Monthly Archives: February 2010

Mad Men Moods pt 1

Mad Men – Joan spin

Peggy: ‘This job is odd.’

Joan: ‘But it’s the best.’

Mad Men – hat thrust

‘I hate to break it to you, but there is no big lie, there is no system, the universe is indifferent.’ Don Draper

Mad Men - Don voyeur

‘This never happened. It will shock you how much this never happened.’ Don Draper

Mad Men – Betty's dress

Betty: ‘Our husbands. They are better out here.’

Francine: ‘Infinitely.’

Mad Men – Naval atmosphere

‘You’re going to need a stronger stomach if you’re in the kitchen seeing how the sausage is made.’ Bert Cooper

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Mad Men: Nixon vs Kennedy

Bert Cooper

Bert Cooper - Mad Men

I had originally intended to do an episode by episode analysis of Mad Men, finishing at the same time as the current run on BBC4. But my reasons for not doing so (besides total indolence) are very closely tied in with my love for the show, so I’m going to highlight just one episode to explain why I think Mad Men is the current Best Thing on TV. It’s the penultimate episode of the first season titled ‘Nixon vs Kennedy’. (NB: Spoilers off the port bow! If you haven’t watched Mad Men yet, set aside the weekend, buy the boxset – believe me, you lose a lot of the sumptuousness with streaming it – and enjoy.)

‘Nixon vs Kennedy’ highlights the main reason Mad Men is far superior to almost all those other life-consuming boxsets. When it first started airing, many people complained about its glacial pacing. I’m not trying to make a case for myself as somebody who’s made of very stern intellectual stuff, but it honestly never occurred to me. I haven’t got an especially high attention span but with Mad Men, you never feel you’re being cheated of your time. The program moves at a pace not a million miles away from life as it is lived, and crucially, in doing so, it contains some of depth of ‘real life’.

I never feel the pacing as slow because you’re being nourished as the story unfolds. Mad Men places character infinitely higher than plot, without forgetting that without interesting circumstances to put these characters in, we might as well be watching real life. In my view, it’s the programs where you can feel the writers seeking means to obfuscate your view of their marvelous cabinet of secrets, where they give you a tiny glimpse, only to snap shut the lid, that have a truly slow pace. You can feel the hours wasting as you resolutely watch on and on in order to discover just what’s just around the corner, only to find out it’s another long road to a corner. Mad Men takes away this sense of being held at a remove, and allows you to discover things as you would in real life.

Mad Men – Pete Campbell

Mad Men – Pete Campbell

Not that Mad Men is without its secrets. The whole of the first series uses a bubbling plot line about Don Draper’s mysterious past to engage the audience. But it’s the weight that this secret puts upon his well-drawn character that makes it compelling.

Pete Campbell, the unctuous and aspiring account executive, has discovered that Don is not the man he claims to be. He doesn’t know all the details, but there’s more than enough to fuel a slog through three episodes of blackmailing and recriminations in another TV show. Initially, Don’s reaction is to flee in fear, attempting to elope with Rachel, the one other person who knows the other major detail of his life (as I say, the secrets are revealed as they would be in real life – Don tells Rachel that his mother was a prostitute mid-season because he views her as an equal and, as a result, we’re allowed in on the truth). ‘You know more about me than anyone,’ he implores. Showing her ‘staunch‘ character (I sincerely hope she returns at some point during Season three’s run as she’s one of the few characters to match Don’s strength), she spurns him: ‘What kind of man are you? Go away, drop everything, leave your life?’ ‘People do it every day,’ he replies, the viewer now appraised of the weight of these words from Don. Although he loses Rachel, he realises he must truly begin living the life he has made for himself.

Rachel Menken - Mad Men

Rachel Menken - Mad Men

And so the stage is set for a scene that encapsulates all that is great with Mad Men. Don confronts Pete: ‘I thought about what you said. Then I thought about you; and what a deep lack of character you have.’ Don realises that although he is not living the life he was given, he has earned it, unlike Pete Campbell who thinks the world owes him a living because his  ‘parents are rich, [he] went to prep school, and [he] has a five dollar haircut.’

