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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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KEVIN B. LEE: Jim, whatever the circumstances that necessitated it, it's remarkable that you caught on to a non-narration oriented approach to video essays right out of the gate. Same with Serena, who's always been skillful at speaking through montage. It took me years to catch on, and now it's what I am most interested in exploring: to have a film comment on itself rather than rely on the more conventional mediators of voice and text. What I like about this approach is that it isn't as locked into one particular meaning as what you typically find with a narrated commentary. There's more room for the viewer to engage with the footage and extract multiple insights.

"The Carousel" video was a major opportunity to shift my approach. Tommaso Toci wrote a great piece on the Carousel scene that was to serve as the video script, but as I tried to adapt it I had trouble visualizing how the narration would flow with the scene. I kept playing the scene over and over trying to figure it out. And then it dawned on me that the scene itself provided the perfect structure: Don Draper selling us an idealized version of his life, from one perfect image and sentiment to the next, just asking to be torn into given everything to the contrary that we've witnessed of him. The clicking of the slidewheel and the momentary lapses of darkness between images suggest holes in his projection of perfection, so I thought: why not make those holes the portals into the dark reality under the projected surface? The clicking sound also reminded me of a soldier stepping on a landmine, bringing the war flashback scene to mind, which of course is the "big bang" event that gave birth to "Don Draper." 

From there it was just a matter of going through every episode of the first four seasons, gathering all the memorable scenes, images and bits of dialogue around Don, and weaving them together around motifs and patterns. I'd recently seen a cool video by Gina Telaroli that does a lot with superimpositions and slow motion, so I played with those techniques, which kind of give a David Lynch quality to the footage, especially the domestic suburbia scenes. The slow motion also has a doting, fetishistic quality to it, slowing images down as if trying to get at their essence.

With Season Five mostly in the can, I have to say that this video works out with Season Four as the endpoint. The proposal scene to Megan from the Season Four finale really brings it full circle with the final image from Don and Betty's wedding in the slide show.

As I mentioned before, I've long held reservations about the degree of centrality Don has in the world of Mad Men, when the women characters are as richly developed but have gotten significantly less screen time. So it's ironic that the most intense and time-consuming video I did for the Mad Men series was on the guy I felt was already overexposed. At the same time I loved the challenge of trying to piece together a coherent picture of who Don Draper is. Working with all the available footage was like playing with the biggest puzzle set of any of the Mad Men characters. Though perhaps with a piece left missing by the show. As Serena says, even Don Draper doesn't know who he is, but of course we keep trying to figure him out. And the finely crafted surfaces, images and lines have everything to do with our being seduced as viewers - in a sense the video is as much about those elements as it is about Don.

JIM EMERSON: Kevin: Yes! It's that idea of getting inside the work itself, and inside your own experience with it, that I find so exciting about this approach, too. And Mad Men is ideal for it because it's so rich and layered. Most shows have a "bible" with all the details about the stories and characters in one place so the writers can consult it. I wonder what form the Mad Men bible is in. Do they have cross-referenced video clips with certain spoken and visual motifs (boxes, hands, doors, hats, etc.)? Tom & Lorenzo (a site I learned that Deborah is familiar with, though I just discovered it a few days ago) noticed that the fur coat Joan wears to her assignation with Herb is the very one Roger gave her back in 1954:

the one that caused her to coo “When I wear it, I’ll always remember the night I got it.” Well, fuck you, Roger Sterling. That’s EXACTLY what this outfit is saying. “You ruined what we had by letting me do this, so I’m ruining what you gave me.” We’d be surprised if she ever wore it again. It’s one of those beautiful costuming moments that takes a sad, horrifying scene and makes it even more so once you realize what she’s wearing.

That's the level of resonant emotional and thematic detail on which this show operates. It repays the closest readings we can give it. I'm also glad to hear that, for you and Deborah and Serena, your process may by necessity be somewhat systematic (so much to keep track of!), but the creative aspect is more instinctual. I love diving in with a few ideas and then seeing where the show takes me.

