Monday, April 27, 2015

Mad Men: Time&Life

The good

I heard four songs. The first was the bar scene after Jim Hobbart breaks the news. The song was the Clovers singing "Come to Me" from 1958. Next there was the scene where Peggy opens up to Stan about her pregnancy ten years earlier. The song playing on the radio is "Stranger on the Shore" by Mr. Acker Bilk. Then there was a clip from later when it's just Don and Roger at a bar and there is some jazz trio playing. I didn't hear enough of it to recognize it. Finally, the credits rolled to the sound of Dean Martin singing "Money burns a hole in my pocket". That was the B-side of his hit recording of Sway in 1953.

That's pure nostalgia.

It made me think of The Magnificent Ambersons, a movie that starts pushing nostalgia for a bygone era and then ends up being nostalgic for the period of its own beginning. Mad Men started being a nostalgic show and now it's being nostalgic for its own opening.

Flash back with me to the episode Shoot from season one. That's the episode where Jim Hobbart originally tried to poach Don from Sterling Cooper. Don agrees to stay with the firm but extracts a promise of $45,000 and no contract out of Roger. Roger agrees and then asks what is in it for him. The following dialogue ensues:
Don: "If I leave this place, one day, it will not be for more advertising."
Roger: "What else is there?"
Don: "I don't know. Life being lived? I'd like to stop talking about it and get back to it."
Roger: "I've worked with a lot of men like you and if you had to choose a place to die it would be in the middle of a pitch."
Don: "I've done that. I want to do something else."
And that's where we are again. Everyone else is more or less happy in advertising. They may feel good about their future or they may feel insecure about it but, either way, it's a future in advertising.

Not Don.

The troubling stuff

The Joan romance thing felt completely unreal. By itself that wouldn't matter but we have the ghost of Diana haunting Don. Mad Men has always been good on advertising and seduction and utterly unconvincing on falling in love and marriage.

We also had the return of the adoption plot from season one. It was well done I thought so long as you didn't think about anything else. The key line was when Peggy said this to Stan about the child she gave up:
I don't know because you're not supposed to know. Or you can't go on with your life.
But suppose Peggy had had an abortion. How would she have put it then? Would she have said,
"I don't think about it because you're not supposed to think about it. Or you can't go on with your life."
That would be different.

The complete failure

The stupid rivalry between the Pete Campbell and the MacDonald who runs the exclusive kids school also rang false. The actual slaughter of MacDonald's is a real historical event. What's insane is imagining that east-coast preps would care about such things. They say that Jane Austen never wrote a scene with men alone in it. The speculation is that she didn't because she didn't want to write about things she didn't know about. Matt Weiner would do well to take that as advice. Any time he tries to write about the country club set it comes across like a school boy with face and nose pressed to a sweet-shop window.

And the future ...

I don't see a place for Don in the future. He belongs in and to the past. In season one he is compared to Batman, to Moses and to Nixon (the last by himself). Like the City of New Orleans, he's got the disappearing railroad blues. The question is, how do they get him out? Does he just slip away like Batman? Does he get to the edge of the promised land but not in like Moses? Or does his whole world collapse in scandal like Nixon? Or is it a mix of those options?

Friday, April 24, 2015

What are they selling?

Here are a few bits of low-lying fruit.

I took this in Ottawa about a year ago.

I took this in Toronto about two weeks ago.

Both messages are stupid. Stupid as in shallow. Both are selling condos. Both are lifestyle pitches; they associate certain (shallow, vain and obviously faked) values with buying particular condos.

The people who made these ads are not stupid. So why did they do this? I don't think it's irony, meaning I don't think they mean for the target audience to think it's all just a joke. No, they think their intended audience really believe this stuff. I think the childlike willingness to accept these values with a complete lack of critical thinking is actually the selling point here.

If we were to go looking for a model for this communication style, the obvious place to look is at places like this:

That statement isn't wrong so much as it's meaningless. None of the key terms—"spirituality", "doing good" and "feeling good"—has any meaningful content. I'm tempted to say that this is the nature of religious belief in the 21st century: shallow, devoid of content but very sincere.

