Goodbye to Half of Nichols and May

Nichols and MayAs you have probably heard, Mike Nichols died on Wednesday. Much has been made of his career as a film director. And he did direct some great films. Of particular note to me are: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Catch-22, and perhaps oddly, Primary Colors. There are a lot of other fine films too. The one film I’ve never really appreciated is the one that people are most impressed with, The Graduate. For its time, it probably was great, but I have found it impossible to integrate it into its time. And I just don’t think it stands up to In Cold Blood, Bonnie and Clyde, or Cool Hand Luke. And that doesn’t even consider films outside the country like Samurai Rebellion, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Oedipus Rex, or most especially La Chinoise. But that isn’t to take anything away from Nichols.

What I most remember him for was his sketch comedy work with Elaine May. When I was a teen, I found a whole bunch of records that must have belonged to by parents. It included most especially Shelley Berman and Mort Sahl. And that introduced me to other more edgy acts like Lenny Bruce — and Nichols and May. Of course, I had remembered comedy duos while growing up like Rowan and Martin, Stiller and Meara, and Burns and Schreiber. The two latter groups came out of Second City, just like Nichols and May. But none of them — funny as they were — compared to Nichols and May in terms of brilliance.

I’m very fond of this following “watercooler” routine. It involves the game show controversy, which you probably know from the film Quiz Show. But it is amazingly fresh because we are still as easily distracted by nonsense as ever. I remember during the OJ trial how people were so wrapped up in that, despite the fact that it had nothing to do with anyone’s life. One line really stands out, “If there was a war tomorrow, I couldn’t think about it.” The reason that the networks didn’t cover Obama’s immigration address last night was because they didn’t want to interrupt the prime time lineup. I mean, just imagine if Grey’s Anatomy had been delayed by a half-hour? Well, I suppose that would have given people something to talk about at the watercooler this morning.

Anyway, it is sad that Mike Nichols is dead. There was really no warning. He just died of a heart attack. He was 83, but that isn’t that old at this point. Still, I’ve always thought that Elaine May was the greater talent. She wrote two of Nichols’ better films, The Birdcage and Primary Colors. She also wrote and directed two comedy classics: Mikey and Nicky and Ishtar. The second film is not only great but an excellent example of how film critics are useless. Check out the review of Rotten Tomatoes and you will see the usual: a bunch of critics who have decided to not like a film and come up with reasons to justify it, “The performances are endearing enough, the pacing is actually quite crisp and there is no shortage of zany silliness in the story. It just never gels.”

Clearly, I will never be able to separate Mike Nichols from Elaine May. And now half of it has died. It’s sad. You really should run out and get The Birdcage for two hours of comedic genius. But I can’t offer you that. But I can offer you something just as good. The following video is from the American Masters series: “Mike Nichols and Elaine May — Take Two.” Well over half of it is just them performing. It’s great fun:

It is sad that Mike Nichols is dead; long live Elaine May!

Conservatives Outraged Obama Quoted Bible

Conservative JesusExodus 22:21 tells us, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Or, more accurately, “וְגֵר לֹא-תוֹנֶה, וְלֹא תִלְחָצֶנּוּ: כִּי-גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם, בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.” But it is important to remember that this seems to be Exodus 22:20 in the Hebrew Bible. I don’t know; it is hard to get my head around, since it is read right to left. Regardless, we know that the Bible tells us this because during his speech last night, Obama told us, “Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger — we were strangers once, too.” I just looked it up.

I believe that like all religious books, there is much wisdom in the Bible. But I don’t like it being quoted by our secular politicians. Can you imagine the uproar that would have occurred if our first Catholic president had used the Bible as ostentatiously as every president since Reagan (Not Carter!) has used it? But I don’t blame Obama for using it. It is now what a vocal minority demand. Indeed, as Emily Arrowood reported today, it was only Wednesday that the folks on Fox & Friends complained that Obama wasn’t Christian enough:

On November 19, the hosts promoted a “fiery” online op-ed penned by Chuck Norris, echoing his outrage that Obama had not publicly opposed a local school district’s decision to remove references to religious holidays on the schools’ calendars. The hosts then aired video of former President Ronald Reagan talking about Christmas and his Christian faith, saying, “Chuck Norris’ point was, remember the time when American presidents weren’t afraid to talk about traditional values, as Ronald Reagan did back in 1981.” Hasselbeck remarked that Reagan’s religious rhetoric gave her goosebumps.

