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Mad Men: Nostalgia, forestalled, and “The Wheel”

[ 9 ] June 22, 2012 |

(Being the first of many of these I’ll be producing this summer.)

With summer here and only some online teaching duties to attend to—meaning that I can put the 2½ hours I don’t have to commute to and from campus to better use—I’ve decided to address short scenes from something compelling on a daily basis. This is the first such post, and as the title suggests, I’m not exactly working out of my comfort zone yet. (That will change.)

Before I can discuss Mad Men‘s fifth season finale, “The Phantom,” in any detail, I need to look back to its first season finale, “The Wheel,” because it contains a scene that subtends the most pivotal moment in “The Phantom.” If you recall, in the first season Don’s position in the firm is that of a star employee: trusted, but always expected to perform; necessary, but not irreplaceable. Or it was, before he reimagined Kodak’s “Projector of Poorly Framed Unprofessional Photographs” into a “Carousel” that transformed photographic imperfection into a dead letter office overstuffed with reclaimable memories. Only Matt Weiner, pulling double-duty as both writer and director here, doesn’t seem to believe the power of Don’s pitch, despite its seemingly self-evident efficacy. (That link will take you to the entire scene, in case you want to compare my reading of its constituent parts to the amalgamated whole.) On what am I basing my claim that Weiner’s trying to undermine Draper’s ostensibly successful pitch?

Glad you asked. Let’s start with the context. In “The Wheel,” Betty’s discovered incontrovertible proof of one of Don’s many infidelities, and Don’s decided not to spend Thanksgiving with the in-laws because he recognizes, rightfully, that his family is falling apart. His situation makes the substance of his appeal to Eastman Kodak all the more difficult to deliver, because it consists of images of his formerly happy family interacting in a manner they never will again. In short: Draper pushes the “nostalgia” angle because, at this point, his family consists of the memories he has of what they’ll never be again. He’s lost the right to say that’s “his” wife or “his” children being projected on the wall, but he has to sell the fact that, by virtue of Eastman Kodak’s marvelous new technology, they can always be “his” again, on celluloid if not in life. To wit:

Mad men - carousel00001

Weiner begins with a long shot, center on Don, with his colleagues flanked to his right and his customers to his left. (“Duck,” the firm’s intermediary with the clients, is positioned appropriately enough between the Eastman Kodak cartel and Don.) It’s a well-balanced shot, with the windows frame-left balanced by the painting frame-right, not to mention the diegetic lights emenating both from behind and above Don that signal (in case you somehow missed it) that he’ll be the focal point of this scene. All of which is only to say that this scenes screams of hierarchy—of a controlled environment in which professionals will do what professionals will do. Of course, in this case, what professionals do is manipulate impressionable clients by appealing to the inherent sentimentality of the American people, which is why Don opens with technology, but moves on to:

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Because really important news always involves bikinis.

[ 83 ] June 21, 2012 |

Do you mean to tell me that the same folks who write things like this would willingly participate in a contest like this? I’m shocked that otherwise intelligent people can’t understand that there’s no downside to objectifying women on your blog. It’s not like these folks make their students read their blogs or anything …

One year later, it’s still the greatest novel in the English language.

[ 27 ] June 16, 2012 |

At 8 a.m. on the morning of 16 June 1904, two men woke up.  One shaved for class and breakfasted with his usurper and an anti-Semite.  The other, a Jew, purchased a pork kidney, ate it, then stared at his wife in the same bed in which she cuckolded him.  He left to pick up a letter from his secret sweetheart and chatted with the people he met on his way to the baths.  Once clean, he attended a funeral and saw a mysterious man.

After the funeral, he tried to place an advertisement in a local newspaper but decided more research was required, so he scooted off to the library where, unbeknown to him, the first of our two men was disquisiting on Shakespeare.

Many people walked around, including our Jew, who decided to follow his morning kidney with an afternoon liver.  He ogled the barmaids and thought about his wife who, if his suspicions were correct, would soon be cuckholding him again.  So he exited the bar with the pretty reminders of his pain and entered another full of anti-Semites.  Fists and cans were thrown.

