TELEVISION REVIEW / An American buffalo lets his hair down

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The Independent Culture
IN THE way these things sometimes happen, I became obsessed with David Mamet's haircut during The South Bank Show (ITV). That plushy dome was so beautifully uniform, factory-made almost, that you wondered how he achieved it. Had it involved some charged dialogue - Mamet's The Haircut?

'I need . . . I need it short, you know?'

'Sure . . . you want it short.'

'No, understand me, no . . . I need it short. I have to be able to rest a dime on it, you know? Sit a dime there and have it hold.'

'No problem - I'll get the clippers.'

'Not shaved, you understand? Not . . . too short . . . You hear what I'm saying?'

'Sure, don't . . .'

'Because I don't . . . no listen . . . please . . . hear me now . . . I don't want to gleam, you understand. The hair must trap the light. I don't want . . . gloss.'

'Sure, relax, hold a dime, trap the light, I can do that.'

'You can . . . I believe you can give this thing to me.'

Whatever, my fascination wasn't entirely off the subject. The hair had things to say. Mamet is someone who bristles in a well-groomed way, offering a calculated persona of rough, tough maleness that was further reinforced here by the setting for the interview, a New York speakeasy. Both men had a glass of bourbon on the table between them - just regular guys hanging out.

(Incidentally, if you don't buy this equation between tonsure and tone try to imagine Melvyn with a crew-cut and see how far you get).

The incipient comedy of Mamet's masculinity - the cigar, the T-shirt, the poker, all that fuss about bears and the woods - is defused by the fact that he's funny about himself. He quoted his wife's reassurance after he had asked her whether a section of his new novel was too obvious - 'Oh darling .

. . no, don't worry . . . it's impenetrable'. And, as this interview proved, he's winningly prepared to talk about the mechanics of his art. He's not one of those writers who gets a fit of the vapours when you ask how he does it, any more than a carpenter would say, 'I don't like to discuss how I put my shelves up - it's a very mysterious process'.

So he had simple and functional things to say about the difference between his films and his plays, illustrated in a how-to sort of manner. Even when he gets more theoretical he does so in a front-porch, proverbial way that makes art out to be much simpler than it is. 'Acting is intention', he explained, 'All one can take on stage is, 'What do I want from the other person?'.' This was a line which did seem to explain the driven nature of much of Mamet's work. That peculiar tension in the plays, the needling insistence of his verbal music, may not be aggression and testosterone but unsated appetite, for love or fame or money.

Even better was his account of the way in which he whittles his writing down to its final form: 'I always knew that a good writer was one who threw out what most other people kept, but then it occurred to me that a good writer is also one who keeps what most other people throw out.' That is surely good enough to go up on the log-cabin wall.

According to 'Shot By a Kid', Ed Stourton's report for Assignment (BBC2), an American child is killed by a bullet every two hours. Even as you were deciding whether you could bear to believe this statistic, others were humming past your ears - guns are already the second largest cause of death for young Americans and the Centre for Disease Control argues that firearm deaths should now be treated as an epidemic. Little chance of that when so many children think a gun will give them immunity and when there's so much money to be made out of the sickness.