Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Mike Nichols (1931–2014)

Mike Nichols was a great actors' director. He made some excellent camera choices, but what set him apart from his peers was his consistent facility for coaxing superb performances from his cast. Nichols started in theater as a performer and continued to direct for the stage throughout his life. He was extremely intelligent about analyzing the essence of a story and scene, breaking down the beats (especially the subtext), and helping the performers make them into living moments. If you listen to his commentaries or interviews, it's a real pleasure to hear him discuss small moments in a performance and little tricks he used on set or in rehearsal to get an actor into the right mental space. He possessed great empathy as a director, and had a fine understanding of human behavior, particularly what was going on below the surface and how it drove people to act – the indirect, circuitous, and even self-defeating ways we funny human beings behave. Watch The Graduate, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or any of his other films, and you'll encounter wonderfully human moments – comic, tragic, or both—of poorly managed anxiety, fearful hope, constrained despair, displaced anger, petty spiteful revenge, small understated kindness, and relaxed grace. Actors and directors who take the art and craft seriously could do far worse than to study the work of Nichols (along with that of Ingmar Bergman and a handful of other directors). Even Nichols' more uneven films (such as Wolf and Primary Colors) contain some accomplished scenes that can serve as master classes on acting and directing.

Nichols confessed that he didn't love performing, that he found it draining, in contrast with his stage (and occasional writing) partner Elaine May, who thrived on it. As a result, he was extremely sympathetic to his actors and tried to support them as much as possible, especially in emotionally vulnerable scenes. My favorite interview moment with Nichols came when he was asked about his directing style (by Charlie Rose) and he spoke about these dynamics. Nichols talked about how lonely and naked it can on stage or in front of the camera, and what he tried to give his actors to alleviate that. Rose then played a clip of Kathy Bates (who justifiably received a Oscar nomination for Primary Colors) gushing about Mike Nichols – with other directors, it was often different, but with Mike, you weren't alone out there. (Brenda Blethyn said something similar in a Q&A session – if she felt her director's support, that level of trust, she could "go anywhere" in a scene.) Nichols was slightly embarrassed but moved by the Bates clip. What she said is about the greatest compliment a director can receive, and for Nichols, it was well-deserved.

From The New York Times, an obituary, an appraisal by Ben Brantley and reactions from colleagues. The obituary has some choice passages:

“A director’s chief virtue should be to persuade you through a role; Mike’s the only one I know who can do it,” Burton said after the film was finished, a remarkable compliment from a renowned actor for a fledgling director. “He conspires with you to get your best. He’d make me throw away a line where I’d have hit it hard. I’ve seen the film with an audience and he’s right every time. I didn’t think I could learn anything about comedy — I’d done all of Shakespeare’s. But from him I learned.” . . .

“I’ve always been impressed by the fact that upon entering a room full of people, you find them saying one thing, doing another and wishing they were doing a third,” [Nichols] said in a 1965 interview with the weekly newspaper The National Observer, now defunct. “The words are secondary and the secrets are primary. That’s what interests me most.” . . .

“But what I really thought [improvisation] was useful for was directing,” he said, “because it also teaches you what a scene is made of — you know, what needs to happen. See, I think the audience asks the question, ‘Why are you telling me this?’ And improvisation teaches you that you must answer it. There must be a specific answer. It also teaches you when the beginning is over and it’s time for the middle, and when you’ve had enough middle and it’s time already for the end. And those are all very useful things in directing.”

Los Angeles Times coverage includes an obituary and a full archive of new and old pieces on him, covering his versatility, how he worked with stars, and what he learned from success and failure.

The Washington Post provides an obituary and reactions from colleagues.

NPR offers multiple pieces on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, The Two Way, a text obituary with video clips, and older interviews on Talk of the Nation and Fresh Air.

Charlie Rose interviewed Nichols several times, and spoke about him for CBS News.

Elaine May's salute to Nichols for his AFI Life Achievement Award is predictably funny. For his Kennedy Center honors, she observed, "Mike has chosen to do things that are really meaningful and that have real impact and real relevance, but he makes them so entertaining and exciting that they're as much fun as if they were trash."

