Monday, April 29, 2013

Mad Men Season 6, Episode 5, “The Flood”

This week’s episode deals with the impact of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and how tragedy supposedly brings people closer together. Ginsburg’s father spells out this idea most clearly when he chastises his son for not using King’s death as an opportunity to bond more closely with the date his father set him up with, citing the biblical flood as a precedent. It’s a theme that plays out in various ways over the course of the episode, although in many cases, Mad Men’s damaged characters can’t quite bridge the gap between themselves and others, and in some cases they find themselves driven further apart. Peggy, for instance, is on the verge of moving into a new apartment with Abe, but when news of the tragedy hits, Abe leaves Peggy and rushes off to Harlem to write an article for The New York Times on the civil unrest there. Later, consumed by the story, he reveals that he never wanted to live on the Upper East Side. Similarly, Betty has to watch Henry rush over to Harlem to lend his supporting in the quelling of the discontent there. Other examples abound: Pete reaches out to Trudy, but this tragedy isn’t enough to bridge the gulf between them. Joan gives Dawn an incredibly awkward, unwanted, and unreciprocated hug. Don has no means of reaching Sylvia, who is away in DC. Pete and Harry have a moment of commiseration before Pete realizes that Harry is really only upset about how King’s death has screwed up SCDP’s television commercial billings because of all of the preempted programming. Pete might be grating most of the time, but he’s always been one of the most politically progressive characters on the show, and that trait shines through in the scene where he unloads on Harry over his crassness (it feels slightly odd every time the show puts me in the position of rooting for Pete, but here it felt rather vindicating, especially in the context of Harry’s self-righteousness last week).

Spring Breakers

Some brief thoughts on the fascinating Spring Breakers:

The way the film dealt with imagery was pretty incredible. For lack of a better word, I’d describe the film’s visual track as “fractured,” organized loosely by the dialogue accompanying it. In other words, the dialogue acts as a through-line around which the images are organized, but only vaguely, like an ever-shifting kaleidoscope. The visuals skip short distances forward and backward through time, illustrating and orbiting around the dialogue or evoking the setting’s atmosphere, sometimes repeating moments for emphasis. Accordingly, very rarely are the characters actually shown speaking their dialogue; instead, a wide array of images show the speakers or their subject(s) engaged in various, emblematic actions. This visual looseness allows for a fair degree audio freedom; in fact, quite often individual lines of dialogue or brief exchanges are repeated with variations, such as different intonations, or different accompanying imagery. At least once the characters are actually shown having the same exchange twice, but with different staging (as in the exchange near the end of the film about whether or not the characters fear their upcoming assault on a gangster’s mansion). These aesthetic choices result the film being shot through with a quasi-dream-like, free-floating looseness.

This stylistic looseness matches the looseness of the plot. The four female protagonists have only the most minimal of goals – get to Florida for spring break – which are quickly met. The film meanders from there through a loose string of coincidences and entirely new conflicts and characters, fitting for a film committed to indulging the hedonistic, consequence-free worldview of its characters.

Also remarkable are the characters, simply because they are almost non-existent (James Franco's "Alien" excluded). Of the four female protagonists, only one, Faith, receives strong distinguishing traits (she’s the religious “good” girl), and she leaves halfway through the film. The other three are practically ciphers; one (Cotty) is distinguished by her pink hair, but she also leaves two-thirds of the way through the film, and is given a nearly identical sendoff as Faith (right down to the staging and framing). The two that remain to the end (Brit and Candy) are practically indistinguishable from one another (I even had to look up Brit's name after seeing the film). However, despite their nearly complete lack of individualistic character traits, these two are in many respects the most interesting, since the collectively, the traits they do display are so refreshing. All four love to party, get drunk, do drugs, flirt with (and presumably screw) guys, but Brit and Candy have a particularly empowered attitude toward their affairs. They are the two who do the violent and scary work of stealing money from a restaurant in order to enable their spring break bacchanal in the first place. As interesting as the scene of their theft is (we see it play out twice, once from outside the restaurant, and one form inside - the second is far more brutal), their empowerment shines most clearly in one of the scenes they share with Alien.

