Monday, April 8, 2013

Mad Men: romanticizing modernism

Well, we always knew Mad Men might go bad, we just didn't know how. I think we may now have some idea how it's all could to go to ruin.

It looks like maybe Matthew Weiner has been listening to the critics. They all wanted to have Don see that his life was a fraud and begin to look for authenticity. The critics want to do this because they look at modernism in a romantic way. Modernism isn't their thing. It died long ago. But things like Ikea and shows like Mad Men brought it back. As nostalgia that, as nostalgia tends to be, is actually for experiences that the person feeling nostalgia didn't actually experience themselves.

The thing about this sort of romantic perspective is that the person experiencing it wants to use the past for self validation. They want to see the past as leading to them and justifying them or at least explaining why they can't be any better than they are. This has been part of the critical view of the show from the beginning; as we saw in the first season hope that the show would "explain why the sixties had to happen". This view admits that, sure, the guys in the early 1960s seem more interesting and more manly than today's men but insists that their lives really a hollow sham. We may be less interesting today but we're more real.

If Weiner succumbs to temptation to give those critics what they want, and it sure looks like he is about to, he will ruin everything good about the show. The people who love the show, love Don. The "fakeness" of his life doesn't bother us. We want him to get away with transforming himself into something new.

There were two three good things-three reasons for hope. The first was the way Megan's character developed from the ad scene at the end of last season. She has become a trivial woman you cannot, and Don does not, take seriously. She is to Don what Mia Farrow was to Sinatra. That Don would cheat on a beautiful young woman with an amazing body with an older, but more substantial, woman was completely believable. The second was the Tom Wolfesque trick of having the summer of love be followed by winter. (Mind you it would have been better yet to go to the autumn because that would have been more ambiguous.)

What really jumped out at me was the cultural tragedy that is the late 1960s and early 1970s and how it, like cold weather, is creeping in and killing off the incredible cultural growth that followed the war. You can see it in the shots of the village to be sure but you can see it even more clearly in what are supposed to be comfort. The new fashions, the fabrics, the haircuts—it's all so irredeemably awful. Just the shots of Don and Roger and even Ken and Peter against that cultural disaster was powerful. That's how cultural degradation drags down everyone.

And that brings the third good thing. There is a beautiful moment when an ad campaign pushes the word "love". Don delivers a beautiful and devastating critique of everything that was wrong with the summer of love and how it trivialized the word. It was  solid kick in the teeth to John Lennon and Paul McCartney and it was as good as anything we have ever seen on the show.

Unfortunately, the scene had an evil twin of a horribly melodramatic scene with Roger breaking down in tears over a  shoe shine kit. An utterly unbelievable scene because Roger gets the shoe shine kit because the family of the man who used to shine his shoes sends it over because the man has died and Roger was the only one who still used his services. Yeah, that could happen.

Monroe Stahr sets out what is going here in Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon:
Broaca, on the surface, was an engineer—large and without nerves, quietly resolute, popular. He was an ignoramus and Stahr often caught him making the same scenes over and over—one scene about a rich young girl occurred in all his pictures with the same action, the same business. A bunch of large dogs. entered the room and jumped around the girl. Later the girl went to a stable and slapped a horse on the rump. The explanation was probably not Freudian; more likely that at a drab moment in youth he had looked through a fence and seen a beautiful girl with dogs and horses. As a trademark for glamor it was stamped on his brain forever. 
And thus it is with the shoe shine kit. Weiner used it before with Don Draper. Somewhere deep in his brain, Matt Weiner has linked shoe shine kits with men struggling to hold themselves together. When his brain is on cruise control, when it's not really working but only pretending to work, out the image comes. It doesn't do any real dramatic work for anyone else. For Weiner himself it doesn't have to work. Like the girl on the horse for Broaca, he associates it with something so the connection is instantly made the second it shows up.

There is, of course, a way to do it right. To do that, Weiner would have had to use the image in a recurring way, slowly building it up until it meant something for all of us and not just for him. he would show us a man turning to care for his shoes every time he couldn't get others things to work. He doesn't do that because he doesn't think he has to.

Unfortunately that was only one example of  lazy writing and the episode was full of lazy, sloppy writing. The trick of having people suddenly being able to bond with complete strangers when they can't do it with those closest to them. The trick of using big life events such as weddings and funerals to make it seem like dramatic changes the "drama" itself fails to deliver.

The worst example of this was a scene where Betty turns to one of her daughter's friends and suddenly becomes the in control adult she can't manage to be with anyone she has an actual connection to. It's like Glen all over again. And yet it's played like progress. Why is it that Betty can only really bond with children? And did it bother anyone else that she calls out her husband for looking at a teenager by making jokes about raping the girl and then goes downstiars and dispenses motherly advice to the girl? That was really, really creepy.

Oh well, it can only get better from here on in. I hope so anyway. That is what happened last season. Of course, one of these times it won't.

The episode ends with Elvis singing the Hawaiian Wedding Song and it says a lot that that cheesy bit of tacky fluff felt like a cultural high point compared to what we saw going on in the late 1960s.  Perhaps that was the point? We can only hope so.

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