August 09, 2009

In Retrograde

What more to say in admiration of "Mad Men," returning to AMC this Sunday? The depths of this shockingly good period drama have been so thoroughly plumbed by critics that the only thing left for me to discuss is the hidden star of the show, something designed to go unnoticed unless you squint.
When Season Two launched last year, I noticed a handful of new wrinkles to characters I'd grown to love/loathe in the first cycle. For one, Don Draper is soft and domesticated, seeking solace in foreign films, until he gets his mojo back by way of sexual assault. Joan Holloway's confidence has gained a brittle, desperate edge as she becomes less of a person, in the terms of her era, and more of an object. Everybody hates everybody at Sterling Cooper -- Sal, Ken, Paul and Harry dine out on each other's misfortune, and there's not much veneer of camaraderie overlaying the bile. (Unless you count Sal's fondness for Ken, and that's essentially a crush.) Betty Draper's encounters with peers outside her suburban Rapunzel tower — a divorcée in Season One, a roommate-turned-escort this time around — raise the possibility of a life without her faithless spouse, built on her own guile and sex appeal.
But I was stumped by any attempt to write a love letter to the only show I consume faithfully. The late Andrew Johnston and his collaborator Matt Zoller Seitz had already shed the fullest possible light on Season Two in their coverage for The House Next Door, a recap/analysis I always looked forward to after the latest episode aired. So I looked again at what I'd detected in the series, and saw that I was being pointed toward certain revelations by the camera itself.
I hope you gain something from the video essay that resulted -- it offers no major insights, but it was fun for my first stab at the form. Oh, and if anybody's got tips for how to avoid a jerky frame rate in DVD Ripper Standard for Mac, drop me a line.

62 comments:

Dan said...

This deserves more comments -- what's going on, guys? Great piece. Another example of how rich and rewarding Mad Men is, even holding its own against most movies. Thanks for that; hopefully there'll be more in a similar vein. And a tad more TV-related stuff at FFC in general (i.e, DVD box-sets at the very least.) Would love a Mad Men blu-ray catchup from someone here.

SRP said...

Dynamite piece. Finally, you gave me the words to describe why Mad Men looks so friggin' great.

Patrick said...

The video is very well done. Not knowing Mad Men, not really being interested in Mad Men, I still found it interesting.

though I'm still holding out for an FFC podcast...

rex baylon said...

Wonderful video essay. You have really captured the major themes that the show deals with. The Hitchcock connection is so crucial when discussing Mad Men, especially the film Notorious, but another Hitchcock/Cary Grant collaboration that I think needs to be discussed when talking about Mad Men is Suspicion, the first film that Grant did with Hitchcock.
Like Mad Men, Suspicion has as one of its protagonists a duplicitous playboy who plays at being a family man played by Cary Grant. Joan Fontaine in the picture plays Lina, Grant's wife, and like Betty she is suspicious of who her husband really is. Although everybody in town loves Johnny Aysgarth (Cary Grant) Lina after awhile begins to see his true identity slipping through just as Betty has come to realize that Don is not the man that he lets other people believe that he is. And Grant's performance prefigures Jon Hamm's performance in the way that both actors subtly go from charming to malicious, and at times one doesn't know where the made up identity ends and the real person begins.
Both Hitchcock's film and Matthew Weiner's TV show deal with men who lie about their true self to move up in society, but when they finally do move up they find that their new place holds no security for them. Don Draper and Johnny Aysgarth are made to perpetuate the lies that they've constructed for themselves to the point that both men are guilty of murder, at least indirectly. And also like Betty Draper in Season 2 Joan Fontaine's character, Lina, is constantly shown at the stables or horseback riding as if both women were trying to rein in the chaos of their home life by breaking in the steed that they are riding.

Matt Zoller Seitz said...

Fantastic work.

Liz Wong said...

This is great! Really insightful and interesting. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

As to your ripping issues, I might suggest a little tool called Handbrake (http://handbrake.fr/).

slars said...

Awesome analysis... thanks

Clint said...

Going to see Tetro this weekend - it's just now making it to Houston. Anyone seen it yet? Comments?

