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Hot Movie Takes – Alexander Payne and Mike Nichols

August 26, 2017 1 comment

Hot Movie Takes – Alexander Payne and Mike Nichols
@By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Comparing artists, in this case film directors, is a hazardous business, but that isn’t stopping me from doing it. As someone who thinks and writes a lot about writer-director Alexander Payne, I sometimes search for resonance between his work and that of other filmmakers. When first exposed to his satirical cinema I was immediately reminded of Billy Wilder. Later, I saw parallels between Payne’s mis en scene and that of James L. Brooks, Joan Micklin Silver and Paul Thomas Anderson. More recently, I found continuity in the mordant, highly composed worlds of Payne and Stanley Kubrick. My newest reference point connects the work of Payne with that of the late Mike Nichols. The difficulty with this particular comparison is that Payne is a writer and director and Nichols was a director who, while I’m sure he had a great hand in the scripts he helmed, practically owned no writing credits. On the other hand, Nichols consistently worked with and interpreted great writers and the spirit of his satirical sensibilities is evident in his oeuvre. The term auteur is overused and misapplied to many filmmakers but it certainly fits both Nichols and Payne. Their work shares in common strong humanistic and satirical strains that reveal character in states of extremis. The comedy and tragedy in the stories they tell co-exist side by side and thus it’s hard to describe their movies as just one thing or another. Their movies are like life in that they are a mix of things. Nichols comes from an improvisational comedy, Actors Studio and Broadway stage background that gives his films a distinctive look, feel and sound that is at once realistic and poetic. Payne is most heavily influenced by classic world cinema and his films correspondingly have a formal narrative structure and compositional quality that also retain a sense of freedom and anarchy in line with their sharp tragic-comic turns.

These filmmakers are also both identified with producing thought provoking, highly literate work, I believe that is a reflection of how well read and rounded Nichols was and how-well read and rounded Payne is. Just as Nichols was steeped in literature, music fine art, theater and film, so is Payne. Bandying words and references with Nichols was a game played at your own risk because he seemingly had read everything. Payne is much the same.

But it’s one thing to have a great mind and it’s another thing to have a great heart, or vice versa, and here’s where these two separated themselves from many other directors of comedy. Their films show an intuitiveness and empathy that serve to leaven their sharp insights and harsh satire and to make their characters and situations, no matter how chaotic and desperate, more human and therefore more relatable. This is the same gift that their fellow comedy director masters shared and I’m referring here to:

Charles Chaplin
Buster Keaton
Frank Capra
George Stevens
Howard Hawks
Ernest Lubitsch
Preston Sturges
George Cukor
Billy Wilder
Woody Allen
James L. Brooks

I don’t know of Payne and Nichols ever met, but I have to think that if they did they would have hit it off and found they shared similar sensibilities and interests. At the very least, they would have made each other laugh.

My favorite Nichols films are “The Graduate,” “Catch 22,” “Silkwood,” “Working Girl,” “Postcards from the Edge,” and “Charlie Wilson’s War.” I don’t think there’s a great film among them, though those are all really good movies, and the rest of his career was pretty hit and miss. As for some of his other films, I admire “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?” and “Carnal Knowledge,” for example, but they’re not films I feel compelled to see again. His “Heartburn,” “Wolf” and “The Birdcage” are interesting but minor works. Full disclosure: I haven’t seen his “Angels in America.” But I’ve seen enough of his output to know that while he almost never made a flat out bad film, several of his works are flawed and inconsistent.

By contrast, Payne hasn’t missed yet. I have yet to see Payne’s new film “Downsizing,” but based on his six previous features and other work he’s done, I am very comfortable saying that Payne is a consistently better filmmaker than Nichols was even at the peak of Nichols’ career. Now, some may argue that Nichols directed touchstone pictures for different eras in “The Graduate” and “Working Girl” and may go on to question whether Payne has done the same. I would assert that “Sideways” is that equivalent picture in the Payne canon. I would also suggest that Payne has made at least five films that are timeless: “Election,” “About Schmidt,” “Sideways,” “The Descendants” and “Nebraska” and that it’s hard to find even a single Nichols film that could be so described with the possible exception of “The Graduate.” Some may further argue, and I can see the point, that Nichols was a more adventurous filmmaker than Payne in trying sometimes wildly different subjects and approaches from film to film, whereas Payne, to date anyway, has perhaps played it safe by staying within certain parameters and comfort levels that he likes revisiting. His new film “Downsizing” is definitely a departure for Payne in terms of scope – both physical and thematic – and we’ll soon know how well he handled that. Nichols made everything from social satires to farces to straight out dramas. I would counter that the few times Nichols departed from his own comfort zones resulted in some mis-steps – “The Fortune,” “The Day of the Dolphin,” “Wolf” and “What Planet Are You From?” – though Nichols does deserve an A for effort. Most observers count “Catch-22” as a mis-fire but I like its mordant tone and, unusual for Nichols, brilliant visuals. I actually think the best work he did that I’ve seen was the intense drama “Silkwood” and not the ironic, satiric pieces he’s best known for.