Pete Campbell – Mad Men

Pete Campbell – Mad Men

‘Is this like in the movies where I have a gun and you think I won’t shoot you? I WILL shoot you.’ There’s an nice meta-textual quality to these lines, as we see how a movie scenario play out in ‘real’ life, with Pete bungling and nervous in his blackmail role. Don and Pete rush off to Bert Cooper’s office and Don tells Bert that he will be hiring Duck Phillips instead of Pete. Pete reveals Don’s secret, or what he knows of it. Bert Cooper looks surprised, comes around the table to address both men, turns to Pete and…

‘Who cares?’ Bert Cooper’s response is so surprising to a generation of viewers raised on the primacy of revelation that it takes a few seconds for the discombobulation to end. So he repeats. ‘Who cares?’ It’s a moment of sheer genius, because it denies our expectations and confirms what we know about Mad Men: the secrets are the sauce and not the meal. It’s also important because it says a lot about the era in which it happens. The episode is set against a backdrop of the 1960 Nixon vs Kennedy election. While Kennedy’s rise to power could confirm Pete’s nepotistic position (as Don says, ‘Kennedy: nouveau riche who bought his way into Harvard and now he’s well bred.’), from Mad Men‘s perspective, the election and Don’s position reflects something which has always been true of American society and is especially true following the Second World War and the Korean War: A man is who he is in whatever room he is in right now or ‘This country was built by men with worse stories than whatever you’ve imagined here’ to put it in Bert Cooper’s words. It confirms what Don suddenly realises: he need no longer be full of self-recrimination about stealing someone else’s life: that he can live it and succeed is proof enough that he is that man.

Mad Men – Joan Holloway & Salvatore Romano

Mad Men – Joan Holloway & Salvatore Romano

Serialisation is a great way of telling a story. I would never suggest that there isn’t a pleasure of anticipating the plot and being partly tantalised by being frustrated in our expectations. But crucially, the revelations when they come should not be the sole purpose of the work and should make sense within the universe as its created (the inclinations of the characters being the key to this). A comparison between the two schools of storytelling (character leading plot or plot leading character) from another era would be Charles Dickens and his protege Wilkie Collins. Dickens definitely knew when to break off each serialised section of his novels so as to have the public gasping for more (the majority of his works were broken down and interspersed into magazines before being printed in three-decker omnibuses) . Indeed, there’s a perhaps apocryphal story that Dickens told about venturing out to buy more paper to complete the latest instalment of a novel, but being blocked by an irate subscriber at the stationer, demanding that he have a copy of the instalment he was then writing. Collins wrought the same desire for resolution in the reader, but this is borne from a weariness with the vast expanses of uninspired maundering and tedium, interspersed with cryptic hints. There’s no great active pleasure in reading Collins, only in grinding onwards to the reveal (which is always massively underwhelming). Ultimately, the question is, if one had a synopsis of the plot, would it be worth reading otherwise? With a program like Lost, the nutritional value of each episode is relatively minimal, meaning that, as each new series is released, it more or less nullifies the previous one.

So as I say, the reason I couldn’t write an episode by episode account of Mad Men is that each episode bleeds so seamlessly into the next that it would nullify the purpose of speaking of them separately (look at how many words I’ve generated from one scene). Like life, Mad Men‘s Just One Damn Thing After Another.

Links:

I’m going to be posting some photos of some of my favourite fashions from Mad Men in the coming days. Stay tuned.

