I am so looking forward to the start of the new season of Mad Men in two weeks that I have gone to work at the agency. That’s my self-assembled avatar being welcomed by Don Draper and Roger Sterling (right), as Peggy, Pete and Joan look on (left) . If you want to make one for yourself, click here.
. . .for the home team, and although I am partial to the Yankees, when my friend David Jensen is kind enough to take me to a Met game, I’m all about the boys in blue. And orange. On what turned out to be a beautiful night, we saw the Mets defeat the Colorado Rockies by a score of 7-3, after Fernando Tatis (the only man to hit two grand slam home runs in one inning) came off the bench and blasted a pinch-hit tie-breaking grand slam home run off Franklin Morales in the bottom of the eighth. Above, Fernando greets the jubilant Mets who had crossed the plate ahead of him. Left, David Wright about to hit a single against Ubaldo Jiminez with one on in the sixth. The Mets were trailing 3-1 at the time, and Wright would eventually come around to score the tying run. Joy in Metsville!
Two Sundays ago I went over to the Jacob Burns Center and interviewed Armando Iannucci, the director and co-writer of In the Loop for the Daily Beast. In the Loop is one of the best political satires I have seen in years, one that uses comic insights into human foibles–vanity, ambition, anxiety, lust, and so on–to gain a larger insight into political dynamics. I thought the movie was just brilliant (you can read the Daily Beast article by clicking here.)
We had dinner at MacArthur’s. He had fish and chips, which I guess he doesn’t get enough of at home in London. He is a small and quiet man, and unusual for someone so funny–he had a very long string of comedy successes in the UK, including co-creating the Alan Partridge character with Steve Coogan–he made no effort to be “on” during our discussion. But he was very smart, and I enjoyed talking to him very much. Here is the interview in total:
In the Loop has its roots in The Thick of It, a series set in the office of a minor cabinet minister in Parliament. The film, though, takes this world and expands it and makes it more complex, and much more relevant to current events.
After the first series of The Thick of It [Armando is finishing work on a second series of episodes], we did two hour-long specials, and I became aware that we could take this world that we had established and broaden it. And around the same time, there was then the background to the invasion of Iraq–the dysfunction in the departments in the US, and the British prime minister’s role, how he was just star struck going to Washington. It was both terribly tragic and farcical, and I was very angry, and I thought, Well, that’s the story I want to show, that notion that these are people who are just engaged in office politics, and their small dreams of empire building can have enormous consequences.
The film is based on “the dodgy dossier’’ that Blair threw together to get Parliament to vote for war.
Loosely, yes. That was a situation where the intelligence people were saying about weapons of mass destruction “well, I suppose there is the possibility that there might be. . .’’, and they were instructed to strike out “I suppose’’ and “might be.’’ But there are other elements. I am very interested in the notion that terrible consequences can come from people who aren’t themselves terrible, who aren’t evil and engaged in a conspiracy. What we’ve all seen, what we all know, is that people will slightly compromise themselves incrementally, so that before you know it, they have talked themselves into doing what they have never thought about, and are now doing almost on a whim. The movie is really about behavior, ambition, vanity.
The central character, I think it’s fair to say, is Malcolm Tucker, the Prime Minister’s Director of Communications, who’s played by Peter Capaldi. Malcolm is a character who you created for “The Thick of It.’’ He’s in charge of controlling the government’s message., and he’s aggressive, profane, domineering. . .
Malcolm is the figure that people seize on. In any work, people gravitate toward the dark figure. At university, I almost got a PhD in Paradise Lost, and what’s clear to me is that Satan is the real hero of that story. The whole poem goes up whenever Satan arrives, and tries to win people over to the dark side with his magnificent oratory. And in the same way, Malcolm uses sheer force of personality and sheer force of language to suck you in.
It’s been reported that you based Malcolm on Alastair Campbell, who had been Tony Blair’s Director of Communications.
A little bit on Alastair Campbell, and a little bit on Peter Mandelson, who’s been called the Labor Party’s Prince of Darkness, and also on a lot of anonymous hordes of enforcers, as they’re known. They’re all the Dementors in Harry Potter; they’re all committed to the belief that events are controlled by how they’re perceived in the media.