I'm only tempted because I suspect that St. Giles is a doomed church barely clinging to life because a few aging donors continue to support it. The striking thing here is that businesses are making millions of dollars selling spirituality while churches are unable to give away the same, admittedly, vapid nonsense. How does that work?

Well, one possibility is that buying a condo involves a serious commitment in that you have to save up for the downpayment and then make your mortgage payments to earn your moral pablum whereas St. Giles only asks that you read their stupid sign. Who'd value anything so cheap?

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Made Men: Going meta-meta on The Forecast

Four years ago now, Megan McCardle noticed something about internet journalism that still strikes me as very important. Netflix had just made what was, for them, a rare but serious misstep. They recovered but the criticism levelled at the company and its CEO was savage at the time. McCardle noted something bizarre about the criticism:
I don't want to pick on Ms. Martin, particularly, because I've read some version of this lament about Netflix about a thousand times. And indeed, I completely agree that the Qwikster disaster was nothing short of debacletacular.

But how do we get from "that was a bad idea" to "Reed Hastings doesn't understand what business he's in?" When internet commentators see odd behavior that they don't understand, why do they assume that the most parsimonious explanation is that management must be a bunch of drooling morons?

I mean, Reed Hastings did manage to build this rather large and successful business that killed off one of the most successful retail operations of its day. It's possible that he just sort of did this by accident. But is this really the most likely explanation? That he didn't understand the first thing about how people watched movies, or how to run a business?
Don Draper is a fictional character but any reasonable assessment of him should follow similar rules. He has been very successful, he has come up with brilliant campaigns, women find him very attractive (including lots of women at home too so it isn't just because it's in the script) and he often proves to be the only adult in the room. (This includes the assessment made by the shows writers; if he suddenly turns into a complete loser for the final four shows they will have betrayed their viewers.) Yes, he has faults and very real ones but how do we get from man to serious flaws to the following:
  1. ... it’s that Dick Whitman simply can’t keep up the Don Draper facade anymore. The Dick-ishness is seeping through. Don Draper created dreams; Dick Whitman shits on them. Don Draper was a legendary Manhattan sex god; Dick Whitman hits on teenage girls. Don Draper had everything – and deserved it; Dick Whitman has nothing – and it’s all his fault. It truly feels like we’re at the end of Don’s story and he knows it. It’s why, when faced with the kind of assignment the average high-schooler could complete in a weekend (2500 words on the future), he’s completely stumped. Don Draper has no future.
  2. Don’s hypocrisy really shone through when he tried to lecture Sally after his somewhat pathetic performance at the Chinese restaurant. Talk about regression—here’s a man who’s struggling to keep his life afloat and is falling for anonymous diner waitresses because they remind him of an old flame. But put him at the table with a bunch of 17-year-olds, and his tarnished charm finally gets a chance to shine again. Sally’s right about him “oozing,” but what she doesn’t realize is that he can’t help himself—she’s 17, so she’s not in the right place to empathize with her father, but this is a man whose real estate agent thinks he’s pathetic.
That's Tom & Lorenzo and The Atlantic respectively. The big problem here is that Don doesn't hit on a seventeen-year-old girl; she hits on him. And while Sally's unhappiness is understandable, more on this later, she's wrong. Don handles that situation about as well as an adult male could. (BTW: there is a nice bit of esoteric writing in this section when the 17-year-old in question mentions that Senator Dodd is going to given them a tour of the Senate. Anyone want to take a guess at how he and his buddy Teddy would respond to that sort of flirting?)

What's stunning about these assessments of Don is how dismissive they are. There are so many fans of the show who, while they clearly like watching Don Draper, dismiss everything he does as if it was just so much "privilege". 

