Friday, August 26, 2005

scattered notes

on David Mamet's Make-Believe Town

Make-believe town is a collection of short pieces covering a wide range of topics that are dear to award-winning playwright David Mamet: his early days, everyday life, the arts (the theatre, moviemaking, acting), politics, relationships and Judaism. This seems contrary to the idea that the title would give you. Well, me. A title like make-believe town seems to convey the idea of Hollywood, California. The world of film. The world of make-believe (duh!). The title comes from one of the contained essays, by the way. Yet, the idea of make-believe is an undercurrent in all the essays.

While each essay showcases Mamet's love for and craft in the rhythm and cadences of words, Eight Kings is the only essay dedicated to some aspect of language. Herein he pens his observations on the lingo of craftsmen, carnival folk and people of different trades and walks of life. The theme: jargon provides a make-believe mechanism for identification in the trade that uses it.

The thematic significance in Gems from a Gambler's Bookshelf, which describes different aspects of Poker, is hinted at in the third paragraph. Poker defines a "circumscribed arena", a make-believe replica of the Game that goes on around us all the time, with its own "artificial constrictions".

There's the too-good-to-be-true angle in Sex Camp is about a New England college that did away with the traditional education process -- no grades; all the courses of study were designed by students with their advisors and pursued at their own speed.

In addressing different aspects of writing, Mamet devotes a few articles (Memoirs of Off Broadway, Greg Mosher, Delsomma's) to the milieu of and beyond the stage. The Diner is all about writing the good old-fashioned way (without the diversions of a computer) and great places to do so. The Northern Novel contends that the novel of the North-West as the Frontier represented the Great American Novel (while the novel of the East is a "second-class European experience"). Harsh. And he seems to prefer "the boredom of much of Sinclair Lewis to [...] the triviality of much of Henry James." Then there's the delightful little piece called The Screenplay, which serves up a couple of subtle lessons in the craft. It's Necessary for the Scene disputes the importance of the obligatory sex scene to a film. Girl Copy describes an odd vocation/occupation -- staring at "blues" (blue-and-grey 1st runs of to-be glorious colour spreads ... of naked women) and writing fantasies. Therein is a description of people writing letters to the editor using names and neighbourhoods (but making sure that there are more than three of the kind in order to avoid legal issues).

I didn't care much for the detail of Deer Hunting, perhaps because it has nothing to pique my interest. Homespun Fop talks about the conventions of dress and style. Between Men and Women is a general note about relationships.

The Recrudescence (lovely word that) of the Swimming Pool Joke shows us how a classic joke is attenuated by refurbished retelling that dispenses with any delicious ambiguity.

Cleansed by Death features a reference to the Hindu practice of "suttee" and notes that in the West "we clothe our primordial observances with nicety" and then everything segues into a diatribe about Nixon. There's a nice phrase there too ("the impotent dead").

Veiled attacks at hyperactive beliefs come from Demagoguery and Self-Help.

Art as a Helping Profession presents the strata of vocations and notes the trend of leisure that is now validated by society -- pseudo-art, as it were (video-art replaces filmmaking and installations supplant sculpture). It's about how the mob endorses the meaningless and how the audience "performs enjoyment rather than expressing it." There's a useful thought to take away from the article: Art is ennobling only as and to the extent that joy may ennoble.

And then we have a Semitic overdose. There are interesting ideas presented in a bag of vicious retorts: Minority Rights presents the subtle arguments to the "Church vs. State" debate while talking about Jewish kids in a Christian community; the holocaust and memories thereof get new perspectives in The Jew for Export (wherein Mamet also expresses his distaste for Schindler's List for its "emotional pornography" [there's more about Spielberg here]), In Every Generation, the essay that gives the collection its title and Memory.

The greatest thing about the collection regardless of what your preferred topics are are the language and Mamet's dexterity in plying words like a prestidigitator. If you like his movies and writing, there's more to relish in the subject matter of some of the essays. The overdose of all rants Jewish might get to some readers, but it's still a POV, and for that alone it's worth reading.

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