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TO THE WRITERS OF THE UNIT GREETINGS.
March 24, 2010 11:31 AM   Subscribe


 
NO KIDDIN'?!
posted by orville sash at 11:32 AM on March 24, 2010


LOLALLCAPS! Love it.
posted by drowsy at 11:34 AM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


I am going to take that and put it in normal case and repost it so it's readable. Doesn't look like SETH ABRAMOVITCH exactly had permission either, so I should be in the clear.
posted by cjorgensen at 11:35 AM on March 24, 2010


VIA ROGER EBERT'S TWITTER ACCOUNT?
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 11:35 AM on March 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


WHAT HAPPENS IF HER DON'T GET IT?

THATR A REALLLY IMPORTANT QUESTION MR. MAMET THANK YOU

PS REDBELT WAS BRILLIANT
posted by Metroid Baby at 11:36 AM on March 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


LOUD NOISES!
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:36 AM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


OPRAH UR CAPS R ON
posted by nathancaswell at 11:37 AM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


FWD TO GEORGE.LUCAS@SKYWALKER-RANCH.COM

MARK: URGENT!
posted by mazola at 11:37 AM on March 24, 2010 [13 favorites]


CAPS AM FOR CLOSERS. IS FUCKING WITH YOU? IS NOT FUCKING WITH YOU.
posted by griphus at 11:39 AM on March 24, 2010 [11 favorites]


MAMET: The scene must be dramatic?

RICKY JAY: Dramatic?

MAMET: Dramatic.

RICKY JAY: How do we make it dramatic?

MAMET: Figure it out.

RICKY JAY: How are we supposed to figure it out?

MAMET: That's what we pay you for. But I'll give you a hint: repetition.

RICKY JAY: So we use repetition.

MAMET: Repetition, like the ticks of a metronome.

RICKY JAY: Tick, tick, tick.

MAMET: The actor is there to do a job, tick along the metronome. It sets a pace.

RICKY JAY: So we need a pace.

MAMET: Because that's dramatic. Dramatic, and a little surreal.

REBECCA PIGEON: My troika was pursued by wolves.
posted by adipocere at 11:39 AM on March 24, 2010 [76 favorites]


SO I'M HANGING OUT IN THE BASEMENT READING AND MY DAD COMES DOWNSTAIRS AND HE LOOKS AT ME AND HE SAYS "DANGER POINT!! YOU LEFT THE OVEN ON!" AND I'M ALL LIKE "DANGER POINT?"
posted by "Elbows" O'Donoghue at 11:41 AM on March 24, 2010 [37 favorites]


Is this the part where the cow jumped over the moon?

*raises eyebrows*

*waits for someone else to answer with another improbable line*
posted by circular at 11:41 AM on March 24, 2010


Unfortunately, judging from what I see on television, lots of people do turn in to see information rather than drama. So many of the highly rated shows are people expositioning at each other.
posted by Justinian at 11:41 AM on March 24, 2010 [4 favorites]


I always wanted to make a poster of the Hindenberg disaster. But instead of the Hindenburg, it would be David Mamet, up in the sky above the Lakehurst Naval Air Station, but, instead, David Mamet. And superimposed on the poster would be the following words:

OH
IT'S TOO MAMET-Y.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:42 AM on March 24, 2010 [7 favorites]


Caps aside, this is pretty interesting. Try to apply his formula to your favorite TV shows and see if it works out.

For example, Firefly. Does every scene advance the plot? What about the ones where they are just hanging out, eating dinner or playing basketball? Depends on what you mean by plot. There are "expository" scenes which don't advance the plot of that episode, but do advance the larger narrative arc, in which the characters are not just seeking survival but also community. I would argue that balancing episode arcs with longer arcs is part of what makes shows good.

Or, another example, the Wire. Tons of scenes where characters are talking to each other and where one isn't sure where if anywhere the action is going. These scenes make the characters feel real and allow us to care about them - non-drama of an important type.
posted by mai at 11:42 AM on March 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


btw,

It is not the director's job. His or her job is to film it straightforwardly and remind the actors to talk fast.

is hilarious.
posted by nathancaswell at 11:42 AM on March 24, 2010 [6 favorites]


That sentence was deliberately awkward to keep the audience off balance.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:43 AM on March 24, 2010


HEY AM I ON TIME TO MAKE A CAPSLOCK JOKE OR DID SOMEONE BEAT ME TO IT?!
posted by shmegegge at 11:43 AM on March 24, 2010 [8 favorites]


dammit.
posted by shmegegge at 11:43 AM on March 24, 2010


SO: WE, THE WRITERS, MUST ASK OURSELVES OF EVERY SCENE THESE THREE QUESTIONS.

1) WHO WANTS WHAT?
2) WHAT HAPPENS IF HER DON’T GET IT?
3) WHY NOW?


Spoken like a freaking auteur who sits around thinking up questions that writers should be asking themselves.

My personal three are:

1) WHAT IN THIS SCENE LOOKS WRONG?
2) WHAT HAPPEN IF MAIN ACTOR FORGET LINES AND SAY BETTER THINGS THAN I WROTE?
3) WHERE IS THIS ALL GOING?

All professional writers should ask themselves those questions. For now.
posted by circular at 11:45 AM on March 24, 2010 [6 favorites]


A-B-C. A-Always, B-Be, C-Capslock. Always be capslock, always be capslock.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 11:46 AM on March 24, 2010 [26 favorites]


How can such a good writer be such a bad writer?
posted by DU at 11:46 AM on March 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


Too loud; didn't read.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 11:47 AM on March 24, 2010 [5 favorites]


Oh, just saw the date at the bottom. His note is either from October 2005 or October 2019, and both of those years pretty much get a free pass for all-caps criticism.
posted by circular at 11:48 AM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


And yeah, this is interesting because it's not always about advancing the plot, there's character too.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 11:48 AM on March 24, 2010


DO NOT WRITE A CROCK OF SHIT
posted by Tomorrowful at 11:49 AM on March 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


SPARTAN WAS AWESOME. <-- Plot related.
posted by haveanicesummer at 11:49 AM on March 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


THIRD PRIZE IS: YOU'RE FIRED.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 11:52 AM on March 24, 2010 [5 favorites]


There's a story about Mamet. I don't know if it's true. When they were making Glengary Glen Ross, director James Foley asked Mamet to write the screenplay. A few weeks later, Mamet came in with a copy of the stage play. Foley said, maybe I was unclear, we actually need it turned into a screenplay.

Mamet said fuck you, took back his script, took out a pen, and wrote a line through the cover. So it said:

A PLAY BY DAVID MAMET

Over the word "play" he handwrote the word "SCREENPLAY."
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:54 AM on March 24, 2010 [19 favorites]


"AND YOU CAN, VERY SOON, BUY A HOUSE IN BEL AIR AND HIRE SOMEONE TO LIVE THERE FOR YOU." Is pretty awesome. Also why didn't he end this with [NOT PENGUIN-IST]?
posted by haveanicesummer at 11:55 AM on March 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


To the writers of the unit:

Greetings.
As we learn how to write this show, a recurring problem becomes clear.
The problem is this: to differentiate between drama and non-drama. Let me break-it-down-now.
Everyone in creation is screaming at us to make the show clear. We are tasked with, it seems, cramming a shitload of information into a little bit of time.
Our friends. The penguins, think that we, therefore, are employed to communicate information — and, so, at times, it seems to us.
But note:the audience will not tune in to watch information. You wouldn’t, i wouldn’t. No one would or will. The audience will only tune in and stay tuned to watch drama.
Question:what is drama? Drama, again, is the quest of the hero to overcome those things which prevent him from achieving a specific, acute goal.
So: we, the writers, must ask ourselves of every scene these three questions.
1) who wants what?
2) what happens if her don’t get it?
3) why now?
The answers to these questions are litmus paper. Apply them, and their answer will tell you if the scene is dramatic or not.
If the scene is not dramatically written, it will not be dramatically acted.
There is no magic fairy dust which will make a boring, useless, redundant, or merely informative scene after it leaves your typewriter. You the writers, are in charge of making sure every scene is dramatic.
This means all the “little” expositional scenes of two people talking about a third. This bushwah (and we all tend to write it on the first draft) is less than useless, should it finally, god forbid, get filmed.
If the scene bores you when you read it, rest assured it will bore the actors, and will, then, bore the audience, and we’re all going to be back in the breadline.
Someone has to make the scene dramatic. It is not the actors job (the actors job is to be truthful). It is not the directors job. His or her job is to film it straightforwardly and remind the actors to talk fast. It is your job.
Every scene must be dramatic. That means: the main character must have a simple, straightforward, pressing need which impels him or her to show up in the scene.
This need is why they came. It is what the scene is about. Their attempt to get this need met will lead, at the end of the scene,to failure - this is how the scene is over. It, this failure, will, then, of necessity, propel us into the next scene.
All these attempts, taken together, will, over the course of the episode, constitute the plot.
Any scene, thus, which does not both advance the plot, and standalone (that is, dramatically, by itself, on its own merits) is either superfluous, or incorrectly written.
Yes but yes but yes but, you say: what about the necessity of writing in all that “information?”
And i respond “figure it out” any dickhead with a bluesuit can be (and is) taught to say “make it clearer”, and “i want to know more about him”.
When you’ve made it so clear that even this bluesuited penguin is happy, both you and he or she will be out of a job.
The job of the dramatist is to make the audience wonder what happens next. Not to explain to them what just happened, or to*suggest* to them what happens next.
Any dickhead, as above, can write, “but, jim, if we don’t assassinate the prime minister in the next scene, all europe will be engulfed in flame”
We are not getting paid to realize that the audience needs this information to understand the next scene, but to figure out how to write the scene before us such that the audience will be interested in what happens next.
Yes but, yes but yes but you reiterate.
And i respond figure it out.
How does one strike the balance between withholding and vouchsafing information? That is the essential task of the dramatist. And the ability to do that is what separates you from the lesser species in their blue suits.
Figure it out.
Start, every time, with this inviolable rule: the scene must be dramatic. It must start because the hero has a problem, and it must culminate with the hero finding him or herself either thwarted or educated that another way exists.
Look at your log lines. Any logline reading “bob and sue discuss…” is not describing a dramatic scene.
Please note that our outlines are, generally, spectacular. The drama flows out between the outline and the first draft.
Think like a filmmaker rather than a functionary, because, in truth, you are making the film. What you write, they will shoot.
Here are the danger signals. Any time two characters are talking about a third, the scene is a crock of shit.
Any time any character is saying to another “as you know”, that is, telling another character what you, the writer, need the audience to know, the scene is a crock of shit.
Do not write a crock of shit. Write a ripping three, four, seven minute scene which moves the story along, and you can, very soon, buy a house in bel air and hire someone to live there for you.
Remember you are writing for a visual medium. Most television writing, ours included, sounds like radio. The camera can do the explaining for you. Let it. What are the characters doing -*literally*. What are they handling, what are they reading. What are they watching on television, what are they seeing.
If you pretend the characters cant speak, and write a silent movie, you will be writing great drama.
If you deprive yourself of the crutch of narration, exposition,indeed, of speech. You will be forged to work in a new medium - telling the story in pictures (also known as screenwriting)
This is a new skill. No one does it naturally. You can train yourselves to do it, but you need to start.
I close with the one thought: look at the scene and ask yourself “is it dramatic? Is it essential? Does it advance the plot?
Answer truthfully.
If the answer is “no” write it again or throw it out. If you’ve got any questions, call me up.
Love, dave mamet
santa monica 19 octo 05
(it is not your responsibility to know the answers, but it is your, and my, responsibility to know and to ask the right questions over and over. Until it becomes second nature. I believe they are listed above.)
posted by Ian A.T. at 11:56 AM on March 24, 2010 [7 favorites]


This is a perfect description of everything that's wrong with David Mamet. His work is hardly ever about anything at all beyond heightening drama. If heightening drama were the highest value in art, he would be the world's supreme artist. Thankfully, it's not.

mai: “Try to apply his formula to your favorite TV shows and see if it works out.”

That's sort of a false premise, since there haven't really been any truly great television programs, at least not in the way that there have been truly great films. (With the possible exception of The Prisoner.) David Mamet was a mediocre writer of films, but he's a superlative writer of television programs. Television programs are much more driven by the constant need for drama, because television programs are relentlessly monetized in a way that films are not (or haven't historically been, anyway). This is why there haven't been many really worthwhile television shows, and probably will never be – because, despite the fact that film production tends to cost more in the short-term than television production, it's simply not possible to create a television series without broad and thorough collusion with massive corporate entities. Else it wouldn't really be television, would it?

It's odd, because people think of television as a medium like film. It's not really a medium at all. It's just film that's been financially tied to a particular delivery mechanism: corporate broadcast. And it ought to be perfectly obvious that film is better when it's divorced from, or at least aloof of, those kinds of financial ties. Yet people keep looking for some renaissance in television. The only thing that's happened in the last few years is that the corporations have gotten much better at marketing their product to the sorts of niche audiences that like somewhat higher-quality stuff.
posted by koeselitz at 11:58 AM on March 24, 2010 [11 favorites]


HBO's "The Pacific" violated these rules last night. The characters sat around talking about how dangerous it was that the Japanese had surrounded Guadalcanal. David Mamet helped me understand why this was so boring.
posted by thelastenglishmajor at 11:58 AM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think it worked better as all caps.
posted by mazola at 11:59 AM on March 24, 2010 [8 favorites]


I always thought the Unit was pretty good. I don't normally watch cop/military/doctor-type action-dramas, but I got interested because of Mamet and found I sort of liked it.

Actually up there instead of "pretty good" I was going to say "underrated", but I don't know what anybody else actually thought of the show. Presumably it was in fact underrated because as far as I can tell no one was watching it.
posted by penduluum at 12:00 PM on March 24, 2010


let me summarize this letter with the absolute first thing they teach you in any screenwriting class. i'll even capitalize it:

SHOW DON'T TELL.

there, I just saved you 5 minutes and a headache.
posted by nathancaswell at 12:00 PM on March 24, 2010 [5 favorites]


I'm probably in the minority here, but I really liked The Unit up until its final season. I liked it for the same reason I think "The 13th Warrior" is an epic movie---and that's because it's an action-ey hero movie.

The guys have female counterparts, but they also have a mission, and the mission is the Most Important Thing. They're ready to die for their team, and they accept that they might die at any time, which is different than wanting to die. The are faced with difficult decisions, but always make the decision that completes the mission and/or saves the team. Like, in the 13th warrior, Banderas really likes that girl, but he doesn't even bother to get into a relationship with her and in the end he walks away. Bulvai too, he's like Jonas in the Unit---he's the leader, first into battle, and he's ready to give his life for his men.

That's how it was up until the last season, when it was pretty much all about the wives.
posted by TomMelee at 12:02 PM on March 24, 2010


And yeah, this is interesting because it's not always about advancing the plot, there's character too.

One doesn't need a ton of exposition to reveal character. Indeed, its more interesting to me personally when character is revealed through the choices they make.

