David Mamet reminds writers that

Someone has to make the scene dramatic. It is not the actors job (the actors job is to be truthful). It is not the directors job. His or her job is to film it straightforwardly and remind the actors to talk fast. It is your job.

People from the network ask for more clarity and more information. Mamet replies

Any dickhead with a blue suit can be (and is) taught to say “Make it clearer”, and “I want to know more about him”.

When you’ve made it so clear that even this bluesuited penguin is happy, both you and he or she will be out of a job.

Susan Gibb is writing a short hypertext every day, through the summer. Yesterday’s piece was Idle Conversation, a short sketch in dialogue form. Here’s the introduction; click the map to read the story.

I sense real opportunities in small dramatic hypertexts composed entirely, or primarily, of dialogue. (Indeed, I think “Idle Conversation” would start stronger if it omitted “she said” and “he said.”) On the one hand, I’m thinking of short dramatic sketches like Mamet’s The Duck Variations. On the other hand, think of Frost’s wonderful setpieces, “Death of the Hired Man” and “Four Hundred Collars”. There’s lots you could do – opening into interior dialogue is just one of the moves you might make.

Imagine, for example, a variation on “Idle Conversation” where one of the characters withholds some crucial information from the other. “She” is actually the governor of a region of Argentina. “He” is married. Or “She” has just learned that she has Parkinson’s, or HIV. Or “He” is transgendered but – for reasons we can’t talk about right now – is wearing clothes from her former life. We could quickly be anywhere from “Casino Royale” to “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”.

One of my hopes for Reading Hypertext is to advance discussion of craft, and to promote real criticism of real hypertexts. I think a session — or maybe a track — of Tinderbox Weekend SF this fall (November 21-22) ought to be devoted to writerly topics. Ideas? Email me.

Sanya Weathers is annoyed that game studios can’t deliver well-written MMORPG games on time. After all, people do produce plays.

And I don’t want to hear about how sometimes shit happens, or that the creative process cannot be regulated. My ASS. I used to do theater. If you’ve got good designers and actors, and adequate preproduction time that isn’t spent at a pool hall or in endless “conceptualization” mental masturbation sessions, you can sit down with a calendar and say “if we start on this date, we can deliver an enjoyable product on this date.” And that’s taking into account a workforce consisting of A) people who periodically have mental breakdowns to demonstrate their artistic purity, and B) people who are more emotionally stable but also more prone to “I double dog dare you to chug the rest of that Jagermeister.”

Part of the problem, of course, is the pointy-headed manager — the residual American belief that Good Management is a skill independent of deeply understanding the task you’re managing.

But part of the problem is deeper and more complex; software design and implementation is research. The finished game depends on engineering and art that do not yet exist, and while you can make intelligent estimates of their scheduling, you will sometimes find that your estimates are wildly wrong.

Weathers thinks the design problem maps onto the question:

We open Shrew in Venice on September 15; what schedule gets us onstage on time?

But the real question game designers face is something else — something that theater people know all too well:

I've told Tony that we loved Shrew and that we want to do Shrew Two, but he’s stuck with a problem in the second act, and now he’s talking about throwing away the whole third act and starting over. And something about roller skates.

Theatrical train wrecks happen all the time. Just in the last few years, the American Repertory Theater — an unusually well-funded and professional organization — has had a bunch of productions that went off the rails far enough that outsiders heard the crockery breaking.

  • A Lysistrata was restarted with a new script because the originally-commissioned original script was (in some way) so obscene that the lead actress simply refused.
  • One of the leads in Romeo and Juliet was recast at (or beyond) the last minute.
  • A one-man show was postponed for an entire season, after tickets has been sold.
  • A pair of productions were swapped in the repertory schedule, without much explanation, after tickets had been mailed

These are the episodes that were visible to the front of the house; I'm sure there were plenty that we never heard about. Project management is hard, but art is harder.

Although I think I agree with the conclusion of Clay Shirky's new talk about Gin, Television, and Social Surplus, the way he gets there is probably not the best route.

Shirky wants to argue that we now have a lot of spare thinking time, time we used to spend watching television sitcoms. By taking a little of our television time and using it to create media (LOLcats, weblogs, wikipedia, whatever), we collectively wind up building amazing new things through lots of small contributions. This is right, but not new: it's Mamet's quote:

The purpose of art is to delight us; certain men and women (no smarter than you or I) whose art can delight us have been given dispensation from going out and fetching water and carrying wood. It's no more elaborate than that.

That might be right, but Shirky argues through historical analogy with the industrial revolution.

The transformation from rural to urban life was so sudden, and so wrenching, that the only thing society could do to manage was to drink itself into a stupor for a generation. The stories from that era are amazing-- there were gin pushcarts working their way through the streets of London.

This sounds good, but inconveniently, it's wrong.

Shirky and History
Elna Borch,Death and the Maiden,Ny Carlsberg Glypotek

Yes, early industrial Britain drank a lot. In Nelson's navy, the minimum liquor ration was something like 4oz of rum a day, often supplemented by plenty of beer. This wasn't hard partying, it wasn't decadence; anything less was thought to be cruel and inhuman, even for men to whom weevily bread and the lash were part of daily life. But their great grandparents drank even more; in Medieval Northern Europe, beer was the main staple food for many months of the year.

Wassail! Wassail! All over the town
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown

Sure, there were gin pushcarts. There were pushcarts for cherries and mackerel and matches and milk, for knife grinding and chair mending. Shops were for rich folk; small businessmen went from door to door. This wasn't new: Gibbons set The Cryes of London for five voices and viols before 1625, and he wasn't alone. This was true almost to living memory; Eliza Doolittle sells flowers on the steps of Covent Garden and her ambition is to someday, somehow, be employed in a flower shop.

