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Saturday, July 29, 2006

Pimp My Fucked-Up Screenplay: Stuart Gordon's David Mamet's Edmond

Before I go on to Mamet, I must recount an important interlude during our dinner at South Water Kitchen, namely The Clown Porn conversation.

I couldn't tell you why clown porn came up, but to those who must know, I say: Have you met us? Why wouldn't clown porn come up? Now, in general, I'm the clown-phobe in our household; thus, I was surprised when M was as incredibly wigged out as he was by the very prospect. Much became clear when he explained that it's all about the greasepaint:

M: It'd be all slimy and sticky. And the idea of TWO bodies covered in it . . . euuugghh! I mean, if they're genetic clowns like Krusty and that's just how they ARE, then that's fine.

So, to summarize, M likes his beer cold, his TV loud, and his clowns genetic.

But onward to Edmond. So M has had his 50 minutes on the couch, now it's time for me and Mamet. Why, exactly, do I have such a strong aversion to Mamet? For starters, when I was In college, I saw what I have gradually come to realize was a really terrible production of Oleanna on a dorm trip. I spent the entire night wanting a cattle prod so that I could force the characters to finish a sentence that consisted, at least in part, of something they actually wanted to say. So the medium pissed me off, and then my boyfriend at the time decided to take an obtusely literal approach to the message, which also pissed me off. So my first date with David did not go well.

I know that he's also a prolific screen and television writer, but in looking at his IMDB listing, I've seen very little of his stuff---The Untouchables, which sucked (yes, I know how much you love the stuck Irish pig line and how great the scene with the baby carriage is and I say to you: IT SUCKED), and Hannibal, which---well what's worse than sucking?

So the aversion formed on stage was not alleviated in the theater, and even William H. Macy wasn't going to throw me into that Briar Patch last night. But then M started going through the cast list: Sure, you have your Denise Richards and your Ling Bai, but you've also got your Joe Mantegna and your George Wendt. But in truth, it was Dule Hill who sealed the deal. I love me some Dule Hill.

On the way downtown, I was girding my aural loins for Mametian dialogue, and it occurred to me that Mamet, given the nature of his writing, probably suffers unduly from bad direction and actors who just don't "get it." (The two analogous situations that spring to mind were the occasional casting misfires in Sorkin stuff [Sports Night and West Wing] and in Twin Peaks.) This led to an extremely stupid and long-delayed epiphany about the production of Oleanna---the actors were not good and probably the direction wasn't either. In short, I really needed to see Mamet done right before letting the hate flow through me. Thus, by show time, I was well into my "liking to like things" mindframe.

When we arrived at the Siskel Center, there were a fair number of people hanging out in the lobby, but it wasn't packed by any means. Unfortunately, the more interesting Navigation/Negotiation exhibit (disability-themed art) had been replaced by large blow-ups of digital photographs that looked like they'd been taken through night vision goggles. Fortunately, the bathroom afforded something more interesting, if initially surprising.

As I made my way into the stall, I suddenly registered a fair amount of profanity coming over the speakers. But, you know, it's the film center of the Art Institute. As M pointed out, it could've been some kind of installation. Still, I'm not used to having the F-bomb piped in via the PA system. At least not without an accompanying protest. And then it gradually dawned on me that one of the two main voices was, in fact, William H. Macy, and I started to wonder if maybe the pancetta in my hash really had been crack. I was really on the slow train to realization last night, because at first I thought that they must be playing press interviews that Macy had given for Edmond.

But as some of the content of the conversation penetrated, I realized that they were talking about a production of Oleanna in Los Angeles. I feel confident that the rest of you have realized that I was actually listening to the Q&A after the first showing of the film. I still truly do not understand why you would pipe that into the bathrooms but not into the lobby.

In any case, as it happened, we had William H. Macy and Lionel Mark Smith to introduce the film. (And, of course, it was Lionel Mark Smith who was the controversial casting move in the story I linked to above there.) They spoke quite briefly about the near-impossibility of getting the film made, despite the names that had been attached to it from very early on. Every group the producers approached was over the moon about the possibility of making a movie starring Macy---until they saw the script, at which point they entered the witness protection program and were never heard from again. They also emphasized the strong Chicago connections in this and all Mamet's films, and then they urged us to "try to enjoy [our]selves" and slipped away under cover of darkness.

I think that we were among the very few people who realized that this was the last we would see of them. The Siskel Center's website is a design atrocity and there is little consistency of information across different sections of it. But so far as we know, there were no Macy riots afterward.

