Had Groucho Marx been commissioned to write “The Idiot’s Guide to Hollywood,” his efforts might have turned out something like “Bambi vs. Godzilla,” David Mamet’s informative though absurd take on the movie business.
Mamet, for lack of a less irritating phrase, is a literary triple threat. Author of 50 or more plays, screenplays and books, as well as a successful film director, Mamet is more than experienced enough to provide the inside scoop on the film industry. Though his insights are more satirical than cynical, it’s often hard to tell if he’s serious. He offers such sound advice as, “Nothing with a quill pen in it ever made any money,” and, “Almost any movie can be improved by throwing out the first 10 minutes.”
His book’s title comes from “Bambi Meets Godzilla,” a surreal, crudely drawn cartoon short from the ’60s. It is essentially 90 seconds of a cuddly deer eating grass before being flattened by Godzilla’s giant foot. Mamet applies the cartoon as an allegory for Hollywood. The filmmakers are like Bambi, and the studio executives are 400-foot-tall, fire-breathing, atomic lizards talking on Blackberries.
The chapters in “Bambi vs. Godzilla” come in rapid three- to four-page bursts, each devoted to some small or massive aspect of filmmaking. Mamet’s pacing is frenetic, like a little kid with a sugar high. He spends as much time analyzing Federico Fellini as he does “The Sum of All Fears.”
Mamet covers everything from the dawn of cinema with the Lumier brothers to “The Godfather” in the span of a single chapter. It’s all the same to him anyway: “What difference selling moving pictures of a locomotive or selling gloves? It’s just selling.”
“Bambi vs. Godzilla” is peppered with lines like that. Mamet drops bitesize niblets of wisdom all over the place, like popcorn kernels on a movie theater floor. At times, a single passage will contain so many quotable gems that people would think they were reading the “Poor Richard’s Almanac” of filmmaking.
Calling the book nothing more than a string of one-liners would be to unjustly diminish Mamet’s range as a writer. Between observations on the genius of “Galaxy Quest” or why Laurence Olivier is overrated, Mamet provides serious commentary on the true power of movies.
Unapologetic about the bloated excesses of Hollywood, Mamet says, “He who could fool the canny moviegoer up to the last beat should have a house in Bel Air.”
Throughout the book, Mamet is more than willing to heap praise. Bypassing the notion of movies as triumphs of the human spirit, Mamet says the best ones give people a thrill or two. In this regard, he shows his favoritism for plot-centric action movies as opposed to more literary (read: wordy) fare.
He has a sort of love-hate relationship with screenwriters. Because he is one, but also a director, he’s as quick to defend their methods as he is to point out what’s useless about them. The most beautifully written script has little use on a set, Mamet writes, if it doesn’t make clear to the director where to place the camera.
Mamet wisely crafts his often outrageous anecdotes with anonymous characters. And his insider jokes are as funny as they come.
“Bambi vs. Godzilla” received 3 1/2 stars.