Great extras intensify Mamet’s best work

[14 September 2009]

By Rene Rodriguez

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Although 1991’s “Homicide” (The Criterion Collection, $40) was only David Mamet’s third outing as a writer-director, the film remains his best and most satisfying. The staccato, unnatural Mamet-speak is accounted for, but the dialogue is less jarring and artificial than in his other pictures. There are a couple of late-inning plot twists, but, unlike the rest of Mamet’s films, this story does not hinge on such trickery.

Most important, “Homicide” cuts deeper than most other Mamet movies, because its theme — a cop (Joe Mantegna) forced to confront his neglected Jewish heritage while investigating the murder of an elderly woman — transcends genre and inflammatory subtexts of racism. Instead, it becomes a memorable meditation on identity and the price we pay when we subvert our essence in order to blend in with others.

The movie is a taut, compelling thriller, but it’s an even better character study of a complicated man who, at a great cost, realizes he is nothing like the person he thinks he is, and the world around him has been in on his lie from the beginning. Everyone was just patronizing him all along. How devastating is that?

Previously unavailable on DVD, “Homicide” gets the deluxe Criterion treatment on a disc that accompanies the movie (which looks fine but not stellar) with a suite of terrific extras, including a documentary featuring interviews with many of Mamet’s stock players about the pleasures of wrangling with his iambic-pentameter dialogue.

The best extra is a commentary track by Mamet and actor William H. Macy, who plays Mantegna’s partner. Clearly enthused by the opportunity to revisit the movie, Mamet talks about the state of independent filmmaking and his approach (he re-reads Joseph Campbell when he starts a new screenplay). He elaborates on the film’s themes of prejudice by observing that when you’re a minority, “everything has racial undertones.” Mamet also reveals the similarity between cops and dramatists: “They know everyone is lying.”



A mammoth (3 1/2 hours!) epic about housework, the 1975 experimental classic “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” (Criterion Collection, $40) is the rare sort of film that can permanently change the way you think about movies — provided you can sit through it.

The title refers to the address of the heroine (the great Delphine Seyrig), a widow with an adolescent son who cleans house, prepares supper, knits and, late every afternoon, entertains a steady clientele of johns who pay her for sex.

That last business is treated as dryly and straightforwardly as the rest of Jeanne’s routine. Directed by then 25-year-old Chantal Akerman, the movie consists of exasperatingly long takes in which we watch Jeanne do the dishes, brew coffee, peel potatoes and prepare a meat loaf. It sounds boring, but it is also strangely mesmerizing — you’ve never been so intrigued by watching people slurp soup — and as three days unfold, and cracks appear within Jeanne’s rigorously structured routine, an unnerving sense of doom begins to build.

The two-disc set includes an excellent assortment of extras, including an hour-long documentary, shot on the set, in which Seyrig forces her recalcitrant director to explain her character’s motivations. There is also much discussion about the picture’s meaning as a “feminist” tract.

Another supplement is a 25-minute interview with Akerman shot earlier this year in which the director, accidentally I suspect, reveals a critical off-camera event that explains the events of the third day more clearly. “Jeanne Dielman” is not for all tastes. But for those with the necessary patience, it is a game-changing masterpiece.

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