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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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David Mamet: How Liberal Hollywood is just like brain-dead Big Government

June 3, 2011 |  1:15 pm

David_mamet I've been reading David Mamet's new book, "The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture," which is a full-frontal attack on American Liberalism, which Mamet views as basically bringing about the end of Western civilization as we know it. Conservatives, who rejoiced a couple of years ago when they discovered they had a new convert (and from the virtually all-liberal world of the arts, no less) have given the book glowing reviews. Liberal commentators, as you might guess, haven't been so kind.

A lot of the book is pretty standard fare modern-day conservativism: global warming is a myth, the ground zero mosque is a cultural obscenity and liberal education has become "an indoctrination in aggressive Identity Politics" that has produced a generation of what Mamet calls Young Stalinists. On the other hand, there's some pretty wonderful stuff inside as well, including a great chapter about Mamet's early years and family roots in Chicago, where Mamet as a young man drove a taxi ("This is how we did things there: one spiffed the mechanic at the cab garage if one wanted to get a working cab to drive").

But as much as Mamet loathes big government and do-gooders, he loathes Hollywood liberals even more. He thinks film schools are a joke ("the refuge of the Leisure Class") and likens film studios to a kingdom, where the "accreted bureaucracy serves the Executive as a Royal Court." (He's really big on Capital Letters.)

But his most fascinating theory explains, to him at least, why writers and actors are so often brain-dead liberals, while directors are more pragmatic in their politics. Actors, as Mamet sees it, need to see themselves as "the Hero," a professional indulgence that lends itself to an overdose of do-gooderism. Writers, he says, are professional fantasists who imagine themselves as heroes, which he argues is why they are so easily manipulated by political charlatans into protecting the rights of Palestinians, Cubans and protesting the American military's efforts to protect our country.

He writes:  "Writers have traditionally been the dupes of totalitarian propaganda, as the visions we have been shown and the tales we have been told sound, to us, like the products of our own imagination." But he claims that few directors indulge in such rancid political grandstanding, Why? Because a director can't deal in fantasy. Directors have to make their day before the sun goes down. More importantly, as Mamet sees it, directors are "exposed to something of which the actors and writers may not have taken notice: the genius of America, and the American system of Free Enterprise."

Unlike writers and actors, directors have to oversee hundreds of people on a film set, promoting the culture of filmmaking, whose tenets Mamet describes thusly: "work hard, pitch in, never complain, admire and reward accomplishment." 

It sort of makes sense, until you puzzle it over a little and wonder -- wait a minute, what about Oliver Stone? Or Steven Spielberg? Or Robert Redford? Or Sidney Lumet? Or Barry Levinson? Or about a hundred other die-hard liberal filmmakers I could easily name? Don't they believe in "work hard" and "pitch in" and "reward accomplishment" on their film sets too? Does Mamet really think that conservatives admire hard work and accomplishment more than liberals?

And if actors are so easily manipulated into, as Mamet puts it, "trotting the globe for a hundred years, petted by and championing the causes of Tyrants," while directors are so cannily pragmatic, then why do so many actors make such good directors? Even liberal actors turned directors like Redford, Rob Reiner, Sean Penn, Warren Beatty and Ron Howard, along with conservative ones like Clint Eastwood and Mel Gibson?

I'm still hoping Mamet will sit down with me and address some of these issues. When I was young and restless, I drove a cab in Chicago too, so I know all about spiffing mechanics to get a good cab. No one has ever done a better job of evoking the strivings of the rough and tumble Second City than Mamet. But when it comes to such glib stereotypes about liberal Hollywood, I'm not buying what he's selling.

-- Patrick Goldstein 

Photo: David Mamet speaking at a Hollywood Walk of Fame ceremony this April for actor Joe Mantegna. 

Credit: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images