Thursday, August 13, 2009

Change of Heart

Re-reading David Mamet's short essay December 24 (found in his collection Jafsie and John Henry) in the context of the recent announcement that he plans to adapt Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl into a film, raises many questions, the most prominent of which is "So I guess you changed your mind, then?"

Much of the essay is given over to questioning, in relation to the stage adaptation of the diary, which of the two basic genres the story belongs to: Tragedy or Comedy? He says that it can't be a tragedy, because "...none of the characters' trials are engendered by their actions." Mamet goes on to say that, dramatically speaking, and in the broadest possible sense, the story is a comedy:

If we forget for a moment that someone was killed, the form of the piece becomes more recognizable -- it is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or Our Boardinghouse, complete with (in the original [version of the play]) the traditional comedic punch line, "People are still good at heart" or "Waal, I guess we're all jes' folks..."

You might get a sense from this what Mamet, a devout Jew, thinks about the idea of turning the diary into a piece of drama. In case you're unclear, he finishes the essay with this:

It is -- one cannot even say "a truer understanding," for it is not for us to understand -- but it is, I believe, the only possible approach or relationship to these artifacts, the only permissible relationship, to them, the Diary included, is silent, distanced respect. They are not and should not be "the possession of the world," nor should they be pressed into the world's service as entertainment.

I agree with Cynthia Ozick: Better the diary had been burned.

So this announcement about his film version of the diary would seem to signal quite an about-face on his part. It could even be evidence, depending on how charitable towards Mamet you happen to feel, of straight-up hypocrisy. I don't pretend to know which it is, but I am pretty damn curious. The essay was written about ten years ago, and that's a lot of time in which to mull over a topic and, at the end, conceivably, find yourself holding a different opinion. But Mamet seems so damn concrete in that essay that I can't imagine what would take him not just from that opinion to the point where he can appreciate a film based on Anne Frank's diary, but to actually make that film himself.

Maybe Mamet simply feels like he's hit on just the right approach to do the diary justice. This wouldn't necessarily surprise me, as Mamet's never been accused -- nor do I think he'd claim this virtue for his own -- of humility. It's just that even to consider such a project would seem to go against some pretty core beliefs. He's not simply making a film about the Holocaust, he's filming the exact story he used as an example of what should be left alone.

In short, I'm baffled. To be honest, when Krauthammer first passed along the news in the comments section of my previous post, I thought that Mamet had made a joke, and somebody took him seriously. It wouldn't be the first time that's happened. Just recently, in fact, I heard that Joe Dante said, in front of a reporter, that it wouldn't surprise him if somebody made a new Gremlins movie, and in no time at all that story turned into one where Joe Dante was in talks to make a new Gremlins movie. But the details in the Variety story linked to above would seem to refute that theory. Mamet apparently really is attempting to retrieve the diary from the respectful pyre he'd mentally cast it into and put it on screen.

I love ya, Mamet. But I sure hope you know what you're doing.


Marilyn said...

If he is trying a new approach, I imagine he will opt for the Shakespearean definition of comedy and take the ending we've come to expect (the knock from below, the German, the siren) and chuck it out the window. I am not surprised he wants to tackle another Jewish-themed movie, and I'm very interested to see it.

Krauthammer said...

Apparently Mamet adresses his book The Wicked Son to

"the Jews…whose favorite Jew is Anne Frank…to you, who find your religion and race repulsive."

And that was written only a couple of years ago. Either he's done a complete 180 or hes going to use this as an opportunity to attack the narrative directly.

I agree, I'm very interested.

Ryan Kelly said...

I personally find his 'silence' stance on the Holocaust a little strange. Like the other end of the spectrum of Holocaust denial. I'm sure it'll be interesting, at the very least, but I don't think this story has ever been handled particularly effectively. Though I'm sure someone as talented as Mamet can pull it off.

We'll see.

bill r. said...

Believe me, I'm interested, too. But I mean, he essentially claimed it was morally wrong to adapt the diary in any way. And now he's doing that exact thing. It raises the eyebrow.

Krauthammer - elsewhere in THE WICKED SON, he rails against Jews whose first favorite Jew is Anne Frank whose second favorite Jew is "no one". Ouch.

Ryan - I'm not sure he's ever advocated outright silence on the Holocaust, just that certain true-life artifacts shouldn't be used as fodder for art or entertainment.

Ryan Kelly said...

From a Salon interview with Mamet (his responses are in Italics):

Why is a movie like this [Schindler's List] that feeds into the audience's need to feel good about itself pernicious?

I thought it was especially pernicious in the case of "Schindler's List" because, as a Jew, I don't like the fact of the Jewish people being exploited, whether in the name of good or ill. For example, everything that has been said about Diana, including this, is gossip. The people who showed pictures of her embracing X, Y, Z and the people who wrote that the pictures were bad and this comment I'm making are all gossip and exploitative about something that's nobody's business. They're all exploitative about that dead person. Just so, attempts to picture Jews going to the gas chambers are exploitative, even if they're done for the best reasons in the world.