Not unrelated, here is a snippet from a Slate piece on "Americana".
As a category, Americana has its problems—it’s a very white scene that claims to represent a lineage deeply rooted in African-American sounds (since country, too, was born in blues), and its adherents often cling too rigidly to notions of virtue and authenticity.
There's so much wrong in that I don't know where to begin. Yes, country music is (partly) rooted in the blues. It's also partly rooted in parlour music, Irish, Scottish and English folk music and opera. The blues, meanwhile, while unquestionably African-American, also owes a huge amount to music that was Arabic or European. The problem the writer has here is not with authenticity but with what is, for her, the wrong kind of authenticity. She makes me think of this pathetic display:
My name is such a vanilla, white-girl American name,' said Ashley Holmes of Indianapolis who changed her name online 'to show how little meaning "Hussein" really has.
The McCardle article I opened by quoting asks the rather bluntly how the critics of Netflix can be so much smarter than its founder and yet not be millionaires themselves. What's hiding here is self-hatred and all this raining on Don Draper is really an attempt at virtue signalling.

Mothers and other women

The key to understanding Sally's being so upset at Don is that she has already been through this with her mother and that scene was more genuinely disturbing. (Matt Weiner's mother must hate this show although I have to say I understand where he's coming from; I see a lot of my mother in Betty.) Anyway, if Sally is half as smart as her many fans doing recaps say she is, then the events of last episode must have given her some inkling that the main reason that Glen has been friends with her all these years is so he could keep the channel for future contact with Betty open. And the reason she has to have some inkling is that Betty all but diagrammed it out for her: "Sooo, you two have stayed in touch."

When Don tells Sally she is a beautiful girl and that it's up to her to be more than that, she has to know what this says of her mother.

Speaking of mothers, I mentioned how unsatisfying and unrealistic Joan's romance was and lots of people caught that (although no one mentioned how creepy it was for the guy to stalk Joan by flying to New York). Hanna Roisin spotted something I did not. Speaking of the Peggy and Joan subplots this episode she writes,
Sometime I feel like Matt Weiner lets the men work out their conflicts delicately while the women sound like anecdotes out of the Center for Work and Family. Joan faced the classic baby versus boyfriend dilemma. Only it didn’t really feel like much of a dilemma, because we never got to experience the maternal bond.
That's absolutely right. And it leads me to revisit something I said a long time ago about the show. I can't find the post where I said it but I once replied to a critic who said that the female characters were, as Roisin argues above, straight out of a textbook. I said that one of the great things about teh show was that the women were not like that. I still stand by that because it used to be true. As time goes on, though, the series plays more and more by the feminist handbook and all the women are either victims or role models.

Final thought, that Hanna Roisin piece is called, "Sally is the best character on Mad Men." I don't think Roisin really believes that for a second. Much of the commentary, and I cheerfully admit my own falls into this category, is really a way of voting for what you hope will be the case. Hanna Roisin votes for a future in which characters like Sally succeed. I vote for a future in which the forgotten virtues of characters like Roger and Don are rediscovered by men of later generations. It's funny to be arguing for either outcome as we already know that both came true.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Mad Men: The Forecast

My first thought was that this was all set up. Well, not really, my first thought was about how much the use of embarrassment as a narrative technique makes me squirm. My second thought was that the Joan Harris romantic fantasy was completely unconvincing. My third thought was that the Glen Bishop Vietnam story was utterly clichéd and that Glen is still the same little creep he's always been and that it wouldn't break my heart if he gets killed.

But once I was past all that I started thinking the entire episode is just setting up the ending.

The split season has created a very tight narrative arc for Matt Weiner. The guys at Tom & Lorenzo were speculating that there was no room to do anything but dispatch the various characters one by one. And they had me completely convinced until I saw this episode. Weiner clearly means to do more than that.

And that is a huge challenge. Let's face it, none of the other shows of the supposed TV renaissance ended well. Sex and the City ended in a cliché. The Sopranos cheated. Breaking Bad spent several seasons demolishing Walter's own mythology only to completely restore that mythology in the final episode. Weiner defends the ending of The Sopranos because he was involved and so were his friends and colleagues but he has to know it was a cop out.

I think we can assume that Weiner and Draper are alike in one way: they both make their art out of their personal struggles. And I think we can also assume that the Gettysburg address reference is meant to signal something.

