' ' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...The Spanish Prisoner

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Some Drivel On...The Spanish Prisoner

Mamet Speak is the phrase given to describe David Mamet’s patented dialogue, whether for the stage or the screen. Most definitions culled from the Interwebs tend to distill Mamet Speak down to its frequent, frequently cacophonous profanity. That, however, sells Mamet Speak short. After all, his 1997 thriller “The Spanish Prisoner” garnered a PG rating, not even PG-13; there is nary a naughty word to be heard. And yet, it is Mamet Speak through and through, that instantly recognizable phonetic prickliness, like when Rebecca Pidgeon asks: “I’n’t it?” How it’s written there is just how it sounds. It is not “Isn’t it?” nor is it “Is it not?” No, she completely drops the ‘s’ and turns “isn” into “in”, the deliberate annunciation emblemizing the rigidity of Mamet Speak. She also recites a line – “Beats workin’” – which is repeated in Mamet’s ensuing film “State & Main”, another hallmark of Mamet Speak, repetition, across his work and within it. “Give him a word!” barks Ed O’Neill’s FBI Team Leader as Felicity Huffman’s FBI agent then barks in lockstep “Give him a word!” What word? What’s it matter? It’s sound and fury signifying everything. And nearly every other soliloquy comes courtesy of the fella – as in, “the fella says.” What fella? Mamet probably. “The fella says,” begins Ricky Jay, “we must never forget that we are human. And as humans we must dream and when we dream we dream of money.” From off camera you hear Steve Martin, in his driest voice, observe more than reply: “Well…..” Well indeed. Mamet the Real Person has become what he’s become but whatever, I missed Mamet Speak.

It’s ironic, then, that a couple years ago, in an interview with No Film School, Mamet stated definitively that movies do not need dialogue. And he’s not wrong, of course. This is an ancient adage not new to Mamet. But even if that sentiment is just as boring as it is true (who wants to a watch a wordless “The Thin Man”?!) it seems specifically untrue for “The Spanish Prisoner”, a movie in which the action is driven entirely by words. In that interview Mamet might cite watching someone else watch a movie on a plane but try watching “The Spanish Prisoner” over someone’s shoulder on a transatlantic flight and see you can tell what’s going on. No, words are the predominant mover and shaker here, which is why Innocent Man Who Ends Up On The Run Joe Ross (Campbell Scott) verbalizes the A Ha! moments, like when noticing a security camera near movie’s end triggers a memory that cracks the case. A more demonstrative shot, granted, could have communicated this too, but Mamet prefers just having Joe say “The security tape” to himself. The most artful shot in The Spanish Prisoner is probably a tilt up from a steaming cup of coffee; every camera shot here is purely functional.

They are functional like The Process is functional. The Process is the never-exactly-explained mathematical thingamabob that Joe Ross invents for his vaguely defined Company that will allow his boss and other wealthy benefactors to control the global markets. If it seems like Joe should be guarding this Process with all his might, he nevertheless proves himself something of a naif, allowing people into his orbit willy-nilly, like Jimmy Dell (Martin), a cryptic if alluring businessperson, and Susan Ricci (Pidgeon), who also works for the vaguely defined Company and makes eyes at Joe, all for nothing more than a kind of social longing. It is that very trusting attitude that ultimately proves his downfall, misplaced goodwill in a world gradually shown to be rigged.

That artificial sensation comes through in the film’s aesthetic, which aside from its tropical opening and a few outdoors scenes near the end, feels, frankly, cheap and hastily erected. The office where Joe works feels unbecoming of the supposed billion-dollar empire behind it, and this whole un-lived in feeling trickles down to even the littlest things, like Susan delivering food from bakery to Joe. As they stand in the kitchen, Joe slices the bread, yet Mamet never provides an insert shot of said slicing. The action is off screen; he could be doing anything. Susan’s affection for Joe, meanwhile, is so insistent that it begins to feel forced too, and that inevitably bears out with Mamet not only evincing a worldview of distrust toward humanity but toward love too. Susan’s just a conniving you-know-what, in other words, out to get him.

If Joe slowly unravels the mystery taking shape he also doesn’t quite save himself. No, the knotty, comical conclusion demonstrates he’s had a guardian angel all along, or, more accurately, a guardian god of machine, the surveillance state as both a deus ex machina and a savior, I swear to God, which is the darkest, funniest thing in the whole movie, a movie that dismantles the system as one not to be trusted but also the only hope that we have.

No comments: