Sunday, August 29, 2010

Jordan's Review: Mad Men, Season 4, Episode 6: Waldorf Stories

First things first, congratulations to Mad Men for its third consecutive Best Drama Emmy victory. Seeing as its the best, and probably smartest, show on television (in my humble, but rarely wrong, opinion), it was a deserved award; the show deserves extra points for airing an episode about Don winning an award at the same time it was winning an Emmy (and also for inserting a joke about how Jon Hamm was not going to win for Best Actor, when Don says, "Just because I got nominated doesn't mean they're going to give me an award."). While the cast and crew of the show were off celebrating much like the characters of the show were, Mad Men itself continued to explore Don Draper at rock bottom, and continued to show us just how low the man can sink.

First though, because its a show that loves to tear the audience apart, we got a glimpse of Don Draper acting like his old self again, reprimanding Peggy for just being good at her job, rejecting Danny Strong's dedicated, though not particularly talented young ad man wannabe, and winning a Cleo for an ad of his. For a brief, glorious moment, it looked like Don Draper might be back on top, but nothing is ever that easy on Mad Men, and so the rest of the episode bounced back and forth between Don going on the worst bender we've yet seen, and Don, in flashback, campaigning as hard as the man he rejected to win over Roger Sterling and a job at Sterling Cooper. What we saw at both ends was the unmaking of an ad man through alcohol, and the desperation of two men who are aging out of relevance.

Those two men, as usual, were Roger Sterling and Don Draper, and before I dive into the man I examine on a weekly basis here, I'd like to take a look at the fascinating and tragic character of Roger Sterling. Roger got into the ad game because of his father, and always felt cocky and entitled because of it. Yet it also left him feeling deeply insecure about what he does, and that insecurity has haunted him throughout his entire career (look, for example, at the moping he does to Joan in the bar, or the fact that he asks Don to tell him, "I couldn't have done it without you" before handing over Don's Clio). On the one hand, Roger knows that his worth to the company is largely unmeasurable, and that in fact hiring people like Don has made him very wealthy and very successful, but on the other, he knows that his job is one that will never get him recognition. "They don't give awards for what I do," he complains to Joan as he sips his umpteenth cocktail of the day, and he's right. What Roger also knows, though, is that probably his greatest professional success, the firing of mad advertising genius Don Draper, was a happy accident caused by a few too many cocktails one morning years ago.

I would be remiss if I didn't also touch on the revelation of how long ago Joan's affair with Roger began. That little fact, barely touched upon in the episode, speaks volumes about the connection we have all seen between the two of them over the years, and about how vital Joan is in both Roger's life, and in the firm. When Joan and Roger first got together, she was clearly very young, and she probably saw him as exactly the smooth, clever, successful man he hoped to be seen as. Over time, however, she grew to know the real Roger Sterling, and came to understand and love the insecure man whose professional worth was slowly slipping through his fingers. When Roger left Joan, right after the heart attack that served as the (most apparent) catalyst to his personal and professional downfall, he was leaving behind someone who understood and accepted him to recommit to a failing marriage. And later, when he left Mona, he leapt into the arms of a young girl who saw him, as he so desperately hoped, as smooth, clever, and successful.

On the other half of tonight's tragedy is Don, who drinks so much he literally loses an entire day, waking up with a woman he doesn't remember, never showing up to see his children, and slowly discovering that he, in his drunkenness, booked Peggy a hotel room to work in, plagiarized the slogan he sold to Life cereal, and lost the award that was his supposed reason for celebrating in the first place. The flashbacks that are interspersed throughout tonight's episode show us a Don Draper who is driven to achieve his dreams, and desperate to make something of himself; the episode that unfolds in Don's current life reminds us just how far this self-made man has fallen, and how much he can damage with his self destructive tendencies. Watching Danny (which may actually be the character's name, but is definitely the actor's) muscle his way into a job using his connection to Roger and (unbeknownst to him) Don's guilt over plagiarizing, it is hard not to compare him to both Don and Roger. Danny exists, not just as a personification of Don's guilt, but also as a way to reflect on Don and Roger, and how the former may slowly become the latter, coasting on reputation and name recognition rather than actually accomplishing anything, and drinking far too much on the side (notice as well that Don fails in his attempt to seduce Faye tonight, but immediately beds the woman who approaches him based solely on his name. Notice also, that in his drunken stupor, Don tells the waitress he picks up that his name is Dick). And on the margina of this episode about the dangers of over-drinking, and the personal hell that both Don and Roger exist in, we get a nice cameo from Duck, whose trip off the wagon has taken him to rock bottom as well, to the point where he drunkenly accosts the host of the Clio's and is forcibly removed from the event. Duck was always a cautionary tale for the heavy drinking protagonists of Mad Men, but now he seems more like just the next step in their terrible descent.

Meanwhile, if Don has stepped into Roger's shoes this week, its clear that Peggy has found herself in Don's, as she boldly perserveres to create a new campaign with a lazt, sexist art director, going toe to toe with him and even calling his bluff by getting naked. Part of this is to show him that she is in control, but more than that, Peggy seems truly dedicated to getting the job done. Last season, I think, we would have seen Peggy sleeping with Stan as a form of earnign validation that she is attractive and worthy of respect. This season, Peggy doesn't need that validation, nor does she need Don to admit that she does good work; now what Peggy needs is to do the good work, not to be recognized for it. Peggy's story across the entire series so far has beem a move towards self actualization, and this season we are seeing an actualized Peggy, taking control of her personal and professional life while those around her flounder and fall apart.

Finally, in another bit of expert editing, we cut near the episode's end between Danny extorting a job out of Don straight to Pete extorting respect (or at least the appearance of it) out of Ken. Last season, Pete was outperformed and humilated by Ken during their competition to become Head of Accounts. Now Pete has the opportunity to turn the tables and, never one to be a good sport, or to show any humility, Pete milks the moment for all its worth. Both Pete and Ken know that Pete holds the power, and Ken is smart enough to act the part of the meek underling for long enough to secure Pete's approval. Pete needs to feel superior to Ken, and Ken is superior enough to play the part of the inferior to get what he wants (were the tables turned, you can bet that Pete would be as petulant as ever at the idea of cowtowing to Ken). Pete revels in Ken's clearly manufactured deference, leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms behind his head in relaxed triumph. I for one am interested to see how the dynamic between the two develops now that Ken has secured the job and will likely prove himself to be more useful than Pete all over again.

Perhaps the perfect cherry on top on the sundae that was this episode (to borrow a phrase Don uses in regard to the Life account) is the few scenes we get of Roger trying to write his memoir, and failing to come up with anything all that interesting to say about his adult life. Sure, he's more than willing to talk about how he loved chocolate ice cream but his mother made him eat vanilla so he wouldn't stain anything, but what the memoir scenes hint at is that Roger thinks, deep down, that he's never really amounted to much as an adult, and that maybe his story isn't worth hearing. His professional insecurity is what lead him out of retirement and into co-founding SCDP in the first place, but watching him struggle to remake himself, as Don was at least once so adept at, and coming up empty-handed shows us exactly how far our existential Don Draper may fall if he continues on Roger's path. Right now we are watching Don in free fall, but Don always has his ability to utterly remake himself to fit what he wants to be in his back pocket (or has he lost that too by this point?). Roger never had that, and is stuck, depressing as that may be, with himself. And that's something he has never been very happy with.

Grade: A


-Danny Strong, since I held off on mentioning it above, is better known as Johnathan, high school loser turned one time superstar turned supervillain wannabe on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He was often excellent on that show, and it looks like he will probably be very good on Mad Men (he'll be around for at least a bit, as he appeared in the still maddeningly vague preview for next week's episode).

-We didn't see Sally or New Bobby (fuck you, New Bobby) this week, but I still got to think "poor, poor Sally" when I realized her terribly neglectful father wasn't coming for her and she would be stuck with Betty all day.

-"I told him to just be himself. That was mean, wasn't it?"

-"I'll have a seven and seven." "You have legs." Joan has certainly changed a lot since we first met her, and even more since she and Roger first got together.

-"Little kid, big bowl, big spoon." Not exactly Don's show-stopping monologue from "The Wheel" back in Season One. Its also particularly excellent that his campaign was getting at basically the same ideas of youth, nostalgia, and a sense of familial bond. My how the mighty have fallen.

-Joan and Roger's handholding was a great little moment, but I couldn't help but notice her disapproving look as Roger sipped his drink, and the fact that she then also held Don's hand and actually kissed him when he won the award. Don't misunderstand me, I'm not saying anything is going on between Joan and Don (they have great respect for each other, but in a professional way), just that Joan is disappointed in the man Roger is letting himself become right now.

