By Matt Zoller Seitz
It surely isn't lost on David Mamet that the title of his 1987 debut feature, House of Games, doubles as a three-word summation of his career.
From stage to screen, the playwright and filmmaker's tales are rife with hustlers, tricksters and sleight-of-hand artists. Mamet's characters tend to fall into one of two camps: the taken and the takers. Some of the latter are fairly marginal in the greater scheme of things: in House of Games, Joe Mantegna's mind-twister Mike and his partners in deception aren't really a threat to anyone but their marks. Other Mamet takers are more menacing because they represent larger institutions: the mob in Things Change, the blandly ruthless executive branch of the U.S. government in Spartan.
But Mamet is rarely content to depict simple morality plays or contests of will. He self-consciously and deliberately italicizes the characters as characters—mouthpieces for Mamet's world view and motors driving the plot. The story, meanwhile, is often more of a "story," an interlocking series of situations designed to illustrate Mamet's philosophy of life; he's like Stanley Kubrick in this respect, only leaner, and with less interest in (or capacity for) lyrically cinematic moments. The subtext of many Mamet films is, "You're watching a story because you crave a story; the characters' goals, indeed the characters themselves, are pretexts to satisfy that need." Many of Mamet's projects as playwright, director and hired-gun screenwriter follow hard men in pursuit of what Hitchcock called a "MacGuffin"; Glengarry Glen Ross, The Spanish Prisoner, Ronin (which Mamet rewrote without screen credit), Homicide and Oleanna revolve, respectively, around the leads; the process; the briefcase; the definition of the word "grofaz"; and a report by a "group" investigating sexual harassment charges against a professor. The films sometimes add one more layer of self-awareness by peaking with a twist that surprises, disappoints or otherwise pulls the rug out from under the viewer—a tactic perfected in 1973's The Sting, in which a couple of con men hoodwinked both their mark and the audience.
Mamet forged his template with 1987's House of Games, newly reissued in a terrific 20th anniversary DVD from the Criterion Collection. Mamet's debut stars his then-wife, Lindsay Crouse, as Dr. Margaret Ford, a psychologist and bestselling author who gets tangled up with a con man named Mike (Joe Mantegna) whose signature line should be every Mamet fan's mantra: "Don't trust nobody." When one of Margaret's patients confesses that he owes Mike a gambling debt that he can't afford to pay, and she visits Mike's smoky headquarters, the House of Games, hoping to solve the problem, Mamet sets off a chain of misdirection that continues through the film's hysterically overwrought climax ("Please, sir—may I have another?").
In House of Games, the gambit that con men call the "hook" is the scene where Mike tells Margaret that he'll erase the patient's debt if she'll pose as his girlfriend, join him in a high-stakes back room poker game, and then, when Mike briefly leaves the room, spy on an opponent known as the Man from Vegas (Ricky Jay), then inform Mike if the man flashes his "tell" (a bit of body language revealing intent to bluff). The scene is fake-out within a fake-out: the Man from Vegas appears to outsmart both Margaret and Mike and then, when Mike calls him out as a liar, pulls a "gun" that's actually a water pistol and demands a payout that the rattled Mike claims he doesn't have; Margaret, an outwardly tough woman with a major Florence Nightingale complex, instantly offers to write a check covering Mike's debt. The scene is cut to suggest that Margaret, the lone civilian in a room full of hardcore gamblers, is the first character to spot the water dribbling from the water pistol's barrel. In fact, the supposed "screw-up" was part of the con men's script, as was the subsequent, "spontaneous" confrontation between Mike and the Man from Vegas (who's actually George, an associate of Mike's).
This entire sequence is the opening salvo in a long con that illustrates the poker player's maxim, "If you look around the table, and you can't tell who the sucker is, it's you." Margaret's "discovery" of the water pistol con makes her feel smart. But a smart woman wouldn't whip out a checkbook in the presence of a self-confessed "bad man" like Mike, much less willingly return to Mike's orbit ("...like a dog to its own vomit," in Mike's words) and ask if she can follow him around and write about book about his world. She should know better, but she can't help herself. Or perhaps, deep down, she wants to get taken.
