The Kominsky Method – Facing Up To Denial

The Kominsky Method is a Netflix comedy drama, telling the story of revered Hollywood acting coach Sandy Kominsky, and his agent Norman Newlander. Both are now in the last years of their careers, facing the difficulties of ageing – ill-health, adapting to the loss of loved ones, feeling adrift in a changed world.

The main way Sandy tries to cope with these challenges is through his work. The Kominsky Method involves an actor facing up to personal life experience, even at its most painful, and using this self-awareness to bring authenticity to a role. This is a nod to “method acting” as taught by famous teachers like Konstantin Stanislavsky or Lee Strasberg. Ironically, however, our method acting coach isn’t actually very good at facing up to life experience. We see this in the first episodes, when Norman’s wife Eileen dies. Returning from the hospital, Sandy duly tells his students about his anguish at Eileen’s death, explaining that this is the kind of pain which actors can draw upon in their work. Norman, who happens to be watching the class, objects to this use of personal tragedy as mere material for acting. We get the feeling that in making the loss of Eileen into an acting resource, Sandy is not so much facing the pain of loss as trying to lessen its impact on him. This fits with his behaviour leading up to Eileen’s death. Unable to deal with illness, he kept finding excuses not to visit her.

Sandy Kominsky has reached a point of reckoning in his life, when it is becoming ever harder to hide from harsh reality. The days of taking his health for granted are over, just as his tendency to keep other people at arms length now risks the prospect of a lonely old age. It is time to face up to things. He thinks he has been doing this in his acting, when it has been a means of avoidance.

Perhaps, in the end, however, we come to realise that acting is valuable because it actually allows both avoidance and engagement to happen at the same time. Norman regularly “talks” to Eileen after her death, acting out conversations with her. In a sense these conversations are denial. They also allow Norman to come to terms with feelings that are difficult for him, but in a manner that he can cope with.

So, for me, the true Kominsky Method is a process of make-believe which allows people to both face difficulties and handle them in a form that is bearable. It’s like a scary movie where people can endure danger, in a safe way.

I loved the show. It is a passion project of writer and producer Chuck Lorre. Lorre, now in his late sixties, has had a hugely successful career in television, with his credits including Roseanne, Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory, and Young Sheldon. I feel he has put a lifetime of experience into The Kominsky Method. All that is entertaining, funny and moving about the show, also serves a larger purpose – to demonstrate how the contradictory business of acting can help people face difficult things more easily.

Add on June 2021

I have just finished watching the third and last series of The Kominsky Method. This is a series where Sandy faces his fears. Now without Norman, his agent, friend and protector, he enters a new period in his life. Sandy takes a big step in reconciling with his first wife, Ros. Sadly, Ros has leukaemia, and does not have very long. The old Sandy would have avoided the situation, as he did with Eileen. Now he takes a role in Ros’s care. When she passes away, he faces the pain squarely. Yes, he tells his class about what happened, as he did with Eileen. But this time his advice takes the form of a truly moving scene, which contrasts movie death with the real thing. Sandy urges his students to treat a scene involving death with the utmost reverence and respect. This is different to the speech with Eileen, which had more the feeling of passing on a bit of technique. Acting can still play its role in giving protective distance, but that distance is shorter now

And the suggestion is that Sandy’s acting only gains as a result. He finally gets the big role he has dreamed of all his life.

I thought The Kominsky Method was great a piece of work, a worthy monument to Chuck Lorre’s career and to the art of acting in general.

The Morris Ital – A Window On The Past

There is a thing called survivorship bias where the best, strongest and most beautiful things from the past are usually favoured for preservation. This means there is a natural tendency for the past to appear better, stronger and more beautiful than it really was – since all the ordinary stuff which touched a lot of people’s lives has long gone. This informs how we think and write about the past.

I thought about this recently on my regular walk, which takes me past a dilapidated Morris Ital. This car, built by British Leyland between 1980 and 1984, was a cosmetic update of the Morris Marina, a car, which whilst selling well in its day (including to my dad), is best known in 2021 as one of the worst cars the UK has ever produced. The Marina is now very rare. The Ital, already obsolete when it was released, and suffering all kinds of build quality issues, was if anything even worse than the Marina. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the Ital is now officially the rarest of all UK production cars.

I consulted which records a total of 27 registered Itals for 2020. The particular model I see on my walk is an HLS, Auto and apparently there are only two of those left registered for road use, with nine others registered as off the road.

So there it sits, a humble car from the early 1980s. Of the 172,276 built, only a handful survive. But the Ital illustrates the past more accurately than any number of Aston Martins. I thought it was worth a celebration.

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad – Explaining The Inexplicable

Royal Observatory, Greenwich

The Secret Agent, by Joseph Conrad – published in 1907, and set in the London of 1886 – is surprisingly contemporary in its themes. The book deals with terrorism, looking at the sort of people involved, and the possible motivations behind their inexplicably destructive acts. We meet characters whose vanity and self absorption drive them to seek notoriety, when they lack the ability or desire to shine in normal terms. Their supposed revolutionary ideology is simply a disguise for twisted personal deficiencies. The book also illustrates the way in which people of limited intellectual abilities can be manipulated into becoming terrorists.

On the other hand, the book’s many contradictions, make it impossible to write terrorism off as an aberration confined to psychotic, or vulnerable individuals. We see this at the beginning when the ambassador of an east European country has a meeting with Mr Verloc, one of his secret agents. The ambassador complains that Britain’s liberal society allows anarchists to hide and operate. The ambassador sees this as a threat to his own country. In response, he demands of Verloc an atrocity of such absurd barbarity that the British will be forced to accept much more rigid social controls. He directs that there should be a bomb attack on the Royal Observatory at Greenwich.

So an act of terrorism begins as an attempt to make society “safer”. From there the contradictions continue. We meet, for example, a rich, well connected woman who enjoys showing off a former anarchist at her fancy parties, thereby demonstrating her worldly broad-mindedness. And when it seems this man might be involved in the Greenwich Park plot, a senior government official intervenes in a police investigation to ensure his usefully well-connected lady friend is not caused embarrassment by association with her tame terrorist. This craziness makes you wonder if there is something in the ambassador’s criticism of British society.

Finally, there are all the contradictions personified by Stevie, the simple, innocent young man manipulated into carrying the Greenwich Park bomb. Stevie has a painfully developed sense of empathy, feeling pain in others as if it were his own. Verloc exploits this gentle, humane quality, as a means to manipulate Stevie into taking extreme measures to attack an unfair society which allows some people to enjoy great wealth while others suffer in poverty.

The Secret Agent is a dark and twisty book, both in terms of subject matter and style. With its dense writing, point of view changes, and switches of plot direction, you do have to concentrate. But it’s worth the effort.