Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Mametspeak

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The online Paris Review archive is the gift that keeps on giving. Not long after posting their interview with Robert Graves, I was looking for the new Art of Fiction profile of Jonathan Franzen—which isn’t online yet, meaning that I might have to buy the actual magazine—when I stumbled across this gem from 1997. It’s a conversation between David Mamet and John Lahr, and I fell in love with it right away. Which isn’t surprising, since I sometimes think that Mamet is the smartest guy in the world, as well as one half (with his wife Rebecca Pidgeon) of the coolest couple that my mind can conceive.

I’ve already mentioned that Mamet’s slim book On Directing Film is one of the most useful works available on storytelling of any kind, and the Paris Review interview gives a nice, clean summary of his basic philosophy, which sounds like simplicity itself: instead of obsessing over the “meaning” of the overall work, you focus on the meaning of the individual story beat, which nearly always revolves around what the protagonist wants. Then, once you’ve put the story beat into its most economical and elegant form, you move onto the next one. And if you’ve taken care of the individual beats, then the “drama” of the overall story will follow:

…[T]heoretically, perfectly, what one wants to do is put the protagonist and the audience in exactly the same position. The main question in drama, the way I was taught, is always what does the protagonist want. That’s what drama is. It comes down to that. It’s not about theme, it’s not about ideas, it’s not about setting, but what the protagonist wants. What gives rise to the drama, what is the precipitating event, and how, at the end of the play, do we see that event culminated? Do we see the protagonist’s wishes fulfilled or absolutely frustrated? That’s the structure of drama. You break it down into three acts.

And where does character come from? Here’s what Mamet says:

It’s action, as Aristotle said. That’s all that it is—exactly what the person does. It’s not what they “think,” because we don’t know what they think. It’s not what they say. It’s what they do, what they’re physically trying to accomplish on the stage. Which is exactly the same way we understand a person’s character in life—not by what they say, but by what they do.

And here’s Mamet on writing for the audience:

I mean, if I’m not writing for the audience, if I’m not writing to make it easier for them, then who the hell am I doing it for? And the way you make it easier is by following those tenets: cutting, building to a climax, leaving out exposition, and always progressing toward the single goal of the protagonist. They’re very stringent rules, but they are, in my estimation and experience, what makes it easier for the audience.

Now, this is a very seductive approach to writing, and probably unimpeachable on rational grounds. In practice, though, the results can be a little mixed. I’ve never seen a Mamet film I didn’t like (even Redbelt), but it’s rare for his movies to move beyond the level of an elegantly conceived exercise. (The Winslow Boy probably comes the closest.) And it’s perhaps no accident that my favorite Mamet scripts (for Glengarry Glen Ross and The Untouchables) were brought to the screen by different directors. The greatest films are open to accident and improvisation in a way that Mamet’s approach never allows. At his worst, he can seem cold, clinical, even robotic.

And yet his example remains very instructive. T.S. Eliot once pointed out that if a poet tries to imitate the style of Dante, at worst, he’ll end up with a boring poem; if he tries to imitate Shakespeare, he’ll sound like an idiot. I think of Mamet in the same way. It can be incredibly dangerous to imitate the greatest, most idiosyncratic writers (like Proust) or directors (like Kubrick).  If you imitate Mamet—that is, his approach to storytelling, not his dialogue or themes, which are uniquely his own—at worst, you’ll end up with a mechanical but watchable piece of work, with a minimum of backstory and self-indulgence. Which, after all, is far from the worst thing a writer can do.

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