Tuesday, October 27, 2009

"Mad Men" Ep. 3.11: "The Gypsy and the Hobo"

"I'm not saying a new name is easy to find ... But it's a label on a can. And it will be true, because it will promise the quality of the product inside."
-Don to Annabel, the dog food princess

"And who are you supposed to be?"
-Neighbor Carlton to Don, Halloween night

What's in a name? Everything and nothing, as Don Draper a/k/a Dick Whitman discovered in the terrible, wonderful moment his wife finally smashed through the crumbling but still formidable wall that separated his two lives. She's crossed over - the wall may be doomed - yet the person, the self, the life he presented to her, that they shared together, hasn't, as he feared, dissolved in a plume of smoke. Incredibly, to him, it's all still there the next day.

But it will never be the same again, as Don realizes when he wakes to see his box of secrets on his bedroom dresser, strangely innocuous-looking in the morning light. (Didn't you feel him wondering, just before that point, whether it had all been a dream?) So what now from here? Will Betty decide that the man she married was the same quality all along, irrespective of the name he assumed - the name that's now tainted by association with stolen identity, perhaps a criminal violation? Or will she have the same delayed reaction as those fatuous dog owners once they realized that their dogs were enjoying horsemeat?

Too early to tell as yet. But if there's anything this episode drove home once and for all, it's never to underestimate Betty Draper. She was smart enough to figure out the full implications of Don's box, and steely enough to nail his balls to the wall when he tried to wriggle out of telling her the truth. She also showed startling insight into Don's psyche with her comment about his wanting her to discover her secrets, and his not really understanding money. At the same time, she was compassionate enough to show what looked like genuine, if tentative sympathy towards him when she realized her question about Adam touched on his deepest wound. It's not for the first time, either, that Betty's been responsive to Don's showing his vulnerabilities (remember when Don told her about his father beating him as a child?); she may be no Suzanne Farrell (for which I'm rather thankful), but we've had plenty of hints that she does want Don to let her into his inner life. Of course, now that he finally has, the result may be a textbook case of being careful what you wish for. Still, the early signs suggest she isn't running away, at least not just yet.

But what about Don? Does he still think the Draper brand is what warranties his best qualities? Or is he going to try to incorporate his Dick-ish self (no pun intended) more fully into Don Draper's life? There were so many moments in the revelation scene - easily one of the best written, acted, and directed scenes in the history of MM - when I thought Don/Dick might bolt and hightail it for the car, where Suzanne was waiting. (Or, far scarier, that Suzanne might come knocking on the Drapers' front door.) That he didn't do this is telling, though of what, I'm not quite sure.

(I have to say that except for the delicious suspense and extra layer of tension her unseen presence lent the Betty-Don confrontation, I remain unimpressed by the Suzanne storyline, and really hope we've seen the last of it. Though I suspect it ain't quite over, yet. But I did feel for her, for just a moment, at the end of this episode.)

As if the Don-Betty developments weren't stupendous enough, we also got a plummy dose of Roger Sterling like we've never seen him before. A jilted young lover! A carefree Hemingway-wannabe! And, in the present, a faithful husband (to Jane) and loyal friend (to Joan)! It's a credit to John Slattery that in an episode dominated by Jon Hamm's phenomenal acting, he more than held his own. He sold every single new facet we glimpsed of a character I used to dismiss as hopelessly one-dimensional. It was pleasant to see Roger acting like a mature adult for once, even if I suspect his rejection of the dog food princess was due as much to residual resentment as to love for his silly wife. The juxtaposition of that very awkward meeting with his reconnection with Joan was interesting, though I hesitate to read it to mean Joan was Roger's "One."

As for Joanie, her thread was the slenderest of a particularly dense episode, but in many ways it was the most satisfying. Not that I'm condoning violence, even towards a putz like Dr. Butterfingers Rapist, but I confess I whooped when she clocked him with that vase. And kudos to all who predicted that Butterfingers would join the army. That can't possibly end well, but at least it should get him out of Joan's life for a while. Now let's hope Roger lands her a nice job that will keep her squarely in the MM universe.

Funniest line: "I can't turn it off, it's actually happening!"
-Peggy, re: dog food focus group

Sunday, October 18, 2009

"Mad Men" Ep. 3.10: "The Color Blue"


But how much of the truth was she able to piece together?

Don, back away slowly from teacher lady. Also, teacher's brother ≠ do-over of Adam. Further involvement with the Farrells will only make your life even messier than it already is - though that might be a minor concern once Betty blows the lid off your secrets. If she does. She has to, doesn't she? Great closing shot of Betty gazing at Don during his acceptance speech. Hitchcock would have drooled.

