Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Untouchables

David Mamet and the limits of craft

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Helen Mirren and Al Pacino in Phil Spector

If you’ve been reading this blog for any period of time, you’ve no doubt gathered that I like David Mamet. While I generally agree with Lawrence Weschler that Walter Murch is the smartest person in America, there was a time in my life when I would have ranked Mamet at least a close second. I’ve learned a tremendous amount about craft from his essays, interviews, and commentary tracks, and in particular, his little book On Directing Film is the most useful guide to storytelling I’ve ever seen. As I’ve mentioned before, I discovered it at a point when I thought I’d figured out the writing process to my own satisfaction, so reading it was a little like having an efficiency expert visit your business for a day and set you straight regarding best practices. I encountered it too late for it to have any real influence on The Icon Thief, but it was a major reason I was able to get City of Exiles from conception to finished draft in under a year, and it’s since become an indispensable part of my approach to writing. I try to read it again every six months or so, especially when I’m starting a new project, and I’m still amazed by its level of insight and practicality.

Yet there’s a shadow side to Mamet’s intelligence and mastery. It’s taken me a long time to figure out what it is, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently, ever since seeing Mamet’s latest movie, Phil Spector, which aired over the weekend on HBO. Like all of his films, it’s watchable, full of good dialogue, and admirably streamlined: it clocks in at just over ninety minutes, and there isn’t an ounce of fat on the screenplay. All the same, it feels weirdly like half a movie, or a brilliant sketch of something better, which is true of nearly all of Mamet’s work as a director. I haven’t seen a movie of his I didn’t like—I even enjoyed Redbelt—but there’s something clinical and detached about his style that leaves even his best films feeling a little thin. And the more I think about it, the more it seems like an inevitable consequence of his approach to craft. Mamet’s method is as rigorous as mathematics: you figure out the sequence of objectives for each character, then craft the scene and the individual shots to convey this information as simply as possible. Hence his beloved story about Stanislavsky:

Stanislavsky was once having dinner with a steamboat captain on the Volga River and Stanislavsky said, “How is it that among all the major and minor paths of the Volga River, which are so many and so dangerous, you manage to always steer the boat safely?” And the captain said, “I stick to the channel; it’s marked.”

David Mamet

If nothing else, Mamet’s movies stick to the channel, and his philosophy as a director has always been that you shouldn’t stray much to either side. Most famously, he believes that if a script has been properly written, the actors just need to say the lines clearly and without inflection, and the words themselves will do the work—although if Phil Spector is any indication, even Mamet can’t always get this from Pacino. This approach to storytelling is unimpeachably correct, and if you’re going to imitate any director, you can’t go too far wrong by following Mamet: at worst, you’ll end up with a first draft that is mechanical but basically efficient, which is far from the worst that can happen. (As T.S. Eliot says in one of his essays, a poet who imitates Dante will wind up with a boring poem, but someone who imitates Shakespeare is likely to make a fool of himself.) But Mamet has essentially transformed himself into a director who delivers brilliant, clean, unimpeachable first drafts. And it’s no accident that the best movies based on his work—which I’d argue are The Untouchables and Glengarry Glen Ross—were made by other directors.

And we’ve seen much the same progression in Mamet’s prose, which has devolved from the wit and lucidity of On Directing Film to something crabbed, aphoristic, and airless. Bambi Vs. Godzilla contains five or six pages that include some of the best storytelling advice imaginable—if you’re curious, it’s in the chapter “The Wisdom of the Ancients”—surrounded by material so tight and hermetic that reading it becomes physically enervating. The same is true, sadly, of Three Uses of the Knife, and I’m too discouraged to even try The Secret Knowledge. Which is just a reminder, as if we needed one, of the pitfalls of genius. Mamet remains the most intelligent living writer I know, and when it comes to the nuts and bolts of craft, he’s right about almost everything. But being consistently right for forty years can be dangerous in itself. Mamet is very good at what he does, and unlike a lot of artists, he knows the reasons why. But there’s a point where logic and craft take you only so far, at least not without being willing to embrace the possibility of failure or foolishness. Mamet, like most smart men, simply can’t take that risk. And although he’s still the best there is at sticking to the channel, there’s a chance that a lot of viewers will simply decide to change it.


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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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