This article was the cover story of The American Spectator’s June 2008 issue. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.
IT TOOK A SURPRISING number of questions about cinematographic technicalities before the topic that had birthed much grumbling in the line for a sold-out preview of David Mamet’s sublime new movie Redbelt was at last broached.
“Can this film be read politically?” a young man finally asked the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and heralded film director during a post-screening Q&A session at the Walter Reade Theater, arguably the artiest of Manhattan’s surfeit of art house cinemas.
“It can,” Mamet, fairly oozing his trademark self-assured cool, replied. “But what can’t?”
The core of the query, alas, was clearly not whether Redbelt contained any political subtext, but, rather, whether in the wake of his March 2008 Village Voice essay, “Why I Am No Longer a Brain-Dead Liberal” (a piece that allowed Andrew Klavan to crow in the Los Angeles Times, “The right has gained an artist”), Mamet could still be trusted to deliver the correct political subtext. Perhaps motivation and intent mean hardly a thing when a B-list actor or comedian stumbles off the left-wing reservation. When it is a pillar of American arts and letters, though; a consistently independent voice in a culture that increasingly lets everything slide into pointlessness and basic cheapness; a renaissance man who is indisputably one of the most influential playwrights (Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo, Speed-the-Plow) and filmmakers of his generation, not to mention author of a couple of decent novels (The Village, The Old Religion) and several excellent essay collections with his own set-aside celebrity corner of the Huffington Post… well, that’s a different matter altogether.
And so the crowd listened warily as the director explained that the post-9/11 zeitgeist was such that issues of politics and war inevitably color artistic endeavors, but he had never gone out of his way to shoehorn politics into his work — “because that’s not my place.” Redbelt, he said, was the story of “a lone man who has to take his purity into a very messy world.” The suspicious seemed not assuaged.
Only a few months earlier I had attended Mamet’s wonderfully cheeky Broadway play November, whose bumbling, corrupt president (Nathan Lane) with no real chance of being re-elected — his poll numbers are “lower than Gandhi’s cholesterol” — left the upscale Manhattan crowd glee-addled and critics utterly confident of Mamet’s ideological steadiness. In the New Yorker John Lahr read into the crowd reaction to this farcical romp an acknowledgment of “our outrage and disillusion with our own current leaders” as Mamet serviced “his own fierce conscience.” To the Village Voice’s Michael Feingold the play was “predicated on our desperate need to laugh, and to share our laughter, at the real-life disaster the current administration has made of our existence as a nation.”
It must have been shocking for society’s finest shortly thereafter to learn that it was research for November that led the Pulitzer Prize-winning mind behind Glengarry Glen Ross to rethink his “hatred” for corporations (“the flip side of my hunger for those goods and services they provide”) and disdain for the military; to determine that George W. Bush (“whom I, a good liberal, considered a monster”) was no worse than John F. Kennedy; and to shed his prejudices against the “rather wonderful and privileged circumstances” of life in the United States — i.e., that “we are not and never have been the villains that some of the world and some of our citizens make us out to be, but that we are a confection of normal (greedy, lustful, duplicitous, corrupt, inspired — in short, human) individuals living under a spectacularly effective compact called the Constitution, and lucky to get it.” This oft-cited transcendental critic of capitalism was now name-checking Milton Friedman and calling Thomas Sowell “our greatest contemporary philosopher.”
How could it be? This was the same play the New York Times’s Caryn James had used to diagnose Mamet, like Freud reading his dream diary, as a writer whose work had “evolved over the last decade in a way that reflects the country’s own, ever-darkening assumptions.”
Showcasing an antipathy to non-government-mandated optimism along with a well-entrenched sense of entitlement when it comes to owning artistic souls, the left did not take news of the defection magnanimously. The New Statesman intoned darkly that Mamet was embracing a “Hobbesian strain of conservatism,” ironically enough because he no longer saw the life of man as sufficiently solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, or short. In the Guardian Michael Billington fretted that while he’d “always seen Mamet as an inordinately complex writer: one whose apparent tough-guy, Hemingway-esque stance conceals a sensitivity to social and sexual issues,” the writer’s new political philosophy might prove detrimental since “the precedents for a shift to the right on the part of creative artists are not exactly encouraging.”
For its part, the popular online liberal watering hole Daily Kos posted the news under the typically thoughtful headline “Glengarry Glenn Stupid” along with a poll allowing readers to vote on Mamet’s motivations, ranging from “Because he’s rich and comfortable and antagonistic” — abandon the class war and you become the class war — and “Because he hasn’t written a quality play in years and needs to blame someone” to the winning “Who really cares?”
The answer to that last, of course, lay in the asking. A vote for Who really cares? is a pretty good indicator that you care.
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