Certain Traditions

Started by Gold Trumpet, September 19, 2007, 12:38:08 AM

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Gold Trumpet


Why David Mamet's Spartan is the most important thriller of the last ten years

David Mamet's next film will be Redbelt, the first film to be made about the new phenomenon, Mixed Martial Arts. Mamet, an enthusiast of boxing and the like only in interviews, has never made a film or written a script that has come close to the subject of a brutal contact sport. Some people are already saying that Mamet has exhausted his film genre of choice, the con genre (he did three films in House of Games, Spanish Prisoner and Heist) and is now roaming subjects that will launch him back to the forefront of the film world. Redbelt, because of the popularity of the subject, could be his first hit in years.

If that philosophy is true then his last film, Spartan, came out a few years too early. It was Mamet's first endeavor into the world of Special Ops. In 2001, the world warmed to the Special Ops because of the personality of Jason Bourne in the sleeper hit, The Bourne Identity. Now in 2007, the world has Jack Bauer as the most popular figure on television and Jason Bourne a bigger star than ever before. People also have reading material galore that tells them the one of most important concentration of forces overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan is Special Forces. Channels like The National Geographic Channel have already produced specials about this new avenue of military warfare. A television show about Special Forces called The Unit (Which Mamet coincidentally created and serves as Executive Producer) is a major hit. Ratings in all avenues suggest that the public is fascinated. The fact David Mamet made a film about Special Ops in 2004 and went under the radar isn't too surprising, but The Bourne Identity too went under the radar and later found a resurgence. Why not Spartan too?

Spartan stars Val Kilmer as a Special Op assigned in the rescue of the President's daughter. In a Secret Service protection screw up, she is left alone, kidnapped and sent overseas in a human trading business.  The transportation is for a prostitution ring. The kidnappers have no clue that she actually is the President's daughter and it's up to Val Kilmer to rescue her before they do. In the tracking of her whereabouts, Kilmer has little mercy for potential aides in the abduction. He bullies and interrogates them without being forced to identify himself as an officer or official. Even agency officials in charge of the investigation look to him with a sense of mystery. Kilmer has no formal gear. He takes different uniforms and clothes to adapt to each new scenario that is presented.

Mamet takes on a subject that deals with harshness and realities of modern day life. Some filmmakers and writers would adjust the film to suit the realities of the story. The critic would ask that permissive content be applied to the story so the film could resonate with the experience of our world. The Bourne series continues to get more realistic with the violence and scenarios as it goes along. Critics have appreciated every regard filmmakers have taken to notch up the reality. The fact the Bourne Ultimatum made some audience members squeamish is actually a good thing for these critics. The difference in Spartan is these tricks to capture realism aren't taken. Not only does Mamet keep the filmmaking classical to old methods of editing and framing, but also inflicts his dialogue style in the characters. People had a fun time making fun of how often characters in Spartan repeated the line "Where's the girl?" Gene Siskel once said if he began to repeat himself, he would know he was either getting senile or was in a Mamet play.

The condemnation of Spartan goes further than its dialogue. Many have attacked the film for sporting a contrived plot with twists that send the story too far off the rails of realism to be considered sincere or objective.  In a sense, Spartan is being criticized for being too much of a movie. To an extent, there is truth in these criticisms. The first half of the film is about is chase for the perpetrators of the kidnapping. Each time the feds get close to catching them they run into a road block that keeps them from finding the girl. Each new scenario to locate her seems to be an excuse to be more inventive than the last. In one scene, Kilmer dresses up as a security guard and talks to her boyfriend in a coaxing manner that gets the truth out without getting him to think something is wrong. In a later scene, Kilmer pretends to be a criminal holding up a gas station. He kills the attendant and a police officer. The dead officer was transporting criminals. One of them has a connection to the suspected kidnappers. Kilmer puts on a show for him to convince him he is an outlaw who can be trusted and is now granting him his freedom. The charade is to sneak Kilmer into the inside world of the foreign sex trade. Both scenarios are theoretical realities, but they look and feel more like Mamet con plots.

The second half of the film forces even more suspension of belief. In the inability to rescue the President's daughter heartbreaking news comes that she wasnt kidnapped but was off with her Professor on a yacht and turned up dead in the water. This new scenario turns to be a cover up by the White House. She really was kidnapped but because she was threatening to expose her father's sexual liaisons with other women (a late development in the plot) the White House decided to let her stay kidnapped instead of rescue her and risk her exposing her father and costing him the re-election in November. The President and his wife are clueless to this situation and Kilmer goes on the mission alone to rescue her. He's convinced to do so by a senior member of Secret Service. She makes a desperate plea to Kilmer that she raised the girl and is the only one who loves her. Sound a little out there? It kind of is. The critics looked at this subplot as a comment by Mamet about politics and the nature of power. They were right about to criticize that angle of the story. In anything Mamet has ever done that was political, this idea satisfies the least.