ReviewToBeNamed Liveblogs The Emmys: This Time, Its Personal

Whose Film Is It Anyway?: Jean-Luc Godard

Note: The purpose of Whose Film Is It Anyway? is to examine the validity of the auteur theory through the lens of individual film-makers, taking a look at their bodies of work and highlighting the technical elements, personal style, and thematic consistency of their films. Ultimately, the goal of this column will be to generate a discussion of the merits of auteur theory through examinations of directors widely considered auteurs, analyses of directors whose status as auteurs is more tenuous, and occasional looks at non-directors who may drive the quality and content of their films with more assuredness than the directors they work with.

“Action!”-First Assistant Director (Jean-Luc Godard), Contempt

I endeavor with this column to write about people who have a singular voice in cinema, and who express it consistently throughout their work. In that way it is surprising that I did not cover Jean-Luc Godard earlier, or even in the first installment of this column. To put it simply, there is no one else like Godard in the entire history of cinema. Neither before nor since has anyone grappled with filmmaking in exactly the same way as him, nor even tried as consistently to get at the core of what the movie watching experience is made up of, and what we expect to see when we walk into a movie. Playing with expectations is one thing, but as David Thomson puts it, “Godard is the first filmmaker to bristle with the effort of digesting all previous cinema and to make cinema itself his subject.” Throughout a career that has spanned 50 years and dozens of films, Godard has challenged the way we view movies and the reasons we have for viewing them, and also the reasons artists have for making them. Especially in his early work (Specifically everything he made between his debut feature Breathless in 1960 and Weekend in 1967) Godard deals with cinema through cinema in a way that no one else has ever even tried.

Breathless, which Godard wrote with fellow French New Wave founder Francois Truffaut, is made as an homage to American gangster films, specifically to the career of Humphrey Bogart. Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo, a frequent collaborator of Godard’s during his early work) is a petty criminal who wants nothing more than to be like Humphrey Bogart. After he steals a car and is forced to kill a policeman during the escape, Michel goes into hiding with his American girlfriend Patricia (Jean Seberg) while trying to call in a loan that will fund his escape from France. The film is rife with references to Bogart and to American movies in general, including B-movie Studio Monogram Pictures. Yet Breathless is hardly one long pop culture riff—in fact, it includes some of the most innovative cinematic techniques used up to that point. As one of the founders of the French New Wave, Godard firmly believes in using long takes in order to minimize editing, which he holds creates a better sense of realism within the film. Godard also heavily employs the use of the jump cut throughout Breathless, which gives the film its own urgent sense of progress, and also solved one of the editing problems inherent in filming a movie in a series of long takes. When Godard was instructed to cut his movie down to an hour and a half, he used the jump cut to edit down scenes that were filmed as one long take. The film was also shot in a faux documentary style, which was mostly unheard of in 1960, and so the entire film was shot with a handheld camera and almost no lighting equipment (a style that is used fairly often today, but was daring at the time). It also contains two other trademarks that would become important to an examination of Godard as an auteur: his attitude towards his female characters and the tendency of his leads to break the fourth wall and address the audience directly (both of which were topics I considered centering this column around until I decided to take a broader look at his contributions). Patricia is ultimately responsible for the downfall of Michel in the film’s conclusion, and it is her betrayal that colors his view of the world as the film ends.

In 1961 Godard released A Woman is A Woman, which allows for a closer examination of his views on women, but also represents his take on the American musical in all of its silly excess. Godard’s film is not a musical, but, as he put it “the idea of a musical,” and follows Angela (Anna Karina, another frequent collaborator of Godard’s, and his wife from 1961-67) as she tries to convince her lover Emile (Jean-Claude Brialy) to have a baby with her, even scheming to pretend to leave him for his best friend Alfred (Jean-Paul Belmondo) in order to coerce him. The film’s score is almost deliberately discordant and chaotic, coming up at random points throughout the film and dying away just as quickly. The film is also packed with audio dissolves, which usually accompany the beginning of a musical sequence in a traditional musical—here, Godard has the audio dissolve into silence instead of explode into song. In one scene, the characters even break into a dance, referencing Cyde Charisse, Gene Kelly, and Bob Fosse in the process. The film also includes breaking of the fourth wall, including Angela and Emile bowing to the audience before they begin fighting. Throughout the film, third person exposition is also written out on the screen, usually as the camera pans between Emile and Angela fighting (for example, in one moment as their fight reaches its emotional climax, the words that appear between them read, “Because they love each other, everything will go wrong for Emile and Angela.”). In perhaps its most famous, and famously innovative scene, Angela and Emile have decided to stop speaking to each other, and so begin to communicate their insults entirely via book titles. The idea is so patently original it’s hard to imagine anyone else pulling it off, yet Godard deepens the cleverness of the scene by also parodying the lighting rules of most musicals that require everyone be perfectly lit at all times. Emile and Angela have turned off the lights to go to bed, yet each time the other decides to get up and grab more books to continue the feud, they carry a lamp with them, keeping them hilariously illuminated throughout the conflict (the entire scene can be viewed below).

The film, as I stated earlier, is also a showcase for Godard’s problematic view of women during his most creative period. With few exceptions, women in his work are femme fatales, either betraying their lovers, scheming against them, withholding the love they seek, or otherwise damaging their psyches and destroying their dreams. Angela is no different, though the comedy of the film, and its focus on her, allow this to seem more humorous and endearing than it often comes across in Godard’s dramas. As Emile says at one point, both in condemnation of Angela, and of her grammar, “Women are, or woman is, the cause of suffering. You can say it either way.” Later in the film, Emile and Alfred commiserate in the meta-exchange, “Is this a comedy or a tragedy?” “You never know with women.” Finally, the film’s closing line sums it all up nicely, when Emile tells Angela, “You are shameless” and she replies, “Am I not a woman? I’m a woman.”

In perhaps his best film, Contempt, Godard brings his examination of film, and his examination of male-female relationships, to the forefront in a dense, symbolic, and masterful look at the film industry. From the moment it opens, with the credits being narrated to the audience as a camera films one of Godard’s classic tracking shots, the story of Paul (Michel Piccoli) and his attempt to re-write the script for an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey while his relationship with his wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot) deteriorates trades heavily in both of Godard’s favorite areas to explore, but also takes Godard’s penchant for the meta-textual one level higher by making his movie about not just making movies in the way that Breathless and A Woman is a Woman were, but also textually about the making of a movie. The film brilliantly parallels Godard’s own life, and the Odyssey, as Paul, Camille, and greedy, vain playboy and producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance) correspond both to Odysseus, Penelope, and Poseidon, and to the relationship between Godard himself, his wife Anna Karina (who was originally supposed to star), and the film’s distributor Joseph E. Levine. Godard’s examination of film is also never more prevalent than when Paul discusses the process with his film’s director Fritz Lang (who plays himself), a personal hero of Godard’s in real life. As Fritz Lang, who was singled out as an auteur by Godard while he still wrote for Cahiers du Cinema, describes, “Each picture should have an individual point of view.” However, Lang comments on Godard as a director when he speaks with Paul and Jeremy about the nature of God and belief and says, “It’s God’s absence that reassures man. Strange but true.” To add yet another delicious layer to Godard’s commentary, he plays Lang’s first assistant director in the film, and even utters the movie’s ironic last word, “Action.”

The other tendency of Godard’s that takes center stage in Contempt is his meditation on the relationship between men and women. The middle of the film is consumed by a 30 minute sequence that follows Paul and Camille around their apartment throughout one day in their lives, tracking the subtle ways they goad each other and demand answers they don’t honestly want to hear to questions they are honestly afraid to be asking. Paul operates from the sequence’s beginning under the theory that Camille has stopped loving him, and through his constant goading, his supposition becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy over the course of several achingly long takes that pan between the two and track their movements around the apartment. While most of Godard’s films deal with women in a problematic way, Contempt transcends his tendency towards misogyny by revealing the equally terrible forces that drive men, and often push women to do the things that Godard blames them for in much of his other work. Contempt is not an indictment of women, but rather a condemnation of both sexes and of the games they play with each other’s minds over the course of years spent together.

The next year, Godard released Band of Outsiders (the original French title, Bande à Parte, formed the title of Quentin Tarantino’s production company A Band Apart, and Tarantino’s films Reservoir Dogsand Pulp Fiction are replete with homages to the movie) which follows Odile (Anna Karina) as she is pulled into a plot to rob her own house by Arthur (Claude Brasseur) and Franz (Sami Frey), both of whom are attempting to seduce her. Band of Outsiders focuses on the love triangle between the three, but also involves two famous sequences that toy with cinema conventions. In the first, the three sit in a crowded café and decide to observe one minute of total silence; as this minute begins, the entire soundtrack goes completely silent. Shortly following that, the three decide to dance in the café, and their break away dance sequence forms the inspiration for Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Mia Wallace’s (Uma Thurman) dance scene in Pulp Fiction. Finally, the film plays with the idea of narration, being narrated by an omniscient narrator who also examines the characters inner thoughts and feelings, and ends with the promise of a sequel, yet another meta-touch added to Godard’s repertoire.