After meeting them, Alien eventually takes them back to his oceanside house, and impresses them with all of the things he has (amongst them: knives, drugs, stacks of cash on a bed, shurikens, two different kinds of cologne, and lots and lots of guns). It’s a funny scene – small things become big in a small man’s world – but it becomes magnificent when Brit and Candy, seemingly impressed with Alien’s bravado, seduce him, pick up his guns, and then shove them in his mouth, telling him they don’t need him, and that they can kill him and just take his stuff. Then, in an unexpected turn, Alien shows himself to be a somewhat open-minded gangster: he fellates the guns like they're Brit and Candy’s cocks, and tells them he thinks he’s fallen in love with them right then and there. Apparently, he’s found his soul-mates. They are his kindred spirits, just as gangster as he is, while at the same time just as fem as all of the other hedonistic spring breakers with which they party throughout the film. It's a sea change in the dynamics of their relationship, which is now one of equals, rather than one of a rooster and his hens.

Their new partnership is nicely conveyed in an inspired, slow motion montage sequence of a series of violent heists (accompanied to Britney Spears’s “Evertyime”), but is most marvelously evident in the film’s climax. Alien, Brit, and Candy – the latter two clad in only pink ski masks and string bikinis – assault the mansion of Alien’s
rival, Archie. Alien is shot to death almost immediately, but Brit and Candy aren’t phased. They don’t even look at one another to reconfirm their commitment to the assault, but simply continue on the warpath, decimating Archie’s gang and killing Archie in his bathtub. Only on their way out of the mansion do they pause to bid Alien goodbye, gently kissing him before running off into the night.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Mad Men Season 6, Episode 4: “To Have and to Hold”

Here’s one account for why I think Mad Men is the best show on television: as I proceed through a new episode, I am constantly given cause to think that each successive scene is the best of the episode (with the exception of episodes heavily featuring Betty). No other show routinely causes me to fawn over individual scenes the way Mad Men does.* Tonight’s episode is exemplary – most scenes made me think, “Well, that has to be the best this episode has in store,” especially the scenes in the middle involving Joan and Harry, and then the succession of scenes toward the end. It’s a delight not be able to choose between them.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Mad Men Season 6, Episode 3: “Collaborators”

As expected, this week spends a lot of time focusing on Pete, who continues the trend from last season of becoming a poor man’s Don Draper on an accelerated timescale. Like Don, he’s grown restless in his marriage to a beautiful woman and life in the suburbs.* Like Don, he’s tried his hand at a string of affairs with other women, and now, like Don, he’s decided to start sleeping with his neighbor’s wife, Brenda (in showing how foolish such a liaison turns out to be, perhaps this is a way of the show hinting at later season developments for Don and Sylvia). Pete even has the same corner office on the second floor of SCDP as Don has on the first floor (and with the furniture arranged in the picturesque way the photographers wanted Don’s furniture arranged in the premiere – Pete’s never happy, but at least he’ll maintain the image of being happy).

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Mad Men Season 6, Episodes 1 and 2, "The Doorway"

Season 6 (nearly) begins with a rather explicit answer to the question posed at the end of season 5: how much has Don’s marriage to Megan actually changed him? The answer comes in the form of a quote from Dante’s Inferno, which Don reads in voiceover shortly after the start of the season debut: “Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road, and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood.” The implication seems to be that Don’s character arc in season 5 was merely his momentarily straying from who he has become, and that he has now returned to the Don we knew in seasons 1 through 3. Don’s restlessness has returned, and despite his being in Hawaii on a work vacation, minor notes of discord abound: outside of the Dante quote, Don doesn’t speak for the first 8 minutes of the episode, and his first conversation is the product of a restless night, when he gets up in the wee hours to have a drink at the hotel bar, and is badgered into speaking with a private he meets there (the wonderfully-named PFC Dinkins). It’s no coincidence that Don is reading about Dante’s version of hell despite being in a place (Hawaii) other characters refer to as paradise (or heaven, as Don will describe it later in a pitch).

Any doubts about the return of the old Don are permanently dispelled at the episode’s conclusion, when we see him involved in his latest extramarital affair, this time with Sylvia, the wife of his neighbor, Dr. Arnie Rosen (and the person who recommended Don read Dante in the first place).* The concern over Don’s identity is again driven home midway through this double-sized episode (and what will serve as the end of the first episode when it is split in two for syndication). Don is posing for a publicity photographer when he realizes he accidentally switched army-issued lighters with PFC Dinkins, and concern washes over his face: he’s lost one of the totems of his Don Draper identity. His concern is compounded when the photographer, in an effort to capture a candid pose, tells Don to just be himself. Don’s disquiet here is over his newfound knowledge of exactly what that means.

