Sunday Morning! Mikey & Nicky (1976)

Sunday Morning! Mikey & Nicky (1976)

Why is it so hard to get a bead on works of art?

Like a hunter waiting patiently in a duck blind, we sit quietly until we’re asked for our opinion, having lined up the piece of art in the sights of our rifle, we pull the trigger, and it immediately flies to the other side of the lake! Personal opinion changes rapidly and public opinion is even more mercurial, and the expectations we bring to an unfamiliar work of art matter more than we like to think. As a result, our tastes and opinions shift so often it’s tempting to respond to the question “What’d’ya think of that one?” with “Still too soon to tell“.

Some say, of course, that opinions on art are purely subjective; if you think that Vertigo is a great film and I think that Joe Dirt is the greatest film, who’s to say which of us is right? This attitude seems appropriate in a consumer culture where the choices between art are like that between Coke and Pepsi. The problem is tastes are refined over time. One of the first movies I ever saw was the drive-in epic Kingdom of the Spiders with William Shatner. Comparing it to almost nothing else, I was thought it was a terrifying masterpiece. Now, I am not so sure… Similarly, I’ve seen very few anime movies in my life, so I assume that my anime aficionado friends are more qualified to say what makes for a great one. There is, after all, expert opinion.

Sunday Morning! Mikey & Nicky (1976)

Yet, sometimes the experts are so wrong! I recently watched Elaine May’s film Mikey and Nicky on the forthcoming Criterion Channel*, and it’s impossible not to dwell on the fact that this film was critically panned and quickly pulled from theatres, only to be rediscovered years later. Vincent Canby, for instance, wrote in the New York Times: “Miss May is a witty, gifted, very intelligent director. It took guts for her to attempt a film like this, but she failed.” Failed? Did  we watch the same movie? What were they thinking?

There’s something of a general reassessment of Elaine May going on right now. She started as half of a brilliant comedy duo with Mike Nichols, who became one of the great film dramatists. She directed two classics of modern comedy: A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid, and then the “flop” Mikey and Nicky. She then took a long break from directing before being lured back to write and direct Ishtar, one of the most notorious “flops” of all time. For a while, Ishtar was a reliable comedy punchline; Gary Larson drew “Hell’s Video Store” filled with copies of Ishtar. He later apologized because he hadn’t seen the film and, when he did, found it wasn’t that bad. Most people didn’t see it. Recently, a “director’s cut” of the film has been screened and issued on blu-ray and a general consensus seems to be it’s not that bad. As for Elaine May, she’s been increasingly recognized as a genius, although perhaps her strong suit has always been writing. But, really, how could Ishtar have been called he “worst film of all time”? They’ve never seen Mac and Me? What were they thinking?

Mikey and Nicky doesn’t always work, but it does a great deal of the time and my first response to it was “Damn that’s a good movie!” That hasn’t changed with repeated viewings. If anything, the conviction has deepened. It could’ve been a play- there are basically two main characters, a handful of places, and a “unity of time”.  The story takes place over one night in which Nicky (John Cassavetes) a small-time hood, is seeking help from Mikey (Peter Falk) his only friend in the world, or at least the only one he hasn’t fully alienated, to escape the hit he assumes, rightly, has been taken out on his life. They argue, reminisce, hang out in bars, take the city bus, visit Nicky’s girlfriend, ex-wife, and his mother’s grave, argue more, and some things become clear:  Nicky is a self-destructive jerk, Mikey is steering his friend to his date with a hit man (played wonderfully by Ned Beatty), but internally he’s debating whether or not to save him. This is a lifelong friendship that probably reached its breaking point long ago.

The style is naturalistic and reminiscent of Cassavetes’ own films where he’d developed an easy rapport with Falk. The scenes play a little long and unravel a bit at the edges and seem to be partly improvised. There are rumors of epic cuts and thousands of feet of film. Yet, there is a good through line and all sorts of nice touches as the story meanders a bit: Cassavetes smoking a bent cigarette, Falk trying to give his friend an ulcer pill and convince him it’s not poison, Beatty’s complaints about how much he’s spent on gas, etc.

The women in the film seem to exist in these men’s lives to serve as Virginia Woolf’s magnifying glass- to show them enlarged but go unseen or heard otherwise. There’s a supremely uncomfortable sequence in which Nicky has sex with his girlfriend Nellie (Carol Grace) while Mikey waits in the kitchen, and then attempts to share her. The film is unflinching about the genuine desolation of misogyny. Is it, therefore, a feminist film? These guys are pretty horrible to each other too. Ultimately, I think the film argues that there’s no honor among schmucks.

