Mike Nichols, father of American improv

iu-2Mike Nichols died yesterday.  As my contribution to the memorial, here is the essay wrote about him in a book called Transformations. It describes his role in the creation of American improv.

Mike Nichols

(from McCracken, Grant. 2008. Transfomations. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.)

Mike Nichols is an American director of plays and movies, the latter including The Graduate (1967), Silkwood (1983), and The Birdcage (1996). He is married to Diane Sawyer, a journalist. He was feted at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, where his “lifetime achievement” in film was celebrated by 3000 people, including Richard Avedon, Itzhak Perlman and Barbara Walters. If popular culture in America has an aristocracy, Mike Nichols belongs to its titular class.   Three thousand people came to celebrate, but most were there in homage.

Nichols came to America as Igor Peschkowsky. He arrived from Berlin in 1939. He was 7, his brother was 3. They made the journey by sea alone. His father preceded him to New York City, his mother would follow 18 months later. In New York City, Mr. Peschkowsky turned the boys over to the uneven kindness of an English family. Nichols was now bereft of his native country, his native language, the company of his mother and father, and his family’s standing in Europe. “I was a zero. […] In every way that mattered, I was powerless.”1

Nichols endured the pains of adjustment, though he had fallen farther than most. His advantage, an eye for detail and ear for nuance, was itself a torment.

“The refugee ear is a sort of seismograph for how one is doing. […] A thousand tiny victories and defeats in an ordinary conversation.

To make matters worse, a medical intervention in childhood had left him hairless so that he was obliged to wear a hat, or a wig, everywhere. Buck Henry, a childhood friend, remembers him “as far outside as an outsider can get.”2

Nichols was obliged to engage in immigrant improv, that essential shield with which newcomers protect themselves from the endless embarrassments of a new world. Any native knucklehead could needle and vex at whim. ‘Saratoga,’ says the knucklehead with that “but of course you must know this” air. Judging from the speaker, the conversation, and the tone of the challenge, Saratoga is a literary journal, a cherished brand of American root beer, or the train that travels between Los Angeles and San Francisco. (It is probably not an Aboriginal place name. That would be too easy.)

The family established itself. His father was a doctor. In time, prosperity and standing were modestly restored. Then more tragedy. His father died, his mother suffered chronic emotional difficulty, and the family descended into poverty and sometimes squalor. Nichols fashioned his own system of education (chiefly, popular theatre and classical literature) and found his way to the University of Chicago where he arrived, at 17, to a happy discovery. “Oh my God, look, there are others like me. There are other weirdoes.”

Nichols took to the theatre. The University of Chicago was loaded with talent: Paul Sills, Ed Asner, Severn Darden, Barbara Harris. He directed his first play and performed in several more. In one of them, his disguise was pierced. He was Jean the valet in a production of Strindberg’s Miss Julie. His role called for a working-class man, one of the few adaptations this Russian-German Jewish aristocratic American weirdo could not manage. He was found out by a woman in the audience, an “evil, hostile girl” staring at him from the front row. “[S]he knew it was shit.”3

What happened next is one of the “origin myths” of American culture. One day, Nichols saw his inquisitor waiting for a train in a railway station in Chicago. He approached her and asked, in a German accent, “May I sit down?” Elaine May replied, in accent, “if you wish.” The rest is, as they say, history. Nichols and May made a spy scenario out of thin air. Without benefit of introduction or social ceremony, and in spite of disastrous first impressions, they were now friends. It felt to them both, Nichols said later, that “we were safe from everyone else when we were with each other.”4

Certainly, it has the compactness, the telescopic redundancy, of an origin myth. The origin of American improv is an act of improv, first of the moment, then of the stage, then of popular culture. What Nichols and May did in the train station, they repeated at the University of Chicago, and then on the Dupont Show of the Month to an astonished America. The captive of Miss Julie and fixed theatre was released into the sheer creativity that was in any case his immigrant experience. And with improv, America finds its way into opportunities for new dynamism. The path to assimilation proves to be the steep upward ascent to wealth, glory and fame. Two people give themselves over to this single act of spontaneity and everything changes: the interaction, their relationship, their careers, and an important part of the career of contemporary culture.