I'd like to return to one thing Kevin mentioned earlier, about Joan's famous "orientation tour" for Peggy -- which is also our introduction to the world of Sterling Cooper and "Mad Men." The series has been criticized from the beginning for trying to score modern feminist points by overplaying the sexism, but I don't see it that way at all. What may seem "over the top" to 21st century sensibilities was just taken for granted in the 1950s and 1960s. When Joan says, "Don't be intimidated by all this technology. The men who designed it made it so simple that even a woman can use it," she's echoing any number of popular advertising campaigns from the '40s and '50s. This kind of thinking (in the era when "women drivers" were routinely ridiculed on television, for example) was so common that it spawned parody ad campaigns -- including the recent one for a British oven cleaning product, Oven Pride," that was accused of reverse-sexism: "So easy, even a man can do it." And by 1968, Virginia Slims cigarettes were marketed to women with the slogan: "You've come a long way, baby" -- which, in some ways, is just as condescending as "even a woman can do it."

But about Peggy in the first season: Deborah is quite perceptive about her response to the post-party garbage in the office, and we've seen how she's grown, gained confidence, loosened up (especially in Season 4, when she broadened her social circle to include Village pals like Joyce and Abe). She was so eerie (Elisabeth Moss has talked about how deeply strange Peggy was at first, which is what she found so compelling about the role) that I actually wondered if maybe she was mentally ill when we first met her. Maybe the show should really be called "Mad Women" -- because the men tend to drive them mad, one way or another.) She was almost zombie-like at times (not unlike Betty). And that added to the suspense when she put her trembling hand on Don's after her first day. Look at her eyes, unfocused and blank. Now we know that she was terrified, unsure of who she was and what was expected of her, and she did wind up institutionalized for a while. And I've always loved that about Peggy. You can never be entirely sure you're reading her correctly or completely, because there's such a gap between how she sees herself and how others see her and how she presents herself. Which makes her the perfect counterpoint to both Betty and Don. None of them are who they seem, but for different reasons.

Serena: Your extensive knowledge and grasp of the show are absolutely evident in your work. I hadn't heard that about "What do you want me to say?" but I think you get to the heart of it. I found an interview with Matthew Weiner on the AMC web site, and he said:

A: Well, when Don says, "What do you want to hear?" or "What do you want me to say?", that's on purpose. I feel like that's the ultimate thing for Don to say. But Peggy saying "Maybe this is my time" is the kind of line that should only happen once. Q: Why is that the ultimate Don line? A: Because he's being kind, but still being honest. I think it's a great way of dissolving a conflict in a powerful way. He's basically maintaining control, but at the same time submitting.

As you say, so much of the show centers around the differences between the internal person and the external person. It's all about what we now call "spin" -- which is essentially what advertising is, too. And everything is a performance, from your job to your most intimate relationships to your clothes and your apartment. The integrity and authenticity of the performance varies from situation to situation, moment to moment, but there's always a (self-)awareness that it is a performance. As Weiner said in the same interview, he thinks Don is basically a "good person" (whatever that means), and echoes what Megan told him in bed in "Tomorrowland": "I feel like the theme of the show, when it's over, is that it's hard to be a person. You should try to be a good person, but you will fail, all of the time."

Now that two of the major characters are gone (one obviously for good), I really hope the series will develop Dawn more fully. You recall that Season 5 was delayed because of costs, and there was talk about cutting some prominent characters to keep costs down (good god, who's next? Ken? Pete?), but it seems downright odd that they've done so little with Dawn. In some cases they actually seem to be shooting around her. You know where she sits, but they don't show her. Surely the actress Teyonah Parris is not that expensive! The scene in Peggy's apartment was perfectly played (with Peggy hesitating over her purse just long enough to realize how it must look to Dawn; and Dawn, who'd been sleeping in the office, noticing Peggy's awkward hesitation) -- and there's got to be somewhere to go with that. MLK was killed in 1968, so maybe the show will use that, as it used the Cuban Missile Crisis and the deaths of JFK and Marilyn Monroe. I think Dawn has great possibilities...

Jim Emerson is the founding editor-in-chief of RogerEbert.com and runs the Scanners blog.

Serena Bramble is a film editor currently pursuing a Bachelor's degree in Teledramatic Arts and Technology from Cal State Monterey Bay. In addition to editing, she also writes on her blog Brief Encounters of the Cinematic Kind.

Deborah Lipp is the co-owner of Basket of Kisses, whose motto is "smart discussion about smart television." She is the author of six books, including "The Ultimate James Bond Fan Book."

Kevin B. Lee is Editor in Chief of IndieWire’s PressPlay Video Blog and contributor to Roger Ebert.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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