Three Uses of the Knife

Three Uses of the Knife by David MametFull Title: Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama
David Mamet
Publisher: Vintage Books
Number of Pages: 81
How long it took me to read: 3 days
Where I got this book: Anglia Ruskin University library
ISBN: 0-375-70423-X

Like a Moth to a Flame

For the major project stage of my MA Creative Writing, I’ve chosen to continue with my screenplay project. This decision was based on three factors: i) it’s still a new form of writing for me, so I haven’t yet grown disillusioned or bored by it; ii) I’ve always spent more of my free time watching, discussing, and reading about films than I have books, so any study time I spend on it feels more like leisure than work; iii) the final mark for the first act of my screenplay was the highest I’ve received for a creative assignment. Essentially, if you’ll pardon the alliteration, it’s fresh, fun, and flattering. So, before I write another word of the screenplay outline, I’m going to catch up on all the recommended texts for which I didn’t find time during the taught module. This includes Mamet’s Three Uses of the Knife.

What do I know about David Mamet? I know he is a playwright, and has written some screenplays including Glengarry Glenn Ross, which was one of my favourite films as a teenager. I also recall, from the foggy memories of my undergraduate Drama degree, that other people like to talk about him a lot. To me, though, he is just a name and one film. Hopefully, this book will allow me to build a more solid impression of a man revered by so many in the creative industries, as well as inspire me to formulate more ideas for my own screenplay.

Favorite Five

My favorite 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “The ‘information age’ is the creation, by the body politic, through the collective unconscious, of a mechanism of repression, a mechanism that offers us a diversion from our knowledge of our own worthlessness.” (p.53)

4. “Now consider a museum with millions of ‘experiences,’ and those not masterpieces but advertisements. That is what we find on the seven hundred channels of video. What right-thinking individual would spend hours, hours every evening, watching advertisements? Is it not clear that a product which must spend fortunes drawing attention to itself is probably not one we need?” (pp.58-9)

3. “We publish the grosses of motion pictures as news. Might we not next publish the current quote of paintings, to assure us of our correctness in granting them a moment of our time? To a certain extent, we already do this by sticking them in a museum.” (p.60)

2. “The audience wants to be piqued, to be misled, to be disappointed at times, so that it can, finally, be fulfilled. The audience therefore needs the second act to end with a question. This is fine for the audience, as they do not need to know, at this point, what the answer to that question is. But the artist must.” (p.37)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “The same mechanism, called sniping from cover, can be seen in the blank canvases of the 1970s, in action painting, in the wrapping of buildings and natural phenomena in plastic, in performance and video ‘art’. These activities are rather meaningless as art. They do, however, have the power to marshal the individual’s need for release/completion, while not threatening his or her psychic or physical integrity.” (p.54)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“It’s a widely-held banality that the opening sentence of a book is the most important, crucial for engaging the reader and foreshadowing later content. But if a reader doesn’t have the attention span to plough on beyond a single, contextless sentence then is it worth trying to engage them at all? I’m not saying the first sentence, or the first page, is unimportant. Just that too much emphasis is placed on them nowadays, because of the competition inherent in the world of writing. Mamet’s opening line stops me in my tracks. ‘It is in our nature to dramatize.’ (p.1) Well, really? Let’s unravel this: dramatisation is part of human behaviour, we dramatise—this is very obvious. An organism’s ‘nature’ is, by definition, what it does. Maybe I’m falling prey to my own critique of the shiftless modern reader, but isn’t this a little prosaic for an opening line? Would anyone begin a book on fishing with the line ‘Fishing is something that humans do’? Or is it an attempt to demystify the subject for those who find it overwhelming? If so, it comes across as patronising, suggesting that drama is some arcane lore, with Mamet pronouncing himself its deity, preaching to his apprentices with circular arguments designed to extol his own authority.”

“Ok, I’ll come clean: the above paragraph isn’t a true reflection of my thoughts on reading that first line. It’s an example of how we use dramatisation in our everyday lives: not just as a deliberate, conscious art but also as a reflexive behaviour. I’ve blown my reaction to Mamet’s opening statement out of proportion, warped its context, to grab the attention of the reader, using similar dramatic language to that which Mamet himself frequently uses throughout this book. Having said all that, his first line did make me stop and think: it made me consider to what extent drama is part of our nature; to what extent we overlook its importance to our routines, (this, I imagine, is the meaning towards which Mamet was striving). Restructuring, exaggerating, misinterpreting, over-personalising, adapting context—these are the techniques we use when retelling our anecdotal myths to others, to enhance their meaning and to ensure due attention is being paid.

“The essence of what we are saying is more important than presenting an accurate record of events. We characterise ourselves—as I did in the opening paragraph—and that characterisation depends on multiple contexts, from recent events affecting our mood to the perspective bestowed on us by our upbringing. When telling a friend about an argument, we might paint ourselves as a victim. Or, when considering our response to a book, we might try too hard to display an intellectual opinion and come across as pompous. We’re not always in control of the character we create because we’re not painting on a blank canvas. Much depends on the context of our audience as well: how they respond to our drama and the position they adopt towards it. This is why an understanding of our natural dramatisation is useful when attempting to consciously create it, in order to affect and engage rather than confuse and mislead.”