Shirky opines that

If I had to pick the critical technology for the 20th century, the bit of social lubricant without which the wheels would've come off the whole enterprise, I'd say it was the sitcom.

This sounds OK, but it can't be right. His canonical examples are I Love Lucy (1951-7) and Gilligan's Island (1964-7); Malcolm In The Middle is mentioned but begins in 2000, a decade after the end of history. There were some who thought the twentieth century included events somewhat earlier. By the time Gilligan starts, the last moment at which we generally think the wheels really came close to falling off was two years past. This is (obscenely) to forget the six million voices crying in the road that the wheels did fall off, and the unnumbered voices ground under those wheels:

As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for -- but we fight for roses, too!

Yes: creativity and appropriation, interaction and re-creation: all are important.

Yes: history shapes this, and yes: this will shape history.

But you've got to get the argument right; sounding good isn't good enough.

Mike Power thinks I'm mistaken. Yes, the gin craze was real, and it was urban. But in the very long view, it's a shift in alcohol. Shakespeare's age drank a lot of fortified wine: sack and malmsey and possets — and a lot of ale. Before then, the middle ages drank even more ale; there was no better way to preserve grain from rodents than to brew it, so much of Europe could either be tipsy or starve. 2.2 gallons per person per year, the 1743 peak, is not that much, even by modern post-temperance standards. Russia's vodka consumption is higher than this, and France's 54 lit=14 gallons of wine per person is certainly in the ballpark. Gin was manufactured and concentrated, which made it ideal in the new industrial cities; where transporting liquids was incredibly expensive, requiring horses and carts and cooperage, concentrated gin made a lot of sense.

The Village Voice is a fine paper. It can afford to run long and thoughtful pieces like this new Mamet essay on the nature of politics. They then tart up the Web page with so many bad ads that it is nearly unreadably, and deliver it from servers that are far too slow. (Here's the unpaged version, which is preferable to the normal one).

The right is mooing about faith, the left is mooing about change, and many are incensed about the fools on the other side—but, at the end of the day, they are the same folks we meet at the water cooler.

But, in what Mamet calls the essence of liberalism and “these saddest of words: ‘. . . and yet’”.

I don't meet anyone at the water cooler who thinks torture should be legal. I don’t meet anyone who thinks the Justice Department should be run as part of the spoils system and should prosecute the political enemies of the current administration. I don’t meet anyone at the water cooler who thinks we’re better off having fought the Iraq War than having sent those thousands of dead soldiers to Harvard and, with the left-over money, funded Social Security into the 22nd century.

Another New York writer said that "These are the saddest of possible words: Tinkers, to Evers, to Chance." Curious.

by Judith Jones

Judith Jones broke into publishing when, as a junior editorial assistant, she plucked The Diary of Anne Frank off Doubleday's slush pile. She joined Knopf in 1957 and she's still there, fifty years later, though Knopf's purchaser has itself been sold and resold. At Knopf, she launched a cookbook revolution, starting by the discovery of Julia Child. She edited Child, Elizabeth David, Claudia Roden — the whole modern cookbook revolution. She's bright and witty and she remembers everything and knows how to craft a book.

It's wrong to criticize a book for not being what it doesn't seek to be, but still I read this wonderful book and sigh for a companion volume: My Life In Books. This is an instructive memoir for the historian, not only for the wonderful details and coincidences, but also for what's left out.

  • Jones was at Bennington when Bennington was remembered to be its best and most distinctive. A couple of decades later, David Mamet recalls that Bennington was little more than "Sex Camp”. Was it always so? Jones knows, and remembers, and could tell us.
  • Jones went to Paris after the War, chaperoned by Mrs and Mr. John Gunther and armed with letters from Arthur Koestler. She worked for gangsters, cohabited, breakfasted with Truman Capote. We hear a lot about the meals they ate; I'd love just a little more about what they talked about.
  • Jones moved to New York at the perfect moment. She spent the sixties as an important (and increasingly-influential) editor at a major press, moving from French to fiction to cookery. She must have known everyone; she certainly cooked a lot of dinner parties. I'd like to know a little more about those parties. Did they all drink as much as it seems? She was probably at Capote's Black and White ball: what was it like to be there, on a salary?
  • Jones' crusade to give dignity to women's kitchen work begins just as American feminism was gathering steam. How did she think Mastering The Art of French Cooking fit with The Second Sex? I imagine she thought about this a lot: de Beauvoir was a Knopf author, her editor was Jones's boss, and perhaps the difficulties in acquiring and translating this title was part of the reason Knopf hired Jones in the first place.
  • The middle part of the book is filled with memories of long days in a cookbook writer's kitchen, thrashing out details and perfecting the books. I'd love to hear how, exactly, this worked. How much editorial time and travel could her company expend on a new ethnic cookbook? How did she approach the task of crafting a book? What does she really think about ghost writers? How much structural editing did she undertake?
  • We spend a lot of time at the table, but almost none in the office; time begins, in this volume, when we get home from work. I'd like to know a little bit about the office. How much of her work was acquisition scouting? How much time was spent soothing aggravated writers? How much was spent drinking lunch with Dottie and the gang? She says that, when Knopf decided to "let Mrs. Jones have a chance" by acquiring Mastering the Art Of French Cooking, her boss Blanche Knopf walked out of the meeting (chaired by her husband Alfred!) in protest; did people really do that?

by Robert Brustein

Twenty six short essays or letters explore how one might learn to act — and think about acting — and the trials and challenges of a life in the theater. This collection might be best viewed as a response to David Mamet's True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor; Brustein and Mamet clearly respect and value each other, but they appreciate very different aspects of the theater and Mamet's abjuration to "Stand up, speak out, and stay out of school" is anathema to Brustein.

