Book Reviews

BAMBI VS. GODZILLA

By • Mar 16th, 2008 •

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I have 20 books on screenwriting but none are written by screenwriters whose names you would know. I have never seen any of the authors’ names on film credits. One book is by a well-known “script doctor” who is handsomely paid to fix other people’s scripts.

It is easier to tinker with someone else’s script than write one from scratch. And, from what I have read, the pay is much better. In fact, script doctoring is a highly sought after gig.

One of the books I have is an analysis of 21 master movie plots. It’s a step-by-step build your own blockbuster. I have another one on the secrets of writing action movies. These are the kind of how-to books “Bambi vs. Godzilla” author David Mamet despises.

Mamet is an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright as well as a director, novelist, poet, and essayist. He has written the screenplays for more than twenty films, including Heist, Spartan, House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner, The Winslow Boy, Wag the Dog, and the Oscar-nominated The Verdict. He has written more than twenty plays including the terrific Pulitzer Prize-winning Glengarry Glen Ross.

Who doesn’t love the volatile, verbal anarchist Alec Baldwin played in the film version of Glengarry?

“Bambi” is highly entertaining, blunt (Titanic, Mamet says, was “unwatchable”), and seductively informative. If you want to know something about the process of screenwriting, Mamet knows how the Hollywood system works from being deep inside studio offices and stars’ trailers.

Mamet’s guidelines for writing a screenplay are simple and to the point.

My copy is well marked. Best of all, however, is Mamet’s writing style. It’s warm, friendly, and delves into a myriad of topics. Mamet can reference Larry David alongside Napoleon. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of every film ever made. He easily discusses Lenny Bruce, Diaghilev, Karen Horney, and the Egyptian pharaohs. He reminds us twice that the Hebrews were forced to find straw to make their allotment of bricks for the pharaohs monument-tombs. Mamet is still holding a grudge.

Mamet is a proud Jew and sprinkles “Bambi” with Yiddish terms. He’s my kind of writer, weaving in all the things he finds interesting – whether or not they have anything to do with film.

Mamet knows every Ray Milland and Carole Landis movie – to name just two stars of the 40’s. He’s seen every classic Black & White movie twice. He’s an authority on Al Jolson! If Mamet wants to showcase a cinematic theory, he goes all the way back to a Paul Muni movie.

In my opinion, if it’s not Kubrick’s Lolita, why watch a Black & White film?

Yes, Mamet has a jaded view of the Hollywood studio system. He calls American icon Dirty Harry “autistic” and can’t stand Laurence Olivier’s acting. To Mamet’s credit, filmmaking is a project that, without the crew, would never happen. He appreciates the technicians and crew members that build a film. He is the crew’s champion.
It’s called “Mamet-speak”. His dialogue is known for having a distinctive, rhythmic pace. Mamet is said to use a metronome during rehearsals to perfect the actors’ delivery of his machine gun dialogue. (I have also noticed that Mamet favors manly women in his films. The severe Lindsay Crouse of House of Games comes quickly to mind.) However, there is no combative style in “Bambi”. Mamet writes in a colorful, “learn from me, I’ve been through it all” style. Mamet is a Hollywood survivor – with bruises.
Mamet lays out some principles of screenwriting (“violating the aesthetic distance”), directing (“the slate piece”), and the importance of casting. He describes the cruel process of auditioning that will surely heal those who think acting is viable career.
“Bambi” is the kind of book you don’t stop reading. You will become a Mamet fan.

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