“Unfortunately, a thorough examination of drama does not appear to be forthcoming from this book. While my opening paragraph was a brazen exaggeration of my experience, it wasn’t entirely without truth. I wouldn’t describe Mamet as a self-proclaiming godhead as much as an unreasonably snippy tour guide. I feel as if I’m being driven full-throttle around his unedited thought processes, with no time to stop and examine each landmark, let alone ask questions. Perhaps he is worried that the cracks in their foundations, when given a little leverage, might cause them to topple. When stopping to explore dramatic language or dramatic practice, we’re allowed a slightly closer inspection, but as soon as we approach anything like a basis for his anthropological or psychological beliefs, we speed away again.

“Case in point (the very case that first alerted me to this problem): Mamet makes the statement that ‘children jump around at the end of the day, to expend the last of that day’s energy.’ (p.8) Okay, I’m prepared to accept that. Although some evidence to back up such a statement wouldn’t go astray, it is not outside the realm of my own empirical experience. He then expands on this statement:

“The adult equivalent, when the sun goes down, is to create or witness drama—which is to say, to order the universe into a comprehensible form. Our sundown play/film/gossip is the day’s last exercise of that survival mechanism. In it we attempt to discharge any residual perceptive energies in order to sleep.” (p.8)

“Now hold on just a minute. If a writer is going to make sweeping statements and suppositions on a subject outside of his known expertise, some supporting evidence, some reference to appropriate research, would be very welcome. Can we assume that all peoples around the globe practice this sundown drama-creation exercise? Or is this based entirely on Mamet’s own surrounding culture? And what is this ‘survival mechanism’? Do we have a genetic propensity to create drama? Might it not just be a vestigial behaviour, a residual part of our complex consciousness, a substitute for once feral needs? There is a lot to consider here, but no time for such fancies as empirical testing, because having disgorged this unfounded dictum, Mamet throws the tour bus immediately into gear and drives us off towards the next destination. Sadly, the groundskeeper of this mental landscape forgot to erect the signposts: ‘Beware. Here be spaghetti monsters.’ ”

“I’m also confused over Mamet’s use of ‘Wind-chill factor’ as an everyday dramatic device; it is a small point but given that this is also the title of the first chapter, clearly one that merits consideration. If I’m understanding it correctly, he suggests that this term is used in everyday conversation to lessen our anxiety about climate change (i.e. ‘The temperature may be hotter than normal—but, with the wind-chill factor…’ (p.7)) But surely, if the temperature is hotter than normal, any wind-chill factor would make it seem cooler—the presence of wind-chill should therefore make the speaker more anxious, not less, as clearly the temperature is higher than it appears to be. Perhaps Mamet has some other logic in mind behind this statement (perhaps the ability of the average human to deceive themselves in order to lessen their anxiety), but rather than taking time to clarify this chapter’s eponymous idea, he clouds it with the fumes of the exhaust and speeds away again.”

“I can at least relate some of the discussions of everyday drama provided in the book to my own experience. After all, drama is Mamet’s area of expertise, in which he has forged a career (unlike anthropology or psychology), so I am willing to put up with the occasional spurious assumption about the behavioural origins of drama as long I can access his thoughts about its practice. For example, on the idea that drama is something we unconsciously create, Mamet refers to Eisenstein’s theory of montage: the idea that Shot 1 + Shot 2 = a new meaning that advances the narrative. This is essentially how our brains process sensory information (though with a far more complex array of inputs), thus providing a subjective context and advancing our own personal narratives. From this, I can see how such an idea might be used to ensure the engagement of an audience from one shot to the next. (I also begin to see how such an ability might be genetically favourable for an organism, although I’m not going to start providing rational frameworks for theories the author himself has not bothered to explore).

“For example, when Mamet refers to the dramatisation of commentary in the NFL, I can relate this to my own relationship with the English football leagues (soccer, to some). I don’t care at all for the culture surrounding the sport—I remember too well when a friend convinced me to stand on the terraces at Cambridge United’s Abbey Stadium, feeling increasingly ill from the squash of the roaring crowd—but that doesn’t stop me listening to the commentary and match reports on the radio. I want to hear the stories. They are, admittedly, mostly meaningless outside the context of the sport (even more so now that its major players are multi-millionaire playboys rather than relatable working-class heroes), but still I tune in, hoping for some dramatic event: a sending off, a penalty, a goal, a debatable decision. Each one echoes events I’ve heard a million times previously, but intensity is provided from the context: the teams and their relative positions in the table, the players and their reputations, the managers and their chances of remaining employed for one more day. The vast configuration of events that converge to create each particular moment is fascinating. I do not need to watch it: radio presenters reconstruct the stories according to their own agenda (usually emphasising the drama to encourage the audience to keep listening, though sometimes, in particularly eventless matches, their complaints about the ineptitude of the teams becomes the dramatic force). New meaning is always forthcoming: for some, a goal means salvation, for others, disaster. This can be transferred to the screenplay: visual drama is not just about showing people in antagonistic situations, it’s about providing a context for each new shot to advance the narrative and intrigue the audience.”

