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Bambi vs. Godzillaby David Mamet

Pantheon. 250p $22

The two key words in the title of David Mamets new book, Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business, are movie and business. The screenwriter and director hates the businessor what passes for business but is really the struggle for poweraspect of making movies. So why does he stay in the business? Becauseand this is the positive and enthusiastic part of the bookhe loves movies. He loves the art of making movies.

That love is in full evidence in the book despite the many negatives of Hollywood. The book consists of short essays grouped under headings like, to cite the first three, The Good People of Hollywood, The Repressive Mech-anism and The Screenplay.

In The Good People of Hollywood, Mamet scourges stars and producers while praising film crews. He describes how, when the prop master had given up his day off to search for a prop, one unnamed star in a transport of jollity, took to dancing in combat boots on the roof of the prop masters brand-new Mercedes.

And producers? What do they do, Mamet wonders after seeing a movie poster that lists the names of 18. Well, though there are good ones, many of them are sycophants who care neither to make a good movie nor even to cut costs and make more money; they want to increase costs so they can pocket the waste. And the gold-encrusted howdah, Mamet writes, must eventually drag down the mighty elephant.

In The Repressive Mechanism, Mamet writes about the psychological reason why Hollywood producers saddle the mighty elephants with gold-encrusted howdahs and why we go see them. The reason, according to Mamet, is that we and they want to repress something. What is repressed? Our knowledge of our own worthlessness. The truth cleanses, but the truth hurtseverywhere but in the drama, where, in comedy or tragedy, the truth restores through art.

In The Screenplay, Mamet sees little good in graduate film schools and shelves of books on writing screenplays. Although statistically, getting a screenplay sold and produced is like winning the lottery, for those who cannot help themselves, Mamet recommends three books and three magic questions. The books are The Uses of Enchantment, by Bruno Bettelheim, The Hero of a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell, and Mamets own Three Uses of the Knife. The three questions are: 1. Who wants what from what? 2. What happens if they dont get it? 3. Why now?

These magic questions, Mamet concludes, and their worth are not known to any script reader, executive, or producer. They are known and used by few writers. They are, however, part of the unconscious and perpetual understanding of that group who will be judging you and by whose say-so your work will stand or fall: the audience.

There is more biting and witty criticism in the book (Critics are a plague, manners as such do not exist in Hollywood and Religious films have as much chance of increasing humane behavior as Porgy and Bess had of ending segregation).

Mamet praises as well as criticizes. For example, when after declaring I cant stand Laurence Oliviers acting, he says, We speak of the art and artists who move us, not with reverence but with love. Mamet commends the performances of Tony Curtis. He cites Curtiss performance in Some Like It Hot as the perfect comic turn and his performance in The Boston Strangler in the following way: ...in the interrogation sessions we see De Salvo, that is, Tony Curtis, recall, little by little, the grisly murders, and we see him, before our eyes, disintegrate.

We do not laud and revere Mr. Curtiss great technique, Mamet writes, we merely remember the moments of his performances our entire lives.

That is the highest praise you can give an actor; and the highest praise you can give a book is that you read it again, as I will Bambi vs. Godzilla.

For those, God help them, who want to write a screenplay, or for the movie lover, this book belongs on the shelf with William Goldmans Adventures in the Screen Trade (1982). There are echoes between the two books, and Goldman mentions Mamet as a writer of proven integrity. Goldman is prolix but approachable; Mamet is terse and acerbic, but both strike me as making the same complaint.

In 1982 Goldman wrote, In the old days, a studio head might have said, Lets make the goddamn movie and hope the business people know how to sell it. Such words are not much uttered nowadays....

Nor in 2007, as David Mamet eloquently attests.


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