Saturday, May 10, 2008

Redbelt – MM told ya so!

Hey guys,

I just want to briefly follow-up on our
script review of Mamet’s Redbelt, as I finally saw the finished film. It was interesting to see the ways in which Mamet sped-up the plot from how it was written in the script. Some plot points, which in the script took, say, five scenes to get through were accomplished in only two or three scenes. I also admired the discipline Mamet used in trimming his own dialogue, most notably cutting a long, talky dinner scene at Chet Frank’s place.

He changed the opening scene to verbally emphasize more essential plot elements, and he also made the protag, Mike Terry (played brilliantly by
Chiwetel Ejiofor who has an amazing presence), a more sensitive, likeable teacher as opposed to the tough guy in the script. Mike’s dialogue crackled with energy on the page in the first scene as when he had just defeated a man on the mat who scrambles for a fake gun. Mike screams, “You walk on the mat you take your eyes off me? Don’t you take your eyes off me… Oh, you want the gun? You should of shot me sooner.” Or when one student was in a jam and started looking at the clock, Mike said, “The mugger don’t care, the mugger don’t care… you looking at the clock, I’ll fuckin’ kill you myself…”


I was disappointed to see those lines a bit watered-down.

I think Mamet’s dialogue can also be problematic in the editing room, especially when they’re incorporating shot / reverse shot techniques for conversations. Shot / reverse shot is when you have two characters facing each other in a conversation and you cut back-and-forth between closeups of the two talking heads. This can be very problematic, especially when characters delve into serious back-and-forth Mamet-speak, like this exchange between Mike and Gina:

Gina: Tell him…
Mike: Why?
Gina: Why what?
Mike: Why hasn’t he been working there?

When you cut from “tell him” to Mike quickly saying “Why,” then cut to Gina saying “Why what,” and then back to Mike, it’s too jarring to watch. Either stay on Mike as Gina says “Why what” or just put the two actors into the same frame and let them go back and forth like a tennis match, which is what James Foley did in
Glengarry Glen Ross.

Ricky Jay, a regular Mamet actor, was terribly miscast as Marty Brown. He was just reciting the lines and lacked the passion of the words.

And I do recall that Mamet-fied MM character in
our script review calling the ending a “travesty.” Well, let me tell you, this ending just rolled over and flopped right before our eyes. I heard one girl in our theater laugh (hopefully not at the film but I think it might’ve been) and when the credits started rolling, a guy sitting in my row said, “God, that sucked.” Even Ebert criticized the ending in his review:

“In a bewildering series of deceptions, these people entrap the idealistic Mike into debt, betrayal, grief, guilt and cynical disappointments, all leading up to a big televised fight sequence at the end which makes no attempt to be plausible and is interesting (if you are a student of such things) for its visual fakery. We've seen a lot of crowd scenes in which camera angles attempt to create the illusion of thousands of people who aren't really there, but Redbelt seems to be offering a crowd of hundreds (or dozens) who aren't really there. At a key point, in a wildly impossible development, the action shifts out of the ring, and the lights and cameras are focused on a man-to-man showdown in a gangway. The conclusion plays like a low-rent parody of a Rocky victory. The last shot left me underwhelmed.”

I completely agree, and his three star rating might’ve been a half-star too generous. But, generally, I love this kind of premise, a man with principles trying to survive in a corrupt world and his moral choices growing increasingly difficult over the course of three acts where, in the end, everything gets put on the line. It’s either his integrity or his well-being, which includes his marriage, his financial situation, everything. He could do the thing, take the money, make everything right in his little world, but he’d lose his soul. I suspect Mamet was aiming for symbolism above realism in the ending, as he was trying (perhaps too much) to reward Mike for attaining something more valuable than wealth – he preserved his soul. But that never happens in front of a stadium of people. That should’ve happened in a back alley where nobody noticed or cared and Mike walked away alone.



Joshua James said...

I really like the ending you suggested . . . it would have been so awesome alone in an alley, and more true . . .

I kinda now wanna find the time to see this and compare it to the script . . .

Mystery Man said...

And let me just publicly say what I told you in e-mail, that is, you were so very correct about the female characters being a problem. I could really feel it. They were both incomplete as storylines and as characters.

For a film like this, which is only 70% on the critics' Tomatometer, which is about right, I'd rather read the script first and compare it to the finished film and witness how well it plays to an audience. In fact, I'd prefer to do that with most films.


Anonymous said...

Realize I'm late, but just saw the film on HBO. I didn't understand the ending. I thought it was possible that the professor was also corrupt, and supported the fraud, and handed him the redbelt so that he would not expose the truth. I assume, however, that it is more likely that he was awarded the redbelt by the professor because he intended to bring the fraud to light. But earlier it was indicated that the professor was not aware of the fraud, and its not clear how he would have learned of it simply by watching the fight. Oh well....