Just offstage, a third party to the dialogue is Lee Strasberg or Stella Adler, proponents the The Method, which Mamet views as a delusive infringement into the playwright's special domain and about which Brustein is deeply ambivalent, treasuring the psychological depth of many Method-influenced performances but mistrusting the dangers of amateur psychology and the perils of identification.

The book is also interesting for its portrayal of an experienced teacher looking back on a career of students. Uniquely here, non-professionals may feel they know the teacher (as an artistic director and a critic) and we also know a number of his students (Christopher Durang, Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, Cherry Jones).

Of special interest is Brustein's impassioned insistence that criticism should work in the service of art instead of alternating between amusing ridicule (to sell newspapers) and and empty praise (to sell tickets). Brustein describes a a variety of attempts to deflect criticism, instead, into the pursuit of artistic truth. All failed.

Jul 07 22 2007

Game Debate

Roger Ebert constructs an interesting debate (technically a Fisking, but constructed as dialog) with Clive Barker on whether games can aspire to art.

Ebert is deeply skeptical of any art form in which the narrative is malleable.

Barker: "I think that Roger Ebert's problem is that he thinks you can't have art if there is that amount of malleability in the narrative. In other words, Shakespeare could not have written 'Romeo and Juliet' as a game because it could have had a happy ending, you know? If only she hadn't taken the damn poison. If only he'd have gotten there quicker."

Ebert: He is right again about me. I believe art is created by an artist. If you change it, you become the artist. Would "Romeo and Juliet" have been better with a different ending? Rewritten versions of the play were actually produced with happy endings. "King Lear" was also subjected to rewrites; it's such a downer. At this point, taste comes into play. Which version of "Romeo and Juliet," Shakespeare's or Barker's, is superior, deeper, more moving, more "artistic"?

This is walking right up to the argument I call My Friend, Hamlet: if we let allow a sane, sensible reader a modicum of free will and agency in the tragic universe, everything collapses. Everyone knows what Romeo and Juliet need: someone needs to have an urgent, frank talk with their mothers. Everyone knows what Hamlet needs: he needs to get drunk, he needs to get laid, and he needs to go back to school. He's supposed to be in school, time is on his side, and it will all work out splendidly in a few years. Everyone knows this: no one can say it.

A cautionary note appears, however, when Ebert starts talking about alternative Shakespeare and different endings. It can be done, and it's not necessarily tasteless: Jakob Gordin's Konig Lir is an ornament of the early Yiddish theater and a play of immense influence, and it seems to me that for Arthur Miller and David Mamet and Tony Kushner, you're looking back more to Gordin than to Shakespeare.

There's plenty of range available for wonderful art in which some aspects of narrative and presentation are malleable. Malleability, after all, is what performance offers us. But the particular range of malleability that games offer us seems strangely limited.

A very interesting work in this vein which I haven't yet had time to see properly is the new hypervideo, HBO Voyeur.

Apr 07 15 2007

Film To See

by David Mamet

I had a mixed reaction to Mamet’s new Bambi vs Godzilla, at least on first reading. But, as I read I kept a list of films that Mamet mentioned that I thought I ought to see. Here it is:

  • Dodsworth
  • The Lady Eve
  • One of Our Aircraft Is Missing
  • Zulu
  • I'll Sleep When I'm Dead
  • The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
  • Shadow of a Doubt
  • In Which We Serve

It's an interesting list of movies that Mamet loves and that I've never seen. (I've probably see The Lady Eve on television, but it was a very long time ago). And all but one (One of Our Aircraft Is Missing) are available from Netflix.

Now, this represents a couple of months of Thursday Night Movies. And of course people will keep making more movies, and people do keep telling me about other movies I need to see, and I already have 40 movies in my queue. So it will be a while. That’s the point of lists and queues: it's a long season, and you've got to trust it.

Update: The president of a major Web firm writes to say, "what do you mean you HAVEN'T SEEN SHADOW OF A DOUBT!! My wife, who doesn't read my weblog, says "You saw The Lady Eve on New Years Eve, 2002.” And yes, there it is, the first movie under 2003 in this weblog. Who knew?

by David Mamet

A fine writer, a fine director, and my favorite prose stylist: David Mamet is a treasure. This is his second book this year. I expected to dislike The Wicked Child. I did. I expected to like Bambi vs. Godzilla, and it was indeed a very pleasant way to spend an evening or two. Much of what Mamet says here, he has already covered; this book's essay on "The Jew in Hollywood" is not, I think, quite as good as "The Jew For Export" in Mamet's Make-Believe Town. Mamet's denunciation of that personification of greed and perfidy, the producer, is more complete here than in his On Directing Film, but not necessarily to greater effect. His observations on acting will be familiar to readers of True and False. What’s really best here are the most gritty and technical discussions, a pean to craft workers on the set, an exploration of artifice in film making and the eternal question: how did they get the cat to do that?

Blog categories fall apart because they’re incidental. A post doesn’t exist in order to be categorized.

In the heat of the moment, we forget to put some posts in the right category. We forget to put some posts in any category at all. We can't decide which categories to choose — and so everything ends up turning miscellaneous.

Or, we say, "I'll sort these out later.” We all know how that turns out!