It's unfortunate that all the would-be studios and investors have vanished, because it would be interesting to know what, exactly, they feared about the script. From a purely practical standpoint, the fact that this doesn't fit easily into any particular genre was likely one element. It's not horror, despite Stuart Gordon being at the helm. It's not thriller, per se, although it's intensely psychological (duh: Mamet!). It's not a comedy, black, Black, or otherwise, although it is incredibly funny in places (much funnier, to my mind, than the audience felt it to be, but I'm used to being the only one laughing in the whole damned theater). It's not even really a drama, given the tight focus on the absurdity of the main character. Nobody likes a genre defier, David. Given the audience's reaction to the film, though, I have to assume that the sycophants and power people were not giant fans of the content, either. I'll get to that in a bit.

So, a plot summary may be in order (Spoilers from here on out): Edmond Burke (heh) is a nobody and Everyman at the same time. As he leaves work one day, he suddenly cannot take one more moment of being completely disregarded by the world at large. On a quasimystical whim, he stops at number 115 on a a nameless street and has a fairly dire Tarot reading done. The worst Fortune Teller in the world looks more and more aghast as she turns the cards and finally tells him "You are in the wrong place."

He takes this as a sign to leave his wife who no longer interests him "spiritually or sexually." She demands to know when he reached this realization, and he has no satisfactory answer. From home, he heads to a bar where Joe Mantegna tells him that the "niggers" have it made because they are racially constructed to enjoy themselves and to eschew responsibility and self reflection. The white race, in contrast, is trapped in its own navel by virtue of its innate and inevitable tendency to intellectualize. He also advises Edmond that he needs to get laid, a point with which Edmond voices his hearty agreement.

The man hands over a card for a strip club, which Emond sees in a flash as one of the tarot cards. This sets him along his predestined and doomed quest for pussy. In a strip club, in a peep show, in a "gentlemen's club," and ultimately in a dark seedy alley, he proves himself incapable of paying for sex as he insists on haggling and raging against the middle men (and women) who are alienating the sex workers from the fruits of their labor. His defense of the sexual proletariat is rendered somewhat suspect, given that he seems genuinely short on cash. He is positively plucky in his persistent conviction that he can beat the game, whether the game is prostitution, pawning, or three-card monte, despite the fact that his night could appear in the dictionary next to the word "entropy."

He gets mugged and is then scorned by Jeffrey Combs (fabulous as the snarky desk clerk at a nasty flophouse). He gets taken when he pawns his wedding ring, and very nearly gets mugged again by a pimp. Foolish, foolish Edmond thinks that his night is improving when he turns the tables on the pimp and beats him senseless amid a stream of racial epithets, some completely foul, some actively silly. This demonstration of manliness leads him to a more standard club than he had been frequenting earlier, and he informs Julia Stiles that he is going home with her.

He does. She "let[s him] fuck [her]," and they're bonding over their hateful, narcissistic catharsises (catharses?) when things, once again, go all pear shaped. Stiles's character is an actress disguised, as so many are, as a waitress. When Edmond learns that she has never performed in a play (only scenes and workshops) and never been paid for her work, he urges her to free herself by saying aloud "I am a waitress." She refuses and he grows increasingly agitated. Belatedly, she is unnerved by the fact that he's been walking around with his "survival knife" the whole time. Edmond's rage builds until he snaps and slashes at her over and over, killing her in an extremely protracted Mametian scene with some of the most fearsomely good foley work ever.

From there, he seeks connection yet again, first on the subway with a light-skinned, older black woman who is wearing a hat he perceives as similar to one his mother had. When she can't even be bothered to rebuff his comments, he loses it anew, unleashing a torrent of verbal abuse and physical aggression on her as other riders either cower in impotent fear or ignore the goings-on entirely. From the subway, he is drawn to a rousing Baptist service. He is about to answer the preacher's call to testify when the woman from the subway arrives with a cop (who happens to be as black as night). He slips into upper-class white male mode and for a vertiginous moment, it looks as though the copy might buy it. But he lies about why he is walletless and about his name.

He finds himself in an interrogation room with a white detective. Edmond's frustration at the detective's refusal to enact the Old White Boy dialogue with him is palpable and his efforts to make his race, gender, and class work for him are increasingly laughable. And suddenly, it is clear that the interrogation is not at all about the woman on the subway, but about the girl he killed.

The rest of the movie takes place in prison where Edmond is reduced to namelessness and invisibility. He is literally stripped and marched past the cellblock. His new (very large, very black) cellmate listens to his pseudointellectual ramblings amiably enough before instructing Edmond to suck his dick. Edmond is all high drama when he reveals to the chaplain that he has been sodomized, and the chaplain offers a wan apology that Edmond had this happen to him. The already incomprehensible timeline takes a leap forward at this point and we suddenly see an introspective Edmond who has adapted rather well to prison life.