Anonymous said...

I second the Handbrake recommendation. It's free, lightweight, and outputs really nice video.

Jake Spurlock said...

Great video, and superb analysis. Love this show.

Jefferson Robbins said...

Thanks to all for the feedback and technical tips. This was fun to do and there may be more such things forthcoming.

As for TV box sets, Dan, Lionsgate apparently dropped FFC from their mailing list some time back, so the "Mad Men" thing was on my dime. However, other TV stuff is on the horizon. "Parker Lewis Can't Lose" is spinning in my drive right now.

Anonymous said...

Awesome stuff and great Notorious comparison.

Also, Yo La Tengo!

Dan said...

@Jefferson: Ah, that explains it. Maybe FFC should give Saw V a four-star review to get Lionsgate back on-side ;-) Anyway, looking forward to a few more box-set reviews, at any rate. The recent Dollhouse review was excellent. Apparently it only sold 67,000 units in its first week, tho!

Anonymous said...

Awesome, thanks for putting this together!

rkex said...

Jefferson-

Thank you for a most thoughtful essay on the cinematography of "Mad Men". The shot of cary Grant in "Notorious" juxtaposed with clips of the back of Don Draper's head was eye-opening. I would not have caught that and, in fact, have watched "Notorious" recently and did not. Another technique that I think defines "Mad Men" is the camera angle, looking up, that reveals expanses of ceiling. I can't think of another series that uses it to such effect.

Thanks again for this piece, one of the best I have seen on the best show on television.

Ray K
Davis, CA

Anonymous said...

Thank you! I really enjoyed this - so thoughtful and nicely written. This is my visit to your blog, and I'll definitely check back.

Bill C said...

Just an FYI to any newcomers to this blog that it's an appendage of Film Freak Central, where you'll find new review content almost daily. (Though not, ironically, this week.)

Gerard said...

An exceptional piece of criticism and exploration.

Brilliant. Really.

permazorch said...

That was beautifully done. Thank you. Also, you have a good voice.

Anonymous said...

Really looking forward to seeing D9 tonight, so your positive review has gotten me even more excited for it - but what's with the love for 28 Weeks Later yet again? I found it to be such lazy, unbelievable piece of shit that I'm left slack-jawed each time I see an endorsement for it here on FFC.

Carl Walker said...

Glad to see Bill was wrong (apparently) and that Walter has ratified the D9 hype (he was the only one right on Harry Potter 6 after all), but is he or anyone at the site gonna check out Ponyo? I guess I'm gonna see it anyway, but I am curious nonetheless.

Anonymous said...

This does deserve more comments. Besides the excellence of this piece on Mad Men, and as a first-timer to this site (linked to from a blog I occassionally read), I just had a moment of zoom out myself and marveled at how amazing it is that we have this medium now where commentary of this quality and richness can be created and made available to everyone. It's sort of awe-inspiring to realize that maybe 15 years ago this wasn't even possible.

Bill C said...

@Carl: I was wrong? Since I'm wrong about most things, you'll have to be more specific. I don't remember ever saying much about DISTRICT 9...

Walter_Chaw said...

I think he means about having a new review this weekend. Dittos on the piece, by the way Jefferson, nicely done/narrated/written.

As to a podcast. Details, guys, how long would you want it to be, what format, and what sort of thing are you hungry for us to cover? I think it's an interesting idea to consider... at least this stack of DVDs that I'm not watching thinks it's something I should investigate...

Carl Walker said...

Yes, Walter's right, I meant wrong about no "review content... this week." This being a good thing!

As for the podcast, maybe you could structure it around themes such as "top 10s" (that was big on the blog a while back) or various auteurs (seems like a popular lens through which to view film on this site) and their ups and downs. It would of course be the most interesting when there was disagreement between two or more of yo on a certain film... or does that make me a bad person? :P I think maybe 30 minutes would be a good length; longer and you may get burned out too soon (as I've seen occur elsewhere).

Carl Walker said...

Yeah, Walter interpreted my remark correctly, sorry for the confusion.