The answer, I think, is simple:

  • let the blog do a lot of the categorizing for you
  • make it easy to remind yourself what you want to revisit
  • avoid premature commitment

Scott Johnson is doing something similar for photography at Ookles. Nobody is as thorough about labeling and tagging their snapshots as they ought to be. But Ookles can deploy some good state-of-the-art face recognition: it can tell that this is a picture of Suzy and that's a picture of Terrence. So, it goes ahead and tags things for you. (And, I'm sure, there will be some handy way to tell it that, 'No, that's not Suzy, it's her long lost twin sister Suw! Who knew?!')

Tinderbox 3.6 introduces sets, which make it really easy to let agents assign things to categories for you. Agents search for notes that meet some criteria, such as "notes that are inside my archives, published in the last three years, and that mention Roger Ebert, David Mamet, or Louis Menand". Now, we can let agents automatically add and remove tags:


Adornments and containers can add and remove tags, too. Put something there, and it automatically gets metadata. Your pile of finished tasks can automatically add Complete and remove ToDo from the note's tags.

All this extends Tinderbox's role as a spreadsheet of ideas, and makes it much easier to keep categories alive and reasonable consistent. There will always be edge cases: this post mentions Mamet but it's not really about the theater, just as Suw isn’t really Suzy but merely looks like her. But getting things roughly right is much better than giving up.

I expect this is especially important for high-volume pro bloggers. Good, focussed categories are good ad targets, so they should be good revenue enhancers. But you don't have a stable of tame indexers categorizing every bit of gossip of about The Valley or the next Apple gizmo! If an occasional post is indexed somewhat fancifully, the readers and advertisers will soon forgive you. But everyone has archives, and we all should use our archives to greater effect.

Dec 06 19 2006

The Wicked Son

by David Mamet

An intriguing, incoherent book from a great writer. Mamet has long argued that anti-semitism is alive and vital -- not merely amongst the poor and ignorant but also -- perhaps especially -- in educated and sophisticated circles. His attack on Schindler's List ("It is to my mind Mandingo for Jews") strikes me as provocative and worthwhile: it might be right, it might be wrong, it is certainly worth hearing. His essay on Jews in film, "The Jew For Export" (in Make-Believe Town: Essays and Remembrances) is essential. Here, his discussion of the real meaning of Santa Claus (and the real reason parents delay telling the kids the truth about Santa) is well worth the price of admission.

But this book, which tries to expose the wickedness of the "wicked son" of the Passover Haggadah, the son who asks "What does this mean to you?" , founders because Mamet cannot bring himself to sympathize, even distantly, with the son. Mamet tells us that the son is wicked because he is aggressively removing himself from the family, the community, the tribe, under cover of "simply" asking a question. And this might indeed be wicked if the son were removing himself because he believed he'd receive some benefit from electing himself out of the family, if the son dishonestly chose to pretend that he did not belong to this family even while feasting at the family table.

What Mamet affects not to understand -- what he doesn't even mention -- is that the wicked son need not be the sullen teenager trying to distance himself from the family he is trying to disown. He may instead be asking a pertinent question. "You say that you are doing these things to commemorate the intervention of The Eternal One in a labor dispute long ago and far away. This is patently improbable, and such evidence as we possess has clearly been contaminated by many generations of political tampering in support of causes and kingdoms long forgotten. We have known this in our family for generations: the only thing that anyone remembers of my great-great grandfather was that 'he was a learned man,' and his descendants read and studied and wrote. When you study Rosa Luxemburg or Abe Lincoln or Pericles, you apply different standards than you are applying tonight. What makes this night different from all other nights?"

Nov 06 30 2006


The other day, I was doing a talk for a class of graduate students down the road. They're studying artistic practice in the world of computers. One young woman asked me if I thought artists needed to master the technology.

I think artists need to master everything. It all counts. You need vision and you need execution; you need immediacy and spontaneity and control and polish. Neatness counts. Everything counts.

It doesn't matter that these imperatives contradict each other. That's art. If you don't like it, there are other things to do.

The purpose of art is to delight us; certain men and women (no smarter than you or I) whose art can delight us have been given dispensation from going out and fetching water and carrying wood. It's no more elaborate than that. — David Mamet, Three Uses of the Knife, p.26

The hope that we can be excused from mastering programming is the child’s plea to the teacher, "Will this be on the exam?" It's the hope that we may be permitted to fail, and that our failure will be overlooked because we're so cute and wonderful. We don't need to master programming (or hardware, or graphic design, or information architecture): we're just artists and either someone will buy us an expert to do the work or they'll simply ignore any shortcomings because we are so intrinsically wonderful.

The film world is not a model. People sometimes point to movies as an ideal, a world where specialists in different crafts work together, where you've got the sound guy and the lights guy and the camera guy and the acting guy and the directing guy and the money guy and the effects guy and everyone works together. But that's an artifact of the capital demands of film's tie to real estate.

Until very recently, films needed to pay rent for lots of elaborate buildings in every city and village in the world, filled with comfortable chairs and exotic equipment. If you're renting that much real estate, fixed costs like adding another assistant producer don't matter. Direct-to-video is going to change that forever, but it's only just beginning.

If film people could work without all those specialists, most of them would.

Oct 06 17 2006

Making Comics

by Scott McCloud

A gloss on McCloud's essential and insightful Understanding Comics , this book addresses novices who want to make comics. Naive manuals appear regularly, teaching people how to imitate various comic drawing styles; McCloud seeks to go deeper and to explore in somewhat greater depth the craft of telling stories in words and sequential art.