As Arrowood noted, Obama throws scripture liberally in his speeches, but conservatives continue to complain. Let’s be honest: Obama can’t win. Conservatives don’t hate him for any real reason. They just hate him because he’s of the wrong party and then they come up with reasons for it. And that was on clear display this morning.

In a rational world, the Fox & Friends folk would be thrilled with Obama for wiping away the dust from his Bible and quoting from everyone’s favorite Red Sea pedestrians. But no. It was a silly idea. What’s the point of even speculating about a rational world? Two days ago they complained that Obama didn’t talk about Christianity and today they thought he talked too much about it. According to Arrowood (no video yet), they were “challenging him to a ‘scripture-showdown’ and claiming it’s ‘repugnant’ for Obama to ‘lecture us on Christian faith.'”

Of course, there is a kind of theological distinction here. This kind of use of the Bible as a moral weapon is generally looked down upon. The only true Christian is one who uses it to push social conservatism and to push Christianity as the One Truth Faith™. This is what is behind the whole War on Christmas™. The war — such as it is — is not about Christians being denied the right to observe the holiday as they see fit. It is rather about Christianity being held up as an earlier passage from Exodus, “You shall have no other gods before me.” That’s the right kind of Christianity — the kind that Chuck Norris practices.

What it is really all about is that conservatives know what Obama was doing: he was rubbing their noses in their favorite book that they never read. He was effectively saying that it is anti-Christian to be against immigration reform. And he’s right! Obama quoted the Old Testament, but he could have as easily quoted Jesus (“I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not” — he meant that as a bad thing!) or even the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor…”).

But that isn’t the conservative way. They aren’t out there grappling with what is a very difficult book. They aren’t reading, What Jesus Meant. They only think that Christianity is right because they assume it tells them that they are right in whatever they want to do. And they don’t want immigration reform. So Obama is a heretic to quote the Bible when it isn’t in the service of what they know the gay-hating, rifle-wielding, free-market-loving Jesus stood for.

What would Jesus do? Deport them all! For when they were hungry, he said, “Get out of the country you moochers!”

Update (22 November 2014 10:02 am)

The Bible is so repetitive! I quoted Exodus 22:21, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” But apparently, the president was quoting Exodus 23:9, “You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And then there is Exodus 41:53, “You shall not oppress a stranger, do do that voodoo that you do so well, goo goo g’joob!”

English Grammar Is Not in Decay

Geoffrey NunbergI do understand why people would have this impression of decay. And I have it too, particularly when I’m surfing the internet or reading a corporate report. But are things really worse than they used to be? Maybe it is just that I’m getting old and cranky. Complaining about English has always been an old man’s game. I say man — curmudgeon is an interesting word: it’s not a word we apply to women; only men can be curmudgeons. It occurs to me that maybe a lot of this stuff was going on when I was younger but I was too busy to notice or too mellow to care. It would be hard to prove it one way or the other. In fact, people complain about the language but they never really document the claims the way they would if they were economic complaints. People don’t say:

The pronoun “whom” was off sharply last quarter as the language was already reeling from a 37% increase in the use of “office” as a verb.

People just assume that everybody knew how to write and spell correctly until things started to fall apart about a generation ago. Partly that’s just the selectivity of literary memory. Whatever becomes of the general run of evil that men do, our bad writing is interred with our bones. So we don’t have to read the popular journalism of earlier generations. Just as our descendants won’t have to read ours. If you ever go to a garage sale, pick up a copy of Collier’s magazine and look at it. And then look at People magazine today. People‘s a much better written magazine than Collier’s was.

—Geoffrey Nunberg
City Club Presents

Obama’s Executive Action Is a Double Win

Obama HopeMy father’s late girlfriend used to call Obama a communist. I once asked her, “So what would you call Stalin?” I don’t think she fully appreciated my point. But conservatives really should consider it because they are living it right now. Over the past two weeks, the Republicans have been warning the president that if he took executive action on immigration, it would be all out war. It’s kind of like Hitler threatening all out war if the Allies continued to bomb Berlin. How exactly is this going to get worse?

