Monday, December 14, 2009

Humor & Horror: Mike Nichols, My Mother, and the Subconscious

Right: Mike Nichols & Elaine May

This morning I watched Mike Nichols interviewed on Inside the Actors Studio (1999, clip below). It interests me that he is such a champion of the subconscious.
And I love his subdued sense of humor. Mostly he's not funny in this interview--he certainly doesn't try to get laughs; it's more like humor is his substratum. For instance, in talking about the subconscious, he says, "You love your subconscious because it has the same sense of humor you do."

Interesting too that he says he thinks all the time about how in 1939 he came to the United States as a little German Jewish boy, arriving two weeks before the Saint Louis, the ship of Jewish refugees that was refused landing and turned back to Europe. That's another substratum.

I spent most of this past weekend delving into the work of Elaine May and Mike Nichols, together and separately. Only listening to Nichols today did it occur to me that without intending to--subconsciously--I've been touching the memory of my mother. (Today is the 7th anniversary of her death, her suicide.)
It was she who loved the Nichols & May comedy team, and then May's whack-o deadpan humor in A New Leaf, which she took me to see when I was ten.

I'm sure she saw herself in May's brilliant but socially inept heroine. My mother was raised to be a Southern belle, and her social graces were impeccable. Underneath, however, she was an oddball who could play the game exquisitely, but only at a high price to herself.
She pulled further and further out of the social game because it didn't recognize or nurture who she was. The opposite in fact: it rewarded all the bright surfacey things that she was good at but resented and even despised. She was like a chameleon who didn't want to change colors but didn't know how not to.

She talked a lot about the Holocaust, when I was growing up. I think she felt trapped like a concentration camp victim, except the camp was the world.
She was rotten at protecting herself in any way but by withdrawing. She withdrew more and more over the last dozen years of her life. But, you may know, this can be a false protection: in withdrawing, she crumbled inward. So, she withdrew entirely, into death.
(Of course there's more to it than that...)

She left so long ago, I slowly got used to her being gone. But it wasn't a gentle process. The flip side of the Southern Belle was one of those Southern mothers out of Tennessee Williams: without nurture from the larger world, they suck the life out of their children. I feel like the son in The Glass Menagerie, who got out, saving his life but full of regret.

The other day, I wondered for the first time what my life would have been like these past nineteen years if she had been able to stay present, stay alive. Perhaps unexpectedly, humor was the substratum of her life too, and we had the same sense of humor. When hers eroded away, which it did, its absence honeycombed my life too.
The question is like asking, what if Blanche DuBois had been a happy resilient person (like Mike Nichols appears to be)? Ridiculous, and unutterably painful to contemplate.

Below is Part 2 of Mike Nichols talking on "Inside the Actor's Studio", the section in which he talks about working with Elaine May.

He's an interesting guy--it's also worth watching the whole 2-hour interview: start at part 1 on youTube, and all the other parts are linked on the "related videos."

One of my favorite bits comes in the Q&A at the end. Someone in the audience complains that his subconscious works best at 3 a.m.
Of course it does, Nichols responds. And further, "The most unacknowledged factor in our work is downtime." You have a problem you can't solve, he says, and you go away and leave it alone, then come back to it and you can solve it.
I've experienced that so often, I've come to trust that my brain will deliver...but only if it's given time. Empty time. Probably nobody's going to give that to you but you.
P.S. Hm. I just looked Nichols up on Wikipedia. He and my mother share a birthday, though he was born three years earlier than she was. She'd have liked that.


For more info on suicide prevention or help if you are struggling:
"The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals."


ArtSparker said...

You keep going further in revealing the universal in the personal. This is beautiful. My mother just died, about a week ago. Though she died peacefully in her bed much of what you say has resonance for me, as we had a very fraught relationship.

Fresca said...

"Complicated grief"... that's hard. And the loss of a mother can be a powerful one.
My condolences, Susan.

Rudyinparis said...

Thinking of you.

deanna said...

Your past five posts provide much to digest, as yours often do. It's so worth it to me to go over them again. My brain is slow. But your thoughts about these performers/performances and the relationships to your life and your mother's are amazing. Thanks, and take care today.

Lill said...

I'm really enjoying your extended exploration of Elaine May and Mike Nichols. Elaine May's ability to channel a variety of real-life female characters with complete unselfconsciousness (word check doesn't seem to like that word, but I do) is a big thing that makes her funny. It seems that all an audience needs to find a woman comic funny is to see a genuine, real life characterization on the screen. What a surprise to see a woman you have actually encountered in life in a medium where the prescribed stereotype of a woman usually found portrayed.

I'm drawing a parallel to the cartoons in Victorian papers where the joke was merely a depiction of a servant girl in an upper-class fashionable dress. No caption was needed, the incongruity spoke for itself.

The anniversary of your mother's death is a tough day. Thank you for sharing with us on a day that it would have been easy to retreat instead. Love, Nancy

poodletail said...

Thinking of you, fresca.

Fresca said...

Thank you all.

LILL: Interesting thoughts on humor. Surprise is a big element in humor--we laugh in startlement-- and I suppose E.M.'s extreme competence and unselfconsciousness--as a woman--is a surprise in itself. I hadn't thought of that element. (Of course it isn't enough to base a whole career on.)

Makes me think, too, about women in politics---the big difference in the way they are treated and judged compared to male politicians that we've seen with Hillary especially. Competence can also be threatening, and some have said laughter can be a way we deal with discomfort.
Jokes and fear seem to go together...

Someone said analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog--you understand the frog better, but it's dead. I'm not sure about that. I love seeing the process behind what makes us laugh, and it doesn't make me laugh less.

Fresca said...

I have a slow brain too. I need a lot of that "downtime" Nichols talks about, to sift through everything and make some sense of it.
Of course, I think that makes us interesting, deep people!

momo said...

I meant to write something here yesterday but didn't find adequate words, and was in a rush. So, a little late, my condolences, ArtSparker. And I was thinking of you yesterday, Fresca, my dear. I also have been chewing over this set of posts in the last few days, so much to think about.

Fresca said...

Thanks, Momo.