Roy Edroso has a good remembrance.

Mark Evanier posts a great Nichols and May sketch, recommends a commentary track (and Todd McCarthy's 2012 appreciation of Nichols for The Hollywood Reporter) and passes on Nichols' five rules for filmmaking:

1. The careful application of terror is an important form of communication.

2. Anything worth fighting for is worth fighting dirty for.

3. There's absolutely no substitute for genuine lack of preparation.

4. If you think there's good in everybody, you haven't met everybody.

5. Friends may come and go, but enemies will certainly become studio heads.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving (and Food Banks) 2014

This is a good time of year for those with the means to donate to their local food banks and for those in need to get assistance. In my area, the Los Angeles food banks make a little go a long way. The Feeding America site has a useful national food bank locator.

Best wishes to all those in need.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Armistice Day 11/11/14

(Click on the comic strip for a larger view.)

In 1959, Pogo creator Walt Kelly wrote:

The eleventh day of the eleventh month has always seemed to me to be special. Even if the reason for it fell apart as the years went on, it was a symbol of something close to the high part of the heart. Perhaps a life that stretches through two or three wars takes its first war rather seriously, but I still think we should have kept the name "Armistice Day." Its implications were a little more profound, a little more hopeful.

You said it, brother.

Thanks to all who have served or are serving, on this Veterans Day, or Remembrance Day, or Armistice Day. (This year is the centennial of the start of the Great War.)

This post is mostly a repeat I run every year, since I find it hard to top Kelly.

Five years ago now, I wrote a series of six related posts for Armistice Day (and as part of an ongoing series on war). The starred posts are the most important, but the list is:

"Élan in The Guns of August"

"Demonizing of the Enemy"

"The War Poetry of Wilfred Owen"

***"Giddy Minds and Foreign Quarrels"

"The Little Mother"

***"War and the Denial of Loss"

The most significant other entries in the series are:

"How to Hear a True War Story" (2007)

"Day of Shame" (2008)

"The Poetry of War" (2008)

"Armistice Day 2008" (featuring the war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon). (2008)

"They Could Not Look Me in the Eye Again" (2011)

"The Dogs of War" (2013)

I'll update this post below the photo with links to other folks' pieces for 11/11 as I find them. If you've written one, feel free to leave a comment or e-mail me. Thanks.

Hello Again and Again to All That

1914 marks the centennial of the start of World War I, and Armistice Day (or Remembrance Day, or Veterans Day) originally commemorated the Great War's end. Back in January, William Kristol, a zealous and unrepentant warmonger's warmonger, wrote a piece commenting on one of the great war poems, Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est." The results were illuminating – not of the poem, or Owen himself, or World War I, or war in general – but of Kristol and those of like mind.

It's worth rereading the poem itself first:

Dulce et Decorum Est
By Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

As the British website War Poetry explains:

DULCE ET DECORUM EST – the first words of a Latin saying (taken from an ode by Horace). The words were widely understood and often quoted at the start of the First World War. They mean "It is sweet and right." The full saying ends the poem: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori - it is sweet and right to die for your country. In other words, it is a wonderful and great honour to fight and die for your country.

(Christopher Eccleston, Kenneth Branagh and Ben Whishaw perform good renditions of the poem.)

Owen's view of war isn't rare among those who served in WWI; similar views can be found in the poems of his friend Siegfried Sassoon, or in Robert Graves' bitingly satirical memoir, Good-Bye to All That. WWII vet Eugene Sledge, among many others, admired Owen's ability to capture the experience of war. It's a disturbing but honest perspective, and should not be surprising.

In a January post, William Kristol quotes a 1997 David Frum piece that touches on Owen's poem and the loss of respect for authority. Kristol comments that:

As Frum pointed out, Horace’s line is one “that any educated Englishman of the last century would have learned in school.” Those pre-War Englishmen would, on the whole, have understood the line earnestly and quoted it respectfully. Not after the War. Living in the shadow of Wilfred Owen rather than Horace, the earnestness yielded to bitterness, the respect to disgust. As Frum puts it, “Scoffing at those words represented more than a rejection of war. It meant a rejection of the schools, the whole society, that had sent Owen to war.”