David Mamet is still a notable filmmaker. The film world hasn't truly dropped off from appreciating his talent, but the reasons why Spartan went under the radar are telling. The lack of realism in the story is the first mark against the film. The question is has Mamet ever made a truly realistic film? Every film he's done had the mark of genre or fabricated structure. Mamet's philosophy of film is that it is a melodramatic art form. Mamet is guided by the the long history genre has played in film. The first competent movie made was The Great Train Robbery. It had every identity we identify in a movie with clear cutting and an added on musical score to guide the action. It was also was a thriller. Love it or not, film started with genres and evolved from there.

Mamet plays with those genres. He doesnt try to destroy or write outside of them. Every film he's done has some significance to one genre or another, regardless if it was borrowed from theater. Mamet has found critical success operating in this manner. This has also made him a classicalist. When experimenting with digital video is fashionable, he sticks to film. When acquiring tons of coverage for a scene with multiple cameras is now a standard, he sticks to regimented shooting plans that require the smallest number of cameras possible. He edits his films to ideas in books that are so old the books would collect dust on any young filmmaker's shelf.

But when Mamet took on Spartan, he took on the largest genre in the film world. He also took on the genre that has been most perceptible to change over the years.  During the golden age of Hollywood all movies were beholden to censors and limitations. The 60s brought about change in the commonplace level of violence and nudity in Hollywood. Genres like the Western, Noir and the Musical died out before they could truly see change. War movies survived and got much more violent, but just as many as War movies are made today that revere the past. World War II is still the common subject for war and many filmmakers want to make films that are nods to old war movies. Some comedies got much more graphic, but it's still a genre dominated by hokey-made-for-older-women affair.

What is unique about the thriller is that it grew into different popular genres and subgenres. The action film owes its basic essence to what the thriller has created. Other subjects like dramas and even war films are beginning to take on thriller structures. Bryan Singer's upcoming Valkyrie, about the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, is going to be told within the confines of a thriller. Stanley Kubrick's planned contribution to the subject of World War II was the adaptation of a novel that had great truths but was nothing more than a basic thriller. The fact is that the thriller is becoming the standard story in which to cross over to the darker side of life. It has a structure that allows every particle of our fears and pains to be enveloped into a simple structure and tucked nicely into a Hollywood exploit. The popularity of the Bourne series is the thriller currently speaking for our interest and fears in the international realm. The world is at war and Jason Bourne is our confused psyche going against a big bad United States that has no end to its potential for corruption.

The reasons these emotions clicked in the audience goes back to the realism factors in the second two movies. The realism challenged filmgoers to remind themselves of the worst moments they've seen on the news. The director Paul Greengrass, a foreign born filmmaker, started his career with challenging and stark dramas like Bloody Sunday and The Theory of Flight. When he went to Hollywood he didn't abandon the style that put him on the map. Instead he developed it be tougher and more daring and forced Hollywood and Middle America to love it. Not only did this make general thrillers look more authentic, but it did do some good for the world of the thrillers. The ancient and pedestrian Bond franchise updated its storytelling to be more realistic so it didn't look dated in a Post-Bourne world. This was a true revolution of the genre because for the first time the Bond series changed and adapted to be better instead of worse. Even when The French Connection won an Oscar the Bond series still carried on happily with silly fluff movies.

But for all the reasons that make Spartan less noteworthy in the topical sphere, I still am choosing it over The Bourne Ultimatum. In an age where you want filmmakers to make comments about the headlines of the day in their films, the last place you want to see those comments being made are in the limited plots of movies like The Bourne Ultimatum. Spartan has little quality for deft comment itself, but it has all the right elements that make a thriller stand out. The best way to illustrate the strengths of Spartan is to compare it The Bourne Supremacy.

The most drastic difference between the two films is in the filmmaking, especially the editing and composition of the scenes. The Bourne Ultimatum is based mostly on hand held camera work and a lot of coverage of a scene with numerous cameras. A simple scene of Bourne walking into a train terminal will be cut into four shots from four different cameras and each shot seemingly comes from a different perspective. Greengrass has said that he allowed technicians on his films to make up a lot of the vantage points of the camera because the story was so tied to the action scenes. This has allowed the film to be less readable for style and design because often the stunts dictate the filmmaking. Expansive action films like City of God had a lot of readable style tendencies and references. The director there took more control of the filming of the scenes. The purpose in Bourne Ultimatum is to guide the action effectively and bring the audience closer to the action and make the experience of Bourne's chase to discover himself feel more authentic.

