Mac (1992): Turturro’s Directing Debut, Tribute to his Working-Class Father

John Cassavetes’ films reflected as much sympathy for their characters as they did for the actors who played them.  Similarly, Mac, John Turturro’s 1992 directorial debut, expresses as much affection for the craft the actor as for the craft of its blue-collar laborer-hero.

The film pays homage to Torturro’s late father, a carpenter who took tremendous pride in his work. Set in Queens in the 1950s, it’s a eulogy to a kind of immigrant experience that’s forever gone from the American scene. Mac recalls Ken Loach’s Riffraff, a British comedy about construction workers, but Torturro’s film is more romantic and less political, perhaps a reflection of the differences between American and British labor.

The movie perceives carpenters as modern Van Goghs, working in brick and mortar, spackle and beam–“people who are artists and don’t even know it.” Celebrating craftsmanship, Mac concerns the costs of technological progress, the slipping standards of excellence in manual work. It’s about the end of the craftsman–a man who dreams of being independent and all the battles he has to go through to do that. Turturro is aware that “not everyone works with their hands, but the ones who do, there’s a sense of worth and they know who they are.” “People who just make money are always hysterical and they’re never at ease with themselves.”

Turturro conceived of the idea in 1980, first writing a play with Brandon Cole, then rewriting the script for a whole decade. Scenes from the play were continuously revised with the actors’ collaboration. In honing his craft, Turturro picked up a few tips from the indie directors he’d worked with, most notably Spike Lee and the Coen brothers. He also credits Italian neo-realist director, Vittorio De Sica, as an influence. But above all, his work derives from Cassavetes: Mac is unmistakably an actor’s film, and like most actor-turned-directors, Torturro relies too heavily on long monologues and close-ups.

It’s rare for an American film to knowingly extol working-class life. The film charts the labors of Mac Vitelli (Turturro), a Queens carpenter who quits his job with an abusive contractor to go into business for himself. Set in the post-WWII suburban housing boom, while financial opportunities were abundant, Mac follows three brothers who start a partnership that eventually shakes up their personal relationships. Mac, the leader, is a task master whose perfectionism alienates his siblings. His hardspokeness can’t keep his brothers (Michael Badalucco and Carl Capotortol) in line, and eventually he executes his dream bitterly alone.

Turturro’s directing stumbles in the neophyte’s danger zone of structure and pace. His sensitive understanding is marred by a crude portrait of ethnicity and a tangled narrative. Nonetheless, there are some small, delightful scenes, as those in which Ellen Barkin, playing a beatnik, lures one of the brothers into bohemia.

The product of a working-class Italian-American family in Rosedale, Torturro started working summers with his father when he was 10. Since Turturro pere was too busy to teach his son the finer work, he was only allowed to do minor jobs, framing, wielding a hammer, mixing cement. Turturro recalled: “As a kid, I thought, ‘I’m not gonna be doing this,’ but then I got to appreciate it.” Turturro’s acting ambitions were resisted, with his father urging him to have something to fall back on, like teaching. It was a typical concern of an immigrant who, having come from Italy as a boy, always worried about financial security.