In 1965, Godard released Alphaville, a blend of science fiction, film noir, and satire that could arguably be called the first neo-noir. The film follows secret agent Lemmy Caution (played by American expatriate Eddie Constantine) as he travels to the dystopian titular city on a distant planet in an attempt to recover missing agent Henry Dickson (Akim Tamiroff), capture or kill the city’s founder Professor Von Braun (Howard Vernon), and destroy the dictatorial computer Alpha 60, which has outlawed all emotion within his city. Alphaville is packed to the brim with the stylized dialogue of noir films, and its protagonist is a trench coat wearing detective with a tragic past and trouble with women. Even his love interest, the Professor’s daughter Natasha Von Braun (Anna Karina) is a standard femme fatale, as her entrance into Lemmy’s life can attest. Much of the film is comprised of Lemmy verbally sparring with Alpha 60 as he attempts to incapacitate the ever present computer (who also serves as a kind of narrator throughout the film) and reckon with Alpha 60’s contention that, “No one can live in the past, and no one can live in the future. The present is the central form of life.”

The next year, Godard continued his riff on film noir with Made in U.S.A. which is loosely based on The Big Sleep (and unofficially based on the novel The Jugger, which kept it from being seen in the United States until 2009), yet inverts the protagonist’s sex, starring hardboiled detective Paula (Anna Karina), who travels to a fictionalized Atlantic City to meet her lover. When she finds out he is dead, she mounts an investigation that plays out like a classic noir, filled with verbal sparring, stylized dialogue, gangsters, cops, and double crosses. The film focuses on a tendency of Godard’s I have neglected to this point, his predilection for socialism as a political system, but also breaks the fourth wall in an even more inventive way than Godard had tried previously, as Paula tells a gangster she is interrogating, “You can fool the movie audience, but not me” before the two proceed to turn towards the camera and summarize the rest of their exchange, shortening the necessary exposition to speed up the plot.

Earlier the same year Godard released Masculin, Feminin, another riff on the relationship between the sexes and one that also exists as a document of youth in Paris during the mid-1960s. As Godard tells the audience in an intertitle between the film’s chapters, “This film could be called The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola. Understand what you will”; indeed, the title would be equally expressive, as the film deals not only with love and the battle of the sexes, but also with Marxism and socialist theories and with pop culture, including references to Charles De Gaulle, James Bond, The Beatles, and Bob Dylan. It would not be a Godard film if it did not also examine how cinema affects our lives, and as another intertitle tells us, “Philosopher and filmmaker share a way of being, an outlook on life that embodies a generation.” With Masculin, Feminin Godard does aim to embody a generation, superficially following Paul (Jean-Pierre Leaud) and Madeline (Chantal Goya) as they tentatively embark on a youthful romance, but taking time to interview each character in the fashion of a documentary, about life, love, sex, and politics. The film comes to a somewhat cynical view, summed up when Paul says, “To be faithful is to act as if time didn’t exist,” yet it does serve as almost a time capsule on the views of young people in the 1960s.

Godard played with the conventions of cinema like no one else in history, and used it as the medium through which he explored not just film, but also the relationships between the sexes, differing philosophies on life, and the political tenets of socialism. Watching one of his films is a singular experience, not only because each is recognizable as the work of Jean-Luc Godard, but also because each is wholly different than anything else you’re likely to see. By tinkering with our ideas about film, Godard opened up a whole new way of viewing cinema, and one that has never really been adopted by anyone else. Jean-Luc Godard changed the face of cinema in a way that other filmmakers can (and do) respect, but more importantly, he did so in such a singular way that his influence, his ideas, and his style will never be replicated. He stands, not just as one of the great auteurs of all time, but one of the most unique voices to ever communicate through the medium of film.

Read more Whose Film Is It Anyway? here

Coming up on Who's Film Is It Anyway?:

9/12: Sergio Leone

9/26: Ingmar Bergman

10/10: Halloween Horror Auteur Month: George Romero

10/24: Halloween Horror Auteur Month: John Carpenter

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

ReviewToBeNamed Liveblogs The Emmys: This Time, Its Personal

It's that time again folks. Tune in this Sunday starting at 7:45 ET to watch your friends from ReviewToBeNamed (along with some special guests) liveblog yet another meaningless awards show. There may be cake, but you'll have to provide it.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Jordan's Review: Mad Men, Season 4, Episode 5: The Chrysanthemum and the Sword

Mad Men is one of the most serialized television shows of all time, so much so that i often forward the idea that it may shape up to be one of the few tv series that can actually be called novelic (a level of praise I think it unwise to bestow before a series ends, because its impossible to judge a novel, or a novelic series, from the midpoint). So, while "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword was hardly a stand alone episode, and gave us some good progress on a few of the storylines that are shaping up to define this season, it also gave us a fairly self-contained story about Don Draper getting enough of his mojo back to pull one over on the competition and place SCDP at the front of Honda's list to represent their new car line (and we al know how that will turn out).

The attempt to land the Honda motorcycle account (which in the end is just a ruse to test out future candidates for the car line) without spending any of the money they don't really have, and also forcing their main competition to spend money they don't have was just plain fun. Don is annoyed from the first when a reporter calls him to ask his opinion about the competition ("On the record?" "Please." "I've never heard of him." he quips), and even more so when his seemingly brilliant idea of dining at Bennihana's seems to have been thought of by not just his direct competition, but probably every ad agency in the running (this pays off especially well when Joan assures the Honda businessmen that SCDP would never take them anywhere near a Bennihana's). After Roger torpedos the account (which I'll discuss in a moment), its left to Don to ensure his increasingly capable competitor (who has taken Jai Alai and Clearasil from SCDP) does not land this very lucrative account. So Don pulls a fast one, drafting all of his closest confidants to create the illusion that SCDP is filming an expensive commercial when in fact its spending next to nothing. Then, Don swoops in to be the man of honor, resigning from the competition because he heard that "others" had broken the rules and made a commercial. This was the closest we've seen DOn get to his old self this season, and if nothing else, it was a joy to watch.

On Don's personal front, tonight gave us a pretty good run down of all of the women in his life at the moment, when he took Bethany to Bennihana's and still seemed bored by her, left Phoebe at home with the kids and was disappointed in her failure to keep Sally from cutting her hair, and engaged Faye Miller in another scintillating conversation. It is interesting to me that after spending three seasons setting up Don as the man who wanted a blonde trophy wife for the public, and a brunette who could match him toe to toe in private, Don is faced for the first time with a blonde woman who can match him quip for quip and insight for insight in Faye Miller. While Bethany still plays like a younger Betty, and seems to bore Don as much as I'm sure Betty used to, and Phoebe just seems like an annoyance, it seems that Don and Faye's conversations form the philosophical backbones of this season so far. Each week there is at least one exchange between the two that succinctly gets at the point the show is making that week, and this week it is the monent in which Don asks "Why does everyone need to talk about everything?" in disgust at how easily people open up to Faye, only to find himself talking about everything seconds later. If Faye's prediction that Don will be married inside a year comes true, my bets (and my hopes) are on her as the new Mrs. Draper.

Sppeaking of people needing to talk about everything, that seems to be Roger's problem this week, as he refuses to shut up and allow SCDP to land the Honda account because he fought in the war and still holds a grudge against the Japanese. The show has always played Roger off as a man who is less useful to the modernizing world than even he realizes, and less helpful this week than even the older and more out of touch Bert Cooper. Roger has always been the man at the end of his golden era who isn't ready to let go of the good times yet; his skill has always been at concealing his unhappiness and insecurities about his worth behind a wall of cynicism. That wall started cracking last year when Don saw through his veneer after he married Jane (and now seems to me to have been the root of the Roger-Don conflict that I never really wrapped my head around last season) and tonight showed a more desperate and sad side of Roger that he rarely lets out. The Pete-Roger conflict is one the show has been setting up subtly for quite some time, even hinting I think that Roger may have been quite a lot like Pete in his younger years (though definitely with the added bonus of Don-like charm and probably a lot less rapey), and tonight when the two almost fight (and Pete, of course, cowers behind Don immediately) it feels like Roger lashing out at the younger generation who has come up and taken his place much more quickly than he expected. When Joan scolds Roger in one of their increasingly frequent solo chats, he asks, almost forlornly, "Since when is forgiveness a better quality than loyalty?" Roger is a man out of touch with his time, and not ready ot make the changes he needs to if he is to remain relevant at SCDP.