Troubled by thoughts of wife and ancient grievances, he wandered seaside way and publicly co-masturbated with a cripple.  He later attended the birth of a child and the English language before following our first man into the red-light district.  He caught up with him, himself, himself-in-drag, his dead grandfather, Nobodaddy, a giant green crab, a talking hat-stand and ducked out when the police arrived.  Chastened, the two men entered a dive and met a drunken sailor.  They absconded to the home of the Jew and bonded while urinating under the stars.

As 16 June 1904 came to a close, the Jew returned to his troubled marital bed and asked his wife to serve him breakfast in it tomorrow.

She considered his request but never decided one way or the other.

(Happy Bloomsday, sorry about the spoilers, and I’ll return to my regularly scheduled posting about popular culture shortly.)

 

What did W. ever do to Joffrey?

[ 64 ] June 13, 2012 |

Apparently something:

As you well know, I’m opposed to violent rhetoric on principle and should be offended, but honestly? A second-long Easter egg that no one notices until the producers point it out in the DVD commentary doesn’t really qualify as a pointed rhetorical statement. Not that it won’t be spun into one as soon as someone emails that link to Jonah Goldberg or Jeff Goldstein—both of whom will point out that it’d be considered both violent and racist if it were Obama’s head—but it’s still an Easter egg, which by definition limits its appeal to the Bush-hating, Martin-loving, DVD-commentary-watching crowd, which likely numbers in the tens.

That said, I don’t buy the producers’ claim that it wasn’t “a choice [or] a political statement. We just had to use whatever head we had around.” The scenes in King’s Landing were filmed in Malta, so I find it difficult to believe they happened to have a plastic replica of W.’s head just lying around. Unless there’s a booming Maltese trade in eerily life-like effigies of which I’m unaware, that Easter egg was planted there purposely.

Rhetoric aside, there’s all sorts of fun to be had with this, including (but not limited to) questions such as “What’s the sigil of House Bush?” I contend it’d be this:

A root-rotten shrub surrounded by all the weapons of mass destruction W. found in Iraq. Feel free to offer your own suggestions in the comments.

Expand the kill list, improve the economy.

[ 13 ] June 8, 2012 |

I can’t disagree with Mr. Thill’s logic:

It would be foolish indeed to have invested so much in [drone] technologies only to watch them molder as mere weapons of war-force and terror. Like all modern technological artifacts, at rest they are value-neutral; it is only the uses to which they are put that defines them. In sum, to strike the jobless from the common ledger is, in its way, to aim for benevolence. The enormous costs to build, upgrade, and maintain ready fleets of drones of all manner and variety will be more than offset by the broad economic health benefits to be derived by purging the state of significant portions of its jobless population. In fact, if we might be permitted a moment of utopian thought, the likely growth in demand for these services (offered perhaps to interested parties along subsidized or graduated rate scales) will necessitate a process of vigorous hiring and training for remote-pilot operators, which may in appropriate instances be drawn from the ranks of the jobless themselves, thereby solving the problem of joblessness even more swiftly and decisively. Rather than a salaried position, however, these hires might best be negotiated as much needed ‘work experience’ and accordingly organized as internships of various types. This internment might even provide a stepping-stone toward their being struck themselves in turn more quickly. Remote piloting centers that will happen to have fallen victim to inflated overhead or health care costs, or the vagaries of local real estate crises, might themselves be recast as new targets for drones whose home bases are elsewhere.