* * *
What a piece of work is Mamet. He's kin to Sam Peckinpah, Martin Scorsese and Norman Mailer, prone to romanticize the same brutes he dissects; half sociologist, half hype artist, utterly valuable. His books on the craft of creativity (including Writing in Restaurants
, On Directing Film
, and the acting manifesto True and False
) are must-reads. His singsong rants influenced everyone from Spike Lee and Kevin Smith to Quentin Tarantino and David Milch. And his meticulous, largely self-taught directing style—dazzlingly showcased in House of Games
, a master class in dramatically functional compositions and camera moves—should be mandatory viewing for any would-be filmmaker.
Games also marked the appearance of a lot of Mamet's baggage, much of it cumbersome, some downright ugly. Mamet has little use for women, who exist only to support or undermine men. He has less use for intellectuals (a class that Mamet, with his chin-stroking author photos, unquestionably belongs to; interesting bit of self-hatred, that). And he despises psychiatry, therapy and anything that smacks of "sensitivity." This pose is reinforced in Mamet's books about writing, which dismiss organized study of the arts (particularly workshops, college courses and graduate studies) as cons designed to make people who aren't serious feel as though they are. "I don't have any experience with film schools. I suspect that they're useless, because I've had experience with drama schools, and have found them to be useless," Mamet writes in On Directing Film. "Most drama schools teach things that will be learned by anyone in the normal course of events, and refrain from insulting the gentleman or gentlewoman student of liberal arts by offering instructions in demonstrable skill."
Mamet disdains psychiatry and worships "natural" men who aren't remotely curious about why they are who they are; yet his dramas, while hard-edged and profane, are also archly self-aware, and they often build their narratives around reductive, Psych 101 explanations of compulsion, sublimation, repression, projection and the like. The most annoyingly trite scene in House of Games is when Margaret makes a Freudian slip in the presence of her German-accented mentor and Mamet plays the moment straight. The moment is trite because only in bad movies do Freudian slips disclose one's true self; it's annoying because Mamet includes it in a film that otherwise slags psychiatry as a sucker's game. Mamet's third film, Homicide, starring Mantegna as a cop and self-loathing Jew who gets sucked into an investigation that might involve a sect of violent Jewish radicals, had an even more unsubtle Freudian gimmick: it illustrated the idea that the hero had culturally emasculated himself and wanted to be punished by having him repeatedly drop his gun when he most needed it. Mamet plunders pop-Freud thinking while sneering at the culture that birthed it and denying its influence on his work—a neat trick. He's like a politician who's built a 40-year public service career on running against government.
Mamet's big three animosities intertwine in House of Games' systematic debasement of Margaret, one of only two major female characters in an otherwise testosterone-heavy film, and the repository of Mamet's bemusement at the vanity and impotence of intellectuals and his much proclaimed contempt for psychiatry. The latter is showcased again on the Criterion disc, in a commentary track by Mamet and Jay, an actor, gambler, card trickster and walking encyclopedia of deception. Mamet never misses an opportunity to slag shrinks ("all their kids are insane," he says at one point). Jay's more nuanced analysis of the Margaret-Mike relationship states that Mamet is "conflating, if you will, psychology and the con."
Mamet's Scientology-level loathing of psychiatry pales beside the more nuanced mockery of The Sopranos. That series' creator, David Chase, kids Dr. Melfi's tough-love deadpan, pregnant pauses and smugly certain diagnoses even as he acknowledges that she's right more often than not. Chase's point could be boiled down to, "Psychiatrists are as self-important and deluded as anyone; psychiatry is good at identifying the roots of people's behavioral problems, but almost useless at fixing them, because people are so contradictory that they resist deconstruction, and they often can't or won't change." Mamet's take: "Psychiatrists are con artists with diplomas."
By making both of the film's representatives of psychiatry female (Margaret and her mentor, Dr. Littauer, played by Lilia Scala), Mamet lumps psychiatry in with cultural forces that he believes are trying to psychologically castrate men. The notion of therapeutic culture as a distinctly feminine con game is built into the film's narrative. Mamet's script defines empathy as weakness and reveals Margaret—the film's most conspicuous purveyor of empathy—as a parasite who feeds on pain, helps others in order to distract from her own sense of worthlessness, and poses as strong while secretly craving submission and humiliation.
