Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Red Belt


David Mamet wrote and directed a fantasy about a modern Samurai in the land of stars, Hollywood. Ever been there? Ever stood on top of Judy Garland's star or paid a buck to get a picture taken with a guy in Superman costume? Ever ride the La Brea bus up the hill? Well, the only Samurai on Hollywood Blvd. are paid actors, and Mamet knows this, abhors the Me culture of whiskey wisdom and crank courage. Mamet might see himself as a Samurai but I'm pretty sure he knows that if it smells like a hooker and looks like a hooker and charges by the hour...then it's a hooker. Mamet's one of those hookers who looks down on other hookers, or mocks the hooker trade, or worse, believes she isn't a hooker if she says she loves you. He's become more bitter in his years and when I saw him in Westwood he looked like he wanted to punch someone in the face.

Let me tell you about getting punched in the face. A "producer" wanted me to invent a love interest for Henry David Thoreau, my hero, my chaste samurai and the subject of the screenplay I'd worked on for two years. I gagged when I thought of this. Thoreau sleeping with someone...so there's romance in a movie...so kids will see it and there'll be a part for a cute actress...who is sleeping with the producer's brother, who once slept with someone related to someone even more famour...etc. uhhh. It's a joke because it was like a porn couch casting where you fuck for free to earn the privilege of fucking for money. The Thoreau movie would never get made but she wanted to know how far I would bend to please her...just on the prospect of getting paid. Like a game to abuse me. That's the joke. Anyone would fold if you showed them the money, but most people will fold at the promise of money. I was offered a total long shot and asked to slander my subject, and I could not do it. Yes, it was against my principles. And it was not long after that everything fell apart and I was out of the loop. The producer did not look at me as a noble person. Certainly, she was already looking for a way to nullify our contract, take the script and pawn it off as her own with more romance in it. It might even evolve from a study of nature into a period piece romance.

You are either a samurai or you are not a samurai. Red Belt's thinly veiled round house kicks at the Hollywood culture don't disguise Mamet's contempt for his meal ticket. Of course it's easy for me to turn away, giving up only the promise of wealth and fame. Mamet would actually have to give up wealth and fame. He described conversations with his agent, "They asked me to do what? No. Tell them to fuck off. Tell them to go to hell." Then he described how the agent would calm him down and get him to see the big picture. Yes, and so we have episodes of The Shield. Would I rather die than see Thoreau taking a woman's shirt off and french kissing her? Yes. But that wasn't the choice I had. It was more like, "write a romantic scene with Thoreau, a scene that will never be produced, or we can't do business, which means the promise of money will be revoked." You're asking me to sell out, but not even get paid to sell out? No. If that's the first test of a screenwriter then I failed. Thoreau will probably get naked in the biopic that will be produced, but it won't be my fault.

That's the message of Red Belt. You can not fit a square peg in a round hole. If you want to be a samurai then do it. Be a samurai. But your wife had better want to be a samurai's wife. Parts of the movie were trite, "If we pay cash then we can't pay the rent. What are we going to do?" and other parts were like Mamet was trying to write like his old self, "Let the wheel turn...sometimes you ...honey...you have to...are you listening...you have to let the wheel turn...let it...right...ok...if you...honey...let the wheel...I mean...if you....let it...turn...let the wheel turn...ok?"

But it came down to code vs practicality. They aren't compatible. Eventually, you have to choose and if you try to...for instance...bring authenticity to films...then you are in trouble. Do you assimilate or do you stand up for your beliefs? Will you stand alone? Who will fight you? Who will stand in your way? The movie's job is to make the complexity into bite sized snacks. Oh, he fights for the honor of fighting. I understand. In Raging Bull, LaMotta has to throw a fight to have a chance at the title. It hurts to lose on purpose. But in Red Belt (spoiler) the lead is going to be allowed to win because the handicap will go to the other fighters. But what does that mean? He'll win what? It's not fair. And if it isn't fair then the whole sport is tarnished...

I will say that Mamet got one part right: The stakes. The main character risked something in the end and the audience understood what he was risking. He could not win it all. He would lose something but the cost was worth it.

Honor: honesty, fairness, or integrity in one's beliefs and actions:

Honor is as elusive as the water where the ocean meets the river. You can't pursue honor in and of itself. There is no such destination. But it can pervade everything you do and dictate every decision. The Marines use the word honor in addition to courage and commitment as their three core values. Honor. Integrity in one's beliefs and actions.

The most touching part of the movie for me was when everything was coming together for the main couple, they were getting money opportunities but it meant that the lead character would be unable to teach the beginner class of Jujitsu at his studio. What would he do? "I can't cancel it. What kind of message would that send?" he says to himself. That's the part of the movie where he's getting sucked in and away from his core values. He finds excuses. His wife gives him excuses. There's always an excuse to be dishonorable. And it doesn't mean you have brought dishonor to your family. No, that's not part of the definition. Honor is all about you. Your honesty. Your fairness. Your belief and your actions. If you are loyal to the Samurai's code and also a master of your martial art, then maybe you will earn a red belt. You don't win that belt.

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Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.