January 26, 2001

Mainly Mamet

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As a writer you are constantly exposing yourself. And the movie State and Main is mainly about a question of self, a writer’s question of who he is. Joseph Turner White (played by the amazing Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is an acclaimed playwright penning a screenplay called “The Old Mill.” In his own words, the movie is about “the quest for purity”, although comically it seems that purity is the last quality found among his surrounding Hollywood crowd.

This Hollywood crew, sporting sunglasses and bottles of Evian water, invade the small town of Waterford, VT for filming. Chaos ensues. Yes, State and Main is a scathing satire of the movie industry and all its superficiality, with caricatures including Bob Berrenger (Alec Baldwin), an actor with a fetish for young girls, and Walt Price (played hilariously by William H. Macy), the director who lies and schmoozes his way into everybody’s heart.

Yet, State and Main is also a movie about second chances, about being a moral person, about appreciating simplicity, and about finding yourself. David Mamet, a playwright himself, directed and wrote the movie, and indeed it has the pace of a play. It is slow at times and the dialogue can be bizarre and stilted and would almost work better on a stage. But the strangeness of the dialogue gives characters like Ann Black (Rebecca Pidgeon), who falls in love with Joseph, a quiet beauty.

At one point in the movie Walt asks, “What is it that brought us all here? It was an idea.” It’s the ideas that matter, ideals like purity and courage. Ultimately a writer only tries to place these ideas on the page, the same way a movie tries to place them in pictures before us.

This is cleverly shown in the end of State and Main as the camera pans over an audience of people standing spellbound, watching a scene from Turner’s film unfold before them.

We are just like that audience, you, me, and every person who has ever sat in a darkened room watching an image flicker across a screen. Even when we know that it’s all a lie, that the actor we are watching actually likes prostitutes, that the actress has left her husband and that they’re all actually rich, adored and superficial, we still willingly believe the characters they play. As Walt says astutely in the movie, “It’s not a lie, it’s a gift for fiction.” State and Main has that gift.

Archived article by Paula Neudorf