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James Lileks

James Lileks has been blogging at the Daily Bleat even before there were blogs. Stop by early and often.
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Three Random Observations on the Mad Men Season Six Finale

Monday, June 24th, 2013 - by James Lileks

Short version: nicely done. The obligatory animated gif is at the end of this piece.

Long version follows.

1. Pretentious Observations Written Before Watching the Exciting Conclusion

The season began with the face of a doctor looking down with concern, a lobby light fixture behind his head like a great cold modernist spider.

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Some thought Don Draper had a heart attack — not inconceivable, since numberless Lucky Strikes and rivers of liquor and the incessant stress of the office no doubt made his ticker thrum like the wings of a hummingbird. Everyone expected something bad for the show’s wretched hero; it’s been a bad patch for Don, and he isn’t looking good. Why, he’s sweaty. He barfed at a funeral. His position at the office is changing. True, but hardly different: recall the season where he threw up at the office, lost an account, left his suburban house, lived in an apartment that had one light bulb, furnishings from the Barton Fink collection, coupled with a hooker he paid to slap him, and had a really bad hallway.

That last item matters. Hallways. Don’t you see the importance of hallways in this show? People have business conversations in hallways; Don stops in the hallway of his swank pad and cannot go in to the house because . . . well, I forget why, but there were drinks and sadness and the wife-thing and the mistress. Oh! He used the back hallway to wait for his mistress. The Mammy Burglar came in through the back hallway. Sally tries to retrieve an embarrassing letter . . . by using the back hallway.

What is series creator Matthew Weiner trying to say with all these hallways? Could it be, perhaps, that he sees the sixties as a corridor through which his characters pass, unsure what waits behind the door at the end? After all, when Don goes to California for a wild party and dies for a while and sees dead people, it’s in a modern house with no hallways in the traditional sense.

California, and the sixties, represent the future of America. You’re free to chose your path; you’re not limited to the doors that line the hallways. There’s no binary state in this world, where you’re outside the room or inside. This, of course, raises the other theme of Mad Men: the public face vs. the private face, another binary concept. Bob Benson is two people. Megan is two people — a boring wife and a boring soap star. Pete Campbell is two people — a fellow full of prissy fury in private, and a fellow who expresses smaller amounts of prissy fury in public. And so on. Don’t you see what this show is about? Identity. And Hallways.

If I may step back a bit: all that is nonsense. I don’t believe a word of it.

This is not a show about any of that stuff. There’s no theme, no message, no moral, no point to Mad Men. This is an exceptionally well-written, well-acted, well-directed story about talented people in a creative industry with a dress code and a need to conjure fables to generate money. Before seeing the finale, I can say with assurance that no one dies, shoots himself, has a heart attack, asks for a divorce, or any other soap opera trick. Everything will just go on for better and for worse, like life.

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Remember the end of last season? Megan is getting successful! Don leaves the set and there’s James Bond music, “You Only Live Twice.” And then he’s in a bar and a girl asks him if he’s alone. Don — Draper — Is — Back. Uh huh. Well. What’d we get? An affair. Been there done that. A few brilliant ad pitches, because he’s good at that: been there done that. Betty complications: been there done her, and while the sequence added to the story of those two and called back to the early days, A) it didn’t mean anything, and B) the scene where Betty and Don enjoyed their son’s happiness at their mutual presence reminded you of early scenes of domestic happiness, which also didn’t mean anything in the end. Don Draper’s life consists of powerful emotional interludes that do not add up to anything except retrospective remorse.

He’s making it up as he’s going along. Perhaps the writers are, too. Mad Men observes  its characters with affectionate contempt and selective indulgence. It lets the viewers find meaning and symbolism and recurring motifs in the banal elements of daily life — say, hallways — and this makes viewers construct plots and arcs where none exist. It’s a Rorschach blot. It’s not a soap. It’s not Dallas. It’s not a novel. It’s a series of connected short stories, each with its own tone.

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Everything You Know About the 1920s Is Wrong

Tuesday, February 12th, 2013 - by James Lileks

With the publication of Amity Shlaes’ biography of Coolidge, you might expect a sudden burst of Twenties Nostalgia. Everyone will get it wrong. There wasn’t any such thing as “the Twenties.”