Mamet sticks close to his training that the individual shot is most meaningful. It means he uses a lot fewer cameras, but he also focuses mise en scene much more. Important information for the plot is tucked into the action of a scene. Only second viewings show all the details that drives the plot in the film. He makes scenes exist for the purpose of moving the plot in the most interesting way and tries to do so with the smallest amount of dialogue necessary. As literary as Mamet is, his filmmaking is classical visual constructions in the strictest sense. In his book, "On Directing Film", he preaches the strict teachings of Sergei Eisenstein in how to approach filmmaking. He doesn't waver from asking the philosophical questions of why every scene is purposeful. In an age where every style has become acceptable, Mamet sticks to a classical approach to storytelling. This belief has impacted his filmmaking. After finishing Spartan, Val Kilmer complained that Mamet cut too many good scenes from the final cut and hoped they would appear on the DVD in either deleted scenes or a new cut. Neither happened but this hasn't been the case for any David Mamet film. It's not hard to guess why.

Then there is analysis of the dialogue. As for Bourne himself, Ultimatum follows a melodramatic realistic pattern. The pain and anguish Bourne feels toward the past is always on his mind. His departed girlfriend is still a subject in the third film but this sequel also adds a subplot that goes back into his past to further explain his evolution to a super spy. Numerous scenes are of Bourne at the most heartfelt a tough spy can get – sad but removed from the physical showing of pain, like a nerve has been removed in him. This pedigree the filmmakers give to the story really is nothing new. The writers write the most basic dialogue and Matt Damon speaks it in an almost monotone voice to personify Bourne. The other characters are CIA types have an even more limited range than Bourne. Their characters personify the business tone very well and the characters are written appropriately. The characters range from "good" and "bad", but you wouldn't tell the difference in their command. New scenarios or personal crises don't change their tone at all. The only sense of desperation that resides in a character is with Julia Stiles' who seems to have personal ties with Bourne and allows it to show sometimes.

In Spartan, Mamet follows the similar tonal patterns of Ultimatum, but he plays with it and adds diversity. Like I said before, some pieces of dialogue are repeated through the course of the film. But a lot of the repetition is purposeful to the characters. Take the instances of Kilmer interrogating witnesses on the field. His character will end up repeating what the suspects say to him or what other officials are communicating to him. Kilmer is doing this because he is allowing his brain to work through the tense situation by speaking his thoughts to whomever he is putting the pressure on so nothing is mis-communicated. Not only is this guiding the action, but the element of repetition of dialogue is long standing for Mamet himself. It plays into his repertoire of past characterizations. The other element of the dialogue that also speaks for Mamet is the clever and quotable dialogue. Army personnel do have a distinct style of language, but they likely do not reference Napoleon or speak in offhand philosophies the way characters in Spartan do. This is purely a fictional touch.

The final discerning observation is the identity of genre in each film. Bourne Ultimatum has enough action sequences to qualify as a thriller, but it has as just as many elements to it that are dramatic. The list goes from Greengrass applying the same film techniques he puts in his serious dramas also in the Bourne series. Another is the emotional core that the film tries to apply to Bourne's past. As I said before, he is a character who carries his pain with him. Then another is that all the performances and characters are written to capture the likeliest portrait of real CIA agents. The Bourne films are thrillers, but are drenched in the qualities that make up a dramatic work. The problem with this coating around the story is that Jason Bourne as a character is as realistic as Jason Voorhees. He is the super spy who cannot be beat. The question isn't whether he will be killed, but how he will kill everyone else. The greatest questions the film can ask are superficial questions about how he came to be this spy, not who he is as a person.

On the other hand Spartan is fully engulfed in the fictional world of its story. It is highly accurate in small details about the life of a Special Op, but is surrounded by a story and plot that has more to do with the creative hand of David Mamet than anything. The criticisms of its melodramatic nature at the beginning of its essay really are description of its identity. If the film tried to resemble the Bourne series with stabs at realism, none of the witty dialogue or imaginative plot twists would work. Like animation, true genre works take you into another world and enchant you with unrealistic characters within an unrealistic situation. The criticism isn't how believable the story is, but how imaginative it is. The way Mamet is able to configure his style of writing and filmmaking to perfectly adapt to this world is commendable. David Mamet also made a film about a subject that became normal our in viewing lexicon and was able to make it wholly unique.

In appropriate manner, I'd like to use both a high and low brow reference to sum up my final point. Ten years ago, Stanley Kauffmann said there were fewer good works of entertainment being made in film than there were serious works. I'd like to think that's because of our desire not to see the same old standard plots that look the same, but represent the permissive nature of our world today. It's making standard genre films look and feel more dramatic works when these films should have little interest in that. Because as Hank Hill said in King of the Hill, the only thing you do with Christian Rock is not make God more likeable to teens, but rock n roll a lot worst. The Bourne series has a lot of good qualities because of the inventive action sequences, but the films aren't doing themselves any favors by seeing Jason Bourne as a meaningful character. That just reduces other serious works.


"Tragedy is a close-up; comedy, a long shot."
- Buster Keaton