That Mamet's stand-in, Mike, is a better psychologist than Margaret is an easy gag, but incredibly satisfying to moviegoers—a cliche that flatters every audience member's fantasy of being the coolest person in the room. The character is a dazzling conceit: an abstraction that embodies the seductive adage that instinct trumps book learnin'. The Mike-Margaret relationship inadvertently anticipates the byplay in Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway between John Cusack's wimpy, pointed-headed college boy playwright, David Shayne, and Chazz Palminteri's Mafia assassin, Cheech, a scowling thug who turns out to be a natural born writer who knows things you can't learn in college.
The difference is, Mike is content to be a bad man, and digs the awed fascination he provokes in "respectable" people. He's uniquely qualified to hoist the doc on her own petard. He deduces that the transgressive impulses and need for dependence that characterize Margaret's patients are present in Margaret as well, then draws them out and exploits them. Added to which: Mike man, Margaret woman. He's a suave bulldozer; she's a prim fembot who could use a good plowing. When Mike seduces Margaret—emotionally, by inviting her into his forbidden (male) world; then physically, in a purloined hotel room—the acts are pregnant with wider insinuations. We're not just seeing a con man dupe and nail a shrink. We're seeing an exemplar of natural manhood ravaging a symbol of feminized, therapy-addicted, "sensitive" culture.
Mamet has a mission—The Re-Ballification of Man—and he's been on it for most of his career. In Oleanna, the film and the play, a pompous but essentially honorable professor is goaded into violence by a grade-grubbing fembot student who hits him with specious sexual harassment charges that she knows he can't disprove. In The Untouchables, Sean Connery's gnomic old Irish beat cop, Malone, shows the WASP-y college boy Elliott Ness how to fight dirty, and gallantly endures one of film history's most gloriously spectacular death scenes; Ness honors Malone's example by engineering a nonsensical and probably illegal jury switcheroo during Al Capone's trial and chucking Malone's assassin, Frank Nitti, off a courthouse roof after Nitti has already surrendered. "I have become what I beheld," Ness declares in the end, "and I am content that I have done right." Tellingly, Ness' wife—the most significant onscreen emblem of the civilized, domestic society that Malone and Ness went medieval to protect—is identified in the end credits simply as "Ness' wife." In the Mamet-scripted The Edge, Anthony Hopkins' hero character, a soft-spoken, well-read, self-made billionaire, survives a plane crash in the Alaskan wilderness, outwits and outlasts a much younger fashion photographer (Alec Baldwin) who wants to steal his trophy wife (Elle MacPherson), and slays a grizzly the size of a Winnebago. In Heist, Gene Hackman's thief is an old man who forgets to wear a mask during a robbery, but he still kicks ass and bunks with a saucy dame half his age (played by Pidgeon). Mamet's affinity for manly men is so pure that it's almost childlike. He hypes them even when it's not necessary. "My motherfucker's so cool," Jay's sidekick character says of Hackman in Heist, "when he goes to sleep, sheep count him."
* * *
In an interview commissioned for the House of Games
disc, Crouse defends every aspect of the film. When she insists that Margaret truly is the hero of the tale, the character who engages the viewer's rooting interest, she's not too persuasive. She sounds like an actor who's still justifying having accepted a role that no actor with half a brain would have refused. Far more compelling is Crouse's analysis of Games
as a dream film—a non-representational narrative built from bits of Margaret's personality. Crouse repeats the adage that "every person in your dream is you," or otherwise indicative of the dreamer's fears and desires. This interpretation jibes with the movie's hardboiled, not-quite-real aesthetic—the deliberately stiff, signifier-loaded dialogue; the cartoonishly Freudian character motivations (Margaret's bestseller is titled Driven
); and most of all, the cruel magnetism of Mike, a devil summoned by a dirty secret prayer.
