Tuesday, 13 November 2012

State and Main (2000)

Dir. David Mamet
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rebecca Pidgeon, William H. Macy, Alec Baldwin 

State and Main is the intersection of two roads at the heart of Waterford, Vermont. It is also the intersection of two ways of life when the quiet, quaint town finds itself playing host to a movie crew. A (mostly) good-hearted country welcome awaits the (mostly) cynical and sleazy film industry types. 

Director Walt Price (Fargo’s William H. Macy) is the man with all the problems. They have been run out of New Hampshire after an unspecified ‘incident’ and find themselves needing to relocate filming over the border in to Vermont with no increase in costs. He has to keep the townsfolk sweet, answer questions from the crew about what he wants, placate leading lady Claire Wellesley (Sarah Jessica Parker) who refuses to show her breasts on screen, keep star Bob Barrenger (Pearl Harbor’s Alec Baldwin) out of trouble – it was probably his predilection for school girls that lay behind their problems in NH – and figure out how to complete The Old Mill when it turns out Waterford’s old mill was actually burnt down in 1960. 

Increasingly the man with the answers is playwright Joseph Turner White (Philip Seymour Hoffman). As the writer of the screenplay it is his job to reconcile all the different interests and make up for the lack of an old mill. In this he is helped by sparky local bookshop owner Annie (Rebecca Pidgeon). From her he learns that he has to speak truth and focus upon what is really important. From him she learns that she can do better than her ambitious fiancé Doug (Clark Gregg).

In real life the roles of writer and director were combined in one person – David Mamet. His script sparkles with great cheeky lines, from the old-timers in the diner reading Variety and commenting on opening takes to the insiders’ jokes about the movie industry. Particularly the value of associate producer credits (“It’s what you give to your secretary instead of a raise”). This is a world where money is the most important thing in the world. It is more important than vision or scruples. Why else would Gandhi 2 get made? It is implied Bob had an affair with an underaged girl in New Hampshire; the residents are so annoyed that… they hold the film set hostage. In Vermont Doug is determined to see that Waterford gets its percentage of the gross. He is later bought off when he tries to prosecute Bob for yet another misdemeanour. They have no budget to create a new mill and so solutions have to be found. Joseph is promised a career if he will perjure himself. Claire has an attack of religion and absolutely refuses to show her breasts… unless she is paid an extra $800,000. It is a world of grubby compromises. 

The contrast with pleasant town life could not be more apparent. Everyone is friendly to one another. They are bonded by their love of the Huskies and local amateur theatre. Cops offer women their coats to walk them home in the rain. The majority of people are helpful and not working an angle. The film then is a culture-clash comedy like Sweet Home Alabama or Doc Hollywood. The film it most reminds me of, however, is 1986’s Sweet Liberty. That film almost made it on to my list for North Carolina and sees a film crew descend on a small town to shoot a flagrantly-inaccurate Revolutionary War romance. Writer and director Alan Alda went one better than Mamet – he also starred in his film.
Have you guessed what it is yet?

While Mamet does not feature in State and Main his wife, Rebecca Pidgeon, does. This explains why I had never heard of her alone amongst a cast featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Alec Baldwin, Sarah Jessica Parker, William H. Macy and Julia Stiles. To be fair though, she shines as the pleasant – if somewhat enigmatic – bookstore owner who finds herself attracted to Joseph. This film really encapsulates the idea of the ‘ensemble cast’ with everyone weaving in and out of scenes perfectly. Macy gets the lion's share of the comedy - well him and David Paymer's ball-breaking producer ("I'm going to rip your heart out, then I'm going to piss on your lungs through the hole in your chest! And the best to Marion..."). Yet while there are lovely performances the film does feel at times like a succession of great one-liners. The script is a collection of witty soundbites tied together with plot exposition, almost as if Mamet chose his favourite quotes and then filled in the linking scenes afterwards. Statements appear as non sequiturs: “It’s absurd!” “So’s our electoral process but we still vote.” This is the main let down with the picture. Mamet is trying too hard to be Mamet.

What have I learnt about Vermont?
Vermont contains archetypal little towns (called ‘cities’ despite their small size) that don’t seem to have changed much since the 19th century. While each might be considered interchangeable by outsiders they all have their own distinct quirks and mannerisms and things to set them apart – whether it is the historic stained glass window of Waterford’s fire station, the history of arson, the constant greeting of “Go Huskies” or the mystery of what happened in 1975. Sometimes it is best if outsiders do not even attempt to figure these things out… 

These towns may be small, but they are as riven with politics as everywhere else. And it is certainly not wise to piss off the mayor or his wife! 

It would also be a safe assumption that some of the earliest settlers in these parts were of Scottish extraction. The town is located in Caledonia County, and the mayor (O Brother, Where Art Thou?’s Charles Durning) and his wife (Broadway star Patti LuPone) get all rigged up in pseudo Scottish outfits for their dinner with the film company. 

Can we go there?
The film crew found themselves transplanted to Waterford in Caledonia County. The town really exists. It is set across the Connecticut River from New Hampshire. It has a volunteer fire brigade and everything.

In a possible case of life imitating art, State and Main was set in Vermont, but filmed in Massachusetts. The town of Manchester-by-the-Sea north-east of Boston doubled for Waterbury. The former Belmont School in Malden provided the location for the film’s ‘sets’ (whih included the ‘courthouse’). The Endicott Estate in Dedham (south of Boston) was used for the hotel at which the company stay. 

Overall Rating: 3/5

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