So why was it so poorly received? Perhaps it was the weird tone- a gangster flick lacking shootouts, a tragedy that’s sort of funny, a buddy picture about the worst of friends, Mikey and Nicky is hard to classify. Maybe the critics needed time. Art finds its way eventually. I’m glad this one has because it was a nice discovery.

* Now for my ulterior motive: to plug the Criterion Channel, which launches on April 8. Film buffs who miss FilmStruck should know that Criterion will have its own standalone streaming service. If you’re a charter member, they’re adding one new movie each week until the launch. This was the first one.

So, what are YOU watching, reading, pondering, or playing this weekend?

Also, what was the work of art that YOU got totally wrong when you first encountered it?


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Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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16 thoughts on “Sunday Morning! Mikey & Nicky (1976)

  1. First, thanks for the heads up on the Criterion. I have sorely missed it after leaving HULU. But there is another fee, albeit one that is worth it. I am reading the new Murakami, Killing Commendatore. So far I am not too impressed with the translation. The work itself is quite nice, but sometimes the word choice seems a bit repetitive. Not really watching anything, as I am not a TV fan. Just light comedy in the background, as my wife seems to enjoy that.

    As far as art that you didn’t appreciate at the time, the Pixies. I even had a chance to see them in 89-90 and passed. But over time they have grown on me, and Frank Blacks genius musically shows up in many places.

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    • And I forgot to talk about Nicky and Mickey. It sounds like a lot of Cassavetes movies; small, personal, slightly out of step with the times. Many people seem to want definitive statements, not rambling looks at the messy lives that populate our world. Concrete answers. Pure colors. Not ambiguity and shades of grey. When an artist steps away from that, they make viewers uneasy. What if they completely misunderstand something? Don’t catch the subtext? Then they are seen the fool. Critics are every bit as susceptible to this, maybe more so, as they are the “professional.”

      It is now on my list. So, again, thank you.

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    • The Pixies were part of my high school background but I think I only really started listening to them in the last three or four years, so I had the same response. I’ve started to appreciate them a lot more and also come to realize how much Nirvana got from them.

      I’ve heard that about the Murakami- the review I read focused on the translation and its word choices. It’s a shame because I’ve loved everything I’ve read by him.

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  2. I watched Velvet Buzzsaw on Netflix on Friday night. I watched the entire thing and I’m still not sure why I did so. I find that very few movies are actually bad but lots of them are just “meh” and not very compelling. My state is usually one of bored detachment.

    Velvet Buzzsaw is a satire/horror movie taking aim at the high-price art market/gallery scene. The cast is all star: Jake Gyllenhaal is LA’s leading art critic whose reviews can cause the price of a piece or work to soar or crash. Renee Russo is a former punk rocker turned owner of an gallery with locations around the world and self-described “purveyor of good taste.” John Malkovich is a former superstar coasting on fame and largely just selling reproductions of prior works (I thought he was a critique of Jeff Koons because there is a scene going through his workspace where he has lots of assistants doing things and he doesn’t seem to do much art himself, and Toni Collette is a museum worker who decides to become an art advisor for the rich because that is where the money is.

    One of Russo’s assistants sees an old person in collapsed in the stairwell of her apartment building. This guy is a Harvey Darger type outsider/recluse who has been painting vivid and wild stuff for decades without anyone knowing. The assistant needs a lucky break and decides to take all the paintings before they can be destroyed as was the wish of the artist-dead guy.

    The paintings are a sensation and sell like hot cakes. The weird stuff happens when art comes alive and starts killing people.

    There were some great performances especially Jake Gyllenhaal but only one of the deaths was truly gonzo inspired and the parts did not really add up to a whole despite the easy and rich target. I think the horror movie aspect was probably more of a mistake if a kind of inspired choice.

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    • My problem with slasher movies is two-fold. One is that they really disgust me with their violence. Seeing violence in a standard action movie doesn’t gross me out. I can separate it from the real world. The more personal and bloody deaths in slasher movies always makes me want to close my eyes. This leads to the other problem I have with slasher movies. I tend to feel very sorry for the victims even they tend to be assholes because quite frankly nobody should die like that. The entire concept in relishing in a long and painful death of somebody is disturbing. You can argue it is fine under Aristotle’s catharsis theory but there need to be limits.