Unrelated to your point, I think its important not to conflate talking with inaction. There's a specific kind of talking that Mamet is discussing here - the kind where two characters talk about something that they both already know, or recap something that real people wouldn't actually talk about, etc. Its perfectly possible to have scenes with tons of dialogue where the dialogue is furthering the action.

Case in point: almost all of Mamet's plays.

1) WHO WANTS WHAT?
2) WHAT HAPPENS IF HER DON’T GET IT?
3) WHY NOW?

Spoken like a freaking auteur who sits around thinking up questions that writers should be asking themselves.


Actually, these are all pretty common questions that have been part of playwriting and screenwriting classes for at least thirty or forty years - probably since "method" acting became popular at least. Well, except the "HER" part.

If his writers don't already know that their characters should be trying to accomplish something and that there are high stakes (for those characters) if they don't accomplish it soon, they're probably in the wrong business.
posted by Joey Michaels at 12:04 PM on March 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


WHAT'S BETTER THAN ALL CAPS? ALL CAPS WITH JUDICIOUS USE OF BOLD. AND A SURPRISE USE OF LOWER CASE AT THE Very END.

But seriously, it's interesting to see how various TV shows stack up against this advice. The Wire? Definitely pass. Lost? Probably fail.
posted by mhum at 12:06 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


koeselitz: Horseshit. Of course television is a medium. Unlike film it deals with serial installments, commercial breaks, broadcast rules.

Also horseshit that nothing good's coming from it. The Wire was brilliant. Arrested Development was brilliant (partly because it spent its time subverting all the censorship/broadcast rules). Mad Men has issues, but it's got some awesome moments. And British television has been turning out excellent content for a long time. I don't know nearly as much about it as I'd like to, but shows like The Office, Spaced, The Day Today, the first half of Brass Eye and the special, the first episode of Darkplace, were all incredible.
posted by Rory Marinich at 12:07 PM on March 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


DRAMACAPS
posted by Artw at 12:12 PM on March 24, 2010


Given what happened in the ten rules for writing thread I'd expect the majority of this thread to be people who think their better screenwriters than Mamet extolling the virtues of ambling aimless scripts with no clear characters or motivations.
posted by Artw at 12:14 PM on March 24, 2010 [4 favorites]


That's sort of a false premise, since there haven't really been any truly great television programs
posted by koeselitz

I would stack The Wire and Arrested Development against any films in their respective genre. If you open it up to individual episodes, many, many other television shows would qualify as great, holding up against the best films.

The most important part of this is essentially not talking down to your audience, and finding a way to relay information without as Mamet says, using "As you know..." I actually love shows or films with endless talking, if the talking is the point, or if that's what the characters would actually be doing. Where mediocrity reigns is when characters turn to other seasoned experts in their field and say something basic and elementary because the audience "needs to know." Many shows I like have this, but just disguise it well (House, for instance mostly disguises it). The best ones are those that relay all of the information without having experts talk to each other like kindergarteners.
posted by haveanicesummer at 12:17 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


DID YOU KNOW?

ANYTIME TWO CHARACTERS ARE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT.

LOVE, DAVID MAMESHIBA

♪ mainichi hitotsu, mame chishiki la la la! ♫
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:17 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


2) WHAT HAPPEN IF MAIN ACTOR FORGET LINES AND SAY BETTER THINGS THAN I WROTE?

Lucky you. It's your name on the script. You get the credit.
posted by philip-random at 12:20 PM on March 24, 2010


AM READING THIS IN HULK VOICE!

(I actually think this is all very sound and am enjoying reading it, but I can't get over the imagine of Mamet turning green and smashing wannabe screenwriters through the floor if they object to anything)
posted by Artw at 12:23 PM on March 24, 2010


there haven't really been any truly great television programs

That's a whole bunch of subjective bluster that you packed into one comment, there, but let's tackle this one point. Define "great." There have been television programs that attained commercial success, television programs that became part of the social vernacular (and I don't just mean "quotes from"), television programs that advanced social causes, television programs that became shared experiences among myriad and disparate groups. I'm talking about everything from sitcoms to variety shows to cable dramas, from The Mary Tyler Moore Show to Ed Sullivan to Saturday Night Live—and that's to say nothing of, for instance, CBS Evening News.

You brush off the entire history of television as never having been, or even able to be, "great" or "worthwhile." I'm kinda curious about your metric.
posted by cribcage at 12:26 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


He may have sent it via telegraph. Add STOP at the end of every line when you read it, just in case.

TO THE WRITERS OF THE UNIT: STOP.
posted by haveanicesummer at 12:27 PM on March 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


I'm kinda curious about your metric.

That which is television = not great

That which is not television = great

It works mathematically because you just subtract the not from one side of the equation and and add it to the other.
posted by Joey Michaels at 12:29 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Six Feet Under = not great
Shallow Hal = great
posted by Artw at 12:30 PM on March 24, 2010 [4 favorites]


Here's where it gets hard to follow...

Firefly = not great
Serenity = great
posted by Artw at 12:32 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


We probably all need to figure out where we stand on Fire Walk With Me.
posted by Artw at 12:32 PM on March 24, 2010 [4 favorites]


Shallow Hal = great
posted by Artw


I'm going to quote this out of context in all future unrelated posts. "Yeah, but Artw did say and I quote "Shallow Hal = great." So.
posted by haveanicesummer at 12:33 PM on March 24, 2010 [11 favorites]


And yeah, this is interesting because it's not always about advancing the plot, there's character too.

Plot driven vs Character driven.

The fallacy is that it could ever be either/or. Characters drive plots with their wants, needs, decisions, ACTIONS. Plots challenge characters to step up and be interesting/unique/believable enough for a viewing audience (or a reader in the case of a book) to give a shit.

As for EVERY scene NEEDING conflict, sure why not? It's good basic rule of thumb that's not always achievable particularly in the realm of episodic TV where scripts are often more or less cranked out assembly-line style. So the end result is kind of like supermarket meat: not perfect but edible.

Feature films on the other (the "good" ones that are worth discussing on any level other than how they did at the box office) are a higher order. It's hard to find a truly great one that does not play by Mamet's basic rules of relentless conflict, which as Joey Michaels points out above, are hardly his own unique invention.
posted by philip-random at 12:34 PM on March 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


I'RE DONT GET IT. WHY NO?
posted by Juicy Avenger at 12:34 PM on March 24, 2010


I'm going to quote this out of context in all future unrelated posts. "Yeah, but Artw did say and I quote "Shallow Hal = great." So.

MAMET SMASH!
posted by Artw at 12:36 PM on March 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


My subjective reading of course places anything Joss Whedon has even breathed upon as Not Great. I have found it impossible to get into his shows. Possibly it's because last year at the College of New Jersey I had friends who thought Joss Whedon was the messiah and he's not because David Simon is. I hope if I give it a few years' distance I can come to Firefly and not hate it.
posted by Rory Marinich at 12:36 PM on March 24, 2010


It's interesting that CAPSLOCK makes you the perpetrator "sound" like a raging idiot in my inner reading voice. And that even includes my grandmother. Poor gal.
posted by flippant at 12:37 PM on March 24, 2010


Rory Marinich: “koeselitz: Horseshit. Of course television is a medium. Unlike film it deals with serial installments, commercial breaks, broadcast rules.”

Well, but those are really just small formal differences, right? I guess it's silly for me to proclaim on what is and is not a medium – it's probably pretty arbitrary anyhow – but the point is that the two-dimensional visual display of successive images combined with sound is common to both television and film. And I've seen television series on a large screen which translated perfectly to that setting; for example, another really great TV show which I probably should have listed, Kieslowski's Decalogue.

‘Also horseshit that nothing good's coming from it. The Wire was brilliant. Arrested Development was brilliant (partly because it spent its time subverting all the censorship/broadcast rules). Mad Men has issues, but it's got some awesome moments. And British television has been turning out excellent content for a long time. I don't know nearly as much about it as I'd like to, but shows like The Office, Spaced, The Day Today, the first half of Brass Eye and the special, the first episode of Darkplace, were all incredible.”

Heh. Well, I was probably being polemical, but I really don't think that nothing good has come from television. And it's probably not fair at all even for me to say that there's been "nothing truly great" in television so far. But – I really do believe that the things I listed have genuinely held it back through its long history, particularly in the US, and that those things will continue to hinder it unless they're gotten rid of. I agree that The Wire was often a fine and well-crafted drama, in fact far better than anything Mamet has ever done himself, and better than most films over the last twenty years. But at the same time I still think its necessary connection with HBO and with the corporate structure of television in general was a hindrance, and while its creators took such great care that it's sometimes hard to point out those hindrances, I'm certain they exist. I'm certain that the ideas and themes that the writers, directors and actors laid out would have been exposed much more fully if they hadn't been forced into the financial agreement they had to make.

British TV is often good precisely because the British solution to this problem, while not complete, is at least thought of. That is: monetary considerations and corporate benefit are explicitly excluded from the programming the BBC does as a public entity. That's how I think it ought to be, and while the government will always make mistakes, unless television creators are freed from corporate considerations they'll be hindered from creating what they might create otherwise.
posted by koeselitz at 12:41 PM on March 24, 2010


Rory Marinich: Have you seen Dr. Horrible? I could see it appealing to those who dislike Whedon's other material but are open to not seething with blind hatred at everything he's touched. In a number of ways it's like a distilled version of what I appreciate about his shows. Plus the entire thing clocks in at under 45 minutes so it's not a huge time investment if you do hate it.
posted by haveanicesummer at 12:42 PM on March 24, 2010


Maybe there's a hidden message in the bolded words?
DRAMA INFORMATION INFORMATION ACUTE OF EVERY SCENE YOU EVERY WILL YOUR CAME WILL FAILURE OVER NEXT PLOT FIGURE IT OUT ABOUT WILL REALIZE BUT FIGURE IT OUT HOW THAT DO SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC YOU NOT AND MOST RADIO CAMERA LET DOING SEEING SPEECH START SCENE ESSENTIAL NOT ASK THE RIGHT Questions
posted by The Lurkers Support Me in Email at 12:42 PM on March 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


It works when applied to other stage plays, too. For instance, there's the long-lost Glass Mamet. #secondcity
posted by unregistered_animagus at 12:46 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


The job of the dramatist is to make the audience wonder what happens next. Not to explain to them what just happened, or to*suggest* to them what happens next.
Any dickhead, as above, can write, “but, jim, if we don’t assassinate the prime minister in the next scene, all europe will be engulfed in flame”


Which is like every episode of 24, ever.

Like the show is entirely plot exposition... there's some dramatic shootout and the identity of a mole is discovered, so Jack Bauer phones Chloe, Chloe tells the CTU boss, CTU boss tells the President, President discusses it with his aides, an aide slips away and phones the mole, the mole calls his boss and all this goes on until the next shootout.

Though I'm not sure if that proves his point or not since I've liked some seasons of 24, and the constant explaining of the plot makes it easier to follow the dozens of characters and interweaving plot lines.
posted by bobo123 at 12:46 PM on March 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm a teevee writer. I found this an interesting refresher course on Mamet's thinking, although there's nothing in it that should surprise anyone familiar with his writing on writing (or acting). As with all great lessons (including "show, don't tell"), his insistence on drama in every scene is true almost all of the time, but not all of the time. In other words, it's true enough that if you're going to break it, you need to do it consciously and you need to know why you're doing it.

I work for a show that's pretty much a police procedural, which means that there are a lot of information-download scenes ("shoe leather"). Questioning scenes in particular can be really boring until you look at it from Mamet's point of view. Detective needs to know who killed X, and in the scene is trying to accomplish this by questioning Y. Y stands in opposition either because they killed X or because they have their own reasons for not coming clean right away. Without Y having their own motive, the scene sucks. The scene ends when Detective fails to learn who killed Y, but in failing has learned something that propels you to the next scene.
posted by Bookhouse at 12:47 PM on March 24, 2010 [10 favorites]


> THIS MEANS ALL THE “LITTLE” EXPOSITIONAL SCENES OF TWO PEOPLE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD. THIS BUSHWAH (AND WE ALL TEND TO WRITE IT ON THE FIRST DRAFT) IS LESS THAN USELESS, SHOULD IT FINALLY, GOD FORBID, GET FILMED.

I wonder what Mamet thinks of the old noir films where the plot is so complicated (I'm thinking of The Maltese Falcoln, The Big Sleep, etc.) the characters have to stop at least once per film and have completely expository conversations with each other in order to explain what's going on to each other (and by extention the audience)? I mean, I love them, but these days they seem a bit clunky in terms of their structure.
posted by The Card Cheat at 12:48 PM on March 24, 2010


despite the fact that film production tends to cost more in the short-term than television production, it's simply not possible to create a television series without broad and thorough collusion with massive corporate entities

This is beyond silly.
posted by Bookhouse at 12:50 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


me: “... there haven't really been any truly great television programs...”

cribcage: “That's a whole bunch of subjective bluster that you packed into one comment, there, but let's tackle this one point.”

Don't tackle it until you quote me properly. I finished that sentence: “at least not in the way that there have been truly great films.” And I stand by that. Seriously, think about the greatest films you've ever seen – think about them in terms of the interesting directions their productions have been able to go, in terms of the depth of the characterization, in terms of the visual and auditory palate they took advantage of and the dramatic heights they achieved. Then compare that with the greatest television shows you've seen.

I really believe that, if we're honest with ourselves, we'll have to admit that even the greatest tv shows have had to make sacrifices, in style, in form, and in presentation, in order to fit the category of television. They've often had to add commercial breaks, for one thing, which I should say is (when you think about it) a fairly huge concession; how would Citizen Kane be if you had to break it up into ten-minute segments with breaks in between? And even aside from that limitation, there's the flat programming-imposed limitation of time; every season must have a certain number of episodes, every episode must be a certain number of minutes, et cetera. And I'm leaving out the greatest consideration of all: that a tv program, at least in the US, is by definition a work of art commissioned by a corporate entity for the purposes of capturing the viewership of as many people as possible during its runtime in order to drive up advertising or subscription sales. No matter how you slice it, that's an extraordinary amount of pressure, and a television program is therefore under a relentless obligation to appeal to the masses. A film that nobody pays to watch is still a film, even if its makers go bankrupt; a television program that nobody watches gets canceled and just ends up a never-developed pilot or, at most, an aborted series that usually doesn't match at all the creator's vision. Those forces are extraordinarily capricious.

Interestingly, I think now is probably the very first time when it's been possible to create an episodic television-like work of art without tying oneself down to all that bullshit.
posted by koeselitz at 12:54 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


As with all great lessons (including "show, don't tell"), his insistence on drama in every scene is true almost all of the time, but not all of the time. In other words, it's true enough that if you're going to break it, you need to do it consciously and you need to know why you're doing it.

Exactly. A rule does not stop being a true and important rule just because someone of David Simon's talent can break it to good effect.

koeselitz: British TV is often good precisely because the British solution to this problem, while not complete, is at least thought of. That is: monetary considerations and corporate benefit are explicitly excluded from the programming the BBC does as a public entity.