Looking at another subplot in which people "need to talk about everything" Betty sends Sally to a psychiatrist after Sally cuts her hair and dabbles in masturbation. Before discussing Sally briefly, it seems an apt time to address one of the potential problems for Mad Men going forward: the utility of a Betty Draper who is no longer married to Don. I have read a lot of complaints that her character can go nowhere now and will just languish on the side lines, mothering Don's kids so he can continue living his swinging life, and becoming less of a character and more of a monster in the psyche of Sally Draper. We see this a bit in the first half of "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword" when Betty slaps Sally and screams that she wants Don dead, but I think the Betty in the back half of the episode may give us a hint as to where the character is headed from here. Yet when Betty talks to Dr. Edna, Sally's new psychiatrist, we get a hint at the where the character stands now. Betty wrote therapy off to Henry, saying it didn't work for her, but its clear to both Dr. Edna and to us in their scene together that Betty still needs some serious help. As she stares sadly at that dollhouse Dr. Edna keeps in her office, it seems to me a reminder that Betty Draper was raised almost as a doll herself, told to find a husband, create a family, and then to pretty much exist (as her father told her in a dream last season, "You're a housecat. You're very important and you have little to do."). Perhaps deep down inside Betty wants more than the lot she's been dealt in life, but her upbringing so repressed her that she feels she must be content with her newlywed sex with Henry Francis.

Another interesting side ot the character is her relationship with Don, the center of her role in the first three seasons, and, I would argue, still a large part of how Betty can be viewed as a character. Betty was Don's trophy wife, and as long as she didn't have to hear about his indiscretions and lies, she was okay with that role. The problem in their relationship arose when Don couldn't lie any longer--when Betty discovered the truth and they got to a place in their relationship where they could just be honest with one another. It can be noticed that the only character Betty comes out and says the word "masturbation" to tonight is Don, and this is likely because Don is the only person in her life she feels she can be honest with. In every other relationship she must be the doll she was raised to be, tiptoeing around the word, and even the act, of masturbation, yet with Don, she can be herself. The problem this brings up is that Betty doesn't know herself, and doesn't really want to. She knows who she is supposed to be, and she plays that part well, but the reason she left therapy and won't go back, and the reason she left Don and wants him dead, is because she doesn't want to live with the idea of finding herself when she could just try to live like a doll in a dollhouse, replacing Don when she realizes he isn't a very good "husband Doll" and battling cruelly with Sally when she refuses to be a little Betty-doll in a pretty dress with a vacant stare (maybe New Bobby, fuck New Bobby, is around only to show how docile he is in his relationship with Betty. They get along fine, because he's a pretty blank surface).

And, because I say it every week, poor, poor Sally Draper. She cuts her hair in an act of rebellion and an attempt to attract Don's attention, but is immediately regretful because she knows she's broken her mother's idea of her as a doll. And she masturbates to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. which I won't read too much into since I had to look up what show it was (but perhaps it has something to do with the espionage and the character's abilities to seem to be normal people but also exist as spies). There is no question that Sally is troubled, and that she needs help, possibly from a psychiatrist, but for the love of God what this girl really needs is some actual parenting. Don leaves her with a sitter, because even though he actually cares for her he has rarely known how to express it, and Betty slaps her and threatens to chop her fingers off because she refuses to deal with a daughter who isn't a carbon copy of her prim and proper self. Sally does need a therapist, but more than anything else, she needs an adult in her life, like she had with Grandpa Gene for such a brief period, who will try to understand her, communicate with her, and help her navigate the very troubled waters of her relationship with her parents, and of her life in general.

Grade: A


-Sally also knows what sex is. "I know the man pees inside the woman!"

-"We don't have to do anything but not criticize them and avoid giving advice."

-"How does she not fall over?"-Honda businessman, on Joan.

-Blankenship calls Pete Campbell Mr. Peters. Her incompetence was played for a lot of laughs tonight, and most landed, but she is going to get old fast.

-Its March of 1965 already! Holy crap that went fast!

-When Betty says Sally masturbated in front of her friend, Don asks "Boy or Girl?" and Betty responds "Jesus, what's the difference?" I think its actually an important question...

-"Do you have dinner plans with your fake husband?" Yep. I'm officially onboard the Don-Faye ship.

-"I know it seems fast, but I felt that children have no conception of time..."and "I feel like Sally did this to punish me" were two huge Fuck off Betty moments for me. She is so unbeliavably self-centered.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Jordan's Review: Mad Men, Season 4, Episode 4: The Rejected

Mad Men is an ensemble, which means that not every character can get their fair shake in a given week. Some characters disappear for weeks at a time, only to return in full form and contribute to the overall story arc. "The Rejected" may not have featured Betty, Sally, or Bobby (fuck you, New Bobby), but it did give Pete center stage for the first time this season, gave a fair shake to most of the central cast, and even featured the long awaited return of Ken Cosgrove.

First off, Pete is still a son of a bitch, and was in full form tonight when he was required to tell his father-in-law that SCDP would have to drop the Clearasil account in favor of the conflicting, and more lucrative Pond's account. Pete kn ew that the account had been given to him as a favor, and was reluctant to tell Tom that he would no longer be able to work on it, yet he was able to forestall the revelation when Tom accidentally spilled the news that Trudy is pregnant and the two got drunk together instead. It seemed likely that Pete's cowardly side would remain in the center of tonight's episode when Pete asked Trudy to break the news to her father, but then, last second, his truly dickish side sprang forth when he used his father-in-laws guilt to more or less extort the rest of Tom's company's business to replace the Clearasil account. Tom knew he was beaten, and it was over quickly, with him simply calling Pete a son of a bitch. Pete, knowing exactly what he was doing, and not caring, shrugged.

The first three seasons of Mad Men framed Pete Campbell as little more than a petulant, entitled child. He knew what he wanted, and would do anything to get it, but just as importantly, he would pout and whine and scheme for revenge if he did not get what he was entitled to. Tonight, we got one of the first glimpses of a world in which Pete gets exactly what he wants: he gets to land the big account for his firm, and the ngo home to his beautiful, pregnant wife. Sure he has robbed his father-in-law of his dignity in the process, but that hardly matters to Pete, who doesn't realize that getting what he wants often comes at the expense of another's happiness. His lunch with Cosgrove (who nicely dovetails with the episode's title, seeing as he was "rejected" when the new firm was formed) is a perfect example of this, as Ken calls him on all of his gossip and schemes, and then makes the perfectly sardonic comment that goes right over Pete's head when he says, "Another Campbell. That's just what the world needs." Pete thinks he wants to be a father, but he may soon come to realize he is nowhere near prepared for the responsiblities that lie ahead. Failing that, he may be setting himself up to destroy yet another life in pursuit of his dying dreams: that of his unborn child.

Meanwhile, Peggy made a new friend in Joyce, a photographer for Life magazine who took an immediate interest in Peggy and asked her to a party. Peggy's ability to at least project self confidence, in spite of the fact that she is still internally conflicted about her role in life, has been a central part of this season so far, and tonight she blithely accepts a few tokes of weed from Joyce and just as smoothly rejects her sexual advances. She also confidently offers work to David, a photographer she meets at the party, and is only slightly taken aback when he looks down his nose at her soulless industry. When her newfound freinds discover Peggy is a copy-writer with no grander artistic ambitions, they raise the valid question of whether she is just going to use her experiences with them as fodder for more inspired advertising.

These two storylines came together perfectly in the moments at the episode's end when Peggy learned that Trudy was pregnant. Having previously carried Pete's child to term and, in her own words, given his baby away, the revelation that Pete will find the bliss of fatherhood with his wife clearly pains Peggy. The title of any given episode of Mad Men is of central importance, and "The Rejected"paints both Pete and Peggy equally. At first, Pete rejected Peggy in favor of marrying Trudy, and later, Peggy rejected Pete when he admitted he loved her. Tonight we also saw Tom's offer to help Pete get a bigger apartment curtly rejected, and Alison's attempts to make a kind of peace with Don rejected (though we'll get to the latter in a moment), and near the episode's end, the key shot arrives as Pete stands with his new clients inside the office, and Peggy gathers with her new friends outside of it. In that moment, it seems that Peggy is rejected, but upon further reflection, it is clear that Peggy's new friends will be more influential to the way the rest of the decade plays out in advertising than Pete's clients will (this is also a point Don makes to Dr. Miller, which again, we'll get to in a moment). And I doubt it is a coincidence that as Peggy and Pete stare at each other through the glass, the name Draper is the only thing visible in between them.