When we were looking at actors, my casting director said you must see Peter Capaldi. Well, I wasn’t so sure. Peter had spent last ten or fifteen years playing nice people—the bereaved widower in murder mysteries, that sort of thing—and I wasn’t sure he was up to it. We didn’t have a script yet, but I explained a scenario. I would play a minister, and he would play Malcolm. He would come in and be very nice, and explain that I have to resign. And when I say I’m not going to do it, you turn. Well, he turned. And I thought, that’s Malcolm! [All episodes of The Thick of It can be see on youtube, and this scenario. which eventually became the first scene in the first episode of The Thick of It, can be seen here.)
People say that because Malcolm is from Scotland and I’m from Scotland that he’s my alter ego or something, but he wasn’t written as a Scot. But as it happens, we’re both from Glasgow, and the big coincidence is that my mom knew him as wee baby. His parents and my parents were great friends, and in fact, my dad made kitchen units, and Peter says he grew up in one of my dad’s kitchens.
It’s instructive that the winners in your film are all bullies, and the biggest winner is the biggest bully. But they have different styles.
Yes, Malcolm is very aggressive, but the American Assistant Secretary of State, Linton Barwick, is smoother. I saw how Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz functioned, and how John Bolton functioned at the UN. It wasn’t an aggressive bullying, it was emotional, intellectual. They would cut people dead if they disagreed with them, like they were beneath notice. David Rasche, the actor who plays Linton, watched tapes of all of them, and he came up with a performance that wasn’t a caricature of any of them, but a kind of wonderful amalgam.
It’s interesting that in this nest of vipers, Linton is generally perceived as the bad guy.
Yes, it was fascinating to see at screenings that near the end, when Malcolm is slightly on the ropes, the audience was suddenly on his side. And when he hands the report over to Linton and smiles, there’s a big cheer, which is funny, because fundamentally, Malcolm is making a war happen there. But I like when the audience is compromised, when they catch themselves falling for the wrong guy. I never want to make clear who the god guys and bad guys are.
James Gandolfini plays General Miller. How did he get involved in the film?
The BBC put up for sale the rights to remake The Thick of It for the US. In the end, rather than selling it to the best bidder, they sold it to the highest bidder, which turned out to ABC, and the results were terrible—very traditional sitcom direction, no improvisation. But we did have discussions with HBO, and with James and his production company. And given that he was such a fan of the series, I thought, why not ask him to play General Miller? And he said let’s do it. And he was a joy. James has great comic timing, and he was always coming up with comic ideas. After spending two weeks in London at rehearsals, he decided to he wanted to visit the Pentagon, and because he was James Gandolfini, they let him in, And he talked to all these generals, and visited the Situation Room, and then just before he left, he went to the barber shop and and got his hair cut Pentagon style. And he even–because Malcolm asks him if he’s ever killed anyone–he asked all these generals, “Have you ever killed anyone?’’
Did you ever consider naming the president or prime minister, or having a character who the president or PM?
No, the movie is really about international politics as middle management. When you show the president or the PM, everyone starts focusing on whom that person really represents. I really like staying on the lower level, because it’s more like reality. It’s like we’re eavesdropping on something not meant to be seen. That’s why, when we researched the film, we asked people in the departments and so on not for inside stories necessarily, but for real details—the dull stuff, the clothes people wear, what’s frustrating or boring. One person told us that Madeleine Albright had a saying to the effect that if you’re in a meeting, you’re in power, but if you leave a meeting, you lose power. She had her people practice what was called Bladder Diplomacy—they could sit in a meeting for six hours. That’s why we gave the Karen Clark character a problem with her tooth—a bad problem that she wouldn’t leave the meeting to take care of.
You did some very personal research for the film, right?
Yes, I snuck into the State Department to see what the offices are like. I have a pass from the BBC—just an ordinary thing with my name and photo that you can download, no stamp or serial number or anything. A friend told me, just go up to the reception desk and show them your pass and tell them that you’re there for the 12:30—and they let me in! And I wandered around for a half hour or so, expecting at any moment to be arrested. Finally some big guy came up and said “Can I help you?’’ And I thought, okay, this is where I get water boarded. I said, “I’m here for the 12:30,’’ and he said “It’s right in here.’’ And it was Condi Rice’s press briefing!
I’m surprised people in office were so willing to help.
The people in that world are always very excited when anyone makes a film or TV about their world. In London, we filmed the opening of the film outside of Number 10 [Downing Street], and all the government enforcers, all the little Malcolms, came out with their cameras to get their picture taken with Peter Capaldi. And in Washington, I was talking to a senior member of Vice President Biden’s staff not long ago, and he said `You’ll never guess who came to see us the other day! Bradley Whitford, who played Josh Lyman on The West Wing!’ And I thought, `But you are Josh Lyman! You’re Josh Lyman every day!’
