David Mamet, the critically acclaimed, controversial playwright/ screenwriter/director/ author, who will be a guest at the 31st Jerusalem Film Festival, running from July 10-20 at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, attended the festival last time in 2002, at the height of the second intifada. Asked to comment on the fact that he is coming back just at the moment when it seems as if a third intifada may be starting, Mamet answers the question, as he answers many questions, with a joke.
“Do you know the old Jewish joke about Abie and Sadie? Abie says to Sadie, ‘When we were little kids in the shtetl and the Cossacks came, you were there. When Hitler, may his name be erased, invaded, you were there. When I had my heart attack, you were there. Sadie, you’re a f**king jinx.’ Well, I hope I’m not a f**king jinx.”
Assured that he is anything but, Mamet, who was interviewed by phone from his Los Angeles office before heading for Israel, laughs. He will read a novella, The Handle and the Hold, at the festival on Friday night.
Without giving away any spoilers, the novella, which is about two Jewish con men in Nevada in the Forties, has a plot turn that makes it an especially appropriate story to be read to an Israeli audience.
Recalling how, on his previous trip, he read Russian Poland, an unproduced screenplay about Jewish mysticism with a framing device similar to The Handle and the Hold, in front of an audience at the Khan Theater, he calls the experience, “one of the highlights of my professional life.”
That’s an amazing statement coming from a writer whose career has included a Pulitzer Prize for Glengarry Glen Ross, and other Broadway hits including Speed-the- Plow, Sexual Perversity in Chicago and American Buffalo. He has also written and directed a number of films, among them Redbelt, House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner, Spartan, Heist and Homicide. In recent years he turned to television, writing the series The Unit and the HBO movie Phil Spector, starring Al Pacino. There has even been a phrase coined to describe his unique (although by now, much imitated) dialogue, a mixture of terse exchanges, profanity and philosophy: Mamet-Speak.
“I mean it,” he says about the Russian Poland reading. He was especially moved when “a soldier in the audience applauded and thanked me for getting it right.”
Israel, and his Jewish identity, means a great deal to Mamet, especially in recent years. Although he says, “I couldn’t order a cup of coffee in modern Hebrew,” he has spent time studying Biblical Hebrew and Torah with his rabbi, Mordecai Finley, since he moved to Los Angeles a few years ago, and before that with Rabbi Lawrence Kushner in Boston. He and Kushner collaborated on a book, Five Cities of Refuge: Weekly Reflections on Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, in 2004.
But another nonfiction book, The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture, that was published in 2011 and chronicles his political metamorphosis from bleeding-heart liberal to a staunchly pro-Israel conservative, alienated him from many of his colleagues and outraged the American Left. When I ask about it, Mamet responds with – you guessed it – another joke. Sort of.
“You [remember] what Abba Eban said? Jews are the only people in the Western world expected to act like Christians.”
Asked whether his four children (two with his first wife, actress Lindsay Crouse, one of whom, Zosia Mamet, is well known for her role as Shoshanna on the television series Girls, and two with his second wife, actress Rebecca Pidgeon) share his affinity for Israel, he actually gets serious – for a moment.
“Three of my four children have been to Israel, and b’ezrat hashem [with God’s help] my son will come next year.”
On this trip, he’s bringing his daughter Clara, an actress who has a small role in the movie Night Moves, which will be shown at the festival. She recently directed the film Two-Bit Waltz, in which she stars, alongside her mother, Rebecca Pidgeon, and William H. Macy, who performs frequently in her father’s plays and films.
“She’s coming, and she said she wanted to visit Safed. I thought, that’s great, she’s interested in the city of Jewish mysticism, where Isaac Luria lived. But she said she wants to go there because it has the best pizza in the world.”
When I ask what he is working on now, Mamet gives an answer I remember from his previous visit, “A musical version of Oklahoma.”
Pressed for a hint about an actual project, he says, “An examination of 12th century Bavarian farm life... OK, in a couple of hours, I’m going to rehearse with Al Pacino, we’re writing a play together.”
Mamet, who livens up the interview with a pop-quiz for his interviewer, which – to my relief – I pass, agrees to one more question before he has to get back to his real work.
Choosing a query I hope will elicit a serious response, I ask what he would choose to write if he were offered $10 million for a play, book, movie or television show. Only half-joking this time, Mamet answers with no hesitation: “The truth is, if somebody came to me and said, I’ll give you $10 million to write X, I would want to write anything but X.”
To buy tickets to his reading and to everything else in the festival, see the festival’s website at jff.org.il.