"You want someone to possess you," Mike intones, stroking Margaret's hand as she gazes at him in wonder. His musk fogs Margaret's bullshit detector and sets her heart racing. He's Stanley Kowalski rewritten by Ayn Rand. The delight he takes in conquering Margaret recalls Rand's defense of the notorious scene in The Fountainhead where the ostracized genius architect Howard Roark stopped jackhammering a quarry long enough to hate-fuck the book's snooty heroine, Dominique Francon. "If it was a rape," Rand said, "it was a rape by engraved invitation." "You raped me," Margaret tells Mike in the climax of House of Games. "You took me under false pretenses." She's not speaking literally—their sex was consensual—but figuratively, and accurately; what Mike did to her was a violation. "Well, golly, Margaret," Mike sneers, "Well, that's what happened, didn't it?" In other words, don't act offended, lady; we both know you wanted it.
Crouse's defense is intriguing, but it only holds up if House of Games can be said to stand apart from Mamet's other movies—if, in other words, the anxieties and fantasies on screen are credibly Margaret's, and if the situations and imagery are demonstrably different from what we see in Mamet's other films. They aren't. But Mamet's preoccupations and hangups are so engrossing that House of Games is fun regardless. Its style is simple, but its situations are primordially deep, and their provocative, politically incorrect and often silly nature makes them all the more fascinating, because the narrative isn't just about Margaret and Mike.
Given its subject matter, we should know from Games' opening moments that we're being set up along with the doctor—that things aren't what they seem, that there's no way Margaret can outsmart Mike and his crew because Margaret has ideals and delusions and shame and the con men don't. If we're fooled, it's because the director flatters us as Mike flatters Margaret—with intent to deceive. The water pistol scene is Mamet the trickster's version of the subsequent scene where one of Mike's compatriots (Mike Nussbaum) walks Margaret through a short con involving paper money and an envelope. Like a con man with a movie camera, the filmmaker positions viewers for a big con by revealing smaller ones. "It's called a confidence game," Mike explains. "Why? Because you give me your confidence? No. Because I give you mine."
In his books about creativity, Mamet says that fiction's core appeal resides in the sub-rational desire to know what happens next—either because you don't know what's coming or because you're curious to see how the inevitable plays out. Congruent with that is the desire to vicariously experience predicaments we'd avoid in life, and identify with iconic character types comprised of ten percent credible psychology and ninety percent wishful thinking. House of Games boldfaces the implied pact between storytellers and audiences.
On the Criterion commentary track, Mamet says that acting and lying engage the same submerged animal trait: the instinct to survive a deadly threat by any means necessary. Acting and lying, Mamet says, plug into "the essence of the cerebral cortex: How do I get away from the wolf that's trying to kill me?" Storytelling feeds the same need. Audiences crave controlled encounters with primal desires and fears; therefore, the storyteller's first obligation is to satisfy that need. To Mamet, drama is a service industry.
That's a cynical attitude, but it's not incorrect, and Mamet proves it on the page. Acts and beats are the DNA of Mamet's drama, archetypal (or cliched) characters his marrow. He gives us "stories" instead of stories—living, breathing, messy or (God forbid) ambiguous fiction—because he finds the latter dull, and as phony as Margaret's empathy. (In On Directing Film, he tells would-be moviemakers to study Dumbo, and says that young artists who claim they just want to "express themselves" should compare how people describe a work by a performance artist with how they talk about Cary Grant.) He creates characters like Mike because he knows that viewers crave characters like Mike—men who, like certain storytellers, can mesmerize and overwhelm us, even when we know they're absurd and believe that we're strong enough to resist their charisma. The big bad wolf wears Armani.
Mike doesn't just suss out Margaret/the viewer as a tight-ass who's nursing a bad-girl fantasy. By italicizing his self-created trickster image, Mike sparks Margaret's healer's impulse (as both woman and doctor) and stokes her need to live for someone else and through someone else. Mike is a professional storyteller; he knows what the audience wants, even if the audience would never admit it. When Margaret excoriates Mike for setting her up, he rebukes her for having the temerity to act surprised. "You say I acted atrociously," Mike says. "Yes. I did. I do it for a living."