Some of his points are new and important. In a single frame, for example, he sums up beautifully why simple immersive media wouldn't accomplish everything we want, if only we all had holodecks at our disposal. In it, he draws Kelly Donovan with a word balloon in which he introduces himself as the actor who played Xander Harris's evil twin in an episode of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer. You can't say this in images: it's inherently symbolic. (I've argued this in talks for years, with reference to Euclidean geometry, organic chemistry, and macroeconomics. McCloud's example is much better.)

McCloud's subject is visual storytelling, not the mechanics of drawing cute manga babes or men in tights. His discussion of facial expression is brilliant and, I think, unmatched. (Jane Espenson, who has a new blog, agrees.)

What I miss here is a fuller treatment of story construction. What do you show, and what can you leave unshown? Mamet has a terrific lesson in On Directing Film , walking a class of film students through the process of finding the shortest and most direct way to convey "arriving early for an important meeting" to the audience. There's much to explore: where do you place the viewer? Where do you place the characters? What must you show, and what can be omitted? How, for example, do you indicate that we are arriving early? You could have a shot of a clock. You could have someone tell us that it's early. But there are better answers.

I'm confident that there are interesting matters of craft that McCloud omits, perhaps because they seem too technical or too theoretical or simply too detailed for the notional novice reader. I miss the details. Playwrights, for example, learn that they need to either give a character something to do or get them offstage, because it's remarkably difficult to do nothing and say nothing convincingly for more than a minute or two.

Shaw didn't get this memo and sometimes leaves actors hung out to dry for ten or twenty minutes at a stretch while others discourse on labor relations and the obligations of management. This is hard to see in a good stage production and almost impossible to see on the printed page, unless you know to look. A good stage production will have anticipated the challenge and taken it into account in casting and rehearsal, and on the page you don't see the characters who have no lines.

McCloud does offer some fascinating insights on the effect of different compositional choices, and especially on the more subtle differences between US, European, and Japanese styles and how these elements might be blended to good effect. I'd like to see much more.

Oct 06 11 2006


Aaron Swartz is on a blogging roll of late, perhaps triggered by his inspiring (though unsuccessful) campaign for a seat on the wikimedia board. Today, he has a long quote from Mamet on auditioning -- specifically on how dangerous it is for actors to put everything into pleasing the people who can hire them.

Teachers of 'audition technique' counsel actors to consider the audition itself the performance, and to gear all one's hopes and aspirations not to toward the actual practice of one's craft (which takes place in from of an audience or a camera), but toward the possibility of appealing to some functionary. What could be more awful?

He also has a fine discussion of lecture technique, keyed by an account of a recent lecture by Scott McCloud (Understanding Comics), whose new book on Making Comics has just been released and is currently on my nightstand.

After his talk, someone commented that McCloud's presentation was the best he'd ever seen. McCloud explained that there are two kinds of presentations: 'monkey bars' where a presenter swings from slide to slide, explaining each one in turn, and 'magic carpet rides', where the presenter simply keeps talking, confident the slides will appear underneath him to illustrate a point.

The danger of magic carpet rides, unfortunately, is that flying carpets sway from side to side, and sometimes people fall off. You can easily lose people at the edges of the room and at the edges of the field: the most and least-expert people, the people who know your work best (and who may have heard it all before) and the people who have no idea what you're talking about (and who might tumble off the carpet at the first air pocket).

Still, give me a carpet any day.

Meanwhile, Anders Fagerjord and Jill Walker each complain that they need a new voice for their blogging. Each started blogging as a graduate student, and now that they are established and influential professors they feel that the old voice and the old, familiar dangers no longer seem satisfactory. Jill writes that

I’ve mostly thought of the discomfort of blogging in the last year or so as being about time, authority, too many different audiences and having to try to be tactical and smart non-stop.

Seriously, though, Jill is smart non-stop, and she's always been tactical. Being smart and tactical on her weblog shouldn't be much that strain!

I think the first time I met Jill, she was wrapping up a convincing argument on literary theory on a sunny picnic lawn in Pittsburgh because she had carefully slotted into her conference schedule a quick shopping expedition, in which she would buy Sesame Street tapes for her daughter in order that her daughter (when old enough to watch them) would grow up in Norway hearing American accents to balance Norwegian-accented English, and this would ultimately make it easier for her daughter to acquire a proper Australian accent later in life. All this fit neatly into the context of multivalent hypertext and contemporary lit crit, and she had exactly enough time, too.

And happy birthday to Lilia Efimova.

But life, like autumn
Silence, is in the details — Pasternak

Because it's good to know what you're doing, I make lists of movies I see and books I read. In case you might find this useful or interesting, the recent entries on these lists are in the left-hand column of this page.

  • If more people kept these lists and shared them, we could build interesting aggregators that would be better (and much smarter) than best seller lists.
  • Sharing your reading or viewing might seem vain: who would care? Your family might be interested -- your parents or your Aunt Ethel or your great niece in Tokyo. Lots of people won't care that you saw Elizabethtown on the plane from LAX to JFK, but that's OK: the handful of bits you're using won't cause a shortage. For more, see cheese sandwiches.

Speaking of Elizabethtown, David Mamet describes a malady of the third act he calls the 11pm speech, otherwise known as "the death of my kitten" -- the deeply significant lecture a playwright inserts to add gravity to a third act in trouble. Even the great playwrights resort to death of my kitten: alas, poor Yorick. And this movie is all death of my kitten, entirely montage and monologue. It does have two terrific speeches: a Susan Sarandon funeral standup and a long, long travelogue voiceover that must run 20 minutes and is never far from idiocy but that manages to get boy and girl together while not calling our attention to the fact that he's a blinking idiot and she's a force of nature and a drama that needs this much help to get the lovers together is not much of a drama.

