More on Mamet

by Tom Ingram

I’ve begun reading David Mamet’s book Writing In Restaurants (I have True and False, but haven’t started it yet), and I must say that I’m not impressed. His essays are a mixture of insightful high-minded thoughts, rhetorical sleight-of-hand, and downright stupid conclusions. In “Radio Drama”, Mamet begins by discussing writing for the radio and how it prepares you to write for the stage. But as soon as he mentions movies, it takes a weird turn:

Witness the rather fascistic trend in cinema in the last decade:

Q: How’d you like the movie?
A: Fantastic cinematography.

Yeah, but so what? Hitler had fantastic cinematography. The question we have ceased to ask is, “What was the fantastic or brilliant cinematography in aid of?”

Of course it’s important that the cinematography, and all other aspects of a movie, work toward the same goal. But an otherwise mediocre movie that’s skillfully put to film deserves at least that much credit. Good craftsmanship should always be celebrated. You don’t have to accept or reject the whole production as a package deal. Birth of a Nation is one of the most morally reprehensible movies ever made, but it is startlingly well put together for its time, and it’s the origin of numerous film production techniques. It deserves, and largely gets, credit for its cinematography even thought it was used for shameful ends.

We’re not twenty pages into the book, and Mamet has already brought up Hitler and fascists in the middle of a discussion that has nothing whatsoever to do with them. Even by Internet standards, that’s bad. This is the whole purpose of Godwin’s law–a writer who makes this comparison lightly is either a bad writer or a liar trying to put one over on you, and in either case it’s hardly worth reading further. I’m tempted to shut Writing In Restaurants and return both Mamet books to the library on general principle, but now I feel the same obligation to keep reading that I get in, say, Terry Goodkind or Laurell K. Hamilton.

Note also the undertone of “kids these days” running through it. This “fascistic” decline is a product of modern society, and things were better back in Mamet’s day. I’m not sympathetic to that kind of whining. Injudicious overproduction is not a new thing. Benedetto Marcello was complaining about it all the way back in 1720:

He [the opera director] may give in to the clamouring of his friends and hire some stage hands, conductors, dancers, tailors, and extras, but in this he should use the utmost economy so that he can spend all the more on singers, especially prima donnas, as well as on the bear, a tiger, flashes of lightning, thunderbolts, and earthquakes.

On the very next page, Mamet equates “concern for commercial viability” with censorship and thought police. He imagines the shady corporate overlords who run the theatre business (work with me here) draw up a list of things they don’t want the masses thinking about and refuse to fund any productions that touch on these topics. He has it backwards.

Most people don’t want to think about certain things. They don’t care about philosophy, the human condition, or the “national dream life”, and don’t want to see plays that deal with them. The shady corporate overlords are in the business of giving the audience what they want, and so deeply introspective plays, movies, music, and books are not the norm. That’s not to say there’s no place for them, but they’ve always been fewer and smaller.

This is just two pages of one essay. There’s plenty more, and I’m not even halfway through the book yet. David Mamet reads like a parody of the pretentious theatre type, sneering as if by reflex at anything that an actual human being might enjoy and reading bizarre political motives into the ordinary. There is much that is good in Writing In Restaurants, but there’s also a hell of a lot of bullshit and I’m not sure it’s worth the effort.