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      • Only twoish of the deaths in Velvet Buzzsaw are particularly graphic/bloody. One was trite and the other kind of did say something about the art world. The whole element just seemed really out of place but I guess the idea of a satire of the artworld would feel repetitive and dull without the horror/slasher element.

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    • The interesting thing about the critique of Jeff Koons, and I’ve learned this from the BBC series Fake or Fortune on their episode on VanDyke, was that in the past it used to be very acceptable for apprentices to do most of the work. The master would put in some of his touches but would generally not paint the entire thing accept in special circumstances. These days this is not considered acceptable.

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      • Except in special circumstances.

        I don’t know the extent of famous artists having assistants these days or not. Koons is famous for describing himself as more of an idea than execution person though. The Malkovich character paints but is suffering from ennui and a lack of inspiration. He is resting on his laurels, he knows this, and it depresses him. His assembly line is basically prints/reproductions of original past works.

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      • Another Murakami- Takashi Murakami- has crews of apprentices. He does the design work and usually has people doing the elaborate printing and other work. Both of them produce a great deal of highly sought after work. So it might just be the way they keep up with demand.

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    • I intend to watch Velvet Buzzsaw before long. Perhaps inspired by the Vivian Maier exhibit, I started writing a short story a few months ago about a reclusive dead painter probably more similar to Harvey Darger and that story seems to be about a quarter of the way done at 20,000 words, so it’s probably not a “short story” anymore. So, I’m a bit reluctant to watch this one, although the thing I’m writing isn’t particularly horrific or very satirical, so maybe it will be okay.

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  3. Back when I worked at the restaurant, I got to overhear lots of fun conversations from the guests. One that stuck with me was a comment from a guy who had just finished a slice of the chocolate cake. Now, the cake in question had a layer of milk chocolate mouse, a layer of caramel, a layer of dark chocolate mouse, dark chocolate frosting, and milk chocolate shavings. I think that nuts were involved as well. (It’s been a while.)

    He then broke into a short speech about the aesthetics of dessert. The line that I have to paraphrase was something to the effect of “you know, a kid wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between that and a Snickers.”

    On one level, he’s absolutely right. There was a lot of craft put into the mousse cake. But the cake was beautiful too. It was a beautiful cake to look at, it was a delightful cake to eat, and it was a wonderful cake to have eaten in the moments after the fork has been put down.

    But, on another level, enjoying cake is not an aesthetic achievement, really.

    To jump to music, I suppose we could make distinctions between My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless (an absolutely *AMAZING* album from 1991) and, oh, Color Me Badd’s debut album C.M.B.

    Is enjoying Only Shallow something that is more difficult than enjoying I Wanna Sex You Up?

    On one level, hell yeah.
    On another level… enjoying music is not really an aesthetic achievement.

    When it comes to enjoying stories, we also make huge distinctions between emotionally resonant and mature stories like, oh, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and, oh, let’s check Tinseltown… The Lego Movie 2 and What Men Want are the two top-billed films.

    A story that tackles such things as difficulties in relationships and the rough patches and falling in love and growing apart and dealing with what happens when it’s not easy anymore is pretty different from a story that is, effectively, a 2 hour commercial or a spiritual sequel to Mel Gibson’s millennial love letter.

    But, on another level… it’s cake.

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    • It’s weird- my tastes tend to run between the harder stuff that will stick with me and which I’ll return to often and things like kung-fu ghost movies that will entertain me after a long day of work. They’re both cake, but some of em I remember longer than others. It’s actually the same with food. I still remember certain meals years later, although maybe it had to do with what I was doing.

      And that makes me think of Proust and the famous scene with the madeleine that brings him back to his childhood. Talk about just cake! They’re these little cakes that you can get anywhere. It’s like having all the memories of childhood triggered by a Twinkie. But that happens too.

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      • I didn’t have to look up My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. I thought “best album” and that was the first one to pop up. I had to look up Color Me Badd because I had completely forgotten them. (I looked up Loveless to see what year it came out. 1991. I looked up albums from 1991 and saw Color Me Badd and laughed to remember them.)

        I know that *THIS* album is better than *THAT* album.

        But I have trouble figuring out why. Loveless certainly isn’t *EASY* to listen to. The first time I tried, I ejected the CD thinking that the CD player was eating it the way that my old tape player ate tapes.

        But it’s more rewarding than most other albums that I saw in the “albums from 1991” list that came up when I googled.

        Is it like working out? Lifting 200 pounds is more rewarding than lifting 175? Climbing a 5.8 is more rewarding than climbing a 5.6?

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