This brings us perfectly to the little tragedy that Don plays out over the course of the episode, as he rejects Alison one last time, only to feel rejected himself. Unfortunately for Don, unlike Alison, he has no way to vent his frusteration while maintaining his pride. Their subplot tonight is centered around Dr. Miller's focus group for Pond's Cold Cream, which reveals Alison's lingering resentment and also shows Don's desperation to get past his embarassing indiscretion. He deals with the Alison situation poorly, accepting her resignation but telling her to write her own letter of recommendation for his signature, showing her yet again how little she has meant to him. She gets a final dig in as she walks out of his office for the last time, telling him that, "I don't say this easily, but you're not a good person." Don knows she is right, and begins to write a letter of apology to her that night, but stops himself--some things are too far gone to be saved with a simple mea culpa. Yet Don's regret is still tinged with his standard existential hope, as is evident when he battles Dr. Miller's suggestion that the Pond's account follow Freddie's guide and sell itself by suggesting that all women want to find a husband. Don retorts, in an expression of his own hope that he might become a better person, "You can't tell how people are going to behave just from how they have behaved."

Don knows that he has made a grave mistake in his dalliance with Alison, yet he still believes in his ability to form a more perfect version of himself in the future, and, as always, he refuses to be weighed down for too long by actions in his past. In the episode's final shot, Don walks alone down the hall way to his apartment, witnessing an elderly couple as the wife rejects her husbands question about pears with a curt, "we'll discuss it inside." More than anyone else tonight, Don Draper, walking into his apartment alone, dejected, and knowing he has done wrong, feels rejected by the world he wants to be a part of. Whether he can truly change and leave the mistakes of the past behind him is a matter to be seen, but in tonight's closing moments, there is a hint that Don himself may doubt the words he holds closest to his heart, and may be slowly realizing that his actions define him more fully than he has previously admitted.

Grade: A


-If this review feels a little rambly, blame it on the fact that I'm on pain medication after having my wisdom teeth removed. I should be back in top form by next week.

-This episode was directed by John Slattery. Just add that fact to the list of reasons I love him.

-"Lee, the jockey smokes the cigarette."

-Nice touch that I neglected to get into above: Pete drops Clearasil, a product used by teenagers, for Pond's Cold Cream, which fights aging, tonight. Fits perfectly with his own character arc throughout the episode.

-"My father-in-law is a bus driver. The only place he can take me is to the moon."-Harry, with a Honeymooner's reference.

-"You look swelligant." I like Joyce.

-"I have a boyfriend." "He doesn't own your vagina!" "No, but he's renting it."

-Another nice touch I neglected to mention above: Don, torn this season more than ever between the past and the future, loses his bright, young secretary to a positio nthat promises her a better future, and gains in her stead Mrs. Blankenship, a clear relic of the past. Never let it be said that Mad Men lacks subtle symbolic details.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Whose Film Is It Anyway?: Todd Solondz

By Jordan

Note: The purpose of Whose Film Is It Anyway? is to examine the validity of the auteur theory through the lens of individual film-makers, taking a look at their bodies of work and highlighting the technical elements, personal style, and thematic consistency of their films. Ultimately, the goal of this column will be to generate a discussion of the merits of auteur theory through examinations of directors widely considered auteurs, analyses of directors whose status as auteurs is more tenuous, and occasional looks at non-directors who may drive the quality and content of their films with more assuredness than the directors they work with.

Addendum: Apologies if this week’s installment is shorter or less coherent than usual. I had my wisdom teeth removed prior to writing it and I am currently on a good deal of pain medication. So please forgive if this is not the best Whose Film Is It Anyway? of all time.

“We say we embrace humanity, but what does that mean? We are all defined by our limits, so to what extent can we embrace all this? Because we all contain within ourselves equally the capacity for kindness, as much as for cruelty or evil.”-Todd Solondz

Thematic consistency is a constant concern of this column, so much so that the other aspects of auterism are often granted short shrift. As I have previously stated, this is because I generally believe that it is easier for a person to walk into one movie by a director and pick up on a thematic thread than it is to immediately detect the technical style of a director. This is because many auteurs examine the same themes or ideas so often throughout their work that those themes come to define their films more than any other aspect of the process. One such example of this thematic consistency is Todd Solondz, who, much like Wes Anderson, is often critically accused of making similar movies again and again instead of branching out. It is true that Solondz’ examinations of the dark things that often drive people, and the basic humanity of even the most monstrous of people are consistent throughout his work, yet it is also true that no one attacks the dark side of human nature with either the accuracy or the empathy with which Solondz treats even his most reprehensible subjects. He himself explains his basic outlook by saying, “I may be accused of a certain kind of misanthropy, but I think I could argue the opposite. I think that its only by acknowledging the flaws, the foibles, the failings, and so forth of who we are that we can in fact embrace the all of who we are.”

Solondz' first studio film, Welcome to the Dollhouse,is set in perhaps the perfect place to explore his flawed views of humanity—a middle school. The film is centered around Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo) a 7th grader who is constantly tortured at the hands of equally insecure adolescents. The film depicts her primary tormentors, Brandon (Brendan Sexton III) and Lolita (Victoria Davis) not simply as bullies, but as individuals who are equally troubled and take out their aggression on a weaker student. In fact, throughout the film cruelty begets cruelty, as Dawn repeatedly enacts the same injustices on another person right after she is hurt by one of the bullies at her school. When someone calls Dawn a name, it is usually only seconds later that she will call someone lower on the social chain than her the same exact name. While Welcome to the Dollhouse ostensibly aims to depict the realistic trials of a middle schooler, the film is more effective as the first attempt by Solondz at explaining the motivations behind human cruelty. No one in the film acts without reason, and though they do some horrible things to each other, each of their actions is understandable. Whether or not we condone their actions (and Solondz generally goes over the top to ensure that we will not), the important point of the film is that even acts of seemingly wanton cruelty usually come from a place of pure human suffering.

Storytelling focuses on two unrelated narratives, labeled “Fiction” and “Nonfiction” and attempts to get at the artifice of every story we tell through examinations of individuals who attempt to get at eternal truths through the lens of their own flawed perceptions. In “Fiction” Vi (Selma Blair) a creative writing student is generally rejected for a lack of creativity, until she mines the experience of having a racially charged tryst with her professor (Robert Wisdom) and comes away with her most successful piece of “fiction” yet. In “Nonfiction,” documentarian Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti) sets out to depict the life of the American teenager, and chooses Scooby Livingston (Mark Webber) and his family (including John Goodman) as the focus of his documentary. When Toby’s meddling leads to unexpected consequences, the question of who, ultimately, can be blamed for the aftermath haunts the end of the film. While there are clear aggressors whose actions lead to the film’s unhappy end, Solondz carefully portrays each member of the family as a full human, and each of them is understandable, even if they are not exactly sympathetic.

In Palindromes Solondz grapples with a conceit that should come off as overly gimmicky: the central character, thirteen-year-old Aviva, is played by ten different actors, who vary in age, race, and even gender. The film follows Aviva on her endless quest to get pregnant, and wallows in as much human misery and cruelty as all of the director’s other work, this time including abortion (both forced and elective), anti-abortion militants, the Christian right, pedophilia, and even attitudes toward the disabled. Through the film’s bold gimmick, Solondz asserts that identity is less a choice than an outright prison, and also examines his belief that everyone, regardless of age, race or gender, is equally desperate, needy, and capable of acts of wanton cruelty, often without any reasonable motivation.

This seems as apt a time as any to digress on a recurring technical aspect of Solondz’ films that works actively to deepen his thematic expectations, but also, in keeping with the nature of this column is readily identifiable to even someone who is viewing a Solondz film for the first time. Throughout his films, and especially during moments of deep pain, Solondz has a tendency to indulge in long takes, generally in close up on his character’s faces, especially the face of the person in the most pain. This technique can be seen in any of his films, but is perhaps utilized most effectively for his purposes when one of his cruelest characters is showing his humanity and the close up works alongside his dialogue to express the pain that the person is going through. Murderers, bullies, pedophiles and just plain selfish people are all expressed in this fashion, which helps to express Solondz’ ultimate point that every one of his characters, no matter how inhuman they seem, is a person and therefore worth endeavoring to understand.

