Tuesday, October 19, 2010

"Can you believe it?"

The best scene in Mad Men Season 4, Ep. 13 ('Tomorrowland') - the climax of the whole season, maybe of the whole show so far - was Peggy and Joan's smoking, cursing, laughing together at events and their lots.

Christina Hendricks (Joan) gets lots of attention for her Monroe-/Jayne Mansfield-esque figure, but to me she's principally an amazing facial actress - Gong Li, Maggie Cheung, Stephane Audran are good reference points for her. Elizabeth Moss (Peggy) acts in a more balanced way, through her face and body and limbs, but opposite Hendricks her facial acting blossoms.

At any rate, in this crucial payoff scene, where the characters really spoke for the shocked audience as well as for themselves, Hendricks and Moss were on fire, bouncing off each other, their eyelines so exact and locked in, their mutually translucent skin making every other face on the show look like a mask, and so on. Related bouquets: the precision camera-work and editing captured everything with minimal fuss; the lighting people performed their usual miracle of making an ostensibly fluorescent-lit, totally interior room seem realistically lit yet still warm and flattering to faces and complexions; shrewdly chosen costumes - Joan in black and Peggy in dark-gray - made them business-like and adult; and thank god for cigarettes. (Cigarettes are so so good for visuals and acting, pointing scenes. I mean, just look at the images above.)

The upshot: in some respects, and regardless of what Matt Weiner wants or thinks or plans, Mad Men is Peggy and Joan's show now. And if it isn't? Well, we'd pay money to watch a post-Mad Men, rise and rise of Olsen Holloway in the '70s show.

Jan. 2011 update: Fabulous interview with Elizabeth Moss here.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Turning to Austen

One of the great pleasures of reading Austen is that she combines incredible control and wit with a lushness of vocabulary and grammar that makes most modern prose seem boring and puritan. It is as if the word went forth in the 1970s to every burgeoning, creative writing program that the only verb that should be used to mount dialogue is an unadorned 'says' or 'said'. And I've heard plenty of modern authors essay that this is one of the most golden rules of good writing.

It's a pleasure then to be only a couple of pages into, say, Pride and Prejudice and already people are replying, crying, scolding, sneering, whining, etc. often with an adverb in tow, e.g.,

"Do you not want to know who has taken it?" cried his wife impatiently.

"I do not cough for my own amusement," replied Kitty fretfully.
Go Jane.

I've long suspected that this layer of authorial pointing in Austen's texts is partially responsible for their great adaptability to the screen. Returning recently to Emma, one of Austen's last novels, I was struck by its great freedom of stage-directions often enclosed in parentheses within direct speech. There's a real sense of Austen pre-directing scenes that the reader is supposed to be mentally staging. E.g.

"A better written letter, Harriet (returning it,) than I had expected.”

"I trust, at least, that you do not think Mr. Knightley looking ill,” turning her eyes with affectionate anxiety towards her husband.

"For my part, I would rather, under such circumstances, fall short by two than exceed by two. I think you will agree with me, (turning with a soft air to Emma,) I think I shall certainly have your approbation, though Mr. Knightley perhaps, from being used to the large parties of London, may not quite enter into our feelings.”

"I have the honour of being acquainted with a neighbour of yours, (turning to Emma,) a lady residing in or near Highbury; a family of the name of Fairfax."

“Oh! very delightful indeed; I can say nothing less, for I suppose Miss Woodhouse and Mr. Frank Churchill are hearing every thing that passes. And (raising his voice still more) I do not see why Miss Fairfax should not be mentioned too."

"He never can bear to be thanked. But I thought he would have staid now, and it would have been a pity not to have mentioned. . . . Well, (returning to the room,) I have not been able to succeed. Mr. Knightley cannot stop. He is going to Kingston. He asked me if he could do any thing. . . .”

"These amazing engagements of mine—what have they been? Dining once with the Coles—and having a ball talked of, which never took place. I can understand you—(nodding at Mr. John Knightley)—your good fortune in meeting with so many of your friends at once here, delights you too much to pass unnoticed. But you, (turning to Mr. Knightley,) who know how very, very seldom I am ever two hours from Hartfield, why you should foresee such a series of dissipation for me, I cannot imagine."
Perhaps the most vivid example of Austen's directorial tendency in Emma occurs in the crucial and justly famous Box Hill scene. The garrulous but constant Miss Bates self-deprecates that she'll play a game of 'telling things' at its meanest, 'three dull things' level.
Emma could not resist.
“Ah! ma’am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me—but you will be limited as to number—only three at once.”