Peggy was pure awesomeness this episode. I especially liked that she stuck up for that wanker Paul (sorry - couldn't resist), whether or not he deserved it.

Sterling Cooper is for sale again? Then what exactly was the narrative point of the British invasion? It didn't even get Lois fired.

I am, not for the first time, horribly behind on work I need to do for tomorrow, so that's it for now. I once again defer to Sepinwall, among others, for much more judicious thoughts on the episode's themes, esp. those to do with perception. It really seems like no one on this show is seeing the same color blue. But hasn't that been an ongoing pattern on MM for some time now?

"Where the Wild Things Are" - In Our Subconscious, Of Course


directed by Spike Jonze
starring Max Records, Catherine Keener, voices of James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, Chris Cooper, Catherine O'Hara, Forest Whitaker, Paul Dano
adapted from the children's book by Maurice Sendak

Spike Jonze’s “Where the Wild Things Are” is an ambling, shambling, unlikely wonder of a movie. By all conventional measures it shouldn’t work at all. It’s based on a slender picture book that has maybe ten lines of narrative. It’s formless, almost plotless, and at times so leisurely in pace it borders on soporific. It’s been slathered with the kind of facile pop-psychoanalytical coating that no doubt gives most psychologists fits. Yet for all that, I still fell in love with it at first sight. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it ended up being my favorite film of the year.

I don’t remember when I first read Where the Wild Things Are, but I do remember the part of the book I loved the most. It’s the moment when the bedroom of the main character, Max, begins to transform into a forest. Though as a child I couldn’t articulate precisely why this image fascinated me so, I know now it was the liminality of the moment—the sense it evoked of being on the cusp, of having one foot in one world and one foot in another.

This scene doesn’t exist in the movie. And you know what? I didn’t care. Because the entire movie is about liminality; it’s about a boy just beginning to form a vague conception of adolescence and, beyond that, adulthood, but one that’s still colored by a child’s instincts and desires. It’s this theme, in fact, that gives the film much of its emotional power.

None of this, of course, is in Sendak’s original text. Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers lay the groundwork for it by creating a bit of back story for Max. Their Max is a boy of about eight or ten who lives in a nameless wintry suburb with a single mother (Catherine Keener, looking harried but still luminous) and an older sister, Claire. As in the book, Max is a restless bundle of energy, but the movie also sends clear signals that he particularly craves the attention and affection of his family. We see him attempting unsuccessfully to engage his sister, who’s too occupied with her own teenage world to notice him anymore; when he tries to draw her friends into a snowball fight, they end up destroying his snow fort before decamping, taking an indifferent Claire with them and leaving behind a furious, tearful Max. Mom, while more responsive than Claire, is also distracted—first by her job (though there’s a beautifully tender moment in which she sets aside her work so that Max can tell her a story), later by a boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him appearance) who comes over for dinner. Max, in his grey wolf suit, tries to assert his dominance, but only succeeds in literally wounding his mother. In the one major departure from the book, he then runs out of the house before he can be punished, finds a boat on a bank, and sets sail, eventually arriving at the land of the wild things, whom he persuades to crown him king.

Some viewers may complain, not without justification, that this is where WTWTA loses momentum that it never really recovers. There’s not much shape or direction to the events on the island; in fact, there aren’t really “events” at all. Bursts of fitful activity are interspersed with long stretches of desultory walking and talking and occasionally surreal interludes, while the overall trajectory is a movement towards general disillusionment among the beasties with Max’s leadership, as he proves unable to keep their various discontents at bay. But this lack of structure doesn’t feel aimless so much as reflective of the soupy state of Max’s subconscious mind.

For it’s hard not to notice that the subjects and actions that occupy King Max echo the experiences and observations of Boy Max during the day. Max’s ill-fated igloo is reconfigured, multiplied, and magnified—first as a population of little homes that we first see one of the beasts, Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), wantonly destroying, evoking both the destruction of the igloo and the revenge Max takes on his sister, then later as the mother of all forts, a wondrous conical thing that in the end can’t “keep the unhappiness out.” The snowball fight is transmuted into a dirt-clod fight, with even more destructive consequences, and Max, forced into the role of disciplinarian, bellows the identical words he last heard directed at him. Even the fanciful story Max told his mother reappears, as does his subliminal fear—roused by a chance remark by his school science teacher, early in the film—that the sun will die out some day.