In the middle moment, the world is charmed. Nichols and May are perfect, blinding. Touched by this creature, Nichols discovers new talent and the possibility of fame staggeringly beyond the acceptance he courted, a boy in a wig, a couple of years before. Elaine May is adored, pursued, protean in her creativity, charismatic on stage and off, larger than every occasion and every other companion, impatient with mortals, and terrible in her anger when this is provoked. (Pursued by two men making kissing sounds, May says, “tired of one another?” and when one of them responds, “Fuck you!” she turns on him and asks, “With what?” (Ovid would surely have wanted this for his compendium of transformations.)

And then, in the manner of some myths, it ended. Improv became formula. May wanted to keep inventing but, as Nichols tells us (in an act of greatness) he could not keep up with her and he began to lose his courage for risk-taking on stage. The improv, the act, and the relationship, die in succession. The actors are estranged. Nichols returns to the theatre, not to act, but, the ultimate retreat from improv, to direct. He has a period of madness in which he seeks to destroy the art that reflects his wealth and taste. He resurrects himself to make one or two good films but keeps his distance from sheer, untrammeled creativity, falling back on fixed and commercial theatre. Elaine May suffers a more spectacular destruction. She falls under the influence of a man manifestly her lesser, and directs him in a disastrously unsuccessful film: Ishtar (1987). This is shit: over-scripted, under-directed, wooden, Beatty-ish, and just not funny. The first creatures to enter Chicago improv had fallen back to earth.5

1 Lahr, John. 2000. Making it Real: Mike Nichol’s improvised life. The New Yorker. February 21 and 28: 196-214, p. 198.

2 Lahr, John. 2000. Making it Real: Mike Nichol’s improvised life. The New Yorker. February 21 and 28: 196-214, pp. 202.

3 Sweet, Jeffrey. 1978. Something Wonderful Right Away: an oral history of the Second City and the Compass players. New York: Avon Books, p. 73.

4 Lahr, John. 2000. Making it Real: Mike Nichol’s improvised life. The New Yorker. February 21 and 28: 196-214, p. 204. There is some confusion in the record about precisely what was said in the train station. In the Sweet interview, Nichols says that he used a German accent. Lahr says nothing of this but suggests that May replied with a Russian accent. This may have been the two sides of the improv, but it seems to me more likely that Nichols spoke, and May replied, in a German accent. This was after all their first date.

5 My account of the beginning of improv indulges itself in a mythic language and a fuller account can be found in the opening essay “History” in Sweet, Jeffrey. 1978. Something Wonderful Right Away: an oral history of the Second City and the Compass players. New York: Avon Books, p. xv-xxxiii

The middle is a dangerous place to be

IMG_1642According to a Goldilocks logic, the middle is a good place to be. It’s the Via Media between two extremes.  It’s the place politicians [used to] fashion compromise.  It’s the place most of us look for balance. Typically, the middle is a place of safety.

Or at least it used to be.  My first glimpse of this when someone told me, years ago, about “glocal.”  This is a portmanteau made up of “global” and “local.”  What falls out is the middle, the spaces between the whole of the world and one’s immediate community.  In a strange twist, we became more cosmopolitan and more provincial at the same moment.

The death of the middle is especially evident in the world of movies. We have block busters on high.  They have budgets of one or more hundreds of millions. We have a great tribe of indies below. The budget here is typically tens of thousands, effectively whatever the filmmaker can squeeze out of their own and their parents’ credit cards. In the middle, the pickings are scarce. Judd Apatow mostly. Not, as they say, that there is anything wrong with that.

The death of the middle is also evident in the world of music.  Here is Derek Thompson on where we stand.

The top 1 percent of bands and solo artists now earn 77 percent of all revenue from recorded music, media researchers report. And even though the amount of digital music sold has surged, the 10 best-selling tracks command 82 percent more of the market than they did a decade ago. The advent of do-it-yourself artists in the digital age may have grown music’s long tail, but its fat head keeps getting fatter.

But today while reading an very interesting essay by David Autor, I came across this chilling passage.  There is, it turns out, a hole in the employment market as well.