Perhaps the best exploration of this theme that he has yet explored is Happiness (easily his best film), an expansive ensemble that runs the gamut of human misery and aims most dedicatedly at revealing their sympathetic sides. The film is centered around three sisters, the depressed, lonely, and ironically named Joy (Jane Adams), and her younger sisters Trish (Cynthia Stevenson) and Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle). Joy dates, but finds her encounters ultimately unsatisfying (particularly in the film’s stellar opening sequence, in which she is on a date with Jon Lovitz). Trish exists in a loveless, sexless marriage to Bill (Dylan Baker), a deeply disturbed pedophile prone to shockingly candid conversations with his son Billy (Rufus Read) and hatches schemes to take advantage of a sleep over his son is having. Helen is the most successful in the family, working as a poet, yet is deeply unhappy and insecure, to the point where she becomes attracted to an anonymous prank caller, Alan (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who also happens to be her next door neighbor, simply because he is sexually demeaning to her. Even Alan only finds pleasure in his prank phone calling and rebuffs the advances of a damaged neighbor (Camryn Manheim) who may actually be attracted to him. Happiness is nothing if not disturbing, but each of the characters is deeply sympathetic, simply searching for a way to be happy in a world that tends to defeat their efforts at every turn. Solondz explains what he endeavors to do by using such shocking characters and situations when he elaborates on the character of Bill, detailing, “[…] I think to be able to recognize that he is a man with a pulse, is the difficult thing to acknowledge. I don’t ask more, really, than that.” Rather than revel in the misery caused by his characters, Solondz asks us to attempt to look past the havoc they cause and try to see the reason for it, or at least the humanity apparent in their existences, even if that may be hard to do.

In his most recent film, Life During Wartime, Solondz revisits the characters from Happiness several years later, and examines how the events of the last film have scarred them in the ensuing years. While the film is much more flawed than its predecessor, and features an entirely new cast (including Allison Janney, Paul Reubens, Michael K. Williams, Ciarin Hinds, and Shirley Henderson), its flaws mostly derive from how closely Solondz sticks to the themes he has obsessively explored throughout his prior work (and also suffers from a lack of the jet black humor of most of his previous films, instead choosing to wallow in the misery of the characters).

It is perhaps valid to argue that Todd Solondz has made movies that deal with very similar ideas repeatedly throughout his career, but one can hardly maintain that he is playing it safe. It is also difficult to maintain that he is retreading ground that has been done to death; he may examine similar themes in similar ways, yet he looks at his subjects with such a unique eye that he still maintains an oeuvre that is inimitable. It is not always easy to watch one of his movies, and it is difficult to call most of them enjoyable, but they are certainly rewarding to anyone aiming for a realistic look at the dark side of humanity and a view into the mind of a humanist, who says in his own words, “Some people will of course accuse me of misanthropy and cynicism. I can’t celebrate humanity, but I’m not out to indict it either. I just want to expose certain truths.” And indeed, Todd Solondz does expose truths with a frankness, an openness, a darkness, and a humor unlike any other one in cinema today.

Read more Whose Film Is It Anyway? here

Coming up on Who's Film Is It Anyway?:

8/29: Jean-Luc Godard

9/12: Sergio Leone

9/26: Ingmar Bergman

10/10: George Romero

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Jordan's Review: Mad Men, Season 4, Episode 3: The Good News

The first two weeks of Season Four so far have shown us Don Draper at rock bottom. As long as we have known him, Don has been in control of his image if nothing else. He portrayed himself as a successful man working in an established firm, with a trophy wife and kids waiting at home. Now, however, his image is out of his control, and its the views of others that are determining how he is seen. Don has finally achieved the freedom he has sought throughout the entire series, and it has spelled his downfall. And what does Don Draper do when he loses control of his life? He heads out to sunny California, where he can just be Dick Whitman, and where Don Draper's ex-wife Anna will just accept him for who he is, even knowing all of his dirty secrets.

Unfortunately, California does not prove as restorative as Don might have expected. He fails to seduce Anna's niece (continuing the lack of mojo he has been experiencing of late), and finds out that the one woman who accepts him, knows him fully, and loves him nevertheless has bone cancer and doesn't even know she is near death. When Don finds out that Anna will die, it is enough to devastate him. She exists as a retreat from all of the stresses of his life in New York, a place where he can just be candid; where he can just be Dick Whitman and that will be enough. Yet even more tragic is the fact that Anna's family forces him to keep her illness from her, and thus forces him to violate the trust at the heart of their relationship. Don needs Anna in his life to see him for all of his flaws and love him anyway, and Anna's death will deprive him of the one pure relationship in his life. Don Draper has little left to lose, and now even Dick Whitman is being robbed of his one retreat from the lies he insulates himself with.

Watching Don paint her wall in an attempt to improve her life in any small way, and seeing him tear himself away to keep from revealing her condition was simply heartbreaking. Watching them mark the wall, which Don signs "Dick and Anna '64," its clear that Don will likely never see Anna again, and when he tells her he'll bring the kids out for Easter, its clear that will never occur. season Four is showing us Don Draper at rock bottom, and without Anna, Don is in total freefall with no one there to catch him and set him right again.

While "The Good News" was definitely a Don-centric episode, there were two other major players. The first, Joan, is trying to get pregnant and dealing still with her disappointment in her marriage. At this point its clear that Joan will not get the comfortable life she has hoped for from Greg, so her last option seems to be getting a child out of him, yet scheduling makes even that seem unlikely (and here's hoping: Joan should hold out for a better man to rear her children. I will be glad to volunteer), and puts her into conflict with tonight's other major player, Lane. As Greg attempts to stitch up her finger after she cuts it, Joan reacts exactly as I did--she hesitates, knowing that Greg isn't even allowed to be a surgeon in New York. I feared Greg would somehow maim Joan, but the result of their interaction was in its way even more depressing. Joan, like Don, desperately needs someone who understands and accepts her for who she is, but Greg just sees her as a secretary, in spite of the fact that she has surpassed that role, and can offer so much more if given the chance. Yet while Joan fails to be respected at home, she fights tooth and nail for the respect she's entitled to at work. She battles Lane for time off, fires his secretary for mixing up her forgiveness flowers, and even opens the beginning of the year meeting that closes the episode. Joan may not have power at home, but she demands respect at work, and for the most part she is finally receiving it.

Finally, the last act of the episode largely centers around New Year's Eve, where Don and Lane commiserate their failed marriages (Lane's wire has elected to remain in England after the holiday) by drunkenly cavorting around town and ending the night with a few prostitutes back at Don's place. Jared Harris is a marvel as Lane, and watching him unbutton and come out of his shell a bit was a sheer joy to watch. Watching them go to see Gamera instead of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (which I say is a good call, all things considered) and Lane drunkenly yelling "This movie is very good!" was fantastic, yet there was a tragic undertone to the overt hilarity of the night. For Lane, this was one drunken distraction from his crumbling life. As for Don, well, his prostitute knows her way around his kitchen, which may be the saddest sentence I have ever typed while covering this show. There was a lot of laughter in the scenes between Don and Lane, but there was even more tragedy hidden beneath them. "The Good News," showed us Don being stripped of the one relationship in his life that has been truly honest. What he is left with is the tattered life he has back in New York. Yet what he makes of that in the weeks to come, is still his own to decide. When Stephanie, Anna's niece, blithely comments, "I don't understand who's in charge," Don's response is both a quip and an existential mantra: "You're in charge. Trust me, I work in advertising." Don may be down and out, but he still has the power to take back control, if only by altering the perceptions of others. Hopefully someday soon, Don Draper will get back on his horse and retake the reigns of his life.

Grade: A-


-"I started thinking of everything I know, and how flimsy it might be." "You don't have to see a UFO to know that."

-"You're just a man, in a room, with a checkbook." Cold words from Anna's sister. She may grasp how important Anna is to Don, but what he misses, at least initially, is that his occasional visits do not entitle him to make decisions about her life.

-"Is that what you want, or is that what people expect of you?"-Don, rewording Dr. Miller's sentiments from last week, and re-addressing one of the major themes of this season, and of the series as a whole.

-"Hey, I've got a big Texas belt buckle. Yee-haw!"

-"We're not homosexuals, we're divorced!"

-"I love your apartment, its very manly." "It came this way. I think Norman Mailer shot a deer over there."

Monday, August 2, 2010

Jordan's Review: Mad Men, Season 4, Episode 2: Christmas Comes but Once a Year

When I first heard that Mad Men was doing a Christmas episode this week, I joked that perhaps Don would finally learn the true meaning of Christmas this year. But, of course, this is Mad Men, so instead, Don spent most of the episode despondent because he already knew the true meaning of Christmas, but was being denied its pleasures because of his choices. Specifically, Don knows that the holidays are all about family, and Don will not get to spend this Christmas with his children. The effects on both Don and Sally shape the bulk of “Christmas Comes but Once a Year,” and give it much of its resonance. Yet I spent far too long tearing apart Don’s psyche last week, so before we get to him, let’s look at where the holidays find some of our other characters.