But in addition to this, there is the way that Obama has been presented in all of this. The average Fox News viewer already thinks that Obama is a lawless president who has enacted one law after another that is unconstitutional. (I doubt one in a hundred of these people could explain why these laws are supposedly unconstitutional.) Now Obama has done something that pushes political norms but he is not breaking the law. So what are the Republicans to say? If they were honest, they would say that he was pushing political norms. But they can’t say that because no one would care that the great lawless usurper is simply doing something that past Republican presidents have done, but a little more aggressively. So they will lie and say he is lawless.

And who really cares? In the conservative imagination, Obama is already lawless. Are they going to say that he is double plus lawless? Or are they going to recalibrate and claim that before they were being a bit hyperbolic and that he wasn’t really lawless but now he is? So what?! It really doesn’t matter given that the Fox News viewer already thinks he is the man who brought National Socialism to America.

This morning, John Boehner declared, “We have a broken immigration system and the American people expect us to work together to fix it.” He added, “All year long I have warned the president that by taking unilateral action on matters such as his healthcare law or by threatening action repeatedly on immigration, he was making it impossible to build the trust necessary to work together.” This is “fall down laughing” material. In 2009, Mitch McConnell said that the Republicans’ number one task was to make Obama a one-term president. And they did everything they could to make that happen. Yet they claim that they are the ones who have reason not to trust. It is amazing.

So after Obama’s landslide in 2008, the Republicans wouldn’t work with him. After the Republican landslide in 2010, Obama bargained away everything and the Republicans would not take it. After a solid Democratic win in 2012, the Republicans wouldn’t work at all with the White House. And now that they have control of the entire Congress, we are to believe that the day of bipartisan compromise has arrived? It is shocking in its presumption.

This morning, Jonathan Chait laid out the real result of this move, “Ardent populists are demanding a series of suicidal confrontations, from shutdowns to, potentially, impeachment, as the Party leadership strains desperately to keep them at bay.” And I’m sure that was a big part of Obama’s calculus in this matter. As I discussed yesterday, the Republicans’ “working together” with the president would always be a day away.

From a Democratic standpoint, the worst that now happens is that the Republicans do exactly what they were going to do anyway. But that is unlikely. It is far more likely that the crazies in the party will demand all kinds of self-defeating actions. And Chait is right that this will cause whoever becomes the presidential nominee to have to move far to the right on immigration. So what we have is an action that is both good policy and good politics. I can see why the Republicans are unhappy about it.

René Magritte

René MagritteOn this day in 1898, the great surrealist painter René Magritte was born. When I was younger, I didn’t much care for his art. There were a good too many apples and bowlers and too little of the overwhelming brilliance of Salvador Dalí. But over time, I came to appreciate Magritte’s art. For one thing, he has much less of a clear style than Dalí. And so the genius behind the paintings is clear.

It’s also the case that Magritte didn’t produce that many works. This may be partly because he wasn’t that successful until quite late into his life. In fact, he had a career arc rather like that of Cervantes: producing work throughout his life, but doing many things to support himself. But it is also the case that he tended to have very distinct thoughts behind his work.

By the late 1920s, he was producing very interesting — clearly surrealistic — work. Some of this, such as The Treachery of Images, is over-intellectual. But other works, such as The Empty Mask, seem to be much deeper than Magritte himself was aware of. I think that is important for an explicitly intellectual artist; the work has to be somewhat out of control or it becomes contrived.

Magritte was always interested in the question of what was behind images. We see that as early as The Empty Mask. It is a profound question to consider coming from an artist who is, after all, only interested in the surfaces of things. But in fact, every image is just covering up another and on and on. In the mid-1930s, he looked at this quite explicitly in his two paintings The Human Condition, where a painting rendered inside the painting covers up exactly the reality it displays.

The Human Condition - 1935

He did some other interesting work around this time such as Not to be Reproduced and On the Threshold of Liberty. And then his production slowed way down for a decade because of the war. He produced some good work and experimented a lot with color in ways that he didn’t seem to bother with much at other times. And then in the late 1940s, he seemed to arrive at a fairly dependable style that we know him for as in paintings like The Art of Life.

In the early 1950s, he produced a series of paintings, The Empire of Lights. The concept is simple enough. But it is lovely:

The Empire of Lights - Magritte

Magritte didn’t produce his best known work until shortly before he died, The Son of Man. What Magritte wrote about it could stand as a general description of his entire output:

Well, so you have the apparent face, the apple, hiding the visible but hidden, the face of the person. It’s something that happens constantly. Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.

Happy birthday René Magritte!