Thursday, September 25, 2008


My BBC mystery and costume serieses are so absorbing that I tend to forget the rest of the video world, so I thought I’d freshen up my head a bit and look at some other things. I moved “Far From Heaven” and “State and Main” to the top of my queue without any real idea of what they were about. I try not to read the reviews until I’ve formed an opinion of my own. It’s just a little game I play.

Each of these movies were written and directed by the same person so each movie is window into a particular understanding of what a good movie is. I must have put “State and Main” on the list because it is a David Mamet movie. “House of Games” made a major impression on me before I knew who Mamet was, which is kind of dumb of me since he comes very much out of a context like my classmates at Northwestern University School of Speech theatre department. (Everyone was named “David.” Except the women, of course.) His distinct style includes often using his wife in the movie, as Lindsay Crouse was in “House of Games.” His actor friends and literally his neighbors constitute a kind of repertory company, some of them VERY highly trained and skilled like Phillip Seymour Hoffman and some of them just -- well, who knows where they’re coming from? Themselves? Are those Bert and Ernie old men who comment on everything like that in real life? How can the guy who plays the scary cop be so absolutely authentic when he’s not even a cop, much less an actor? Is there an actor hiding in everyone?

The wife/actress in “State and Main” is as different from the wife in “The House of Games” as the two movies are different in subject matter-- is that because Mamet’s whole world view has changed or does the change in women cause the shifting interest in subject matter? Or is it the persistent focus on the “search for purity” (he hides reality in gags) that makes them alike in spite of changes in his life? The facts are that he, a Chicago guy who hung around Second City, first married Lindsay Crouse of the famous Broadway team, Lindsay and Crouse, and then over 1990-91 made the transition to Rebecca Pigeon, a hybrid Scot/American singer/actress. Maybe part of that shift is explicitly explained in an article last March:

I know a lot of brain-dead-liberals. They forward me long satirical stuff about the election. They never tell me about their lives, nor do they know or care much about my real life. And they are deadly earnest all the time about high ideals while compromising and scrambling and finagling to get ahead in life.

This is essentially funny in itself, but what makes Mamet palatable even to them, even when he tells the truth, is that his style is like vaudeville: a scene with a point, lots of confusion (irrelevant people going in and out of the scene, intense people whose perception of reality is out of focus, misguided people who have nothing to do with it anyway) which leads to very funny juxtapositions, and -- opposed to that -- a clarity of delivery and rhythm that keeps the viewer from getting discouraged. It's essentially Abbot and Costello. Not that you don’t have to play close attention. In “State and MainRebecca Pigeon is the still point of clarity: she sees things truly and keeps her objective clear, no matter how bad the behavior of those around her and quite in contrast to Philip Seymour whose moral and artistic confusion is in endearing contrast to William H. Macy and David Paymer’s laser-like determination to follow the money and get the movie made, the commercial pursuit of happiness that is the American Way.

The fun is in the utter sincerity of all this -- comedy as taught by Alvina Krause. And the predictability of dilemma, smart aleck comment and double entendre (You’re supposed to say “richly layered”), and then a payoff or at least a “button,” a little throwaway or non sequiter at the end. Mamet wrote “Wag the Dog,” remember.

The other movie, “Far from Heaven” was the brainstorm of Todd Haynes. The actors are very fine. It’s just that I disliked the “American Melodramas” of Douglas Sirk, in the first place, and dislike Todd Haynes in the second place. It’s not because he’s gay (hence the love of glam and the obsession with unmasking) or because he’s a Californian who lives in Portland, Oregon (sigh). It’s because he majored in semiotics at Brown University. This tells me that his world view is based on being “different from everyone in very complicated ways” and therefore superior. Arrogance. German in a bad way.

For instance, he purports to know all about women’s movies and lives and all about the essence of the Fifties, which he sees as a kind of surreal moving version of ladies’ magazines: bright colors, phony lives. Everything deception but with a bleeding compassion trapped inside -- oh, the horror. Underneath there is always a hint of contempt.

When I was in “dramatics” in Portland, Oregon, about the time Sirkin was on the silver screen and before Todd Haynes was born, I was in a play called “Mrs. McThing.” It was a high school throwaway about gangsters and eccentric old ladies. One of the gag lines was from the head of the gang: “Don’t just stand there saying you’re going to do something! DO something!” Todd Haynes’ work strikes me as a lot of standing around talking about the style instead of the content. So wonderful! So insightful! But that’s kind of how semiotics strikes me, too. So-what stuff.

No one forced me to watch “Far from Heaven.” I’m not entirely sorry I watched it -- a person should know what’s out there. But I won’t watch it again. I might watch “State and Main” again sometime. As for “Wag the Dog,” I guess we’re living it now. Maybe I’ll wait. Is there anything crazier than Cheney having a meeting to discuss how to curb corporations who are trying to take over the government? Maybe it’s Bush trying to convince us that he’s not involved? Or the whole Wall Street briefcase drill team turning on their heels in unison as they all disavow regulation?

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