FWIW, it is a consensus position in Britain, to the point of cliche, that US television drama (not comedy) is inordinately superior to British television drama.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 12:55 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Koeselitz: I tend to apply the word "medium" very liberally. I mean, is a film anything with video and audio? I'd say that a film that plays on a big screen is different from one on TV with commercials, and that watching The Big Lebowski censored on a network is different from seeing it in an enormous theatre. Avatar in IMAX was different than it'll be on television. So when people write for television, that medium defines their structures.

The Wire wouldn't work, for instance, as a 60-hour-long movie, or as five twelve-hour-long ones. It needs that episodic structure to function. It's defined by it. Just as Arrested Development used its episodes to establish long-running jokes that wouldn't have worked as well in a ninety-minute film that reused jokes as frequently. It was funny specifically because of the episodal gap.

(Knock on wood for the Arrested Development movie.)

haveanicesummer: That's what I started with, actually. I think it was a mistake. It felt so watered down. So... clean. And that's what Firefly does that I hate too. It just feels so over-produced. The writing is overly done, the lighting is a bit too much, the acting ditto. The ending made me want to shiv a [racist stereotype].

Firefly I can last 10 minutes before wanting to shut it down. I've tried that opening episode a dozen times. I loathe so many things about it. And so when it gets so recommended, I feel really baffled, but that's probably because I've got a silly personal dislike that I need to work on moving aside. Perhaps one day. Or perhaps you're madmen the lot of you.
posted by Rory Marinich at 12:58 PM on March 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


Bookhouse: “This is beyond silly.”

Oh, so being a teevee writer is easy, is it? You just call up the people, and they say "sure! We'll wire you a million dollars!" and then you hire a few guys, hand them a script and BOOM you've got a television series!

Maybe I shouldn't have used the word "collusion." I only meant to say that you can't really write a script and develop it on a lark like people sometimes can with films. If it doesn't get on teevee, it's not really a teevee show; and getting it on teevee takes work. You have to work with the people funding it a whole lot more - at least you have had to historically. I have a feeling you know that much better than I do. I've known a few failed teevee writers, who never managed to get anything on the small screen; you're the first I've talked to who succeeded at it.

It'd be interesting to hear your perspective.
posted by koeselitz at 12:59 PM on March 24, 2010


game warden to the events rhino: “FWIW, it is a consensus position in Britain, to the point of cliche, that US television drama (not comedy) is inordinately superior to British television drama.”

Interesting. I didn't know this, but it makes sense, watching the British dramas that I see, which are at this point pretty stupid imitations of the same crap that plays well in the US on mainstream TV. I don't know what "US television drama" is revered highly in Britain, but if the British shows I see are any indication, people in Britain love CSI and 24. Ugh.

Is that it? Or is it more a reverence for HBO fare like The Wire, et cetera? I have to say, I haven't seen anything like that from Britain.
posted by koeselitz at 1:05 PM on March 24, 2010


If The Wire was your first exposure to American television, I could understand having that impression.
posted by borges at 1:15 PM on March 24, 2010


I wish, wish, wish writers would take the "no exposition" thing seriously. I know it's hard to write without exposition scenes, but I think the problem runs deeper than "it's hard." I think the problem is that many writers think they can get away with it.

Now, it's one thing if they actually don't mind exposition scenes. In that case, they just have a different aesthetic than I do (I turn off the television when one of those scenes appears). But I get the feeling that many writers DO think such scenes are bad. But they STILL feel like they can get away with little expositional moments, here and there.

And I'm talking about tiny things -- way more granular than Mamet's examples. Like, in the middle of a conversation between two guys (best friends), one of them will say something like, "You know how my wife, Sarah, likes to go shopping?"

STOP!

That "my wife" is NOT ALLOWED. Sorry, but you can't even sneak in tiny bits of exposition like that, thinking we won't notice. At least some of us will notice, and all of the sudden we're seeing the little bits of sticky tape that are holding your whole rickety airplane together. We don't want to see those! We want the illusion that your plane is safe to fly in, even it it's not.

I agree with Mamet when he says "figure it out" (or "FIGURE IT OUT"). But the problem is that writers aren't going to figure it out if they don't take it seriously in the first place. Many writers will say, "But I'm justified in keeping that 'you're wife' in there, because the audience really does need to know that information." Well, if you have an iron-clad rule against exposition, then you won't do it even if the audience DOES need the information. You just won't. And since the audience needs the information, you'll be forced to figure out some other way of giving it to them. But it all starts with taking the rule very, very seriously.

(Yes, rules were meant to be broken. But they weren't mean to be casually ignored.)

I guess what I wish is that most writers were devoted to their craft on a monk-like level. That they felt that little infractions like that are major sins. I sometimes think that what separates the great writers from the everyday ones is just that: the great ones take their craft super-seriously and NEVER let themselves get away with "little things no one will notice."
posted by grumblebee at 1:15 PM on March 24, 2010 [12 favorites]


This is a perfect description of everything that's wrong with David Mamet. His work is hardly ever about anything at all beyond heightening drama.

but no one seems to do heightening drama better. No one falls asleep at a Mamet play. I just saw American Buffalo. It was great and great fun. He has a lot to say about friendship, loyalty, worth and the American dream, and he says it in a most interesting way.
posted by caddis at 1:19 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


My favorite thing about the exposition issue Grumblebee mentions is that people who watch lots of TV have adapted it to their regular conversations.

"So I was talking to my roommate Sarah, the one who you dated last year but only for a week" and similar phrases are common where I attend school. I think it's hilarious. Everybody gets the exposition they may or may not need.
posted by Rory Marinich at 1:20 PM on March 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


Some of the most obnoxious writing I have ever read was written by people who wanted to be David Mamet. Make of that what you will.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 1:23 PM on March 24, 2010 [4 favorites]


US television drama in the UK is generally shown with fewer or no adbreaks, and HBO shows and the like are not particulary differentiated from regular shows. US TV drama in the UK is inordinately superior to US TV drama in the US.
posted by Artw at 1:24 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


TO THE WRITER OF "KEEP YOUR PANTHEON" GREETINGS

WE, THE WRITERS, MUST ASK OURSELVES OF EVERY SCENE THIS ONE QUESTION.

1) CAN I CRAM ANOTHER CODPIECE JOKE INTO THIS CROCK OF SHIT?
posted by nicwolff at 1:28 PM on March 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


Don't tackle it until you quote me properly. I finished that sentence: “at least not in the way that there have been truly great films.” And I stand by that. Seriously, think about the greatest films you've ever seen – think about them in terms of the interesting directions their productions have been able to go, in terms of the depth of the characterization, in terms of the visual and auditory palate they took advantage of and the dramatic heights they achieved. Then compare that with the greatest television shows you've seen.

I really believe that, if we're honest with ourselves, we'll have to admit that even the greatest tv shows have had to make sacrifices, in style, in form, and in presentation, in order to fit the category of television.


This is pointless to argue cats vs. dogs, because "the right answer" is deeply subjective. Your "if we're honest" makes me laugh, though. If we're honest, we'll have to admit that we all have the same tastes as you?

One thing that's not subjective is this: movies-makers have to compromise just as much as tv-show makers -- just in different ways.

For instance, most movie makers will never be allowed to make a nine-hour long movie. (And, if they want their movies to be released in theatres around the world, they can't make them half and hour, either. Do you thin 90minutes just happens to be the perfect length to tell a story in?) Nor will they be allowed to make a movie with no good-looking actors in it. Of course, if you're making a small independent film, you can cast normal-looking people, but then you have all sorts of other constraints, many of them in the area of budget.

Working under constraints has NOTHING to do with making great art. And any artist who uses constraints as an excuse should get out of the business. Have to deal with commercial breaks? Fine. Write something great that takes commercial breaks into account.

Can't use cursing or nudity? Too bad. Neither could Orson Welles when he made "Citizen Kane." (Many of the movies that continually make the "best movies" list are older ones, made when the studio system and various sorts of censorship bound filmmakers really tightly.)

If TV is bad, that has everything to do with the people creating stuff for it and nothing to do with the constraints they work under.

My bias is that I run a theatre company that might as well be called the Constraints Theatre Company. We generally perform on a bare stage and we don't allow costumes -- other than the actors' street clothes -- sets, props or lighting changes. Just lights up the whole time. Under those self-imposed constraints, we produce uncut Shakespeare plays. I am not arrogant enough to claim (or even think) that we produce anything "great," but we do get good reviews and we play for enthusiastic audiences, many of them containing people who don't go see a lot of Shakespeare.

But even if we decided to wort with sets and costumes, we would still be working with constraints. If you can't see the constraints embedded in the medium you're working in, all that means is that you've been living with them for so long, they have become natural to you.

And take this subjective list for my weirdness if you want, but here are some TV shows I've enjoyed as much as the "great" movies I've seen:

Upstairs Downstairs, The Wire, I Claudius, Deadwood, Big Love, The Wire, The Sopranos, Freaks and Geeks...

I could list a few more. It's not a huge list, because, yeah, most TV is shit. Most movies are shit, too.
posted by grumblebee at 1:35 PM on March 24, 2010 [4 favorites]


I really do believe that the things I listed have genuinely held it back through its long history, particularly in the US, and that those things will continue to hinder it unless they're gotten rid of. I agree that The Wire was often a fine and well-crafted drama, in fact far better than anything Mamet has ever done himself, and better than most films over the last twenty years. But at the same time I still think its necessary connection with HBO and with the corporate structure of television in general was a hindrance, and while its creators took such great care that it's sometimes hard to point out those hindrances, I'm certain they exist. I'm certain that the ideas and themes that the writers, directors and actors laid out would have been exposed much more fully if they hadn't been forced into the financial agreement they had to make.

I really believe that, if we're honest with ourselves, we'll have to admit that even the greatest tv shows have had to make sacrifices, in style, in form, and in presentation, in order to fit the category of television.


I think you can say the same thing about all but a handful of feature films. There's a reason that feature films generally fall in the 90-120 minute range, and a reason that most films follow a three-act structure. And don't think for a minute that most great films weren't limited by innumerable strictures placed on their creators by the studios that bankrolled them.

Every art form has limitations. Sometimes artists push up against these limitations, and that can be good, but for the most part, the limitations are what makes artists create great art. Those limitations demand that artists think creatively to solve problems.

What Mamet is talking about is spot-on, but not just for television. I have done a lot of dramaturgy/directing of classical theater. The most important thing a director can do before directing Shakespeare is to sit down with the script and break it down into beats. Determining what is a beat is not always easy, but often when a character enters or leaves the stage indicates a new beat. Often it's when a character discovers something he/she previously didn't know.

Once you determine the beats, I always define each beat's task, tone, and tempo. The task is what each character wants at that moment. Obviously it's usually different for each character, and often each character's want changes from beat to beat, but the task is a sentence that defines what that character wants right then. The tone sets up how they are trying to get it, and the tempo provides clues as to how it should be played outwardly.

This all sounds like a strange, almost scientific way of dealing with Shakespeare, but if you do it, it opens up the work and makes it so much easier for the director and actors to make the scene interesting for the audience. It's also easier with Shakespeare because his writing is so good.

When you do this with less "Great" works, you can quickly see where the writing falls down: it become very difficult to determine tasks, tone, and tempos, or the tasks are incredibly boring: "John wants to remind Sally of why they're doing the job." If writers do this with their own writing, it becomes very easy to see where things need to be rewritten.
posted by nushustu at 1:38 PM on March 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


Or what grumblebee said also works.
posted by nushustu at 1:42 PM on March 24, 2010


I can't stand it anymore. What's the basis for the "WHY NO?" meme?
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:44 PM on March 24, 2010


Maybe I shouldn't have used the word "collusion." I only meant to say that you can't really write a script and develop it on a lark like people sometimes can with films. If it doesn't get on teevee, it's not really a teevee show; and getting it on teevee takes work.

Sorry if I was a little snappish before. The part that I find wrongheaded in your take is that limitations lead to bad art. They don't. (By the way, I don't claim that the show I work on is great art.) I also challenge the idea that something made to appeal to a wide audience can't be great. You're right that it takes millions to make a teevee show, and that that requires help of a studio. Also, sometimes studio heads give bad notes, and sometimes they give good ones. To take an example from the film world, The Godfather wasn't just the product of Francis Ford Coppola, and the contributions of people like Robert Evans helped make it a damn good film.

Now, if you say that great art has to purely serve a single person's vision, then you're right, good art in television is impossible. And if you say that it's impossible to make 24 episodes of stellar television in a single season with no clunkers allowed, I'd say you're right. But television is a writer's medium and a character's medium and there is a lot of really great teevee.
posted by Bookhouse at 1:46 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


HOW IS DRAMMA FORMED?

how is dramma formed?
how writer get house in bel air
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 1:47 PM on March 24, 2010 [15 favorites]


This is a perfect description of everything that's wrong with David Mamet. His work is hardly ever about anything at all beyond heightening drama.

I'm not going to argue whether Mamet is a good or bar writer, but if you think that he's bad BECAUSE he's taking his own advice, you're wrong. And if you think his advice necessarily leads to "heightened drama," you are wrong.

Anton Chekhov and Jane Austen are great examples of subtle writers who Mamet would approve of. Each of their "character" scenes is a perfect example of what Mamet is talking about. But I don't blame a lay audience for thinking "Conflict? I guess he's talking about an explosion or a guy kicking another guy int he face." That's not how the word "conflict" is used in the theatre, which is where Mamet is from. When I tell my actors we need to find the conflict in the scene, I am not asking them to search for something violent or loud (unless it's a violent or loud scene).

Here's an example of EXTREME conflict:

Ed: I hate to impose on you, but can I speak to you for just a minute?
Sarah: No.

THAT'S what Mamet is talking about. Ed has something he wants and he tries to get it. And he fails. And so he propelled into the next moment. Here are some poorly-written moments:

Ed: John left college after his sophomore year.
Sarah: I know.

Ed: Sarah, you remember that time at the lake?
Sarah: Of course, it was eight years ago, but I still remember it.
posted by grumblebee at 1:50 PM on March 24, 2010 [14 favorites]


I just noticed I mixed up my X with my Y in the example above. Professional writer indeed.
posted by Bookhouse at 1:55 PM on March 24, 2010


The hasty grammar aside, that note read like an extra-shouty version of Robert McKee's Story seminar from Adaptation. I think I'm gonna steal a few of the techniques for my Script Frenzy screenplay next month.
posted by Strange Interlude at 1:59 PM on March 24, 2010


Nah, Mamet's not an ultra-prescriptivist structure freak.
posted by Artw at 2:00 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Man, I bet CSI drives Mamet absolutely spare. Especially since it's still on the air.
posted by The Mysterious Mr. F at 2:01 PM on March 24, 2010


FIGURE IT OUT.

Surprisingly gracious for a letter that was pretty clearly a chew-out. I thought the Unit was better than average tv, but because of the actors more than the writing.
posted by From Bklyn at 2:04 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Some of the most obnoxious writing I have ever read was written by people who wanted to be David Mamet. Make of that what you will.

