Friday, September 30, 2005


Oleanna (1994) by David Mamet

In typical Mamet style, the dialog is dense and intense.  The language itself is a little less laced with profanities than usual (until the very end, that is).  Perhaps Mamet was taking a moment to be more like Stoppard.  

John is an elitist intellectual snob.  Something I aspire to, actually.  He refers to higher education as ritualized hazing even though he’s a college professor.  That’s also something about which I happen to agree with him.

Carol is a simple, confused, determined student who comes to him for assistance.  Something I’ve had to do and I assure you it is not a pleasant experience under the best of circumstances.  It’s an admittance of failure, of sorts.

John is having a particularly bad day, or thinks he is, but I think he would have treated Carol as poorly as he did even if he had not been pressed for time and constantly interrupted.  Here in Act I, John and Carol establish their inability to communicate with each other.  They also begin to show the tunnel vision that each of them have that will be their eventual downfall.

John spends a great deal of time trying to get Carol to think independently, to view her world and surroundings with a critical eye.  For various reasons that are never explored, she has never learned how to do this.  John, on the other hand, has gone for so long without ever being questioned about his beliefs that he has forgotten how to teach.  He has fallen into the very trap that he rails against: that just saying the words is enough.

There’s a brief moment where this could have all gone in another direction.  Carol is about to admit to John something about her past, about herself, that is key to her own self image.  The phone rings, John gets distracted again, and the moment is gone.  We never learn what this is that Carol was about to admit.  We could speculate for days about it.  The IMDB message boards, for example, suggest mild autism.

In the larger symbolism, What she is suffering and can’t admit is the complete inability of independent critical thinking that has been lost from modern culture.  She represents a whole generation that has grown up being told, on one hand, that they are entitled to wealth, success, and happiness, but, at the same time, are told that they don’t deserve it and can’t have it.

I’m reading a whole lot into Mamet’s intent, here, and I could be completely wrong.

Carol has grown up with the self image of “bad”.  She has been told that if she works hard, follows the rules, and recites the intellectual catechism, then she will no longer be “bad”.  Could this be a representation of the late Baby Boomer and Gen X demographics?

She is getting a failing grade in John’s class.  That is, she’s not fitting in to the strictures of “society” as defined by the elders.  

John offers his help but has become so immersed in his own self image that he cannot see that he is now part of the problem.  He has made a place for himself in his elder society by being the one who will point out that the Emperor is Naked.  Over time, though, he has given in to the needs of the moment.  He has to support his family and the only way to do that is to conform to the norms of his peers and be granted Tenure.

Even the Rebels become Establishment.

Act I sets up the whole movement of the rest of the story.  The only other external force that comes in to the story is The Group.  Carol is looking for guidance.  When she doesn’t find it from John, she gets involved with what I can only assume is some sort of militant gender-relations-issues-oriented group.  They begin to manipulate her effectively enough to ruin John’s life through Act II and III.

The larger symbolism here?  The Elders have failed the Youth.  The Youth doesn’t have the skill to remain independent.  The Youth will strike out at the Elders.  The Elders will strike back, violently.  Everybody loses.

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