All About Mamet

David Mamet's wit hides behind the caricatures of State And Main, a prequel-to-itself film born of the life-sized cardboard cutouts he accurately casts in the supporting roles. Contemporary audiences look to Mamet for his cutting satire, yet in this film Mamet fails to drive home anything more than, "well, on the one hand filmmaking is good, and on the other it's bad, depends on how you look at it." If nothing else, Mamet presents his observations in style, with a handful of quirky characters and just enough ironical context to keep us interested.

After some very promising and energetic opening credits, the writer/director sets the film and film-making in Waterford, VT, a quaint little Pleasantville teeming with profound clichés and grinning simpletons. Sooner than later a film crew swarms into town, at the beck and call of their hegemonic director, played by William H. Macy. Easily the most challenging role in State And Main, Macy knows his entire crew not by name but by weakness, and can remedy any pre-production problem by exploiting this knowledge. Their film, "The Old Mill," must undergo an immediate reengineering, as the Old Mill the crew built in New Hampshire is being held for ransom, and the Old Mill in Waterford, VT was destroyed years ago. Transforming the rec room of the local hotel into his own War Room, Macy does well as director of the project, revealing no inner soul or agenda, save the film itself. Mamet would have us believe that a director succeeds only through patronizing the talent (Alec Baldwin and Sarah Jessica Parker play the leads of the soon-to-be film), dehumanizing his staff, and kissing townie ass as if life were one giant kissing booth, and he's the nympho with a pocket full of quarters. Such a characterization may not be far from the truth.

While Macy does his best to violate the integrity of the town, the art of film-making, and all basic belief in humanity, we are presented with the one wholesome, thoughtful man on the set: the screenwriter. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Macy's alter-ego, lost in the metaphysics of his own mind, barely articulate verbally. His yes-man camouflage and imbecilic wonder with ... well... everything, leave him lost to wander through the dialogue and setting, only retaining those glimmers of the world that are meaningful. The screenwriter's quest to buy a typewriter lead Hoffman into a dull-as-dishwater courtship with the local-bookstore-owner-cum-local-theater-director, and the boredom of this predictable bunny-hole has to be one of the least intriguing romances in modern fiction. The polarity of director and screenwriter reflect Mamet's own difficulties in his evolution from writing to directing, and the friction between the two characters is both genuine and devicive. One saving grace of State And Main is the elegant merger of their respective duties into a coordination of power, as the true purpose of their project and the obstacles they must face reveal the essence of their intended film.

Following a panoptical view of the characters and their over-foreshadowed fate, we are led through a labyrinthine comedy-of-errors as the unshockable townspeople accommodate cast and crew through their pre-production destructive ritual. The landscape rotates from town to movie set, and it becomes clear that this town desperately needed the disruption of a demonic influence: if not a little OTB or some lawn grubs, then perhaps an amoral movie group. The initially robust character of the town's citizens and architecture crumbles into apathy. With each injury on the built environment and its inhabitants, we witness multiple episodes of "Get the paddles... CLEAR!!", but the town simply rolls over and snores louder. People are more set in their ways than that Mr. Mamet, especially in Bohunk, Vermont. A more likely approach would have included a voice-of-reason in the form of Gladys Kravitts, bitching and moaning about the downfall of civilization. The town instead dies and comes back from the dead, in the form of a corrupt politician, Amen.

Despite a refined structure and some charming characters, it's difficult to see Mamet's film as little more than an indulgent exercise in self-psychoanalysis. Yes, we are all dual-minded, yes, one must accept compromise in order to produce for a mass audience. But this Freudian autobiography is too loaded with caricature to act as meaningful critique. Its entertainment value is rental at best, and will probably be viewed in five years solely by Mamet's hard-core fans and biographers.


Hide your wit behind caricatures in today's Plastic discussion.

by Jennifer Kemmeter


pictures Terry Colon