Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Three Uses of the Knife

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.

Solving the second act problem

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Karen Allen in Raiders of the Lost Ark

David Mamet, in Three Uses of the Knife, tells what he claims is an old joke from the Algonquin Round Table: “A couple of guys are sitting around talking. One says, ‘How’s the play going?’ The other says, ‘I’m having second act problems.’ Everybody laughs. ‘Of course you’re having second act problems!'” And no wonder. Beginnings and endings are tricky, too, but we can approach them with a couple of proven rules: get into the action as late as possible, leave it as early as you can. Middles, by contrast, tend to turn into an unstructured mess of complications, with the beginning a distant memory and the end nowhere in sight. This is especially true of the start of the second act, when the main problem of the first act gives way to an even more serious obstacle, and it’s no accident that in everything I’ve written, it’s invariably this part of the story that goes through the greatest number of tightenings and revisions. Whenever it comes up, it feels like I’m confronting the problem for the first time, but I’ve slowly managed to figure out a few guidelines that might be helpful:

1. Cut transitional material as much as possible. Second acts are difficult because they’re all about transitions. You’re departing from the first major movement of the narrative into something larger, which usually means that there are a lot of pieces to slide into place. Unfortunately, this is also the moment when the attention of the reader or audience is likely to drag, so you need to be even more ruthless about cutting here than usual. If a story is two hundred pages long, and you’ve already cut as much as you can from the beginning and the end, it isn’t a bad idea to turn to page 100 and see if there’s anything you can excise from the twenty pages to either side. Any architectural structure has its points of weakness or stress, and in long works of fiction, it’s likely to be right here. And the best solution is to cut directly from the end of one action to the center of the next, as in the wonderful act break in Raiders of the Lost Ark, which moves without pause from Marion clutching the medallion in snowy Nepal to the rooftops of Cairo.

Seven Samurai

2. Put the pieces together in a different order. The opening of a novel generally presents a clear sequence of events, and even if you’ve restructured the story elsewhere, you’ll often find that the order of the initial chapters remains more or less the same. In a story with a three-act structure, this isn’t true of the beginning of the second act, in which the characters have been introduced, the machinery of the plot has been set in motion along various parameters, and the resulting material can be presented in a number of ways. If the second act of a novel begins with five or six chapters that move between characters, it’s often useful to rearrange them to find the order that flows most naturally. It’s even better if you can cut or combine scenes. I’ve also learned that if you’re writing a number of different plot threads that have been left in a state of suspense, it’s best to avoid resolving the immediate problem in at least one of them until the others have gotten further along: the reader will be more interested in following Susan on a plane to Samarkand if he’s still wondering how Jack will get out of prison in Jeddah.

3. Don’t forget to enjoy yourself. Second acts can feel like a chore, but when properly done, they can be immensely satisfying. Since you’ve already established your characters and central conflict, this is the chance for them to really come into their own. The second act of a movie like Seven Samurai enriches the situation presented in the first act and looks ahead to the action of the third, but is also fascinating in its own right—but only because the director and writers have done the necessary work. A second act lacks the obvious payoffs of the story’s beginning and end, but the fact that the author needs to work all the harder to maintain our interest often results in surprising, unpredictable storytelling. This is a big part of the reason why the second installments in movie trilogies, like The Empire Strikes Back, are often the best: deprived of easy dramatic solutions, the story has no choice but to explore its own world, go off in ingenious directions, and give the characters room to play. Whether or not there are second acts in our own lives remains an open question, but they certainly exist in fiction. So there’s no excuse for not handling them well.

Written by nevalalee

December 12, 2012 at 10:16 am

Mamet’s unsubtle knife

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Regular readers of this blog will know that one of my favorite books on storytelling is David Mamet’s On Directing Film. Since I’m preparing to outline my second novel over the next couple of weeks, I read it over again the other day—it’s only a hundred pages or so—and if anything, my admiration for it has only increased: it’s probably the single most useful guide to creating a plot I’ve ever seen. I’ve spoken about his advice here before, but today, I thought I’d highlight the three questions that Mamet reminds authors to ask themselves while writing:

1. What is the scene about?
2. What is the protagonist’s objective?
3. How do we know when we’re done?

It sounds simple, I know, but these three questions are the key to all good fiction. I was so invigorated by reading On Directing Film again, in fact, that I ran to the library to borrow a copy of Mamet’s other major book on writing, Three Uses of the Knife. Unfortunately, the second book isn’t nearly as good: instead of the chatty, inviting style of On Directing Film, which is structured around a series of classes that Mamet taught at Columbia University, Three Uses comes off as compressed and crabby, which was also true of his more recent Bambi vs. Godzilla.

It’s a shame, because Mamet is still just about the smartest man in movies—his intelligence shines through in all of his commentary tracks—and, judging from his earlier book, he has more useful information to impart about the craft of storytelling than anyone else I can name. In his recent work, sadly, the desire to teach seems to have given way to the temptation to lecture, a tendency which probably isn’t unrelated to his simultaneous slide into cultural conservatism. The title of Three Uses of the Knife, for instance, comes from the blues musician Leadbelly, but you need to go back to On Directing Film to figure out what Mamet means by it:

As Leadbelly says about the blues, he says in the first verse use a knife to cut bread, and in the second verse use a knife to shave, and in the third verse use it to kill your unfaithful girlfriend. It’s the same knife, but the stakes change, which is exactly the way a play or movie is structured. You don’t want to use the knife in the first verse to cut bread and in the second verse use it to cut cheese. We already know it can cut bread. What else can it do?

This is invaluable advice—you don’t want to hit the same beat twice in a row, unless you’re writing for television, in which case you’ll probably need to hit the same beat over and over again. On Directing Film contains dozens of similarly lucid pieces of guidance; Three Uses of the Knife yields perhaps two or three, because Mamet’s obsessively tight style has squeezed out the rest. Which tells me that what the world really needs is a great book of conversations with Mamet. And guess what? As luck would have it, it exists.

Written by nevalalee

February 23, 2011 at 9:20 am

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