But we think there was. The Simpsons’ Kent Brockman summed it up perfectly: “The Twenties! When Al Capone did the Charleston atop a flagpole.”

That’s as accurate as saying that everyone in Seventies was Kung Fu Fighting.

Decades get boiled down to songs, pictures, celebs, and fads, and we think we know them. The Forties: War! Then five years of something-or-other. The Thirties: everyone stood in breadlines waiting for the Wizard of Oz to be released so they could have some color. The decade before the Twenties — well, not so clear. The Titanic sunk, triggering World War One, somehow.  The Twenties? Jazz and bathtub gin and F. Scott Fitzgerald throwing up on a flapper during a Jolson movie.

So what was it like? I’m no expert on the era, but I’ve studied the pop culture — movies, songs, magazines — for the segment of my Website devoted to the 1920s. It can be a stubborn era to grasp. The Gatsby stereotypes loom too large; 1929 seems like a different world than 1921; the era that followed reinvented movies and created characters much more vivid than the overacting shades of the silent era. The ‘30s speak to us. The ‘20s gesture.

In retrospect, it seems rather goofy. Like this:

A Woody Allen movie parody — except that’s exactly what it sounded like. Quaint to modern ears. Now try this: a tune made popular by the most unlikely fellow to be known as the King of Jazz, Paul Whiteman. Okay, it’s dated 1930, but this is right out of the top of the bubble.

The song is all over the place, throwing one instrument after the other — full band, then violin and guitar, heading towards that 2:22 spo-de-oh-dee moment where everyone puts their hands up in the air and shimmies their palms. Because the good times are here and youth culture is finally giving grown-up culture a run for its money, and everyone’s spifficated on liquor the crooks brought over the river from Canada.

Here’s what it sounded like if you were there:

It’s different when you hear the Twenties in stereo, isn’t it?

(The graphics chosen for the video, by the way, are from the game “Fallout,” which uses ’50s-style graphics in a post-apocalyptic world. But hey, does it matter? Anything that didn’t happen before 1995 is “retro” now.)

So is that the Twenties? Yes and no. The Twenties led up to that; the music evolved. Everything evolved — or least got faster and racier, if you call that progress. You start with a naughty joke book in 1921, and by the middle of the decade, the lid’s off:

Click to enlarge.

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Standing Athwart the Mad Men Fifth Season Finale

Monday, June 11th, 2012 - by James Lileks

Modern TV writers must envy their golden age counterparts. They never knew the pressures of a season finale. In their days, the last episode of a season was just that. Nothing to wrap up, nothing to leave dangling. Mission: Impossible didn’t end with Cinnamon in peril; Hawaii Five-0 didn’t have McGarrett driving off a cliff, frozen in mid-air while the credits played. Shows ended. Everything was self-contained. Now popular shows have to Do Something, and the pressure must be enormous.

Mad Men usually ends with ambiguity, if I recall the previous years. Season 3’s conclusion had some zing; the founding of the agency and the midnight relocation of the customer files felt like a little caper film. But most of Mad Men’s season finales have been let-downs, and I’m waiting for someone to say that’s what makes them so good! They’re playing with our expectations. The climax of the story arc is usually in the penultimate episodes, don’t you see? Why, they’re redefining the genre of the season finale.

Perhaps. I just don’t think they know how to end it, which might explain why the end of this year’s run felt underwhelming. It was a brilliant season, short-stories in an anthology that has the heft and scale of a novel, but apparently the writers really ached to do a bad Twilight Zone episode mashed up with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Can a Mad Men Season End with Relief?

Reviews of Mad Men’s fifth season have a constant theme: This has been so dark. Really? Remember Don Draper living in an apartment that looked like it was painted with fryer grease, where he paid hookers to slap him? Granted, Season 5 had a hanging in the workplace, with poor Lane auto-garroting after he failed to auto-asphyxiate — literally — but the scene where Don chokes Maddy from Twin Peaks was a dream, and it had a happy ending. There’s nothing like waking up and realizing you didn’t kill someone and put them under the bed. The relief is enormous.