Ah, come on. I happen to know that you've read stuff written by people trying to be Warren Ellis or Mark Millar.
posted by Artw at 2:05 PM on March 24, 2010 [6 favorites]


Well, of course you're going to write shit if your goal is to be David Mamet. First of all, you are going to fail. Only David Mamet can be David Mamet. Second, if your goal, when writing, is to "be" someone, then your eyes are not on the prize. The prize, when writing, has to do with character, plot, language, etc. It has nothing to do with "being" some other writer.
posted by grumblebee at 2:24 PM on March 24, 2010


Man, I bet CSI drives Mamet absolutely spare. Especially since it's still on the air.

What does "absolutely spare" mean?

I've never watched CSI. I can't get past the title: "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation." Then there was that Speilberg movie: "AI: Artificial Intelligence." Do I really need to move to Hollywood and explain to people why such titles are stupid? Yes, I guess I do.

At least the makers of "ER" had the sense not to call their show "ER: Emergency Room." "MASH" got it right, too.
posted by grumblebee at 2:27 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


grumblebee: “I'm not going to argue whether Mamet is a good or bar writer, but if you think that he's bad BECAUSE he's taking his own advice, you're wrong. And if you think his advice necessarily leads to "heightened drama," you are wrong. ¶ Anton Chekhov and Jane Austen are great examples of subtle writers who Mamet would approve of. Each of their "character" scenes is a perfect example of what Mamet is talking about. But I don't blame a lay audience for thinking "Conflict? I guess he's talking about an explosion or a guy kicking another guy int he face." That's not how the word "conflict" is used in the theatre, which is where Mamet is from. When I tell my actors we need to find the conflict in the scene, I am not asking them to search for something violent or loud (unless it's a violent or loud scene).”

When I think that David Mamet means "an explosion or a guy kicking another guy in the face" when he says "conflict," it's not because I'm a layperson; it's because I've seen his films and read his plays. His conflict is always violent or loud; it's a trademark of his – loud stuff, fast-paced stuff. And I think there's a way in which it's dishonest, even. The method is to give the audience a distinct impression of clear and obvious conflict through the tone of the actors and dialogue without actually giving them enough time or knowledge to know the precise conflict in any given scene. There's a cold, distracted sense of dry wit that runs through his work, but it hides behind a sort of wall, and there's always a gimmick in front: for example, the pace of the scene, which Mamet characteristically increases so as to obscure the thread from the viewer, or the jarring tone of much of his dialogue, which is interesting but doesn't ultimately point anywhere from what I can tell.

I mean, his writing is classic, pitch-perfect by the book writing. He does everything properly. He creates the right amount of tension in any given scene, and while I don't have a taste for what I think is his bombastic tone, it's certainly the one that screenwriters and stage writers are supposed to take now. It just seems like it's standing in front of nothing to me: sound and fury, etc.

I just get the impression that, as much as he may laud better writers like Austen or Chekhov, Mamet wouldn't be able to recognize the great ones in our time. His bombast is unfortunately pretty commonplace now, and the vast popularity of films in his style now shows this. Someone like Tarkovsky, who could put three people on a landscape and film them for ten minutes without more than four words of dialogue between them and still create compelling drama, is probably just boring, or at least inscrutable, to Mamet. Or, to take what is probably a better example, someone like Mike Leigh, who makes quiet, deceptively simple dramas driven by a workshop-style character development. A lot of the scenes and situations Leigh conjures up would never be written by Mamet, both because Mamet has tied himself so much to this fact of writing the action before it happens (a common confine) and because Mamet would probably find those extremely simple but remarkably conflict-laden everyday moments to be boring or unartful. They don't have a neatly-contrived conflict that says anything about the world; they're just human circumstances. That's why Leigh's films seem so powerful to me, where Mamet's seem contrived. Mamet is trying to be a great writer of drama, and he probably succeeds at following all the artistic rules of the form and the industry; whereas Leigh just tries to show life as it is.
posted by koeselitz at 2:30 PM on March 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


When I think that David Mamet means "an explosion or a guy kicking another guy in the face" when he says "conflict," it's not because I'm a layperson; it's because I've seen his films and read his plays.

Well, not Glengarry Glen Ross, obviously.
posted by Artw at 2:33 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


I like Mamet more than you do, but I have some similar criticisms of him. However, his ideas about dramatic structure are not the same thing as his own dramatic writings. His ideas -- which are sound -- do not explain why he's a "bad" writer.

And I think you're very wrong about Leigh. Leigh starts his work with improvs, but in the end, he's an exacting writer. I've never seen a Leigh scene that didn't contain exactly the sort of conflict Mamet describes.

Saying "This explains why Mamet's writing is bad" is like reading a primer by, say, Stephen King in which he cautions against the passive voice and then saying, "Ah! That's explains why his writing is so bad!"

The truth is, understanding what Mamet is saying about conflict is necessary, but it's not enough. Just being able to do that doesn't make you a good writer. I like Mamet, but if you don't, I'd suggest that what makes him bad to you (and other writers good) has little to do with his advice. It has to do with other stuff, some of which you've mentioned.

Yes, you shouldn't force a conflict into a scene where it doesn't belong. Mamet never says you should, even if he does that in his own writing.
posted by grumblebee at 2:39 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Artw: “Well, not Glengarry Glen Ross, obviously.”

Good lord, seriously? That movie... argh. The play is less so, largely because the play doesn't include the big obnoxious hit-em-over-the-head scene, but it's still... so Mamet.
posted by koeselitz at 2:41 PM on March 24, 2010


What does "absolutely spare" mean?

It means it probably drives him nuts, both because they're all almost exclusively exposition-driven and because they're among the most-watched shows on television. What they deliver, mostly, are characters that a wide audience can find compelling and a healthy dose of broad spectrum escapism, from the honest geeky fun of the first four seasons of the original show to CSI: Miami's completely self-aware, over-the-top delivery. They're pulpy, generally entertaining, and most likely keep David Mamet up at night counting ceiling tiles. Or at least I'd like to think so.
posted by The Mysterious Mr. F at 2:44 PM on March 24, 2010


I do agree that, at his worst, Mamet's writing has a by-the-numbers feeling to it. When you learn a bunch of rules -- assuming they are good rules -- the first step is to learn them and follow them. The second step is to learn them so well that you forget about them and just naturally tend to follow them while you're "being yourself." Mamet often doesn't seem to get to that second step. So it can feel like he's going down a checklist rather than writing from a (well-informed) gut.

I love comparing him to Pinter. I think Mamet and Pinter and equally good craftsmen (with a superficially similar sense of linguistic style). But to me, while Mamet is a master craftsman who sometimes breaks through to artistry or something close to it, Pinter is a great artist.

Pinter has everything Mamet has PLUS mystery. Mamet prefers puzzles (which he solves) to mystery.

There are some exceptions. Mamet has a wonderful little play -- full of mystery and from-the-gut writing (that is, of course, also finely crafted) called "Prairie du Chien." (It's ghost story.) No one has heard of it. To some extent, the public colludes with Mamet in creating the Mamet we know an love (or hate). It's his by-the-numbers stuff that, for some reason, becomes popular.
posted by grumblebee at 2:47 PM on March 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


They're pulpy, generally entertaining, and most likely keep David Mamet up at night counting ceiling tiles. Or at least I'd like to think so.

They keep me awake, too, because I don't believe a show has to be sloppy to be broad entertainment or simple escapism. People who don't care all that much about the fine aesthetic details will still enjoy shows in which those details are attended to, as long as in the process of attending to it, the show remains low-brow and fun. Meanwhile, folks like me, who sweat the small stuff, will enjoy the show, too.
posted by grumblebee at 2:51 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


What does "absolutely spare" mean?

It means it probably drives him nuts,

Sorry. I figured out what you meant via context. But I've never heard that phrase before. What's its origin? Where are you from? (I miss out on some pop-culture stuff, because I refuse to watch shows like "CSI: That Stands for Crime Scene Investigation, By the Way.")
posted by grumblebee at 2:52 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


I wonder what Mamet thinks of the old noir films where the plot is so complicated (I'm thinking of The Maltese Falcoln, The Big Sleep, etc.) the characters have to stop at least once per film and have completely expository conversations with each other in order to explain what's going on to each other (and by extention the audience)?

Well, the simple way around this, of course, is to have the expository talk while bad guys are shooting at them or in the midst of a car chase ... unless you're dealing with highly realistic drama, but then it's not highly realistic for people to discuss in detail exactly what the "audience" needs to know anyway.
posted by philip-random at 2:56 PM on March 24, 2010


They keep me awake, too, because I don't believe a show has to be sloppy to be broad entertainment or simple escapism. People who don't care all that much about the fine aesthetic details will still enjoy shows in which those details are attended to, as long as in the process of attending to it, the show remains low-brow and fun. Meanwhile, folks like me, who sweat the small stuff, will enjoy the show, too.

I'm pretty sure the producers of the CSI shows can't hear you from their swimming pool full of money. And, hey, there's some bad CSI but there's some really awesome CSI, too. The episode of CSI: Miami that recently aired that was directed by Rob Zombie was a blast.

It's always going to come to money first, for better or worse.
posted by The Mysterious Mr. F at 3:00 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Good lord, seriously? That movie... argh. The play is less so, largely because the play doesn't include the big obnoxious hit-em-over-the-head scene, but it's still... so Mamet.

Well, yeah, maybe you're not being literal about violence and explosions. And you're right that it amps things up, so that it feels Reservoir Dogs or Goodfellas or something, but instead of face kickings and explosions it's actually mild backstabbing in the field of real estate sales. A film or play about minor office intrigue in a sales office that didn't pull that trick... I don't see it going anywhere. That it's dramatic is what people like about it.
posted by Artw at 3:04 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


The Card Cheat: “I wonder what Mamet thinks of the old noir films where the plot is so complicated (I'm thinking of The Maltese Falcoln, The Big Sleep, etc.) the characters have to stop at least once per film and have completely expository conversations with each other in order to explain what's going on to each other (and by extention the audience)? I mean, I love them, but these days they seem a bit clunky in terms of their structure.”

It's interesting, because those movies were often rooted in the fiction of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, which I think is thematically quite accomplished but which, by aesthetic standards, was often probably a bit hackneyed. Hammett in particular had a bad habit of doing that expository thing every so often that really pisses me off; but he was a fine enough writer by nature that I think he figured this out and didn't do it so much in his novels, which are an order of magnitude more accomplished than his short fiction. His whole them was the inscrutable, apparently emotionless hero, and that lent itself nicely to unexplained plots; Chandler understood this and usually followed along. It's just that unfortunately I think Hollywood usually wanted those kinds of things explained, so they asked for an exposition.

Those are, however, certainly my least favorite moments in Hammett books: the three or four pages where everything is revealed. Hammett's best writing downplayed or even excluded these expositions by putting the important action just outside them. For example, a significant amount of drama happens on the last page of The Glass Key, well after everything has been explained. I think if Hammett had been a better writer qua writing he would have figured this out at some point.
posted by koeselitz at 3:05 PM on March 24, 2010


Sorry. I figured out what you meant via context. But I've never heard that phrase before. What's its origin?

A quick google tells me it's British slang. I'm not from there, though I spent some time in London back in the 90's, but I have a lot of friends who are either British or Anglophiles, so.
posted by The Mysterious Mr. F at 3:07 PM on March 24, 2010


Talking about expository segments always reminds me of John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which I've always thought could have been a much better film without the expository segment near the end. But by then I think John Ford was jaded with Hollywood, and he was so stung by the criticism of The Searchers (which had an incredibly complex plot lurking under its deceptively simple surface, but which didn't explicitly explain any of it) that by the time he did Liberty Valance he just said: "Fine. You want me to explain it all? Here, I'll explain it all at the end of the movie, okay?"
posted by koeselitz at 3:09 PM on March 24, 2010


That's why Leigh's films seem so powerful to me, where Mamet's seem contrived. Mamet is trying to be a great writer of drama, and he probably succeeds at following all the artistic rules of the form and the industry; whereas Leigh just tries to show life as it is.

We-el-el-ellllll...this does presume that there is a way that life is. Life is a big place. Life is the biggest place. I believe there's a human experience that's essentially the same for everyone, but within that tiny variation a whole lot happens. Leigh may be trying to show life as he sees it, and Mamet...well, you know, Mamet has written this several-page all-caps manifesto about what good writing IS, hasn't he? It's not hard for me to believe, with that in mind, that Mamet's plays do indeed reflect Mamet's view of the world. It's also not terribly difficult for me to believe, what that in mind, that Mamet may not be that much fun to have around the house.

On the other hand, I've never seen The Unit, but I'm guessing it's some kind of Shield-ish cop thing or whatever? These would probably be good rules for pulpy crime/action stories. Something plot-driven that keeps you pushing play on the next episode. I don't know that these are great rules for everything ever written -- well, actually, they probably are, at least in a way: the rules themselves are so reductive that they would seem to imply a preference for simple-minded stories, but they could be more broadly applied. High-minded or not, people don't like their entertainment to be boring. These rules essentially boil down to, "Is this bullshit? Cut it out then," which seems pretty universal.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 3:12 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


British drama has been, for the most part, on the slide for years, from probably back in the 70s/80s when it was writer/director led and produced stuff like The Singing Detective (the high water mark) to now when it is producer led (and blanded down and box-ticked to hell) So the best of what's coming out of America at the moment easily beats the best us Brits can do. The Street was watchable and one of the most critically acclaimed series of the last couple of years but could not hold a candle to The Wire
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:19 PM on March 24, 2010


A few months ago I watched Heist a film written and directed by Mamet. It's, not surprising, a caper movie. Now the plot is clever and twisty but oh my word the rest if terrible. Every single character sounds exactly the same. And because there's no time for real character development with all that conflict they are entirely flat so you feel nothing if one of them suffers or dies. (Well nothing beyond annoyance when Mamet plays the cheap melodrama card... oh look this one's suddenly got a daughter, so it's sad when he dies.)

I've got nothing against conflict. Conflict drives drama. But there should be room for other stuff.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:31 PM on March 24, 2010


the characters have to stop at least once per film and have completely expository conversations with each other in order to explain what's going on to each other

There's action for you - the characters in that scene don't know what's going on and NEED to know what's going on in order to accomplish their goals.

It would be different if two characters said "let's recap stuff we both already know and understand" and repeated it all. I think that's what Mamet is specifically decrying here.

An interesting contrast can be found in some Chinese playwriting. Its common for traditional Chinese plays to begin with a monologue that recaps the pertinent information that came before. This is because it was assumed audiences weren't necessarily always going to watch the whole play and, as they wandered in and out of the theater (or in and out of hearing range), they needed the expository recap to know what was going on.

Battlestar Galactica (which is not TV in my math formula because its was great) handled this with the "previous on Battlestar Galactica" business at the start of each episode. It basically took a few moments to let you know what you'd missed so you could have a context for the new episode. That's one way of getting your viewers caught up without having to spend a lot of time with the old "let's repeat what we all know" scenes.
posted by Joey Michaels at 3:36 PM on March 24, 2010


Battlestar Galactica (which is not TV in my math formula because its was great) handled this with the "previous on Battlestar Galactica" business at the start of each episode. It basically took a few moments to let you know what you'd missed so you could have a context for the new episode.

