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Mad Men and the Empty Surreal

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Mad Men and the Empty Surreal

So far, season six of Mad Men has been as sharply styled as we’ve come to expect from the series. As it makes its way through the ‘60s, however, it feels ever more like a parade of red herrings. Each episode is an hour-long trance, seducing with crisp colors and sleek period details, offering clues that always lead nowhere. For the two-hour season premiere, it feels like the writers were playing a game of exquisite corpse, pulling “Betty,” “St. Marks’ Place,” and “goulash” out of fishbowls labeled “character,” “location,” and “prop,” then tasking themselves with making a scene out of their selections. These character/location/prop stagings have always permeated the series. For example: “Peggy,” “soundstage,” “Honda motorcycle”; “Sally,” “American Museum of Natural History,” “underpants.” It’s easy to imagine the writers creating scenes with almost any of the other characters in the same locations interacting with the same props; a Roger (John Slattery)/museum/underpants scene is, in the world of Mad Men, quite conceivable. There’s been lots of other randomness throughout the years: Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) doing the Charleston in 1963, Joan (Christina Hendricks) playing the accordion, Don (Jon Hamm) wearing a Jai Alai glove. Because the show’s characters are so fully realized, the discordant locations and props are all the more surprising and superficially interesting. What can you do with a character? Have them act out of character; drop them somewhere unexpected. Furthermore, the opportunities for prop gags in Mad Men are endless, focusing as it does on postwar advertising.

All of these scenes draw on the surprising convergences of the surreal to seem meaningful in their uncanniness. Of course, surreal—with a small “s”—is a two-bit adjective these days, having little to do with the psychoanalytic and Marxist motivations of the Surrealist movement. It’s a generic descriptive used to denote anything unusual, out of the ordinary. Ironically, the word “surreal” has become commonplace, even banal. In the visual world, there’s hardly an artistic movement easier to rip off (except perhaps, pop art). Place A next to G instead of B, and voilà, surreal! But does Joan + accordion amount to anything? There’s a world of difference between something looking “interesting” and actually meaning something.

Even the historical events in Mad Men are part of its empty surrealism. We experience the Kennedy assassination as ruined wedding, the integration of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce as office prank. As so often happens in Mad Men, history is invoked to throw the characters for a loop, to make their world strange to them and fascinating to us. But to what end? Stylist and occasional cultural critic Simon Doonan once made a similar point about coolness versus meaning in a discussion about contemporary art. One could, he said, chuck 5,000 standard number-two pencils out a window and the yellow spray would certainly look “cool” or “interesting.” But would it actually mean anything? This is the question I find myself asking a few episodes into the sixth season of Mad Men, after years of conversations analyzing the book titles, clever one-liners, and symbolic props that fill each episode.

Mad Men wouldn’t be such a compelling show if it was just a series of empty gestures. Or would it? It has a forward-moving narrative, but only nominally. In fact, the “huge” events of the series are rather quotidian: divorce, promotions, second marriages. Many of these plot points have been recycled several times already. The swirling eddies of the show’s narrative river often seem promising, but they usually end up getting left behind without much consequence: Betty’s (January Jones) machinations at the stable, Betty’s cancer, the appearance of Anna Draper (Melinda Page Hamilton). Even the big reveal of Don’s true identity to his bosses, a plot point other shows would build up to for several seasons, ended up being an anticlimactic afterthought. “Who cares?” says Bert (Robert Morse). I’m not the first to point out the blankness at the center of the series. Matt Zoller Seitz at the Vulture and the folks at The New Republic, among many others have made more or less the same observation. The show’s hollowness seems to make a tidy statement about advertising and consumerism during the postwar decades, a point that has also been made by numerous others. However, I think (without ascribing any intentionality to show creator Matthew Weiner), that the blankness of Mad Men also makes a neat statement about the mesmeric experience of watching TV.

In a beginning filmmaking course, I remember the week we began adding sound to our films. “Be careful of music,” our professor said. “It has a mesmerizing effect—people will watch anything when it’s put to music.” He’s right; music makes a lot of boring or pointless or just plain sloppy film go down easy. Case in point: almost the entire music-video genre. Weiner and company have found a formula that does the same thing for a plotless television serial: strings of surreal scenarios delivered with flawless style and impeccable acting. Mad Men’s plot isn’t terribly compelling. Are we that interested in Don’s affair with Sylvia (Linda Cardellini)? The trajectory of Megan’s (Jessica Paré) acting career? Don himself, the center of this universe, is nothing but a phantom. For what do we watch if not for the surprising details, the “clues”? What does it mean for Betty to be goulash-advising in the East Village? For Don to be reading a copy of Dante’s Inferno on the beach—a copy that his mistress gave him? These scenarios and symbols are so heavy-handed, so scrutiny-inviting, so ultimately empty. But they’re seductive.

