Sunday, August 17, 2014

Dementia and Comedy: "Live in their World"

As a drama teacher, I know the cardinal rule of improvisation, "Never say 'no.'"  Another way of saying it is, "Live in their world."   That is, if you walk on stage and your partner says, "Doctor, we must operate immediately on this orangutan," then you must immediately become a surgeon in an unusual situation.

According to tonight's broadcast of This American Life (Public Radio International, heard on WABE Atlanta) this trick of comedy improv is an effective way to keep a loved one happy in spite of dementia.   So, the mother-in-law doesn't remember who her daughter is, and she thinks monkeys are overrunning the yard?  The son-in-law, an actor, says, "It sure is late in the season for monkeys.  Can you catch one so we can have it in the house?"

We hear tape from the actual interaction.  The mother-in-law keeps the conversation going, clearly enjoying the playfulness of it.  She started serious, but she now knows she's playing a game.

It's not a panacea.  The daughter is upset that her mother doesn't recognize her.  But it's better than constantly saying, "No, you're wrong." 

Here's a link to the site mentioned in the piece:

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Frost/Nixon: You Never Get Over It

We're forty years after the day Nixon resigned.  I was a kid working for Dad's chemical company.  When Nixon flew away from DC in that helicopter, we paused to listen on the office radio.  For the previous two years, Watergate had been a steady drip drip drip of news stories that made no sense to me -- Haldeman?  Ehrlichman?  Dean?  Colson? G. Gordon Liddy?    Then Nixon was gone, Ford pardoned him, and we moved on to disco and Star Wars.

Tonight, enjoying director Ron Howard's film adaptation of the stage play by Peter Morgan, I found myself weeping more than once.  Why?

It's largely a comedy.   Part of the fun is that it's a boxing movie disguised as a series of dry news interviews.  In one corner, we have little celebrity-besotted Frost (Michael Sheen) who often looks startled even while he smiles and mouths positive thoughts. In the other corner, we have jovial, wily Nixon (Frank Langella).  As in any boxing movie, each of the combatants goes back to an entourage for support.   Kevin Bacon is especially strong as Nixon's most ardent defender; Sam Rockwell is the outraged Nixon-hater who berates Frost.  There are running gags, about Frost's "effeminate" shoes (real men wear laces),  and how Nixon disarms Frost with some personal observation in the thirty seconds before an interview begins.

So, why cry?  Thirty years ago, a ten-year anniversary documentary called "Summer of Judgment" got the same reaction from me, even while it told us how Senators who voted for impeachment reacted the same way!  Senator after Senator, interviewed about that day, said, "Then, funny thing, after the vote, I went back to my office and cried."  Another said, "I cried.  Not for Nixon, God knows -- for the country, that it had come to this." Another Senator said, "Then I went back into my office and --"  he swallowed hard, "it was pretty tough.."

But now?  I think it's the feelings of connection and betrayal.  Nixon's voice and image were part of my childhood.  I'd waited up late to hear whether George Wallace might cause Nixon to lose the close race in 1968.   I remember watching his inauguration on a black-and-white TV in Mrs. Finkle's 4th grade, and his daughter's wedding.  When Nixon was under attack for Watergate, I didn't get the details, but I got the narrative:   "I'm a serious patriot trying to do the best I can to save the world, and these profane, childish, outlandish, insinuating left wing enemies are all over me. Trust me."  I did.  But he had been lying the whole time.  I'm still not over it.

In the movie,  Frost uses pages of notes to confront Nixon with quotes from some unpublished transcripts.  Nixon, as always, implies that he's being treated unfairly:  "I'm not using any notes." It's a great detail that Frost drops the notes and leans in to insist on three specific confessions. 

An earlier scene, probably the author's invention, has tipsy Nixon phoning anxious Frost late at night to chat.  Nixon is lonely, drunk, and, for once, candid.   He wants to connect to Frost, someone who, like him, has been scorned by those born to privilege.  It's a strong scene, allowing Langella to let loose, and requiring Sheen to sit still, reacting to the phone.

In the end, the movie is about something religion teaches us about:  the need for confession, the need for absolution, and the hell when it's denied. 

Read "Nixon's Voice," my reflection on Nixon in works of opera and fiction

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Mystery Writing Lesson: 9K Words into Raven Black

Reflections on Daddy's Gone A Hunting by Mary Higgins Clark (New York: Pocket Books, 2014) and Raven Black by Ann Cleeves (New York, Thomas Dunne books, 2006).

Just 30 pages, 9000 words into Raven Black, I feel like I've been somewhere I've not been before, and I've already been drawn into the emotional lives and memories of a handful of characters.  I hope I'm not giving away too much when I report how delighted I was to realize that chapter two comes at the same event as chapter one from a different perspective.  We feel some sympathy for the lonely old man in the first chapter before we see him through the girls' eyes as both pathetic and repulsive. 

Speaking to one of the girls, he recognizes her as daughter of a schoolteacher in town.  In just these thirty pages, we get different perspectives on that schoolteacher - too strict?  wise? sympathetic?  in need of a makeover?  -- and we also get to see the town itself as picturesque enough to draw tourists, not picturesque enough to satisfy them, small enough for our characters to know each other by reputation, but lately filling with strangers. 

We do have a body, and the details, gruesome as they are, have been foreshadowed already in some ruminations on the ravens that flock on this island in the Shetlands. 

So I'm not only drawn along in the story, but I feel the lines of its world drawn tightly around my imagination.  

I compare this to the rapid-fire exposition in Daddy's Gone A Hunting.  I completed reading it yesterday, having turned page after page to see what happened next, second-guessing characters' secrets.  Still, this reader skipped along the surfaces of the story, noting plot points and feeling a bit overwhelmed by shifts of perspective every couple of pages. I was also amused and a bit irritated at how specific numerals cropped up as we were told the ages of characters, and exactly how many years ago this or that event happened. 

Clark is a descendant of Dickens, by way of soap opera.  Like Dickens, she keeps things fresh by keeping scenes brief, shifting sites frequently;  like producers of a soap opera, she also makes sure that everyone but a couple of outliers is well-built, well-groomed, on the youngish side, and she keeps introducing fresh faces well into the second half of the story.  She hit emotions hard a couple of times, giving us the simple detail that the parent turns off the porch light for the first time in years -- now that she knows her daughter will never be coming home. 

Cleeves, so far at least, is pulling me deeper into her created world.   I find in comparison how much I missed the texture of Raven Black when I was turning pages in Daddy's Gone A Hunting.