The only response is silence?

I think so.

that the only legitimate response to someone else's grief?

Absolutely so. It's in the Talmud that you're not supposed to say anything when someone is in mourning. What's there to say?

I'm really curious about the, as you put it, reversal, considering everything I've heard him say about works relating to the Holocaust has been more or less that -- they shouldn't have been made because they're exploitative by their very nature.

bill r. said...

You know, Ryan, I may have read that interview before. Anyway, I knew about his disdain for Schindler's List. And to be honest, it's not like his points in that interview are necessarily bad ones -- I just think they're to all-encompassing. Apparently, he now thinks so too.

Fox said...

Maybe his movie will be one shot of him burning dramatic representations of Anne Frank dramas from the past.

But on the possible 180, maybe it really is one. We know that Mamet had his own shift in economic and political philosphies recently, so it seems he isn't one who is averse to dramatically changing his mind.

bill r. said...

Fox -

But on the possible 180, maybe it really is one. We know that Mamet had his own shift in economic and political philosphies recently, so it seems he isn't one who is averse to dramatically changing his mind...

That's true, I should have brought up his new political affiliations. The thing is, though, is that I'm not sure Mamet ever came off as a really hard-core liberal before that conversion, and I know a lot of people said they weren't really surprised, or that they thought he always was on the conservative side. But this Anne Frank movie is a real turnaround, completely against his previous statement, and totally out of the blue.

I'm waiting for someone else to bring this up somewhere, but I haven't seen it mentioned yet.

Fox said...


That's true. In that - now infamous - Village Voice essay, he even mentions riding in the car with Rebecca Pigeon and silently cringing at the NPR commentary she was listening to. I took that to mean just what you said... that he was maybe in the closet about his beliefs for awhile.

But what REALLY irritated me about his "coming out" (and I totally expected this) were the reactions to it. One particular theater critic said something along the lines of, "Well, NOW I get it. Mamet wrote Edmond after all. OF COURSE he's a right-wing bigot. It all makes sense now!" That's dramatically paraphrasing, but it was along those lines. I'll try to find it. I think it might have been that douche James Wolcott.

bill r. said...

Fox, I saw those reactions. Of course it was highly obnoxious. I'm tempted to say that some on the Left can dish it out, but...

Fox said...

Here is the particular piece I was thinking of. (It wasn't Wolcott.)

It's pretty hilarious. The first paragraph alone is priceless. I can't decide if my favorite part is when he writes:

"As a citizen, Mamet is free to do as he likes." (Wow! Well, thanks for confirming that buddy!)


"(Mamet) increasingly espouses a free-market philosophy" (GASP!!).

The whole thing is so quotable - and pick-a-partable - that we could spend a whole week on it, one paragraph a day.

bill r. said...

Given his new-found conservatism, I doubt he could ever write a play riddled with such moral ambiguity...

In other words, he's no longer capable of writing well because he's publicly announced that he disagrees with me on certain political matters. And this guy claims that Mamet has painted himself into a corner.

Not only that, but he claims that Kingsley Amis's drift towards the right ruined his fiction, but some of his best stuff was written after that drift had taken place, and I don't say that because Amis's fiction was particularly political. Somebody PLEASE read (I've been pushing this book on people for years, and no one will take me up on it) Amis's The Folks that Live on the Hill, one of his late post-liberal novels, and tell me it's not marvelous, whatever your political leanings are.

Anonymous said...

He's becoming the intellectual Jackie Mason.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Well, ambivalence is one thing Mamet's never been able to express, least of all in his essays. I could certainly imagine him feeling confused or uncertain or several contradictory things at once, and writing an essay that made him sound a lot more decided than he really was. Personally, I think that's always been a major flaw in his writing---it makes his work really entertaining (decisiveness is always more fun to watch) but emotionally kind of stunted.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

As for his Village Voice essay: What I always found bizarre about that was Mamet claiming that he was a liberal. I mean, was there ever anything said in the past to indicate that this adorer of competition and hater of anything soft was the least bit liberal, ever? Sure, maybe he hated Nixon, but that's hardly qualification enough.

bill r. said...

TFB - On the first point, yes, his essays have always struck me as certain to a fault. He doesn't come right out and say "This is the way it is, and I'll hear no arguments to the contrary", but he might as well. Still, I've never seen him reverse himself like this.

I can't side with you so completely on you second point. For one thing, it makes too many blanket assumptions about conservatives, and second competition and the kind of hardness you describe is generally embodied in his work by people who are pretty fucked up, or just plain wrong. This is like the old argument against the idea that Mamet hates women: if he hates women, he must REALLY hate men.