Mad Men: Hands and hands and hands in “Commissions and Fees”

[ 11 ] June 6, 2012 |

As with the previous Mad Men post, I’ll begin here with the title (“Commissions and Fees”) as it structures the underlying irony of the entire episode. As Lane Pryce explains to the partners early in the episode, the difference between commissions and fees boils down to be erratically paid fifteen percent based on a finished campaign (commissions) or regularly paid with the possibility of a one or two percent bump based on the success of the campaign (fee). The fee system fails to offer the potential rewards of the commission, but the steadiness of the payouts appeals to an orderly man like Pryce. That Campbell follows Pryce’s explanation with the news that Dunlop contacted him and wants to work with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce enhances the appeal of the fee system because it suggests the possibility of a synergistic structure: land the car company and the manufacturer of its tires follows. The neatness of this risk-averse business model entices Pryce because it provides for reliable growth in an industry predicated on the whims of a hypothetical entity Pryce is incapable of understanding: the American consumer.

Put differently: a person who craves order in the world would prefer fees to commissions based on temperament alone; but a person who (1) works in an industry based on a muddy understanding of the psychological and sociological motivations of the American consumer and (2) relies on unpredictable flashes of insight from mercurial ciphers would consider fees to be a means of imposing order on the world. Which means that Pryce is as quick to encourage the adoption of a fee structure as Draper is to dismiss it. Director Christopher Manley captures their differences in a pair of medium shots designed to draw attention to their hands:

Mad men - commissions and fees00124

As Pryce explains the difference between fees and commissions his hands are turned inward in a gesture reminiscent of an artist molding a block of clay. He is a gentleman gathering the messiness of the world and bringing order to it. But when Manley reverses to Draper rejecting the fee structure:

Mad men - commissions and fees00163

The depth of feeling from which his dismissal originates is present both in the tone of his voice and his inversion of Pryce’s gesture. Draper’s hands tear apart and toss aside the orderly world Pryce just produced for the partners. These gestures represent in minature the manner in which the episode pits the risk-seeking, commission-loving Draper against the risk-averse, fee-loving Pryce. But there’s another reason they’re significant:

They’re made with hands. Bear with me here:

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NotX = X

[ 15 ] June 5, 2012 |

A grad student didn’t see Obama at a barbecue hosted by Bill Ayers in 2005! The conclusion Breitbart’s minion Joel Pollak draws from this non-evidence?

Whatever differences may have emerged between Obama and Ayers — and other far-left fellow travelers — since Obama took office and grappled with the realities of governing, Obama’s migration towards the mainstream of American politics is very recent, and likely opportunistic. His intellectual and political roots remain extreme.

So Obama’s an extremist who’s governed from the center-right? For all the conservative talk about his lack of a record, now that he’s established one, you’d think that they’d address it. Instead, his record is now the child of political opportunism — his true fealty is still to the extremist father from whom his radical dreams originated.

Mad Men: Who owns “The Other Woman”?

[ 11 ] June 1, 2012 |

Most of what I read about the latest Mad Men (“The Other Woman”) focused on Joan’s decision to accept Pete’s indecent proposal—and rightly so—but the title of the episode basically demands the audience answer the question “Who’s the woman, and who’s the other one?” As far as I can tell, the consensus seems to be that it’s Joan, who unlike Megan and Peggy lacks a defined role in Don’s life, but that strikes me as only significant in this episode and inconsonant with developments in the series as whole. Moreover, the final minutes of the episode indicate that while Peggy’s role in Don’s life may have been circumscribed by their working relationship in recent episodes, it bears remembering that, before Megan, Peggy and Don regularly confided in each other about things like the ramifications of unplanned pregnancies. In short, I’d argue that over the course of five seasons, Peggy’s been Don’s perpetual “other woman,” and I think the structure of the episode bears this out.

But first things first, let me remind you of a moment from the first episode of the first season. Don criticizes Peggy for allowing Pete to enter his office and steal research from his trash, to which Peggy responds thus:

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Conservative performance art?

[ 76 ] June 1, 2012 |

Matt Labash, mocking the very idea of memes in the Weekly Standard, writes:

I have always detested the word meme, and not just because it was coined by Richard Dawkins, though that certainly helps. The concept was originated by Dawkins in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, back when the Internet was still a glint in young Al Gore’s eye. Borrowing from the Greek word mimema (something imitated), Dawkins was on the hunt for a monosyllable that rhymed with “gene,” hence meme. Loosely speaking—and there’s no other way to speak of memes—it is “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture” (the dictionary definition).