Perhaps a 30 minute podcast (to avoid burnout) structured around things like best films of a given year or decade, highlights/lowlights of a certain auteur's career? Definitely hosted by two or three people from the site, maybe more than one segment per episode? I dunno, you probably could've come up with all that yourselves!

Patrick said...

All I can say is I listen to a few podcasts, but I am really starved for good film criticism, whether it's current reviews or a look at classics.

Depending on the content, I think length should be between 30 and 60 minutes.

I can say that I really enjoyed the Now Playing Podcast taking on whole series leading up to a current film, e.g. they took on each Terminator film in the series before T4. And these discussions took about an hour (per movie), but I didn't mind the length there at all.

On the other hand, if only one person hosts the podcast, I think half an hour is probably enough to say most of what needs to be said.

Retrospective series or maybe even just in-depth discussions on single movies would be great.

I also enjoy current movie reviews from Mark Kermode, however, so a single person talking about film or TV (DVDs were mentioned?) would be appreciated, too.

The biggest problem, for me, is that you guys have gotten me hooked on FFC quality, and the film podcasts I know don't provide that, generally.

"I had this DVD laying around, here's what I think about it" would be fine.

JF said...

I must second this podcast notion. The filmic podcast well has mostly been pretty dry since House Next Door@Grassroots ended.

Alex Jackson said...

Hey, Film Freak Central and Walter in particular just recieved an official endorsement from Roger Ebert.

A recent post on his blog:

I absolutely love film reviewers who are also social critics.

Armond White, I have only read a one hand fingers count of his reviews really, and I haven't really gotten a sense he loves movies. Now, Walter Chaw of Film Freak Central is among my most revered. You (Roger) and he are the only two I read most passionately (A.O Scott hangs around on the periphery once in awhile). I agree with Walter about 92% and you about 97%. Walter Chaw is "brutal" when popular movies don't meet his muster. When you both are at the top of your games, I relish both your insights (both of your reviews play over and over in my mind for weeks.)

Movie/films matters, even when many people say the just want to be entertained. When "Transformers 2..." is the runaway box office champion of the summer, and the early reports say that back to school shopping is down (in the same economy), it says something about us.... What? Our best film critics could provide a clue, even as lone voices, sometimes. Keep on keeping on Mr. Roger Ebert, in defense of Armond White or not ;)

Ebert: I also like Walter Chaw. That's a good site.

Patrick said...

Why didn't you post the full quote there, Alex?

Ebert: I also like Walter Chaw. That's a good site. If only they did a podcast.

Bill C said...

That is very cool.

Anonymous said...

Thumbs up from Ebert is sweet.

I listen to several podcasts, including those covering film, TV and video games - here's my thoughts on what I'd want from a FFC podcast:

- At least two participants, including a moderator-cum-host. Primarily love to hear Walter (great presence on Bill Press Show / Synecdoche DVD) as well as Bill, Alex, John, Ian? Other critics/guests also for intelligent, engaging, occasionally humerous discussion

- Discuss latest film releases, as well as relevant material on DVD/BD, TV, etc., as well as any interesting news on the movie front (such as upcoming releases of note, obits, etc). Conclude with an email segment responding to emails and comments - invite listeners (and readers of the site) to email in

- 30 mins to an hour in length

Richie Fitz said...

Great video - love the style of it! more of the same for season 3 analysis please!!

Vikram said...

"...I agree with Walter about 92% and you [Ebert] about 97%..."

Um...I don't think that that is possible, meaning Walter and Ebert disagree on only 5% of the movies mutually reviewed?

Am I mistaken on this?

Full agreement on a podcast. One 30 min podcast a week 15 to 20 minutes on current releases and the remaining on any subject matter on Film/TV.

All for it.

Vikram said...

Also the podcast could be work in different ways - single narrator or a conference call recorded with Bill, Walter, Alex, Jefferson, O'Johnlandis etc...and various FFC contributors that could vary.

Put it up on iTunes etc...

Let's do it guys!

Patrick said...

I just wanted to say that I don't really care for film news. It's not a deal-breaker. I don't look for film news, specifically, on the web, I just want movies. That said, if people want it, and you want to provide it, I'll cope.

