There were three big “Mike Nichols moments” in my life. The first was the universally shared one: watching The Graduate for the first time. I was a teenager and an interest in sexuality, excitement, and a nose for mischief were at their height. Watching Dustin Hoffman sleep with an older woman and then run off with her daughter, all to the tune of Simon & Garfunkel, even had me sweating as a so-called Generation Y-er. Visually, the film was doing interesting things with its pans and sudden zooms. They weren’t cheesy. They were oddly endearing. And to think that this film was made in the 1960s was all the more impressive. The next moment came when I saw Closer in the theatre back in 2004. I was well versed in the Nichols film canon (Primary Colors, Working Girl, etc.) and was expecting warmth and light at the end of the tunnel for this story of four miserable people who kept fucking each other over, literally and figuratively. But it never came. Yes, as per many Mike Nichols films, it was brilliantly acted. But this film was relentlessly blunt. It was cold. Was this really a Mike Nichols film? Yes, Nichols had made groundbreaking films in the past, but none that ever told America’s Sweetheart to “fuck off and die.” It had such a startling affect on me that when I re-watched some of his films (Wolf, Silkwood), I ardently searched to find even more tangible nastiness in some of those characters. I wanted to not like some of the fully realized, compassionate characters from those past films simply so I could connect them back to the characters of Closer—and ultimately give myself vindication as a viewer. But I couldn’t. I could never dislike Harrison Ford in Regarding Henry as much as I disliked Jude Law in Closer. But that’s okay. Nichols was showing me that he handled every type of person equally. By the time Nichols made Charlie Wilson’s War in 2007, it was obvious that Nichols really wasn’t interested in the dynamic movements of the camera; contrast that to The Graduate, which has something going on in nearly every frame. Nichols was basically creating a cinema of the theatre. He was going back to his roots. His camera was much more calm in the last feature films. He was just watching his players, smiling behind the camera. This speaks directly to the third Nichols moment for me, which happened a few years ago. I was on the “L” train in Chicago, headed downtown, listening to a podcast of Radiolab on NPR. The segment was on the origin of laughter. It opened by playing some archival audio of Nichols and Elaine May laughing hysterically as they attempted to get through a comedy bit. It was such an infectious sound, so hearty and real, that I kept playing it over and over. I was so obsessed with the clip that I found myself researching Nichols’ early comedic past, of which I was not too informed. I was shocked to learn that his original improv troupe (the Compass Players) was the predecessor to what would eventually become the Second City improv powerhouse of Chicago. Nichols was closer to my roots that I even realized.
At the end of the day, what these three moments signify was that Mike Nichols was always a filmmaker that kept surprising me. I never had him figured out. There was always a fascinating development or a piece of information about his life that was waiting to be discovered. I put this video essay together with a heavy heart. Aside from seeing such recent artists who have passed (like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams) in the clips, the overwhelming fact that there were going to be no more films or pieces of theatre created by this great storyteller was piercing. But then I just remember that great laugh of his from that comedy sketch outtake. Something tells me that he still has some surprises waiting for me.
Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW which boasts the tagline: “Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System.” You can follow Nelson on Twitter here.