This year, a century later, the commemorations of 1914 will tend to take that rejection of piety and patriotism for granted. Or could this year mark a moment of questioning, even of reversal?

Today, after all, we see the full consequences of that rejection in a way Owen and his contemporaries could not. Can’t we acknowledge the meaning, recognize the power, and learn the lessons of 1914 without succumbing to an apparently inexorable gravitational pull toward a posture of ironic passivity or fatalistic regret in the face of civilizational decline? No sensitive person can fail to be moved by Owen’s powerful lament, and no intelligent person can ignore his chastening rebuke. But perhaps a century of increasingly unthinking bitter disgust with our heritage is enough.

(Kristol goes on to recommend the "The Star-Spangled Banner" instead of Owen's poem, remarking that "[T]he greater work of art is not always the better guide to life.")

In a post at Crooked Timber titled "Some Desperate Glory," John Holbo marvels:

Amazing. Bill Kristol is hoping that, after a full century of unwillingness to go to war, because Wilfred Owen, this might be the year we consider – maybe! – going to some war. For the glory of it! Wouldn’t a war be glorious? If we could only have one? "Play up, play up, and play the game!" For the game is glorious!

Why have we been so unthinkingly unwilling to consider going to war for an entire century? Doesn’t that seem like a long time to go without a war?

Couldn’t we have just one?

Indeed, Kristol's column is awfully odd in that it ignores that the world has seen plenty of war since 1914, but more pointedly because it ignores that William Kristol himself has not only fervently pushed for numerous wars – he's gotten many of them. There's also the matter of the assumptions he glosses over in his argument. Kristol likely defines "piety" and "patriotism" far differently than I would, but he nonetheless doesn't bother to provide evidence of their "rejection." Likewise, he doesn't provide any proof of "a posture of ironic passivity or fatalistic regret," let alone "civilizational decline." As CT commentator bt puts it, "I love the part where Bill Kristol links Civilizational Decline with our regrettable lack of enthusiasm for a glorious War." It's really an Orwellian marvel by Kristol. (The rest of the CT comments are well worth reading, too.) Besides that central gem, it's darkly hilarious how Kristol claims that opposition to war is "unthinking." Requiring a high threshold for war is the mark of basic sanity and maturity, and questioning those eager for war is both a moral necessity and a simple act of bullshit detection.

Without recounting all of Bill Kristol's sweetest, most glorious hits, it's worth noting that he advocated invading Iraq in the 90s (and has rarely met a war he hasn't liked). He was one of the biggest cheerleaders for the Iraq War. In 2003, he dismissively claimed that Iraq had "always been very secular" and that concerns about religious or sectarian conflicts were overblown. He was, of course, disastrously wrong, yet despite his remarkable knack for being wrong about almost everything, he has a long history of "falling upward" and being a permanent fixture on the pundit circuit. Nor has Kristol shown any noticeable sign of contrition; this year, he's urged the U.S. to send the military back into Iraq, and recycled many of his arguments from 2002. (For Iraq War advocates, the operating rule seems to be that any positive situation in Iraq, no matter how many years later, somehow serves as retroactive vindication; moreover, the goal is not merely to be right, but to have been right.)

Perhaps Kristol is sincere and simply consistently, horribly wrong about matters of grave importance. However, it's notable that he also played a key role derailing health care reform in 1994, and for political reasons. Similarly, he was one of the most enthusiastic boosters for Sarah Palin becoming John McCain's vice presidential running mate – and it wasn't for her command of policy. (He was still singing her praises earlier this year.) Not that being a true believer is an excuse for consistently terrible judgment, but the evidence suggests he's at least as much a hack as he is an ideologue.

It's worthwhile to recall the bullying atmosphere leading up to and extending past the start of the Iraq War – it did not invite the 'thinking' and 'questioning' Kristol supposedly values. For instance, there was Ari Fleischer's "watch what they do and what they say," Richard Cohen's "fool – or possibly a Frenchman," combat-hardened Megan McArdle's two-by-four to pacifists, Ann Coulter's call to "invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity," Andrew Sullivan's "decadent Left" as a "fifth column" and Tom Friedman's eminently mature macho posturing, "Suck. On. This." (The era yielded many other lovely moments in thoughtful discourse, overwhelmingly from Kristol's side of the aisle.)