Dec 05 10 2005

Three Sisters

At the ART, and very well worth seeing, is an arduous but fascinating production of Three Sisters, directed by Krystian Lupa. This is 1901 Chekhov informed by Brecht and Beckett; it makes you wonder what dinner with Checkov and Mamet might be like.

No one in the house means what they say: at least, what they say has little to do with the words they speak. They have nothing to say to each other, and they speak elliptically and at cross purposes when they can speak at all.

The cost of this approach -- at least on the blizzard-night performance we attended -- is that the play runs very, very long. It's not an energetic evening; in this production, pacing is irrelevant. Thoughtful, intriguing, a performance to be savored for years.

Three Sisters
Oct 05 21 2005


In the new Believer, Nick Hornby writes that "writing, especially writing a column, is all about tone." My tone is definitely off key, because while TEKKA isn't half bad (and a new issue will be out soon!) it hasn't got David Mamet concocting a confectionary etymology of copacetic that involves a house dick and a piece of furniture. Nor does it have a two-page graphic spread on the recent spate of books on golems: who knew? And it doesn't have Hornby on The Classics:

There comes a point in life, it seems to me, where you've got to decide whether you're a Person of Letters or merely someone who loves books, and I'm beginning to see that the book lovers have more fun. Persons of Letters have to read things like Candide or they're a few letters short of the whole alphabet; book lovers, meanwhile, can read whatever they fancy.

I picked up Candide because my publisher sent me a cute new edition, and though that in itself wouldn't have persuaded me, I flicked through it and discovered it was only ninety pages long. Ninety pages! Who knew, apart from all of you, and everybody else?

Oh, and there's a review of a new Carol Emshwiller collection. Something with David Sedaris. Oh, my.

A very interesting aspect of this fine little movie is that it's inherently a film. It's hard to see it working in any other medium, but not for the usual reasons. (Ebert } Netflix)| rotten tomatoes)

When I Will Be Loved

It wouldn't be hard to stage: almost all the action takes place in Vera's (Neve Campbell) New York loft apartment. But, though the story is classic Mamet territory, the dialogue isn't where things happen here. Vera is wonderful but wonderfully opaque. She doesn't say much, and nobody knows what she's thinking. Campbell's performance needs closeups, and also needs James Toback's knack of composing a shot at greater distance than you'd normally expect, isolating the character in the environment. Plus, you need the Bach. You couldn't do this onstage.

Vera's sympathetic, lovable opacity would be hard to do in prose, too. Not impossible, perhaps, but very difficult. Nobody in this story has an interior life. Well, perhaps the 69-year-old Italian media mogul whose indecent proposal is the dramatic hinge has an interior life, but nobody wants to know about it, least of all him.

The IMDB page has lots of comments, almost all idiotic. The tendency of open, electronic media to make intelligent people sound like pretentious preteens is a phenomenon that demands serious study.

Jun 04 2 2004


Oct 03 26 2003


One of the interesting observations Pullman makes in his Isis lecture concerns a symmetry between audience and artist. "What I mean", he writes, "is that the audience (readers, or whatever) have to feel that this is a game or a process or a craft or an activity which they themselves could take part in too , if they wanted to. If they don’t want to, fair enough; they can just enjoy it. But if they do want to take part, then they need to feel that there’s nothing to stop them. "

David Mamet writes:

The purpose of art is to delight us; certain men and women (no smarter than you or I) whose art can delight us have been given dispensation from going out and fetching water and carrying wood. It's no more elaborate than that."

Anyone can write a story; we know that, had we world enough and time, we could write. Little boys play second base or silly mid-on; grown up, they watch and know what it's like. They could have done it themselves, they still could do it, except for the accident of being a little too slow or a bit too old. I can't draw half as well as a talented seventh grader, but it was only when I began to try to draw that I really began to enjoy long afternoons in galleries and museums.


An observation: Hardly anyone can write a computer game. Hardly anyone thinks they could. How seriously does this interfere with the growth of the art? Is this part of the reason that computer games so rarely touch serious topics?

Oct 03 22 2003


In 1896, William Jennings Bryan led the first Populist crusade, a campaign of farmers and workers against Wall Street, the gold standard and the Establishment. He lost, but the memory of that crusade fueled the Progressive Era, much as the memory of working for McCarthy or for Bobby, or walking with Martin, colors our own. Vachel Lindsay remembered the joy of that crusade in the middle of a long poem, written long after the returns came in:

She wore in her hair a brave prairie rose.
Her gold chums cut her, for that was not the pose.
No Gibson Girl would wear it in that fresh way.
But we were fairy Democrats, and this was our day.

Question: The last line is, I think, an allusion to something else. I can't place it. I can't figure our a Google strategy to uncover it. Coleridge? Swinburne? Let me know.

Question: Trying to Google this, I noticed that Time apparently misquoted the last line in a 1996 article by David Mamet, from whom I found it in the first place (in his 1986 Writing in Restaurants), emending it of "Prairie Democrats." Does anybody know the story behind this? Time, under Luce, was notorious, but 1996 was only yesterday.

Jul 03 29 2003

Hand waving

In today's Boston Globe, David Mamet skewers his favorite target.

Last week I was at my daughter's summer camp. The camp is found in an area long recognized as the epicenter of the silly liberal.

