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David Mamet's crazy about Hollywood. Truly

He's got an industry book out, but it's not scathing. Tinseltown, he says, hasn't 'gone bad.'

February 07, 2007|Maria Russo | Times Staff Writer

"I got no ax to grind."

David Mamet, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and well-compensated Hollywood screenwriter and screenplay fixer, not to mention sometime director and TV honcho, was unpretentiously ensconced in his office, a small, airy apartment located in a pleasant cinderblock complex in Santa Monica. This is where he works -- reading and thinking, harboring no grudges, planning no acrid verdicts on the movie business -- even as his latest book, "Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose and Practice of the Movie Business," is being widely interpreted as just that. The reviews alleging its bitterness and cynicism about the Hollywood game have already rolled in. The general impression is that when Mamet unsheathes his pen on this particular topic, there will be blood in the water.

Misinterpretation, according to the writer who gave us the remorseless "Glengarry Glen Ross" on Broadway and the merciless "Wag the Dog" in the multiplex. "I don't think Hollywood has gone bad," he said last week, seated on a couch, seemingly at peace with the world. "It's the same as it's always been."

His muscular, 59-year-old torso was hugged by a T-shirt bearing the name of the academy where he practices Brazilian jujitsu, a variation of the ancient Japanese martial art that turns an enemy's strength against him by using leverage rather than brute power. As for his stance toward the topic of his book, he was unequivocal: "I love Hollywood," he said.

Just as the book is being published, the revival of his 1988 Hollywood satire, "Speed-the-Plow," is opening tonight at the Geffen Playhouse, and the two works are of a piece, never mind the almost 20 years separating them. According to Mamet, the essential condition of Hollywood has not changed one iota since he wrote the play, with its entertaining take on grasping producers and their oily mores. When it opened on Broadway with Madonna, no less, as Karen, the scheming temp, the play seemed dangerous and au courant. Now it plays as almost a tribute to a pre-Digital Age Hollywood where you knew, at least, who the enemy was.

The business end of movies

Detached from reality as it may at times seem, Mamet's contrarian, matter-of-fact assurance that everything will be OK, that art will find a way to flourish, is a refreshing alternative, anyway, to the hand-wringing, punctuated by apocalyptic pronouncements, that's so in vogue these days. If the rest of Hollywood appears to be in full-on crisis mode, frantically backpedaling as filmgoers shift their preferred viewing environment to their living rooms, their preferred format to the swiftly released DVD, their preferred context to the fast-forward-enhanced home entertainment center, Mamet has been too contentedly busy to read the memo. What he has been reading instead is "a lot of political-economic theory."

"I've been fascinated by it for a while," he explained. "So I started thinking about the business end of movies thematically."

Hence, the new book, which takes it title from a brief, satirical 1960s animated short (actually called "Bambi Meets Godzilla") in which Bambi, innocently nibbling at flowers, is stomped on by Godzilla. It's a black-and-white parable for all manner of unfair Hollywood matchups, beginning with the old virtuous-artist- versus-craven-moneymen dichotomy.

"Curiously, and alone among art forms, movies are both an art form and an industry," Mamet said. "The book is a reflection on it as both." He then commenced a lengthy discourse on free markets and democracy. "Movies are a strangely wonderful example of the free-market economy," he said. Whatever may be wrong with Hollywood, or for that matter the nation, "the freemarket economy is not the problem."

What about the widely held idea that the film industry, as a business, is in the midst of some fundamental shift, an irreversible contraction? Mamet looked unconvinced, even slightly blank. "It's always been the same," he repeated. "The studios have fallen apart several times in the last hundred years. An economist will say that's just the nature of the system."

He gave another lengthy and possibly learned explanation of the economics of the movie business, concluding with the idea that, where the big studios are concerned, there's "too much necessity of rationalizing subjective decisions to third parties. So the system breaks down. But then it corrects itself."

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