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AUDIOVISUALCY - MAD MEN Redefined by Online Video: a Roundtable Chat

Television
by Jim Emerson, Deborah Lipp, Serena Bramble and Kevin B. Lee
June 7, 2012 9:36 AM
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JIM EMERSON: First, thanks for your comments and for inviting me to participate in this discussion. I'm with you, Deborah, about the women on the show -- in 2010 (after the Slattery-directed "The Rejected," which ended with the exchange of looks between Peggy and Pete through the SCDP glass lobby doors), I referred to "Mad Men" as "The Peggy Olson Show Featuring Don Draper" -- and the four MM video essays I've done for seasons 4 and 5 ("Modern Compartments," "Beautiful Girls [and Mad Men]: Ghosts of the 37th Floor," "The Ladies in the Boxes," "The Other Women") have all focused on the women, because I think they're the most fascinating, complex and deeply mysterious characters on the show: Peggy, Joan and Megan, of course, but also Sally (the heart and soul of Season 4, in my opinion) and Betty.

And thank you, Deborah and Roberta and Kevin, for "The Sad Clown Dress," one of the most insightful and moving pieces I've seen about Betty. (I'd love to do a piece devoted entirely to the fainting couch…) BTW, I've never understood the criticism of January Jones in this role; whenever she comes across as wooden or phony or robotic it's because that's the way Betty often is! Like when she spews talking points she's learned at Weight Watchers, or talks to Sally about her period. Betty's not a bad person in these scenes, and Jones is not a bad actress. Betty just, fundamentally, lacks empathy -- almost as if she's emotionally autistic. She has no idea who she is, and she's not comfortable in her own skin, so she goes on auto-pilot a lot, and you capture that in "The Sad Clown Dress." (Poor Betty is so clueless about other people that she just latches on to the suspicions saboteur Jimmy Barrett implants in her head, without really understanding why. But my theory all along has been that she sensed her husband was not who he said he was, but she can't explain why, and that pretty much drives her insane. Don's deceptions make her borderline schizophrenic.)

The first video essay I ever did (called "close up" was in 2007 for the House Next Door "Close-Up Blogathon" and it was images and music (and a lot of sound mixing) without any titles or dialog or narration, mainly because I did it over the weekend and had to teach myself to use iMovie at the same time. So, I had to keep it fairly simple (even though there are multiple layers of sound under the images). It was just a stream-of-consciousness thing, as most of mine are. My intention, as Kevin points out, is to convey what was going through my head -- memories, motifs -- while I was watching the episode/movie. Critical writing has to be both descriptive and analytical, and what I love most about video is its ability to create new contexts for the patterns I notice, using pieces of the original itself.

So, briefly (I hope), the idea for "The Long Walk" began with a desire to shuffle between the key conversations in "The Other Woman," because they are all strikingly similar, and all about the women declaring "no negotiation." So, I started with the two exchanges between Joan and Pete (in her office, then in his), the "Little Murders" flare-up between Don and Megan in their bedroom, and the final talk between Don and Peggy. Then it seemed they could be made to reverberate a little more by including Lane and Joan in her office, Peggy and Ted Chaough at the diner, and Don and Joan in Joan's apartment.

The way Peggy went in to collect her stuff (notice the three pieces of technology in the corner of her office: the typewriter, the phone, the speaker box -- same as the "technology even women could use") reminded me of Joan's "orientation" in Episode 1, when Peggy first carried a box of stuff into the original Sterling-Cooper offices. And then it grew from there. The first thing I thought of was the sound of high heels on linoleum, because it seemed to me that the whole episode centered on the idea of Peggy walking away, so I searched around for the sound I wanted (bought it for five bucks from an online sound effects place) and layered it under the existing sound at the beginning and the end. I wanted to use it in a disembodied way, like the sound of the ringing phone at the beginning of "Once Upon a Time in America," combined with the dislocated walking scenes interspersed throughout "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie." Anyway, that's where the idea came from, I think!

(Just now, as I was writing this, I got a comment from somebody on Vimeo saying he would never have made the connection between Joan's "men love scarves" in S01E01 and Peggy's scarf in her meeting with Ted Chaough in S05E11 if he hadn't seen "The Long Walk." That's the kind of thing you hope to accomplish with these pieces!)

The elevator stuff at the end seemed natural, but I wanted those last two false endings to echo the repeat of Don's visit to Joan's apartment in the episode itself. Also like "Discreet Charm" (in which people wake from dreams into other dreams), Peggy breaks the spell of the final shot of "The Beautiful Girls" by pushing the elevator button again, and then Don interrupts "You Really Got Me" by pushing the same button… and then peering into the empty elevator shaft. For me, that's the void Peggy's leaving behind. Then there's "She's a Lady," which I started singing after I'd finished dancing around the room (with tears in my eyes) after "You Really Got Me," the first time I saw the episode. It's anachronistic (1971), but I didn't start it until the end credits. I considered doing a music video for the song using images of Peggy, Joan and Megan from this episode (lyrics by Paul "My Way"/"Having My Baby" Anka; lead guitar by Jimmy Page!).

Serena, "It's a Mad World" is absolutely beautiful and haunting -- a dazzling example of my personal-favorite kind of video "essay" (sans narration). I love the way it's thematically organized into sections/songs on various subjects: the city, "Who is Don Draper?," advertising, booze and smokes, "What do women want?"… Can you tell us a little about how you went about organizing and putting all this together?

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