Vikram said...

Also, like others have mentioned above love the video Jefferson, all for more of that too...

...I say that as if it is easy to do. Great job though.

Anonymous said...

I know all of the FFC players are a fair distance apart - anyone have skills with Skype or something similar? A one person podcast is a monologue and that's not usually a good thing.

DJR said...

I read Walter's review for District 9, and I'm still not entirely sure I understand his defense of the Nigerian gang, which the film made no attempt whatsoever to humanize. Was it satirizing how blacks are perceived in South Africa?

Patrick said...

Just as a beginning for Skype use:
http://www.voip-sol.com/15-apps-for-recording-skype-conversations/

JF said...

@ DJR: Those gangs really exist, down to the voodoo. Sans context those scenes are a little uncomfortable, but it's not like the movie deifies anybody of any color (or species). Even the main character is selfish, ignorant, and does some pretty morally appalling things early on.

I can't share WC's gushy enthusiasm for it, though. I liked it and it's most of the things he says it is for about 30 minutes, but once the documentary angle recedes, it gets less and less interesting.

Bill C said...

Just a quick note that updates at the mothersite will be scattershot this week and next as I put the b-o-o-k to bed.

O'JohnLandis said...

I really liked the approach of the Go piece, Walter. There's an appealing and naked sincerity to it. But rather than merely expressing the existence of these old emotions, the piece is about the tone of a person, an era, and a film. You've created a time capsule without needing a "TIME CAPSULE WARNING IN EFFECT" sign at the beginning.

If I can offer one quibble, I'd suggest that it's not Pulp Fiction that's the definition of post-modernism, but Tarantino himself. There's no way to explain him without knowledge of his cultural parents, but the magic of Pulp Fiction (or Kill Bill or Death Proof) is that the process is postmodern but the result is somehow unique. It's as though Frankenstein stole the body parts of hundreds of men and an abnormal brain and somehow managed to make a newborn baby. Tarantino is Mozart--explaining him is like explaining gravity.

Jefferson Robbins said...

Oh, now THIS is funny.

If Fans Picked The Criterion Collection.

For some reason, I'm particularly amused by the Manos cover.

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Justin BH said...

Jefferson, that was great! The 'Criterion' cover for Transformers cracked me up.

Looking forward to Walter's Inglourious Basterds review. Just found Quentin Tarantino's favourite 20 films since 1992-he managed to include Team America....

Si said...

I second what you said, Justin - saw the film last night, that's two hits in a row for Tarantino after Death Proof.

Also, I noticed in Berardinelli's 4-star review - and those are rarities - that he was reminded of Black Book and Valkryie.

I wonder if I'm the only commenter here who loved Black Book but was underwhelmed by Kill Bill? (Volume 1 was exciting and kinetic, Volume 2 was a bit of a drag.)

Jefferson Robbins said...

@Justin: The sad thing is there really is a Criterion edition of a Michael Bay film. Sadder ... it's not Bad Boys 2.

O'JohnLandis said...

I believe I'd defend the Criterion edition of The Rock. Armageddon? Not as much.

Bad Boys 2? The only reason it exists is to help Hot Fuzz.

Anonymous said...

Now that is addictive. I'd like to see more! thanks - and a very pleasant commenting voice, too.

dogberry202000 said...

I love this and will certainly be using it when I teach my media class post modern media.

Congratulations on an excellent video essay. Your music choices are inspired. The video essay is a great form and no doubt will be expected from students in the near future.

Dogberry202000

AS and A2 Media Studies

MrJeffery said...

Loved the video! One of my favorite shots was the surprising mirrored image at the end of 'Maidenform.' Duel identity is an obvious theme of the show and was alluded to smartly in the Jackie / Marylin ad.

Mad Men said...

This is a very good video. Now I have to watch the entire Mad Men show again... and to see more of your website.

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Noelle said...

wonderfully astute analysis - so interesting!

Jack Jones said...

I am a HUGE fan of Mad Men, I hope it never ever ends haha :D

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