Lincoln's problem was to justify "the great civil war" and to do that he had to look backwards and forwards. He had to convince everyone that the nation had been founded on wonderful principles and that the war had defended those principles and that a great way forward lay open to them. And he had to do this for people surrounded by misery.

Okay, 1970 isn't quite the civil war but it was a miserable time. And the show has wallowed in a lot of it these last few seasons. No one could pretend that this show has in any way glorified the 1960s.

Which brings me to ...

Esoteric messages

In case you haven't been paying attention, one of the things that Mad Men has done over and over again is to ditch the conventional account of the 1960s. The figures who play the central role in PBS documentaries about the 1960s—rock stars, hippies, draft dodgers, Democrats—have always been peripheral to the story on Mad Men. Real life seems to happened elsewhere. And, speaking as someone younger than Sally and older than Bobby, that lines up with my experience of the 1960s. Everything about this show screams that conventional story of the 1960s is either false or beside the point: if you really were there then you DO remember it.

Let's reconsider the story of creepy little Glen and Betty the ice queen. When he comes back to visit her before shipping out, he comes on to her and she turns him down. The script has gone to considerable lengths to show us that they are all alone. If this were a soap opera it would end with either wild sex or with Betty fighting Glen off and driving him from the house. Or maybe he'd rape her after being turned down. Whatever might have happened, there is a standard set of soap opera expectations that goes with this set up. The episode didn't go with them but didn't exactly defy them either.

When Betty turns Glen down, he asks why not? And she says, "Because I'm married." Meaning that if she weren't married she'd be on her knees frantically pulling his fly open? Of course not. Why does she really turn him down? Well, mostly because there would be something decidedly creepy about it. No, scratch that, because there already is something decidedly creep about it. Glen has maintained a friendship with Betty's daughter for the best part of a decade so he could be near her again. Betty can see that even if Sally can't.

Poor Sally.

And then in an exact mirror of that, Sally's seventeen-year-old friend comes on to Don at dinner. And Don plays her brilliantly making sure it all ends up harmlessly without humiliating her, just as he explains to Sally.

And then there is Johnny Mathis who can't do anything right. It's like the end of season three all over again: we have a bunch of pathetic little children waiting for Don and Roger to show them how to muddle through.

Final thought: Why would Richard want to marry Joan? They just met. Yes, she has red hair, a serious career and really big breasts but he barely knows her. And it's not just Kevin, anyone who has been paying attention to this show knows that marriage is a bad deal for men. As it is in real life these days. Shy would Richard be so enthralled.

And why does Joan says she has been divorced twice?

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Difference between men and women?

I was asked a question by a poster whose tag is 21st Century Scholastic
Dear Jules,
According to you, are there real differences between men and women? What are they?
Perhaps you've already written something about it?

I have written about it but have never answered the question directly. The following is my first take and may be stupid for all I know. This is what I believe.

I have three kinds of answers to your question: a metaphysical answer, an empirical answer and an ethical answer. The first and, especially, the last are controversial.

The metaphysical answer

Platonism had a huge influence on Catholic thinking but there are some crucial differences. The most important difference is in regard to the relationship between the soul and the body. Platonists conceive of souls having an independent existence prior to the body. The body is, in fact, relatively unimportant to them. The Catholic view is that our complete self is male or female soul in a male or female body and both are created to go together. For the Platonist, the soul is the real you and it is still the real you when detached from the body. For the Catholic, you are your body and any sort of afterlife is your soul in a body, although it may be a perfected body.

Okay, what has that to do with anything? I reject strong dualism. I don't think you could, on purely physical terms, take a male body and transplant it into a female body. And I don't mean by that that it is currently not medically possible. The nervous system is the whole body and not a control centre that just happens to be attached to this body. Everything about a man is  male and everything about a woman is female.

Back in the 1980s, a feminist friend of mine used to say to me, "That's your body talking and not your brain." Or they'd say, "You're thinking with your [penis]." My answer to that is, "Of course I am, my male body isn't just a part of me, it is me."

