Thursday, 20 November 2014

His Legacy

For the last month or so, The Husband and I have been watching a new series from Showtime called The Affair. (Here in Canada it airs on TMN.) This is not a show for everybody's tastes. It is a provocative program that is all at once brilliantly maddening, gut-wrenching, difficult to watch at times, and certainly not for the lackadaisical TV viewer who might find entertainment value in Lifetime's nauseating Prison Wives Club. The Affair is one of those rare pieces viewed on television that actually elevates the medium to an art form. It demonstrates what can be accomplished when true skill is applied and performed. Those moments are rare in an industry that these days makes a star out of somebody as talentless as Kim Kardashian. It is my belief that because we so desperately seek diversion and amusement from all the crap in our everyday lives, we have forgotten how infrequent an occurrence genuine craftsmanship is in the entertainment world, and how touched we are when those authentic moments of artistry actually do happen.

We have become lazy audiences. We have accepted dross because we are either too exhausted or too voyeuristic to insist on better. We haven't allowed ourselves to be moved by those authentic voices and instead we are taken in by the hucksters that desperately seek fame at all costs. We have become junk food consumers when it comes to entertainment, and our intellectual capacities are being atrophied by the continual barrage of crap.

We tend to apply the term genius far too liberally in the performing art world. Winning an Oscar or a Tony does not make one a genius, nor does recording a video that millions watch on YouTube. Rather, I would submit, that genius can be found in discovering an authentic voice and being able to reinvent that voice time and again in a variety of media. Not every painter is Picasso, nor is every actor Meryl Streep. But when that bit of brilliance shines through, even for a moment, we are transformed and transported into a morass of emotion.

Mike Nichols was a genius. A true genius. The fact that one doesn't even have to recognize his name to know and appreciate his work speaks to his genius. Mike Nichols imparted in his audiences an ability to contemplate that transcended the piece being performed. We saw a generosity of comedic spirit in his work with Elaine May. There was the extreme pathos he wanted us to envision in Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, and there was the loving camaraderie he encouraged out of Oscar and Felix in The Odd Couple. He saw brilliance in the raw talents of Dustin Hoffman, Whoopi Goldberg, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and so many others, and he mentored them to greatness. Mike Nichols never played to the lazy audience. His work required a certain level of attention and engagement. In a 1965 interview with The National Observer he stated:
“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. The words are secondary and the secrets are primary. That’s what interests me most.”
The legacy of Mike Nichols shouldn't be our regurgitation of crap from reality television, nor should it be plunking down the price of a movie ticket on junk. We the audience owe it to Mike Nichols to be far more demanding in our viewing habits. I'm not saying that we should all like or appreciate the same performance. Art is certainly subjective. But perhaps we can attempt to step outside our comfort zones for a bit, and give real attention to something as difficult to digest as The Affair.

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