By now (I admittedly assume), many of you have at the very least heard that HBO has made a movie called Phil Spector. If you’ve been reading my blog at all you’ll also know that I was at some point legitimately interested in this movie, until they bewigged Al Pacino (who plays Phil Spector) so profoundly that he ended up bearing a striking resemblance to Bea Arthur.
It was on. I watched it. And it? Was. Terrible. Though it was terrible in a weird way.
I mean, the acting is actually quite good. Jeffrey Tambor, as always, turns in a solid supporting performance. Helen Mirren is hard to not admire and Pacino has “googley-eyed, crazed, self-absorbed and possibly violent narcissist” down cold, though I’ve never quite forgiven him for casting Winona Ryder as Lady Anne in Looking for Richard. But I digress. So no, it’s not the acting. It’s everything else.
David Mamet produced, wrote, and directed this movie. I kind of have a love/hate relationship with David Mamet. On the one hand, he and I are worlds apart in our personal philosophy and politics, and I’m fairly sure that if I were to spend any time with him I’d end up wanting to staple things to his face. On the other hand, his films include The Untouchables and Glengarry Glen Ross, both of which I will be grateful for forever. I’m not completely dead-set against his filmmaking, as a rule, though to be fair the movies he’s done that I like are 20+ years old.
Phil Spector has its own agenda. According to the production team (including, of course, Mamet), it is an allegory, which means it’s “…a device in which characters or events in a literary, visual, or musical art form represent or symbolize ideas and concepts.” Allegory is a powerful tool that has generated significant social commentary. Pink Floyd’s The Wall is an allegory. So is The Matrix, and Animal Farm, and The Planet of the Apes, and The Lord of the Flies. To name but a few. There is, however, a common thread that runs through all these stories: they’re made up. We haven’t REALLY landed on an ape planet, there isn’t REALLY a musician named Pink telling us that we don’t need no education, and we aren’t REALLY batteries inside a giant computer program (that we know of).
Allegories can, of course, have a factual basis or inspiration; Animal Farm, for example, was an allegory about the rise of Stalinism. But it’s not set in the Kremlin, featuring people instead of animals, with a mustachioed tyrant named Joseph in charge. p.s. That’s why, as an allegory, it works.
In an attempt to prove the movie Phil Spector is an existential allegory, HBO has included a disclaimer at the beginning of the movie that reads (verbatim):
This is a work of fiction. It’s not “based on a true story.” It is a drama inspired by actual persons in a trial, but it is neither an attempt to depict the actual persons, nor to comment upon the trial or its outcome.
They could have put the same kind of disclaimer at the beginning of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter with equal validity. Look!
This is a work of fiction. It’s not “based on a true story”. It is a drama inspired by an actual person who occupied the American presidency, but it is neither an attempt to depict the actual persons, nor to comment upon the events of that person’s early life or his path to the presidency.
And that’s what pisses me off. David Mamet, I’ll say it here. You, sir, are a dirty, dirty liar.
It’s not based on a true story except that its storytelling employs:
- Actual people (Phil Spector, lawyer Linda Kenney Baden, dead person Lana Clarkson)
- An actual event (the murder of Lana Clarkson and subsequent trial of Phil Spector)
- Actual witness testimony (i.e., the experts called in to testify, showing taped testimony from ex-wife Ronnie Spector as she recounted his history of violence with her)
- Actual evidence that supported Spector’s claim (the lack of blood spatter on his coat)
- Actual evidence the defense disputed (i.e., the chauffeur’s testimony, disputed because “he doesn’t understand English”)
And so on. It’s not “based on a true story” except when it is.
So there we are, watching a movie about a guy that we know exists concerning an event that we know happened. And the sets and costuming look right and the evidence is confusing and trying to get past Phil Spector’s (sorry, I mean Al Pacino’s, since this isn’t a movie about Phil Spector, amirite?) massive array of wigs is exhausting… David Mamet is a smart guy. If, and I mean only if, Mamet & Co. had written the same movie, with the same characters and the same script, and called it Schnil Schnector, then I wouldn’t care about it even a little. I mean, there’s a perfectly fine, allegorical film about the perils of rock-stardom called The Rose that everyone knows is actually mostly about Janis Joplin but isn’t because the writers didn’t use that name. But calling the movie something else wouldn’t allow him (or HBO) to capitalize on the public interest in a lurid trial. Thus, he calls it Phil Spector and incorporates real evidence and creates the illusion of reality, while his bullshit disclaimer asks us all to ignore the man behind the curtain. It’s disingenuous (to put it kindly) for him to suggest that people wouldn’t see his movie as a biopic/docudrama.
The woman–the dead person–whose brains ended up on Phil Spector’s floor (for real) is barely a factor in this movie, and only then as a suicidally depressed failed actress with a streak of kink (they suggest she wanted the gun for foreplay). They don’t mention that her blood was found on the staircase (don’t think she was doing much walking after the bullet severed her spine) or that it looked like Spector made a drunken attempt to clean up evidence (there was a diaper used to mop up her blood in the garbage can of a nearby bathroom) or that the gun that killed her was found in her left hand, even though she was a righty. They don’t mention that she had her purse on her shoulder, which sounds less like “I’m going to kill myself” and more like, “I’m outta here!” Surely if I can access this sort of information from a cursory cruise through the internet, David Mamet’s research team could, as well.
One reviewer said this “allegory” was written to tell the story of the idealized, rational American (personified in the movie by lawyer Linda Kenney Baden) who takes the time to review evidence before making a decision. I wonder if that reviewer will ever appreciate the irony that–even allegorically–there is no rational decision making when you’ve only got half the evidence, which is at most all this movie presents. Their claim, using the Spector case as a basis, is that successful men are all targets for haters who want The Patriarchy taken down. If what the Idiot Left wants to do is take down successful men, then why (God in Heaven, why?) is Donald Trump still freely roaming the world, generating money at will?
It’s not that I object to someone having a different opinion than I do. I acknowledge that my opinion about Phil Spector’s guilt or innocence is based on what I kind-of know about this case + his alleged reputation for abuse. I don’t know what I would have thought if I sat on his jury. But twelve people who were presented with the entirety of the evidence found him guilty. Twisting Phil Spector’s already twisted, tragic story so that it is beholden to Mamet’s personal agenda is evidence only of Mamet’s self-aggrandizing stance as a beleaguered “Successful Man” still nursing a grudge from the flack he caught over Oleanna. Phil Spector, the real person, whose contributions to the world of rock & roll were groundbreaking, deserves more than to be a pawn for David Mamet’s personal crusades. Lana Clarkson, the dead woman at the center of this all, also did not die so she could be Mamet’s whipping post. What David Mamet does in Phil Spector is a disservice to the public discourse, to all the people whose lives have been directly impacted by this case, and the concept of “allegory”. What I object to, in this movie, is Mamet’s shitty storytelling.