Thursday, November 05, 2009

ON DVD: HOMICIDE (1991)

It didn't dawn on me until the quietly dynamic "toy train shop" scene, but what David Mamet accomplishes with his recently-to-DVD film Homicide, is a bringing to screen of some of the truest instincts we human beings have in relation to our own ethnic identities. Although the shadow of race plays a part in almost every scene in Homicide, the film isn't interested in any divisive eye-poking like those cartoons made by the socially angry and ridiculous Paul Haggis. Without condemnation, what Mamet is expressing here is almost a scientific fascination with the way people will slide into the comforts of social, racial, or religious segmentation in order to find strength and power and purpose. Much like the famous mob scene in Fritz Lang's Fury, a majority of the people who play prejudices and sling slurs in David Mamet's Baltimore are decent people, they've just been seduced by the elixir of group think.

Joe Mantegna plays Bobby Gold, a homicide detective who is Jewish, but in - what seems like -that very strictly non-practicing way. By chance, he is assigned to the murder case of a white Jewish shop owner in a predominantly black part of the city. At first, Bobby treats the investigation like it's a bit of a chore. He has his sympathies for the loss of life, of course, but when the shop keeper's family lays forth the notion that politics and/or hate were motives in the killing, Bobby shrugs it off as quickly as he can roll his eyes and jerk his knee. But slowly, as that small specter of ethnic identity awakens inside him (simply by being near the customs, history, and elements of his heritage), Bobby lets it become the guiding force in his research. There is a burgeoning sense of cultural allegiance now driving the operational dirt digging. Emotion has trumped logic.

None of the transformations taking place in Bobby are, for a second, meant to imply that the fears and concerns of Homicide's Jewish characters are unwarranted. Not at all. Clearly, there are real forces of hatred and tension present in the city as witnessed in the backroom of the previously mentioned toy train shop (Mamet wonderfully contrasts shots of Mantegna reacting to the innocence of tiny toys with that of the rage in neo-Nazi flags and fliers) and in the off-handed comments of policemen and members of the community. However, the issue remains that Bobby has let the ideas of what he wants to find, how he wants to see it, and who he wants to blame create a tunnel vision in his brain. For a man who leads the life of a lonely homicide detective, a new sense of belonging and identifying must feel invigorating.

It is with this new sense-of-self burning inside of him that Bobby lets the word "nig*er" fly from his lips during a police raid. The slur comes out not because Bobby is a racist, but because his chest has been inflated by the gauntlet of cultural branding he just recently emerged from. His behavior is a sociological phenomenon, much in the same way a black council member calls Bobby a "ki*e" earlier in the film following a heated exchange over a racially sensitive matter. Is the council member a racist? Doubtful. He too is reacting in an emotional setting, with a hurried heartbeat, and a duty of cultural preservation on his mind. But what's brilliant about Homicide is the way it never plays these outbursts as signs of a greater hidden division. In fact, made in 1991, Homicide is a film made by a man who seems to have accepted the reality of a post-racial society. Mamet is simply interested in the natural wonders of tribal identification, something that will forever exist.

By the way, I've just skimmed the surface of what goes on in this film. Homicide begs repeated viewings. There's much to dissect here, and it sort of feels like David Mamet's masterpiece.

14 comments:

Slayton said...

After pretty much dominating the early 90s it is kind of weird that Mamet's films come and go without much fuss at all nowadays. I don't remember any critical hubbub, or any awards chatter, over flicks like "Spartan" and "Redbelt". It's a shame because he's one of our most consistent directors.

Have you seen Maelstrom yet? :D

J.D. said...

SPARTAN is a fantastic film. Very underrated.

HOMICIDE is a really fascinating film as it fits into Mamet's other confidence game films. Bobby Gold is essentially conned into the destroying a white supremacist's propaganda room and for his troubles is ostracized from his fellow police officers which begs the question by film's end, does the end justify the means?

Marilyn said...

It has been a long time since I saw this film (could it really have been as long ago as 1991), but parts of it still stick in my mind. For some reason, the scholar showing Bobby a line in the Talmud that Bobby can't read because it's in Hebrew. "What kind of a Jew are you?" or words to that effect. That sticks with me because I, too, am a Jew who can't read Hebrew, and it also speaks to the arguments going on in Israel at the time about who is a REAL Jew - again, fundamentalism rearing its head. This was a pretty good film, as I recall, which surprised me a bit because Mamet's films can be so stagy and uneven. Thanks for reminding me of it.

bill r. said...

Fox, as a director, I do think this is Mamet's masterpiece, and you probably know I'm a HUGE fan of the guy. But HOMICIDE is so rich, so complex, so devestating (that ending!) as well as being so funny and plain old entertaining, that he'll have to be particularly on his game, and particularly inspired, to match it.

Marilyn, that scene with the scholar has always stuck with me, too. Less for personal reasons, since I'm not Jewish, because it's full of the strange rhythms and obscure references that I've always loved so much about Mamet's dialogue.

I love this movie very, very much.

Fox said...