“the structure of job opportunities in the United States has sharply polarized over the past two decades, with expanding job opportunities in both high-skill, high-wage occupations and low-skill, low- wage occupations, coupled with contracting opportunities in middle-wage, middle-skill white-collar and blue-collar jobs. Concretely, employment and earnings are rising in both high- education professional, technical, and managerial occupations and, since the late 1980s, in low-education food service, personal care, and protective service occupations. Conversely, job opportunities are declining in both middle-skill, white- collar clerical, administrative, and sales occupations and in middle-skill, blue-collar production, craft, and operative occupations.”

Are these missing middles related?  I leave that to readers.

Autor, David. 2010. “The Polarization of Job Opportunities in the U.S. Labor Market Implications for Employment and Earnings.” Center for American Progress: The Hamilton Project. http://economics.mit.edu/files/5554.

image: I took this photo in London this fall.  I like the way the lamp standard divides the Victorian beauty on the right and the modernist beauty on the left.  A razor thin middle.

post script: the paragraph from Derek Thompson was added several hours after the post went up.

Women, power and popular culture

iu-1There’s a business school in the US in which female students routinely use the “interrogative lilt” when speaking in class.

This “lilt” turns assertions into questions. The phrase “this strategy looks promising” is made to rise at the end, becoming “this strategy looks promising?” The speaker is now asking for agreement instead of insisting on it.

In a business school!  If women are not learning to be forthright here, something is entirely wrong with the world.  I mean, really.

Popular culture continues to cultivate images that make woman look little, unassuming, unthreatening, unintelligent, and incapable.

Happily, some women are fighting back and using popular culture to redefine themselves. Videos from Ingrid Michaelson (Girls Chase Boys) and Meghan Trainor (All About That Base) give us two great cases in point.  But neither of these go after the “lilting” problem.

I am persuaded that this work will be done by actresses in the world of film and TV. They will portray women wielding power. They will show us how to transcend acts of deference.

The early days were frustrating.  Some actors would overcorrect. They “butch up” their performances but this had the unhappy effect of costing them nuance, as actors and as characters. There was a lot of growling and shouting.  But of course real power usually comes in a more subtle form (and is more effective for its subtlety).

But we are getting signs of a new approach.

In Murder in the First (TNT), Bess Rous as Ivana West and the acting CEO of Applsn confronts her boss.  She is leaving the company and wants to let him know.  He’s a world class bully and tries to intimidate her.  She doesn’t blink.  She doesn’t back down.  In a great performance of self possession,  Rous/West just doesn’t care. She meets his hostility with an attitude that sits somewhere between pity and contempt. No bluff, no rattling of arms. Just an implacable presumption that he doesn’t matter and that she does.  No lilting here. (Please could someone get this scene on YouTube.)

In episode 3 of The Killing (Netflix) we get Joan Allen (pictured) as the head of a military academy. And the pity of this performance is that it is designed to make her look a bit of a monster. But even as Allen satisfies this requirement of the role, she works in little grace notes everywhere. Which is to say this actress can deliver an overbearing authority and not lose control of subtle messages. This aspect of Allen’s art, the ability to assume authority without diminishes it or herself, was also on display in the Bourne Conspiracy.

Tea Leoni as Madam Secretary (in Madam Secretary, CBS) is giving us a variation on the theme. Her approach to power exhibits a light hand. Madam Secretary leaves no doubt that she has power and what she will do with it when dealing with people who disappoint her, but mostly she is alive to the humor and the ironies of the moment.  Call this a sprezzatura performance of power.It’s a welcome addition to our power vocabulary.  (Men have something to learn here.)

Compare this performance to the one being given in Homeland by Clare Danes as Carrie Mattheson.  This is a wonderfully ferocious “let it rip” approach to power. Clare/Carrie goes at it. (She succeeds in making the men around her look like time-serving careerists.)  This is sheer intensity, with no trace of ego or self aggrandizement.  (Men could learn something here too.)

Our culture is under reconstruction.  Gender, especially, is changing. And I think of all the ways the US qualifies as a “city on a hill,” as a prime mover in social progress, it’s surely here on the question of gender that we are most watched and most admired.