The empirical answer

This is the least controversial and yet the hardest to explain. Least controversial because everyone uses the terms man and woman or boy and girl without difficulty almost all of the time. There is gender theory and all but no rational person denies sex differences and no one has any difficulty using and understanding the words. But it gets tricky, as Wittgenstein would say, when we try and point at objects to justify our definitions.

For example, it is true that men tend to be taller than women. That said, there are seven-foot-tall women and there are four-foot-tall men. Any description of differences will consist of tendencies and will have to allow for exceptions. Men are more aggressive than women and, therefore, more likely, on average, to commit acts of violence but there are some women who commit staggering acts of violence. Men seem to like maths and sciences more than women but there are some brilliant female physicists.

My list of differences, if I were to make one, would probably line up with common cultural expectations. There'd be some differences: for example, our culture believes women to have more sexual self control than men and I think that's a polite fiction at best.

One thing I've noticed over the years is that any puppy and any new born baby will very quickly figure out who the men are and who the women are and will treat people different based on that difference.

The ethical answer

This is the most controversial aspect of all. There are, whether we like to admit it or not, norms that go with these tendencies. We expect women to be more emotionally attuned to others than we expect men to be even though we know there are exceptions on both sides of the line.

I think that the differences between men and women require different treatment. Sometimes I wake up in a bad mood for no good reason but it doesn't happen often. When it does, I expect myself to snap out of it because men aren't supposed to be like that. I am much more tolerant when women I know do.

I expect men to be physically strong in ways I don't expect of women.

I expect women to be better at interpreting my feelings than I expect other men to be.

I expect women to be better at dealing with physical illness than men are.

At the same time, I expect men to have fewer physical ailments than women.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Mad Men: going meta-meta on New Business

I've always pushed for an esoteric reading of Mad Men. That is to say, pay attention to what actually happens as opposed to what merely seems to be happening. Too much of the analysis of this show is based on critics desperate need to see themselves vindicated by the past, as opposed to be history, which, unlike the past, rarely vindicates anyone. And thus the endless tiresome, because sexism, because raaaaacism readings.

But I've always assumed that it was just my reading that was esoteric. That is, that I was finding ways to read the series that were accidentally in the text (or, when I'm wrong, are just things I'm projecting into it). When I sat down this morning to read what others have made of this most recent episode, I began to wonder if maybe there isn't some esoteric writing here as well. Maybe there are intentionally hidden meanings.

I don't want to believe it but then I read John Swansburg:
Don’s message to Peggy is to put the trauma behind her. “This never happened,” he says. “It will shock you how much this never happened.” I’ve always loved that moment, as it was one of the first times we saw Don betray emotion for a woman he wasn’t trying to sleep with, and one of the first indications that he saw promise in Peggy. Of course, his way of showing he cares is by offering her some deeply unhealthy advice—bury your trauma so deep inside you that it simply disappears. Then again, it worked for Don, and, actually, it seems to have worked for Peggy, too. We haven’t heard much about that baby in a while, and she doesn’t seem to be losing sleep over it.
Notice the contrasty between:
Of course, his way of showing he cares is by offering her some deeply unhealthy advice—bury your trauma so deep inside you that it simply disappears.
Then again, it worked for Don, and, actually, it seems to have worked for Peggy, too. 
Well, yes, it has worked hasn't it? If there is one bit of pseudo-scientific nonsense our era will not give up on it is the hydraulic theory of mental health, the belief that you have to let things out or else some mental pipe somewhere will burst and cause untold damage. This belief, although widely held by people like Swansburg, has absolutely no evidence to back it up.

Where does the show stand on this? It's hard to tell as it usually seems to vindicate the popular view that Don is a mess who is suppressing his past at enormous cost to himself. Then again, as Swansburg reluctantly acknowledges, there are times when it seems to say the opposite

Which brings me to Megan

"What do you call your mother?"
Megan angrily blurts that out at Don in Howard Johnson's back in season 5. Nice eh?

