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Getting a Fix on Nixon

Feiffer on Feiffer, Among Others

By Amanda Bennett

Jules Feiffer has moved through several media since he first began cartooning for the Village Voice in its earliest days. His cartoons themselves have moved through the media--they now appear in newspapers and magazines throughout the country [including The Crimson]. And he has moved back and forth from cartooning, to playwriting ["Little Murders"; "The White House Murder Case"], to screenplay ["Carnal Knowledge"]. He keeps on cartooning however, and he was in Boston several weeks ago, following around his new book "Feiffer on Nixon."

He is a wee man, with a cartoon face and cartoon mannerisms: He chews on a dark cigar while conversing, leans back and beams at it. His conversation is peppered with visual terms; he refers frequently to getting a "fix" or a "take" on a subject or a person.

Following are excerpts from an interview with him on many subjects.

Crimson: Are you always looking at people and events around you with the eyes of a cartoonist; turning people into characters and so on?

Feiffer: Always--some of the time. On some level I am, but it's hard to know. Since I began reading I've seen the contractions between the way people speak and the way they acted, beginning with parents and teachers. But I never formalized impressions until I began reading, like Dostoyevsky--"Notes from Underground"--and Chekhov. In them I see "say A, but inderstand BCDE." This is what draws me into the theater and film. It's a way of investigating these contradictions.

Crimson: You mean hypocrisy?

Feiffer: I'm not interested in exposing hypocrisy; but sincerity. Hypocrisy is knowingly deceiving but we have active interests in believing certain things.

Crimson: What do you think will happen if you circumscribe these contradictions accurately enough? Do you think there will be some explosion of self-discovery?

Feiffer: I'm taking these things from what I observe, and no, I don't know if there is any way to fix it. I guess the hope was that the audience would say "Oh, yes, I see. I'll change." But the illusion of the '60s was tell them they are racist and fighting an imperialist war and they'll stop. That proved to be very wrong.

The cartoons are meant to be funny--entertaining and opinionated--propaganda pieces pushing an attitude, hoping in the long run that it will be incorporated into a certain kind of fundamental change. Coordinating a fundamental change of life: the movement is from his take on life to my take.

Crimson: Well, do you see yourself like Daumier, chronicling a whole era?

Feiffer: Oh, God, I was hoping to get through this trip without having someone ask me that question. Well, I don't know any writer who doesn't have fantasies of at least accepting prizes. But if you have accepting prizes in your head, you can't get to the business at hand. The ambition behind work should get purer. In the beginning there is the drive to be recognized. But if you can resist the whole success business you can really realize what you want to do.

But like Mark Twain: he wanted to be some important business whiz and finally that drove him crazy. And Twain didn't even have people like Twain as precedents. It's easy to have a take on the whole success syndrome.

Crimson: Do you think your plays or your cartoons are more "successful"--that is, effective?

Feiffer: Peoples' reactions to my plays are maybe a little stronger. In 1970, for example, when the "White House Murder Case" was being produced, the audience loved it up until Nixon invaded Cambodia. The play is about a Watergate mentality. They're trying to devise a coverup of a coverup in Brazil. I originally wrote it to show the sterility of government and its coldness. But after Cambodia the satire became real. And they stopped coming. But it can be discomfiting and funny at the same time--you know, "This isn't funny" funny.

Theater is much closer to real life and real involvement than a cartoon--and much more dangerous. When it was done in Los Angeles, we had people getting up out of their seats and screaming at the actors. I don't think my cartoons can inspire that kind of violence. Although people do clip my cartoons out and send them to me with notations how they think the cartoons should have been written.

Crimson: Do you ever get ideas from their suggestions?

Feiffer: Oh, it's not that kind of "suggestion." It's usually very anti-Semitic, anti-black blathering, and sometimes very obscene.

Crimson: Do many people find your work offensive?

Feiffer: That's changed too. At the Boston tryout of "Little Murders," part of the play was offensive to many parts of the audience. There's a feeling that I struck some chord or other that disturbed them. There are particular scenes that bothered them. In one speech, for example (remember, this is a long time ago) the very word masturbation would drive six to ten people out of the theater. Or when Kenny picks up the gun, they sensed that something they didn't want to see was going to take place. But that's a long time ago. Now "Little Murders" is a charming little domestic comedy with overtones of documentary.

Crimson: Which do you like better to do, your plays or your cartoons?

