On Sunday, I watched an overlong, over-budget, exceedingly pretentious production about insensitive, inarticulate men in dark suits, fedoras and skinny ties whose upbringing left them unable to cope with the fast-changing urban milieu in which they toiled for their living.
But enough about the Blues Brothers movie, which I saw at the local Cinemark theater as their weekly revival showing. I think this was the first time I saw it on the big screen, after seeing it on TV a zillion times.
At two and a half hours long, The Blues Brothers was a huge, over-weighted Hindenburg of a film, but filled with terrific music numbers, a killer band, and in retrospect was the last great movie John Belushi made before substance abuse on a massive scale did him in.
As for Mad Men, having watched it religiously from its very first episode, it has been the most frustrating TV series I’ve ever consumed. Loved the concept, loved the setting, loved the production design, loved the costumes, and loved the cast, but the glacial pacing of the series and the missed opportunities have made it so painful to watch. With traditional TV fare, the writing and the series were inseparable. But I would have loved to have seen a series in which this cast and this setting were better employed.
Mad Men could have been the perfect show to comment on what drove the fast-paced radical change of the 1960s, just as Oliver Stone’s Wall Street explored the financial industry of the 1980s, but instead, producer / creator /primary writer Matthew Weiner was far more interested in the interpersonal relationship of his characters rather than social commentary. Which seems odd, since an ad agency by its nature would have to know what’s driving the changes in the media overculture in order to exploit the current trends with effective advertising for its customers.
But on Mad Men, particularly once the show left the comparatively cool and exotic early JFK-era ‘60s for the Beatles-era ‘60s that Boomers have made the history of the decade, what drove that era was virtually ignored.
Take the Beatles themselves. When they touched down in New York in early 1964, this Newsweek description summed up the conventional American wisdom of the times:
Visually they are a nightmare: tight, dandified, Edwardian-Beatnik suits and great pudding bowls of hair. Musically they are a near-disaster: guitars and drums slamming out a merciless beat that does away with secondary rhythms, harmony, and melody. Their lyrics (punctuated by nutty shouts of “yeah, yeah, yeah!”) are a catastrophe, a preposterous farrago of Valentine-card romantic sentiments.
Inside the cocoon they quickly built to protect them from their crazed fans, the Beatles were four remarkably talented young musicians with an equally gifted record producer. They didn’t simply magically parachute in one day to then-newly-renamed JFK airport; as Kathy Shaidle recently noted, Capitol records spent “$50,000 in New York City alone to promote their first American visit — ten times the amount usually budgeted for new bands.” That’s the equivalent of $375,000 in today’s money, “which buys a lot of Beatle wigs and bobble heads.”
How significantly did Capitol get behind the Beatles? Mark Steyn tells the story of Nat “King” Cole, who helped put Capitol on the map as an American superstar in the 1950s, calling up his record label in 1964 and recoiling in disgust when the receptionist answered the phone, “Capitol Records, home of the Beatles.”
That would be a great advertising story, but instead, the Beatles and Stones simply magically begin to appear in the Mad Men universe once Kennedy is shot.
(And Kennedy’s Cold War assassination was the signature moment of the 1960s, which the series dealt with in surprisingly rote fashion with one of their most conventional episodes, instead of exploring the ripples of change and cognitive dissonance amongst America’s left his death at the hands of a Marxist true believer set in motion.)
Another advertising story never told occurs in one of the series’ last episodes, set in 1970, which revolves around Betty Draper learning that a neighbor’s son, who had a serious crush (and a seriously creepy one) on Betty in the show’s first season, is now of college age and about to serve in Vietnam. The episode ends with Betty’s youngest son running through the kitchen playing with a plastic toy machine gun, which she grabs and throws into the garbage bin in anger and disgust. As a metaphor, that shot reflects the early political correctness that the toy industry was wrestling with at time — knuckling to leftwing activists, Mattel stopped producing its toy version of the Army’s M-16 rifle. And while Hasbro’s GI Joe action figure got to keep his guns, the toy manufacturer recast him and his sidekicks from patriotic pro-American fighting men, to paramilitary adventurers and a rescue force largely absent from the battlefield, lest young children thought that helping President Nixon fight communism in Southeast Asia was a good thing.
But was the Vietnam War the cause, or were there trends in the water in the very early PC left that simply needed an excuse to escalate? As David Gelernter wrote a few years ago in America-Lite though, the sixties’ peace movement preceded the escalation of our involvement there:
Antiwar protests were powered by the New Left and “the Movement,” which originated in Tom Hayden’s “Port Huron Statement” of 1962, before the nation had ever heard of Vietnam. And the New Left picked up speed at Berkeley in the Free Speech Movement of 1964 and early ’65, before the explosion of Vietnam. Bitterness toward America was an evil spirit shopping for a body when Vietnam started to throb during 1965.
Similarly, Wikipedia notes:
Jean Shepherd’s alleged encounter with an elderly woman wearing a “DISARM THE TOY INDUSTRY” button led to his writing his nostalgic story about his Red Ryder BB Gun Duel in the Snow, or Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid published in Playboy magazine in 1964. The story became part of his 1966 collection In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash that was used as the basis of the film A Christmas Story.
That’s another great advertising story left untold by Mad Men. Instead, the ramifications of Republican stalwart Betty Draper throwing away her son’s toy gun is reduced to an otherwise unremarked shot.
Obviously, Mad Men the series was meant as a boomer victory lap for the PC cleanup of the ‘60s and ‘70s. If only the series had done that, rather than let the radical change simply waft over its characters.
Don has found “the real thing” — a kitschy spirituality that we will all be mocking in 20 years, a relic of a time when even the dreaded peaceniks could be fodder for a helluva good product pitch.
Don started off a phony. He made his living selling phony bromides and empty promises to easily bored consumers of the next best thing. He is now in phony heaven.
We may be mocking the “kitschy spirituality” of the early 1970s, but the mindset that drove it is still very much with us today. It’s just a hop, skip and jump from the overheated narcissistic emotionalism of what Tom Wolfe called the “Let’s Talk About Meeeee!!!!” mindset of the e.s.t. encounter group-obsessed early 1970s to Mattress Girl and “trigger warnings” today.
Related: This passage in the L.A. Times’ interview with Matthew Weiner after the series’ penultimate episode is an unintentional riot. The interviewer says to Weiner, “You shot a lot of the show in Los Angeles,” and he replies:
I insisted on working in Los Angeles, and it wasn’t just because of my family. I knew that I had more period buildings in Los Angeles than I had in New York because of what was going on there and what we’re trying to stop here. And I know the taxes are terrible and the labor is too expensive and the permits and the parking and this other stuff. You know what? We did the show for nothing … I know the show is about New York, but I’m from here, and there’s been a little bit of the story of the show that is about the rise of California and the decline of New York.
“I know the taxes are terrible and the labor is too expensive and the permits and the parking and this other stuff.” C’mon, having listened to your commentaries on the show’s DVDs and interviews — dude, you’re a socialist. In its first season, Mad Men began by making cheap Ayn Rand and Nixon jokes, aimed particularly at Robert Morse’s Bert Cooper character. You’re thrilled that Obama claims he watches your series religiously (but then, our allegedly intellectual president sure watches a lot of TV, doesn’t he?). Shouldn’t you be equally thrilled about all of the taxes and red tape? That’s what being a leftist is all about!
But then, Weiner isn’t the first leftwing Hollywood producer-director to encounter excessive socialism and recoil in horror when it impacted his business, only to go on to vote for inflicting more of the same on others.