The pleasure of playing exquisite corpse is precisely the same, random absurdity out of which Mad Men is largely constructed. On the surface, the series appears to be a straightforward, narrative historical drama, but it’s really a spectacle of surreal scenarios that don’t mean much. I don’t mean to say that Mad Men isn’t a good television show; quite the opposite. It just proves that an excellent series requires neither plot nor meaning.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Original Screenplay

This season, Hollywood is invested in celebrating the films they love while dodging the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.

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Green Book
Photo: Universal Pictures

You know, if it weren’t for the show’s producers effectively and repeatedly saying everything about the Academy Awards is terrible and needs to be changed, and the year’s top-tier contenders inadvertently confirming their claims, this would’ve been a comparatively fun and suspenseful Oscar season. None of us who follow the Academy Awards expect great films to win; we just hope the marathon of precursors don’t turn into a Groundhog Day-style rinse and repeat for the same film, ad nauseam.

On that score, mission accomplished. The guilds have been handing their awards out this season as though they met beforehand and assigned each voting body a different title from Oscar’s best picture list so as not to tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film. SAG? Black Panther. PGA? Green Book. DGA? Roma. ASC? Cold War. ACE? Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Even awards-season kryptonite A Star Is Born got an award for contemporary makeup from the MUAHS. (That’s the Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild, not the sound Lady Gaga fans have been making ever since A Star Is Born’s teaser trailer dropped last year.)

Not to be outdone, the Writers Guild of America announced their winners last weekend, and not only did presumed adapted screenplay frontrunner BlacKkKlansman wind up stymied by Can You Ever Forgive Me?, but the original screenplay prize went to Eighth Grade, which wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. Bo Burnham twisted the knife into AMPAS during his acceptance speech: “To the other nominees in the category, have fun at the Oscars, losers!” In both his sarcasm and his surprise, it’s safe to say he speaks on behalf of us all.

As is always the case, WGA’s narrow eligibility rules kept a presumed favorite, The Favourite, out of this crucial trial heat. But as the balloting period comes to a close, the question remains just how much enthusiasm or affection voters have for either of the two films with the most nominations (Roma being the other). As a recent “can’t we all just get along” appeal by Time’s Stephanie Zacharek illustrates, the thing Hollywood is most invested in this season involves bending over backward, Matrix-style, to celebrate the films they love and still dodge the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.

Maybe it’s just tunnel vision from the cultural vacuum Oscar voters all-too-understandably would prefer to live in this year, but doesn’t it seem like The Favourite’s tastefully ribald peppering of posh-accented C-words would be no match for the steady litany of neo-Archie Bunkerisms spewing from Viggo Mortensen’s crooked mouth? Especially with First Reformed’s Paul Schrader siphoning votes from among the academy’s presumably more vanguard new recruits? We’ll fold our words in half and eat them whole if we’re wrong, but Oscar’s old guard, unlike John Wayne, is still alive and, well, pissed.

Will Win: Green Book

Could Win: The Favourite

Should Win: First Reformed

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Watch: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Starring Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton, Gets First Trailer

Joanna Hogg has been flying under the radar for some time, but that’s poised to change in a big way.

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A24
Photo: A24

British film director and screenwriter Joanna Hogg, whose impeccably crafted 2013 film Exhibition we praised on these pages for its “disarming mixture of the remarkable and the banal,” has been flying under the radar for the better part of her career. But that’s poised to change in a big way with the release of her latest film, The Souvenir, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Prior to the film’s world premiere at the festival, A24 and Curzon Artificial Eye acquired its U.S. and U.K. distribution rights, respectively. Below is the official description of the film:

A shy but ambitious film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) begins to find her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man (Tom Burke). She defies her protective mother (Tilda Swinton) and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship that comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.

And below is the film’s first trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t9Al2nC0vzY

A24 will release The Souvenir on May 17.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing

For appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore, one film has the upper hand here.

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20th Century Fox
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Given what Eric wrote about the sound editing category yesterday, it now behooves me to not beat around the bush here. Also, it’s my birthday, and there are better things for me to do today than count all the ways that Eric and I talk ourselves out of correct guesses in the two sound categories, as well as step on each other’s toes throughout the entirety of our Oscar-prediction cycle. In short, it’s very noisy. Which is how Oscar likes it when it comes to sound, though maybe not as much the case with sound mixing, where the spoils quite often go to best picture nominees that also happen to be musicals (Les Misérables) or musical-adjacent (Whiplash). Only two films fit that bill this year, and since 2019 is already making a concerted effort to top 2018 as the worst year ever, there’s no reason to believe that the scarcely fat-bottomed mixing of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody will take this in a walk, for appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore.

Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody

Could Win: A Star Is Born

Should Win: First Man

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