Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Mad Men: Esoterica

You're so vain

I'm going to take a bit of different tack on my second post on "Time & Life". In just a few weeks, the show will be over and no one will talk about it anymore. For me, this show was the only one of the supposed TV golden age that actually resonated. Why? I think the answer to that is bigger than the show itself. 

Esoteric writing is writing that has deliberately hidden messages that are at odds with the surface messages. One problem with this is that you usually can't be certain you have the right reading. A writer might later explain what they really meant and that might be helpful. If they don't, and they usually don't even admit that they're hiding messages never mind telling us what the real meaning is, then we face a deeper problem and that is that we might create a meaning they never intended.

Okay, but is that really a problem? It might be in some cases but there are others where the readers' take on a text may be more profound than the writer intended.
You walked into the party
Like you were walking onto a yacht
Your hat strategically tipped below one eye
Your scarf, it was apricot
You had one eye in the mirror as
You watched yourself gavotte
And all the girls dreamed that they'd be your partner
They'd be your partner, and 
You're so vain
You probably think this song is about you
You're so vain,
I'll bet you think this song is about you
Don't you?
Don't you?
That song is about an actual guy and Carly Simon revealed who he was a few years ago. And nobody cared. We were better off not knowing. The power of her song came from its ability to speak to the narcissist in each of us. You drive along in your car and you crank the volume and spend the first verse imaging what it would be like to be James-Bond like, or Don-Draper like, striding across the scene. And then the chorus hits you. Who cares that it's actually about some record executive or whatever he was?

We might read a text for the esoteric messages the writer deliberately hid in the story. We might also read it for the hidden messages that were not meant to be there but that we can find if we know how to look.

An antihero for our time?

Here's the fundamental contradiction about Don Draper. On the one hand, everybody agrees that he is a figure of the past; both as type and individual, he had to go and he did go. On the other hand, the very success of the show tells us that he is very much the man of the moment. Nobody would watch this show for more than 15 seconds without Don Draper.

I keep reading people who lament the departure of Sal Romano and who wish that he'll return for one of the final episodes (and maybe he will). But a show built around Sal Romano would have flopped.

There is a bus stop downtown that I often find myself waiting at. It's right in from of the Comic Book Shoppe. That sort of geeky culture has never appealed to me but I don't begrudge anyone the pleasure they get out of it either. That charity out of the way, I also can't help noticing that the men and women who are really into comic book culture don't have any of the admirable characteristics of comic book heroes (i.e. strength, bravery, physically attractive bodies) but that they do have the more worrisome characteristics (anti-social loners who are contemptuous of mass culture and democracy).

Okay Mad Men fans, let's be just as uncharitable about ourselves. We all talk about how the show is a deconstruction of Don Draper, and it seems to be just that on the surface. But what if it's really a deconstruction of us? 

Lot's of people hate Don but here are a few things to be genuinely intimidated about in him. He is often the only adult in the room. He really does start over again from nothing several times. Have you ever tried that? I did it once. Everyone says they hate his very male way of dealing with loss but it works and we know it works because we know that there were generations of men as recently as fifty years ago who dealt with physical and psychological distress by sucking it up and carrying on. At the same time, he understands other people's sense of loss and knows how to speak to it.

Finally, he and the other principals in the show live in a  time when a sort of freedom that is no longer available existed. The end of that era is nicely symbolized with the McCann Erickson take over this episode.

Glen Bishop and the future

Creepy, not-so-little Glen Bishop showed up two episodes ago and showed us this weird thing he (still) has for Betty. And that may or may not seem crazy in the context of his life but it makes perfect sense in the context of the early 1970s. 
And that house up there. That was her house. And nothing from that first day I saw her, and no one that has ever happened to me since, has ever been as frightening, and as confusing. For no person I've ever know has done more to make me feel more sure, more insecure, more important and less significant.
That's the voice over from the beginning of the film Summer of '42, a movie released exactly one year after the opening of this final semi-season of Mad Men. Three boys on Nantucket are trying to learn about sex. They see a young war bride and her husband. She is beautiful and one of the boys fixates on her. The husband goes to war and is killed and the boy has sex with the woman. Fade out.

The movie and its novelization, released before the movie to promote it, unexpectedly hit a cultural chord. The novelization, which as released before the movie as part of the promotion, went through 23 reprints. And then there was the theme song.

Anyone who was alive in the early 1970s heard that over and over again. And isn't this music exactly what you'd expect Don Draper to be listening to in the early 1970s?

The in joke here is that Glen's final moment is actually a forward-looking moment acting like backwards-looking one. You think Glen is still being the little creep he was back in earlier seasons but he is actually pointing forward.

Final thought: You could do the same thing to the 1970s that Mad Men does to the 1960s: write the real story of the era. The recollected version is all about Glam rock, Disco, punk, wife swapping and other cultural phenomena that were really restricted to a pretty narrow group. For most people the 1970s was about Happy Days, Summer of '42, David Hamilton photographs and a lot of other stuff you don't hear much about.

ADDED: I worry that someone might read this and decide they wanted to see Summer of '42. It's the most appalling sentimental tripe you can imagine. Plus the characters act in ways that make no sense. It was a very sentimental time the early 1970s.

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