Elizabeth I, long may she rule over us

iu-3Today is the anniversary of the accession of Elizabeth I to the throne of England in 1558. For Elizabethans, November 17th became a great celebration, an opportunity for bonfires and fireworks. Towards the end of her reign, they thanked God for their monarch. Things were not so promising in 1558.

Elizabeth I was confronted by male aristocrats happy to relieve a woman of her power. She was confronted by commoners deeply skeptical of a woman’s ability to rule. She did not have a standing army, and she was plagued by both the “over mighty subject” and the “masterless man.” That English taste for disobedience flourished especially in the 16th century.  Sir Thomas Elyot warned, “men’s [hearts] be free and they will love whom they [like].”

Elizabeth was the beneficiary of her grandfather (Henry VII) and his brutal strategies for clearing the kingdom of people with a competitive claim to the throne. But she was also heir to the religious complications created by her father (Henry VIII). England was now the Protestant upstart, and a beacon for those people in every continental country who wished to break with Rome. The Pope declared that the man who killed Elizabeth would commit no sin. Spain believed that a destruction of the English court would be God’s work. Thanks, Dad!

There a lots of historical reasons to revive the celebration. Elizabeth represents the triumph of cunning over stupidity, intelligence over mere cunning, genius over mere intelligence. She was the triumph of will over skepticism, a Renaissance education over the domestic arts, and theatre of power over realpolitik.

But there are also lots of contemporary reasons to celebrate Elizabeth and to remember her.

Kindle Unlimited not quite unlimited (or how Amazon plans to kidnap your data)

Kindle Unlimited is a new service from Amazon which gives the customer free access to thousands of books for a fee of $9.99 a month.

But what happens to our notes, highlights and bookmarks?  Do we get to keep those if we leave Kindle Unlimited?

I just asked Amazon customer service and the answer turns out to be “no.”

When you cancel your Kindle Unlimited subscription, you will be able to access your Kindle Unlimited books until the next billing date listed on your Kindle Unlimited subscription. At the end of your subscription, you will lose access to all your Kindle Unlimited books. Your bookmarks, notes, and highlights will be saved to your Amazon account, but won’t be available until you purchase the book later or renew your Kindle Unlimited subscription. (emphasis added)

This means that if you want to keep your research materials (your research materials, mind you) you will have to pay Amazon a ransom every month for the rest of your life.  Right now it’s around $120 a year.  Clearly, Amazon can set this ransom at any amount it wants.

This must be one of those new fangled business strategies they call making a service “sticky.”   Sticky, yes, and golly if it doesn’t smell too.

A rule of thumb: Content created by the customer belongs to the customer.

We could split the difference here, if need be.  Amazon may have a legitimate claim to withholding our bookmarks and highlights.  But notes?  Notes belong to us.

We are not a family!

426456_10152525527610650_111533975_n

When asked to describe a company, the CEO will almost invariably give us an ingratiating smile and say, “We’re a family.”

Employees are also tempted by the metaphor, and in happier moments, they will enthuse, “this really is my family.”

The truth is painfully otherwise.  The organization will use the employee as long as it suits and then jettison this employee without a flicker of remorse.   And often not even so much as an explanation.  One day you’re there.  The next day you’re gone.

Try that with your family.   “Dad, I’m sorry but you’re fired.  Mom, you have to go too.  We’re cutting back.  What, no, of course we’re sorry.  You’ve done a great job.  But things change.  We want you out of here by end of day.  And we’re going to need your ID  back.  Hand it over.”

“Firing” and “family” never intersect in our culture.  Ever.

I’m not complaining about the fact that people get fired.  Organizations are good at getting things done precisely because we try to stock them with all but only the people they need.

I am complaining about this ugly “family” fiction.  And it’s not just a problem of the group-think, conscious-bending, reality-concealing metaphor. (Though this should be objectionable on its own.)

I’m complaining about the use of the family metaphor to extract  value from employees.  Of course, you’ll give up your weekend, your vacation, your evenings and your personal lives.  We’re a family!  This is what families do for one another.  When used for these manipulative, value boosting purposes, the metaphor is no longer merely malicious, it’s now a deliberate, exploitative, lie.

