Venerated (and, almost as often, ridiculed) playwright-filmmaker-novelist-loudmouth David Mamet seemed to disappear from moviemaking after the quiet failure of his 2008 mixed martial arts drama Redbelt ($7 million budget, $2.6 million global box office), although his 2013 movie for HBO, Phil Spector, garnered strong reviews and a slew of Emmy nominations. Ever the weirdass public figure, you might pin the apparent dissolution of Mamet’s filmmaking career to his ever-embiggening profile as a crypto-fascist barstool shouter, obsessed with masculinity and just generally mashing his face against the uncooperative grain of a handful of industries (let’s call them The Arts) that tend to lean left. You might do that. On the other hand, over the last 10 or 20 years we’ve witnessed a creepily Agatha Christie-like attrition of movie directors of his make and model, very often but not always born during the Truman or Eisenhower administrations, who just can’t get pictures made anymore. Jason Bailey wrote an article about this phenomenon in 2014, citing effectively MIA names as John Waters, David Lynch, and others, arguing that, since the celebrated boom of indie movies in the 1990s, we’ve reached a pretty pass where, if a movie isn’t budgeted at one million or a hundred million dollars (and not between), chances of getting a green light are rapidly approaching zero point zero.
The appearance of having dropped off the face of the earth isn’t necessarily the reality. In a surreal turn of events that’s mostly gone unremarked upon, Mamet contributed a handful of shorts to the comedy website, “Funny or Die”. More in the spirit of the site than might have been intended, these short films lack a certain sense of having been thoroughly workshopped, burning the fuel of something that’s almost a concept, and not really an idea. Danny DeVito gets into makeup as Gandhi while giving an “Inside the Actor’s Studio”-style interview; a theater employee inadvertently makes a puerile pun on the marquee; a movie shoot goes awry when the wind machine creates too much effect; media mogul Arianna Huffington peddles a dual biography of Pablo Picasso and a guy who paints cars at competitive rates.
None of these are particularly funny, although the last one, titled simply Two Painters, wrested from me a modicum of admiration for sticking to its concept longer than necessary. The others have a “cut and run” quality in which they almost seem to apologize for their single, undernourished jokes.
My favorite of the lot is Lost Masterpieces of Pornography, a double-homage that satirizes sober-minded Public Broadcasting fodder, with a straight-faced Ricky Jay introducing a fragment of a vintage 1930s porno movie, itself premised on a break in Supreme Court proceedings devolving into a gang bang. All of the marks of vintage-ness are achieved, from the poor sound recording to the almost non-existent pretexts for getting undressed, but the short derives great charm by risking utter tedium – an unavoidable byproduct of the non-sex parts of a porno. There isn’t any sex in Lost Masterpieces, but there’s plenty of legal banter between justices (played by Ed O’Neill, Bob Jennings, and Jack Wallace) and the sole female, law clerk June Crenshaw (Kristen Bell). The movie grinds to a halt when June can’t or won’t unfasten her bra, and there’s a piece of clandestinely shot footage of her berating one of the men (O’Neill) for having a small penis. A cut returns us to present-day Jay, wearing an apologetic “look, they can’t all be winners” frown, and it’s curtains.
Imperfect as the comedy short can often be, especially at that point in the timeline of internet video, which had not yet reached the machine-tooled efficiency of today’s output, spurred on by Vine and Instagram Video, not to mention billions of dollars flowing through YouTube’s coffers, Lost Masterpieces disappoints as it bows out without a satisfactory punchline. But I found it compelling and dryly funny until that point, as the mystery of how it would proceed, and how long, without a sex act, and what excuses would be made to reinforce the delay. By the time the Dred Scott case seemed to be carrying on for what seemed to be an eternity, I was convinced that this was one of Mamet’s strongest recent films.
Adjudicate the film’s quality for yourself, here.