One of my favorite BSG things was that they occasionally apparently shot entirely new scenes for inclusion in the recaps. (Or just scooped them off the cutting floor when it turned out they'd deleted a scene they now needed...I was never clear which one it was.) The first few times it happened, I wondered if I'd been drinking the week before or something.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 3:41 PM on March 24, 2010


grumblebee: I wish, wish, wish writers would take the "no exposition" thing seriously. I know it's hard to write without exposition scenes, but I think the problem runs deeper than "it's hard." I think the problem is that many writers think they can get away with it.

Ha. They know full well what they're doing. Exposition sells.

The Mysterious Mr. F re: CSI and ilk: they're all almost exclusively exposition-driven and because they're among the most-watched shows on television.

I hate a lot of the exposition, but without it a lot of people are lost. "Who is that guy?", "What is she doing?", "Are they married?", etc. Generally I try to avoid shows with it, but there's no denying that many of the shows that are doing really well use lots of exposition.
posted by ODiV at 3:44 PM on March 24, 2010


How bout when BSG would then flash a ton of spoilers right before the opening credits ended. Um, thanks? Guess what, if I'm sitting here on the fucking SciFi Channel watching fucking Battlestar Galactica you probably don't need to convince me that it's worth my time to watch this for the next 44 minutes.
posted by nathancaswell at 3:45 PM on March 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


Battlestar Galactica (which is not TV in my math formula because its was great) handled this with the "previous on Battlestar Galactica" business at the start of each episode.

This tool has been used in a lot of dramatic television (and played with by some comedies) for what feels like a long time (though I couldn't really give you a timeframe). I'm honestly surprised that you chose to single BSG out and curious as to why. Do you generally not watch much TV?
posted by ODiV at 3:49 PM on March 24, 2010


I'm a big Mamet fan but the Unit is not very good. It's not even very good for television. I think I lasted 6 episodes in the first season and then gave up.

That said, it's poopiness, and the rest of the things y'all are complaining about regarding Mamet's work, don't at all take away from what he's saying in the linked piece, all of which is correct.

I've got nothing against conflict. Conflict drives drama. But there should be room for other stuff.

There is room for other stuff. As long as the conflict stays in the room with it. You don't replace conflict with other stuff, you improve other stuff by adding conflict. And again, Mamet's talking about conflict at its basest form: one person wants something and someone or some thing is preventing the person from getting it. That's what he's talking about when he says conflict.

It's been mentioned on MeFi before but it's as simple as this: Tom owes Bob $500. The shitty writer writes

Bob enters, sees Tom.

BOB
Don't forget, you owe me $500.

Mamet would encourage the writer to write:

Bob enters, sees Tom.

BOB
Where were you yesterday?

Rarely will you get a lesson on conflict or dialogue as concise and helpful as that. It's from Mamet's book On Directing Film.

And I'm with grumblebee regarding Deadwood. It's as good as any of the greatest movies ever made, imo. But I also hate most television, including many of what people consider good tv (BSG, Buffy, X Files, Firefly, etc etc.). The world would be a much better place if Joss Whedon had become a plumber.
posted by dobbs at 3:55 PM on March 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


HIS OR HER JOB IS TO FILM IT STRAIGHTFORWARDLY AND REMIND THE ACTORS TO TALK FAST.

Could that possibly have been a joke about George Lucas? It has been claimed that the only instructions the latter ever gave (during the filming of the original trilogy) were "faster and more intense!"

/writer in-joke geek-out
posted by rudster at 4:29 PM on March 24, 2010


I'm honestly surprised that you chose to single BSG out and curious as to why. Do you generally not watch much TV?

Recent example of a show that many recognize as being well written.

I remember it being used at least as far back as Soap and maybe on Dark Shadows, so I'm not claiming its anything new - just using it as a recent example from a popular, IMO well written show.

How bout when BSG would then flash a ton of spoilers right before the opening credits ended.

Oh, I loved those 15 seconds of madness inducing images. Its funny, I never especially thought of them as spoilers so much as a sort of visual overture to the episode.
posted by Joey Michaels at 4:31 PM on March 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


Recent example of a show that many recognize as being well written.

Gets points for avoiding the [tech] is [teching] the [tech] syndrome, loses them failing to satisfactorily resolve anything, ever. Padded to fuck with crying thoughout.
posted by Artw at 4:36 PM on March 24, 2010


That's why Leigh's films seem so powerful to me, where Mamet's seem contrived. Mamet is trying to be a great writer of drama, and he probably succeeds at following all the artistic rules of the form and the industry; whereas Leigh just tries to show life as it is.

Well, Mamet (and I) would say that the function of drama isn't to show life just-as-it-is (do they take shits in Leigh's films?). I have my own grand theories, too half-baked to type out here, on exactly why humans needs drama, but its clearly not to see a perfect mirror image reflected back at us.
posted by Bookhouse at 4:55 PM on March 24, 2010


I agree with those above who've noted that Mamet's reputation doesn't always reflect the man's actual work. I saw the Steppenwolf revival of American Buffalo, and I was surprised by the softness and humanity of it. I went back and reread Glengarry and was surprised by the same thing. Neil LaBute et al have distorted our perception of the man.

(State and Main is my favorite "off-brand" Mamet. I also remember being utterly delighted by his kids' play Revenge of the Space Pandas when I was in elementary school.)
posted by HeroZero at 4:57 PM on March 24, 2010


Old Joke:

A wino is sitting on a corner in New York's Theatre District and he sees a well-to-do looking couple passing by.

"Spare change, mister?" the wino asks.

" 'Neither a borrower nor a lender be' - William Shakespeare," the man of the couple says.

The wino thinks for a minute and replies " 'Go fuck yourself,' - David Mamet."
posted by jonmc at 5:04 PM on March 24, 2010 [6 favorites]


I can't stand it anymore. What's the basis for the "WHY NO?" meme?
FIGURE IT OUT ASTRO ZOMBIE
posted by bobobox at 5:09 PM on March 24, 2010


grumblebee: “Upstairs Downstairs, The Wire, I Claudius, Deadwood, Big Love, The Wire, The Sopranos, Freaks and Geeks...”

I have to say, by the way, that it's a really, really narrow view of film that sees these as being as great as the greatest film. By which I mean: it's a view of film narrowly focused on actors and drama. Which is by far not the whole of what film is about. I guess one might be the type of person who really only cares about plot, characterization, dialogue, drama, and narrative – and those are not small things, but they can be narrow when you focus on them.

To be blunt, every one of the shows you list was filmed badly. They all look okay, in that they're slick and well-produced – but they're flat, in that there is virtually no innovation whatsoever in the imagery or perspective or use of camera. Yes, I get that that simply has to go out the window because of television's constraints – I guess that's what I'm talking about, and what I miss. I have never once seen a US TV program even remotely similar to Sans Soleil, and I'm sure I never will. That's too bad, but that's how the constraints of tv are.
posted by koeselitz at 5:26 PM on March 24, 2010


Ha. They know full well what they're doing. Exposition sells. ...there's no denying that many of the shows that are doing really well use lots of exposition.

Correlation != causation.


HIS OR HER JOB IS TO FILM IT STRAIGHTFORWARDLY AND REMIND THE ACTORS TO TALK FAST.

Could that possibly have been a joke about George Lucas?

Possibly, but I'm a director (whose name isn't George) and that's pretty much how I see my job. "Remind the actors to talk fast" is Mamet's glib way of saying "remind the actors to attend to basic and necessary performance practices, which include keeping up the pace, projecting, etc." More important is the "film it straightforwardly" part.

Of course, some directors see things differently, but I see my job as being the guardian of the story. I read the script over and over and figure out what the story is. By which I mean that I figure out the grand strokes ("It's a story about two kids who fall in love and are doomed to never be together") and the nuances ("The third act should feel like a ray of hope; the fourth act should feel like a funeral...") and TELL THAT STORY.

Stories tend to be pretty simple things, and the enemy of simplicity is ... everything. Anything gratuitous gets in the way of the story, e.g. a really cool effect that doesn't move the story forward or tunnel into a meaningful facet of it. Or one of the collaborator's egotistical desire to show off. Or stuff thrown it to help it sell. Or a cut because it's getting too long.

Some of that stuff can't always be avoided, but as guardian of the story, my job is to fight for it when I can and as hard as I can.

And I'm the only one who is going to that. It's not the actors' job. Their job is to attend to the truth of whatever character they are playing. So, in the best case scenario, the actress playing Ophelia thinks of "Hamlet" as a play about Ophelia. She'll do a better job if she does. But if I don't counterbalance that, it might actually become a play about Ophelia.

The designers are attending to their crafts. The writer, if he is living and involved, is worried that people are saying "too" and not "also." All that stuff is important. But it is 15 potential directions at once. The director keeps everyone on the same train, going down the same track. And that track is the story.

One interesting nuance is that some directors think (or at least explain) their jobs as "trying to realize the playwright's intentions." That might be the same thing I'm saying, if they are speaking metaphorically. But I don't care about the playwright's intentions. I care about the story. They playwright may or may not understand his story. The playwright may or may not understand his intentions. I can't worry about them. I can only read the story and try to figure out what it's about by myself. What it means to ME. If a playwright wants the staged or filmed version to be what the story means to him, he needs to direct it himself.

This is the point where the interpretive part or directing comes in. When I direct "Hamlet," I am directing my understanding of what Shakespeare's story is about.
posted by grumblebee at 5:45 PM on March 24, 2010 [5 favorites]


I have never once seen a US TV program even remotely similar to Sans Soleil, and I'm sure I never will.

"...I feed my hunger for fiction with what is by far the most accomplished source: those great American TV series, like The Practice. There is a knowledge in them, a sense of story and economy, of ellipsis, a science of framing and of cutting, a dramaturgy and an acting style that has no equal anywhere, and certainly not in Hollywood."
-Chris Marker
posted by minkll at 5:54 PM on March 24, 2010 [5 favorites]


To be blunt, every one of the shows you list was filmed badly. They all look okay, in that they're slick and well-produced – but they're flat, in that there is virtually no innovation whatsoever in the imagery or perspective or use of camera. Yes, I get that that simply has to go out the window because of television's constraints – I guess that's what I'm talking about, and what I miss. I have never once seen a US TV program even remotely similar to Sans Soleil, and I'm sure I never will. That's too bad, but that's how the constraints of tv are.

Enh? The look and feel of The Day Today, Freaks & Geeks, Deadwood, and The Wire (to say nothing of the also-excellent Six Feet Under and Carnivale) compare favorably to that of many, many Great Movies. In addition, the nature of a 60-hour story may mean that more self-consciously highly stylized visuals will be, in fact, inappropriate, and would be worse for the project than a perhaps more subtle, perhaps somewhat realistic, overall better thought-out visual scheme.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:55 PM on March 24, 2010


grumblebee: “Upstairs Downstairs, The Wire, I Claudius, Deadwood, Big Love, The Wire, The Sopranos, Freaks and Geeks...”

I have to say, by the way, that it's a really, really narrow view of film that sees these as being as great as the greatest film.


I don't really know what "great" means. I think it means something a work really, really, really respond to. And all of those shows I've listed are ones that I really, really, really respond to.

There is another useful meaning of "great," which has to do with which films and shows have been the most influential to later works or to culture at large. That's interesting to think about, but to me it's less interesting than the experience.

I guess one might be the type of person who really only cares about plot, characterization, dialogue, drama, and narrative – and those are not small things, but they can be narrow when you focus on them.

Maybe they can be narrow for you. They are not universally narrow. What's not narrow is the work that which moves you greatly. The work which makes you think about it for years and years and years after you saw it. The work which makes you want to rewatch it again and again. The work which hits you differently each time you see it.

All those works I listed have those effects on me, whether or not they have them on you.

(I have probably watched both "I, Claudius" and "Upstairs Downstairs" through 20 times in my life. I find new things and have new experiences each time. How can I not think of them as great?)

Actually, I also love visual innovation and -- sometimes -- narrative innovation. I love "2001," "8 1/2," "Fanny and Alexander" and so on. To me, they are great. They are great in a different (not better) way than "Deadwood."
posted by grumblebee at 5:56 PM on March 24, 2010


One of the things I love about, say, "I, Claudius" is the time it has to explore Claudius's character. I also love "Barry Lyndon" and "Wild Strawberries," but those works are limited because they don't have 12 hours in which they can explore their protagonists. There are always trade-offs.

Before I discovered the mini-series, I always thought that, though film and theatre are great, they are not as great as the novel, because it's only in a book like "War and Peace" that you really have the space to explore characters in depth. Then I watched shows like "Deadwood" and saw all the endless nooks and crannies of Al Swearengen. You can't achieve that kind of character-nuance in a two-hour movie.

Does that mean that "2001" sucks because Kubrick didn't have the time to fully explore Hal's character? No, of course not. It means that each form has its own strengths and weaknesses. And naturally some people are going to feel that the strengths of film are greater than the strengths of television (or vice versa).

If you think 12-hours of character development is less interesting than visual exploration, that's fine. That's you. But visual exploration isn't universally "greater" (or less great) than complex character or plot work.
posted by grumblebee at 6:05 PM on March 24, 2010 [4 favorites]


I guess my problem with television is probably that tv is so deeply rooted in story. I feel like we were just starting to get beyond the trenchant bounds of narrative in film, and now here we are tying ourselves up and enchaining ourselves again with characters and plot and stories. These things bore me sometimes. All I want is to look at a nicely-framed shot once or twice, and there aren't any television drama, where, even in the best program, I just get the face of the person who's talking, then cut to the face of the next person who talks, back and forth throughout the conversation; then establishing shot, closeup, closeup, closeup, wide shot, scene, establishing shot, closeup, closeup, wide shot... over and over and over.

To put it another way, story doesn't have to be told over set time frames in episodic fashion, or even in a temporal way. Sergei Parajanov could frame a single shot that lasted ten seconds that was worth a hundred pages of script, that told as much story in just those ten seconds. Tarkovsky could get a facial expression out of his actors that meant that much, too. But here we are, laboriously dragging it out, episode after episode, because we have this purgative need to tell the story to everyone... can't television be about more than stories?
posted by koeselitz at 6:10 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


But here we are, laboriously dragging it out, episode after episode, because we have this purgative need to tell the story to everyone... can't television be about more than stories?

If you want to get away from "mere" story, check out Chris Morris' Jam.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:13 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


grumblebee: “Then I watched shows like "Deadwood" and saw all the endless nooks and crannies of Al Swearengen. You can't achieve that kind of character-nuance in a two-hour movie.”

This is where I disagree - and I understand this seems ridiculously subjective, but:

I don't think this is true at all. I see so much more characterization in, say, the old man in Ozu's Tokyo Story than I ever saw in Swearengen, precisely because the old man doesn't talk so much and because so much less happened to him. When so much stuff happens, characterization is reduced to a series of plot elements rather than a presentation of a fundamental conflict or an embodiment of a set of ideas.

