The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 3, No. 1

The Screenplay and the State Fair

by David Mamet

It occurred to me that we were in the midst of a stock market boom. First one and then another of my friends had mentioned this or that young person who'd drastically increased the funds entrusted to them, and I reflected that, with all this good fortune going around, perhaps it would be wise for me to buy some stocks. Further reflection suggested, however, that if knowledge of this boom had sufficient breadth and longevity to have come to my notice, the end could not be far off--that, in effect, my recognition (the first flush of greed, my call to "something for nothing") meant and must mean that the smart money was all through, and that it was time for the dumb money to pick up the tab.
    Similarly with the screenplay. It is no longer an oddity, no longer a localized West Coast phenomenon, it is now a fact of life that everyone has written his or her screenplay. The butcher, the baker, and their progeny have written a screenplay. I know, because they all have tried to get me to read them. And, if the modular, schematic nature of the Hollywood movie is clear to all, sufficiently clear that those daunted by the formal requirements of a thank-you note are essaying the thriller or romantic drama, must that not mean the end is at hand?
    The end of what? Of film as a dramatic medium.
    For, certainly, these duffers, our friends the lawyers, doctors, and bus drivers, are not writing drama. They write, as do our betters in Hollywood, for gain, transforming this broad land into one large New Grub Street. The urge of these acolytes is not dramatic, but mercantile--to traduce all personal history, to subvert all perception or insight into gain, or the hope of gain. This work of writing the screenplay, then, is not an act of creation, but an obeisance--it is a ceremony, a prostration, in which the individual's feelings and thoughts are offered to the golden calf: "There is no lie I will not tell, no secret I will not reveal, no treasure I will not debase, if you will just buy my screenplay."
    Films themselves veer away from whatever residual taint of drama they may have had and become celebrations of our mercantile essence--become, in effect, pure advertisement. This is especially true of the summer film. The summer film is, first and last, a display of mercantile triumph--it is a display of technology. Its attraction rests not on our desire for drama (the purpose of art being to conceal art) but on our desire for self-congratulation--on the display of technology per se. Now the highest achievement of American postindustrial achievement, the last best claim for American preeminence, is our technology. It is most handily displayed in the Defense Department and in the movies. In both we see the most shockingly novel rendition of the human capacity for elaboration.
    The summer film is not a drama, it is not even that admixture of drama and commerce, the pageant; the summer film is an exhibition pure and simple. It is our state fair, wherein the populace comes to be astonished, to gape at the new delights of commerce, and to be assaulted by advertisement. The summer film has thrills and chills, as does its cousin the roller coaster.
    It has the taint of the louche, as did its forebear, the nautch show. Rather than a midway lined by advertisement, the summer film is in itself an advertisement. Yesterday's award of prizes, "cutest baby" and so on, has been supplanted by the announcement of the summer film's grosses. "Number One Film in the Country," replacing the broadcast of the winner of the greasy-flagpole climb. And the summer film has the exhibition of the prize farm animals, the film stars, coddled and petted and force-fed to such an extent that we must award them all our admiration. The summer film, like the state fair, brings us together and allows us the delight of shaking our heads and saying to each other, "Will you get a load of that . . . ?"
    If we reason or accept that this is not drama, which it is not, we need not decry the summer film's vapidity. It would be inappropriate to criticize the pie-eating contest for lack of a reasonable respect for nutrition. In the summer film, drama would be as out of place as landscape design in the state fair's midway.
    The screenplay bears the same relation to the drama that the bumf on the cereal box bears to literature. Its writing and its production are obeisance to the god of commerce. The public pays its fine and spends its two hours in a celebration of waste in the time of abundance, the unambiguous enjoyment of the sun, the solstice festival, when worship of the antic god is all joy, and Nemesis is, for the moment, powerless. In this druidical observance, she is, in fact, ritualistically murdered--the hero slays her at the conclusion of the summer film, and we go on our way, out into the friendly summer night.