* Although to be fair, the episode does hint at a change in Don here, but a relatively minor one. Sylvia asks Don what he wants for the new year, and Don halfheartedly responds, “I want to stop doing this.” Her reply is a sympathetic, “I know.” Perhaps Don can’t stop himself from cheating on Megan, but at least now he feels guilty about it, and shares that guilt with his lover. Baby steps, Don.

Even before Don appears wrapped in Sylvia’s arms, we get other hints at Don’s return to form. While the season opens with immediate hints that he is once again who he used to be, there are other hints interspersed throughout the episode. For one, he’s remarkably unconcerned with Megan’s burgeoning daytime soap opera stardom; considering this was a major point of contention last year, it is remarkable that Don has so readily consigned himself to this change. Retrospectively, however, it becomes easier to understand once we learn that he’s yet again found solace with another lover. He also has renewed interest in his work (absent for much of last season): he seems to be on his game at SCDP, offering the same old harsh, yet passionate, criticisms of the work his copywriters bring to him (this time over their cheapening of the word “love,” and his seemingly newfound cynicism regarding happy marriages), and he comes up with a (somewhat) inspired ad for Sheraton’s Royal Hawaiian hotel.

However, there’s a slight wrinkle in his latest ad campaign idea, one indicative of something larger going on in Don’s life at the moment: Don seems to have death on the brain. Don’s pitch for Sheraton is an image of discarded clothing on the beach and footprints leading into the ocean. He intends it to mean something along the lines of ‘Say goodbye to your old self and hello to your new self,’ but to the Sheraton executives (and, hilariously, Stan), it quite obviously reads as suicide. Don’s fascination with death is also evident in other touches throughout the episode: the very beginning is of a brief excerpt from Jonesy the doorman’s touch with death (he nearly dies in the lobby in front of Don and Arnie); he’s overly curious about Arnie’s work as a surgeon, and upon drunkenly returning from the funeral for Roger’s mother, he stops to ask Jonesy about what death is like, even asking Jonesy if the light Jonesy saw was like hot tropical sunshine or the sound of the ocean. No wonder his ad campaign for Sheraton is unintentionally morbid (note also that the show immediately flashes back to Jonesy’s clinical death upon Don’s return from Hawaii).

Why does Don have death on the mind? A number of hypotheses present themselves, but the one I find most compelling is articulated by Roger in his first scene with his psychologist. Roger complains that no matter how many doors you walk through in life, you don’t really change as a person. Roger gripes, “Look, life is supposed to be a path, and you go along, and these things happen to you and they’re supposed to change you, change your direction. But it turns out that’s not true. Turns out, the experiences are nothing…. You’re just going in a straight line to you-know-where.” This can very easily be read as a statement on Don’s state of mind: perhaps Don has made a similar realization, and it’s one that depresses him (although it only irritates Roger). He recognizes his inability to escape the patterns of his previous marriage (his disinterest in his wife, his adultery, etc.), and it depresses him, especially because the second time around, he should have known better about what he was getting into (and because he genuinely seems to like Arnie, Sylvia’s husband).

Peggy has more or less become the female Don Draper (minus the adultery, the alcoholism, and the stolen identity. Okay, she's missing most of Don's major expositional components, but she has the workplace belittlement down). We saw shades of this development in the season 5 finale, but it’s amply evident in the season 6 premiere. Much of her dialogue in this episode wouldn’t have been out place coming out of Don’s mouth, including her impatient dismissiveness of the facile behavior of the account men in her new company, her polite but firm handling of upset clients, and her harsh chastisement of her subordinates. I also love the dynamics of Abe and Peggy’s relationship: he’s still a committed socialist who blithely criticizes Peggy’s work, and she’s still a committed advertising creative who believes in what she’s doing, but they each accept these things about one another, and love each other anyway. Their rapport is conveyed nicely when Abe criticizes Peggy’s cold dismantling of her subordinate’s latest work. Peggy defends herself, and Abe hilariously replies, “Sorry, I didn’t know what kind of abuse was required to get into the frat.” However, rather than become upset, Peggy just smiles and laughs at him.

