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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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SERENA BRAMBLE: Well, luckily I was already a big fan of Mad Men before I created the montage, so I already had a grasp on the myriad of themes Weiner and co. spin in the series, but doing the montage I scraped just an inch more underneath the surface of who Don Draper is--or rather, the conflict between the man Don wants to be (which to me birthed his rush engagement to Megan and seems to be haunting him into their marriage), the very imperfect man, husband and father he really is, the image of perfect masculinity he sells with the same soothing reassurance as he sells products that people do not need, and above all, the man he is running away from, Dick Whitman. That is the heart of Mad Men: the secrets that pain us versus the lies we tell ourselves to keep face. Five seasons in, we are no closer to truly understanding who Don Draper really is, because he himself doesn't even know how to answer that question. I don't know if this is true or not, but I've heard a rumor that in every single episode, there is a line of dialogue that is a variation on the line, "What do you want me to say?" I really, really wanted to include a clip of Don saying that to Betty in "The Inheritance" (the episode where Gene is conceived in a moment of desperation), because it encapsulates the heart of that: that the Don Draper persona is a projection of what Dick Whitman thinks people want him to be: the debonair professional, the loving husband and father, the man who says what you need him to say. Essentially, the man who can be whatever we want him to be--the man who is whatever room he walks into, according to Bert.

I knew that I wanted to construct my montage so it would start on the surface--establishing the setting, time and place because it's so different from what we understand from modern times, yet as Rachel says, is the place too perfect to be true, and then work my way inward as best as I could. I was also influenced by the opening of Midnight in Paris with my opening montage, so I found public domain footage of Greenwitch Village from the late 60s, as a way of showing life as it really was, then cross-fading to the old New York of Mad Men, the place too good to be true, and the secondary characters trying to pinpoint Don, to no avail. Of course another major facet of Don's life is his work--in the season 4 opener and later in "The Suitcase," he uses his work as a shield for his crumbling personal life, so I segued into a work montage since most of the series' best moments take place at the office. I feel it's impossible to talk about Mad Men without mentioning the drinking, which is frequently covered up with a sly, Nick-and-Nora-like playfulness and slightness, and I also didn't want my montage to get too heavy with existentialism, so it was a fun part to put together.

I feel inferior talking about this when Jim did such a lovely, perceptive job at depicting the same theme in his essay "The Other Woman & The Long Walk," but I also felt it was important to at least note the treatment of women on the show in my montage--namely, how men perceive them, and what they're actually going through. The pitch of Belle Jolie lipstick as a woman "marking her man" is comically ironic, first for the way Don weaves female territorialism into something romantic (Peggy does the same thing later with the ham publicity stunt in Season 4), and secondly because it's impossible to believe that anybody in the real world would find lipstick on a man's cheek as anything other than a nuisance.

Betty Draper gets a lot of hate on the show, but I don't see her role as an initially vacant housewife a detraction from the series; after all, like Newton's law of motion, if you believe there is a girl like Peggy who is so progressive she eventually becomes Don's professional equal, you have to believe there is an equal and opposite reaction--in this case, a woman who remains stuck in the past of traditional values. And it's too easy to forget Betty's past, her love/hate relationship with her mother that also seeps into her relationship with her own daughter Sally, though I imagine the generational gap of the 60s will drive a deeper wedge into their relationship. The mother who wanted her daughter to be beautiful "so I could find a man," only to denounce Betty's modeling career by calling her a prostitute--in retrospect, Betty's current weight problems were hinted at in season 1, with Betty telling her therapist, "My mother was very concerned about looks and weight. And I've always eaten a lot. And I like hot dogs. My mother used to say, 'You're going to get stout.'" Which begs the question: Is Betty's current dramatic weight gain a side effect of another unsatisfying marriage, or a form of freedom from her mother's restrictions just as Sally's friendship with Glen is from Betty's curtailment? Finally, is it really fair to blame Betty when all her life the only value placed on her was her beauty, and then she had the bad luck to fall in love with a man who personifies whatever people want him to say?

Don can sleep with as many women as he wants--13, according to James Lipton--but the most healthy relationship he will ever have with a woman is his deep professional and personal friendship with Peggy, who has had the most growth on the show than any other character, from the girl who didn't know how to say no to her male co-worker's gaze to the only woman to truly stand up to Don. Their argument in "The Suitcase", wonderfully broken down in Kevin and Deborah's video essay, encapsulates their differences, yes, but also how comfortable they are with each other that they *can* shout at each other as a way of communicating. I felt it was a perfect way to segue from the women's issues to the existential gaze on the ruins of one's life that Frank O'Hara's poem Mayakovsky. I knew I wanted to use it because it so beautifully states the thing Don is always trying to do, which he nearly accomplishes in season 4: to find himself, or at least the honest, better man he aspires to be. Season 4 is so much about Don's rebirth from the ashes of "the catastrophe of my personality," yet self-defeat is inevitable, and maybe another reason why Don's controversial decision to marry Megan instead of Faye makes so much sense, if only from a screenwriter's standpoint: Once Don finds happiness and realizes who Don Draper actually is, the show will no longer have a purpose.

Because of my previous love for the show, the montage was exceptionally easy to make--once I had all the clips imported, it took me about 5-6 days to create an 8-minute rough cut, which repeated itself on a True Blood montage I'm currently working on. Whenever I do a montage, the first thing I do is look for the perfect music, because once you have the right music, everything will write itself and the wheels will turn so easily. (This is a good lesson that is being lost in the conversion from film to digital movie-making: always have a pre-production outline instead of winging it; editing is indeed a process of trial and error, but even that process is greatly aided by a map). There are still things I wish I could have included, clips I should have changed up, and even weeks after the fact I recently went back to delete a cross-dissolve. But the greatest gift, and in some ways the greatest curse the montage gave me is the realization that Mad Men is the greatest show on television right now, to which nothing can compare. It personifies patience, showing not telling, and audience gratification. It is not a show designed for the narrative cliffhanger hooks shows like Lost or Christopher Nolan movies have conditioned us to expect. It fills the screen with so much information that even on numerous re-watches, there are still subtle jokes to be discovered in the background of a shot. It's the patience of the audience that is rewarded handsomely by Weiner's utter trust in us to discover the breadcrumbs he leaves for us. People complain that nothing much happens on Mad Men. Everything happens--it's just up to the audience to discover the changes better than the characters themselves realize.

JIM EMERSON: Kevin, your piece on "The Carousel" (I used only one little snippet from Don's Kodak presentation leading into a similar line from his Jaguar presentation) is exquisite, with bizarre Lynchian moments, as well. I would never have put the maypole together with the carousel (and other circular motifs) without having seen this. (I wish I'd used something from "The Carousel" when I used the merry-go-round-like loop I made from "I've Got You Babe" -- final song in "Tomorrowland" -- in "The Ladies and the Boxes.") A lot of narrated video essays strike me as simply written pieces with audio-visual accompaniment; there's very little meaningful give-and-take between the images and the commentary. It's like the images are just there to give somebody the opportunity to talk over them. And in "The Carousel," you were working with a pre-existing written essay, and yet you integrated it with the images perfectly. Can you talk about how you approached composing this one?

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