mamet writes what we live and what we wish to live, and anything he writes is worth a listen.
Published in the IN Weekly here: http://inweekly.net/article.asp?artID=7637
(Note, the publish dates are wrong)