Miss Bates, deceived by the mock ceremony of her manner, did not immediately catch her meaning; but, when it burst on her, it could not anger, though a slight blush shewed that it could pain her.

“Ah!—well—to be sure. Yes, I see what she means, (turning to Mr. Knightley,) and I will try to hold my tongue. I must make myself very disagreeable, or she would not have said such a thing to an old friend.”
That's already half-way to a winning screen version with Sophie Thompson (sister of the famous Emma T.) outstanding as the humiliated Miss Bates:

most of Austen's continued cultural success is traceable to her plotting skill, the vividness of her characters, the general depth of her insight into the minutiae of human interaction, and the like. But that she doesn't write stupidly bifurcated texts - dialogue over here, description over there - that she's always authorially describing and directing the dialogue helps a lot too. Insofar as we are allowed to project personal traits and destinies into new cultural settings for light sport, to that extent one feels certain that Austen would have made a great writer for the screen.

Friday, October 08, 2010

High GHG Drifters

The original Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) mixes anti-war sentiments with genocidal fascism. Klaatu tells Earthlings to shape up - give up war and immediately start to learn and practice peace - or the galactic robot police will kill everyone:
'This Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder.'[1]
The hapless 2008 remake didn't seem to know what it was saying by the end, but it had two basic novel ideas:
  • Extend the galactic police force's powers so that they can kill all the humans without toasting (and in fact pointedly, pristinely preserving) the rest of the planet
  • Broaden the aliens' essential interests from galactic order to order down on Earth as well, i.e., the remake's aliens damn humans not just (or even especially) as unrepentantly aggressive and dangerous generally but also as environmentally cavalier/dangerous to other life on Earth specifically
Richard Curtis's ghastly, self-defeating 10:10 campaign film:
expresses the same genocidal fascist fantasy/temptation as the two DtESS films, and even shares the 2008 remake's exact emphasis. Yet reactions to the DtESSs have always been muted, whereas Curtis's film was an overnight, sensational disaster. Why?

On the one hand, the details almost certainly make a difference: we don't see Klaatu and Gort et al. butchering kids. And presumably the lifespan of Curtis's film would have been extended if Curtis had eschewed direct, Cronenberg-style explosion shots in favor of, say, just 'horrified reaction' shots (thereby leaving us to infer what happened), let alone if Curtis had told a much less (or even non-)violent story.[2] On the other hand, genocidal violence, whether eco-inspired or not, just does seem easier to take when the Final Solution-bearer is external/impartial rather than one/some-of-us. We've plenty of cultural practice with the former case from the Torah and Old Testament generally, but that practice absolutely doesn't transfer to righteous, eliminationist forces that are one/some-of-us. Rather, it's conventional wisdom that some-among-us will always fancy themselves as Jehovah/Yahweh-figures judging and damning us all, and that such people always have to be monitored and, if necessary, stopped. The moral seems to be that while environmentalists can try to point to Nature's judgment on human civilization, say, they can't, with profit, be caught imagining that they are avenging angels of that judgment.[3] That said:

or even this. Slightly illicit, avenging angel fantasies are big business, and a big part of the business in which Richard Curtis makes a living in particular.

[1] Update: imdb's ecarle reminds me that Klaatu depicts his home world as ruled by pervasive terror of summary execution:

"For our policemen, we created a race of robots...In matters of aggression, we have given them absolute power over us. This power cannot be revoked. At the first sign of violence, they act automatically against the aggressor... The result is, we live in peace, without arms or armies"
Dirty Harry raised to the power of Robo-cop on every corner. Very peaceful, no fire-power in that picture, no sir.

[2] E.g., suppose the 'no pressure' speeches mention the superheated, acidic surface of Venus as a model for a high-GHG earth. When the red-buttons are pushed, people simply disappear. Later it's revealed that they've been teleported to:


The 20-25 people inside the room, including many of those we've earlier seen disappear, are gathered nervously around the room's single large window. 3/4 of the room is fairly empty, but every few seconds, a new person pops into existence including - Bing! - one of the schoolchildren from earlier.