Slayton-

You're right. Spartan and Redbelt seemed to come and go without much fanfare. I actually just rented Spartan so I could watch it again in light of how much I liked Homicide.

I'm certainly no expert on Mamet, but there seemed to be a strict code of aggression (or rather, an admiration for a strict physically demanding discipline) in Homicide that I remember feeling in Spartan and Redbelt. Again, I'm not deeply versed in Mamet, but I don't recall feeling that vibe in his earlier films.

Fox said...

J.D.-

Well said. I still don't know a lot of the answers to this film. As Bill mentioned below, it's a very complex film even though it seems very easy to digest.

Speaking of being ostracized by his fellow officers, did you - or anyone else - sense a tension between Bobby and the precincts black officers in the final moments of the film? There were some glances that I tied to Bobby saying "nig*er" in front of everyone, but then I thought that they may be 1. angry at him for showing up late, and 2. feeling awkward around him because his partner died.

BTW... that moment when William H. Macy dies is a great one. "Hey Bobby, remember that girl...". The way he delivers it.

Fox said...

Marilyn-

I remember you saying that The Winslow Boy is one of the few things of Mamet that you actually liked. Am I right about that? I haven't seen it yet, but I thought I remember you praising it, and now it's on my list of "to watch soon".

But back to Homicide, that moment you bring up is another great one. It really got me thinking. My first reaction to that man's questioning of his "Jewish-ness" for not speaking/reading Hebrew was "how insulting!". In fact, it made me think of a couple hispanics I know here at work who get upset with their kids (and fellow co-workers) for not speaking or retaining Spanish. "What kind of Mexican are you?", I've heard them say. Of course, it comes out in a half joking manner, but I always think to myself how damaging a comment like that could be. Is it essential to retain your ancestor's language in order retain a sense of your ancestor's culture? And then, what IS your culture anyways if you're three generations away from your native country.

I don't mean to single out hispanics because I'm positive that that kind of "losing your language" bickering came from every first and second generation immigrant in this country, it's just that - hello! - I'm in Texas.

Fox said...

Bill-

I agree that Mamet will have to be really on his game to match what he accomplishes in Homicide. It just has that feeling of everything aligning at the right time. And not only does the film contain all the elements you mentioned, but they are in the right doses as well.

If pushed (and I guess I'm not pushing you!) what would you rank up at least near Homicide?

bill r. said...

Fox, I still think the best thing Mamet has ever done is GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, the play and the film version. Better even then HOMICIDE, I think. But as a director, to one degree or another I've liked all his films. I think that SPARTAN and THE SPANISH PRISONER and HOUSE OF GAMES and even the much maligned OLEANNA all have moments of true greatness, but if I had to pick one that was closest to overall achievement to HOMICIDE, it would be HOUSE OF GAMES.

But THE WINSLOW BOY is very good, it's true.

Marilyn said...

I actually have liked, but not loved, a lot of Mamet's stuff. I love his theatre works. Film took a lot longer to fit him. House of Games is a great early film, but it's awkward. I think he picked up along the way quite a bit. I liked Redbelt, though it wasn't perfect. The Winslow Boy is his most realized work and, ironically, it's not his original story; it's a remake. He's even gotten marginally better at writing women's parts, but he'll never be much good at it.

J.D. said...

Fox:

"Speaking of being ostracized by his fellow officers, did you - or anyone else - sense a tension between Bobby and the precincts black officers in the final moments of the film? There were some glances that I tied to Bobby saying "nig*er" in front of everyone, but then I thought that they may be 1. angry at him for showing up late, and 2. feeling awkward around him because his partner died."

Hmm... I'll have to watch that bit again. That's an interesting observation but now that I'm thinking about it, I think it might've been a reaction to Bobby's partner dying. Maybe, his fellow cops felt that he shoulda done more to save him. That he shoulda been there sooner. that's the feeling I got.

bill r. said...

I didn't think their discomfort around him was racial. I thought it had to do with Sully's death, and the fact that he'd really fucked up, and that they all knew his spot in the department would be significantly diminished as a result. He wasn't one of them anymore.

Rick Olson said...

Is it essential to retain your ancestor's language in order retain a sense of your ancestor's culture?

In "What kind of Jew are you?" the scholar is asking a religious question; you have asked a cultural question. Not the same. For a guy like Bobby, a Jew by ancestry, his heritage makes him Jewish, but he certainly is not Jewish religiously. But like Islam, that other major Semitic religion, Judaism is traditionally very much tied to not only what its scriptures (Torah) say, but the language in which it says it. Hebrew (like Arabic for Muslims) is a holy language for devout, practicing Jews. (from an historical perspective, it's the only ancient language to go extinct and then be resurrected as an everyday language)

I have a friend, now studying to be a Rabbi, who learned to read Hebrew at his synagogue in Sunday school. I say "read" because he could only pronounce the words; he didn't comprehend the language, but being as how it's phonetic, he could read his Torah portion when his turn came around. For awhile, I, a Gentile, understood more Hebrew than he did from my one year I had of it in seminary.

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