Thu 7.18.2013

David Mamet and Ricky Jay Share Their Love of the Useless

They talked about poker hands and favorite films from the Criterion Collection. They talked about legendary magic tricks and vaudeville performers. They talked about eating sushi and staying at the Chateau Marmont. Two good friends, Ricky Jay, the sleight-of-hand artist and actor, and David Mamet, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and director, treated a packed house at the 2013 Los Angeles Film Festival to an hour of riffing on all manner of things Mamet himself called “useless.”

“Ricky and I are fans of arcana,” said Mamet at the start of the evening. “If it is useless, it tends to stick in our memories.”

In a minute, they were talking about Broderick Crawford, about his star turns in Highway Patrol and Gentlemen’s Agreement, and how he made a commercial for Canada Dry ginger ale.

At one point, Jay pulled a list out of his pocket of his favorite Criterion reissues. If there was a theme to the evening, this list was it. If there was a momentary lull, Jay would throw out another title. “The 39 Steps,” Jay read.

“I fucking hate the 39 steps. I only love the first 22,” said Mamet.

The conversation leered to the topic of vaudeville acts, including Eddie, a cellist who billed himself “the cry artist,” because he cried into a bucket while he played.

Another film from the list: “The Lady Eve,” read Jay.

“Best film ever made. Duh,” said Mamet.

After a momentary mention of Preston Sturges, Mamet said, “Thirty years ago, if you were a writer, they’d put you at the Chateau Marmont, which was beyond a dump.”

F for Fake,” read Jay. “Orson Welles film,” answered Mamet.

Night in the City,” read Jay. “A wrestling film,” said Mamet.

Oliver Twist,” said Jay, which prompted Mamet to tell a story about Raymond Chandler that ended with the punch line, “Olive or twist? We’ll order later.”

After a brief mention of The Seven Samurai and Ed McBain, Jay said, “When I first came to Los Angeles, I went to the Toho La Brea theater and watched Japanese cinema.” He still remembers some of the commercials.

“You know, I’m an expert in modern poetry,” Mamet responded. He said he knows The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by heart and added, “It is of course a rap song.” Then he quipped, “The only reason T.S. Eliot has an ‘s’ in his name is because his name is ‘toilet’ spelled backward.”

The next film on the list was I Know Where I’m Going!, prompting both men, practically in unison, to exclaim, “It’s my wife’s favorite film.”

An audience member asked about Jay’s broken dice collection at the Museum of Jurassic Technology. “It’s the place I bring visitors to L.A.,” he replied.

Someone mentioned Mamet’s book True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor, and asked whether he plans to write more about acting. “I don’t know anything about acting. I love what they do,” Mamet answered. “I stand back and admire them.”

Another question was about Mamet’s play, Oleanna, “Is there really a group or is Carol making that up?” Answered Mamet. “There is always a group.”

By Pamela Ezell / LA Film Fest Guest Blogger