But we hear from people. Not long ago we were working on the second series of The Thick of It, and we thought of having a minister decide that he wanted to be seen as more a man of the people, and so he would start walking from his office to the House of Commons. But then his staff told him that while he could walk, his papers, being government property, would have to ride. Hilarious idea, but in the end, we dropped it, because it seemed too far out. But then someone told us that in order to seem more green, David Cameron, the head of the Tories in Parliament, rides a bike to work every day, except that he’s followed by car where he keeps his shoes and shirt.
Have you heard from any real politicians who’ve seen the film?
Yeah. Alastair Campbell said it was boring.
Thanks to the largesse of Radio Station 107.1 The Peak, I won tickets to see Big Bad Voodoo Daddy at the Paramount Theater in Peekskill last night. The very tight, nine-member band from New Orleans really swung, and the players’ virtuosity was clear even to this untutored ear. The band has been together 16 years and has recorded a number of albums; its latest, “How Big Can You Get?”, is devoted to the music of Cab Calloway. Among the numbers performed last night were “Minnie The Moocher”, “Go Daddy-O”, “Jumpin’ Jack”, “Zig Zaggity Woop Woop (Pt. 2)”, “I Wan’na Be Like You” (from Disney’s The Jungle Book), and “Swing, Swing, Swing”. Good show!
Saw a screening of An Education on Monday, and found it exceptional. Carey Mulligan did a great job showing the girl who was more than a girl but not quite yet a woman, and the rest of the cast–Alfred Molina, Emma Thompson, Olivia Williams, Peter Skarsgaard, Dominic Cooper, and most especially Rosamund Pike–were terrific. A special award for a supporting performance should be given to the early sixties. God, what style!
By the end of the week, we will embark on the 40th anniversary of one of the most amazingly newsworthy months of our history. July 16th, of course, is the anniversary of the day in 1969 that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first me to walk on the moon. Two days after that, on Martha’s Vineyard, Teddy Kennedy drove off his Oldsmobile Delmont 88 off the Dyke Bridge, and young Mary Jo Kopechne lost her life. Three weeks later, on the nights of August 8th and 9th, the Charles Manson and his followers brutally murdered Sharon Tate and five other people. The following week, in a small town in Sullivan County, New York, the Woodstock Festival proved to the world that the kids could have three days of fun and music, and nothing but fun and music.
Four weeks, four signature, name-brand moments that serve as memorable signposts to the era. What did they have in common?
Not much, really. Maybe you could argue that they were climactic moments to long-running stories that dominated the decade: the space program never mattered as much once we reached the moon, hopes of Kennedy presidential dynasty ended that night, and the counterculture had both its triumphant flowering and cruel, most horrifying crash. But of course, this is just a lame construct built with the most ephemeral substance known to man—ideas. Not even did the people who were most tuned in at the time see connections. “In truth,’’ one friend has written to me, “1968 was so incredibly tumultuous, this seemed like a normal news flow.’’
There is one connecting element: for all four of those events, the Number One song in the country was a turgid, apocalyptic bit of melodrama called “In the Year 2525.’’ Had the Beatles delayed “Get Back’’ a few weeks, or had the Rolling Stones hurried a few weeks to release “Honky Tonk Women,’’ the honor of being the background music to a momentous event could have gone to a momentous band. Instead, the distinction fell to a one-hit wonder duo out of Nebraska called Zager and Evans, whose marketing acumen was such that their follow-up to this megahit was “Mr. Turnkey”, a song about a rapist who nails his own wrist to the jail wall. Still, with its bizarre subject matter, Evans’ quivery evangelical tenor, and a simple, propulsive riff that kept the strange brew moving, “In the Year 2525” does have its weird appeal. After all, who can resist a lyric that says ``In the year 9595/ I’m kinda wondering if man’s gonna be alive/ He’s taken everything this old earth can give/ And he ain’t put back nothing/ Wo-oh-wo.’’
Wo-oh-wo. Just so. Exactly right.