And here is Joan and Peggy discussing Megan in Season 6.
Joan: Second wives, it's like they have a playbook.
Peggy: I don't think she's like that.
Joan: Peggy, she's going to be a failing actress with a rich husband.
It goes on from there to blame Don for always marrying the same kind of woman. Joan winds up by telling Peggy that Betty was model and that Don met her at a photo shoot. And we might just let that go by except that Megan told Don that she was interested in the advertising business. She presented herself as the opposite of Betty and then turned into another Betty anyway.

One way to plant an esoteric message in a book or a TV show is to have a scene that very plainly says something but is somehow obviously false. Like, say, the confrontation between Megan and Don at the lawyer's office. The scene is poorly acted on one side. "Megan" has become the minor soap character star she used to be. And then Don writes her a cheque and goodbye Megan.

 Here's what Tom & Lorenzo had to say about it:
As for Megan, she’s following the Betty Francis model of ex-wifery, by causing any sympathy for her to evaporate in the wake of some seriously off-putting immaturity and anger. When Betty was firing Carla and slapping Sally for masturbating, we could at least look at her monstrous behavior and understand why she was so angry after a decade-plus of a mountain of lies. Megan’s bitterness here only serves to make her look selfish and childish in a lot of ways.
True, but what if it's not an accident? What if Matt Weiner wants to make a point not about men like Don Draper, but about women like Megan, a point that it would be politically incorrect, "politically incorrect" as in fatal for his career, so he decided to make it in-between-the-lines? 

I thought the most telling lines in the show were the ones where Roger talks about how Jane accused him of destroying her life and career even though the only career she'd ever pursued was hustling men into supporting her. Forget everything Megan's character seems to be and ask yourself who she really is? Forget all the brave, feminist ideals you want to project onto her and consider what she actually does. Think of that meeting: doesn't she accuse Don of everything that Roger says Jane accused him of?

Finally, here is what Megan says of Don:
You’re nothing but a liar. An aging, sloppy, selfish liar.
Nasty, nasty stuff. But she could just as reasonably say the same of herself.  Any honest liar could, especially a failing actress with a rich husband whom she is now leaving and whose entire future depends on his ability to support her.

Final thought, here is a bit of dialogue from the end of the show. Don tells Diana that he's pretty sure he's had a worse day than her. She says "I’m not in a mood and you’ve never had a worse day than me." Well, you know, I think he's right. He probably did have a worse day than her. And he has had lots of worse days. And she doesn't have a clue because she doesn't care. She only cares about herself.

Almost everyone who wrote about this episode seized on the obvious contradiction in that an episode called new business is actually all about old business. You can go on hating Don if you want but it's a very old business indeed that she's in.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Mad Men: New Business

I just blew in from Toronto, downloaded the episode and watched it. I'm not sure what, in the end, should be said. I'm not sure of all that must be said. I can say this; this was the most dishonest episode of the entire show.

For starters, what the hell is Megan complaining about. She left him! If she'd found out about his cheating, maybe she'd have something to complain about but she left him because she'd set off to pursue a new and different life. That was her decision, or, rather, her series of decisions.

Second, what is this crap with Harry. Okay, I've been around a long time, I'm no longer even remotely surprised at the evil crap people will pull in order to get love and sex. I have no trouble seeing Harry do something really stupid in an attempt to get Megan. It's this particular something stupid I don't get.

As I said last week, Weiner is out to reset the clock back to his original premise. I got confirmation of this when I watched the interview he did around the first episode. He talked about Rachel and how her death opened "an old would" for Don. Get it? The pain from an old would. In the season finale from season one, Don says that an old Greek he worked for named Teddy, told him that "nostalgia" means "the pain from an old wound." Ninety-nine million people have pointed out that that isn't true. It literally means to ache from a desire to return home. The first part, 'nostos" comes from Homer and, if we've read the Odyssey, we know that Don's old boss Teddy wasn't so far off as all the people snidely corrected him say.

I get that, I like that. What I didn't like was this week's episode.

It was brilliantly acted, well-written and well directed. Artistically, there was nothing wrong with it except for the bit about its being completely untrue to the history of the characters.