Writing: How to do it

Heist (2001) is a daunting subject for analysis, as is its writer and director David Mamet. It is an example of what I call “semantic screenwriting,” in that it demonstrates that you can put pretty much any nonsensical line into Gene Hackman’s mouth and tell him to spit it back out as if it is the cleverest thing anyone in the room has heard all day, and people will likely assume that it is in fact a juicy bon mot that they just didn’t get.

This kind of writing makes for very pithy quotes, but take it from someone whose favourite pastime is coming up with his own pithy things to say and then saying them to real live people. My experience in this regard, in particular my familiarity with l’esprit de l’escalier, means that the disbelief I must suspend while watching Mamet is doubly heavy. Firstly, no one talks like that, at least not in real time. Secondly, if people did talk like that, the people they were talking to wouldn’t just nod appreciatively. They’d say, “What are you talking about? That makes no sense.”

That the movie works on this semantic level says a lot about Hackman’s talent (and to a lesser degree that of his co-stars Delroy Lindo, Danny DeVito and perennial Mamet favourite and sometime magician Ricky Jay) and Mamet’s audacity, but little else. And it has been a while since I saw the movie, but I recall Mamet also devotes a lot of screen time to characters discussing how hot the Hackman character’s wife is, and if you know as I think most of us do that the actor playing that part is Mamet’s wife Rebecca Pidgeon, those frequent departures tend to grate on the ear after a while. The fact that Pidgeon’s wooden acting makes your average cigar store Indian look like Alan Arkin doesn’t help matters either.

There is however one real gem in there among the head-scratching non sequiturs – e.g. “Everyone wants money… that’s why they call it money” and “My man is so cool, sheep count him” – and I think it must give fiction writers pause, wondering whether Mamet is offering us a glimpse into his own thought processes. Hackman’s character, Joe, is refuting the D.A.’s assessment of him as 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?”*

My only support for this argument is that I never gave it so much thought as when I began writing fiction myself, and had to come up with the name of a character whose parents are wildly intelligent and creative people (I have yet to come up with one). The problem will worsen when it comes time to put words in all their mouths. I’ll be in Joe’s position, trying to think of what people who are smarter than I would do.

While I’m at it, I’ll try to think of what kind of things people with really interesting lives might get up to, and what kind of things happen to people who experience awe-inspiring, life-altering events.

Wish me luck.

*This is very reminiscent of another famous Mamet tautology. I have yet to track down an interview in which this exchange actually occurs, but in his book Writing in Restaurants he claims, “People always ask me where I get my ideas. I always tell them that I think of them.”