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Mametfest Destiny

Famed playwright, writer, and movie director David Mamet sent shockwaves through the lefty literary world in March when he declared himself an admirer of America and the Constitution. How could this be?

By 7.15.08

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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.

So, can this be read politically?

What can't?

*****

You see, in my trade, this is called -- what you did -- you cracked out of turn. Huh? You see? You crumbed the play.
-- Mike, teaching the con as part of a con, House of Games

In his 2007 essay collection, Bambi vs. Godzilla, Mamet argued that every successful scene in a screenplay will "stringently apply and stringently answer" three questions:

Who wants what from whom?
What happens if they don't get it?
Why now?

Let's set the scene according to his rules: Mamet wants from the literati to be recognized as separate from an ideological myopia even his most ardent (former?) admirers assume he has been struck with. We already know what he will do should he not get said recognition: publish a declaration of independence in one of liberalism's pride and joy publications. This act of defiance, essentially, leaves the shot all over save the crying and that last niggling little question: Why now?

Some conservatives reacted to Mamet's essay with a Manifest Destiny attitude -- providence long ago deemed he would be ours; it was just a matter of time. True, the former Chicago cabbie's rough-hewn, workman attitude toward the craft of writing ("You know...you need to build a garage but you can't afford a bricklayer," he once told the New Yorker's John Lahr. "Well, hell, figure out how to lay bricks. You need a script, well, hell, figure out how to write one"), his crew cut ("the haircut of an honest, two-pair-of-jeans working man, a man from Chicago, a man without vanity whose being stands without need of either introduction or apology," he wrote in a 1992 New York Times essay), combined with a pronounced distaste for pretension -- all this suggested something more substantial than fey liberalism. Consider, as further evidence, the following exchange from his one-act play Bobby Gould in Hell:

Bobby: "Nothing's black and white."

The Devil: "Nothing's black and white? What about a panda? What about a panda, you dumb f--k!"


No moral relativism here. Mamet may have attended Goddard College in the 1960s -- a "hippie, radical, drug-infested school for f--k-ups like myself," he once told the Guardian, preparing students for "no society more exclusive than the criminally bohemian" -- ushering in a lifelong love affair with flinty rural Vermont, where the writer still maintains a home, but he never romanticized the era. Asked by New Theater Quarterly in 1988 whether he felt the performance art of the 1960s served an artistic end, Mamet sniped, "It had a purpose in the way a guy goes into McDonald's, pulls a gun, and kills a bunch of people. Obviously, there is some meaning. But it's not very constructive." In his book On Directing Film, Mamet likewise excoriated filmmakers who indulge in overwrought shot set-ups, likening it to useless counterculture architecture and zinging, "And to you lovely enthusiasts who will aver the purpose of modern art is not to be liked, I respond, 'oh, grow up.'"

Nevertheless, the conspiracy theory of Mamet as a closeted conservative can be easily dispelled. Perusing Bambi vs. Godzilla and you will find a comparison of the fights between "Acting President Reagan," as Mamet was fond of calling him in the 1980s, and organized labor to the Pharaoh's treatment of the Israelites ("Capital, if it cannot call Labor 'Reds,' will call it 'Thugs,'" Mamet adds). To be fair, this union love probably has its roots in the fact that Mamet's father was a hard-charging lawyer for United Steelworkers Union and the AFL-CIO, but that hardly explains Mamet's praise of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 as a film in which "the unsayable is said and which, thus, for a moment, breaks the corrosive cycle of oppression."

Contra the Guardian's Billington, Mamet has always insisted that political interpretations of his work were a case of ignoring his dramatic intent, which necessitates creating conflict, in favor of adopting a convenient political takeaway message. Worse, such literary lecturing was predictable -- a high crime in Mamet's mind. Here's how he put it in a 1994 interview with Playboy:

I've noticed over the past thirty years that a lot of what passes in the theater is not drama but, rather, a morality tale. "Go thou now and do likewise." When you leave the theater and you say, "Oh, now I get it. Women are people, too." Or, "Now I get it, handicapped people have rights," then you feel very soothed for the amount of time it takes you to get to your car. Then you forget about the play.

Even with regard to Exhibit A in the conservative case for Mametfest Destiny, the 1992 play Oleanna, the playwright told Playboy in 1995 that this tale of a smug college professor brought down by a patriarchy-obsessed female student's false accusation of sexual harassment was simply a "tragedy about power"; a play "about two people, and each person's point of view is correct." (My colleague John Tabin nonetheless has a valid point when he argues, "You can't observe a milieu that keenly without noticing the flaws in its worldview." Eventually.) Others have pointed to Mamet's 1982 play Edmond -- adapted for the screen in 2005 by Re-Animator horror director Stuart Gordon -- in which the angry-white-male title character snaps under the weight of political correctness, as a signpost. Yet Mamet described the story to the New York Times as "very, very hopeful," in large part because the grossly racist, homophobic title character "resolves...basic dichotomies" by falling in love with his black male cellmate after being convicted of murder -- a good twist, if not exactly a moment pregnant with latent social conservatism.