There's an extremely intriguing scene with the "new Edmond" in which he is in the prison library, writing a letter to the mother of his high school prom date. In it, he reflects on the fact that he always believed that the beautiful young woman had been somehow coerced into being his date and that, quite possibly, he believed this because the idea had strong appeal for him. While he is writing, a guard arrives to tell him that he has a visitor. He ignores the interruption at first, then tells the guard to inform the person that he is ill. The very last scene features a "domestic" conversation in Edmond's cell. He and the unnamed cellmate ponder issues of respect, power, and identity that are not dissimilar to those discussed in their first conversation. The last shot is of Edmond kissing his lover and the two snuggling together in their lower bunk.

Obviously, a feel-good tale about the triumph of the human spirit.

Nearly every piece on Edmond (both play and film) mentions how "disturbing" it is. In fact, I can see the Daily Show montage of talking heads calling it "disturbing" right now. And don't get me wrong---it's disturbing. The day that William H. Macy postcoitally strolling around a seedy New York studio apartment with a "survival knife" isn't disturbing is the day I check myself into Arkham. But I have to say---and I'm being completely serious here---that I found My Super Ex-Girlfriend more genuinely disturbing than Edmond.

In the most literal sense Edmond normalizes the misogyny, racism, classism, and all their nasty little friends by laying them bare in every character (and, by extension, every person). But it reveals them in a brutal, balls out, naked way---their ubiquity and inevitability make them terrifying and disturbing. These qualities are embedded in every interaction and every line of dialogue, and they are never accompanied by a wink and a nod that suggest we all know that this is how it REALLY is and it's a good thing, even if we have to play the political correctness game. In fact, the characters experience a frenzied sort of triumph as they "say it like it is," and it's all the more nauseating because there is nowhere for the viewer to go, visually or conceptually---there is no flinching or inching away. (As an aside, my brother-in-law mentioned when we were visiting in May how struck he was by the way the debate over illegal immigration suddenly made it ok to overtly express one's racism. That really struck a chord while watching exactly that phenomenon in this movie, particularly considering that the play was written in 1982.) So, yeah, it's kind of disturbing that this stuff is glossed as "disturbing."

It's just as hard to assign a recommendation to this film as it is to define its genre. It's not meant to be enjoyed, and it certainly is not enjoyable---it's ugly and uncomfortable and angering and depressing. From a Mamet-appreciation standpoint, it may be the ideal film. My heart sank a bit in the second scene when Edmond leaves his wife. It's a long, excessively Mamet-y scene filled with his special blend of stilted, bizarro dialogue. (Even still, this scene is like the most palatable parts of Oleanna---at least the production I saw.)

If I were to point out an actor who, in my opinion, didn't get it, it would be Rebecca Pidgeon as "the wife." Curiously enough, Smith and Macy had pointed out that the actress who played the wife in the Goodman's 1982 production was in the audience. Wish I could have gotten her take on the performance. But with that exception, the rest of the performances were outstanding, and I'm including both Denise Richards and Ling Bai in that assessment. I'll admit that the power of Dule Hill's performance was, for me, contingent in part on thinking of him so entirely as "Charlie." Charlie's not a thuggish card sharp! Charlie would not knee William H. Macy in the nuts!

It should go wtihout saying that William H. Macy is just marvelous. If William H. Macy had never been born, Mamet would have had to construct him in the lab. There's a moment when Edmond is having what one assumes is the umpteenth conversation with the prison chaplain. It begins with Edmond as he has been throughout most of the film---irate that his white male privilege has been revoked, incensed that he should be transformed into an invisible victim, and filled with an endless supply of self-righteousness and self-justification.

But then, the chaplain asks the question the ritual three times: "Are you sorry you killed that girl? Are you sorry you killed her? Are you sorry?" I'm sure what follows is, at minimum, 2 pages of dialogue for Edmond consisting entirely of "I . . . ," "I don't . . .," "I . . ." And Gordon never gives into the temptation to let the actor or the audience off the hook. In that long, long moment, as Edmond realizes that he IS sorry and he doesn't know why he did it, Macy made me see what Mamet is all about. He snuffles through the mind's underbrush; he roots out the excruciating moment; and he pokes at it and stretches it and turns it inside out. I'm not saying that I don't still question what the fuck Mamet hears when other people are talking, but I think I get him now, at least a little.

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Anonymous John Lafferty said...

Just back from the Glasgow Film Theatre where my wife and I watched "Edmond". Got home and searched Google for it and your blog came up. Have to say that the scene when Macy plays Edmond responding to the priest's questioning also stood out for us. We also thought it interesting that Edmond started out in a mundane relationship which he found unsatisfactory and then went through all that trauma to end up in another albeit different mundane relationship. I think maybe that's the Mamet thing... There is no answer - life is what it is and we can spend our time asking questions, philosophical and otherwise and get nowhere. Only actions change lives.

3:47 PM  

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