Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business [Buy Now]
By David Mamet
Pantheon, 250 pages, $22
David Mamet has become one of Hollywood's most visible (and intelligent) chroniclers from the inside. He has written and directed films, written and produced Pulitzer Prize-winning plays, and appeared in cameo roles. He also has periodically retreated to his desk to write some 10 books of essays on filmmaking and acting over the past two decades.
Unfortunately, the well seems to have run dry with his uneven collection of essays in Bambi vs. Godzilla, a grab-bag book full of observations, tips on the trade, and tales from the crypt. Here is Mamet riffing on producers, directors, actors, stars, screenwriting, the bureaucrats of the studios, Hollywood's caste system, and the way it grinds art into gruel. "The middlemen in Hollywood are bureaucrats, and they have a natural foe, and this foe is the script."
Many of Mamet's observations have this kind of warmed-over quality, which is a shame, because sometimes he proves he can do so much better. He has a columnist's knack for one-sentence grabbers ("Here's how they got so bad."), an L.A. veteran's sour realism ("Religious films have as much of a chance of increasing humane behavior as Porgy and Bess had of ending segregation.") and a filmmaker's aggrieved sense of always being wronged ("Must all conglomerations become corrupt?")
But it's hard not to wonder why Mamet, whose plays Glengarry Glen Ross and Oleanna, demonstrated such a meticulous love of language, can be so careless with it here. He backs into his points, often using the passive voice, and sloppily reaches sideways into allusions to Lenny Bruce or one of his own works.
Mamet keeps reiterating that Hollywood is a business. Fine. But essay writing is an art -- not practiced well here.
Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity [Buy Now]
By David Lynch
Tarcher/Penguin, 177 pages, $19.95
If David Mamet is one of Hollywood's links to its theatrical past, David Lynch is one of its unholy gurus. With films like Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive, Lynch framed the disturbing dream-life of America at the end of the millennium.
Catching the Big Fish describes just how he accomplished this, and it's a curious mixture of practical trivia and tripped-out descriptions of how 33 years of transcendental meditation helped tuned his antennae.
Lynch's first experience at meditation made him feel as if he "were in an elevator and the cable had been cut. Boom! I fell into bliss -- pure bliss." Since then, he has kept at it, as he says, trying to shrug off the "Suffocating Rubber Clown Suit of Negativity."
The practice appears to have honed his writing, too. Minus a few too many light-bulb metaphors and the occasional wallow in hippie-dippy language, he proves exceptionally good at describing his consciousness and what turns it on. The symmetry between Lynch's visual and written imagery is fascinating. "When I was making Eraserhead," he writes, "which took five years to complete, I thought I was dead."
Death and destruction are clearly inspirations -- states of being that he feels need and deserve understanding and our unflinching regard. In this book, he gives them a written language as alive as his own dark films.
"I don't necessarily love rotting bodies," he writes, "but there's a texture to a rotting body that is unbelievable. Have you ever seen a little rotted animal?"
Ten Days in the Hills [Buy Now]
By Jane Smiley
Knopf, 445 pages, $26
Jane Smiley has looked at the U.S. through the lenses of its various power centers, from real estate to academia. Now she's gone to Hollywood. Unfolding during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Ten Days in the Hills charts the vicissitudes of a group of Tinseltown insiders holed up in mansion in the hills. A director, a how-to-writer, their children, and their ex-lovers all come into play in a novel about the gulf between reality and fantasy.
Smiley is an expert writer of dialogue, and one of the keenest plot-makers around, so the book hums along on a river of smarts, sass, and cheeky references to actual Hollywood figures until it crashes into long, if eloquent speeches about the war. It's the only misstep in this intensely current novel about the erotic but tragic remove of a society which -- as Smiley sees it -- has grown all too used to viewing everything as a show.
John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.