But can the season end with relief? We’re trained nowadays for hard landings, cliffhangers, shocks and deaths. Judging from the message boards where people obsess over every detail of the show, half the audience thought Pete would shoot himself this season. Really? Over what? He’s unhappy, yes. He chafes and seethes and aches; he had a brief affair with a pick-up artist who worked the kiss-and-ride lot. He got decked by a Limey and punched by a cuckolded husband.

Well, that’s life; that’s what they say. The idea he’ll paint the kitchen with his brains in the last episode because he was shown cradling a shotgun in a previous season would be understandable if Mad Men was regular TV, but it’s not. Now and then there’s a break: Joan gives Dr. Rapist his discharge; Peggy uses the Magical Escape Elevator that’s denied to Don Draper. But mostly the show is like life: one damned thing after the other. It’s most telling when it says little: they spent a quarter-million dollars to show how Don Draper has a hard time getting into the Beatles, because it’s late at night and he’s middle-aged, and what is this stuff, anyway.

This is why it’s silly to expect much from the season finale. Everything just goes on, with a few minor adjustments. People get along until they don’t.

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Zou Bisou Bisou: Mad Men Returns for Its Fifth Season

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012 - by James Lileks
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It’s the season premiere of Mad Men! I’m in my Brooks Brothers suit with a rye whiskey, an unlit Lucky, a dead man’s Purple Heart in my pocket — took some poking around the vintage stores for that one, let me tell you. After Mad Men caught on everyone wanted one, I guess. My wife is wearing a sharp form-fitting dress, and she’s wearing Peggy-style season-1 bangs, and as soon as the show starts we’ll turn off the lamp — the one where the lamp base is a ceramic cat with a long neck — and settle in for the first show in a year and a half.

That’s how you’re supposed to do it, right? Cosplay for web designers? Dress-up fun for adults who want to act like, well, adult adults. Perhaps. Not for me. Please. It’s like watching Twin Peaks with a bunch of people carrying logs or dressed in FBI black, telling each other they’d like a damn fine piece of pie. (Or “Eip fo eceip inef nmad a,” if you’re short and walking funny.) That sounded like hell, too.

When a show becomes an object of cultish adoration, and the fans assemble to worship together, there’s always that moment when it’s just . . . not as good as you expected. Or hoped. Or remembered. Something’s off; they’re straining to connect with the things they once did with ease. You realize you’re just there for the clichés: a Don Draper Line of Insight (TM), a Roger Sterling moment of nonchalant dissipation. Peggy being the Smartest Bestest Person in the Business, as well as an obtuse and humorless drip. Hey, maybe Sal will come back from the bushes. Maybe Betty will do something so unexpected she turns into an interesting character.

Maybe it’ll even be about advertising again. All right, be back in two hours.

LATER

Nothing happened. Nothing usually does; that’s life. This isn’t a complaint. The soap-opera elements of the show — divorce! infidelity! pregnancy! — aren’t the reasons people watch it. People watch it to see Roger Sterling breeze into the room and announce that the lobby is full of Negroes. Also the clothes.

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Vice, Vice, Baby, To Go, To Go

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011 - by James Lileks

You can’t sing the theme song. You can’t hum it. You can’t mistake it for anything else:

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Ahhhh, 1984. The long malaise was over, and morning in America meant women in bikinis walking out of a post-modern condo with a hole in the middle. Boats thrusting and crashing in the waves! Parrots scratching their heads! JAI-ALAI, for heaven’s sake.

The show’s basic concept wasn’t exactly novel: a sunny location, like Hawaii 5-0, with a burnt-out cop teaming up with someone who wasn’t like him at all. Would these mismatched archetypes learn to get along and like each other? “MTV Cops” was the famous phrase that created the show, but you might as well have said “Odd Couple in Armani.” But it seemed unlike anything else, because it had Phil Collins on the soundtrack. Once they played the ominous opening of “In the Air” while streetlights played over the polished hood of Crockett’s sportscar, everything changed.