Again, this is really extremely subjective, but my problem with television could also be stated thusly: there's just far too much talking on television.
posted by koeselitz at 6:14 PM on March 24, 2010


I guess I should say that I still don't have any problem whatsoever with the simple idea of episodic 30- or 60-minute shorts that are linked together; I just think that there are a whole lot of artificial limits on that form which frankly probably don't need to be there at all. Syberberg's Hitler is an interesting example of something that I think would work quite well in the television format (although it's very effective in its full 8-hour length all at once.) There are just so many directions one could go in to break the bonds of the narrative format and free oneself from it. This is why I admire The Prisoner so much; because it seemed more than any other show I've seen on the brink of doing so, in an almost Beckett-like way.
posted by koeselitz at 6:22 PM on March 24, 2010


IF YOU DEPRIVE YOURSELF OF THE CRUTCH OF NARRATION, EXPOSITION,INDEED, OF SPEECH. YOU WILL BE FORGED TO WORK IN A NEW MEDIUM - TELLING THE STORY IN PICTURES (ALSO KNOWN AS SCREENWRITING)

Screenwriters produce screenplays composed solely of written text. The Directors and Cinematographers use storyboards. Words are merely the skeleton of a film.
posted by charlie don't surf at 6:32 PM on March 24, 2010


Correlation != causation.

I don't think TV Execs use the scientific method.

All they care about is that Success != failure.
posted by ODiV at 6:33 PM on March 24, 2010


This is one of the few places that I can say that House of Games is one of my favorite movies and have any hope that someone will know what I'm talking about.
posted by desjardins at 6:34 PM on March 24, 2010


koeselitz, I don't quite get what you're saying, and the funny thing is, I don't think specific examples help much. Swearengen is a silly alley for us to go down, because we just happen to disagree about that particular character.

I do understand your "too much talking" idea. I don't even remotely share it, as I'm someone who likes listening to radio plays and audio books. And I love Shakespeare plays which are, basically, all talk. I love learning about character through dialog (which is always largely about what characters DON'T say). But that's me and not you. And that's fine. I can dig the idea of someone preferring to learn about character visually. (I LOVE silent movies, so I'm not only a dialog guy.)

What I don't get is the idea of being bored by traditional narrative. I totally get the idea of being bored by specific badly-told stories. I also understand the idea that 90% of all stories told on TV are told badly. I think that's true. I think it's true of film, too. And novels. So I could understand if you'd said that most of the stories told on TV bore you. They bore me, too.

But I don't understand your blanket statement about narrative being boring ("sometimes"), because narrative -- even traditional one-damn-thing-after-another narrative is so open ended. Saying you're bored by it strikes me as saying something similar to "I'm bored by paintings on rectangular canvases" or "I'm bored by plays that are put on in theatres" or "I'm bored by comedies" or "I'm bored by classical music."

What I can't comprehend about any of those statements is that the permutations that can go on within those forms are ENDLESS. How can you be bored by something with infinite possibilities.

I'm so far away from where you are that I'll watch the same narrative over and over. My favorite play (on the days when it's not "King Lear") is "Uncle Vanya." I think I've seen over a hundred productions of it, and I've directed it twice. Every production is different. The same production is different on different nights.

For instance, when Vanya walks on in the doctor kissing the woman he's in love with, how is he going to react? Okay, he's going to be upset, but how -- exactly -- is he going to express that ... what? ... sadness? anger? shock? outrage? What will be the look on his face? What will the corners of his mouth do? Will his eyes go wide or droop? And if I see it two nights in a row, with the same actor playing Vanya, will he express it the same way twice? And when he says his line -- "Never mind..." -- how will he say those words?

And that's just ONE moment!

I am so glad that "Vanya" is not experimental in its form. I have nothing against experimentation, but it's not appropriate for many works. In a work like "Vanya," it would muddy the waters, making it really difficult to focus on the sort of stuff I listed, above.

It's for the same reason than abstract painting (generally) shouldn't have non-abstract forms in it. If it does, you're not going to notice the colors or patterns as much, because you'll be focused on the subject. Traditional narrative EMPOWERS certain kinds of stories to explore certain kinds of things in a way that "innovative" stories can't.
posted by grumblebee at 6:47 PM on March 24, 2010 [4 favorites]


Correlation != causation.

I don't think TV Execs use the scientific method.

All they care about is that Success != failure.


Yes, and I'm using the scientific method to say that they can't know if the exposition is helping their shows be successful.
posted by grumblebee at 6:48 PM on March 24, 2010


Neil LaBute et al have distorted our perception of the man.

What does Neil LaBute have to do with David Mamet?
posted by dobbs at 7:04 PM on March 24, 2010


Hey, grumblebee - thanks for your (as always) very interesting replies, and I'm sorry that I seem to be so bad at explaining what are apparently only gut-felt notions for me right now.

I think you're absolutely right about the limits of experimentalism, and it's very true that just dismissing 'narrative' is like dismissing canvases of a certain shape - an apparently arbitrary and probably pointless dismissal of many very good things.

I could keep saying "I think what I mean is..." all night. I guess I'll just mention that, while story is good and even a part of (some of) the very best art, I just feel... almost stifled by story. Like: I've heard the rules about conflict, about how screenwriting is supposed to happen, about how characterization happens and the process a play or film or television program has to go through and all that. Sometimes all those rules, that whole formal language we've built up, seems very artificial to me, and external to the process, to the point where it feels stifling to me. I just want a release... some sort of break from it, since it's so relentless.

This list of rules that we've built up, the structure of good drama, is by no means the only way to tell a story. I know for a fact that Andrei Tarkovsky pointedly did not follow this direction in writing his characters (with which he was very precise and exacting) – and you can see it in his films, which never not have the standard prologue-plot-tension-denouement-finish sort of story line. They still manage to tell compelling stories, but those stories are spread out, often broken up, and they're kept extremely simple, so that they're never overwhelming. Or take Yasujiro Ozu, probably my favorite storyteller-filmmaker of all time; his movies are ridiculously simple in plot. Tokyo Story is: married old man and woman go on vacation. They come back. Old woman dies. Very little happens within the film, but the characters inhabit it in a spiritual way; they're very much presences within it, to the point where they almost reach a kind of apotheosis.

I guess the distinction is that I don't watch these movies for the sake of the story, but for the whole - everything that's going on, the story, the images, the characters, everything. Whereas so often with television I fall into the trap of watching for the story - I just want to find out what happens next, where he ends up, what she ends up doing, et cetera.

But that sounds like this is really about what I'm thinking when I watch things. In which case it really doesn't matter - except to me, of course.
posted by koeselitz at 7:05 PM on March 24, 2010


MESSAGE (TO THE UNIT): MY FRIEND SHOW ME, I SHOW Questions. WHY NO(W)?
posted by armage at 7:13 PM on March 24, 2010


koeselitz, I think you're expressing yourself well, which is great, because it's neat to hear from someone who (a) loves fiction and (b) loves it in a very different way from me.

I'm a little confused by your feeling of being stifled by all the rules. Is that something you feel while you're actually watching a movie or is that a meta-watching irritation, like something you mostly feel when you hear people talk about the rules as opposed to when you are caught up in a story (if you get caught up in stories). I would say that if you're thinking about "all the rules" while the story is going on, you've either been damaged by academia or, more likely, you're watching a bad story. It's not engrossing you enough in its "world" for you to forget the fact that it's a constructed object, constructed according to rules.

When I watch "I, Claudius," I don't think about rules (positively or negatively), because I'm too worried about (angry at, sad for, etc.) Claudius to have space for that stuff in my brain.
posted by grumblebee at 7:18 PM on March 24, 2010


koeselitz are you suggesting Tokyo Story is void of conflict?

Also, I'm curious if you've seen Mamet's Homicide or Red Belt and what you think of them.
posted by dobbs at 7:59 PM on March 24, 2010


and it's very true that just dismissing 'narrative' is like dismissing canvases of a certain shape - an apparently arbitrary and probably pointless dismissal of many very good things.

I think it goes way deeper that, as I heard it put like this once by an old film school prof:

Half an hour or less (TV half-hour), you can get away with pretty much anything as long as what you're doing is compelling in some fascinating way (ie: an anarchic half-hour of Monty Python, Robot Chicken, any ten thousand rock videos, short experimental films). But when you get longer than half an hour, something starts to go wrong visa-vis audience attention, engagement, commitment. This is when the RULES of drama/narrative/character etc start to really matter.

The interesting thing is, the same prof connected longer form narrative rules and conventions to pre-history. That is, it all goes back to the camp fire tale. Shorter than half an hour, you can just riff, make shit up as you go along, crack one-liners (as long as you're not boring). Longer than half an hour, you have to start to develop characters, evolve conflict ... and so on. And any story longer than say 90 minutes or two hours, well that would have to be continued the next evening. In other words, the standard accepted length of feature films didn't just HAPPEN.
posted by philip-random at 9:10 PM on March 24, 2010


koeselitz, I think you're doing fine explaining yourself fine, and there's nothing wrong with what you're saying, except that you started off making a definite statement to the effect of "there's no great television" and it turns out that you just have your own tastes that don't mesh well with the form. In some ways, you're asking why a novel can't be a poem.

I do think your dismissal of narrative is a little short-sighted, but that's my own kick: to me, narrative is a much greater god than a mere medium like film that's here today, maybe gone tomorrow.

Ozu is a good filmmaker, but it seems to me that his movies are deeply filled with conflict, and that his great gift was expressing these conflicts using characters who cannot express them clearly. (I may be oversimplifying or overgeneralizing, I'm not an expert).
posted by Bookhouse at 9:23 PM on March 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


"Remind the actors to talk fast" is Mamet's glib way of saying "remind the actors to attend to basic and necessary performance practices..."

He's not being glib in the least. Mamet's written a full book to the effect that actors are word delivery systems who work efficiently to the extent that they ignore everything but the outer crust of the text and their blocking.

Not that he's the first of that opinion. Alfred Hitchcock infamously thought of actors as "cattle," and George Bernard Shaw could hardly write a line without specifying to a nicety how the actor was meant to perform it.
posted by Iridic at 10:23 PM on March 24, 2010


there haven't really been any truly great television programs

koeselitz, I too apparently enjoy fiction in an entirely different way from you, as I'd argue that the past ten years (at least in the U.S.) have seen television supplant film as the medium of choice for great narrative work. But then, it seems like a lot of your issue is with the narrative itself, or with directorial style, which has very little to do with what the writer wrote. I, too, love a well-framed shot, but that shot can be the Mona-Fucking-Lisa and it still won't do much for me without context, unless it is one of those rare beauties which gives context in and of itself.

A writer can't write beautiful, languid shots into their scripts. Or rather, they can, but the script won't be bought or produced, because the writer has to make room for the director. On the off chance that the story (sorry, it's an unavoidable concept, even Ozu films have story; they just play on a different level) is so damn good that it gets picked up anyway, the director will demand a rewrite that strips the film down to it's story and what he or she wants to do with it. You don't write camera angles into your scripts; you just say what happens.

But anyway, I'd advise you to check out Mad Men, based on what you've said your preferences here are. Yes, there's still talking, but the show is set at a pace determined to lat the viewer just have time soaking in the visuals, time, place, and yes, small-c conflict going on in the characters' lives. Probably my favorite moment in the series so far has been the end of the episode dealing with the JFK assassination, where it's simply Don Draper and Peggy Olsen knocking around the otherwise dark and empty offices, not even speaking to one another that much, but neither one able to process how their world has changed. It's television that just let's us live the moment until we almost want it to stop, but we don't because by that point that moment feels like home.

The hasty grammar aside, that note read like an extra-shouty version of Robert McKee's Story seminar from Adaptation

Nah, Mamet's not an ultra-prescriptivist structure freak.


It's absolutely all cribbed almost directly from McKee, who is probably a structure-freak but is not ultra-prescriptivist at all. I liked the memo (all-caps and all) but there is literally nothing in there which would be new to anyone who's read Story.

As for Mamet, eh, I have mixed opinions of the man. When he's not on his game (see: Heist, or rather don't), he's about the biggest hack in Hollywood (or New York, I guess, really) but when he's on his game, he's one of its greatest treasures.

Glengarry Glen Ross is obviously the starting point. Yes, it's talky. That's not the point - Mamet, of all people, wasn't railing against dialogue. The point is that all of the talk is in itself an action. The film is immensely engaging, because all of the talk is conflict. We think about the yelling and the cursing, but instead try to remember Moss trying to talk Aaronow into the break-in, or Roma selling Lingk in the bar. These scenes are quiet, but just as tense, because they are seductions, and seductions are conflict. If they weren't, we'd just see two people getting in bed together.

State and Main is pitch-perfect in it's structure, because there's no scene without conflict and it also shows, you know, how compromised movies almost inevitably are (so, you know, not just a problem with teevee). But for my money, I like Wag the Dog, which McKee apparently hates for some reason. (This information comes from my brother, who actually attended one of McKee's weekend lectures.)

Wag the Dog was based on the book American Hero, which speculated that Operation: Desert Storm was scripted and produced as an political maneuver. The only part of that which really makes its way into the film is in an expository scene where spin-doctor Conrad Breen explains to producer Stanley Motss that this sort of thing is commonplace in politics. It should stand out like a sore thumb in an otherwise tight screenplay, but it works because the scene is, again, a seduction. Breen is selling Motss. There is conflict. And so it plays.

Mamet also breaks some of his own rules in the story by giving Motss and Breen small victories in contained scenes, such as when Breen seemingly wins over CIA Agent Young in the Mexican restaurant. Or when Motss and Breen get the DC kid to start the trend of throwing choes over the powerlines, which seemingly has no conflict in it at all.

But again, Mamet knows what he's doing. The scene between DeNiro and Macy works because it is an unexpected, though major, speedbump in the way of his goal, and because a few scenes later we learn that Agent Young took the lessons learned from that scene and used them to turn the tables on Breen and Motss. So we still had momentum going into the next scene, as there was still dramatic tension before they hit the bump, and the scene was immensely entertaining in itself (maybe the best in the almost-perfect movie) and the scene set up a later reversal which threw the movie into Act III. So there was conflict, but the protagonist got what he wanted - breaking the strictest reading of the rules. It also worked gangbusters on a meta-scene level, so it's cool.

The scene with the kid also works for similar reasons, in setting up needing to deal with Woody Harrelson's Sgt. Schuman, but it is also contained on two levels. First, there is conflict in trying to jump-start a meme, and two the scene relies on "inside information," the MIT-grad cousin of exposition. As opposed to exposition, it doesn't assume that the audience can't FIGURE IT OUT, but rather treats the audience to something it probably doesn't know. Instead of Ed telling Larry that Betty is his wife of 22 years, It's Ed telling Larry the tricks he pulled to land a rich, hot wife when he's a middle-manager at the Best Buy. One makes us roll our eyes, and the other makes us lean forward.