Its latest outrage was a display of signing during the camp pageant.

There were the kids, got up as various papier-mache deities of some hunter-gatherer group, and there was a concerned parent, signing away, merrily as a grig, to an audience of parents - none of whom were deaf.

Why, then, was this woman signing?

Mamet draws the inevitable conclusion. "She was not signing to the deaf, she was waving her arms to make herself feel good."

The question before us is not ''Who misled Bush?'' the question is how long we Americans, Democrat and Republican, will continue to engage in self-delusive behavior and call it democracy.

Jul 03 15 2003


How can we tell stories in sculptural hypertext -- hypertexts where almost everything is connected to almost everything, where we write by removing links?

A priest, a minister, a rabbi, and a computer scienist walk into a bar.

David Mamet has a clever scheme, in On Directing Film, of moving between storytelling and jokes. Jokes, he observes, are stories -- and they're stories we tell directly, concisely, without trying to be interesting or lyrical or fancy. We can learn good technique from bad jokes.

We've got the clergy and the bartender, and maybe there's a guy drinking at the bar.

We know where we start, and where we're going to end up. The computer scientist is going to have the last word. He's got to: he's the one that doesn't fit.

The minister, the priest, and the rabbi have interesting things to say. Not the punch line, but worth hearing.

And it doesn't really matter which in order they speak -- as long as it's the right order. Tonight, maybe, it matters that the rabbi gets in the first whack. This time, maybe, it works best if the priest comes last. But, whatever we do in the middle, it's still the same story.

There was this farmer who had to sell his pig.

There was this farmer. Had a daughter. Pretty.

So we know where we begin, we know where we're going, but we can improvise a little on the road. There are limits -- you've got to know the chords, you've got to know the changes -- but you can improvise.

May 03 28 2003


In film or on the street, people who describe themselves to you are lying. Here is the difference: In the bad film, the fellow says, 'Hello, Jack, I'm coming over to your home this evening because I need to get the money you borrowed from me.' In the good film, he says, 'Where the hell were you yesterday?' -- David Mamet, On Directing Film

The core challenge of the weblog is simply that we're always coming into the middle of the story. If you're always explaining, you'll never get around to what matters. Where the hell were you yesterday? But the reader is always walking in at the wrong moment. How can anything make sense, if you're not always explaining?

People figure it out. That's what people do -- they build chains of cause and effect. But they'll only take the trouble to figure it out if you make them care -- which means, in the end, if you show how much it matters to you. Where the hell were you yesterday?

Links help. People will construct theories about what's happening. As things happen -- as they come back tomorrow to see how it turned out -- they'll often discover that their theories weren't quite right. (You'll discover the same thing, too: sometimes you don't get the job, or the girl. Some days you win, some days you lose, some days it rains.) But links let people figure out what happened before, helping them form better theories.

Jan 03 26 2003

Best Books

Writing in the New York Review of Science Fiction, TOR editor David Hartwell observes that the many maladies of modern reviewing are at their worst when it comes to year-end Best Books lists. Since no reviewers today read a majority of the year's books, even in a limited field like "science fiction" or "horror", heavily marketed books outscore good books. Many books receive one or two reviews; some receive none.

The situation for hypertexts is even worse, and things aren't much better for people who want to review hypertexts. That's one reason we need Tekka.

But one of the advantages of a weblog is that I know what I read this year. There are 59 books in the list (a few didn't make it into the weblog for one reason or another). Here is my 2002 Best Books list.

American Gods (Neil Gaiman)
The Boston Marriage (David Mamet)
Justice Hall (Laurie King)
The Wild Party (Joseph Moncure March)
The Yellow Admiral (Patrick O'Brian)
Get Shorty (Elmore Leonard)
Bill James Historical Baseball Absract (Bill James)
Buddha's Money (Martin Limon)
My Name Is Captain, Captain. (Judd Morrissey and Lori Talley)
Mystic River (Dennis Lehane)

May 02 7 2002

What things cost

Last night, Linda and I went to Robert Brustein's retirement party. Brustein's an important critic and playwright, and he's directed the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge since the 70's. Linda and I have been going to ART productions for decades.

Going to see the same repertory company for a very long time has some interesting benefits. First, because Brustein's taste in theater aren't mine, we've seen a lot of theater I'd be unlikely to see ticket-by-ticket. I think, over the years, we've seen all of Ibsen and nearly all of Brecht, and I'm happy about that.

Even better, we've seen some of the same actors in a host of parts over a host of years. It's good to know, for example, that you can be Alvin Epstein's age and still improve so much from year to year.

It's also fun to see the threads of connection in a field that isn't yours. Theatrical events like this make it easy because you recognize the names and faces. Before Brustein brought it to Harvard, this was the Yale Rep, and some of those early students (Meryl Streep and Christopher Durang were classmates) have already had long and important careers. And there are also the interesting threads of interest and community, historical (the evening opened with Gershwin, and Brustein arrives in the theater just as the Yiddish theater and the Yiddish world are closing) and artistic (look! there's Art Buchwald! George Fifield and Brooke Adams! David Mamet and Rebecca Pidgeon! Debra Winger! F. Murray Abraham! Mike Wallace!)

Besides sending Brustein on sabbatical in style, the evening funds a scholarship. I hope they keep the pictures. A hundred years from now, the recipient should be given an old-fashioned photograph of the old folks in their antique costumes who came out one night to a Boston nightclub and paid their tuition.

Yes, tuition is expensive (as Elin says in the $35K question). Everything is expensive. "Everyone needs money: that's why they call it money." -- Mamet.