Meanwhile, the stormy waters I predicted for the Peggy-Teddy Chaough professional relationship have not come to pass (yet). In the season 5 finale, I thought his indifference to her protests regarding her working on the Virginia Slims account (she doesn’t smoke) was indicative of his only wanting her because she was a woman (and Don’s former woman), rather than because of her talents as an ad creative. However, his reaction to her new direction for the Koss headphone campaign was a watershed moment. Teddy is the day to Don’s night; he’s incredibly impressed by Peggy’s inspired revamp of the Koss campaign, and isn’t shy about telling her so. The only words of advice he has for her is to let her subordinates go when she knows she has something good in the works (in a funny moment, Teddy helps Peggy realize that the people working under her don’t know it’s okay for them to go – she’s more or less Don, but she’s still working out the details).

Betty is another character who seems to be dealing with change. She’s still battling her weight, but she seems to have matured from child to adolescent in terms of psychological complexity. Betty seems to be much more invested in Sally’s friend Sandy than Sally is. Betty tells Sandy that Sally was crushed to learn that Sandy is leaving for Julliard, but over the course of the episode, it becomes pretty clear that Betty is actually speaking about her own feelings for Sandy. When Sandy leaves, Sally couldn’t care less, but Betty is disturbed, partly because she knows Sandy must have run away, but also because Sandy didn’t say goodbye, which motivates her subsequent adventures in a decrepit part of New York.

Betty maturing to adolescence also explains her somewhat brassy, catty turn throughout this episode. Not only does she seem unflustered by being pulled over for a speeding ticket on the way back from the opera, but she also has no qualms with searching the New York slums for Sandy or spending an afternoon teaching socialist hippies how to make goulash, and she firmly confronts the hippy leader over Sandy’s whereabouts and his purchase of Sandy’s violin. The Betty of old would have somehow found a way turn these events into sob stories about the difficulty of her own life, but not so with this newly-adolescent Betty. The reaction of Henry’s mother to the cop pulling over Betty seemed to me to be the show parodying itself – she complains that it ruins the whole evening, and that nothing could make it any darker, which sounds very much like something Betty would have said or felt in previous seasons. But here, not only is she embarrassed by her in-law’s overreaction, she also laughs with Sally when Sandy responds to Henry’s mother’s comment by blurting out that her mom is dead (previously, Betty would have had stern words for young Sandy, but adolescent Betty giggles). She also seems unphased by Sandy’s barbs when they have a late night chat, and similarly brushes off Sally’s lazy jibes, and responds to a minor taunt from one of the slum-dwelling hippies (about her being a bottle-blonde) by dying her hair black. She also masks her insecurity over Henry’s (joking) attraction to Sandy by sadistically taunting him with disturbingly detailed rape fantasy suggestions (and taking the joke way too far in the process).Betty's changed, but she's still Betty.

Welcome back, Mad Men. I’ve missed you.

Other thoughts:

- Very nice editing when Jonesy collapses. It’s a shot-reverse shot sequence that slips into the past on a reverse shot. It’s somewhat disorienting, but speaks to what’s on Don’s mind.

- Bobby likes Sandy's violin case because it looks like a coffin. Lots of death in the air in this episode.

- Don and Megan’s New Year’s party revisits past seasons of the show: Don and Megan show off their vacation photos with the help of the Kodak carousel, last seen at the end of season 1. However, rather than narrate what these images mean to him, Don is silent this time around. Nevertheless, parallels abound: the images here are as equally hollow as his previous slideshow with Betty. He’s with a different wife now, but for Don, the images have the same false intimacy as before, only it’s worse this time, because Don’s had his idealizations shattered; he’s now disillusioned with Megan, even though he probably still loves her (or the idea of her).

- It seems like Sally has learned to cope nicely with her mother. I have two favorite Sally moments in this episode: when she tells Henry about Betty’s speeding ticket and refers to Betty not as “mom,” but as “Betty,” and the moment she shuts the door in Betty’s face while on the phone with a friend. Way to be a fierce little bitch, Sally!

- Love Abe’s new hairstyle, and that he can’t do math while having diarrhea (or vomiting).

