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Book Review

Review of Gay Brewer's David Mamet and Film Illusion/Disillusion in a Wounded Land.

Book Review

Gay Brewer, David Mamet and Film Illusion/Disillusion in a Wounded Land  Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 1993. 211 pp. Cloth $27.50 ($29.50 postpaid to McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, Box 611, Jefferson, NC 28640).

Following in the tradition of many American playwrights writing for Hollywood, David Mamet's move into film is hardly surprising. However, Mamet's film work stands out in that he has managed to move from screenwriter to director, allowing him an artistic control not generally afforded the screenwriter to shape his vision on screen. Gay Brewer's discussion of Mamet's film career indicates that Mamet's main thematic concerns have not been changed by his work in film but rather transferred to a new form upon which Mamet has placed his own stamp. By cross-referencing the stage works Mamet has produced since his first screenplay for Hollywood (1978's The Postman Always Rings Twice ) with the film work of the past two decades, Brewer's study demonstrates how Mamet's themes, style, language and form have developed under the influence of film.

Given the book's arrangement, Brewer sees Mamet's first directed film as establishing central themes and forms in Mamet's screen work, which Brewer then traces and develops in his discussion in subsequent chapters devoted to plays of the 1980s and 1990s ( The Shawl, Speed-the-Plow, Oleanna ), films Mamet directed ( House of Games, Things Change, Homicide) , and the screenplays ( The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Verdict, The Untouchables, We're No Angels, and Hoffa ). This arrangement would have been strengthened by introductory and concluding chapters to establish and reinforce Brewer's overall vision of Mamet's film work

Chapter one plunges into a discussion of Mamet's first screen outing as both writer and director: House of Games. Brewer notes that Mamet, well-known for student-teacher relationships created in his plays, was himself an eager student of film who quickly turned his first directing experience into the instructional book On Directing Film . Brewer's reading of House of Games pays close attention to the mise-en-scene as a way to note the emphasis that Mamet, the language playwright, learns to place on the visual, which he rightly realizes is the film's key element. In examining the plot and the two main characters of House of Games , Brewer highlights how Mamet's theatrical fascination with the con game carries into his film work. In addition to the con, Brewer's discussion of House establishes several interrelated themes that he examines in every screenplay Mamet has written: the desire for family, brotherhood, or belonging (especially connected to the immigrant or the Jew), yet the seemingly inevitable alienation in a world of betrayal and disloyalty.

Chapter three's discussion of Mamet's second directorial work, Things Change , emphasizes this theme of belonging by setting up an interesting connection between the "Mamet family" of actors and artists, and the Mafia as presented in the film. Brewer compares Mamet as director to the don of the Mafia, ruling his own universe with generosity that comes of absolute power. Mamet's loyalty to his "family" is discussed in his relationship with Joe Mantegna, whose screen success, Brewer indicates, was provided by the venues Mamet offered him. Things Change is a gentler film than House of Games in which brotherhood/loyalty wins out over concerns with money and power, serving as a moment of light and hope between Mamet's two darker, and more complex, directorial pieces House of Games and Homicide.

Brewer's study should be useful to anyone working on Mamet's films, since no comparable booklength study has yet been produced, although his readings of the films do not differ greatly from those that appear, for instance, in the 1992 publication David Mamet: A Casebook. The present book's argument that the films are thematically and even structurally reminiscent of and influential on the more recent plays makes this study pertinent to any work on Mamet's drama since the 1980s. Brewer brings together a good deal of information about the scripts and the screen work, providing at times scene by scene analysis of the major films, and a comprehensive look at the symbiotic relationship between Mamet's theatrical and filmic concerns. According to Brewer, the Mamet screenplay is in consonance with Mamet's theatrical vision of America as peopled with criminals, con artists, gangsters, and cops who search for some sense of belonging in a world hurtling toward destruction where "you can't trust nobody." Things Change and We're No Angels stand out as oddities of hope for simple friendship in an otherwise bleak and corrupt world where the cops of The Untouchables and Homicide hardly differ from the criminals they fight. Brewer does not fall into any trite comparison of the advantages of theater over film or vice versa but merely indicates the continuity of thematic concerns that Mamet creates as he moves seemingly quite easily between the verbal and the visual medium.


Eastern Illinois University