So it's all tricky, and I could continue writing about this all night, as it's one of my favorite subjects. Suffice it to say that Mamet's notes are directed more towards keeping the writers from writing shitty scenes than directing them on how to write good ones, and that Television, as a medium, is very different from Film. TV has more constraints, but those aren't a bad thing. The commercial breaks, for one, have forced the creatives to make better use of the "offscreen story" for instance. We must remain engaged while the story takes a break, and hopefully be discussing the story during that time.

TV also allows for more mistakes, but demands a more sweeping scope. Lost has made a number of shitty episodes, but those are forgiven in light of the many brilliant ones it has produced. A "great" film can generally be allowed one bad scene or character (think of Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's and we'll brush over it. A great TV Show is judged by a different metric, and in fact each show is judged on its own. How many awful episodes has The Simpsons put out in recent years? Is it still in the pantheon of TV greatness? Of course it is, and another thirty years of sub-par episodes wouldn't ruin its golden age. Battlestar Galactica is still amazing despite the final hour of the finale.

Episodic media is fundamentally different from single-serving media. But one can still love Indiana Jones as a saga while ignoring Crystal Skull. You've simply got to approach art on its own level and know that, if you're seeing it anywhere outside of a damp basement or garage, corporate hands have probably been on it somehow, and that the creators have been fighting those hands in more ways than you can imagine.
posted by Navelgazer at 10:34 PM on March 24, 2010


Navelgazer: “koeselitz, I too apparently enjoy fiction in an entirely different way from you, as I'd argue that the past ten years (at least in the U.S.) have seen television supplant film as the medium of choice for great narrative work.”

Everyone says this, and it's simply not true. There are not more great television shows today; there are not more well-written television shows now. The only possible metric by which television has come into its own in the last ten years is on the simplest and least important one: production value. The costumes on Mad Men are better than anything anyone could afford in the 90s. That's not that much of an achievement, unfortunately.

I think people tend to forget the really good television that was around in the 90s... and I think people really want to forget the limitations of the television medium. That was my primary point, and my first point; this stuff about narrative is just me trying to express, to a crowd that seems unwilling to face it, that often fitting a story into one-hour segments that are weekly over a year or two years or three years is artificial, and moreover that within those confines those who make television shows are forced also to play to network and corporate ideals about what their material will be like. This is just an outgrowth of the medium, and it doesn't serve it well.

Because people like the television shows they see now, people like to forget that television has existed for many decades. Because they like the television shows they see now, people like to forget that those shows come to us through filters, and that those filters are almost invariably preventing us from seeing the artist's full vision. I can see ways in which working within the episodic medium might drive artistic creation, in much the same way that the confines of the sonnet form can aid in poeticism; but the limitations of corporate culture which the funding and broadcast of television necessitates are not limitations which serve art in any way. In that way, until the means of production of television are seized by the artists, television will always be limited.

David Mamet's actually a good example. He funds his own movies at this point, rolling the money from script rewrites that he does into new original productions. This gives him complete artistic control. But in the case of a television program, that would be flatly impossible; even if you had the money to pay for production and even publicity, putting it on the air is something that simply can't be done without a network's or a cable channel's help. Mamet does it, but he's at the whim of the people running the production, and he gives up much of the control he would have had otherwise. And it's not true that he's giving it up to other artists - he's actually giving up control to the suits with money.

“But then, it seems like a lot of your issue is with the narrative itself, or with directorial style, which has very little to do with what the writer wrote. I, too, love a well-framed shot, but that shot can be the Mona-Fucking-Lisa and it still won't do much for me without context, unless it is one of those rare beauties which gives context in and of itself.”

The assumption of television is simply that people do not care about a well-framed shot. Television is not given the luxury to care about such things. Television is driven by story, and story alone; and not by broad, detailed, carefully-drawn story, but by episodic and simply-explained story. What happens in this episode? What happened in the last episode? Who met whom, who fucked whom, who married whom, etc? These are the basic tropes that television must deal with, because it must appeal to as many people as possible (by order of the company) and because it must be easily intelligible.

What's happening in television? Producers finally have the money to make the old categories seem somewhat convincing - but they're still the same categories. I don't dislike story qua story, but I am tired of the stories that television tells, because it has been telling them for sixty years. Who died in this episode? Who turned out to be alive? Who betrayed whom by sleeping with someone else? Who ratted out whom? Who bought what? These basic building blocks of what we think our lives are like - they're still the basic unit of television, of episodic storytelling.

I still have not seen a television show where, in one episode, the hero gets out of bed; in another episode, he looks at a tree. I have not seen an episode where the heroine just sits in a car. I haven't seen a whole episode of a television show dedicated to one character blinking her eye. These are things that drive films, that films have made space for - but there's no space for them, apparently, in television. This is, I think, because there are pressures in television that don't exist in film. If Mamet or anybody else turned in a script for an episode that called for a ten-minute slow-crawl shot that moves gradually over a barren landscape with no dialogue. People wouldn't stand for it. They don't have the attention span. Television is forcibly tailored to our attention spans, and I don't see any television shows that are challenging that.

(Naturally, I'd be glad to hear counter-evidence to all this.)

Regarding Ozu: yes, I know there's conflict at the heart of his stories, and that there is certainly story in his films. But I brought him up because Ozu has never let the story strangle the art – his stories are simple, and they do not attempt in any way to trick the viewer into holding her or his attention to another episode. Moreover, he's not consumed by continuity or the driving force of plot. His cameraman used to tell a story of the first time he worked on set with Ozu; partway through one scene, when the cameras were about to shoot another angle of the same table, the cameraman saw Ozu rearranging the flowers and the plates and glasses on the table. The cameraman stopped Ozu and pointed out that, if the position of the things on the table suddenly changed during the film, the continuity would be destroyed. "Oh no," said Ozu, "it looks better like this, and no one notices things like that anyway." That deep need to allow plot to drive the work - that didn't exist for Ozu. And the quietude that that brings is something I miss in television, and something I've only very rarely seen.

To rework some of my earlier statements, let me say that I don't flatly reject narrative as it is. But narrative can become weighty and all-consuming, and therein lies the trap. The very best media I've know can achieve something like the poetical freedom from a need for rigid, rote movement from one plot point to another; it intersperses one form with another, and it allows for characterization and plot without being confined by it. That's what I wish I could see on television, but I've still never seen a show that does that.
posted by koeselitz at 11:41 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


But when you get longer than half an hour, something starts to go wrong visa-vis audience attention, engagement, commitment

Monty Python discuss this at length as a group vis a vis And Now For Something Completely Different.

I paraphrase, but they basically discovered that the audience laughed through the first 45 minutes, quieted down for about 20 and then laughed again for the last 15.

"Ah! The middle 20 is the weaker material! Let's split it up!"

So they rearranged it and showed it to another test audience.

They laughed the first 45 minutes, quieted down for about 20 and then laughed again for the last 15.

Indeed, no matter how they ordered the material, they had the same result.

This is why their next two movies had plots and Meaning of Life had that "seven ages of man" through line.
posted by Joey Michaels at 12:20 AM on March 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


Writer: Hey nice, Mamet.

MAMET: VEE VANT DRAMA, LEBOWSKI!
posted by Pollomacho at 5:07 AM on March 25, 2010


He's not being glib in the least. Mamet's written a full book to the effect that actors are word delivery systems who work efficiently to the extent that they ignore everything but the outer crust of the text and their blocking.

You're definitely wrong about that if you take into account all of Mamet's writing about acting, and I think you're wrong about the book you linked to. I have read it and everything else Mamet has written about acting, and I don't really how you're managing to mine that idea from his text.

Mamet has made it clear time and again that he's a devout follower of Stanislavsky, who definitely didn't think of actors as robots. Even in the article linked to here, Mamet said that the actor's job is to play his part truthfully. Playing it truthfully has nothing to do with being a word-delivery system, since one can deliver words with great truth or great falsehood. (I know. I see actors do both ever day.)

In the early 90s, Mamet and Bill Macey ran a Stanislavsky-based acting class which was Stanislavsky based. The students in that class wrote up the lessons as the much-loved book, "A Practical Handbook for the Actor." It has no new information. You can read all the same stuff in books by Stanislavsky that were written decades earlier. But it's merit is that it's really short and crystal clear. Mamet wrote a forward to the book, endorsing all the views in it.
posted by grumblebee at 5:12 AM on March 25, 2010


koeslitz, I normally really like your tangential writings whether or not I agree with your point of view, but I really hope you realize that it's blanket statements like "Everyone says this, and it's simply not true." are what disconnect people from reading the rest of what yo write.

Your perception of reality is ! > mine, also your perception ! = truth, necessarily. Making subjective statements and declaring them as truth is a big part of web discussion, but making blanket subjective statements about something as non-universal in taste in writing is...well, I mean...a waste of time, don't you think?
posted by TomMelee at 6:39 AM on March 25, 2010


koeselitz: I still have not seen a television show where, in one episode, the hero gets out of bed; in another episode, he looks at a tree. I have not seen an episode where the heroine just sits in a car. I haven't seen a whole episode of a television show dedicated to one character blinking her eye. These are things that drive films, that films have made space for - but there's no space for them, apparently, in television. This is, I think, because there are pressures in television that don't exist in film. If Mamet or anybody else turned in a script for an episode that called for a ten-minute slow-crawl shot that moves gradually over a barren landscape with no dialogue. People wouldn't stand for it. They don't have the attention span. Television is forcibly tailored to our attention spans, and I don't see any television shows that are challenging that.

I haven't seen the movies that you're describing. I don't doubt they exist, but I haven't seen them. (Actually, I kind of do doubt that too many films exist that consist of the protagonist doing nothing except getting out of bed, but let's put a pin in that.) I'd be willing to bet that 95% of other people haven't seen them either. That's because you're comparing two different things: foreign (or incredibly independent films) and mainstream television.

This isn't a fair comparison. Show me the Hollywood film that was released in over 1000 theaters that consists of nothing but one character blinking her eye. In the meantime, if I wasn't lazy, I could probably find you a clip from youtube that shows just that. So there are small-scale televisual bits like you describe; they're just not getting shown on tv. But neither are the films you're describing.

Or let me put it another way: okay, maybe there is the occasional film that gets shown once night in five cities in America that show nothing but a woman sitting in a car, or at least spends a minimum of 10% of screen time just sitting in a car. I can probably find something very similar on public access tv. The production values won't be as good, but both the public access program and the foreign film you're talking about probably have the same budget:viewership ratio.

It's been interesting watching this conversation between you and grumblebee, but it's getting less interesting watching you repeatedly telling everyone that film is great because it's about nothing and tv sucks because it's about something. I don't even have to disagree with your point, because your facts are just wrong.
posted by nushustu at 6:39 AM on March 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


koeselitz, ignore this if my questions are getting tiresome, but I'm still a bit confused by your point-of-view, and I'd love to understand it better. I think I've isolated the locus on my confusion, which I'll outline below. I recognize that we can't always articulate (or even understand) why we like what we like and why we dislike other things. So I'll accept you not being able to offer a response, if that's the case.

"One damn thing after another" narrative works and endures for a very simple reason: most people are curious, and mystery is, for them, an itch that must be scratched. If I say, "Once upon a time, there was a man who had something very special and powerful in his pocket," it's natural for people to say, "And? And? AND?" Are you saying you don't have that urge?

There's way more to narrative than that. If there wasn't, I would have no interest in re-watching "The Godfather," since I already know what's going to happen. But that's desire to know what's going to happen next is the initial hook.

So when you talk about feeling stifled, trapped and bored by narrative, I wonder how you're approaching it -- and how you've approached it growing up. For all my "sophistication" (son of a film critic/historian, theatre director, MFA in directing, etc), my relationship to drama is basically that of a kid sitting around a camp fire, listening to ghost stories. That's how I started as a kid, listening to my parents spin yarns; that's how I remain as I glide into my mid 40s. I want to know what's going to happen next; I want to know how it's going to happen; I want to know how it's going to affect the people involved; I want to think about what I'd do in their circumstances...

Are you saying you don't? Or are you saying that you do, but you dislike these feelings? My assumption is that to anyone who feels them, they are deeply pleasurable, but maybe I'm wrong. Maybe there are people who feel the pull of narrative as strongly as I do -- but who hate it and fight against it.

There are two sorts of people I can imagine feeling the way you do:

1) An artist with an aesthetic similar to Samuel Beckett. I can see how he'd feel stifled and bored by television if he worked in the field and wanted to create Beckett-like works for it.

But that's Beckett the creator, not Becket the viewer. So maybe you're coming at this from the point-of-view of an artist, thinking, "I don't like TV, because it won't ever give me the change to create the sort of art I like to create."

What puzzles me about that is not being able to break out of the role of artist and feel things as a camp-fire kid.

I'm in a similar situation in the NYC theatre community. I could never, ever, ever produce the sorts of plays I like to do on Broadway. Very occasionally, Broadway lets a Shakespeare play slip through its portals. But then it's inevitably a pageant. If I pitched Shakespeare the way I do it (bare stage, no costumes, etc), I wouldn't get very far. And, as an artist, I have some bitterness and frustration about that.

But that doesn't mean that, while I sit there watching a Stephen Sondheim musical, I'm not thrilled. I still have the camp-fire kid in me. I still want to know what happens next. My disgust at the Broadway world in general has nothing to do with my reaction to a specific story, when I'm caught up in its mysteries.

I don't get the mindset of someone who would sit there, watching "Deadwood," and spend the entire time thinking, "I hate this because I want to create something that's totally different from the show." If that's what you're thinking, you're not really watching the show. Maybe you can't watch it, because you're too emotionally invested in your anger about being constrained as an artist.

2) An academic who as been trained to see art as a historical artifact, a political/social game-piece and/or as an object in a relationship with other pieces of art. I can see how such a person might say, "Jaws" isn't very interesting, because it's really just a melodrama that has nothing exciting to say thematically, socially or politically. Nor does it push or pull the medium in any new way.

Okay, those are all interesting ways to look at art. But, again, where's the camp-fire kid? Aren't you scared of the shark? Doesn't your heart beat when you hear da-dum, da-Dum, DA-DUM?

I guess I would understand you if you said, "Yes, I get really caught up in that stuff. But when I think about the work from a 'higher' perspective -- as a work that interlocks with other works and with history and politics -- I realize that it's not very interesting."

To which I would say, "Sure. But why do you act as if the earlier view -- the camp-fire view -- is unimportant, of lesser importance, or non-existent?"