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Movie Music Misuse

Rushmore1

Rushmore

Recently, I was putting together my set of stills from Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria. I had watched the film the previous night and so turned the sound down to listen to music while selecting images. I let the film run for a few seconds and suddenly I was struck by how well matched the music and images seemed to be. There was a curious link between the two pieces that I’d serendipitously stumbled upon. Moments later, the track shuffled to something very different and the new piece fit equally well. It occurred to me that if the images are put together with some competence, and the music isn’t a complete tonal mismatch, it’s very easy to find ourselves being won over by the evocative power of music and image (try the experiment yourself with something vaguely cinematic and with your music collection set to shuffle). Indeed, if we look at the origins of the term melodrama, it is just this shortcut to emotion that is exploited: the music was a quick route past dialogue (a convention picked up by ‘silent’ films) with heraldic trumpets for the hero and doom-laden strings for the villain.

While the original meaning of the term is not pejorative, today’s sense of the pulpy, telenovela melodrama misses the mark of the real danger that misusing music to manipulate our emotions makes. Wes Anderson’s career offers a good example of good use of music turning into bad. When he released Bottle Rocket in 1996, he used music sparingly and to punctuate moments that were significant but beyond dialogue (Anthony losing Inez is soundtracked by The Proclaimers’ ‘Over and Done With’). Nevertheless, it seems a fitting tribute that MTV offered him a Best Newcomer award for this picture, with a number of scenes ready to be spliced as music videos. When he came to direct his next film, Rushmore , the use of music, was much heavier but had equal legitimacy. The musical styles were mostly of a piece: the wistful tunes of the British Invasion (The Who, The Kinks, Cat Stevens, Faces etc). Secondly, the film is about a teenager, so it makes sense that the music is front and centre; it’s the time of our lives where we invest music with the most meaning and we look to crystalise every moment with a music counterpart.

Rushmore

Unfortunately, Anderson’s use of music becomes scrappier as his filmography continues. The tipping point occurs with 2007’s The Darjeeling Limited. You’re rarely more than three minutes from a scene in which the music takes centre-stage, and the director seems to be resting on his laurels, both in the fact that he is using the same palate of musicians (Rolling Stones, The Kinks etc) and relying on the music not to enhance the emotional effect of the drama but to stand in for it. There’s also a point to be made about the ugly reflexivity of using another filmmaker’s incidental music (in this case Santiyat Ray’s) for another use, but this is perhaps indicative to the dilettantish way Anderson approached the project: a gap year photostream to a Totally Awesome playlist of tracks that will remind you of the amazing times you had with your buddies. As Will Oldham says in a memorable interview with the AV Club:

Will Oldham: As somebody who likes music, when that happens, I tend to listen to the lyrics, which have nothing to do with the movie. And then I’m lost in the storyline. Not only is that a crime, but it’s a crime not to give people who are good at making music for movies the work. It’s like saying, “We don’t need you, even though you’re so much better at it than I am as a music supervisor.” Like the cancer that is that Darjeeling guy… what’s his name?

AVC: Wes Anderson?

WO: Yeah. His completely cancerous approach to using music is basically, “Here’s my iPod on shuffle, and here’s my movie.” The two are just thrown together. People are constantly contacting me saying, “I’ve been editing my movie, and I’ve been using your song in the editing process. What would it take to license the song?” And for me it’s like, “Regardless of what you’ve been doing, my song doesn’t belong in your movie.” That’s where the conversation should end. Music should be made for movies, you know?

And that’s where I’ll pick up next time: should music be made for movies or can recontextualising be an equally valid way to dovetail two pieces that aid expression?

Links:

Youtube is rife with just the kind of thing I discussed above, all universally awful: fan tributes to films, video games (at times it seems that youtube is simply a host for Final Fantasy clips set to Celine Dion tracks).

While I’ve said before that parody is indicative of a distinctive style, the fact that Nicholas Gurewich of The Perry Bible Fellowship can create a soundtrack to an imaginary Wes Anderson film called The Cloud Photographers is suggestive of the very rigid way he now goes about making soundtracks (and movies to a certain extent).

A collection of songs from Wes Anderson’s films and a very nice one here not on Spotify.

At least I was critical!