The word novel may seldom be more aptly applied to a book than it can be to Jed Mercurio‘s new book American Adulterer. After all, John F. Kennedy is not exactly a figure who has lacked for attention or interpretation, but Mercurio, a British doctor and novelist, has developed a unique approach that truly makes you see Kennedy afresh. Writing in the voice of a clinician, dispassionately treating Kennedy as a subject for behavioral analysis, looking at him in all his roles–husband, father, president, sexual animal, patient–Mercurio gives the reader a sense of what it could have been like to have been Kennedy in real time, a person subject to lots of feelings and impulses, many of them self-destructive. Most effective is Mercurio’s ability to show how Kennedy’s debilitating infirmities, the treatments he took for them, and their own havoc-wreaking side effects, challenged and in some cases may have undermined his ability to lead, and certainly exacerbated his sexual impulses. I don’t know if very many people care about JFK so much anymore; after haunting the American landscape for more than three decades after his assassination, his stature in tragedy seems to have been eclipsed by 9/11, and in hope by Barack Obama. But for those are still interested in the Kennedy enigma, Mercurio’s book does that rarest of things: it lets you see the subject from a new perspective.
Jed Mercurio answered some questions from me:
How did you come to this subject?
The book started with an interest in adultery/sex addiction, specifically a character who’s outwardly virtuous and admirable but who’s private life conceals a compulsive vice. As I developed the protagonist his resemblance to JFK became overwhelming, to the point where my publisher and I agreed that it helped more than hindered the novel for him to become the subject.
Did you come to the device of the clinical narrator from the outset?
The clinical voice arose early, in reaction to the shocking extent of JFK’s physical problems. I needed a narrator who wouldn’t get shocked or else the novel’s tone would become melodramatic. I also needed a narrator who wouldn’t judge the subject morally but would leave that to the reader. American Adulterer considers a physically and psychologically diseased protagonist, encouraging the reader to extrapolate aspects of JFK’s character into universal issues of male sexuality, monogamy and marriage and ask himself/herself what’s “moral” and “normal”. I also felt that later in the novel the style would provide an original and unsentimental gateway to the emotional impact of the Kennedy tragedy.
Did your view of Kennedy change during the course of this project?
The more I studied Kennedy, the more I admired his courage in suffering his chronic medical problems. LIke most people, I found his sexual conduct extreme, but for the sake of the book I needed to remain sympathetic and non-judgmental. The novel is deliberately hagiographic about his Presidency in order to contrast the sex addiction he hid from the American People. It helps the reader see one of my central question’s more clearly: how important is a person’s private vices if in public service they carry out good works?
So very much of the book is based on documentary material. Did you apply rules to your imagination when inventing scenes or discussions?
Although American Adulterer isn’t and can’t be the “truth”, good fiction requires verisimilitude. My primary objective was for those imagined or embellished scenes to appear authentic, and the only rule as such was not to defame anyone in a fashion incommensurate with the historical record, while serving the novel’s ambition to deal with male and female relationships.
Bobby Kennedy is conspicuous by his absence. Why did you decide to eliminate the role of this person who was so very close to JFK?
This was the hardest creative decision I faced in writing American Adulterer. I wanted to invent a fictional but versimilar JFK, but Bobby was so closely involved in many of the President’s political actions that his inclusion would have diluted the hagiographic portrayal of JFK as a politician. I wanted to write about the Kennedy marriage not the Kennedy family – by opening it out to Bobby there’d be the question of portraying other family members; the same applies to other key aides of the President. Finally, I would have had to deal with aspects of RFK’s private life and the facts there are much less clear and much more controversial than his brother’s, e.g. his own alleged affair with Marilyn Monroe – which throws up an ethical issue when his widow is still living.
Do you find that people’s reactions to the novel are governed by their opinion of JFK and/or his family? Do young people who have no personal memory of JFK react to the book differently than older readers?
I haven’t detected an age skew in the reactions, but, irrespective of age, readers bring their own values and sensitivities to a book, and even if you don’t share them you have to acknowledge them. I’d be naive not to anticipate readers bringing their own image of Kennedy to the book, but some will cling to theirs more strongly than others. JFK remains an enigmatic and protean figure. I hope readers will appreciate that aspects of his career and character can be selectively presented to portray him as either a saint or a sinner, and that therefore they’ll understand why American Adulterer isn’t a biography but a thought-provoking novel.
