Tuesday, 4 March 2008


In his most recent book of essays "Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business", David Mamet ponders the curious world of showbusiness as he has come to know and understand it after many years of practice, experience, and, no doubt, disillusionment. Why does a film need eighteen or so "producers", he asks? What on earth do all these people actually do? The answer comes as no great surprise. Basically, they do bugger all, and they have done bugger all so well for so long that these "producers" find themselves entrusted by the studios and other money men with whom they are in league to continue doing bugger all at their leisure ... unless, of course, something bad happens, in which case the producer wasn't responsible as he or she didn't actually do anything.

This may explain the 1998 film
"Godzilla" (1 producer, 2 co-producers, 3 executive producers and 2 co-executive producers ... the distinction between an executive and a co-executive eludes me as much as it may do Mamet ... There is also an "executive in charge of production, a "unit production manager", a "production secretary", a "production assistant", a "production co-ordinator" and so on and so forth. There are actually several of those last few, but I’ll be fucked if I’ll write "production" or "producer" one more time ... Oh. Oops).

In prose, Mamet's style can often be infuriatingly arch and formal. From God-only-knows where, the most obscure of words are untimely ripped and thrust together in sentences that can makes one's eyes glaze over in brain-rattling frustration, thus perhaps provoking in the reader a Mametian style response along the lines of, "Fuck you if you think I am going to move from this fucking spot and fuck about with some fucking dictionary ... Why don't you just say the thing? The fucking thing that is being said here?"

And yet despite this, he remains, as he has now for maybe the last 20 or so years, one of my favourite and most valued of writers. As is the great Gore Vidal, who has
this to say, "Bambi vs. Godzilla is far and away the best commentary on how movies are made thus far written by an American . . . Citing everyone from Aristotle to Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve, Mamet demonstrates what works and what doesn’t in a movie narrative, while noting what does not work, as we have been witnessing for the last decade or so: statistically, in 1958, Hollywood turned out 2,000 films which listed in their credits 230 producers, while in 2003 Hollywood produced 240 films with 1,200 producers listed ... Happily, Mamet keeps on in theater and film pretty much on his own terms, and now, with Bambi vs. Godzilla, like his great predecessor George Bernard Shaw, he can illuminate as a critic-practitioner the not-always-friendly Darwinian world he has been obliged to flourish in."

I mean, how can one not admire a man who can write lines like this from
“The Heist” ...

Gene Hackman: Why doesn't he shoot me?
Rebecca Pidgeon: That's the deal.
Gene Hackman: He ain't gonna shoot me?
Rebecca Pidgeon: No.
Gene Hackman: Then he hadn't ought to point a gun at me. It's insincere.

The secret of a good film, Mamet writes, is to provoke the audience into always asking the question, "what happens next?". He loathes the tedious business of characterisation, exposition, backstory and authorial narrative, describing these facets of a screenplay as the written equivalent of HIV infection. For Mamet, there are three basics of storytelling that all good screenplays, and therefore, the good films that are made of them, should address - "Who wants what from whom?", "What happens if they don't get it?" and "Why now?". This is not the first time Mamet has pounded this particular pulpit in print, but it remains as relevant as always, if not more so in this era of Michael Bay and an endless, and endlessly insipid parade of “C.S.I.” franchises. (Plus, he likes the film
"Galaxy Quest" and has an enthusiastic rave about actor Tony Curtis ... It's about time someone gave Curtis his due as an oftentimes great actor, and Mamet does exactly that, drawing specific attention to his superb performance as Albert DeSalvo in "The Boston Strangler”.)

In the book's section on The Screenplay, Mamet likens aspirants to this "art" to those green young things who regularly haul themselves eastward or westward in search of greater glories, only to find themselves stranded in a Greyhound bus depot, open for exploitation by the pimps and bottom feeders who trawl such places for fresh flesh to feast upon. "I'm young and stupid", Mamet writes of such aspirants, "Please abuse me."

“I’m young and stupid. Please abuse me” could very well serve as motto for every poor sap that’s ever had an urging to devote their life to securing employment, however tenuous, in any form of the creative arts, whether it be film, theatre, television, writing, visual arts or music. The passion for doing so has a bad habit of obscuring one’s common sense to the point of madness leading to naught but a life of financial deprivation. I’m reminded of a conversation I had with the lead singer of a Sydney band back in the 1980’s. With a record contract signed, a single and an album doing reasonably well and having gigged around every available shithole up and down the NSW coast for an innumerable of years, one afternoon he told me, “You know Ross, just once in my life I wish we were able to make enough money from doing this that buying a new pair of socks didn’t rate as a major financial expenditure”.

“I’m young and stupid. Please abuse me” should be printed on a t-shirt and handed out to anyone and everyone who has ever auditioned for a role they didn’t want, but went anyway just to appease their agent; to anyone who has ever been handed a record company contract or to anyone who has ever agreed to hand over 50% of their earnings to a gallery for a show up some side alley hole in the wall. Or, if not that, at least this book, along with 1992’s
“On Directing Film” should be compulsory reading for anyone young and stupid enough to embark upon a career in “entertainment”.

Though I doubt very much that it would actually stop anyone from so doing, at least they’ll know what they’re in for.

From “The New Yorker”, John Lahr reviews Mamet’s latest play, “November”.

From 1965, The Mamas and the Papas “California Dreamin’”

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