Whose Film Is It Anyway?
David Mamet
Note: The purpose of Whose Film Is It Anyway? is to examine the validity of the auteur theory through the lens of individual film-makers, taking a look at their bodies of work and highlighting the technical elements, personal style, and thematic consistency of their films. Ultimately, the goal of this column will be to generate a discussion of the merits of auteur theory through examinations of directors widely considered auteurs, analyses of directors whose status as auteurs is more tenuous, and occasional looks at non-directors who may drive the quality and content of their films with more assuredness than the directors they work with.

"Take away the director from the staged play and what do you get? Usually a diminution of strife, a shorter rehearsal period, and a better production." -David Mamet

When I began brainstorming this column, it was clear to me that I wanted to look not only at auteurs, those directors whose technical skill, personal style, and thematic consistency drive their work, but also at directors who were not auters and at non-directors who may actually have more to do with the final product than the director. So central to my game plan was this idea that it is permanently ingrained in the introductory note to every installment of the column. Yet so far, I have only examined the work of directors that I would say are definitive auteurs. I have eased myself into the examination of auteurism, and hopefully any of you readers as well, by focusing first on modern examples of auteurs and explaining why I think they fit the mold.

This time I'm looking to try something a little different. David Mamet is a director of 11 movies over the past 25 years, so there is no doubt that this installment is examining a director. Mamet also pretty clearly drives the quality and content of his work with more assuredness than any (or almost any) of his collaborators. Yet I would forward the argument that David Mamet is not an auteur, and in doing so, will introduce a theory I have mentioned before, and one that I imagine will do battle with the auteur theory throughout this column for as long as I continue writing it. This theory is, as I have forewarned you, a screenwriter's theory.

A bit on my bias before I dig into how Mamet is a perfect introduction to a screenwriting theory. Those of you who read this blog regularly will likely have noticed my near constant references to the motivations, ideas, faults, and hang-ups of "the writers" on any given television show I happen to be covering (this is especially true of my reviews of Glee, though I think its something that gets thrown around a lot in my treatments of How I Met Your Mother and 24 as well). To some extent, I tend to believe that the writers are the creative force behind any given story, and that a lot of the credit, and a lot of the blame should be placed on them for any given creation. This occasionally places me in philosophical opposition to the auteur theory, which I think often deprives the screenwriter of the credit they deserve for, you know, actually creating the story, characters, plot developments, and themes of any given piece. Working on this column so far has pushed me towards a greater understanding of the auteur theory and has lead me to see some of its validity, but I still tend to be biased in favor of crediting the writer.

All of this is prologue to the idea of David Mamet as a consistent creative force behind all of his works, but not as an auteur. If I were to ask someone to name a David Mamet film (provided that person is familiar with Mamet at all), many people would likely name Glengarry Glen Ross, a tour de force about real estate agents locked in a competition for their jobs. The film is a masterpiece with an unimpeachable cast (Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Alan Arkin, Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey, Jonathan Pryce and Alec Baldwin), a stellar script packed with the signature Mamet dialogue and cadence, and some very solid direction that keeps the film's theatrical roots in mind while also adding cinematic depth. Sounds like a home run for Mamet, right? Except for one thing: David Mamet didn't direct his most well known movie.

What he did do, however, is write the phenomenal script, both for the original play and for the screen adaptation, which includes the film's most famous scene, a monologue not included in the play in which Alec Baldwin's character explains the basic plot of the film and espouses its basic philosophy. If that makes it sound anything less than scintillating, I'll let the scene speak for itself:

Watching that scene, and, for that matter, the rest of the movie, there is no doubt that it is the work of David Mamet, whose dialogue has such a familiar rhythm and cadence to it, he famously forces actors to rehearse with a metronome to get the timing right. Mamet's dialogue, which often plays with the differing meanings of words (like the meaning of the word "˜talking' in a key scene in Glengarry) and the ability of communication to allow us to explain our worldview to one another (or, in some cases, the failure of words to sufficiently get our meanings across) doesn't just drive this movie, it is the movie. Without Mamet's script, Glengarry Glen Ross would not exist, plain and simple.

So why is it that with Mamet behind the camera an auteur does not emerge? In part, it's the way that Mamet views directing. In addition to the quote that opened this column, Mamet has also said, "The work of the director is the work of constructing a shot list from the script. The work on the set is nothing. All you have to do on the set is stay awake, follow your plans, help the actors be simple, and keep your sense of humor. This is a philosophy that's inherent in Mamet's directorial style and clearly elevates the script to the center of any film's universe (at least, any of Mamet's films. I'm far from making the pronouncement any wider than his work alone). Mamet has also been known to say that he believes the job of the director is to set up the camera so that it captures the action, and that the job ends there. This can be seen throughout his works, which lack any technical style or achievement, mostly because Mamet eschews the idea that the technical portion of filmmaking should even matter.

