Oleanna – tape 2062

Something a little more nuanced on this tape, with David Mamet’s film of his own play, Oleanna.

I saw the play when it was running in London (in the days when I used to go and see live theatre) with Denis Lawson in the lead role. Here, the lead is the equally brilliant William H Macy.

It’s a two-hander between college professor Macy and a student, Debra Eisenstadt. Macy is in the middle of buying a house, distracted by the process, and on the phone to his wife about the sale, while Eisenstadt is waiting to talk to him about his course. She’s failing, struggling to deal with the course. He’s distracted, keeps interrupting her.

Mamet’s dialogue has a nervous rhythm throughout this. Sentences are almost never completed, the characters interrupt each other, seem to ignore what the other is saying, particularly Macy, and it lends the film an uneasiness.

Some films of plays open them out. but Oleanna is almost relentless in keeping its text intact. Only Macy and Eisenstadt speak any lines, and the few shots that take place outside Macy’s office are dialogue free.

The film has effectively three scenes. In the first, Eisenstadt visits lecturer Macy as she is worried she’ll fail his course, because she doesn’t understand anything about the course. He’s distracted by his house purchase, but he makes an effort to be sympathetic, albeit while mostly ignoring anything she says, and there is some grabbing of arms at one point as he tries to calm her down as she’s explaining that she doesn’t understand anything in his lectures.

Inappropriate Contact

The second scene comes after she has made a complaint to the college, and the tenure committee are reconsidering his offer of tenure. He wanted to meet her to try to persuade her to withdraw her complaint. Needless to say it doesn’t end to his satisfaction.

It’s the last scene that’s the most contentious, and it ends in some violence.

As to the meaning of the piece, it provokes arguments, that’s for sure. Macy’s professor is pompous and self-important, on the verge of receiving tenure at the college, and he definitely acts in an inappropriate way towards Eisenstadt, but when, at the end, we learn that she and her ‘Group’ are considering charges of attempted rape, this seems like the most ludicrous characterisation of the events. And she seems to go out of her way to provoke some reaction from him, not leaving when he tells her repeatedly to leave when he’s told on the phone of the rape charge, then telling him he shouldn’t call his wife ‘baby’.

At this point, she appears to have been transformed into exactly the kind of feminist that a certain segment of the male population seem to think represents the entirety of feminism – man-hating harpies trapping innocent men into behaving ‘out of character’.

I’m not sure David Mamet is a feminist.

After this, recording continues with an episode of Nurses, another Susan Harris sitcom. And look, there’s Gregory Sierra, El Puerco from Soap, playing Gina’s father.

Gregory Sierra

This is followed by some Italian Football, and the recording runs out during that.

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5 comments

  1. Strange man, David Mamet, an aggressive liberal who turned overnight into an aggressive conservative. As for Oleanna, for a film and play about the power of language, those characters sure do talk funny, a handicap because the whole thing feels so artificial and far removed from real life.

    1. The artificiality of the language, and in particular the constant interruption, really annoyed my wife when we watched it. I thought it worked as an alienation device, keeping us away from either character. Whether that was Mamet’s intention I’ve no idea. But naturalistic it most certainly isn’t.

      1. Maybe with SJWs being such an internet hot topic these days, Mamet was prophetic in the way language is mangled and twisted here.

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