Close up on an external digital thermometer with dual Celsius and Fahrenheit displays. It ticks over from 460 to 461 °C, 860 to 861 °F. Some more droplets of sulphuric acid rain hit the thermometer's exterior, melting part of the Fahrenheit display. Focus drops back (or Cut) to regretful faces of climate change skeptics of various ages pressed up against the large window. We hear the sound of another person popping into existence behind them. Bing! The heavily accented Tottenham Football coach from earlier starts in mid-prattle.


Faces of horrified school-children, including the child who just materialized pushing in past adult legs to get a view out. Their eyes widen as more sulphuric acid rain and smouldering, dissolving crud spatters and slides down the window in front of them while, from somewhere behind them, the adult, know-nothing, Football coach voice prattles on...

[3] To be sure, lefties, let alone enviro-lefties in particular, are probably a minority of apocalyptic fantasists, especially in the US. The Timothy McVeigh/far-Right/quasi-secessionist end of US political life is currently booming, much as it did during the Clinton years.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

"No, it's not."

Mad Men Season 4, Ep. 9 ('The Beautiful Girls') was extraordinary. While remaining true to a set of characters, it meditated on the overlapping destinies of 5-6 micro-generations of women. Apparently, Sondheim's Follies, which opens and closes with the number 'Beautiful Girls', is an important reference. Will have to check that out now.

At any rate, the episode climaxed with a remarkable series of Resnais-meets-Demy, female tableaux, anchored by the amazing facial acting of Christina Hendricks. Just, wow.

I don't pretend to know what to think of the final image of Peggy, white-gloved (like Betty), smiling. She's less touched by Sally Draper and Miss Blankenship than the others of course, but evidently there's a lot more going on than that. Peggy looks the best pulled-together she ever has in that final shot. On the one hand, she looks like she's off to the Country (white privilege) Club, which, given the racial themes of the ep., would be somewhat disappointing. On the other hand, her hat/bonnet is halo-like, and the light that flares up off the closing elevator doors creates angels' wings for her. A Catholic icon or an astronaut like Blankenship? I dunno, but either way this is impressively suggestive cinematography.

And is Mad Men secretly, actually Peggy's memoir/novelistic reconstruction of her time with Don Draper (written when, say, she's herself an '80s, eminence grise of the ad. world)? Probably not, but that possibility, among others, was certainly opened by the end of this extraordinary, gut-twisting, brain-bursting episode. For some reason too, the end of the ep. made me think of (is soundtracked internally for me by) this piece by Olafur Arnalds:

One flaw with the ep.? Megan (Jessica Pare) half swallows her lines before and after Sally's heart-breaking 'No, it's not'. Of course, Megan is supposed to be a little awkward, unformed, not especially poised, possibly vaguely promoted above her abilities because of her looks (although I don't quite get those beyond her impressive, but somewhat generically runway model-ish height and figure), etc.. So her verbal clumsiness is arguably a feature of and not a problem with Pare's performance. Still, the near-('80s Valley-girl-to-early-Anne-Hathaway) lack of enunciation, the speaking from the back of her mouth and in scattered sentence fragments grates. It makes Megan (and Pare) stick out like a proverbial sore thumb on Mad Men. The end of ep. 4.10, indicating a wider role for Megan on the show therefore currently looks to me like a mistake, even setting aside the dread that a Don-Megan 'ship inspires.

Update October 5: The end of ep. 4.11 confirms that Mad Men has indeed made one of its occasional blunders (comparable to some about Betty last season), this time with Megan. Having been quite inarticulate and apparently unsophisticated up until this point, Megan is now quickly and implausibly revealed as a college grad., as super-calculating and worldly, and as, in fact, pretty much just a plot device to heighten Don's damage-done-already to Faye. Having Faye breach her Chinese wall at Don's suggestion was enough: it's a fateful self-betrayal by Faye that was well set up over a couple of eps. The additional element with Don and Megan then and there is insane, soap-erific overkill. And, realistically, that they actually have sex brings to a head that the show has gone to the well of spontaneous, causal sex too often. It's become a crutch for the writers at this point. Don going out for a bite with Megan and having a good time (i.e., her surprising us and him with her depths, etc.) would still have been unnecessary heightening for Don's situation with Faye, but it would at least have satisfied basic believability. Badly done Mr Weiner. Badly done Erin Levy (the official, sole author of ep. 4.11).