The beasts, meanwhile, quickly take on aspects of Max’s psyche. Carol, with his violent storms of rage, jealousy, and grief, most obviously represents Max’s uncontrolled id, but also channels his wistful, creative side; while the smallest beast, the goatlike Alexander (Paul Dano) is the one who sulks because no one will listen to him. Some of the beasts seem to stand in for the people in Max’s life that he’s lost or fears losing: a disaffected girl-beast, KW (Lauren Ambrose), who always seems to be leaving the others to seek the company of a pair of squawking owls, is pretty clearly a projection of Max’s feelings about his sister; and depending on your best guess as to why Max’s parents split up (the movie gives barely any clues on this), either Carol or the quieter bird-beast, Douglas (Chris Cooper) could also be a stand-in for Max’s dad, and KW, who takes care of Max, could just as easily represent his mother as his sister.

But it’s best not to try to draw too literal a correlation between the beasts of Max's imagination and people or elements in his "real" life. The relationship between those two planes of his consciousness is far more fluid and diffuse, as it is in dreams. Indeed, there’s something altogether dreamlike about Max’s entire sojourn among the wild things, which is shot in a soft, almost hazy focus that gives the forest glades, desert expanses, and quiet beaches an otherworldly glow. Even the beasts look softer and fuzzier than Sendak’s illustrations; at the same time they feel remarkably tangible, probably because Jonze used real, live actors in giant beast suits, though the faces were filled in—to marvelously expressive effect—with computer animation. The overall effect is at once appropriately fantastical and wonderfully organic, in a way I haven’t seen in any other animated or partly-animated films.

And that, ultimately, may be why the movie struck such a chord with me: it feels like the product of a real kid’s imagination. (It helps that the boy who plays Max, though cute, has the demeanor and body language of a normal kid, and none of the studied self-consciousness of a trained child actor.) I’ve seen some complaints that WTWTA is a movie for hipsters, not kids, but other than the Jonze name (and I haven’t been much of a fan of his previous work) and the indie-ish soundtrack by Carter Burwell and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O, I don’t see it. There’s nothing precious or snarky or knowing about this film. Quite the contrary, there’s a purity of spirit that shines through and reminds even the oldest and most jaded viewer of a time when growing up was a kind of betrayal and the destruction of a snow fort the end of the world.


Monday, October 12, 2009

"Mad Men" Ep. 3.9: "Wee Small Hours"

Well, that just may have been the most unpleasant episode of "Mad Men" ever - at the very least, it was one of the most difficult to watch.

I'm trying to finish drafting something for work that's due tomorrow, so I'll have to make my thoughts relatively brief.

First and foremost, my heart bleeds for Sal. What will he do? How long can he keep Kitty in the dark? And how sad that his first full-on sexual encounter with another man (I'm assuming) is going to be with some nameless, faceless dude in a park.

Second, do we still need proof that Harry Crane = useless? How much longer can he get away with such schmuckitude?

Third, Don is officially dead to me. It's not that he didn't save Sal, coldblooded as that decision was - I don't think he was exaggerating the importance of the Lucky Strike account, and he may very well have believed he had no choice. But the manne of his dismissal! The disbelief that Sal was blameless. The cynical suggestion that Sal (or a girl, had she been in that situation and of a sufficiently slutty disposition) should have acquiesced to Client Thug. And then those two words, dropped like a bomb: "You people." And everything they implied, underscored by the contempt on his face.

We're supposed to see this brutality, I guess, as Don's reaction to losing control at work - a motif that's also been developing in his increasingly imbalanced relationship with Connie Hilton. Connie's demanding and a bit kooky, no doubt, and it was painful to see Don visibly deflate and crumple as his most prized client literally asked for the moon. But I had no sympathy for him at that point, between his treatment of Sal and his insane pursuit of teacher-lady. In fact, by the time he finally closed the deal with Miss Farrell, he was so ugly to me I couldn't see anything objectively attractive about him anymore - to my eyes, he was practically leering at her. There was nothing sexy about that tryst. Desperation and stupidity are not sexy. And the feeling of inevitability just made it all the drearier.

Fourth, a lot of viewers probably got bored and/or frustrated by Betty's handling of Henry Francis, and there's no question she behaved like a spoiled child when he refused to show up & play the part she assigned him. But I sympathize with her drawing back from a "tawdry" affair, esp. when juxtaposed with Don's rolling around & covering himself in all kinds of tawdry. Betty doesn't want an affair - she wants to be loved. I can't blame her for that.

Fifth, re: Betty's comment to Carla about the civil rights movement - though it made me cringe, I couldn't hate on her for it. Someone happened to make an almost identical comment to me about gay rights earlier in the day, which just goes to show that where a social inequity is still deeply enough entrenched, you can be a well-meaning person who says "not yet, it's not time" and just doesn't get it. Betty's remark was simply not on par with Don's "you people" because there was no malice behind it. Betty's undeniably self-absorbed, but she isn't cruel. Especially not compared to just about every other major character on the show.

