Dunciad and Illeanad

American Buffalo
Directed by Michael Corrente. Starring Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Franz, and Sean Nelson.

Grace of My Heart
Directed by Allison Anders. Starring Illeana Douglas, John Turturro, Eric Stoltz, Bruce Davison, and Matt Dillon.

Two dubious cultural forces of the Reagan-Bush era -- playwright David Mamet, who attacked capitalist excess with attention-getting minimalism, and Spy magazine, which attacked suck-up journalism with attention-getting satirical excessiveness -- met in 1989, when Spy contributor David Ives penned "Speed-the-Play: Presenting the Collected Works of David Mamet in Just Under Four Minutes." Noting that a Mamet text consists of "little more than than 'no,' 'yes,' 'but,' 'and' and 'fuck,' half of them italicized" and that even Mamet's most ambitious texts "run a little under 90 minutes, including a 20-minute intermission," Ives provided ruthless yet faithful adaptations of Mamet's major works, including a 53-second version of American Buffalo. His trick was simple: He stated the stuff Mamet's characters always dance around. In his minute rendition of Buffalo, one loser asks the other, "So what do we talk about?" The answer is: "The nature of life. And we say 'fuck' a lot." The third bottom-feeder fulfills both parts of that prescription when he enters with the words, "Fuckin' life."

Of course, Ives was unfair: Part of the fun of seeing an early Mamet play like American Buffalo came precisely from registering how much ambiguity and tension the playwright could squeeze out of "no," "yes," "but," "and," and "fuck." (American Buffalo premiered in Chicago in 1975; I saw it once in L.A., and once in Mamet's recent home base, Cambridge.) By removing the explanations of gutter slang and custom that less audacious playwrights would take pains to put in, Mamet made audiences feel like eavesdroppers; he relied on hints and rhythms to create an aura of revelation and suspense, and deployed profanity so cunningly that epithets came off as lewd inside jokes. Mamet's plays brought to the stage some of the unadulterated urban energy that the crime movies of the '30s and '40s brought to the screen, and with the same liberal target -- the System. But when Mamet himself began to write and direct movies, and when others turned his plays into features, his verbal crackle often short-circuited into dead air. For Mamet's stop-and-start speeches to reach their maximum potency, spectators must be able to sense the performers' breath rate and heartbeat; without that intimacy, what James Agee said of Hemingway applies to Mamet -- his "talk, which on the page used to seem so nearly magical and is still so very good, sounds, on the screen, as cooked-up and formal as an eclogue."

The unholy trio that botches a coin-collection heist in American Buffalo consists of a junk-shop owner named Don, his young gopher, Bobby, and a volatile moocher, Teach. Despite the casting of Dennis Franz as Don, Sean Nelson (of Fresh) as Bobby, and Dustin Hoffman as Teach, the movie version of American Buffalo should go a long way toward pushing Mamet's mannerisms as close to extinction as, well, the American buffalo. The director, Michael Corrente (who made the pallid Scorsesoid flick Federal Hill), merely shoots the script, expanding the action ever so slightly to let in more of the grimy atmosphere outside Don's Resale Shop (the film was shot in a dingy part of Providence, R.I.) and to include a rest stop in Teach's book-strewn hotel room that portrays him as a closet intellectual (after all, he is called Teach). At first, the black-comic snap of the back-alley repartee comes as a relief after the purely reflexive cursing and whining we're used to in dark-side-of-the-city movies, especially when Hoffman tears into Teach's terrifying opening stretch, which starts with him complaining about an imagined insult at a coffee shop and ends with him proclaiming, "The only way to teach these people is to kill them." (He has another choice curse later on: "Guys like these, I like to fuck their wives.") Hoffman is a born fulminator, and you can appreciate his actorliness -- the ponytail he's grown gives him a profile like the Indian's on the buffalo nickel, and he and Franz work overtime both with the props specified in the script, such as (to quote Mamet's stage directions) a "dead-pig leg-spreader," and others that provide barbed, offhand punctuation, like the cheap cigarette lighter they exchange between protestations of loyalty and friendship.

