Review of the film of Lakeboat
Joe Mantegna, in his debut as a film director, has created a fully persuasive film version of David Mamet’s 1970 play Lakeboat. The stage version calls for “a construction of a Lakeboat, so that all playing areas can be seen at once.” The film moves around the ship, out onto the lake, and into port, a surface realism that suits the medium and offsets Mamet’s carefully stylized dialogue.
Directed by Joe Mantegna.
Screenplay by David Mamet, based on his play.
Oregon Trail Films, April 2001.
Joe Mantegna, in his debut as a film director, has created a fully persuasive film version of David Mamet’s 1970 play Lakeboat. In an often moving, often hilarious series of vignettes, seasoned Great Lakes sailors discourse knowingly on booze, women, work, movies, and fate. Of recurring concern is the fate of Guigliani (Andy Garcia in an uncredited cameo), the mysteriously absent night cook whom young Dale Katzman (Tony Mamet) replaces for the voyage. The stage version calls for “a construction of a Lakeboat, so that all playing areas can be seen at once.” The film moves around the ship, out onto the lake, and into port, a surface realism that suits the medium and offsets Mamet’s carefully stylized dialogue.
Because it refuses to subordinate the older sailors’ stories to the younger man’s emerging awareness, Lakeboat the play is not a coming-of-age story. Neither is the film, but Mantegna coaxes out a maturation motif by framing the film with Dale’s arrival at and departure from the dock. The summer’s work is clearly an interlude for the college student. The frame gives the film a narrative boost without violating the play’s insistence on language and storytelling as means for character revelation and hedges against life’s antagonisms. Dale’s upper-middle-class background—suggested by his good manners and innocence, his mother’s upscale car, and his attending college in the East—makes this Lakeboat much about class. It also reminds us of young David Mamet’s affinity for young Eugene O’Neill.
The class difference is without hostility. Joe Litko (Robert Forster), who shirks work to read, confesses that he once aspired to be a ballet dancer. Without rancor, he observes that Dale has it made. These workers, especially Joe, have not squandered their potential in becoming hard-drinking isolationists, alienated from careers and marriage. They keep their baffled complexity under wraps, releasing it in boisterous debate with one another and as salty advice to the new man. Their bluster is fierce, comic, and protective. The film’s quick cuts—between the ships confined spaces and the spaciousness of the lake, between small-group shots and close-ups of anguished faces—help release the text’s surprising emotional density.
Projecting onscreen what has been kept offstage can be risky business: what is lost to imagination in hearing a story maybe regained through witty visual discrepancy in its showing. Mamet and Mantegna take this risk by showing onscreen some of the characters stories and recollections. Fred’s reminiscences of high school sex are rendered as comically lurid home videos. More controversially, the sailors’ various speculations about Guigliani’s demise—has he been rolled by a whore? left for dead by the mob? erased by the government?— are presented in black and while. The film noir style romanticizes Guigliani’s mysterious figure and thus reflects the workers’ need to melodramatize their lives.
The wonderful Guigliani stories serve as a trope for the writer’s craft and the human compulsion to speculate and embellish. As the New York Times reviewer noted, Dale listens, as Mamet must have when as a callow youth he spent a summer on the boats. The fact that Mamet’s kid brother Tony plays Dale adds a fascinating edge to the image of the prospective writer. But the increasingly implausible accounts of Guigliani’s disappearance are fundamentally about dealing with work. Thirty-five years ago, I spent summers laboring on road construction, listening to Tony Pascal, a fifty-year-old oiler. In the morning, Tony would start a rumor at one end of the job just to hear how it turned out ten hours and eight miles later at the other end of the job. Along the way he would monitor and tweak the rumor, disconcerting bosses and entertaining himself. Dale intuitively appreciates the workers’ gift of story. Presumably he will grow up, like Mamet, to let his characters reveal their own lives without ever patronizing or explaining them.
Although it premiered in April 2000 in Los Angeles, Lakeboat was not released until April 2001 in New York, and it has not received wide distribution. I feel blessed to have seen it this past July at a local film festival in Waterville, Maine. It is a good, unpretentious film by any measure. For Mamet aficionados Lakeboat may be a gem. Joe Mantegna understands Mamet’s issues and rhythms better than just about anyone, and J.J. Johnston (Stan) and Jack Wallace (Fred) have been acting in Mamet plays since the 1970s. The rest of the cast, which includes Peter Falk (Pierman), Denis Leary (Fireman), Charles Durning (Skippy), and George Wendt (Collins), as well as Tony Mamet, is uniformly strong. Robert Forster is brilliant as sensitive, inarticulate Joe. My single regret is that we never experience visually the mystery of passing under the Mackinaw Bridge.
UNIVERSITY OF MAINE