But all of this is my attempt to pound you into a box that's similar to my box. I'm creating a "you" who is just as moved by narrative as I am, but who, for some reason, is thrusting those feelings away. And I understand the perils of trying to see myself in you. So I'm willing to hear that I'm wrong. I'm willing to hear -- and try to understand how -- you really do watch "Jaws" and feel bored WHILE YOU'RE IN THE ACT OF WATCHING IT. That you felt that way even the first time you saw it. To me, that's as astounding as hearing someone say that they've never felt love or anger. But there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in my philosophy.
posted by grumblebee at 6:57 AM on March 25, 2010 [4 favorites]


Isn't it about time to face the fact that you all eat asparagus wrong? For God knows how many thousands of years, you have ground it up in your predictable little mandibles, gulped it down, and thought you understood it all about asparagus, or told yourself you did, but we all know deep down that that's bullshit. I am so tired of the tyranny of chewing. The shackles of ingestion! You can get just as much nutrition as you need by boiling the asparagus and rubbing it slowly into your scalp, letting its juices soak into your follicles. Done correctly, the act of shampooing with asparagus is as deeply fulfilling as you can possibly imagine (and probably more, considering your clear lack of depth and ingenuity). I go into a zenlike hours-long trance and love it. You are weak people.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 7:59 AM on March 25, 2010 [4 favorites]


Everyone says this, and it's simply not true

Putting it in bold does not make it any more of a universal truism then you'd like it to be. Please read your comment to yourself in the mirror and try to imagine the words "In my opinion", "I believe", or "When I look at these episodes."

This would make it more of a discussion piece instead of an apparent screed where we're all not getting how good your vision of art is and we're all wrong. It's this martyrdom thing you persist to to do in conversations that makes me wonder what you're really trying to tell us half the time.
posted by cavalier at 8:02 AM on March 25, 2010


Everyone says this, and it's simply not true

Taste in art is a funny thing. It feels similar to moral values. I don't think that's true for everyone. I think some people aren't surprised that other people don't like the same music, books and movies that they do, but to many of us, it's almost unthinkable.

This says something about how profoundly art clutches at many of us. "King Lear," Beethoven's 9th Symphony and "Sargent Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" excite things inside me that feel so fundamentally a part of being human, that it's unfathomable to me that a fellow human might not like these works. And Tim Burton's films are so disgusting to me, there's no way you can possibly like them. If you say you do, you're somehow being dishonest (maybe to yourself.) That is more likely than the possibility that you are so different from me that you like Burton movies.

Or so it feels.

So just as most people feel no compunction about saying, "stealing is just wrong," many people also have no compunction about saying, "'Hamlet' just IS better than 'Gilligan's Island.'" It may be irrational, and it may offend people, but by God it's a profound feeling! It feels like TRUTH!

I utterly reject the idea of objective aesthetics. And yet even I have these feelings. I wish koeselitz wouldn't give into them, and I think people here are right to point out that he's being silly, but I have some sympathy for the way he (possibly) feels.

Given how strongly I feel about The Beatles, is it even possible that you -- you who don't like them -- are a member of the same species as me? Yes, of course it's true that you are. But it boggles my mind. To me, liking The Beatles feels WAY more fundamental and basic than, say, the fact that I like ice cream. It feels as profound as my gut feeling that murder is wrong.
posted by grumblebee at 9:02 AM on March 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Everyone says this, and it's simply not true. There are not more great television shows today; there are not more well-written television shows now. The only possible metric by which television has come into its own in the last ten years is on the simplest and least important one: production value. The costumes on Mad Men are better than anything anyone could afford in the 90s. That's not that much of an achievement, unfortunately.

I'm sorry, but this is factually wrong. Mad Men is a basic cable drama, which suggests that it's got a lower budget than most shows. Some quick Googling suggests that its set at 2.3 million an episode, which is significantly less than your average CBS show. And budgets have been getting squeezed in the industry for a long time, which is why shooting schedules are getting shorter. While I don't know this for a fact, my guess would be that an episode of Mad Men is shot in seven days, one less than is currently industry standard (but the industry is heading that way). (I'd also guess that all of those actors are getting paid less than you might imagine). Also, they keep costs down by setting a lot of the action in the office, which is a single pre-built set. Mad Men is lucky to have Dan Bishop as a production designer, who also made Carnivale look great on a low budget.

We're pretty clearly in a golden age of television (my fear is that we're actually in the middle of the transition from golden age to silver age), which is related directly to the opening of the cable market and the new set of freedoms/constraints that that opened up for writers. Television is still a young medium, even compared to film as a whole, but it is a writer's medium, not a director's medium, and that's the way it's going to remain. That's what I love about it. Clearly, you're better suited to the far reaches of art cinema, which is your prerogative.
posted by Bookhouse at 9:18 AM on March 25, 2010


grumblebee - Hamlet is better than Gilligan's Island but it falls short of Big Liebowski. I'm sure there's genuine science somewhere to back this up.

Otherwise, I agree with pretty much all you said there.
posted by philip-random at 9:29 AM on March 25, 2010


re: Mad Men's art budget and the current "golden age of television"

I think what's going on here (and it probably won't last) is the disproportionately healthy DVD sales for shows of genuine quality such as Mad Men, Deadwood, Entourage, Curb Your Enthusiasm etc. That is, they may not get the greatest ratings when initially broadcast but they more than make up for this in eventual DVD sales ... unlike such perennial faves as ___ (WHATEVER - all those popular shows that NORMAL people watch because their brains and souls are too fried from work, family, tea-partying to know any better).
posted by philip-random at 9:37 AM on March 25, 2010


I suspect your tongue is in your cheek, philip-random, but here's my prediction of what science will someday tell us:

If you take 10 people and teach them the vocabulary (and whatever else) they need to understand "Hamlet," and then you show them a good production of that play and ask them to compare it to "Gilligan's Island," nine of them will prefer "Hamlet" and have the profound feeling that it is better. And science will probably even be able to explain the psychological reasons behind the preference.

At which point, if we want, we can define "better works" as being "those that we can accurately predict will be enjoyed by the majority of people."

And we still won't be any closer to having evidence that there's some cosmically, writ in stone, sort of "better" art.

And we won't really be able to say much about the guy who prefers "Gilligan's Island," other than that he's eccentric (science will explain why he is the way he is) and that, when we talk about how "Hamlet" is better than "Gilligan's Island," we choose to ignore the tastes of people like him.

Chocolate DOES taste better than tree bark -- except to those strange people who prefer tree bark.
posted by grumblebee at 9:42 AM on March 25, 2010


TO THE WRITERS OF THE UNIT

GREETINGS.

MORE BLINKING. NO CHARACTERS THAT ENTER CARS SHALL LEAVE SAID CARS. MORE BLINKING.

1) WHO BLINKS?
2) WHAT HAPPENS IF HER DON'T BLINK?
3) WHY BLINK?

YOU THE WRITERS ARE IN CHARGE OF MAKING SURE EVERY SCENE HAS BLINKS.

ANY TIME ANY CHARACTER IS LOOKING AT ANOTHER CHARACTER AND NOT BLINKING. THAT SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT.

DO NOT WRITE A CROCK OF SHIT. WRITE A RIPPING 30 OR 40 OR 60 MINUTE EPISODE WHICH INVOLVES ONLY BLINKING AND YOU CAN, VERY SOON, BUY A HOUSE IN BEL AIR AND HIRE SOMEONE TO BLINK FOR YOU.

LOVE, KOESELITZ
posted by haveanicesummer at 10:11 AM on March 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


My kingdom for the blink tag!
posted by haveanicesummer at 10:12 AM on March 25, 2010


I have both loitered and toiled in the farthest reaches of art cinema. There is often no popcorn.
posted by From Bklyn at 12:06 PM on March 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


Dear Grumblebee and Koeselitz, both of you are awesome for spending so much time in this discussion. I absolutely love people talking about what they love, and illuminating the vast expanses of writing and art.

I initially came to cinema and television from the worlds of writing and design. I started off as a writer of short stories and eventually poetry; on the side I did things like design web sites for myself and friends. When I discovered cinema, I was learning that the real fascination I have with design isn't entirely the aesthetic: I love the architecture behind the work. The structure around which everything revolves.

Learning about that idea of structure helped my early work with poetry a lot. Once you understand you're just just writing words to write words but rather building something with your language, then suddenly the medium becomes clear. You can be writing a narrative or you can be writing a haiku, which is too small to effectively write stories in, but either way there is some sort of architecture going on.

So, Koeselitz, I have to disagree with your judgment of television, not because I don't think cinema is capable of things beyond what you see on TV, but rather because I think television has achieved things which cinema will never see. It goes back to your argument about medium. Coming from poetry, I have seen that the difference between haiku and senryu, which is a nearly identical poetic form with only one different rule, will produce poems that are in some ways radically different. The difference between a sonnet written in strict iambic pentameter and a sonnet with a looser form doesn't just give you a slightly different poem. You get an absolutely changed world of poetry.

So television can't be directly compared to cinema. Not meaningfully. This isn't just because different people work in each fields. It's that when you make a TV show you operate differently than you do making a film. The rules are different.

Samuel Beckett once said this about his novels, which he wrote in French and translated to English. When he translated them, he said, the resulting work was entirely different. With the same ideas in the sentences, the same plot, he had two totally different stories. It doesn't matter if certain elements remain constant. The tools you have to work with are different, and the architecture of the piece as a whole shifts, and so criticizing television for not being like avante garde cinema is like criticizing an apartment complex for not being the Taj Mahal.

Now, I haven't worked my way into the avante garde of cinema, because it's been around for so long that you have to work through layers and layers of work to get to the really unknown stuff. I have a decent knowledge of film, but not as much as you, absolutely. However, I certainly have worked my way into some of the deeper television works, and so I can say pretty confidently that I've seen stuff on TV that cinema could never accomplish.

The Wire, for instance, has told a story of such complexity and magnitude that I doubt any cinema, nor any play, will ever surpass it in those certain regards. Not because David Simon is a writer brilliant beyond compare, but because he had more time to tell his story. And The Wire is all about architecture: From its first scene on, it's constructing such a complex, beautiful revolving portrait of the city, and it has time to detail all its characters in marvelous ways. It reached me emotionally on a level film never has. There's something about spending three years growing up with a character and having him die after all your emotional investment that you can't get out of three hours, or eight. You don't get the long transitions, where you go from hatred to love and experience life in so many aspects that you find it hard to judge, and in the process realize just how fucked the people in this system are.

And Chris Morris has been brought up a dozen times already, but his Jam (and his follow-up, Jaaaaam) did things to comedy I'd never seen done before. It's all about the cinema. The visuals particular of each episode's opening are incredibly striking; the short-form lets Morris construct episodes in a way cinema can't.

Finally, I've never seen a movie as deliciously fractal as Arrested Development. I've brought it up before, but I need to bring it up again. The way it paces its jokes, citing at times inside jokes that wouldn't actually be shown until a season later, so that every time you watch it you're made aware of one more layer you didn't see before, is something you could only accomplish with a long-grind television show.
posted by Rory Marinich at 2:22 PM on March 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


One of the obvious difference between movies and TV is screen size. So, perhaps, in the past, it made sense not to care as much about cinematography on television as it did in works slated for the cinema.

One of the interesting things about living when we do is that this is changing. I just bought my first massive, HD TV, which basically takes up a whole wall in my living room. It cost me an arm and a leg, but in a few years, buying one won't mean you'll have to take a second mortgage on your home. (In the end, it's a savings for me, even now, because for my wife and I to go to a movie together, it costs $20. The TV will pay for itself pretty quickly.)

Granted, my screen isn't as big as one in a movie theatre, but it's big to the point where, for me, the experience is similar. The screen basically takes over my entire field of vision.

I bought it because I hate going to the movie theatre. I like watching movies in absolute silence, because only that way, can I get completely caught up in the story. I'm very easily distracted by people munching popcorn and whispering to each other. But, until recently, I suffered through that for certain movies, ones that I thought would be more stunning to see on a huge screen.

I now have that experience at home. Or close to it. And my guess is that, starting now, I will almost never go to a movie theatre again. That saddens me a bit, because I'll miss the ritual of the ticket, the lobby, the lights dimming, etc., but the reality is that I pretty much always regret going when I go, because I spend most of the movie being irritated with people.

In any case, I wonder what the shrinking difference between cinema-screen size and home-screen size will mean for television.

We're also starting to see major movie directors flirt with TV. Spielberg has done it a few times. Now Scorsese is making a series for HBO. One of my favorite movies (which is not new), "Fanny and Alexander," which is extremely lush visually, was originally made for television.
posted by grumblebee at 2:41 PM on March 25, 2010


MetaFilter: a crock of shit

C'mon, someone had to say it.
posted by bwg at 5:22 AM on March 26, 2010


I agree with the CSI criticisms, especially CSI NY, which each time I see an episode makes me ask: "Do they think we're idiots that need everything spelled out for us?"
posted by bwg at 5:27 AM on March 26, 2010


"Do they think we're idiots that need everything spelled out for us?"

Yes. Yes they do.
posted by Joey Michaels at 11:44 AM on March 26, 2010


Joey Michaels: "Yes. Yes they do."

YEEAAAAAAAHHHHHH!
posted by bwg at 4:14 PM on March 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


That's sort of a false premise, since there haven't really been any truly great television programs, at least not in the way that there have been truly great films.

What.

It's odd, because people think of television as a medium like film. It's not really a medium at all. It's just film that's been financially tied to a particular delivery mechanism: corporate broadcast.

People above have pointed out that TV's episodic nature offers unique opportunities. I mean, you can get to know, love, respect, hate, fear, etc. characters in a way that just isn't possible in a 90 minute film. In fact, in films you're often forced to play cheap tricks to get the audience to very quickly side for or against a character. This often shows up in bad TV too, but in television you at least have the potential to present a character in a slightly ambiguous light and slowly build up their relationship with the audience.

The big thing for me, though, that shows up in a fair number of shows, is the arc. There are some shows where the characters develop but there aren't really any arcs. Then there are others where the arc practically is the show. In those cases, the show is able to build up a nice charge of energy and tension that couldn't happen in a movie. In a movie, you basically have two ways to resolve a mystery after an hour and a half: either let on what is going on, or keep it a secret and end the film. In a TV show with an arc, you can stretch out the mystery. Sometimes that means you sort of dick around with your viewers (Lost), but sometimes you actually have the arc very carefully thought out and it fits together nicely (Babylon 5).

Kind of a derail:
Also, there haven't been that many "great" films in the recent past. I think it's harder to write a great film now. I think the standards are higher. If you forget that these great classic films are great classic films and look at them critically, many of them today would be panned by both pop critics and serious critics. Some of them, for example, are glacially slow. Look at any movie made before the 60s-70s, and you'll see tons of scenes of people getting into cars, driving somewhere, getting out of the car, and walking towards the door of the house before the next scene begins. I'm not sure why it was felt necessary back then to explain how the protagonist got from point A to point B in such a long, tedious fashion.

I don't think Guy Ritchie is a brilliant director (although I've enjoyed his films), but the scene in Snatch where Avi goes to London [NSFW language] presents the same information in 12 seconds.

I'm not saying it's necessarily better to take less time on these things. People riding around in cars -- particularly when there is no conversation or emotional/dramatic tension -- does nothing to move the story forward. Hell, I generally don't even like chase scenes. There's really only 3 ways they can end: A catches B, B is able to escape from A, or either A or B or both die. I'd be perfectly happy if they started a chase scene and then cut to the inevitable result.
posted by Deathalicious at 8:05 PM on March 27, 2010


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