The Leads are Weak!

When noting the playwright’s essay on his recent political conversion, did I miss the point? Dara (not the Explorer, but of the blog Iqra’i, which Microsoft thinks is “Iraq”) thinks so.

I don’t know. I’ve been known to be obtuse from time to time, and even just outright clueless, especially when going through the motions of writing a blog post just so I can have an excuse to engage in some quickie Mamet-shtick, which, for me anyway, is sort of like crack, or new episodes of The Wire. So anything’s possible. But I’ll say this: I almost certainly obscured the point. Time to do some clean up!

Here’s what Dara says:

Of course a discipline based on “complicating motivations” and one based on “revealing them” will bear little resemblance to each other — it’s a simple matter of constructing the message versus deconstructing it.

Dyed-in-the-wool journo-pundits, of course, enjoy characterizing this divide as insurmountable because they like to think of themselves as being on the side of Truth (and therefore assume that their counterparts must be on the side of Falsehood). Most pundits, however — Mr. Suderman himself among them — have done their time on the other side of the message machine, and should know better than to turn the distinction between synthesizing its input and analyzing its output (a mere matter of geography, after all) into a meaningful difference of professional jurisdiction. If you understand how the machine functions you can probably work either end pretty well.

I didn’t mean to “characterize the divide as insurmountable,” though I can see how it sounded that way. I didn’t really mean to characterize the divide at all, really, at least not broadly. Indeed, as David Simon aptly proved, journalism (both reporting and punditry) and drama share enough that practitioners of one can often easily switch to the other. And Frank Rich and James Wolcott, after good runs poo-pooing culture, simply turned their poison pens on politicians. Hell, I studied film and that dubious thing called modern theater in college, not politics. It’s probably a red-delicious to Fiji sort of comparison, but even if it’s apples to oranges, we’re still talking about fruit, right?

Anyway, the point I hoped to make wasn’t that there isn’t a fundamental similarity between political journalism/commentary and drama, but that there’s a fundamental difference between David Mamet’s drama and political journalism, even of the personal essay kind. Say what you will about Aaron Sorkin, but he basically gets American politics.* Mamet, on the other hand, is an essentially non-political dramatist; even when politics come up in his work, they are not his true subject; he’s interested in id, in those things about human nature which cannot really be explained — not the superego and surface that play such a pivotal role in politics.

Reading the essay, I think he seems tentative writing about politics, or at least confused. The piece seems, at times, to read like the commentary track to one of his scripts, in which he explains his personal motivations and sentiments and how he came to have the idea for each scene. But no one—or at least not anyone who actually enjoys the man’s plays—wants that from him. Instead, we want tension and ambiguity and sinister undertones and human frailty and greed as only he can express them (by which I mean in short, terse sentences that he demands his actors ferociously underplay**).

In other words, what we want is signature Mamet drama.

But what we got was a middling personal political essay from a writer who had nothing especially interesting to say about either himself or politics, who, despite his mastery of a what Dara rightly argues is a very similar form, didn’t seem to understand this particular variation on the form or even the particulars of the topic at hand, but rather assumed that his grasp of the one would simply transfer to the other.

*Obviously, I could add about a zillion caveats here, maybe more; Sorkin certainly also gets a lot wrong. But in hopes of promoting clarity of thought, or even something as minimal as basic sanity, I’m trying to limit my digressions.

**Except, of course, if you’re Alec Baldwin. (See below; language NSFW)