`Oleanna' Makes a Riveting Movie

David Mamet's drama, originally staged Off Broadway, is equally powerful on screen

DAVID MAMET'S name is mighty prominent just now. He recently published his first novel, and his adaptation of Anton Chekhov's drama ``Uncle Vanya'' has become Louis Malle's latest film, the wonderful ``Vanya on 42nd Street.''

Most important, Mamet has directed a searing film version of his play ``Oleanna,'' which was riveting in its Off Broadway stage production and retains every bit of its disturbing power on screen.

Mamet's currently high profile is encouraging to observe, since the 1990s have not been turning into a very distinguished decade for thought-provoking media activity. At a time when society's idea of a Major Cultural Event is the formation of a new movie studio by mass-market wizard Steven Spielberg and two of his most crowd-conscious cronies, film producer Jeffrey Katzenberg and music magnate David Geffen, it's good to see a maverick like Mamet continue down his chosen path with hardly a glance at the box-office bonanzas he could easily earn through more conventional projects.

I had the good fortune to see the stage production of ``Oleanna'' in one of its first New York performances, so both its method and its message took me by surprise. If you're interested in Mamet but haven't heard the details of this drama, you'd be well advised to save this review - and any others - until after you've seen the film. I'll try not to reveal more information than necessary, but it's impossible to review the movie without referring to its subject, story, and structure.

Taking its somewhat mysterious title from a utopian community mentioned in an old folk song, ``Oleanna'' has two characters and a single setting. The action occurs in the office of a university professor named John, whose life is quite hectic. He gets frequent phone calls from his wife, who's closing the deal on an expensive house they're buying, and he awaits a message from the tenure committee, confirming that a higher salary and lifetime job security have been approved for him.

It's during this busy period that a student named Carol walks into his office, distressed about her classroom abilities and longing for whatever support her teacher can provide. They talk at length about Carol's trouble with school, John's theories of education, and the shortcomings they both see in the academic world.

Their conversation grows heated at times, especially when both John and Carol have trouble separating scholarly matters from more personal concerns. The first portion of the film ends inconclusively, with the characters still unreconciled and the audience still uncertain where the tale might be heading.

This becomes clear in the second scene, when Carol revisits John to discuss charges of sexual harassment she has officially leveled against him. It appears some of his words and gestures during their first meeting - a touch on the shoulder, an anecdote about lovemaking - were interpreted by Carol as unwarranted liberties that degraded not only herself but all members of her gender and her ``group,'' as she frequently puts it.

Eager to rescue his personal dignity and professional success from what he regards as a wildly unjustified assault, John engages her in an emotional debate that results in yet another round of allegations being filed against him, even more damning than the last. He fights back again during a last encounter with his contentious student, trying to puncture her arguments at every turn - but revealing, in the process, a violent male elitism that has indeed been lurking within his character all the while.

Who is the most aggrieved party in this increasingly furious battle of the sexists?

Mamet's text refuses to provide easy answers, and in the New York production of his original play, the program was printed with two different covers - both dominated by a target with a large bull's-eye at the center, but one showing John and the other showing Carol as the ``victim'' sitting behind it.

Like that production, the film version of ``Oleanna'' balances its dialogues so delicately that audience sympathies zigzag between John and Carol with hardly a letup, never settling on either character for long. Mamet thus indicates the dangers of self-delusion and self-righteousness in today's debates about equality, domination, and what philosopher Michel Foucault has identified as the inseparability of knowledge and power in the modern world.

This verbal tightrope act is difficult to pull off, and it seems to me that some imperfectly tuned nuances of dialogue and camera work give John a slight edge in the movie that he didn't have onstage. But other spectators may feel just the opposite.

IF I'm right about this, then Mamet has again accomplished his feat with extraordinary skill - making ``Oleanna'' the most truly Hitchcockian film of recent years, with an uncanny ability to orchestrate moment-by-moment identification between viewers and characters.

High grades also go to the performers, longtime Mamet collaborator William H. Macy, and newcomer Debra Eisenstadt, who is as convincing on screen as Rebecca Pidgeon was onstage. Pidgeon, who originated the role of Carol but didn't participate in the movie because of pregnancy, provided the film's insinuating music. Andrzej Sekula did the precisely framed cinematography, and Barbara Tulliver did the impeccably timed editing. David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds Wasco were the picture's visual designers.

``Oleanna'' is not rated. It contains offensive language and some violence.

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