Saturday, January 06, 2007

"Ain't nobody here but two people in green"

Scott : What they gotcha teachin' here, young sergeant?
Black: Edged weapons, sir. Knife fighting.
Scott: Don't you teach 'em knife fighting. Teach 'em to kill. That way, they meet some sonofabitch who studied knife fighting, they send his soul to hell.

David Mamet - "Spartan" (2004)

David Mamet's dialogue is utterly unique. Hes probably the most influential American playwright of the late 20th Century, so his hard-boiled stylised verbal ping-pong has been much-imitated, but nobody ever really makes their characters talk the way Mamet's do. Maybe its the risk he takes. The speech in his work bears little relation, in many instances, to normal everyday speech. It combines a hyper-articulate down-home folksiness (or street slang - either way, some recognisably, uniquely American idiom) with a rhythmic scheme which becomes obvious within seconds of the beginning of an exchange. Some conversations become so repetetive and rhythmic that they begin to sound almost abstract. Yet its very super-realism, the way it focuses on a few aspects of normal speech and exaggerates them, is what makes it often beautiful, generally funny and invariably dramatically effective. The three lines quoted above read like something that has been written. Indeed, in the film, it sounds like dialogue, like something that has been written. But Mamet's world is so confident and precise, his rhythm so persuasive, that soon the dialogue loses that artificiality. In Mamet-land, this is how people talk, and your ear adjusts quickly. Onstage, where so much artificiality is so obvious, you adjust more or less instantly. Cinema, a medium where stylisation is generally located on the visual side, requires a little longer. In television, naturalism is king, the intimacy of the medium demanding a certain brand of apparent realism as a prerequisite to popular success.
Yet Mamet is working successfully in television at the moment, having created and producing one of America's top television dramas. He even writes and directs the occasional episode. How can such a thing be possible?



Mamet obviously enjoyed working on Spartan. As a director, he has admitted that his total absence of any appreciable visual sense is a major drawback. But his films have remained consistently high-quality due to their terrific scripts, good casting, and Mamet's clever choice of collaborators. But I've always found his work as a writer-for-hire, hackwork if you will, on various genre films to be his most satiisfying direct contribution to cinema. On The Untouchables, Mamet's script handled by a director with a truly distinctive visual style led to a brilliantly entertaining genre film. Consider that The Untouchables was a summer blockbuster in 1987 and it starts to seem like one of the classiest and most adult summer blockbusters ever made - could it or anything like it possibly be released this coming summer against the might of the likes of Pirates 3, Spiderman 3, Transformers and the new Harry Potter?
Mamet also wrote the script for the underrated The Edge, which is at its heart a very theatrical two-hander which just happens to be shot in some amazing locations and features a series of set-pieces involving a grizzly bear. Mamet's lack of interest in those set-pieces was reflected in his screenplay. He left the details of the action of the encounters with the bear to the stunt co-ordinators and director Lee Tamahori. His scripts merely read : The Bear attacks. I wonder if he wrote something similar about the carchases and gun battles in Ronin, which he penned under a pseudonym (sample Mametian dialogue : Spence: You ever kill anybody? Sam: Hurt a guy's feelings once..). His focus has always been on the characters and the moral issues they face. On Spartan, his sensibility and cinematic technique seemed to meet nicely - there are set-pieces, and they are imaginitively staged even if the direction is never stunning or singular - and his creativity seemed to have been stirred by this new world of elite soldiers and espionage. No doubt, Mamet saw that when living in an America at war, stories of war and warriors were the easiest way for a dramatist to comment through their art. But in writing and directing the film, Mamet needed some expert technical advice, and he chose to work with Eric L Haney, a founding member of Delta Force, America's secret ultra-elite counter-terrorism unit. Haney was also the author of a book called "Inside Delta Force" and after hearing his stories onset and reading his book, Mamet had the idea of basing a television show upon it.

He has worked in televison before. In 1987 he wrote an episode of Hill Street Blues, and it was while directing an episode of The Shield in 2004 that he approached Shawn Ryan, creator and producer of that show, to help him pitch his new idea to the networks. The Unit is the result.
At first glance it appears a premise almost cynically designed to appeal to both male and female viewers. Each episode focuses on a single mission undertaken by the titular Unit, generally in some far-flung political hotspot (the first season included episodes set in Serbia, Afghanistan, Brazil, Beirut and Panama, amongst many others) while also tracing the lives of the men's wives back on base in the U.S.