But without the open space around the actors that onstage can let their rants acquire the illusion of substance, the characters -- especially Hoffman's -- swiftly grow tiresome. All you see is these two scavengers, Don and Teach, venting their resentments as they hatch a robbery scheme that's presented as an example of "free enterprise": Teach describes it as the freedom of the individual "to Embark on any Fucking Course that he sees fit in order to secure his honest chance to make a profit." Franz has a couple of advantages over the rest of the cast -- especially in this production, since Corrente and Nelson conceive Bobby as such an innocent it's hard to imagine him as a former drug user. Don shows a soft side in his paternal attitude toward his protege, and he also gets to react laconically to the hyperverbal Teach. So Franz can use his full arsenal of sneaky expressions -- including preternaturally tightened eyes and a sweaty, macho pout -- confident that the camera will pick up on them. Franz, in fact, is prodigious; he expertly conveys the conflicts inside Don as he ponders whether to stick by Bobby as his original partner on the coin job, or to cut him loose in favor of Teach, or to bring in a third man.

The problem is, if Teach is too coherent a character -- a desperate fuck-up -- Don is incoherent, a man whose half-thoughts and broken allegiances make sense only as signs of mental fatigue. Franz's display of humanity begins to seem as much a technical feat as Hoffman's fiddling with a car antenna (he uses it as a catapult to launch some overcooked bacon) or rocking back and forth in a rolling chair before taking a swipe at Nelson. Whenever the one-to-one action flags, director Corrente keeps Mamet's Indictment of American Business Ethics going by shoehorning a photo of the Stars and Stripes or a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. into his compositions. (Since Nelson is black, Teach's protestation to Don, "I'm not your nigger," acquires an added sting.) But Corrente can't prevent us from seeing that under the smoke and mirrors, all Mamet has to offer is a dirty-mouthed Dunciad of the criminal fringe. Despite its place in the theater history books, it's a marginal achievement.

Staggering out of Allison Anders' astoundingly inept Grace of My Heart, a movie that pretends to trace the evolution of a Carole King-like figure from celebrated tunesmith to singer/songwriter, a music-critic colleague muttered, "None of these films ever work." And to judge from such recent efforts as this fiasco and Robert Townsend's 1991 The Five Heartbeats, it would appear that movies about rock 'n' roll roots are as cursed as films about American presidents. But 18 years ago, Floyd Mutrux's American Hot Wax, a tribute to promoter Alan Freed, thrillingly captured early rock's cocksure spirit -- the feeling that a new, hard-driving sound was being born in the country and on the streets, and that any teen-ager with enough talent and gumption could put that sound into his music and turn it into a best-selling record. It even had its own Carole King surrogate in Teenage Louise (played by Laraine Newman), a songwriter aching to get a break for a group that was a cross between Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers and Little Anthony & the Imperials. These '50s teens seemed to move in a collective euphoria, carrying the new beat in their pulses. And when Freed and company wandered through a radio-recording complex similar to New York's Brill Building, and Richard Perry, a rock producer playing a rock producer, coaxed the right number and variety of "doo-wah-doobies" out of a group of former stevedores, the beat extended to Freed's entourage in the facing engineering booth. At moments like that, the symbiosis of rock music and its audience embraced the movie's audience as well.