In Homicide, Mamet's third feature as a writer-director, Bobby Gold (Joe Mantegna) is pulled off of a high profile case he is working with his partner (William H. Macy) tracking a drug dealer (Ving Rhames) in order to investigate the murder of an elderly Jewish woman. Gold is embittered that he was chosen because he too is Jewish, yet is drawn in to a potential conspiracy around her death. The film explores Mamet's pet themes of problems with authority and of elaborate confidence games played out over time, utilizing Mamet's trademark dialogue specifically in two soliloquies that push the issue of race, and all the complexities associated with it at the forefront of the film. It is impossible to deny that this is a Mamet film, but the fact that he was behind the camera has little to do with that.

The Spanish Prisoner, a (not particularly good) film both written and directed by Mamet, exhibits the downside of this flaw. The film follows Joe Ross (an unremarkable Campbell Scott), an inventor responsible for creating "The Process" through a series of twists as various interests compete to deprive him of his invention or of any financial gain from it. The movie makes room for some appearances by Mamet regulars like Ricky Jay, Ed O'Neill, Felicity Huffman, and Rebecca Pidgeon (the epitome of "˜I got the job because I'm sleeping with the director' jokes) but the tone of the whole thing feels off. The actors, particularly Campbell Scott and Steve Martin, who acts as the film's annoyingly obvious antagonist, never seem to nail down Mamet's dialogue which leaves the whole movie feeling stilted. Beyond that, there's the fact that the film telegraphs each and every one of its plot developments, with references in the script, to be sure, but also with achingly obvious close-ups that focus our attention on something we are now painfully aware will come back later in the film. It becomes difficult throughout The Spanish Prisoner to determine whether Mamet turned in a terrible script, or whether his uninventive direction just made a more subtle work feel terribly overdone.

Mamet faired much better a few years later with State and Main, a clever Hollywood satire that puts him fully in his comfort zone. He is working again with a large troupe of Mamet regulars, including William H. Macy as the film's director, Ricky Jay as a producer, Alec Baldwin as the star, and Clark Gregg as a local attorney with political ambitions. Not only can this very capable cast handle his dialogue, they're also in on a lot of his in-jokes, like when Mamet stand-in Phillip Seymour Hoffman's writer refuses to do any edits without his beloved type-writer (Mamet never writes on a computer), or when he falls in love with a stage actress in the small town (played by Mamet's wife Rebecca Pidgeon, at her least annoying here). Another running gag throughout the film has Macy's director insist on including a complex, if not impossible, shot for the opening of his movie. The request seems patently ridiculous, and also reads as Mamet's appraisal of the work most directors do"”technically ambitious but ultimately empty in terms of adding meaning to the film.

In Redbelt, for my money the best film Mamet has yet made as a director, his dialogue takes center stage again in an in-depth character study that follows Mike Terry (an incredible Chiwetel Ejiofor) who owns a martial arts studio and lives his life by a very firm code, and watches as that code is challenged by the rigors of daily life. Much of the film evokes a play, but in the style of Glengarry it also utilizes the advantages of being a film effectively, opening up its combat scenes and even (shocking, for a Mamet directed film) shooting from some interesting angles to accurately capture the feel of the fights. Mamet was likely aided here by the fact that he has studied martial arts for years, yet the film is still centered far more on his script than on any technical element.

If I have made it sound like Mamet's emphasis on his screenplays over the visual representations of them is a flaw, don't be fooled. I am simply endeavoring to draw a distinction between Mamet and the three auteurs I have previously examined in this space. David Mamet drives the meaning behind his films whether or not he is directing them, and makes a strong case for the idea that a screenwriter can be more influential in making a film than a director. This column has focused less on the specifics of Mamet's career (like his predilection for stories about con men, his views of masculinity, his ideas about communication and his penchant for viewing America as a place that forces self-examination through a lens of cynicism and nihilism) and more on his philosophical differences with those who would be considered auteurs. For any of you Mamet die-hards out there it may seem that I've given him short shrift in favor of speculating on the importance of screenplays in general, but I think that he weaves a very interesting path through the debate on auteurism, and one I hope I have highlighted in a coherent fashion. Mamet seems to find directing to be a necessary evil, a middle man between writing a script and communicating it to the masses. He sees directors as achingly inessential to the process of movie-making, and yet, it is easy to spot his mark on any movie he has worked on (unless you tend to watch movies on mute). Mamet shows up in his dialogue, in the way he develops his characters, and in the way that what each character says also says something about them (to use the word "says" in a way that might make Mamet proud). Watching one of his movies, you may not be able to tell whether he directed it. You may have absolutely no idea whether he was even on set during its filming. But you'll know pretty quickly if he wrote it.

Read more Whose Film Is It Anyway? here

Coming up on Who's Film Is It Anyway?:

7/4: Paul Thomas Anderson

7/18: Fritz Lang

8/1: Charlie Kaufman

8/15: Todd Solondz
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