So Mr. Smarty Pants Anthropologist, what’s the alternative?    I think it’s to define the corporation the way we do a graduate or professional school.

The first assumption  is that you the employee are passing through.  You will learn from what you do here, and move on.  You will work heroically hard but that’s because you are working to improve and get better.  As you do at a graduate or professional school.

We will treat you decently because, well, you are passing through.  And you will go out into the world, and speak ill or well of us.  You will help recruit the next class.  Or you won’t.  In fact, in a perfect world, you will pass through several jobs and return us.

The important thing is that superordinates are encouraged to understand the real relationship they have with a subordinate.  This person is not a member of a family.  This is not an enduring relationship.  We’re not “all in this together.”  Someday this relationship will end.   And we hope you will be better for it, not used up by it.  That’s in a sense is what we are here for.

This doesn’t create a symmetrical relationship, nor should it, but it could help discourage the practice of giving employees big, friendly hugs…while rummaging through their personal effects.

photo:

This is a library at the University of Chicago, blanket like, but covered in snow.  Now that’s a metaphor.

post script

Thomas Stewart has a wonderful essay on the “team” metaphor in Fortune here.

Who did this guy think he was?

MillsI was reading C. Wright Mills’ White Collar this morning.  It’s a searching look at American society after World War II.

I was struck by the tone.

[“White-collar man”] is pushed by forces beyond his control, pulled into movements he does not understand; he gets into situations in which his is the most helpless position. The white-collar man is the hero as victim, the small creature who is acted upon but who does not act, who works along unnoticed in somebody’s office or store, never talking loud, never talking back, never taking a stand.

Surely, I thought to myself, you could render an account that describes the relative power, standing and autonomy of this social group in a way that’s not quite so patronizing.  I mean, isn’t there?  Couldn’t Wright have got most of the descriptive work done here without being so diminishing.  But, no.  It looks as if he has gone out of his way to take the imperial point of view.  Haughty, even.

[“white-collar man”] is more often pitiful than tragic, as he is seen collectively, fighting impersonal inflation, living out in slow misery his yearning for the quick American climb.

Naturally I took particular  umbrage at this passage.

…white-collar man has no culture to lean upon except the contents of a mass society that has shaped him and seeks to manipulate him to its alien ends. For security’s sake, he must strain to attach himself somewhere, but no communities or organizations seem to be thoroughly his. This isolated position makes him excellent material for synthetic molding at the hands of popular culture—print, film, radio, and television. As a metropolitan dweller, he is especially open to the focused onslaught of all the manufactured loyalties and distractions that are contrived and urgently pressed upon those who live in worlds they never made.

This argument is what it is.  You buy it or you don’t.  Personally, I think it’s a bit of myth making that bears an uneven connection to the realities of American life, and almost no connection to the lived experience of middle class life after World War II.  This world was fun,  terrifying, experimental, and reckless.  A large group of people were undertaking individual and collective acts of social and cultural mobility.   White collar?  Try cervical collar.  This was a whip lash world.     (See my chapter “When Cars Could Fly: Raymond Loewy, John Kenneth Galbraith and the 1954 Buick” in Culture and Consumption II for an elaboration of this argument.  See  Home Fires for something more ethnographic.)

C. Wright Mills missed all of this.  What you get is the odor of disappointment, that the middle class was refusing narratives preferred by the radical sociologist.   His topic is the little people, and naturally any reference to autonomy, agency, experiment, self definition or, gasp, individualism is not only not welcome but an impediment to the larger argument.

Wright was a school master, reproving students  for not rising to the intellectual challenge.   How else to explain the tone.  It’s so very confident of the speaker’s authority.  So unafraid of openly scorning the subject.  So certain that the speaker knew better and could claim a higher standing.   Edward Said helped us understand those moments when Western critics presume to generalize and diminish other cultures.  He called it Orientalism.  But what term do we use when  intellectuals diminish not other cultures but their own? Occidentalism?

But the real question is whether anything like this is now possible.  Would anyone talk this way in the present day?   Would anyone dare?  Yes, the white-collar man has been transformed inside and out.  That much is clear.  What about the intellectual?  Any movement there?

new ways to make culture and discover value