Feiffer: In writing "Carnal Knowledge," I was doing what is most interesting to me. In the fight scene between Bobby and Jonathan, I wanted to get at something I had never gotten into in the theater (I wrote it originally as a play) in a fight scene. When people have stage confrontations, it is usually the theme for the play; you know, the first time they are telling the truth. But virtually every time I had a fight, it's been with incredible heat and passion over telling nitpicking things, but not what the fight is really about. Our lives are controlled--the fires are banked--by some tiny details.

But my cartoons dramatized make very little sense. Playwriting comes naturally to me--just like the novel doesn't seem to be an extension of me. But there is a difference in writing play dialogues and cartoon dialogues. There are conversational subtleties that just aren't all that appropriate to cartoons.

People ask me "When are you going to give up cartoons now that you're a playwriter?" But I don't think I am going to be able to give them up. I like writing them and I usually work on a system of avoidances.

Crimson: Avoidances?

Feiffer: Avoiding things I don't want to do. I'm a much too lax employer of myself.

Crimson: Well, how do you work generally?

Feiffer: Once every two weeks, two cartoons have to be delivered to the syndicate 4 1/2 weeks before they are to be printed. And then I have ten days to do something else. The other work I do has no real deadline. I don't have to get an advance any more to live on, so I confess I don't work every day. If TV didn't exist, I'd turn out three times what I do now.

Crimson: Do the things you watch on TV feed your cartooning?

Feiffer: They don't that much. I watch a lot of junk and I read a lot of junk. Newspapers and books feed it more because they help give me some longer range vision. But news programs do give me ideas. Watching Ford address the farmers, I could get 20 cartoons. Like the one I just did with Bernard and the plateful of bullets and his mother telling him to bite the bullets slowly and not to eat them too fast.

Crimson: Do you manage to watch TV and put off working until the very last minute?

Feiffer: I don't wait till the night before. I've done it occasionally and I've been sorry afterward, because something that seems terrific when you're in a hurry seems trite afterwards. Usually I write the cartoons first, then draw them. Sometimes I change my original idea--like from a political figure to a symbol of the "innocent victim." That's as opposed to Bernard, Johnson or Nixon. They are guilty figures.

Crimson: How are you doing with Ford?

Feiffer: I was really at a loss with Ford in the beginning. He's just a large, incompetent oaf. He has no malice and I don't think there was any deal with Nixon. Nixon never took seriously the signs that he would be impeached. Jerry was kind of impeachment insurance. "With a dope like Jerry in office, they'll never impeach me." He was always too cynical.

But I have to deal with an image, a fix. I didn't know how to deal with LBJ until he became a war criminal and I didn't know how to deal with Ford until the pardon.

Crimson: How about doing Rockefeller or Kissinger--I haven't seen you do either of those.

Feiffer: Well, Rockefeller is every publisher's favorite millionaire. Why? His family connections don't hurt. All the very things that I have against him enchant vast portions of the middle class: his life style, his money. He's a Renaissance man who loves modern art and is philanthropic.

But he's got all the sensitivity of a clod. That's what we have in the White House now. An oaf and a clod-designate. His wife gets breast cancer and he comes out before the cameramen saying, "Wow, you guys aren't going to believe this..." Waving around family crises--it's both tacky and typical.

I need a tightness of focus on these guys to make them explicable in certain cartoon terms. I haven't gotten a good Kissinger either. There is something about him that eludes me. I've been lazy about it too. But maybe it's something I have about underlings. I've never been able to do a McNamara either. I can't make a connection between their bodies and what they stand for.

Crimson: So that's why you do presidents?

Feiffer: My interest in presidents has been in terms of style and approach. We don't think of a Dulles or an Acheson period. But the shape the country took changed like the style of dress between Kennedy and Eisenhower.

The important thing is who is in power. Basically we've had the same 12 guys--whether they are bankers or foundation presidents--who are behind the foreign policy thing. We have a government of guys who went to the same schools and who have shaped our ideas of what is right or wrong. Up until Vietnam, most of us and certainly the entire media bought these views without any kind of cavil.

Crimson: What are you planning on doing in the next year or so?

Feiffer: Well, I want to do something that isn't being done. I'd like to do much more on the system of government. There has never been any systemized assault. It won't do just to show Jerry on a string or Kissinger as a stooge--it's going to take more work than that. I'm working on some more plays and a novel that I hope that I can finish in the next six months.

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