It's fair to say, certainly, that Mamet's body of work is less difficult to square with a turn toward conservatism than that of, say, Michael Moore. But how would we have read the same tea leaves sans the Village Voice piece? To double up on clichéd metaphors, the eye of the beholder cuts both ways, and there are many reasons to suspect something new is happening here.

*****

Hollywood is capitalism at its best: opposing forces working it out, using the tools of the marketplace. As such, it's vastly messier than totalitarianism, but it kills a lot less people. -- Mamet, interview, TimeOut New York, 2007

David Mamet appears to be a liberal who has been mugged...by success.

Through his early years of struggle and even well into his most successful theater years, Mamet, who only began writing seriously when the Chicago theater company he founded with his former student William H. Macy in 1972 couldn't afford to pay royalties, harbored serious doubts as to whether modern capitalistic America had the capacity to reward a unique vision. This led to the writer spending much of his career throwing around terms such as lumpenproletariat and disdainfully shellacking the American ethic, which he distilled in Studies in American Drama (1984) as, "Your extremity is my opportunity.... One can only succeed, at the cost of, the failure of another..." A few years later Mamet confided to New Theater Quarterly, "In a very, very strictly structured, increasingly authoritarian environment, which is life in this country, if one pursues a career one of the main aspects of which is being an iconoclast one is not going to have the happiest time of it."

Mamet, of course, proved spectacularly wrong on this point. While reasonable people may dispute the merits of his distinctive approach to dialogue -- Ben Brantley praised it as "ingeniously ordered American street phrases and cadenced slang," while Mamet told the Guardian he intended to create "a poetic restatement of my idea of how people talk" -- few serious critics disagree that Mamet has created a world unto itself, fantastically intricate and instantly recognizable. Try to imagine the following lines from his 2001 film Heist, for example, in any other filmmaker's work:

"I'm going to be as quiet as an ant pissing on cotton."

"I want you to be as quiet as an ant not even thinking about pissing on cotton."

Or:

"Is he cool?"

"My motherf---er is so cool, when he goes to bed sheep count him."

The system, in other words, has treated Mamet well. "Movies are a huge conglomerate, which is elected by the -- if you want to take the Darwinian view, it's elected by the country at large to talk to the country at large," Mamet told Jim Lehrer in 1987 shortly after the release of his first film, House of Games. "Every time we buy a ticket, we cast our vote in a very, very real way for the people we want to see next."

These votes have hardly benefited Mamet alone, who has been able to surround himself with a stable of talent as idiosyncratically brilliant as himself, from sleight-of-hand expert Ricky Jay and his beguiling wife, Rebecca Pidgeon, to swaggering muse Joe Mantegna and film editor Barbara Tulliver (to whom Bambi vs. Godzilla is dedicated). "People who were twenty when I was twenty are now forty when I'm forty, and it's tough to assemble a cast of friends of your to work cheaply and quickly, because they're all paying off mortgages just like I am," Mamet explained to Lehrer. "One of the reasons I'm excited about movies is they give me an opportunity" -- and the cash necessary -- "to get together and work time after time with people who I'd been working with before."

The happy family, which otherwise would have been torn asunder, existing only as a memory of youth's halcyon days, catapulted, united, into the future thanks to the free market.

As the title of Mamet's sweetest, most underappreciated film suggests, Things Change. In 1977 Mamet told an interviewer television would never supersede theater because it was "like masturbation, if you do it, you do it by yourself in a dark room." In 2007 Mamet was producing, writing, and directing episodes of the successful television series The Unit. And as things kept changing, as Mamet's artistic and financial success continued to build upon itself, the man was bound to become more amenable to the idea that perhaps his success was not at the failure of another. A market that nurtures niche audiences for iconoclasts cannot be all bad.

*****

The Rabbi had said that as one studies the Torah, as one reads the same portions at the same times of the year, year after year, one sees in them a change; but, as they do not change, it must be we who change.
-- David Mamet's 1997 novel, The Old Religion

During a 1998 BBC interview, Mamet described his upbringing in a family of "semi-observant Jews," one generation removed from Polish/Russian immigrants who had fled the 20th century's first wretchedly foreshadowing pogroms:

[My] parents and coterie and, perhaps, to a large extent a slice of their generation had really wanted to be Americans. They didn't want to not be Jews, but they wanted to be Americans. They were the kids of immigrants; they'd been poor. They lived through the Depression. They lived through World War II and found out about the Holocaust. And through it all they wanted to succeed at what they'd been told it's possible to succeed at: being an American, being part of a large nondenominational community.

Ira Nadel's recent illuminating biography, David Mamet: A Life in the Theater, relays a more complicated scenario. The Mamet home, Nadel writes, was "adjacent to the second-largest Jewish area in the city but the parents sought an assimilated life," which, oddly, included Mamet's mother's refusal to react to the anti-Semitic violence and taunts her children regularly endured. Young David's Bar Mitzvah was held in a private room, Nadel reports, unbeknownst to his mother, with only his father, sister, and secret tutor present for the ceremony.

