February 14, 2005

Small and large falls.

Today, I was struggling to drag out the gigantic, three-paneled whiteboard contraption in my classroom when the handle came off, and I fell on the floor right in front of fifty students. The class was Constitutional Law, and the subject of the day was the Watergate Tapes case. Thematic unity: my humiliating and idiotic, little fall and Nixon's far grander and far more painful fall.

Speaking of Nixon, here's a nice Criterion Collection DVD of "Secret Honor," Robert Altman's film with Philip Baker Hall playing Nixon. We see the fictionalized Nixon in his study, mulling and raging over his downfall. The DVD includes a lot of archival footage of Nixon speeches, including the meandering, overemotional farewell speech he made to the White House staff on the day he resigned.

I would double-feature this with Atom Egoyan's short film (in this set) of the Samuel Beckett play "Krapp's Last Tape." This has John Hurt monologuing and agonizing over the past while playing audiotapes. I assume "Secret Honor" was inspired by "Krapp's Last Tape" -- Krapp is uncannily Nixon-like. Both actors -- Philip Baker Hall and John Hurt -- do a phenomenal job in a part that is entirely about an old man alone in his room, remembering and suffering, ridiculously and tragically.

But don't watch "Krapp's Last Tape" on Valentine's Day, not unless you want to feel the horrible pain of passing up the love of your life. Which reminds me, as I write about falling: the best falling for Valentine's Day is falling in love. Not falling splat on the floor as you lose a struggle with an oversized whiteboard on which you were hoping scrawl things like "sensitive national security secrets" as you expatiated about United States v. Nixon.

UPDATE: This brought some email.
I'm very sorry about your fall! Did any of your students come to your aid, and treat it as a situation in which real injury could have occurred?
Thanks. I'm fine. A student did come help me up, and no one laughed, even though I'm sure I looked quite ridiculous. It's quite incongruous for the teacher to fall down. But it's not the kind of incongruity that provokes laughter. I saw it happen once in law school, so I know what it's like from their perspective.
I vaguely remember a comedy show where it has Nixon and...Dean?... and they're reminiscing about what was actually going on during the infamous recorded conversations. The two are shown joking around, mooning the "hidden" microphone, covering it up to make wisecracks about other cabinet members... I didn't really get it, because I think I was about six and barely knew who the President was at the time (Reagan), but my parents thought it was funny. Any idea what show that was?
You saw a rerun of this old episode of "Saturday Night Live" with the great Dan Aykroyd interpretation of Nixon and the great John Belushi playing Kissinger. Here's a photo of how they looked in this skit that was based on the scenes of Nixon and Kissinger portrayed in "The Final Days." In the skit, Nixon and Kissinger were talking about how all the bad things on the Watergate tapes were just jokes. We see a flashback of them saying the various damning quotes, but making faces and gestures that showed they were just kidding. But people took it the wrong way, because they only had the cold transcript. Note: that sketch was written by Al Franken.
It's really weird: I remember how I hated Nixon, but I now don't think he was so bad. He was really a moderate in many things and, putting aside his unfortunate paraonoia, was a pretty effective president. When I look at the current political scene with our preacher-in-chief, I feel a definite odd nostalgia for ol' ski-nose.
One of the reasons "Secret Honor" is so affecting is that, with the distance of time, we feel sympathy for the man, especially because we are aware of how Nixon-hating had a lot to do with a very personal reaction to the man. There was a sort of loathing that wasn't about politics, but about the way he looked and spoke and certain personality qualities of the sort that would have made him unpopular even as a child. And the truly challenging thing to think about is how he could have been politically effective if he repelled people on a deep psychic level.

Bush-haters of today might try imagining themselves thirty years in the future, looking back at him as a mere man.

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