Truth and Melodrama and Phil Spector

David Mamet

We know any drama ends when we find the answer to the question which gave rise to it. When we discover the answer simultaneously with the hero, the dramatist has done a very good job indeed.

An example is CASABLANCA. Here, the hero, Bogart, is in exile trying to get over what he understands as the betrayal by his one true love. She (Ingrid Bergman) shows up, and he endeavors to get revenge (he denies her and her husband the Letters of Transit). In Act Three he finds she did not desert him in Paris, that her husband, who she had thought dead, had escaped from a concentration camp, and that she’d found it her duty to care for him. Now Bogart finds she is still in love with him, Bogart, and they scheme to escape from Casablanca and live happily ever after.

BUT. At the last moment, confronted by the Bad Nazis at the airport, Bogart gives the Letters of Transit, with which he and Bergman were going to escape, to her and her husband, and goes off into the mist with Claude Rains to fight Nazis.

This is damned good writing. A man thinks he’s getting over a problem, the problem reasserts itself (Bergman shows up), he tries to deal with it through revenge and then through fantasy (they can pick up where they left off), but finds these do not answer the question. The question is, “How does one deal with Betrayal?” He has tried distance, rage, and alcohol, and they do not work. The true solution, he finds, is, “DO NOT BETRAY OTHERS.” The answer, then, is found because the hero reformulates the question. It used to be, “What do I do about Ingrid Bergman?” but the deeper question, which alone has an answer, is, “WHAT KIND OF MAN AM I?”

This is great melodrama. In lesser melodrama the answer has been clear from the first, and we, the audience, play along, as A) it beats staring at the wall, and B) there might be some interesting twists and turns, and C) we might get a glimpse of a well-turned ankle.

An example of the lesser melodrama is MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON. Here the neophyte Naïve Senator gets the stuffing beat out of him by a system (the U.S. Senate), even then impenetrably corrupt. The Senator is weeping, destroyed, betrayed at the end of the piece, but all is made right by Claude Rains’s (Mr. Bad Guy’s) attempted suicide, as he, Rains, realizes He Cannot Live in the Bad World He Has Made. If only.

We, the audience, are shown the Hero’s progress, through wide-eyed gullibility, through hope, into betrayal, despair, and courage, but the thing (the play, the situation, the Hero) is made whole only by a deus ex machina, a force from Outside, and so, finally, we, the audience, though gratified, cannot be, as Aristotle would say, Cleansed. For we are unable to say of this final reversal, “Yes, and that might happen to me.”

No, none of us will find his implacable tormenter, his Inspector Javert, reduced, in the struggle’s final moments, to contrition. So the film itself is very enjoyable, but the ending is forgettable. Nothing wrong in that.

Here is the writer’s problem: The audience will foresee anything the Dramatist has foreseen — they will beat you to the punch every time, and figure out that The Butler Did It, unless the writer is prepared to undergo the same process as the Hero, that is, to follow promising clues to the point where they, and thus one’s conscious mind, are proved risible, and carry one’s humiliation down the next avenue, and the next, until one is stunned by the uselessness of one’s own mind.

This revelation is always accompanied by denial and then shame. “What?” one thinks, “The answer cannot be this obvious. How can I have been such a fool as not to have seen it, in front of me all the time?”

The ending of a film may be so authentically shocking that we viewers realize we could not have foreseen the answer, as we (and the hero) DIDN’T EVEN UNDERSTAND THE QUESTION.

The perfect melodramatic example here is THE SIXTH SENSE. Bruce Willis, a psychiatrist, tries throughout the film to help a troubled boy, Haley Joel Osment, who believes he can talk to dead people. In the final seconds of the play it is revealed that Bruce Willis himself is dead, and that the boy has been trying to help him accept his new state. We viewers undergo recognition of the situation at the same time as the Hero, and are not only shocked, but humbled by the experience of our flawed reasoning. We have not been told we are imperfect (Who would accept it?); we have experienced it, and so will remember the lesson.

As we will on viewing THE BICYCLE THIEF. (If any of you readers have sufficient interest to’ve read this far, but don’t know the film, forget the article, and run out and see the movie.) Here, we viewers and our hero think we’re involved in a story about a bicycle, and discover we’re involved in a story about facing misfortune with honor.

The lazy drama informs us, at the end, “It was in you all the time!” This is handy as a way to get offstage, but, as anyone who’s ever talked to a mediocre counselor will tell you, “It just ain’t helpful.” For the essential question is, “WHAT was in me all the time?”

Put differently, as Freud said, the Resistance is the Neurosis. When one can name the neurosis, the neurosis is cured. (See also, Rumpelstiltskin.) As per the Chasidic Rabbis, anger can be replaced by sadness; the arrogant assurance that we know the answer and that God has failed may give way to that contrition which alone might lead to peace.

The film FLIGHT is a perfectly constructed tragedy. Here the hero is an alcoholic, drug-addicted pilot. His plane malfunctions and he, with phenomenal skill and daring, saves the lives of most of the passengers. But he does it while drunk and high.

A governmental board must assign blame for the crash.

His attorney schemes to dismiss the blood tests, which would find him culpable as impaired. We, the audience, follow his progress, struggling ourselves with the question, “Is he not a hero, for did he not save the plane?” How can the Government not weigh his state (illegal) and his actions (magnificent), and find him, on balance, a Good Man, and end the movie happily thus?

