Mamet, Redbelt, and Daredevil

Posted: September 3, 2009 in comic books, Jeff Holland, reviews, Threat Quality
Tags: , , ,

It’s no wonder Brian Michael Bendis’s best work (as I see it) is his long run on Daredevil. He successfully redefined the book outside the shadows of Frank Miller’s run, by making it a David Redbelt 1Mamet movie. And I can see why. Mamet’s got plenty of problematic writing tics, but his material can be great instruction.

While Mamet’s plays are often about impotent men raging against things they can’t change or pretending to have control over things they don’t, Mamet’s movies, especially as he’s gotten more comfortable as a filmmaker rather than a guy whose plays become movies, are generally about men who know they only control their own core belief systems.

Mamet’s more recent films tend to feature settings that are incredibly pulpy. He likes playing in settings that are usually reserved for pure genre films. The Edge is a wilderness adventure; The Spanish Prisoner is an industrial espionage story revolving around a macguffin; State and Main throws back to old Hollywood screwball comedies; Heist features a pack of well-worn thieves; Spartan goes for military black-ops; and his most recent, Redbelt, is set at the outskirts of a martial arts scene.

But the pulp settings are just window dressing for character studies about men with set codes of honor. And every movie systematically screws with these men, conning them, betraying them, removing every last piece of support they might have – putting them in the most dire straits imaginable, just to see how their sense of What’s Right holds up under pressure.

I have to admit – I love it every damn time. It’s such a simple engine to drive a story. And Mamet always does such a solid job of defining his characters succinctly at the outset that we immediately take these guys to heart and want to follow them, no matter how convoluted the plot becomes.

Sometimes it doesn’t quite work, and the movie promises more than it can deliver. The reason Mametfor this post is I just finished Redbelt, which is pretty good (and I’m pretty sure I’ll watch any film Chiwetel Ejiofore is in now), but is also needlessly clever when more standard storytelling would be useful, and then veers into the other direction with a simplistic climax that doesn’t actually resolve the plot.

But even when Mamet fails, I find I can learn a lot from him. And the story structure of taking a good man and dismantling everything around him just to see how he reacts is something that carries a lesson with it: You can be a bastard to your characters. In fact, if you want a story to mean anything in the end, you kind of have to.

I am a character-centric writer. When putting a story together, my chief interest is in the arc of the protagonists – what they want, what is in their way, and what they learn. But one thing that never seems to occur to me is something that is apparently obvious to Mamet – if you just torture the living crap out of them, you find all those things out with a lot less hassle.

My usual problem: I like my guys. Spend enough time trying to build your characters into actual “people,” and it’s easy to start worrying for them and trying to, well, protect them. Mamet has an obvious love for his characters, but never forgets that they are his characters. You cannot be a loving, caring creator if you want to deliver a dramatic punch. You gotta be Old Testament wrath.

My writing advice usually starts with “Kill your darlings” (attributed to a shitload of people, so let’s just say it came from Faulkner). I use it to mean cutting out lines that are good but don’t immediately serve your purpose. Many a lovely sentence of mine has been deleted because it just wasn’t getting to the meat of what I wanted to say (including at least three from this very paragraph!).

But in Mamet-style, “Killing your darlings” is more metaphorical – it means doing everything SHORT of killing your beloved characters…just to see what kind of person you’re really writing about.

This is what Bendis brought to Daredevil. An oft-repeated line that defined Frank Miller’s run: “A man without hope…is a man without Daredevilfear.” This was from his “Born Again” story, which stripped the hero of his supports so he could rebuild in the course of six issues. But Bendis…shit, he consistently pulled the rug out from his lead character for nearly five years.

Outing his identity, setting up a nervous breakdown, killing friends, threatening arrest – Bendis cruelly fucked with a character he clearly loved. Just to see how he’d react to increasingly oppressive stimuli. Because he knew it would make for riveting drama.

This is a guy who learned a lot of the right lessons from David Mamet.

  1. braak says:

    Other important lesson to learn from David Mamet: don’t keep putting Rebecca Pidgeon in things.

  2. richie says:

    Rescue Me had this going for it before it became an unwatchable soap opera.

    I think the key is to break up the lows with the highs. The audience has to believe that things are finally going to be alright so that their hopes can be dashed along with the character’s. I bet you can easily think of some examples that affected you – they’re heart-wrenching enough to stick with you, and make you grieve for the character for a long time.

    The author can’t be the only person who wants to protect the characters.

  3. Jeff Holland says:

    “The author can’t be the only person who wants to protect the characters.”

    This is a very good point, Richie.

    For those keeping track at home, it’s something that ‘Daredevil’ also features (in most writers’ runs) – lifelong friend Foggy Nelson, and journalist-confidant Ben Urich. The trick here is that Foggy is often ineffectual, and Urich is compromised by his duty as a reporter. So while they ARE there to help the lead, they often can’t FIX his problems for him.

    Also, yes, “Rescue Me” VERY quickly became to relentlessly sour to watch.

    Also also: Yes, Rebecca Pigeon is an actress whose badness is something that you can’t get used to – it’s really quite something. Maybe it’s that she never shows up in anything BUT Mamet movies, so you constantly forget, until she shows up (in this case, for like TWO MINUTES) and it suddenly smacks you in the face, “HOLY SHIT WHY IS SHE SO TERRIBLE STOP ACTING AT ME NONONO I DON’T WANT IT WAAAAAA”

  4. V.I.P. Referee says:

    Excellent post. Things of Hell remind us that we’re alive; the most effective writers are able to offer that experience to readers/viewers through their characters. Manipulating emotion is a necessary part of that. People have to be invested and feel the story is worth seeing through ’til the end. And I don’t care if that’s a precious sentiment!

  5. Jeff Holland says:

    @VIP: “people have to be invested” is anything but precious – to me, it seems like a cardinal rule that gets ignored too often.

    But it’s a precarious concept, because every writer’s idea of what gets an audience “invested” is different. (The standard investment-criteria – “Well, they’re likable” – can sometimes feel like a weak reason to get involved. “Yeah, they’re likable – aaaand…?”)

    Taking the earlier mention of “Rescue Me,” the investment appears to be, “Because they’re life-risking firefighters, that mitigates their flaws.” And it might for some of the audience (one of my friends LOVES the show), while others (like, say, me) still can’t justify Tommy Gavin’s loathsome behavior just because of his heroic profession.

    Adi Tantimedh’s column, “The ‘Why Should We Care?’ Test,” elaborates on this subject very well, so I’ll just pass on the link:

    (He uses Ed Brubaker’s “Angel of Death” web-series starring Zoe Bell as an example of failure to pass that test, and I was SO ready to argue his points based on my love of Brubaker until I actually WATCHED it and realized he was totally on the money.)

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