One of the striking aspects about the Iraq War turning 10 last year was the lack of introspection. (James Fallows covered this very well.) This dynamic stretches beyond a rejection of reflection – there's still a rejection of basic facts. To quote a 2013 post:

It also isn't rare, even today, to hear conservative pundits insist (often angrily) that the Bush administration didn't lie in making the case for war, despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary (and plenty of misleading, dishonorable rhetoric besides). Sure, one can quibble in some cases whether those many misleading false statements were technically lies versus bullshitting versus the product of egregious self-delusion, but in no universe were they responsible. Meanwhile, it's disappointing but not surprising that the corporate media, who were largely unskeptical cheerleaders for the war and prone to squelching critical voices, would be reluctant to revisit one of their greatest failures in living memory (let alone doing so unflinchingly).

It's worth revisiting one of Kristol's most sneering statements, right before the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (emphasis mine):

We are tempted to comment, in these last days before the war, on the U.N., and the French, and the Democrats. But the war itself will clarify who was right and who was wrong about weapons of mass destruction. It will reveal the aspirations of the people of Iraq, and expose the truth about Saddam's regime. It will produce whatever effects it will produce on neighboring countries and on the broader war on terror. We would note now that even the threat of war against Saddam seems to be encouraging stirrings toward political reform in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and a measure of cooperation in the war against al Qaeda from other governments in the region. It turns out it really is better to be respected and feared than to be thought to share, with exquisite sensitivity, other people's pain. History and reality are about to weigh in, and we are inclined simply to let them render their verdicts.

These are the words of someone who wasn't merely disastrously wrong, but also was an immature asshole (and who knew full well he wouldn't be the one to suffer the consequences of his positions). Advocacy for war should necessitate more seriousness. And Kristol has been too cowardly to acknowledge who was clearly wrong about weapons of mass destruction and political reform, and too dishonest to face history and reality's verdicts. Estimates of deaths caused by the Iraq War vary significantly, but it's a true – if terribly impolite – point that thousands of people are unnecessarily dead because of a position Bill Kristol zealously pushed, and continues to support. It's not that war can never be advocated for, but it is not something that should advocated lightly or cavalierly. Perhaps the weight of such a significant decision – and such a monumental error – should be felt; perhaps some acknowledgement is in order; perhaps those who have been unrepentantly, disastrously wrong should be shunned from public commentary rather than allowed to continually peddle the same old deadly crap "with such high zest." This smug belligerence is why, in more polite company, Kristol has been denounced as an armchair warrior, and called far worse in other venues.

To be fair, Kristol is far from the only warmongering pundit, and the blithe imperialist faction in the political establishment spans both major political parties. Seemingly, no Beltway pundit has ever gone hungry or lost credibility for agitating for war, no matter how farcically unnecessarily it may be. In one sense, Kristol's continued prominence, even on supposedly legitimate media platforms, is an indictment of the mores of Beltway culture. In (the somewhat tongue-in-cheek) stupid-evil-crazy terms, Kristol is mostly evil, in that he knows (or damn well should know) the all-too-likely consequences of his positions. But his a perfectly respectable evil in certain high circles, as is advocating for torture or opining that the poor should suffer. Alas, although the precise stench may vary, Kristol's rot is far from uncommon. (That said, it would be wrong to minimize Kristol's signature, despicable awfulness.)

It would nice to think that no one could ignore or deflect what "Dulce et Decorum Est" or the many phenomenal art works, memoirs and histories say about the costs of war, but trusty ol' Bill Kristol has shown himself up to the challenge. He can't plausibly deny outright the power of Wilfred Owen's work, so he has to make a planned concession and then pivot to his undying cause – glorious, glorious wars. Great art and good history have a knack of surviving misappropriation, but as with our nominal democracy – which in theory, is a bulwark against unnecessary wars – they still need their champions. Kristol's signature, despicable awfulness.)

(Cross-posted at Hullabaloo.)