Sixth and finally, Carla knows all and sees all. And probably wishes she didn't.

"Bright Star": She did not fade, though he had not his bliss


directed by Jane Campion
starring Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw

Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon in death.

John Keats was obsessed with love and death. In that respect he was hardly unusual as a poet. What was unusual was the intensity and richness of his response, particularly in the last years of his life—a response no doubt heightened by the knowledge that he wasn’t long for this world. Keats was only 25 when he succumbed to consumption in 1821, younger than Mozart and Schubert were when they died, and certainly younger than any of the great English poets he’s commonly ranked with today. But he wasn’t too young to understand the oddly symbiotic relationship between his two obsessions, nor too young to feel, with both, the conflict between their palpable, almost painful, immediacy and their fundamental elusiveness as objects he could truly grasp and possess—even as they threatened to possess him.

There’s only a whisper of these complex tensions in “Bright Star,” Jane Campion’s gorgeously pensive film about Keats’ relationship with Fanny Brawne, the woman he met and fell in love with only a couple of years before he died. But then “Bright Star” is really less about Keats (Ben Whishaw) than about Fanny (Abbie Cornish, calling to mind a younger, sturdier Nicole Kidman), to whom death could only be the enemy, never the source of fascination it was for her lover. The movie begins and ends with Fanny, and for the most part we only see Keats from her point of view: that of an intelligent but not especially literary-minded middle-class young woman who at the outset is merely curious about the mysterious young man staying with one of her neighbors. The neighbor, Mr. Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), she despises; his guest, however, has a moody, sensitive look that piques her interest. Both men call themselves poets, though Brown acts more like a caretaker of Keats’ poetic soul, which he guards jealously against Fanny’s advances. Keats, for his part, goes from not knowing what to make of Fanny to becoming besotted with her.

The story obviously doesn’t end happily, though “Bright Star” is surprisingly quiet, almost muted, in its depiction of the obstacles that part the lovers. There’s concern, rather than outright opposition, on the part of Fanny’s family, who like Keats but see him as too poor in health, means, and prospects to marry her; and somewhat pricklier disapproval from Brown, who views Fanny as a shallow flirt and a drain on his friend’s emotional and creative energies. (Whether other feelings for his friend, or even, perhaps, for Fanny, underlie his hostility is left open to debate.) The difficulties are enough to prevent the young couple from consummating their affair—though their interactions are so filled with longing that even the touch of a hand or their first kiss, or their recitation to each other of Keats’ haunting ballad “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” carries more erotic charge than the most torrid sex scene ever could.

Despite these moments, the film as a whole isn’t the easiest to enter into, mainly because of the pacing, which can feel unhurried to the point of sluggishness and at the same time strangely fitful, almost jumpy. Campion films have an idiosyncratic rhythm all their own, in which dialogue serves more as a counterpoint to silences rather than the other way around. The love story emerges less through those fly-on-the-wall snatches of conversation than through an abundance of breathtaking visual imagery: Fanny reading a love letter amid a sea of bluebells; Fanny’s little sister, with her glorious curly mop of flame-red hair, wading through sunny fields and dells like something out of a pre-Raphaelite painting, while the lovers trail behind her, stealing kisses; a room full of fluttering butterflies that Fanny cultivates with feverish animation and then lets die when Keats’ letters stop coming. There’s much to enjoy about all this, even if it does feel a little too on the nose.

As a romantic heroine, Fanny is terrific material; as a Campion heroine, however, she isn’t a natural fit. She doesn’t really rebel against the societal constraints that bind her, and she isn’t threatened with violence, unless it’s the violence of her own grief. (Any easy feminist licks may be reserved for a relatively minor subplot that doesn’t involve Fanny, and even that comes to an unexpectedly gentle conclusion.) Nonetheless, Campion does her best to sketch Fanny as an independent-minded woman before showing her in love. “Bright Star” begins with a close-up of Fanny sewing, a posture she returns to frequently throughout the movie—but not just stitching humdrum buttons and pillowcases. No, we see her making—and later wearing—clothes for herself, clothes with bright colors, eye-catching ornamentation and stylistic innovations that she herself proudly points out as real accomplishments. When the sardonic Brown dismisses her work as just so much trivial frippery, she resents it keenly: practically her first words in the film express her resentment. Her attitude, and the film’s emphasis on it from the get-go, conveys an unspoken assumption that her own creative instincts are what allow her to be receptive to Keats’ even if she doesn’t much care for poetry, at least initially. I’m not sure this particular take on Fanny quite works, though it’s hard to articulate why. For whatever reason it feels forced, and at the same time a little underdeveloped. But it doesn’t affect what does work about the film: the chemistry between its two leads, and the ache of their separation.

