« on: May 13, 2008, 08:59:42 AM »
Mamet's Jiu-Jitsu Isn't Just Verbal
By GORDON MARINO
May 13, 2008; Page D9
Santa Monica, Calif.
A well-established black belt in verbal jiu-jitsu, David Mamet has spent much of the past six years on the mats practicing the real Brazilian art of self-defense. The preternaturally prolific Mr. Mamet seems to process his experience by writing about it, and the many hours that he has logged in the world of choke holds is no exception. Fascinated by both the philosophy and culture of martial arts, Mr. Mamet has written and directed the recently released "Redbelt," a movie that he describes as "something between a traditional American fight film and Kurosawa's 'Seven Samurai.'"
Because of the recent explosion of interest in Ultimate Fighting and other forms of professional mixed martial arts, a combat sport that draws upon all types of self-defense, jiu-jitsu has become the rage in the U.S. After a visit to his gym, I asked Mr. Mamet, who now holds a purple belt, how he came by his passion for this combat art. He recalled: "When I moved to L.A., I bumped into my old friend, the actor Ed O'Neill. He had been training with Rorion Gracie, the famous jiu-jitsu teacher. Knowing that I had boxed and wrestled, Ed had long ago promised that if I ever came to L.A. he would get me together with the jiu-jitsu guys. So when we met, I asked him where the nearest studio was and he pointed to a gym right next to the restaurant" -- which happened to be the same establishment where the interview was now being conducted.
While there have been other famous scribblers, often potbellied, with tough-guy alter egos, the 60-year old Mr. Mamet is in fighting fettle and has the appearance of someone who has indentured himself to a physical art. During the film's fervid production process, he still managed to squeeze in at least two jiu-jitsu sessions a week.
Since his jiu-jitsu conversion, Mr. Mamet has taken a few swipes at boxing, even going so far as to say that, in comparison with mixed martial arts, watching boxing is "like watching paint dry." During our session, the former lightweight champion Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini, who is a friend of Mr. Mamet and has a role in "Redbelt," was sitting at a nearby table. A Boxing Hall of Famer, Mr. Mancini participated in a number of legendary bouts that had even hardened fans wincing. I ribbed Mr. Mamet: "Did you tell Boom Boom that boxing is like watching paint dry?"
Mr. Mamet, who ultimately has a profound respect for the great pugilists, laughed and, nodding toward Mr. Mancini, shook his head and said: "Did you see his fights? Wasn't it amazing that he could go like that for 15 rounds? Even now, whenever Ray leads the workouts at the gym, everyone ends up out in the street throwing up. He is the only one that happens with."
Jiu-jitsu is all about prevailing in personal combat. The notion that life is, at bottom, a fight comes naturally to Mr. Mamet, the intellectually pugnacious son of a labor lawyer. I jabbed: "Why would a writer like you and in his 60s spend all this energy thinking about and physically rehearsing for an alley scrape? After all, there are not a lot of people out there looking to throw a punch at David Mamet, are there?" Rolling with my lead, Mr. Mamet replied: "That's true. But jiu-jitsu is all about avoiding confrontation." Continuing in a more personal vein: "It has made me calmer, less inclined to get angry quickly. And it has given me more control over my emotions."
Something of a martial-arts evangelist, Mr. Mamet believes that out of the discipline of jiu-jitsu a certain wisdom and moral discernment bubble up. It is as though, with practice, the puzzles that one faces on the mat -- of husbanding your strength and energy, and of remaining calm enough to glean your opponent's mistakes -- transmogrify into a general sagacity about responding to the battles of workaday life.
In his essays, Mr. Mamet has taken frequent note of the powerful need to belong in America. There can be no doubt that he has found a cadre in his Santa Monica dojo, whom he profoundly respects and feels at home with. Indeed, to hear him tell it, it was largely because of his enchantment with and affection for this subculture that Mr. Mamet resolved to write "Redbelt."
Plato and his teacher Socrates moved fluidly from the gym to the agora. Mr. Mamet, his revered jiu-jitsu mentor Renato Magno, and his circle of bouncers, cops, stunt men, body guards and former soldiers seem to live on tracks between the gym and the nearby restaurant where they regularly congregate for an afternoon repast.
"When I have a problem I will sometimes take it to the group," confessed the natural-born alpha male. Mr. Mamet, who is also an ardent student of the Stoics, elaborated: "For instance, someone who I thought was a friend did something rather traitorous. I asked the guys how they would handle the situation. My teacher Renato, of course, came back with 'Don't carry someone else's weight. Let him carry the weight; let it come back to haunt him.' This is one of the central tenets of jiu-jitsu. When you carry the other person's mass you tire yourself and so lose your ability to think clearly. That was the group's way of telling me to let the situation go, to walk away -- which I did."
However, I suspect that the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright would have found it harder to take the path of least resistance had the nettlesome situation involved one of his movies or plays. Mr. Mamet is an unrepentant moralist when it comes to his art form. In his book "Bambi vs. Godzilla," he chastised the entertainment industry for having lost its appreciation for film's mysterious power to ignite self-transformation. Though DVD players may have replaced the hearth in America, Mr. Mamet believes that most movies today are devoid of true drama, which, he notes in his essay, "Decadence" (1986), always requires engaging "the human capacity for choice."
The choice that sets "Redbelt" in motion is this: The main character, Mike Terry, an Iraq veteran played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, owns a financially troubled jiu-jitsu academy near Hollywood. There is much pressure on Mr. Terry to solve his financial difficulties by fighting professionally. But he is a purist who believes that competition weakens the fighter. Ironically enough, Mike Terry's creator, Mr. Mamet, is himself a zealous fan of mixed-martial-arts competition.
Though he does not regard "Redbelt" as a Bruce Lee-type flick, Mr. Mamet said that one of the greatest challenges was constructing the film's fight sequences: "Jiu-jitsu is a grappling, not a striking form of fighting. Striking is very filmable, because you have distance between the fighters. They come together and then apart, and the audience can follow it. But jiu-jitsu looks much more like wrestling. The fighters are tied up, and instead of fancy kicks and roundhouse punches the most dramatic thing might be one guy working to get a hand free and turn the fight around."
As our conversation drew to a close, Mr. Mamet proved as slippery as a well-oiled grappler, especially when served up some film-school-type questions: "How does 'Redbelt' relate to the rest of your work?" I asked. "It's later," he answered with restraint.
"How does it compare with 'Fight Club'?" I pressed. "I didn't see it," he said.
"Are there any differences from your other works in the use of language in this action-based film?" "None," he snapped, sneaking a glance at his watch. A cue? Pause.
"Well then," I eked out, "what are you doing the rest of the afternoon?"
"Writing. . . I'm always writing."
"On what?" I peeped. "A book of cartoons," responded the Marcus Aurelius of Tinseltown. Smiling warmly and extending his hand, Mr. Mamet emphatically stated: "I have always loved cartoons."
Mr. Marino is a professor of philosophy at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn.