Film and Television Features

Phil Spector

I’ve got a bone to pick with my brethren on the Left.  Just as radical Islamists hate nothing more than an apostate, an offence punishable by death, the Liberal Establishment despises the former hippie who later converts to rabid conservatism.  When someone of David Mamet’s stature changes sides, the knives come out as quick as you can say “You betcha!”  I’m guilty of this behavior myself, as we covered his public declaration of Wingnut-iem on the High and Low Podcast, worrying seriously about how this newfound worldview would affect his art.  But I also think you have to let the evidence speak for itself.  I know my liberal friends will assert that they believe the same thing, but I sometimes get a sneaking suspicion that the apostate is no longer evaluated under same criteria they were formerly, and aspects of their work that used to be viewed as idiosyncratic, now become unforgivable sins.  Case in point: check out the Slate Culture Gabfest’s take on Mamet’s new film for HBO, Phil Spector.  They hated it.  It wasn’t a disappointment, or flawed, or even a bad joke – it was awful.  I assert that if Mamet hadn’t recently hailed Sarah Palin as some kind of hero, misguided as that may be, they would have cut him a whole lot more slack.

You see, here’s the big problem – Phil Spector, the actual person according to the public record, treated women like shit, harassing them and beating them every chance he got.  Sounds plausible to me based on the testimony of Ronnie Spector alone.  Knowing this, one thing you don’t do as a right-thinking person is make a movie about a guy called Phil Spector without making clear what a flaming misogynist he is – that kind of thing makes YOU a misogynist, since all of us lefties know that anyone who doesn’t think all women are both heroes and victims at the same time, all the time, hates women vehemently, and as a logical consequence, all conservatives are therefore defacto misogynists and all their works are execrable.  I realize we are in some dicey waters here, and I don’t want to excuse anything the actual Spector has done.  But there’s a statement that comes on screen at the beginning of this film, a statement that seems to leave everyone scratching their heads, to the effect that it is “a work of fiction”, and that it is not “based on a true story”.  I’m here to assert that this is not just a giant copout.  It’s equivocal, I know, but I understand why it’s there.  In fact, the reaction to the film makes clear that not only was it necessary, it was also almost entirely ineffective.  Do you think when Stagger Lee shot Billy Lyons it went down exactly like Mississippi John Hurt tells it?  Does it matter?  No, people take real events as a jumping-off point for mythmaking, which for some inexplicable reason is something we humans need to do.  Now, when someone tries to mythologize a current event, to use it for their own artistic purposes, to expand on one or two aspects of the reported reality and explore the paths that are suddenly revealed, most of the arbiters of culture and good taste say "wait a minute, that's not how it happened!"  Well, of course not, dummy.  This is a work of fiction; it may suck, but let's at least start from the same point, no matter where we end up.

Mamet is partially to blame for this disconnect.  He overreaches by pushing so hard on Spector’s supposed innocence, it the fairy tale back into a pitched battle against reality.  If he had eased off the innocence pedal and let the story remain as ambiguous as it really is, the film, and the critical reaction, might have been better.  But this is where Mamet, with the enthusiasm of the new convert, let's his need to fight the liberal elite get the best of him.  Which is too bad, because the core of his tale is a fascinating one.  He's basically asking some old questions whose present relevance is still apparent.  What exactly is this thing we call justice, and like in Shirley Jackson's story, The Lottery, does it really matter who suffers the punishment?  And what crime are we punishing, the one being adjudicated in the courts, some past case, or some cultural crime for which we are all vaguely guilty?  And despite the issues surrounding race that drove the O.J. Simpson case, is it not also significant that O.J. was a gregarious, handsome fellow who did not fit our archetype of the crazed killer, while Spector is a short, ugly old man who at first blush appears insane?  Isn't it easier to convict a guy like that?  And if so, is that what we call justice?  Mamet's story encompasses all this with his trademark wit and crackerjack dialogue.  Helen Mirren doesn't have much to do besides sniffle (her character has pneumonia) and ask some questions, but Al Pacino clearly revels in his role, making the most out of playing a man who is both brilliant and crazy, indeed, whose brilliance makes him crazy.  Many, including myself, have been critical of Pacino’s late style of acting which pitches towards the volcanic a little too easily.  Who can forget his ridiculous “She’s got a GREAT ASS!!!” outburst in Heat?  Here he is forced to go quiet and it pays off.  Even when he loses his composure, he is forced by the character’s age and frailty to never go fully into the red.  Basically, he’s just fun to watch and he handles Mamet’s words like a master, where others can trip on their deliberateness.  On the other hand, the writing, while sometimes pedantic and rambling, is less mannered than something like House of Games.  And if you’re going to hear pedantic and rambling, you can do a lot worse than Mamet’s words coming through Pacino’s mouth.

As I touched on already, Spector is not without its flaws.  The idea that a young lawyer would have no idea what a 45 rpm single was, seems patently absurd to me, and it’s an example of using a clunky device to make a point – namely that this guy is a has been that is not going to get the full celebrity pass because no one knows who he is or what he did.  Further, Mirren’s flip overnight from believing in his guilt to championing his innocence is completely unconvincing.  The narrative is a jumble and we feel like we are watching a series of set pieces designed to show off speeches rather than a coherent story with a discernible arc.  I would have been happy to watch the story of their first meeting, like a play with two actors on a single set.

I would engage this movie as its maker has asked, as a work of complete fiction.  Phil Spector the character is just as interesting as Phil Spector the man, and Mamet does a wonderful job of capturing his essence as it appears to the public – a massive contradiction of cruel madness and tortured genius.  And I know it’s harder than it sounds, but please leave your agendas at the door.  You might just enjoy this made up story and its protagonist, even if you understandably revile his real-life counterpart.