It should come as no surprise that under the circumstances Mamet, as he told a San Francisco audience during a City Arts & Lectures appearance, "didn't see a lot of upside" in his cultural/religious heritage until he grew older. "I was a nice Jewish boy, and I think I probably am a nice Jewish boy, and I wanted to be anything but a nice Jewish boy," the playwright told NPR's Terry Gross in 1994. "I wanted to be Jack Kerouac. Or Jack London. Or someone named Jack."

He eventually ended up more like Bobby Gold (Mamet regular Mantegna), the tougher-than-thou cop of Mamet's 1991 rumination on identity, Homicide, a proudly assimilated Jew who slowly begins to ache for a connection with his heritage. For Gold, the spark is the investigation of the murder of an elderly Jewish candy shop clerk who once ran guns to Zionist forces in the Israeli War of Independence and whose life story subsequently inspires Gold to join forces with an underground Jewish Defense League-type group. Mamet's prompt was a little less dramatic: while attending his niece's Bat Mitzvah, it dawned on him that he hadn't been in a synagogue in decades.

Homicide ends on a tragically ambiguous note, with the Zionist group encouraging Gold to blow up a back-room neo-Nazi print shop, only to use photographs of him setting the bomb to blackmail him into tampering with evidence, and he soon finds himself abandoned and betrayed by both his cultural and professional cohorts.

Mamet's reacclimation, under the tutelage of a Reform rabbi named Lawrence Kushner with whom he would eventually co-write the 2003 book-length Torah commentary Five Cities of Refuge, was much less rocky, if a still profound experience. As in all other things, Mamet came out of his religious studies swinging. "The way to combat anti-Semitism, religious abuse, or his own neglected Judaism," Nadel observes, "was to become more Jewish." In the mid-1990s, in the moving novella Passover, Mamet wrote of the pogroms his family suffered, but the truth of Nadel's statement is nowhere more boldly advertised than in the playwright's at times shocking 2006 polemic, The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred, and the Jews, in which he charges the "scoffing 'ex'-Jew" with what amounts to secular heresy:

To the Jews who, in the sixties, envied the Black Power Movement; who, in the nineties, envied the Palestinians; who weep at Exodus but jeer at the Israeli Defense Forces; who nod when Tevye praises tradition but fidget through the seder; who might take their curiosity to a dogfight, to a bordello or an opium den but find ludicrous the notion of a visit to the synagogue; whose favorite Jew is Anne Frank and whose second-favorite Jew does not exist; who are humble in their desire to learn about Kwanzaa and proud of their ignorance of TuBi'Shvat; who dread endogamy more than incest; who bow the head reverently at a baptism and have never attended a bris -- to you, who find your religion and race repulsive, your ignorance of your history a satisfaction, here is a book from your brother.

Mamet's conversion to a libertarian form of philosophical conservatism -- not political Republicanism -- is almost certainly connected to this passionate reaffirmation of his Jewish heritage and faith. One of the first examples Mamet gives in his Village Voice piece of his changing ideology is his view that NPR might as well stand for "National Palestinian Radio." (Really, how long can one rail against the international slander the IDF endures without recognizing the U.S. military has perhaps been similarly railroaded in the court of world opinion?) Later, when explaining the spark behind his political-philosophical self-inventory, he notes that it was his rabbi who reminded his "exclusively liberal" congregation "that Jewish law teaches that is incumbent upon each person to hear the other fellow out."

When that intellectual dust settled, Mamet had been sold on what he calls the "conservative (or tragic) view" over the "liberal (or perfectionist) view," wherein everything is "magically wrong and must be immediately corrected at any cost." The tenets of Judaism opened Mamet's mind to other perspectives he very well may have shunned in his earlier assimilated years. In the end liberalism became a kind of cousin to performance art to Mamet, who many years ago told New Theater Quarterly of the latter, "You have to ignore a hell of a lot to enjoy yourself at such a performance. You have to pretend you are something that you are not."

*****

There was great comfort in being part of a group; and it was, he thought, similar to the comfort of being alone. If you took the trappings off, he thought, it felt the same...
-- David Mamet's 1994 novel, The Village

In the final analysis, we would be remiss not to acknowledge there is a component of Mamet's personality and thought process that both presaged and set the stage for his political conversion. This is the man, after all, who almost single-handedly resurrected the con-man thriller, stuffing enough beguiling twists and turns into films like The Spanish Prisoner, House of Games, and Heist to make The Sixth Sense look like the celluloid equivalent of a paint-by-number portrait. David Mamet likes to surprise -- and it's fairly certain he succeeded with Village Voice readers in March.

One of the best essays in Bambi vs. Godzilla invokes the phrase "age and express yourself," ostensibly to explain why, at age 60, Mamet now feels comfortable knocking Laurence Olivier's acting chops while copping to a love of Tony Curtis. But it is not difficult to see how this attitude -- "I need not believe the drivel that is spoken around me, I feel lighter already" -- could seep into other areas of thought.

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