This means that every episode has plenty of action and suspense but also a healthy dose of soap-operatics. The two major story arcs in the first season followed the affair between the wife of the Unit's Number two with its commanding Officer, and the introduction of a new member to the team, together with his young wife's introduction to the base and the different type of team represented by the Unit wives. The twin storylines are always skillfully edited together, the stories often reflecting nicely upon each other. The major theme of the show is the human cost of combat, and the premise allows for the exploration of that on two fronts, in family life and on the battlefield itself. The operators in the Unit (and in Delta force, upon which the team is clearly based) are unique in that instead of spending extended tours abroad, in the field, they commute to their battlefields. Most episodes end with the men's arrival home to their wives, the women unaware - in everything but the vaguest sense - of the moral issues and physical danger their husbands have recently exposed themselves to. They come home, like office-workers, to domestic arguments and money troubles. The wives struggle to cope with the worry they naturally live with, with their own careers and relationships, and with keeping it all from their husbands. One of their maxims is "a distracted soldier is a dead soldier".



Production values are impressive for a television show, and the devices, sets and locations used to represent various countries around the world are more imaginitive and convincing than those which the similarly globe-trotting Alias usually resorted to (you know the type - stock establishing shot of Barcelona, then we're in some Los Angeles villa, perhaps shot with a yellowish filter). The action scenes and mission scenarios, while unavoidably recalling a thousand video games, are consistently gripping. Mamet has always had a fascination with the details of men at work, and here their work requires that they be among the elite hundred or so soldiers on earth. Their expertise and professionalism - and the fact that they are all essentially highly trained killing machines - is well-rendered in short and often brutal action scenes which emphasise how deadly these men are, and just how good at their jobs. They all preserve a veneer of emotional neutrality in the field, and the contrast between this and their domestic lives is a fascinating one. Their missions generally involve some tactical feint, trick or sleight-of-hand, again a recurrent Mamet storytelling obsession. Every situation is based in real-world politics, whether it involves assassination in Afghanistan or Mexican drug-trafficking. The characterisation is also mostly realistic, each character conflicted and complex, and never cartoonish.

The cast is uniformly fine, and the shows method of telling a standalone story in each episode while a longer and deeper story-arc unfolds beneath the surface gives each character a chance in the spotlight over the course of the first season. Of course Dennis Haysbert is the star and his natural authority and gravitas is put to good use in his role as Jonas "Snake Doctor" Blaine, leader of the team. The other real standout is Regina Taylor as his formidable, almost regal wife, Molly. As Jonas says, "I fear no man. One woman." Also outstanding is Robert Patrick, well-cast as Colonel Ryan, those stark features brought to bear time and again as he barks orders and fights with his conscience over his affair with the wife of a subordinate.

Mamet wrote two and directed two of the first Season's 12 episodes. His episodes are probably the classiest and best-written, but his involvement is always obvious and the series sets a remarkably high standard in terms of quality. The Season finale, which ends with a great action scene and a sort of low-key cliffhanger, even features one character quoting from Mamet's best-known work, the Pulitzer-prize winning play (and later, movie) Glengarry Glen Ross. "Coffees for closers" one of the team says to another, apropros of nothing.
Its a great little moment for Mamet fans in what is a great, gripping little show. I'm looking forward to Season 2 already.
Heres another quote from Spartan, just because I love when Mamet plays tough guy badass in his dialogue. but really apropros of nothing, except maybe its a nice bookend :

Grace: Nice knife.
Scott: Yeah. Got it off an East German fella.
Grace: He give it to ya for a gift?
Scott: No. As I recall, he was... rather reluctant to part with it.

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4 Comments:

Blogger Ross said...

I love Spartan.

But now I have a new show to watch, great.

8:49 pm  
Blogger Monsterwork said...

One of my favourites, I have to say, is Heist.

"Is it cute?"
"Cuter than a Chinese baby."

Or words to a similar effect.

10:41 am  
Blogger daveysomethingfunny said...

I remember watching Spanish Prisoner years ago (being a big Steve Martin fan) and being struck by the way Rebecca Pidgeon sold herself to Campbell Scott.

I can't remember the quote exactly but it was exactly the sort of thing you were on about...stuff that is blatantly written that people just don't come out with.

You kinda wish they would though.

9:56 pm  
Blogger David N said...

Two from Heist :

"Everybody needs money. That's why they call it money."

D.A: You're a pretty smart fella.
Joe: Ah, not that smart.
D.A: If you're not that smart, how'd you figure it out?
Joe: I tried to imagine a fella smarter than myself. Then I tried to think, "what would he do?"

1:04 am  

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