- Never completely write off a character on Mad Men, even when they’ve been written out of the show. Tonight, Burt Peterson makes a triumphant return. He was last seen throwing a temper tantrum after being fired by Putnam, Powell, and Lowe in the season 3 premiere. Now, three seasons later, we start to see why he was fired in the first place. He’s a lazy, tasteless boob.

- Nice moment for Roger in this episode: the shock over his mother’s death finally breaks when he learns that his shoeshine has also died, and he sobs. It is a nicely written scene, one that does a good job of capturing how seemingly minor changes can sometimes unleash a torrent of pent-up emotion. Also contributing to Roger’s malaise is his realization that his daughter is mainly interested in talking with him at the funeral in order to pitch to him her husband’s refrigeration business venture (made clear by her disinterest in the Jordan River water, which she leaves on the couch).

Don's home elevator.
 - The elevators at SCDP look strikingly similar to the elevators of Don’s apartment building, and they're shot in practically identical fashion in this episode. I was confused over where one scene between Arnie and Don took place until the doors opened Jonesy could be heard off-screen.
Don's work elevator.

- Fantastic, somber, bittersweet musical cue during the revelation of Don’s affair with Sylvia. Of all Don’s affairs, this one has to be one of the most ill-advised, even more so than Sally’s teacher. I can’t imagine an affair with a higher risk of being discovered (perhaps Arnie’s getting out of surgery early and surprising Don at the office is a precursor of later developments this season). Kudos to the show for also making Don’s rapport with Arnie compelling; it makes the stakes of the affair that much higher. This won’t end well.

- Meanwhile, the 1960s roll along. Plenty of hairstyle changes this year for many characters: sideburns for Pete and Roger, longer hair for Ken, a bushy beard for Stan, and a hideous mustache for Michael. The contrast between Don and his new creative team is as stark as it has ever been. He looked like he just stepped out of Edward Hopper’s The Nighthawks, while they all look like background extras on the first season of Sesame Street.

- Dawn is still Don’s secretary. Spanning two seasons, this is the longest tenure of anyone assigned to Don’s front door.

- More Arnie love: after overhearing Don give his thoughtful critique of his copywriters’ subpar work, Arnie remarks to Don, “You know if I looked like you and talked like that, I wouldn’t have had to go to medical school…. A part of me was hoping that head [of Don’s] was empty.”

- Harry Crane: still a creep. Way to scope out married ladies at a funeral, brah!

- Loved the shot of Betty asking strangers for help in the sketchy New York neighborhood. Talk about a collision of different eras in America. 1950s, meet the 1960s, write large in set decoration, performance, and costume design.

- Seriously, Peggy has turned into Don. “Those are three different versions of the same idea. If you can’t tell the difference between which part’s the idea and which part’s the execution of the idea, you’re of no use to me. I know what you’re doing. I’ve been you. You’re hoping this sparks my imagination and then you can say, ‘Wow, she’s a genius,’ or say anything because you want to go home…. When you bring me something like this it looks like cowardice. Here [hands her subordinates a sandwich]. You can split this because you’re not going home.” Swap the genders and this could easily have come from Don’s mouth at any point during the first four seasons of the show, and ranks right up there with the best of Don’s withering chastisements.

- The episode nicely keeps us in suspense about whether or not Don has returned to form creatively, as it continually withholds the progress he’s making on the Sheraton campaign until the pitch meeting. This restriction is made keenly evident by Pete’s popping up to pester Don about it repeatedly (it’s really Pete’s only function throughout these two hours. Doubtless we’ll get more of him next week).

- Ken continues to rock by being a world-weary yet stand-up guy, and he is righteously dismissive of newcomer Bob Benson’s blatant ass-kissing when he runs across him in the second floor lobby: “Take your work and go back to your office. Sitting out here makes people think you have nothing to do, and I suspect you’re hoping it’s the opposite.” However, my favorite thing about this scene was the subtle touch of the out-of-focus Bert Cooper reading a magazine in the background (visible only in medium shots of the front desk secretary). Unlike Bob Benson, Bert Cooper doesn’t have anything to do, and doesn’t care one way or the other if anyone knows it. I also like that even with the giant second floor SCDP expansion, he either doesn’t have an office (still!), or has apparently developed a taste for sitting in the lounge and reading the paper.