We are told that the Safety Committee’s decision will be issued after his interrogation, which will be brutal. He goes to the interrogation and is, stunningly, given a complete pass. He is told his act has earned the gratitude of all. Only one question remains: Who drank the three bottles of vodka found near the cockpit? Can he state that they had, possibly, been consumed by one of the Flight Attendants, known to be an alcoholic?

Now, the flight attendant in question was the hero’s lover. She died in the crash saving a passenger. She had no family, and so no legacy to be besmirched. All the pilot has to do is admit it was possible she drank the liquor. And here the film turns. For he thinks, and decides that the issue is not whether or not he flew well, but whether or not he can tell the truth.

He can lie and go free, and the only penalty will be that which he imposes on himself: his shame, and the denigration of the memory of a hero. He has hit bottom, and he decides he will not do it, that he cannot do it anymore. We and he, at the same moment, discover the nature of the story we’ve been watching for the last two hours. It’s not about flying; it’s about lies.

The pilot confesses that he is a drunk. He goes to prison and tells his Group there that this is the first time in his life that he’s felt free. The seemingly insoluble question, “What shall I do?” is revealed to be actually incapable of solution. The true question only then may assert itself — in this case, “Who am I?” This, as we see in FLIGHT, is a question more basic than, “What sort of pilot am I?”

The problem, or better, the challenge, for the Dramatist is, “How much truth can one discover, how much truth is one prepared to tell?” The audience, you and I, though sufficiently divided by race, wealth, intellect, politics, and culture that any comment past the weather is likely to enrage, we, in the Theatre, are as one, when we see the truth. (I will amend that: We are as two, those whom the truth comforts and those infuriated by it, for great tragedy may also awake vehement resistance, e.g., HAMLET: “I have heard/That guilty creatures, sitting at a play…” et cetera. And I will cite lapsed Christians who, turned atheists, dismiss the Resurrection as an obvious fable, as, we all know, dead people do not come back to life.)

My HBO film, PHIL SPECTOR (Al Pacino, Helen Mirren, premiered March 24th), is a melodrama. It is, genetically, a “Locked Room Mystery.”

Phil Spector, the world’s most successful music producer, is accused of Murder. He has asked a young woman, Lana Clarkson, to his home. She goes, and dies of a gunshot wound to the head — a revolver has been placed in her mouth and the trigger pulled. Why do I use the passive voice? Here’s why. The question of Spector’s defense team is, “Who shot her?” There seem to be but two alternatives, she herself (suicide) or Spector (homicide). This is where the film begins.

A new attorney, Linda Kenny Baden (played by Helen Mirren), is brought onto the defense team. She, the hero of the film, tells the lead lawyer (played by Jeffrey Tambor) that she “will not indict the girl.” We find that, in our film, Spector has a history of brandishing guns, and testimony exists of women who claim he “held them against their will” with a firearm. He, that is, has a rotten and fairly universal reputation as a reprehensible and dangerous man, and as vicious to women. Baden says she’ll advise the defense team for three days, but will do nothing to malign the victim.

Baden goes, against her will, to interview Spector (Pacino). She finds him not unpersuasive, e.g., “Why would I kill that girl? She would have done anything I asked her to; that’s why she came here.” She continues her resolve not to attack the memory of the victim (to suggest suicide), but according to the defense experts the forensic evidence tends to exonerate Spector — it is inconsistent with any but a self-inflicted wound.

Here is the problem. Baden is bound by oath to provide the best possible defense for a man who the public abhors as a monster, and though she has come to have some affection for him, she sees no way a Jury will give him his constitutional right to the Presumption of Innocence unless she indicts Clarkson as a suicide, which she will not do.

An acquaintance of Spector’s (Yolanda Ross) says, “I know your client; he’s a terrible man.” Mirren responds, “That’s not what he’s accused of.” But, of course, that is what he’s accused of, which Mirren understands as she works on the case.

She discovers that her own prejudice against Spector is one with the prejudice of the public, and so presumably with that of the Jury, and her oath binds her to overcome that prejudice and insist, in this, the hardest case, on the principle of Reasonable Doubt. (Ross asks Mirren, “Can you prove he didn’t kill that girl?” and Mirren responds, “That’s not my job.”) When she faces her own prejudice she realizes that she has been asking the wrong question. It is not, “Is he guilty?” but, “Am I strong enough to be true to my oath?”

Her struggle reveals to her that there is a third possibility. In a Murder 2 charge, upon which Spector is being tried, if Lana was holding the gun, “perhaps it was an accident.” If this is possible, Spector can be acquitted. She knows this academically, but her faith has been tested and the film ends with an interchange between her and her investigator (John Pirruccello).

She: I think he is not guilty.
He: Are you sure?
She: No. But I have a reasonable doubt.

In FLIGHT, the question, “Is he a hero or a villain?” is found unanswerable, and supplanted by a truer one. In SPECTOR, the realization, “We cannot know what happened in that room,” is supplanted by the hard, cold truth: That’s why we have the Jury system, and the Presumption of Innocence, and if we aren’t strong enough to defend them in the worst case, we will have them no more.

PHIL SPECTOR, written and directed by David Mamet, debuted on HBO on Sunday, March 24, 2013.

    David Mamet

    Written by

    David Mamet is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and two-time Oscar® nominee, director, essayist, novelist and poet.

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