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Reading Mr. Mamet 
29th-May-2007 12:35 pm
David Mamet's latest collection of essays, Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose and Practice of the Movie Business, zeroes in on the subject of moviemaking — Hollywood moviemaking, in particular — and, as is his way, manages to make the reader feel a) pretty damn smart for understanding what's being set at our feet, b) dimwitted for sometimes not knowing what the hell he's talking about, or c) both a) and b) at the same time.

Reading Mr. Mamet is not unlike drinking a dose of cherry-flavored cough syrup: you don't necessarily enjoy it at the time you're downing it, you wonder where they picked these particular cherries, but afterwards, if its desired effect is successful, you're glad you took the measures.
(I speak here of Mamet's prose writing, not his playwriting. In that respect, I have nothing bad to say about the man who wrote Glengarry Glen Ross, nor, with few reservations, about the man who wrote the screenplays for The Verdict and the Untouchables, and who wrote and directed House of Games and State and Main. This hereby ends the world's longest mea culpa.)

That being said, the sections of the book devoted to "The Screenplay" and "Technique" prove invaluable reading for any writer. "Storytelling: Some Technical Advice" begins: "Storytelling is like sex. We all do it naturally. Some of us are better at it than others." Mamet goes on to say that all successful stories utilize the same form: "Once upon a time, and then one day, and just when everything was going so well, when just at the last minute, and they all lived happily ever after. Period."

He misses the boat, however, with the book's appendix, which consists of over 30 pages listing the films referenced throughout the book. Rather than enticing us with descriptions of the movies that are salient and incisive, after providing the year the film was made, the principal actors, the director and writer, he boils the plot lines down to their bare bones (sans any marrow whatsoever) and presents capsule reviews that make Leonard Maltin sound like Shakespeare. (For example, his entry for Taxi Driver: "Isolated in New York City, a Vietnam vet takes it upon himself to violently liberate an adolescent prostitute from her pimp.")

If his goal was to demonstrate how the plots of even classic films can be reduced to a single sentence, he succeeds. But in doing so he also shows why so much of what comes out of pitch-happy Hollywood these days is devoid of mystery, poetry, character, or any trace of art.

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