Jill Walker says links are the currency of the Web, and Google seems to agree.

"Everybody needs money. That's why they call it money." -- Mamet

Personally, I think audience is the currency of the Web, and links are they way we get an audience. After all, a kroner is a kroner wherever it is, while a link from a serious and widely-read weblog is worth more than a link from (say) a geocities home page that's been untouched since 1998.

The day had been long, frustrating, and difficult long before 7:30, when Linda and I arrived at the Blacksmith's House to hear Bonnie Friedman read from her new book, The Thief Of Happiness: The Story of an Extraordinary Psychotherapy. Bonnie's an old friend of a friend, and while I confess I haven't read the book yet, I'm confident I'll like it. Her first book, Writing Past Dark, is a wonderful look at the writer's constant companions: fear and envy.

The reading was sold out.

Who has heard of such a thing? A sold out book reading? Bonnie's a fine writer, but she's not Lauren Bacall or John Grisham, and this is non-controversial nonfiction. Go figure.

But, it turns out that we have standby tickets for the ART production of Robert William Sherwood's Absolution, which starts in fifteen minutes. We rush over to the Hasty Pudding. We take our seats. I'm not hoping for much from the play, especially since my monumentally foul mood is not well suited to drama, and I've had too much drama lately.

It's wonderful. Lovely writing, reminiscent of Mamet but not imitative. Superb directing. Benjamin Evett, whom Linda and I have seen in productions spanning five or six years, has a scene that's a revelation, acting that makes you sit up and say, "I didn't know he could do that!" while they're changing the set. And it's an interesting play, too, about three men, once high school kids, who did (or may have done) something very bad when they were very young. I think I know where we're going but I'm not sure, and I'm enjoying the trip.

Then, the stage manager comes out and says that there's been an accident, and the show can't go on: one of the actors got hit on the head backstage. Everyone troops out; the stage manager offers to tell people how the play turns out if they want to come upstage.

As he head for Herrell's, Linda wonders whether all the ice cream will have been removed from Boston. That kind of night.

Mar 02 9 2002

The Corner Bar

I left Chicago before I was old enough to drink, but as a child in Chicago I somehow absorbed the peculiarly midwestern custom of the corner tavern. In Chicago, small neighborhood bars have always been the rule. They are meeting places for workers, mating places for young people, cooling-off places for feuding spouses. My parents rarely went to a tavern, and only to the ones with really good food, like Gene & Georgetti's. (When we got married, our rehearsal dinner was held at the Golden Dome Hickory Pit, which isn't a corner bar but comes close)

Corner taverns aren't pubs, though I'm not sure precisely how they differ. I always enjoy pubs when I'm in England or Scotland, but they're different, an alien world. Cheers was set in Boston, but Boston doesn't really work that way -- the Bull And Finch was a politician's bar, more the Northern annex of the Willard Lobby than The Laugh Inn where Mamet used to hang out.

And so it felt perfectly natural that two old school friends took me to an updated corner bar last night for a good cry in my beer. It was Hoegarden, not Blatz or Hamm's, and they had a fireplace instead of a television, but it felt right.

Nov 01 26 2001

True and False

Mamet on acting.

If you want to go into theater, go into theater. If you want to have made a valiant effort to go into the theater before you go into real estate of law school or marry wealth, then perhaps you should stay in school. (In Books...)

While Mamet and Brustein disagree on the training of actors, it is interesting that they agree on the problem of hobbyists, what Brustein calls "the exaltation of the amateur." Mamet extends this to all artists who have become disconnected from (and financially independent of) the audience, artists who serve a muse (and a grant) without reference to actually moving people, delighting people, changing people.

Amateurs can afford to show contempt for the audience. They needn't bother with craft if they don't feel like it. They needn't get the details exactly right. They needn't do their best, because their intrinsic wonderfulness is expected to compensate. It doesn't matter if they're unintelligible -- just as long as the grant is renewed.

Taken too far, this line of argument leads to naive worship of the box office. It's essential, too, to distinguish the matters that matter from the trappings and the suits of the profession. Lunch at the Four Seasons and the endless book tour matter to nobody, and artistic progress often depends on turning our back on the encrustations of craft and technique and production values.

But there's a germ of truth here, and a source of concern. Too much electronic art is deeply amateur.

Collected essays and criticism from Robert Brustein... notes on theater history (especially "Jews and the American Theater") and critical assesments of major figures (especially Sondheim, Albee, and Mamet) are often fascinating. (In Books....)

Sep 01 22 2001

Games and Drama

An oddity of game theory today is that, while game theorists are arguing that games are not narratives, playwrights are relying on games to explain the nature of drama.

Eskillenen writes that viewing games through the prism of drama is "conceptually weak and ill-grounded.... derived from a very limited knowledge of mere mainstream drama or outdated literary theory.

Mamet writes that, "We rationalize, objectify, and personalize the process of the game exactly as we to that of a play, a drama. For finally it is a drama, with meaning for our lives. Why else would we watch it?" (Three Uses For A Knife, p. 11) Indeed, Mamet describes "The Perfect Game" as the archetype of the three-act structure. "The ball game, then, is perhaps a model of Eisenstein's Theory of Montage: the idea of a SHOT A is synthesized with the idea of a SHOT B to give us a third idea, which third idea is the irreducible building block upon which the play will be constructed."

Part of the problem, I think, are the arbitrary scraps of narrative that some game designers tack on to games as chrome: cutscenes, campaign sequences, and so forth. These rarely matter to the game, but it's easy to think they are important because they're so visible.