What is David Mamet all about? Like many people, I could watch a highpoint like Glengarry Glen Ross almost endlessly, but what does it ultimately amount to? One online source explains: “He writes of a world in which alienation is a fundamental, perhaps even universal, experience. A common theme in his plays is the potentially destructive force of the American dream.” But you could restate that as meaning little more than: Everything and everyone sucks. And indeed, I’m not sure Glengarry is about much more than that. But the epically well-cast film version seduces you completely, alternately compelling for setting out the savage grind of its salesman characters, and for the genuine elation of the moments when they glimpse (real or imaginary) transcendence. The scene where Al Pacino’s character seduces a poor schmuck in a bar into a real estate investment he doesn’t need and can’t afford preserves the peak of Mamet’s art – on the page, the dialogue looks barely coherent, but in the hands of a great actor, the fragmentation becomes proof of its metaphysical authenticity, in evading the dull causation of normal human exchanges, the conventions that imprison and belittle us. In a less effective version, as in a Soulpepper production of a few years ago, the artifice and mannerism remains too obvious, leaving the audience largely perplexed.
One of Mamet’s more recent plays Race – which as I write is just finishing its run at the Canadian Stage – is reminiscent of Glengarry at times, but only to the newer work’s detriment: the poetry is gone, and the ideas and themes (basically a monotonous iteration of the notion that race influences everything, and that everything we claim to think about it is probably either a self-delusion or else an outright lie) are expressed much more starkly and insistently. Of course, he’s an accomplished professional, so it goes down easily, but it comes perilously close to feeling like autopilot (especially if you saw last year’s Soulpepper production of Speed-the-Plow, which often feels like much the same play). The same goes for much of Mamet’s odd side career as a movie director: his early films like House of Games were highly promising, but most of what followed seems to evidence little ambition beyond becoming a skilled no-nonsense professional (Homicide might be the strongest, although it’s far from perfect, not least because of a similar sense that Mamet is over-stirring the racial pot). His movie work teems with cons and bluffs and red herrings, as if reality were more to be mocked and undermined than actually engaged with. It would be appealing to think his pitiful recent writings on his conservative beliefs and his pro-gun views were another kind of con game, but I’m afraid it’s all too serious.
Mamet’s latest project, Phil Spector, which he wrote and directed, is now playing on HBO. Pacino plays the famous record producer, who was convicted (after two trials) for murdering a young actress, Lana Clarkson, in his house in 2003, and Helen Mirren plays Linda Kenney Baden, a key member of the defense team. Although these are real people, and the film is plainly based on fact to some extent, the opening titles describe it as a “work of fiction,” and Mamet referred to it in interviews as a “fable.” I haven’t tried to learn any more about the facts than the movie provides, but the film strongly suggests Mamet thinks Spector is innocent – just based on what it gives us, the evidence about the trajectory of the wound and the absence of blood on Spector’s clothes seems incontrovertible.
This hardly matters though – the finding of justice is as much a theatrical presentation as a search for truth, and although Spector is certainly theatrical, little about him suggests ideal casting as a wronged innocent. He rants, grandstands, refuses to conform to accepted notions of propriety (in a clever touch, the laughably big wig he wore to court one day becomes the film’s thematic climax); his achievements count for very little because no one remembers them; and he’s a convenient vessel for the system to atone the mistake it made by letting OJ go. Regardless of what a rational weighting might yield, the narrative that ends with Phil Spector being convicted is much more compelling than the one that leads to his innocence. Indeed, pointedly, even Baden in one of the closing scenes will only concede that she has reasonable doubt of his guilt (although at various points in the film, she seems more convinced of it).
Mamet supports this sense of justice looking in the wrong place by deliberately focusing on what a more traditional approach would deem to be the wrong stuff. He spends far more time on the defense team’s exercises with fake trials and mock juries than on the actual trial and jury; he doesn’t try to recreate the crime itself, and when a key member of the legal team departs, we just hear about it afterwards. Much of the film takes place in somewhat disembodied spaces, in near-darkness or dull artificial light. Pacino doesn’t seem to be trying to think his way into Spector’s psyche in the way he did with Jack Kevorkian in his last HBO project, and Mamet doesn’t want him to – he’s written the character as a barely graspable stream of consciousness, his monologues messily combining (sometimes in the same sentence it seems) references to past career high-points, philosophical reflection, social commentary, and echoes of Pacino’s own past work.
I Never Go Out
Sometimes, Spector acknowledges the artifice of his behaviour, but that doesn’t mean he’s capable of stopping himself, and there’s a recurring sense that as a showbiz veteran, no matter how much times have changed, he understands the inevitable outcome of this show better than his lawyer does. Baden is suffering throughout from ailments which culminate in full-blown pneumonia, and the film occasionally conveys a sense of two beaten-down psyches huddling alone against the procedural and existential steam-roller (it’s hard not to regret though that Mamet’s original idea for the role, Bette Midler, pulled out after a week or two of filming).
All of this makes Phil Spector more distinctive and intellectually satisfying than most of Mamet’s film work, and sparks some optimism that he might not yet be creatively spent. That’s still a relative assessment though, and I think this might be an occasion when the film seems more interesting in retrospect than while you’re actually watching it. In that same interview, Mamet asserts “that the film is controversial (and) we are unused to seeing real controversy in mass entertainment,” but I fear there’s some wishful thinking there – a few interested parties aside, I don’t think people cared enough about the movie for it to be truly labeled controversial. Asked about what Hollywood thinks of his new conservatism, he says: “I don't think they ever liked me here anyway. But that's OK, because I never go out.” Which might just mean he’s too consumed by living the alienation to be an effective chronicler of it.