Or so it seemed, back then. Wow: real music. MTV bleeding into the network feed from the far end of the cable spectrum. When a cop show in the 70s played “rock,” it was jangly, trebly tripe that let Mom and Dad know the plot was serving up some hippies or switchblade jockeys or some other dangerous element. While the show’s music choices today seem tame or tired — really, two Glenn Frey songs? Two? — the use of Actual Pop brought an immediacy to the show you couldn’t get any other way. Jan Hammer’s scores did more than fill in the spots between songs  from the staccato snares of the opening to the moody doomed languor of the slower numbers. His idiosyncratic synth sounds framed the entire series.

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Times Square To Go ‘Noir’?

Tuesday, October 4th, 2011 - by James Lileks

OK, maybe not this noir.

The cycle of urban renewal is always the same. Always. Set your watch by it, count off the paces. A run-down block looks ominous and debauched; developers pitch a new vision with shiny glass walls and lots of chic retail and people walking around having a Pedestrian Experience — that’s a good thing, not a dull thing; means the streets are friendly to low-carbon-impact activities. Eminent domain is applied if the owners balk; money gushes; the ball swings; a new complex arises, and the old ugly block, with its piecemeal storefronts and variegated buildings and venerable architectural styles, is replaced by a big Thing. It’s packed with Chili’s and Applebee’s and a book store and a place that serves premium ice cream. Look ahead five years, and it’s dead. Perhaps the local magazine has a Bygone Days section that runs old photos, and when they show the picture of the block everyone was anxious to raze, well, it looks . . . interesting. It looks cool, in a seedy sort of way. Lick of paint, sandblast the buildings, get a flatfoot to patrol and move along the pervs and bums, and you’d have the very sort of urban environment the new plans promise we’ll get, but never get around to providing.

42nd Street in 1993. Photo by author.

New York isn’t completely regretting the massive clean-up of Times Square, but they’ve finally conceded one of the lingering, stinging critiques: it’s too clean. C’mon, this is New Yawk. Times Square is supposed to be gritty. (“Gritty” usually means hookers.) If you never saw it at its worst, you probably think the visions in Taxi Driver look almost . . . well, romantic. All those marquees, jutting into the stream of pedestrians like the prows of once-great ocean liners. The vibrant community of hustlers, pornhounds, streetwalkers, square-johns down for a walk on the wild side. Animated neon signs that drew pictures in the night, instead of great blaring walls of color that make you feel trapped in a Blade Runner remake.

But no. Those were the bad old days. That was Beame-time, Kojak-land, an age of sagging civic fortunes and needle-park panic and grindhouse theaters showing chop-’em-up horror films for mouthbreathers who would have to wait years for Quentin Tarantino to tell them how this movie was actually art, man, art. No wants to go back to that. Any other historical references we can slather on the place, then?

Why yes. The New York Post reports:

 A new $27 million plan to redesign Times Square’s famed “bow tie” calls for an atmospheric “film noir” look for the five-block area . . .

Of course. The Forties! Times Square in its full glory. Men in hats, women in hats, men in suits, women in . . . okay, suits, but also dresses, and lots of black cars gliding under the marquees, the lights reflected in their shiny hoods. Except that you can’t drive in the area as much as you used to, and no one wears hats that aren’t backwards, but otherwise, great. So how are they going to do it? Dress code? Ban color? Put in some dime-a-dance parlors and some all-night hash-houses and hire guys to walk around dressed as sailors? Require cabbies to be cynical and call the passenger “Mac” and step on it when asked to do so?

If only. The area will feature…

…permanent pedestrian plazas with a smooth, dark pavement studded with reflective metal disks designed to recapture the gritty feel of the city’s past.

“It’s not taking its cues from some pretty little things in Europe or something,” said Craig Dykers, an architect with Snohetta Design, the firm that also designed the 9/11 Museum downtown.

“Our design has a film noir feel to it; it’s more muscular. Paris or London can have these little benches, but New York has a toughness to it,” he said during a presentation to Community Board 5’s Transportation Committee Monday night.

What does that mean, bench-wise? Spikes? Hard to see how reflective metal disks in the pavement stand for the city’s grit-related past, and in fact it’s the opposite of the way things were. Pavement was light, and there were dark blotches everywhere, probably formed by gum spat out by antisocial idiots who couldn’t troubled to dispose of it in a civilized way. If you’re reducing “noir” down to an element of set design, pass the mandatory Venetian Blinds act and you’re done.

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