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David Mamet’s Anne Frank

26 Aug

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Looking at that headline makes me feel as though I mis-typed something. Like I meant to type “In a fervent damask damn” and got an anagram instead. The news that David Mamet, he of Glengarry Glen Ross, hardboiled American men and the injustices of workaday life, foul-mouthed as he is, is taking over a DISNEY adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank. The project has been in the works for a while and the various rumors floating make it seem as though Mamet will include a broader historical perspective beyond just the “coming of age” story.

All this has provided scribes with plenty of opportunity to work out their funny little transgressive re-imaginings, mostly focusing around Anne and Peter and either potatoes or bananas. The Onion probably pulls out the best line with “The lead is recast as Angelo, a 54-year-old longshoreman for whom the attic is a metaphor for sexual repression.” But it is not just awkward because of the difference in temperament and style, but also because Mamet has vociferously argued against The Diary as entertainment. Here are the final passages of Mamet’s essay “December 24” published in the 1999 essay collection Jafsie and John Henry:

“It is as mawkish to ascribe to the Diary literary worth as it would be to “appreciate” the pieced-together menorot of the camp as charming examples of woodcraft.
It is- one cannot even say “a truer understanding,” for it is not for us to understand- but it is, I believe, the only possible approach or relationship to these artifacts, the only permissible relationship, to them, the
Diary included, is silent, distanced respect. They are not and should not be “the possession of the world,” nor should they be pressed into the worlds service as entertainment.
I agree with Cynthia Ozick: Better the diary had been burned.”

So why would Mamet decide to take on this project? Has he gone soft? Out of his mind? Maybe he was inspired by Inglourious Basterds. More probably though, clues for the decision can be found in Mamet’s latest film, Red Belt. Red Belt follows the trials and tribulations of mixed martial arts dojo owner Mike Terry (the always amazing Chiwetel Ejiofor) as he remains faithful and dedicated to his masters’ precepts of honor in the face of all adversity. The flurry of woes- accidental gunshots, insurance failures, debt, crooked actors, fixed fights, scheming wives- are entirely out of Terry’s control. Just as Frank has no control over the invasion of the Third Reich, Terry can only stand firm against the horrors of modern day L.A., a plot structure that Mamet notes in “December 24” is the structure of the comedy and not the character-flaw driven tragedy. Mamet leveled the “comedy” charge derisively against Frank, but the honorable perseverance with which he imbues Terry would seem to indicate that he has softened on that. In Mamet’s earlier work perseverance was coupled with either with alpha-male dominance or world-weary desperation; the even-handed equanimity and fierce spark in Terry’s eye seem purer, motivated by simpler ideals like Franks’ famous epigraph, “Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.”

Terry clearly believes that no matter whatever anyone else may be, he can remain good at heart, which may be the more immediate lesson from The Diary of Anne Frank, or at least the more realistic one. Mamet, hard-nosed New England realist that he is, may be able to bring that sensibility to the story of Anne Frank’s survival, instead of some oversimplified, “mawkish” montage of good versus evil.

(P.S. There is also a cognitive dissonance in looking at the Anne Frank IMDB page and having a banner ad for Inglourious Basterds flashing above- it is a really virulent clash of superego and id. Tarantino’s Frank would wave a bayonet blade and riff on the technical advancements Leni Riefenstahl.)

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