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Courtesy of HBO
Courtesy of HBO

Monday on HBO: Becoming Mike Nichols

Courtesy of HBO
Courtesy of HBO

Mike Nichols died in late 2014. He was widely known for his work as half of the comedy duo Nichols and May, but he was also a celebrated director of theater and film. He directed the classic films Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, and The Birdcage, among many others. He also made waves on Broadway, directing Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple, again, among many others.

Nichols is one of only twelve people to hold an EGOT, meaning he won the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony. Beyond that, he's one of only two people to hold a PEGOT, as he also has a Peabody Award (the other PEGOT holder is Barbra Streisand). It's fair to say that Nichols was an extremely accomplished performer, and it's likely he would have a lot to teach about his many crafts. In the film Becoming Mike Nichols, debuting Monday night (February 22) on HBO, we get to spend an hour with the master. Here's a trailer:

Just four months before Nichols died, he sat for two filmed interviews. Both were with his colleague, the director Jack O'Brien, and the pair explored quite literally how Mike Nichols became Mike Nichols—what it took to become an actor and improvisor, how he made the leap to directing theater, and then how he made the leap to directing film. The two interviews were then assembled into a documentary, along with photographs and footage from the 1960s onward. The film also touches on Nichols' early life, as his family fled Nazi Germany to reach the U.S. in 1940.

One of the interviews was just the two men on a stage together; the other was the two in front of an audience. By repeating similar questions and lines of inquiry, O'Brien managed to get Nichols to bring out different stories about his life—those that played both to the intimate setting of two friends reminiscing, and those that played to an audience. And by the way, they did the interview at the Golden Theatre, where Nichols and May made their Broadway debut in 1960.

NEGOTIATIONS, SEDUCTIONS, AND FIGHTS

What makes Becoming Mike Nichols so good is simply Nichols himself, as he tries to make sense of his celebrated career. At one point, he utters a classic Nichols line: "There are only three types of scenes: negotiations, seductions, and fights." He has a point. If you watch his film work, especially his masterpiece Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, that analysis is exactly right. In the Nichols school of drama, conflict is constant and beautiful, and only occasionally cathartic. Even if you watch his film The Birdcage, that same sense of drama within each scene is a constant presence. That's what a man born to the stage brings to film.

Mike Nichols and Elaine May performing with Compass Players (Courtesy of HBO)

Nichols tells us up front: "This is what you need to know about movies: You get lucky in various strange ways." And much of this documentary is about the combination of talent, skill, and luck that made him so successful. If you have any interest in film, theater, or the creative arts, I urge you to tune in for Becoming Mike Nichols. It's just over an hour long, and I can't think of a more delightful way to spend an hour. Plus, you get to hear the true stories behind the ending scene of The Graduate (wrenching and raw), and how Simon & Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson" was originally about an entirely different woman.

Becoming Mike Nichols debuts Monday night, February 22, on HBO. It's also on the HBO streaming services (HBO GO and HBO NOW). You can read more about the film from HBO, including air dates and behind-the-scenes photographs.

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Getty Images
Watch: Stanley Kubrick's Boxes
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Getty Images

In 1996, author/documentarian Jon Ronson received a phone call from someone representing Stanley Kubrick, requesting a copy of Ronson's Holocaust documentary. Ronson figured that was a bit weird, but it was Kubrick, so he'd go along with it.

After Kubrick's death in 1999, Ronson gained access to Kubrick's legendary boxes, the more than 1,000 vessels of ephemera hoarded by the master. So, uh, what's in the boxes? Lots of photographs, memos, letters, you name it.

Ronson made a 45-minute documentary about the boxes, including a tour of Kubrick's estate and the various box storage locations. He even interviews the writer of one of the "crank letters" sent to (and kept by) Kubrick. Kubrick had simply written "crank" on it and filed it away.

This is a terrific watch for anyone interested in filmmaking, Kubrick, or—let's face it—storing stuff in boxes. There's even a segment about half an hour in about how Kubrick worked out the optimal size for a box and its lid, then had them custom-made. Enjoy:

If you're not into the whole video thing, check out Ronson's feature for The Guardian on the same subject.

[h/t: Kottke.]

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YouTube // AmericanExperiencePBS
Tuesday on American Experience: Tesla
YouTube // AmericanExperiencePBS
YouTube // AmericanExperiencePBS

Airing Tuesday night (October, 18, 2016) on PBS stations around the U.S., American Experience presents Tesla, a documentary following Nikola Tesla's life and work. Check your local listings for times, though in most markets the show airs at 9pm. (It will also be on PBS's streaming channels starting October 19.) Here's a 30-second preview:

In American Experience's new hour-long documentary Tesla, we see a portrait of Nikola Tesla, the visionary inventor who is now known as "the patron saint of geeks."

As a lifelong geek, I went into this documentary with a sudden realization: I don't actually know much about Tesla as a person. Sure, I've seen Tesla Coils and I've read about all the wireless energy stuff, but who was this guy? Where did he come from? An hour with this PBS special answers those questions and many more. Here's the first seven minutes of the documentary, just to get you started:

The first thing that jumped out at me while watching this film is that I've been pronouncing Nikola Tesla's first name incorrectly. Watch the clip above—it's properly pronounced "nih-COLE-uh," though some of the experts in the film use the more typical American pronunciation stressing the first syllable.

Aside from learning the man's name, I was surprised to learn that his first invention was a hook designed to catch frogs (and an invention soon after was a "motor" powered by June bugs). But his first breakthrough invention was of course the AC (Alternating Current) motor, and much of the AC-related infrastructure to go with it.

The documentary paints Tesla as a man of great talent and vision, but with fundamentally flawed business sense. Time after time, he makes bad business deals or wastes money, then finds his technical progress stymied by lack of funding. Perhaps as a consequence of this frustration, he goes off the rails mentally from time to time, as in his later years claiming to have received communications from Mars, or falling in love with a pigeon. It also seems clear that he suffered from psychiatric disorders that today could probably be treated, but in the 1800s and early 1900s forced him to engage in repetitive behavior and avoid much human contact.

In any case, Tesla is a fantastic exploration of the human story behind the legend. My only complaint is that I wish it were longer. (Okay, one more complaint: I would've loved to learn why he often posed for pictures with his right hand to his face.)

HOW TO WATCH THE FILM

Tesla premieres Tuesday night (October 18, 2016) on PBS stations around the U.S. It will then begin streaming on October 19 on the PBS streaming apps.

WHAT TO DO WHILE YOU WAIT FOR TUESDAY NIGHT

You should really watch Edison online (for free, legally!) for a counterpoint. Edison and Tesla were contemporaries, and Tesla actually worked for Edison early on, both in Paris and the U.S. These two films together give us a view of the importance of an inventor's vision paired with his ability to run a business. The two men are fundamentally different both in their approach to invention and business, and it's worthwhile to compare and contrast. (Incidentally, Open Culture has a roundup of the 23 American Experience documentaries you can currently stream online—that's one way to fill up your lunch breaks for the next month!)

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