“As well as ignoring Mamet’s assumptions, I’m also striving to cope with his lack of adherence to any kind of structure. The lessons of the book appear to have been arranged at random, like a Burroughs cut-up piece. Despite this, they reveal more and more statements with which I can’t help but agree, and it’s always easier to forgive someone’s differences when you perceive their similarities. Mamet denounces anti-Stratfordians as being guilty of the same Flat-Earthing that I laid at his own door; he questions the worth of Problem Plays and derides the false drama of political campaigns and 1960s ‘happenings’. But then, an unexpected tone of self-deprecation emerges in the voice of my guide. He confesses his lack of smarts compared to his audiences, and argues it is not the dramatist’s job to change people—that it shows a lack of respect. What, then, is the purpose of drama? ‘To delight,’ he announces, and ‘…to deal with problems of the soul.’ (pp.26-7) Fearing for my safety, I make a grab for the steering wheel. In the brume of our metaphysical wrestling for control of the bus, it veers into a brick wall.

“ ‘Point to your soul’, I ask Mamet, as we sit amid the wreckage of his tour. ‘Tell me what it is and what it encompasses, and I will consider writing drama to deal with its problems. Until then, I will concern myself with tangible issues that affect real people.’

“I find it hard to equate these sensibilities with the writer of Glengarry Glen Ross, which I always remember as being concerned with social issues. Not wanting to trust my memory of seeing it 20 years ago, I decide to watch it again, and discover I was wrong: it is not a film about social issues. It is a film about weak men extorting each other, a universal idea not bound to any specific society or issue. As Robert McKee would say: archetypal, not stereotypical. But still, I would argue that using drama to open a gateway to social debate, to pave the way for change, is not the same as forcing people to change. If art only exists to delight, its function is nothing more than that of a bubble-blower to an infant. Besides, ‘delight’ seems an odd word to use for somebody so fixated on the merits of tragedy. To fascinate? Possibly. Or perhaps, even better, a word of which Mamet himself makes frequent use: to awe.

“What interests me most during this re-watch of Glengarry Glenn Ross, though, is the realisation that it is not a piece of cinema: it is an on-screen play. It contains no trace of visual imagery, and could easily be transposed directly to audioplay without any loss of meaning, all of which is achieved through dialogue and the occasional sound cue. It is great dialogue, delivered impeccably by an incredible cast, so this realisation hasn’t diluted a drop of my affection for it. It has made me wonder, though, what I am likely to learn about screenplays from Mamet that would be as valuable as the teachings of Bergman, McKee, Truffaut or Eisenstein.”

“At the beginning of Part 2, Mamet’s now-crumpled tour bus sputters to a halt in front of what I’d hoped would be the main attraction—the practice of writing drama. Here, he draws my attention to a single, specific element—the second act of a narrative—and announces that this is where ‘…our concentration has been narrowed to the goal’. (p.35) But all too soon, Mamet is distracted by debates on the nature of ‘art’. I don’t give a damn about making art. I couldn’t begin to tell anyone what ‘art’ is, other than a word with an entirely subjective meaning for anyone who uses it—and, as he himself admits, neither can Mamet. Give me some ideas on how we might involve an audience in a dramatic work, on possible practices for capturing and retaining their attention, and maybe you’ll capture mine. I have to concede, though: I am amused by his laments about the status given to certain ‘works of art’. I grew up in an age where this notion already encompassed people wrapping buildings in plastic, or daubing a canvas with urine, so perhaps this is why I have little interest in creating one.

“Rather than continuing to preach about the ‘soul’, Mamet has now returned to the idea of art emerging from the ‘unconscious’—an easier concept to comprehend. Except that, sometimes, he switches to the ‘subconscious’, as if the two were interchangeable. They are not. What with these constant digressions and his emotional outbursts, I’m beginning to wonder if this treatise is itself one of his attempts to write artistically—it doesn’t read as though it originated entirely in a conscious mind, so haphazard are its contents. Mamet gives the impression of a man with a million and one issues to get off his chest; someone who has only been commissioned to write a tiny book about drama, and yet is determined to somehow discharge all his vexations onto its pages.”

“What, then, have I learned from this book? On the subject of screenwriting, unfortunately, not a lot—even after a second read-through. Once read, all the words, with their lack of reasoned argument and structure, their constant digressions and obscure references, blow away like chaff. Even those with which I agree. If Mamet honestly believes it is not a dramatist’s job to change people, I am proof of his success. There is, however, one vital lesson to take from the final chapter: Mamet and I clearly grew up in very different environments during very different times, harbouring almost polemic ideas about community, tradition and society. Yet, despite this enormous gulf, there are still many points on which we seem to agree: our stories can connect with anyone but making those connections requires a great investment of time, thought and effort.”

Gareth Long

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