In 1974, Stuart Gordon was years away from the purgatory of direct to DVD movies, the Spanish castle studios of Charles Band’s Full Moon Entertainment, and the literary work of H.P. Lovecraft. In 1974, he was the founder of a major regional theater Company, the Organic Theater and he had just directed to great acclaim, “Sexual Perversity in Chicago”, a reworking of two short plays by an exciting new playwright, David Mamet.
Flashforward to 2006 and both Gordon and Mamet had gone on to achieve great success in their individual careers, although following very different paths. Mamet, now firmly established as a Pulitzer Prize winning major American playwright had also become very successful in Hollywood. His tightly plotted and sharply crafted screenplays for The Verdict and The Untouchables allowed him the freedom to operate on multiple fronts. He now divided his time as a writer/director for the stage and screen as well as an often uncredited script doctor in high demand. By now, his instantly recognizable stylized dialogue was even given its own name: “MametSpeak”.
Gordon, on the other hand, still wears the albatross of his 1985 filmmaking debut: the outrageous, jaw dropping and brilliant adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Re-Animator. It was a film so distinctive that it immediately typed Gordon as a “Master of Horror”, a label which, unfortunately, damns more than faintly praises those who are so appointed. Such a label traps talents like Gordon, for whom the genre was really just a launching pad for his own brand of grand guignol comedy. If you missed it, The Re-Animator features perhaps the most incredible visual pun ever filmed, in which a decapitated and still living head is made to literally “give head” to a nude Barbara Crampton, strapped to a medical table.
This truely cinematic landmark was only matched by Gordon himself in 1995’s Castle Freak, in which the cannibalistic title character actually “eats out” a prostitute. I am not being facetious for a second when I refer to these scenes as cinematic landmarks. The sly wit that can create this kind of mad satire within the context of splatter horror is very, very rare. These are scenes directed with such a relish for black humor that one can quickly understand the attraction that Edmond would have for the director. But Edmond may be the first real “horror film” Gordon has made.
Mamet’s 1982 play is beyond black comedy, it’s a comedy in almost total stygian darkness. A comedy where the laughs make you cough up razor blades. But for those who are not repulsed by the lead character’s questionable actions, the play’s litany of racial and sexual “slurs”, and the sudden savage violence, Edmond makes for hilarious and often provocative comedy, all at the expense of that particularly confused species, the white American male.
This is the approach that William H. Macy takes with the character of Edmond Burke, a character that on the page can appear to be nothing more than a ranting madman. Macy keeps the audience on his side by emphasizing the character’s desperation at the state of his life, at the falseness of it all. Edmond desperately needs the world to be straight with him and to do that he needs everyone to be straight with their selves. So, after being told by a fortune teller that, “You are not where you belong”, he goes home and tells his wife(Rebecca Pidgeon) that he’s leaving her. Right this second.
He leaves and begins his night long odyssey through a highly sexualized “Leisure Suit Larry” New York City of nothing but bars, whorehouses, and strip clubs, peopled by the people who work there: hookers, pimps, street hustlers working the three card monte, and waitresses, waitresses who think of themselves as “actresses”. These are all people for sale or with something to sell; the “unwashed masses” as coined by that other Ed Burke, the 18th century Whig and philosopher whose name Mamet hangs on his protagonist.
Edmond receives some characteristically bad advice from a barfly confessor played to perfection by Mamet veteran Joe Mantegna. Mantegna tells him that it’s all about, “Pussy, power, self destruction, and more pussy”, and encourages Edmond to get on with it. Edmond looks for love in all the wrong places and is frustrated in his attempts to pay for it with a trio of unattainable and unlikely beauties played by Denise Richards, Bai Ling, and Mena Suvari. All are well cast by Gordon for their movie star faces, thus making them all the more idealized for Edmond. But their charms come at too high a price for him and he finally unleashes his frustrations on a pimp (Lionel Mark Smith) selling sex to the wrong guy at the wrong time.
Edmond finally picks one of these aforementioned waitresses up, an innocent but neurotic young woman named Glenna played by Julia Stiles. He tells her straight up that he wants to go to bed with her. They do and after having sex, Edmond gets himself worked up telling her how he killed a pimp with a knife. A knife he holds in front of her, ranting about the white man’s fear of a black planet in his boxer shorts. Glenna is initially not the least bit uncomfortable with his bigotry, soon revealing her comparable homophobia in her dislike of gay men whom she believes, all really “hate women”. Glenna tells Edmond that she is an actress, not a waitress. But Edmond wants the truth, wants her to be truthful with herself. “I am a waitress
. he tells her to repeat after him. “I am a waitress”.
As Edmond begins to express his repressed feelings about homosexuality and racial prejudice, he feels a surge of excitement, as though he were a truly free man to speak his mind this way. The Angry White Male triumphant in the frank admission of his latent racism and homophobia. But in the end, arrested for a murder he feels was caused by drinking “too much coffee”, he returns to a life much as he had in the beginning, this time trading the symbolic for the literal, an actual prison cell he shares not with his wife, but with his new lover, a black man whom he cuddles with and gently kisses goodnight. But there is a sense of calm to this coda as Edmond seems to have finally found just where he really belonged.
Gordon succeeds in adapting this play to the screen by keeping its theatrical qualities intact. It’s not so much “opened up” as it is “closed down” in tight framings trapped in small rooms. The streets at night seem dark and hopeless and everything gets tighter and tighter until it ends inside a prison cell. Gordon cites many influences as a director, from Roman Polanski to Antonin Artaud, but I always suspected that it was actually the notorious Monty Python sketch, “Sam Peckinpah’s Salad Days”, that was at the secret, spiritual heart of his work. That sketch features an English afternoon outing plagued by a series of intensely gory accidents that grow bloodier and bloodier to the point of total absurdity. Gordon has one such moment in Edmond, and it’s very funny, indeed — and also quite disturbing. In fact, it’s what’s left out of this scene that demonstrates his talents as a filmmaker. A shot of the murder victim was indeed shot and is included, gore effects and all, on the DVD’s deleted scenes extras. His decision to delete the shot from the film demonstrates a real control of tone and the complex balance required by this particular script to tip toe carefully between jet black humor and comic tragedy.
To this end, the cast is absolutely flawless in capturing the rhythms and insistent repetitions that make Mamet’s writing so effective. Each shades their characters with an angle that fleshes out their brief appearances. Edmond also marks the second film and third work overall that Julia Stiles has done with Mamet and she is becoming quite clearly a new member of his stock company, having a way with his words that seems as natural as Mantegna or Rebecca Pidgeon.
Or as natural as William H. Macy, who has done so many films and plays with Mamet that he and Mantegna could be considered the Lemmon and Matthau to Mamet’s Billy Wilder. Macy is simply amazing in this movie, finding the essential humanity in a role that would be a nightmare to any actor. Macy has nothing to prove but it’s clearly his best work to date onscreen.
The DVD comes complete with a “video diary”, deleted scenes, the trailer, and most amazingly, two separate audio commentaries, one by Gordon, the other by Mamet. Both are quite forthcoming about their work on the film, with Mamet in particular seeming to really enjoy re-examining his writing from so many years ago. He tries to put the piece into a context, trying to define it as perhaps a noir or a tragicomedy about the repressed beliefs in all of us. But the script never tries to come to any simple explanations for this man’s complex actions. Maybe, in the end, Edmond was right. Maybe it really was just because he had “too much coffee”.