Saturday, July 06, 2013

Mad Men: The Slow Burn

Now that it has been two years since my last post, I thought it best to check in. I am in dissertation purgatory as well as teaching full-time, so I did not see any of the sixth season of Mad Men until this holiday weekend when I celebrated Independence Day by binge-watching all the episodes piled up on the dvr. The list of movies I have missed grows longer weekly, once I am finally done with grad school I hope to catch up. Or not.

Although I mostly avoided spoilers, I did hear that some loyal viewers were not impressed with this latest season, rumblings of too much soap opera and not enough office politics. To be fair, this series has always been a soap opera, but one set on Madison Avenue during advertising’s creative revolution, and also one with emotional complexity, depth, and a mastery of slow-burn storytelling.

As an example, the exchange of glances between Don and his daughter Sally that ended season six reminded me of the glance Don exchanged with a woman sitting beside him at a bar that ended season five. Rough road that Don traveled during the dozen episodes in between, but this parallel may speak to his ultimate redemption – whether or not Don would maintain his fifth-season monogamy was a fun cliff-hanger, but not anywhere near as important as his decision to be honest with his children about his own childhood. He came a long way in one season, sadly much of it seeing double.

Mad Men has always had these moments that link elements of its narrative far apart chronologically, such as the hand-holding between Don and Peggy that linked her departure from the agency in season five with her first day on the job at the beginning of season one. Matthew Weiner, the auteur that created Don and the world he inhabits, is a master of epiphany. These moments of grace or destruction require long hours of attentive viewing to get the full payoff, but when it comes it is sometimes worthy of the last ten minutes of Godfather Part Two, or James Joyce’s earliest narratives (The Dead is my personal favorite). It is for this reason that I trust Weiner the storyteller; when episodes drag I know they are leading somewhere interesting.

Although there has been debate about authenticity since the series premiered in 2007, Weiner and his team have put considerable energy and expense into maintaining a genuine sense of time and place. I certainly recognized the Manhattan of my childhood from the beginning. The costume design, soundtrack, and art direction have always been among the show’s great strengths. The season six poster, created by illustrator Brian Sanders to echo his distinctive work of the 1960s, is a perfect case in point. The surreal airplane in the background was, I believe, the artist’s nod to his own pioneering work for TWA. The memories that style evokes for me are worth a whole lot of operatics, and while the final season is in the works, I get to prepare a possible special topics course on Mad Men and Advertising Culture in the 1960s.

Post script: I have received some thoughtful comments from readers that I haven't responded to for the same reason that it's been 733 days since my last entry. I do appreciate the feedback, and will share some of these insights in a future post.

Monday, July 04, 2011

TREME: America the Beautiful

I Love My Country

Anyone who believes we here in the U.S. of A. don’t actually make anything anymore needs to watch HBO. Let me be more specific: you need to watch Treme. Now. All of it.

Fourth of July fireworks have been cancelled here in Lubbock, as in much of the parched southwest, but my heart swelled with nationalistic pride and my eyes teared up repeatedly as I watched the second season finale of the series about New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Created by television auteurs David Simon, responsible for HBO’s The Wire and NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street, and Eric Overmyer, who worked on both productions with Simon as well as St. Elsewhere and Law & Order, Treme is proof positive that the most interesting narrative work today is being done for broadcast and cable tv, not the movies.

My girlfriend has a low tolerance for menace (having been held up at gunpoint, she’s earned it), so halfway through the first season of Treme she gave up. Amidst the joy of creative people living vibrant lives in a globally and historically unique city, she correctly perceived the constant possibility of unannounced horror. Amidst plenty of examples, the ninth episode of this season suddenly ended with one of the most horrifying murders ever represented on American television. No small part of its horror was its banality, coming out of the blue as such things often do.

But to reach the fifth paragraph of an essay about Treme without mentioning the music is as criminal as some of the worst behavior the series has brought to life. Truly, it is hard to imagine any cultural text paying such consistent, knowing, loving tribute to the vitality of America and its unique cultural gifts as Treme does, episode after episode. The theme song alone (by John Boutté) makes me want to salute the nearest flag, and most episodes are so full of great American music that even a partial list is a cop-out.

New Orleans may be reasonably called the birthplace of American music, and our music, along with democracy and free-market capitalism, may be America’s most enduring contributions to global culture in the broadest sense. Nowhere else has this peculiar set of circumstances and energies produced such irrepressible joy, sorrow, beauty, ugliness, hope, despair, solidarity, and loneliness. Treme captures it all, even more vividly than did The Wire, which was inevitably drawn to the dark side of the American soul.

When Davis (Steve Zahn) leads his band for the last time in a nerd-funk cover of James Brown, or Antoine (Wendell Pierce) gives up his band to lead a bunch of aspiring high-schoolers, or Janette (Kim Dickens, the sexiest actress alive) gives up her high-profile chef in New York to return to NOLA and start over, or LaDonna (Khandi Alexander) recovers her inner fire after being raped by opportunistic thugs, or Delmond (Rob Brown) returns because Dr. John convinces him his father was right, or Toni (Melissa Leo) realizes her daughter Sofia and she will survive the suicide of the love of their lives, we know we will survive too, This is great art.

Which is to say, Treme is the best American television series. Ever.

Happy 4th of July, all.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Super 8: B+

Did you miss me? Hard to believe it’s been nearly two years since my last post, but full-time grad school plus teaching has taken over my life. Happily, I have reached the end of my obligation to full-time coursework, now I can take my time and finish strong. Another year, at least, but not another year away from FlixView.

In my absence the embedded trailer links in my last post have vanished, and incessant spam has forced me to disable the comment function. My profile still has an active gmail address which you are welcome to use if you have comments or questions.

I couldn’t avoid the omnipresent 30-second spots for Super 8, saturation campaigns are tough to live up to, but those 30 seconds at least didn’t give too much away. I was ready for a popcorn movie, I can’t even remember the last time I saw anything in a theater, and I suspect Super 8 will prove to be a crowd-pleasing money maker.

I was a teenager in the 1970s when Super 8 is set, and I made some movies with my dad’s super-8 camera, so J.J. Abrams’ script and taught direction had me at hello. The romance held up for the first 90 minutes or so, as Abrams and Executive Producer Steven Spielberg paid loving homage to the suburban teenage fantasies of that period. As Matt Patches points out on Film School Rejects, Super 8 often feels more like one of Spielberg’s own movies from the period than anything else, including Abram’s best work.

I don’t want to necessitate a spoiler alert, so all I’ll say about the gradual loss of momentum in the final act is that I wanted to turn Michael Giacchino’s score off, especially during the last sequence before the closing credits. I remember having a similar reaction to Abram’s otherwise astonishingly good Star Trek reboot, so it’s not fair to blame the tone on Spielberg. The production design is outstanding, although the camera work is occasionally distracting. But I ate my popcorn and it was good.