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House and The Abominable Dr Phibes

Hausu 1 (courtesy of Cinematrices)

cinematrices.wordpress.com

The Abonimable Dr Phibes 1

The Abonimable Dr Phibes

House (Hausu; 1977, directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi) and The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971, directed by Robert Fuest) are almost international brothers, both bringing fantastic set design, acting that is equal parts creaky and overblown and mixing them with a baroque sense of horror. At times, it seems that both films have merely adopted horror because it offers the least limitations on the directors’ imaginations; after all, anyone seeking legitimate ‘scares’ from either of these films is sure to be disappointed, unless they harbour deep-seated fears of being eaten alive by pianos, or covered in the pure essence of brussels sprouts and then eaten alive by locusts.

courtesy of cinematrices.wordpress.com

cinematrices.wordpress.com

The Abonimable Dr Phibes 2

The Abonimable Dr Phibes

I watched House in a packed midnight movie (arranged to coincide with what’s bound to be a great edition by Eureka!) and the consensus opinion seemed to be (fairly legitimately) What. The. Fuck. People sailing on seas of cat’s blood, men turned into piles of bananas, watermelon-headed girls biting each others’ bottoms. It’s a gymnastic exercise in headfuckery. But the undertone of the WTFing was that almost all of its oddness was due to its Japanese origins. House is clearly a work of great artistry and to attribute the pleasure it delivers to a kitsch or ironic sensibility is insulting to the artist who took the time to gloriously weird you out. It’s very easy to forget our sense of humour when we imbibe things from foreign cultures, or rather their sense of humour. Few would attribute Haneke’s pessimism about humanity to his Austrian background, and it seems a shame to forget Obayashi is more than a product of ‘weird’ Japan. There’s too much skill and art involved to be accidental or to be interpreted through the filter of kitsch. As Susan Sontag says ‘You can’t do camp on purpose.’

House (Hausu) Abominable Phibes

If we look at …Dr Phibes by contrast, it seems that this is closer to being accidentally fantastic than Hausu.

Vincent Price is at his sneering best but it’s with one decision that the film becomes incredibly memorable: Price is stripped of his distinctive voice for the majority of the film. It’s the elephant in the room, and it offers Price the opportunity to communicate his arch-villainy in movement and facial expression that are the perfect counterpart to his voice. A perfect example is when Dr Phibes is killing one of his early victims, a man with a penchant for pornography (Terry-Thomas, doing his best bounder). Having removed all of his blood, he contemplates the eight red bottles on the mantlepiece with satisfaction. He walks offscreen and we expect a cut away. Instead Price reenters the shot and gives a perturbed look at a Rubens-esque nude on the wall, then looks with supercilious scorn at Terry-Thomas and the audience. It’s a magical moment, the murderer disgusted by the pornographer, and perhaps further disgusted at the viewer for enjoying the spectacle of both.

The Abonimable Dr Phibes

The Abonimable Dr Phibes

The Abonimable Dr Phibes

The Abonimable Dr Phibes

…Dr Phibes is really made from the same genetic code as Saw or any of its six sequels, except it has the self-awareness (and humour) to truly commit to the juvenile premise of a killer revenging himself in the most outlandish ways possible. Most of the deaths one could imagine consuming reams of A4 paper on some afternoon double Chemistry lesson in Year 10. Once you’ve seen a man impaled by a bronze unicorn, then unscrewed by revolving his whole body, you can’t back down, and it’s a testament to the filmmakers that they ramp up the baroque deaths until the last scenes.

The Abonimable Dr Phibes

The Abonimable Dr Phibes

Packing more ideas than is even remotely decent, it’s hard to imagine someone not finding them curious, amusing or artful. It’s easy to laugh at these films, but the jokes on you if you think either filmmakers not in on it.

LINKS:

I think Lisa Katamaya hits the nail on the head about ‘weird’ Japan here.

That said, sometimes they are an odd bunch.

(directed by Obayashi himself and starring Charles Bronson).

The cinematrices post that demanded I see Hausu in all its glory.

Some stills I put together for …Dr Phibes.

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