Monday, March 25, 2013

David Mamet's "Phil Spector"

The most surprising thing about David Mamet’s “Phil Spector,” which debuted on HBO last night, was how good it was.

If you, as I, had read the reviews you would have thought that the movie was an uninteresting mess with some good acting thrown in.

I'm sure you know by now that the movie revolved around the relationship between accused murderer Phil Spector and his defense attorney, Linda Kenney Baden. It made for compelling drama. Better yet, it was well acted, well written, well plotted and well constructed. All told, an excellent work. 

Reviewers, however, decided to judge the movie as though it were an investigative report about about the trial of Phil Spector. They wanted to see Spector destroyed and Lana Clarkson emerge as a martyr.

Since Mamet was looking at the case through the eyes of defense attorney Baden, the story placed a greater emphasis on the possibility that Spector might not have murdered Lana Clarkson. It did not omit other damning evidence, but it did introduce enough other information to produce a reasonable doubt.

The critics did not see it this way. They were more worried about the possibility that someone could doubt Spector’s guilt than they were with the artistic merit of the film.

Movie critics, like all art critics, are supposed to judge the aesthetic value of a work of art. When they denounce a film for not affirming their opinion they are judging it as a form of propaganda. 

One cannot help but thinking that some critics were making themselves judge and jury at the trial of David Mamet. They were so offended that Mamet abandoned liberalism in favor of conservatism that they blinded themselves to his film's artistic merits. 

Strangely, most of them contended that since the movie was inspired by real people, it had to be judged according to how faithfully it corresponded to the reality.

If art, as Aristotle said, imitates life it is foolish to say that art should be judged on the basis of verisimilitude. Art has its own rules; it has its own organizing principles. The fact that something happened in the real world does not make it great art. To take an easy example, in the last two episodes of "Girls" Hannah plays out a plot line wherein she punctured an eardrum with a cue tip. The line has nothing to do with anything. It does not add anything to the show's narrative. As I understand it, Dunham included it because the same thing had happened to her. The reasoning is amateurish and unpersuasive. The cue tip episode was simply an artistic error.

When critics take things a step further and denounce a movie because it does not conform to their own beliefs, they are saying that aesthetic value is propaganda value, or better, that they are so convinced of the truth of their opinions that they cannot tolerate anyone who thinks differently. 

If the movie is social commentary, then it might really be about how  Hollywood treats those who deviate from its groupthink. The object of their derision is more David Mamet than Phil Spector.

Some critics also complained that the movie did not give enough attention to Lana Clarkson. Apparently, they know nothing about classical tragedy. 

The film is the tragedy of Phil Spector. He qualifies as a tragic hero because he has fallen from a great height. A tragic hero falls because he suffers from hubris. He sees himself as a god and is brought low by gods who resent his presumption. Such is Aristotle's definition and there is no reason to discard it. Spector's tragedy is the vision of a man who was arguably the greatest music producer of his time being incapable of defending himself when he is tried for murder. 

The film does not end with the jury verdict. It ends when lawyer Baden concludes that Phil Spector is simply too unhinged, too wigged out, too out-of-control to be put on the witness stand.

That is his tragedy. To see it otherwise is to fail to understand the nature of Greek tragedy.

Some reviewers complained that the movie’s action was constricted in time and space. Again, they were showing their own ignorance of classical tragedy. Didn’t Aristotle advise that playwrights respect the three unities: of time, place and action?

Mamet does not do it as well as Sophocles did with Oedipus Tyrannos, but the movie focuses on a single relationship. It compressed the time of the trial and strictly limited the number of places. 

Better yet, the movie contains a Greek chorus of protesters lusting for Spector’s blood.
Reviewers who jumped all over David Mamet for not presenting the story as they wished became part of this chorus.

And then there is the unseen chorus, the Los Angeles jury pool. The defense attorneys are constantly working to discover how they can get through the a Los Angeles jury. 

After all, as Baden and Spector keep mentioning, a Los Angeles jury found O. J. Simpson not guilty of murder. A jury from that city acquitted Michael Jackson of child molestation charges. Still another refused to convict Robert Blake of murdering his wife.

From the beginning of the movie, Baden is pessimistic. She says that Spector is going to serve as a scapegoat for jurors who feel guilty about those other acquittals. This makes sense: isn't a tragic hero a scapegoat, someone whose sacrifice serves to atone for crimes?

Clearly, Phil Spector is less of a household name than any of the other three. Members of a younger generation do not even know what a 45 rpm record looks like. But still, as Spector’s greatest hits waft through the film, you do come to appreciate that he was one of the most important music producers in history.

But then, what was there about Phil Spector that elicited such a harshly negative reaction? If it were merely the fact of having committed murder, the O. J. trial would have elicited a similar reaction. If it were merely his having committed a horrendous crime, the Michael Jackson trial would have provoked similar outrage. If it were merely about killing a woman in cold blood, the jury in the Robert Blake trial would have provoked a chorus of protest.  

We are left with a question, the question that haunts the mind of a Phil Spector who claims that he was innocent and who does not believe that anyone could possibly believe otherwise: What was there about Phil Spector (and David Mamet) that provoked such hostility?

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