He “detest[s]” memes, but shortly before declaring they can only be spoken of “loosely,” he employs one of the Right’s most successful creations: the claim that Al Gore said he invented the Internet. It’s as if he’s trying to prove that memes are significant by using one to convince his audience that they aren’t, and the sad thing is that because that “idea … spread from person to person within [conservative] culture,” neither he nor his audience are aware that their collective petard has been soundly hoisted.

Games of Thrones: Embiggening Men in “Blackwater”

[ 137 ] May 29, 2012 |

The latest Mad Men (“The Other Woman”) presented me with more to think about than I can currently wrap my head around, but so too did the latest Games of Thrones (“Blackwater”), albeit it for very different reasons. So instead of delving into “The Other Woman” or drowning in the sudden narratological shift in “Blackwater,” I’ll focus on a fine point about shot construction in Game of Thrones. Before I do, however, I should note that I’m by no means endorsing the more problematic elements of the show—the racial politics foremost among them—because those strike me as endemic to sword-and-sorcery as a genre, so anything I write about them will inevitably be general and uninteresting to a fault.

If you want a re-cap of the episode itself, I recommend Alyssa’s, but for my purpose all you need to know is that 1) the great Peter Dinklage plays Tyrion Lannister and 2) he commands an army that’s on the brink of being besieged. Tyrion, in the lingo of the show, is a “halfman,” and Dinklage’s height presents difficulties for directors—if they shoot a close-up or medium close-up of him in conversation, his wit and intelligence will be diminished by the fact that his head’s surrounded by a sea of crotches. The typical solutions to this problem are two-fold: have everyone he converses with sit down while doing so (as Thomas McCarthy did extensively in The Station Agent) or shoot him in extremely shallow focus so he’s surrounded by a sea of fuzzy crotches. In “Blackwater,” director Neil Marshall eschews both techniques, employing instead an exceedingly stylized compositional mode that would look ostentatious in almost any other context. To wit:

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Let the Purges Begin

[ 23 ] May 8, 2012 |

Erik has his metaphor off, according to KC Johnson:

In an editor’s note that could have doubled as a parody of political correctness, Liz McMillen “sincerely apologize[d] for the distress” that publication of Riley’s post caused. McMillen claimed that Riley’s sharply-written but seemingly factually accurate post did not conform to the Chronicle’s “journalistic standards,” though she elected not to provide an example of how, specifically, the post failed to conform to these standards. Perhaps she feared causing further distress to the Chronicle’s extremely sensitive reading base.

I’ve a long and tangled history with Johnson — it begins here and weaves its way through three years of my archives — but the intellectual dishonesty I accused him of practicing in 2007? He’s not reformed his ways. Identifying Riley’s post as “sharply-written” when he’s only qualified enough to determine whether it’s “seemingly factual” is typical Johnsonian deflection, as his attempt to turn the tables on McMillen by accusing her of not “provid[ing] an example of how … the post failed to conform to [the Chronicle's] standards.”

He pretends he doesn’t know that criticism originating from a place of profound ignorance fails to conform to academic standards. Because he does know, but as they say, all’s fair in love and the Culture Wars.

Superman Returns, Admires Handiwork

[ 11 ] May 8, 2012 |

Given the cover of the new Newsweek (which is nowhere to be found on its website) and the facts that I 1) have substantially updated the post and 2) am teaching Superman Returns today, I thought this doesn’t quite count as self-plagiarism. It’s an analysis of the scene Farley discussed a few years back, which begins with a computer simulation of what’s supposed to happen:

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Director Bryan Singer provides a template his audience can refer to.  (Note that in the simulation the camera is above the plane.  This will be important.)  He pulls the camera back into a close-up on the nice stewardess lady who’s explaining in her nice-stewardess-lady voice what’s happening in the simulation:

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