Mamet is Trying to Help You

I’m watching The Spanish Prisoner, which is a brilliant film, badly mismarketed in some quarters as a Steve Martin movie who, though he performs brilliantly, merely co-stars.  The main problem I have with the film is that it commits the sin of most films written by David Mamet: it over-stylizes the language.  I’m referring of course to “Mametspeak”.

Mamet’s dialogue is idiosyncratically syncopated and truncated, and I’d like to use my tiny soapbox to remind directors to just listen to their actors.  If they sound like they are struggling to conform to the (admittedly impossible) script, help them not sound that way.  Do not accept the correct execution of the words.  There is no inherent value in performances that do not sound like human beings talking.  NEVER say “well, this is how Mamet is supposed to sound.”  Wrong.  He is not a musician, he is a writer and his characters are human beings.  In this film the characters often sound like aliens who understand the meanings of words and pauses but have never tried them out.

Watch Spartan and Oleanna and some part of The Unit and you’ll see the same problem.  There is a distinct cadence to some scenes that make one think “Oh, there’s that Mamet rhythm again, how wonderful.”  Except it’s not wonderful at all to have your audience thinking that.  As in all performance, the medium (words, in this case) should never overshadow the message.  In fact, a good performance will make you forget about the medium.

Actors, if the script has a stutter written in, find an emotional reason why the character would stutter at that point.  In rehearsal, allow yourself to take as much time as you need in that moment to feel out the feelings flowing through you from the character, and feel how those emotions could cause the character to lose their train of thought or to be unable to find the right word.  You can tighten the timing later, but you NEED to understand what is cognitively happening in the character’s cortex.

Directors, if there are incomplete or truncated sentences in the script, make sure that they are motivated or else it just sounds like the character has a stroke and fades off; make sure that truncations happen abruptly and that interruptions ALWAYS overlap.  When a human being interrupts someone in conversation, either the first person has stopped mid-sentence and is lost in thought, or the second person overlaps.  Always always always.

And remember, an ellipsis does not always mean pause.  Mamet frequently uses them interchangeably with hyphens to indicate an interruption.  I have no evidence that this is what he intends when he writes them in, but you MUST be willing to consider this if you want me to like the performance.  In real conversations, there are VERY few incomplete sentences that end in a pause.

The other side of this problem, when a character interrupts herself or truncates her own sentence in order to start a new thought, is more difficult, but is actually more annoying when it’s not pulled off correctly.

Let’s take a simple line (that I’m just making up) like: “Are you asking me to—Are you suggesting that I apologize?”  This kind of word substitution happens all the time in the real world.  But it gets fucked up by Mametactors constantly.  The tendency is to accent “you” in both fragments.  Try it and you’ll hear Mamet’s rhythm, which I believe lies in the exploitation of beat symmetries in proximal utterances (monograph to come, no doubt).

Now read the line again but this time accent “you” in the first fragment and “suggesting” in the second.  Do you hear?  Sound’s better right?

Well think about what the character is doing, in terms of “real” time; forget it’s a script and pretend like the character is just making words up as she goes along (JUST LIKE REAL PEOPLE DO!!!!).  The first word that came to mind when she thought of what her opponent just said was “asking”.  But before she can get to the meat of her thought (that someone else is telling her when to apologize, the bastard), she realizes that her opponent didn’t ask anything; her opponent sounded (or was trying to sound) more “helpful” or “casual” (the quotes represent airquotes done in the character’s mind during this inner monologue); her opponent made no explicit request but rather tendered advice.  The fact that someone has patronized her with friendly advice about when she is sorry, i.e. pretending to know how she feels, is shocking and maddening.  The character decides that by saying “suggesting”, a word characterized by feelings of casualness and helpfulness, neither of which the character feels are present in the current situation, she will be able to inject just the right amount of sarcasm into the sentence to adequately represent the anger that she feels at her opponent right now.

Yes, a bulky analysis.  My point (in the previous paragraph and in this article as a whole) is that if you don’t understand why the character would choose which words when, then you end up just reading the lines and hoping that the lines lead you to the correct emotion.  With most other writers you can get away with this, and may in fact be preferable.  But Mamet is trying to help you get to what is inside the character using not just words but the spaces and interactions between the words.  This is his genius.  And if you think that his genius is in inventing a new quirky pattern of speech and dialogue, I’m going to have to respectfully disagree with a shovel to the back of your head.

By falling into Mametspeak (or, directors, by allowing your actors to fall into Mametspeak (sometimes one can’t tell when one has done so oneself)), you strip meaning out of the content of the script.  There, I said it.  And the information you’re stripping out is the juicy stuff, the stuff that describes how the character thinks, without having the character explain how she thinks.  How we as human beings misuse our language is at least as important to understanding who we are as how we use it.  Mamet’s “unique writing style” is just him putting normal human errors and interruptions into his dialogue.  It’s brilliant and EXTREMELY difficult to simulate this in a word processor (try it).  But trust me, he’s trying to help us.

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