It was one of those good days, a mood changer. Went down to Chelsea to sign some papers for Joe Cilibrasi, and then decided to grab some lunch in a barbecue joint, and right at the next table was my friend Sharon Jautz, the former head of HR at Playboy, now blonde and tan and despectacled and, literally, unrecognizable, at least at first. Went uptown to The New York Times and had a very nice meeting with Frank Rich, who was very gracious and generous with his time and encouraging. His 13th floor office has windows that face west, and his blinds go up and down automatically–highly distracting, although I guess you get used to it. Before I left, I was able to visit the cubicle of my friend George Kalogerakis; we commiserated about the state of things. Strolled uptown. Got the new Derek Jeter figure at Toys R Us, window-shopped at the NHL store on Sixth (not as much product as the NBA store, and nowhere near as much imagination or pizzazz), had a frappaccino and read the Financial Times at the Starbucks in Trump Tower, and went over to the Sony Building to a screening of a terrific new movie called An Education, directed by Lone Scherfig from a screenplay by Nick Hornby based on a memoir by the English journalist Lynn Barber, with terrific performances by Peter Sarsgaard, Rosamund Pike, Dominic Cooper, Alfred Molina, Olivia Williams, and especially the very winsome Carey Mulligan (we will be seeing lots more of her). The sixties looked smashing: chic, smart, sophisticated. (Does no one wish to look like that today?) When it was over, walked down Madison to Grand Central with my iPod on, singing out loud with the Ramones (It’s Not My Place.) No one seemed to notice. Unaccountably, I felt happy. (Pictures: a subway car has been given over to an advertisement for Jerry Bruckheimer‘s new TNT series Dark Blue, making it look like the very thing the Transit Authority struggled for so many years to clean up; Harry Potter dominates the Times Square subway station; a window in Bergdorf Goodman has been given over to to Divine, courtesy of Baltimore’s American Visionary Arts Museum; girls in their summer dresses, heading south on Madison.)
I love David Brooks. He is so wise, and temperate, and fair-minded, and even-handed. And reasonable. There may not be a more reasonable man tapping a keyboard in America today. Every time I read one of his columns, I feel a warm, gentle, reasonable arm around my shoulder, gently guiding me towards the path of enlightenment. There’s no denying it–sometimes when I’m feeling confused and forlorn, I wish David Brooks was my dad.
I had that feeling the other day, when he wrote a column in The New York Times about George Washington and the decline of public dignity. There Brooks was, talking about how George educated himself with a series of maxims designed to improve his character. And lo and behold they did, which is why George was able to become the father of his country. During the following decades, millions of Americans tried to follow George’s example.
But “the old dignity code has not survived modern life,” writes Dad–er, David Brooks. “The costs of its demise are there for all to see. Every week there are new scandals featuring people who simply do not know how to act. For example, during the first few weeks of summer, three stories have dominated public conversation, and each one exemplifies another branch of indignity. First, there was Mark Sanford’s press conference. Here was a guy utterly lacking in any sense of reticence, who was given to rambling self-exposure even in his moment of disgrace. Then there was the death of Michael Jackson and the discussion of his life. Here was a guy who was apparently untouched by any pressure to live according to the rules and restraints of adulthood. Then there was Sarah Palin’s press conference. Here was a woman who aspires to a high public role but is unfamiliar with the traits of equipoise and constancy, which are the sources of authority and trust.”
Excellent point. The decline of–say what? Michael Jackson? Gosh, I don’t like to disagree with someone as wise and reasonable as David Brooks, but how would even the most massive dosage of George Washington-class dignity have helped Michael Jackson? I don’t think urging him to act more dignified would have done much to discourage his perversions, and it certainly wouldn’t have helped him moonwalk during the Motown Reunion or sell more copies of Thriller, and I doubt it would have increased the surge of mourning his death invited across the globe. And not to knock dignity, but whatever has drawn us to Elvis Presley, Jerry Lewis, Marilyn Monroe, Pablo Picasso, Lord Byron, and so many others, it certainly wasn’t their dignity. And for as vital a sense of dignity is–often enough, it’s the only thing people have left–there’s certainly no need to mention how often it has been invoked to induce people to inhibit and repress all sorts of feelings and behaviors that might just possibly have made them happy.
Dignity is all well and good and possibly even essential for the guy who is leading a ragtag group of revolutionaries and is tying to launch a fledgling republic, and for a great many other purposes as well. But I would say we have also been enriched by the comic stylings of Mark Sanford, Michael Jackson and Sarah Palin. It’s a big world, as my real dad might have said, and it takes all kinds, even ones who don’t shit marble. Come on, Dave baby, loosen up!