In the end, “Bright Star” is no more and no less than what it purports to be: the love story of John Keats and Fanny Brawne, filtered through Fanny’s perspective. It’s not—nor is there any reason it needs to be—a study of the tyranny of societal expectations or gender roles in early 19th century Britain, or of how Fanny shaped the poetic vision of Keats, a man “half in love with easeful death.” Though as to the latter, all viewers should stay through the credits to hear Ben Whishaw’s wonderful reading of Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” arguably his finest poem. It says everything about Fanny’s one great, and ultimately victorious, rival that the movie could not.


Monday, October 05, 2009

"Mad Men" Ep. 3.8: "Souvenir"

Wow, that was...beautiful. And incredibly sad.

As a general rule, I don't tend to enjoy episodes of TV dramas that take the action completely away from the main setting of the show. But I found myself really enjoying "Souvenir," despite having only one brief opening scene in the office and absolutely no follow-up to the dramatic events of 7/23.

Perhaps that's because the episode focused so heavily on Betty and Pete. I know I'm in the minority on this, esp. as regards Betty, but those two are, if not my favorites, the characters who interest me the most. Not because they're better or more complex than the others, but because in their different ways, they don't seem altogether fully formed...and I refuse to write either of them off as cases of arrested development. To me, they're still evolving, in the sense that they're fumbling towards a higher state of consciousness. They're a good ways away, but I'm still invested in seeing them get there and what will happen if/when they do.

Did they get any closer to that self-awareness in tonight's episode? Betty, definitely; harder to say for Pete, who just went back on my shit list, and probably everyone else's too, for obvious reasons. I'm not going to pontificate on whether what he did was technically rape; it's enough that he was in a position of power and took advantage of it in the basest way. All the more disturbing that up till that point he had been acting like such a little child - ripping his shirt off because of the heat, watching cartoons, telling the au pair girl to hang the dress back up & blame it on the kids. And even afterwards, his look of guilt and his plea to Trudy seemed more like a child's appeal to his mother than a grown man admitting horrible transgressions to his wife. That said, he at least seemed to realize that he can't be by himself because he's his own worst enemy.

Betty, on the other hand, seems to be approaching the realization that she might, just might, be happiest and most fulfilled when she's by herself. Or maybe not. She definitely needs an audience to blossom - that is, an audience that's not her husband and kids. I think she was supposed to dazzle in this episode, and she did...and not only because she looked even more drop-dead gorgeous than usual. We saw more sides of Betty in this hour than we've seen so far this entire season. Energetic & purposeful in her efforts to save the reservoir, giddy afterwards at her success (how cute was her little twist and "We won, we won, we won"?), her euphoria tinged with guilt over Henry Francis (that slick old smoothie), then projecting her attraction and excitement on to Don.

And then: the return of Betty the Model-Sophisticate in Rome. "La Dolce Vita" is still on my Netflix queue, so I don't know how Fellini-esque those scenes were; all I know is they were languorously seductive, and Don & Betty ridiculously hawt. But also ineffably sad, with their overarching sense of the ephemerality of their fantasy. Seeing sexy, happy Betty return to unhappy-wife Betty just hurt, esp. with Don so obviously trying to preserve some of their Roman afterglow. I liked him better than I have for a while, esp. coming after his caddishness in "Seven Twenty-Three." Still, when Betty finally started to articulate her misery - "I hate this place. I hate our friends. I hate this town” - I actually wrote down, "Finally, she says it." That's one small step for womankind, one huge leap for Betty Draper.

I've been undecided on January Jones' range as an actress, but this episode, if nothing else, reaffirmed my conviction that she was ideally cast for the role of Betty. It was amazing to see how swiftly the warmth could evaporate off her face - in the moment after Henry Francis kissed her, in the post-vacation conversation with Francine - and leave the Nordic Ice Princess we've grown to know too well.

I live in hopes of seeing Betty's spark rekindled - but it's becoming increasingly clear that Don's not the one to keep it lit.

Funniest lines (there weren't many):

Sally, on her "first kiss": "But I already did it. It's over." Bwah! Betty's response, OTOH - "Every kiss after that is a shadow of that kiss" - was just sad.

Pete: "Of the Republic of Dresses!"

Francine, to Don and Betty: "From what I hear, you two must be very tired." (With the exact same arch look that she gave Betty when leaving her alone with Henry Francis. No wonder Betty hates her.)