Freddie Rumsen, for one, is back and is 16 months sober. He walks into Roger’s office at the episode’s opening effectively begging for a job, yet Freddie has never been a dumb guy, and he comes dangling the $2 million Pond’s Cold Cream account as a condition of his hiring. Roger accepts and puts Freddie on the account with Peggy (after an exchange in which Freddie tells Roger he doesn’t want Pete near any of his accounts and then, seeing Pete, remarks “I was just talking about you!” Again, Freddie is many things, but he isn’t dumb), which leads to an almost immediate clash between the two that is reminiscent of Don’s internal clash last week—Peggy is forward thinking and “modern,” while Freddie is painfully “old fashioned.” That may be true in the workplace, yet much like Don each of these characters lead double lives which cause them to strafe the line between old fashioned and modern. At work Peggy may be on the cutting edge, but in her personal life she at least pretends to be old fashioned, refusing to have sex with her new boyfriend and letting him assume that she’s a virgin. Peggy is still learning lessons from her mentor, and perhaps the best one she’s learned yet is that it’s possible to create your own past and through that decide who you want to be going into the future. On the other end of the spectrum, Freddie may be old fashioned at work, suggesting that young women look up to old women for beauty tips, or failing that just want to get married, yet in his personal life he is modern enough to buy into AA in order to keep clean. The episode keeps reminding us that in 1964, the opportunities to drink are plentiful, and most people still ascribe to the “one drink can’t hurt” mentality, but here, Freddie is a bit ahead of the curve. He knows the dangers of even one drink, and rushes off to help his contact at Pond’s (Freddie clearly met him when he became the guy’s sponsor) after the Pond’s man goes on an afternoon bender with Roger.

Which brings us to the other non-Draper related story for this week: Roger’s degradation at the hands of Lee Garner Jr. who will forever be known as “that asshole who got Sal fired.” The episode begins with Roger at his chipper best, and even gives us an excellent Roger-Joan scene (I swear, if Mad Men can supply a few of those every season just to remind me how perfect the two are together, I’ll be happy), yet by the end Roger has been forced to shame himself by donning a Santa suit and making merry for the amusement of Lee, who is still 69% of the company’s business after the landing of the Pond’s account (which means that Lucky Strike has a ridiculous amount of money unk into SCDP). Roger orders the scaled back party to be upgraded, as he puts it, “from convalescent home to Roman orgy,” in order to keep Lee happy, and even buys him a Polaroid camera, yet Lee is not satisfied until he forces Roger into the suit, and later further humiliates him by insisting on taking pictures of every employee sitting on Roger’s lap. Roger knew he would have to get more involved in the new firm than he was under PPL’s reign at Sterling-Cooper, but I am not sure he was prepared to go this far.

Returning to the Drapers, the episode opens with the newly formed Francis family shopping for a Christmas tree, and features the return of another long absent character in the form of Glen (played by series creator Matthew Weiner’s son), the intensely creepy kid who spent most of season one making eyes at Betty and now has his damaged sights set on a younger Draper lady, and one who may be more receptive to his advances. Glen gets off some good one-liners tonight (“I saw you with your new Dad. My Mom said that would happen,” an excellent example), but also vandalizes the Francis home, leaving only Sally’s room untouched and a lanyard on her bed. Sally is already a messed up kid. The only person who ever really parented her is dead, and her actual parents are absent (in Don’s case) or Betty, so chances of her making it out of her youth unscathed are slim. We’ve seen Sally resort to stealing and even violence in desperate attempts to get attention or just to be noticed, but so far her indiscretions have been minor. Yet Sally hates her home life and her mother, and with an influence like Glen, we may see the dark side of Sally’s future this season. Sally has always been one of my favorite characters on the show, and also arguably its most tragic figure, so I’m really rooting for her to pull through and grow up to be a well-adjusted adult, but the show keeps putting her through psychological loops that make that less and less likely. I’ll be championing Sally even if this season does mark an early downfall for her.

And finally, we return to Don, who last week exhibited the contradiction between old fashioned and modern, and this week seems divided between the lady-killer he once was and the desperate divorcee he is quickly becoming. Don still has the moves and the confidence on the outside, yet inside he is racked with guilt, longing and regret, all of which he suppresses with a large enough amount of booze to be drawing eyes even within the walls of SCDP. Don is involved in some way with three women over the course of this episode—Dr. Faye Miller, who seems ready and willing to go toe to toe with him, Phoebe (played by Nora Zehetner of Brick fame) a nurse who recognizes her father’s alcoholism in Don’s booing ways, and Allison, Don’s longtime secretary who succumbs to Don’s drunken seduction and wakes up with perhaps the worse of their two hangovers (Though hers is emotional). Don has always treated the secretarial pool as off limits, and generally rolled his eyes disdainfully as others dipped into it for personal pleasures, but this week he seemed all to willing to cross his own self-imposed line. After Phoebe rejects his advances (bets on how long she’ll hold off, anyone?) and Dr. Miller refuses his dinner invitation (I certainly hope she doesn’t hold off long either), perhaps Don is noticing that his charms aren’t working the way they used to. At best, Don Draper is now seen as a man with baggage, and at worst as an alcoholic divorcee who would spend the night passed out in the hallway if it weren’t for the kindness of his secretary. Don Draper has definitely hit a low point, and while he quickly back peddles away from a repeated tryst with Allison (and ends up giving her a bonus that feels a little bit like payment for sex), it’s hard to deny that he has fallen lower than he ever expected and may have trouble rising up again.

Unsurprisingly, Mad Men didn’t do a traditional Christmas episode, and instead turned in what has to be one of its darker installments. “Christmas Comes but Once a Year” showed us Don at rock bottom, Sally on the verge of ruin, Roger degrading himself for his meal ticket, Peggy creating her own history and lying to her new boyfriend (whom she sleeps with by episode’s end, disregarding Freddie’s advice like she has all episode), and Freddie trying to be the man he once was, and in the process perhaps realizing what he has lost in the last few years. It certainly wasn’t an uplifting hour of television, but at the beginning of a new season of Mad Men, perhaps there’s nowhere better to start than the bottom.

Grade: B+


-Tonight marks the show’s first Beatles reference, as Don suggests that Allison pick Sally up some 45s for Christmas. Don is a caring parent, at least compared to Betty, but it is the ‘60s, so his secretary is still doing the shopping.

-“You’re off limits.” “I don’t think he’s the one that needs to be reminded.” Oh Roger and Joan. I love you.

-“My bed is covered with work.” “That’s kind of symbolic.”

-“In a nutshell, it all comes down to what I want, and what’s expected of me.”-Dr. Faye Miller, spelling out advertising, one of the show’s major themes, and the way that most characters on the show make decisions all in one sentence. I like this woman.

-I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Don Draper’s first finger bang of the season. So consider it mentioned.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Whose Film Is It Anyway?: Charlie Kaufman

by Jordan

Note: The purpose of Whose Film Is It Anyway? is to examine the validity of the auteur theory through the lens of individual film-makers, taking a look at their bodies of work and highlighting the technical elements, personal style, and thematic consistency of their films. Ultimately, the goal of this column will be to generate a discussion of the merits of auteur theory through examinations of directors widely considered auteurs, analyses of directors whose status as auteurs is more tenuous, and occasional looks at non-directors who may drive the quality and content of their films with more assuredness than the directors they work with.

“The usual thing for a writer is to deliver a screenplay and then disappear. That’s not for me. I want to be involved from beginning to end. And these directors [Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze] know that, and respect it.”-Charlie Kaufman

Over the past several months, this column has examined multiple directors, most of whom I have concluded to be auteurs. In fact, the only director to so far avoid that designation was David Mamet, who I used to introduce another aspect of the argument over film authorship—the idea of a screenwriter as the true author of a film. Mamet was an excellent case study, as he has been both a screenwriter and a director during his career, and I think well proved my point that a director is not always the central source of film authorship. This installment will focus on perhaps the one screenwriter to receive wide recognition as the driving force behind his films over the last 15 years—Charlie Kaufman.

To clarify, Kaufman has once stepped behind the camera to direct his most recent and arguably most ambitious film, Synecdoche, New York, yet he did so only when his director of choice, Spike Jonze (who previously directed his scripts for Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) became unavailable. Synecdoche, then, is a solid place to begin an examination of Kaufman as the author of his films, both because it is his sole directorial credit, and because it functions in many ways as a Rosetta Stone to the themes that run throughout his work. More than anything else, though, Synecdoche embodies a tendency of Kaufman’s that runs throughout his work—an ambitious attempt to squeeze entire philosophical worldviews within the runtimes of his films, and especially examinations of various characters as they endeavor to find existential freedom.

