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

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(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:

Mad men - carousel00002

That “rare occasion,” that moment that must be captured. Note that although the shot’s scale remains the same, Draper’s now directly addressing the Eastman Kodak people. He wants them to know that this stylish man in this stylish office—who is back-lit, shot center-frame, and equipoised by the set’s compositional elements—that this stylish man in this stylish office wants to help them with their “rare occasions.”

Mad men - carousel00004

Which are, as the meanings in this meeting begin to pile up, both commercial and personal. The pun on “flash” signals the game Draper’s playing: he wants them to associate the fleetingness of a camera’s flash with the technological fancies of the modern consumer, who may buy an Eastman Kodak Carousel on a whim, but who need to connect with it on a level more personal than commercial. Because the “flash,” after all, lasts but an imperceptible instant; but the photographs it produces, and the carousel that houses them, can make the impermanent permanent. (Only without killing it like lepidopterologist.) His appeal, to this point, is that there are “rare occasions” that “can be engaged on the level beyond flash,” or put differently, consumers can acquire

Mad men - carousel00005

“[a] sentimental bond with the product,” because the product is merely a vehicle designed to capture and preserve the “flash” of “rare occasions.” (And which, I should add, isn’t unlike the one Weiner encourages the audience to form with Don by switching to the medium shot.)  Now, I’m fully aware that I’m twisting Draper’s words around here, but that’s the point: his words aren’t solely designed to communicate in this scene, because even a kid in a cardboard box could communicate these words to this audience and be understood. Draper’s pitch is deliberately evocative—his words are meant to resonate with his audience, emotionally, such that even when the Eastman Kodak people replay them in their minds, their memory of the substance of the pitch will be shot through with the effect of Don’s emotional appeal.

The irony, of course, is that the emotions Don infuses his pitch with are fabricated for effect:

Mad men - carousel00007

Weiner reverses to a medium close-up so the audience can see the effect Don’s appeals are having, but he also keeps Don in frame, just to be sure that no one forgets who’s conducting the orchestra. If he left Don out of this shot, the framing would’ve been cleaner, but the scene would’ve lost its gravity—by which I mean that in this scene, the camera orbits Don, almost as if the power of his rhetoric has a gravitational effect:

Mad men - carousel00008

Mad men - carousel00009

As I was saying, the camera turns back to Don, repositioning itself in a location that emphasizes his domination of this scene. When Weiner jump-cuts to a medium on Don, his physical presence, in conjunction with the diegetic lighting behind him, draws the audience’s attention to frame-right. At the same time, however, the radiant light from the curtains and the red popping off Sal’s sweater pulls the audience’s eyes frame-left:

Mad men - carousel00009

Mad men - carousel00013

Mad men - carousel00013

What’s the result? An empty center. I know there’s a woman back there, but actual women aren’t really significant at this moment, which is all about the significance of remembered women. The basic logic, which I’m by no means endorsing, works like this: women are an itch, pleasant until they require scratching, and they will require scratching. But even after the cause of the itch, women, vanishes via divorce or other unpleasantness, the itch itself remains, which is why men need calamine lotion for their souls. It relieves the itch without requiring the return of its source, which would be women. Such is nostalgia in this slightly off-putting analogy. Point being: for the moment the camera’s calling attention to Sal on the left and Don on the right and the fact that there’s something missing in the middle which neither man seems to notice (or is deliberately ignoring).

Mad men - carousel00013

“[D]eeper bond,” as with “rare occasion” and “flash” before it, works on the level of language; and the medium shot of the Eastman Kodak people is identical in framing and scale to the one above, so there’s no need to go into detail. Especially when it’s followed by this:

Mad men - carousel00017
Mad men - carousel00017
Mad men - carousel00017

The Giant Head of Don Draper, shot in close-up so as to call attention to its frontality, declares that, like calamine lotion, nostalgia is “delicate but potent.” How potent is it? Weiner answers that question two ways. First, on the narrative level, it seems that nostalgia’s capable of making a philandering man long for the days when he stared at his wife as if she were a stranger—which she is at this point, for the most part, and there’s the rub. Don’s in a redoubled-blind here: he loathes Betty, but must pretend to love her for the Eastman Kodak people; but as he’s pretending to love her, he genuinely feels the nostalgia he thinks the Carousel will mass-produce; but because he’s in the middle of a pitch, he has to hide the fact that his appeals to nostalgia are working on him as powerfully as they are on everyone else, which leads to this:

Mad men - carousel00026
Mad men - carousel00026
Mad men - carousel00026
Mad men - carousel00026
Mad men - carousel00026

Note the difference between the close-up on Draper’s face and the random angles and framings in the images projected on the wall. Those images, drawn from his life, contain the messiness of life—the moments when unplanned happiness is possible, when the emotional memories Don hopes to sell to ordinary Americans occur in unbridled and unpredictable forms. Because that’s what Don’s selling here: the mass-production of a “twinge in your heart [that’s] far more powerful than memory alone.”

And Don should know, because despite Weiner’s aggressively static reverses to the close-up on Draper’s face (which signal repression as stolidly as one can on film), it’s clear that Don’s trying, but failing, not to buy his own shtick here. The contrast between the tightly framed shots of Don’s face and the loosely framed snapshots being projected on the wall are indicative of a man whose attempt to transform the mess of his life into something worth selling. The concentration implied by the repetitiveness of the reverses suggests that this transformation requires every advertising bone in his body, from the clenched toes of his flat feet to the practiced muscles lining his lying face:

Mad men - carousel - collage

From left to right, that’s the first half of the sequence, and I think it’s fairly obvious that Weiner wanted to contrast the mannered quality of Don’s performance to the sloppy compositions that represent his life. That empty center in the shot about the calamine lotion? It represents, compositionally, the same disconnect seen in this sequence: there’s no center for Draper to hold here because he’s transforming his life into an advertising campaign. Once the pitch begins, he’s not selling his life—he’s selling an Eastman Kodak Carousel.

Which, given the quality of his relationship with Betty at this point, is an exchange he makes with few reservations. That those reservations appear, to whatever extent you think they do, as he views the product he’s selling them through, is the fundamental irony of the scene. It’s almost as if the sequence above captures a moment of letting go—the routinization of cherished memories from a once cherished life.

The fact that he’s slightly off-center in the close-ups above supports this reading: by virtue of its size, his face clearly dominates the frame; but compositionally, it’s pegged far enough to the left to cause the audience to wonder what’s going to occupy that empty space on the right. That nothing ever does is the point: Weiner’s created in the audience a desire to see something balance the composition on those close-ups, but he confounds those expectations by leaving it unbalanced, which leaves the audience feeling like something’s missing—something obvious, on the tip of its collective brain, something just about there, but not now, not ever, because whatever it was, it’s been lost.

There’s more to be said here about that contrast and the contradictions that arise from it, but for the moment I’ll leave that up to you to discuss, should you so desire, in the comments. My main interest is how this scene corresponds with the similar one at the conculsion of “The Phantom.” By which I mean: I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Weiner’s directed two season finales that involve Don “interacting” with his wife via a projector. He’s saying something about memory being mediated, inevitably if not by necessity, which on a series like Mad Men is a question of critical importance. (After all, if Don’s relation to his life is mediated by a sheen of old stock projected on a wall, where does that leave the audience?)

 

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