Grace of My Heart spends a lot of time in the Brill Building at 1619 Broadway, the hit-producing center that songwriter Ellie Greenwich once described as "the most alive place you could imagine back then," but the only time this picture of it will move rock fans is when it causes them to collapse in laughter. Presumably encouraged by her producers (including executive producer Martin Scorsese), Anders, who both wrote and directed, has given us a riches-to-riches story that's also a sob-to-sob story -- in short, it tears out the social roots that gave rise to the appealing scrappiness and optimism of the latter-day Tin Pan Alley. The Brooklyn and Levittown songwriters who gave the Brill Building its fizz are embodied in, yes, a steel heiress from Philadelphia's Main Line -- Edna Buxton, who agrees to change her name to Denise Waverly (and to pretend she comes from South Philly) when she goes to work for Joel Millner (John Turturro), a "nice Hebrew boy" who's actually half-Italian and from Jersey. Waverly has a knack for spinning heartfelt tunes out of pure imagination and a little on-site research, but her cleverness can't keep her from the romantic buffeting of a socialist weasel of a songwriter (Eric Stoltz), a sensitive, married critic/editor/DJ (Bruce Davison), and later, in L.A. and Malibu, a Brian Wilson-esque paranoid genius (Matt Dillon). Anders strews composites of all sorts of real-life characters into this tone-deaf roman of many clefs. Several will have knowledgeable folks scratching their heads: When Bridget Fonda does a cameo as a Shelley Fabares-like pop star with a secret love life, is she just funning or does she really mean to imply that the ingenue from The Donna Reed Show was a lesbian? That's a minor issue compared to Anders' inability to set a mood or detonate a gag, and her determination to make this the saga of a woman who gets by with no help from her lovers and a little help from her friends. Instead of a pop-art odyssey, it's a star vehicle for Illeana Douglas -- an Illeanad. Unfortunately, though Douglas has been a zesty supporting actress in one-note movies like Cape Fear and To Die For, she's emphatically not a star. She overdoes the wet, almond-eyed vulnerability, and even with her unusual full features, she disappears into her garb of many periods -- Edna/Denise glibly changes personal style with every change of clothing, ranging from a sleazy late-'50s red cocktail dress to '60s California casual beachwear. And Anders, perhaps intuiting that she's saddled a Lady Sings Lite Rock with all the torment of a Lady Sings the Blues, veers crazily from nostalgia to burlesque to heartbreak. The audience will either clear out or be on the floor when Dillon as "Jay Phillips of the Riptides" watches Waverly singing in a studio with the magisterial mien of Walter Pidgeon watching Greer Garson labor in a lab in Madame Curie. This misbegotten movie needs all the surprises -- good, bad, or campy -- it can muster. So let's just say that when Dillon takes a nocturnal swim, you fear that he'll bump into the corpses of Fredric March and James Mason.

The movie company hopes to promote heavily the songs written for the film by veteran and contemporary lyricists and composers, sometimes in tandem, like Gerry Goffin (King's ex-partner) and Los Lobos, and Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello. The ersatz setting foils their efforts to revive distant sounds. Maybe I'll feel different if I listen to the soundtrack album, but for now I'd rather pop in a CD from The Brill Building Sound box and hear the real Carole King's charismatic piano backing the Chiffons on "One Fine Day." And I'd rather watch Steve Alpert's Girl Groups: The Story of a Sound, a 65-minute 1983 documentary based on Alan Betrock's book of the same name. (You can still find rental copies of the MGM/UA laserdisc and videotape.) With an hour less running time than Anders, and without her attempt to incorporate every rock influence from the late '50s to the early '70s, the documentary plunges you into the bustle of the Brill Building (where songwriters would start at the top floor and work their way down till they sold their latest number) with absolute authority. There's more modesty and veracity to writer/producers Bob Feldman and Richard Gottehrer's memory of overhearing a girl at a sweet shop hollering, "My boyfriend's back and you're gonna be in trouble," than there is to Denise Waverly witnessing a 12-year-old black girl confronting her 16-year-old boyfriend with her pregnancy in Grace of My Heart. And there's more point to the documentary reviving memories of performers like the Exciters and their dynamite lead singer, Brenda Reid, in a clip of them singing "Tell Him," than there is to Anders trying to merge Memory Lane and Billboard's Top 40. Grace of My Heart is finally so pointless that it's tempting to call it a vanity production, except it's impossible to tell from the outside whose vanity is being satisfied. Anders wastes a musical legacy and lays waste to her actors. Floundering through the role of a late-'50s hipster, Stoltz looks like a human impersonator. I whiled away the time thinking he was really the boy sidekick to the dog scientist in the time-travel segment of the Bullwinkle cartoon show -- that he'd donned beatnik sunglasses and a fake beard and taken a trip on the Way-Back Machine. The filmmakers should have found a way of taking that trip first; this is one of the worst period films since Al Pacino fought the British in Revolution.

American Buffalo opens Friday, Sept. 13, at the Embarcadero Center in S.F. and the Shattuck in Berkeley. Grace of My Heart opens Friday, Sept. 13, at the Kabuki.

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