Synecdoche, New York is, in one sense, a movie about everything. If asked to rattle off a list of its themes, I could go on forever, but suffice it to say that the film covers mortality, the elusive nature of time, the prospect of eternal creation, the difficulties inherent in love, and pretty much any other theme the viewer can conjure to read into it. In a slightly less abstract sense, the film follows playwright Caden Cotard (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) as he attempts to create a play that encompasses his entire life, and the entire life of every person involved in its production. What follows is an ever-expanding production that causes Caden to lose his perspective yet gain new insights into the way that people live their lives. If the film is, as I would contend, the closest Kaufman has yet come to letting audiences fully into his mind to explore his worldview, then how is his influence as a director not an important part of that equation?

I do not mean to demean Kaufman’s direction of Synecdoche, which is accomplished if only for the fact that the movie is in any way explicable, yet the flourishes he employs throughout seem more from the wheelhouses of his frequent collaborators Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze. Additionally, Kaufman freely admits that the film’s direction was a distant second to his script. Shooting in only 45 days, the cast and crew occasionally shot dozens of scenes within a day. With a pace that accelerated, Kaufman relied very heavily on the screenplay he had written, which is dense in the best sense of the word. Fortunately, the screenplay is so layered and complex that any lack of directorial invention goes almost entirely unnoticed, so swept away are we in Kaufman’s tour de force vision of the world and the passage of time. Trying to parse out all of the individual themes Kaufman plays with in Synecdoche would by itself take more space than I have in this column, and many of his themes are played with in a more in-depth fashion in his other works, which we will discuss in just a moment, but perhaps one of the key scenes in the film comes when a priest (who may or may not exist solely within Caden’s play) delivers a heart-wrenching eulogy, opining, “There are a million little strings attached to every choice you make. You can destroy your life every time you choose. But maybe you won’t know for 20 years. And you may never trace it to its source. And you only get one chance to play it out.” The entire scene is really beautiful and worth watching, below:

While that quote, and Synecdoche itself are hardly philosophically optimistic, they do offer a form of hope that Kaufman’s earlier scripts tend to lack. Synecdoche tells us that our entire lives may slip us by, and we may never understand the significance of every choice we make, yet the film assures us that each of our choices do have significance. Again, I could write a full column on even one of the themes in the film, but it does in one sense convey hope that each of us can exert some control over our lives. Being John Malkovich, Kaufman’s first script produced and his first collaboration with director Spike Jonze (the film also served as Jonze’s directorial debut) seems in even its premise to laugh at the idea that we have any control over our lives or our feelings. Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) is a puppeteer and sad sack trying to eke out a living as a filer in a mysterious office, until he discovers a strange portal that leads him into the mind of actor John Malkovich (played, not surprisingly, by an excellently game Malkovich).

The ability to escape from his life and watch another person live theirs with no responsibility is at first enough to excite Craig, his wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz), his coworker Maxine (Catherine Keener, who well-deserved the Oscar nomination she received for the role) and the multitudes of people they begin charging to inhabit Malkovich’s brain. Yet eventually, escape is not enough, and each character begins to use Malkovich for their own devices. Lotte becomes Malkovich in order to explore hidden transgender desires and begin an affair with Maxine. Maxine ingratiates herself into the real Malkovich’s life to be close to Lotte. And Craig, in a last ditch effort to satisfy his need for control in his own life, discovers he has the ability to control Malkovich, and even to remain permanently inside him. The film explores the need for control in a chaotic world, the futility of unrequited love (and the frustrating inability to regulate who one loves), the trappings of fame and the desire (and dangers) of immortality. Kaufman juggles an array of themes expertly throughout the film, and despite the very solid direction by Jonze (who received a Best Director nomination, alongside Kaufman’s Best Original Screenplay nomination) there is no question that the source of the film’s myriad and complex ideas is the mind of Charlie Kaufman.

It is fitting, then, that Kaufman’s next collaboration with Spike Jonze was Adaptation, a film that follows Charlie Kaufman (an Oscar nominated Nicholas Cage) as he attempts to write his next screenplay—an adaptation of The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean (played by Merly Streep, who of course got a well deserved Oscar nomination for the role). The film remains mired for most of its runtime in Kaufman’s neuroses and his writer’s block. He needs to create, to control his personal life, including struggles with his twin brother Donald (also Nicholas Cage), and to pay respect to Orlean’s book, which is partially dedicated to her relationship with John Laroche (Chris Cooper, who actually won an Oscar for his excellent performance), the subject of the interview that launched her book. The film examines the difficulty inherent in creation, but more than that, it looks at how one man comes to a level of understanding about himself and learns to better live his life, even if that understanding only arises because it’s the perfect ending to a movie. Late in the film, as Charlie and Donald crouch together in a swamp, Donald tells Charlie, “you are what you love, not what loves you. That’s what I decided a long time ago.” Rather than allowing an external influence to shape him, Charlie realizes that he himself has the power to be who he wants to be and to decide for himself what he will become.

Before the somewhat cathartic ending of Adaptation, which truly did arise out of the existential crisis Kaufman faced over several years as he tried to adapt Orlean’s book, Kaufman teamed with Michel Gondry to create Human Nature, an in-depth, if often flawed, look at the things that constrain us from being fully free. The film follows the uptight scientist Dr. Nathan Bronfman (Tim Robbins) whose parents raised him to avoid giving in to his basest instincts, as he studies Puff (Rhys Ifans), a man raised as an ape, and tries to make romance work with Lila (Patricia Arquette) a woman whose body is covered in hair, and Gabrielle (Miranda Otto) his “cultured” assistant. The film examines the internal battle between man’s base urges and the “civilizing” influence of society, as each character struggles to find the balance between civilized repression and animalistic freedom from human constraints.

Kaufman struggled over the issue of authorship most directly during the production of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, when George Clooney greatly altered his screenplay because the script contained, “really funky scenes that would never reach the green light of being a studio film.” What results is a Kaufman film with almost all of his particular influences drained out of it. A few scenes still reflect Kaufman’s intent with the screenplay, like an excellent monologue on the nature of murder delivered from one assassin (Rutger Hauer) to the film’s central character, game show host (and alleged CIA assassin) Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell), or a scene in which Barris has a paranoia-driven on-air breakdown, yet the majority of the film feels decidedly un-Kaufman. As Charlie himself put it, “I spent a lot of time working on the script, but I don’t think that he was interested in the things I was interested in. I’ve moved on, and I don’t have any animosity towards Clooney, but it’s a movie I don’t really relate to.” Kaufman further clarified that, “I had a movie that I wrote and that isn't it. I've always been involved in the process with Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. If there’s any rewriting to do, I do it. But with Clooney it was different. Even the end of the movie is different. I mean, Clooney went on forever about how my Confessions screenplay was one of the greatest scripts he’d read. But if someone truthfully felt that way they’d want the person who wrote it to be on board offering their thoughts and criticisms. But Clooney didn’t. And I think it’s a silly way to be a director."

Fortunately, Kaufman next reteamed with Michel Gondry for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, perhaps his best movie and arguably the most coherent translation of his vision to the screen. The film follows Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) as he undergoes a process to have his ex-girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet, who was nominated for an Oscar for the role) erased from his memory. As their relationship plays out in reverse, Joel realizes that in spite of the pain of his loss, the memories of their time together are worth saving. Joel then embarks on another of Kaufman’s quixotic quests for freedom as he battles the procedure and even his own mind in an attempt to hold on to memories of Clementine. The film works so well in large part because Michel Gondry’s talents as a director fit so well with Kaufman’s script. Gondry is known for surreal, artistic images, and he uses that skill to perfectly evoke Joel’s experience inside his own mind. Rather than changing the script or getting in its way with directorial flourishes, Gondry champions the script and improves upon it with his own personal skills.

Charlie Kaufman is almost definitely the most ambitious mind working in film today. His screenplays are complex webs of philosophical ideas made relevant by their moving emotional underpinnings and packaged in some of the most unique and original premises in recent history. Whether he explores the nature of freedom, creativity, identity and mortality through the lens of a portal into the head of John Malkovich, a man raised as an ape, a game show host turned CIA assassin, a heartbroken lover trying to move on, a playwright forever expanding his greatest creation or through the lens of Charlie Kaufman himself, his themes persist and his vision almost always commands the films he is associated with. Kaufman writes scripts of astonishing depth and shocking emotional resonance, and when paired with directors that respect his vision, he is able to shine through as the proper author of his films.

Read more Whose Film Is It Anyway? here

Coming up on Who's Film Is It Anyway?:

8/15: Todd Solondz

8/29: Jean-Luc Godard

9/12: Sergio Leone

9/26: Ingmar Bergman