Granted, Payne may be taking fewer chances than Nichols did in terms of stretching himself, but I contend that even within the familiar confines of Payne’s work, he consistently goes deeper than Nichols usually did. For me, Nichols was more of a surface director, and Payne is more of an interior director, which is to say that in Nichols’ films the exterior lives of his characters predominate while in Payne’s films the interior lives of his characters speak to us Now, to be sure, there are exceptions to these artificial boundaries.

Certainly, the films of Nichols and Payne both show great respect for the written word and strong performances by actors. On this score, I think we can all agree.

Of course, all this is totally subjective and in the long run doesn’t really mean a hill of beans because they’re both among the best directors of comedy and of dramedies that have ever worked in Hollywood and they each have stand the test of time films to their credit.

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‘The Graduate’ revisited

February 6, 2017 Leave a comment

‘The Graduate’ revisited

©by Leo Adam Biga

Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

This is the 50th anniversary for a much beloved yet peculiar film,“The Graduate” (1967), that landed as a sensation in its time, became an adored artifact of the 1960s but has steadily lost some of its stature and allure over the proceeding half-century. I watched it again the other night and while it’s a film I’ve always admired and I still enjoy I can see now that it’s a strange thing to have resonated so deeply in any era, even in its own breaking-the-rules time.

I mean, the new college graduate protagonist Benjamin Braddock sleeps with the mother of a childhood friend and then falls in love with the daughter and interrupts her marriage to run off with her. It’s a preposterous plot line but it works, which is to say we go along with it, because the film is basically a farcical, satirical indictment of the establishment and an embrace of youthful rebellion and following your heart. The performances by a very fine cast mostly hold up. the writing perhaps less so and the direction is, well, needlessly showy. Mike Nichols was a Broadway wunderkind and a fresh force in cinema who helped push American filmmaking more in the direction of the various European New Wave movements with rapid cutting, restless camera, nonlinear structure and frank exposition. He veered dangerously close to going over the top with it all in his first three features – “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?,” “The Graduate” and “Catch 22” – I suspect because he was enthralled with the new freedom cinema offered and was just insecure enough not to trust the material to hold our attention without using various tricks. His much later work (“Working Girl,” “Charlie Wilson’s War”) is far more traditional, visually and technically speaking, but far more satisfying, too.

The best thing about the movie is Dustin Hoffman’s performance. It’s a tour de force that sneaks up on you. He is so present and in the moment in every shot and scene and so real and truthful to the buttoned-down character he plays that it seems like he’s doing nothing when in fact he’s doing everything an actor’s called to do. Much of his characterization is done without words. Indeed, his performance reminds me of those of the great silent film comedians like Chaplin and Keaton, only he’s less busy and big.

 

9shot - the graduate

 

photobooth the graduate

 

My take on “The Graduate” today is that if not for Simon and Garfunkel’s music, the film wouldn’t work nearly as well as a ’60s counterculture piece. Indeed, other than the music there’s virtually nothing in the film that either overtly or even obliquely refers to the very decade it purportedly speaks to. There’s no mention of civil rights or the war in Vietnam or the burgeoning feminist movement or the end of Camelot or the culture wars ushered in by rock ‘n’ roll, drugs and free love. There’s no reference to politics either. Admittedly, Ben is from a privileged white suburbia world where some of those currents and issues would not be discussed or experienced. But even in those circles things would not have been so sterile or blind or one-dimensional that some of these things didn’t come up or resonate or cause a conflict. The generation gap the film depicts is so generic that it would be easy to forget what decade the film is set in except for that music.

On the other hand, the film is far superior to the vast majority of comedies made in that era, especially the lame youth films of that decade. Even though the men who wrote (Buck Henry and Calder Wilingham) and directed (Nichols) “The Graduate” were much older than the generation they were obviously siding with – even Hoffman was far older than the character he played – they managed to catch a certain ironical spirit of the time that really was a carryover from the 1950s as much as it was a purely ’60s sensibility.

Where the film is perhaps most interesting is in striking an odd but somehow effective balance of the romanticism, even idealism and anger of the ’60s tinged with the cynicism that the ’70s would more fully usher in. The end of the film echoes the beginning in that Ben is searching for his path in life. At the start, he’s alone as he tries finding his way. At the end, he’s with a girl, but still very much alone and adrift. Sure, he’s defied the cookie-cutter, plastic life of his parents and their friends but at a price. He’s lost his naiveté but gained a heavy does of reality that will, as we’ve come to know, likely find him following many of the very Establishment precepts he rejected as a young man.

Looked at today, the movie seems to have some mixed or superficial messages: the hot passions of life are all very ephemeral but desirable; going after what you want is a messy buisness but it’s worth it; conformity equals comfort if not contentment so why settle for less? It kind of sounds like the very things “The Graduate” supposedly rejected. Ben, in middle age, probably ended up in a similar circusmstace as his parents and their freinds, not that you could have convinced him of it at the time. And so it goes…

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