Sunday, July 27, 2008

A stretch of river L: Navel-lint-gazing. On a brick and a TV show

Richard Estes, Telephone Booths, 1967. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. Click to enlarge. Image found here.

I greatly admire photo-realist paintings on an intellectual level: though not a painter myself, I deeply respect the technique and attention to detail--indeed, to the act of seeing--that such paintings require of their makers. But in the end, for me there is something a bit emotionally-chilly about them. They are, by their very nature, dispassionate, closely-, even clinically-observed moments put down on canvas that, in their attention to the scene's surface empiricism, tend to crowd out my attempts to feel an emotional connection to the scene depicted. I don't feel a human face in these paintings--or if one is present, it's turned away from me like those of the callers in Estes' painting. For me, these paintings ultimately are about themselves, their renderings of surface, their getting the plays of light and shadow just so, so it'll look just like a busy row of phone booths somewhere in a Western nation in 1967. While that's fine, when I look into these depictions of halls of mirrors that so many photo-realist paintings are in their essence, I don't see myself in any of those reflecting surfaces, no matter how hard they work to create the illusion that I should be able to.

On the floor by my desk, there's a brick that I occasionally stub my bare toes on. This is not metaphor or allegory: it is there. If I were a touch-typist, I'd be able to look at it as I write these words. (Yeah, yeah: You'll have to trust me on this.) It has made me feel everything from anger at myself for not remembering (again) to move it out of the way to curiosity about its past. For now, I'll put aside considerations of my shortcomings as a housekeeper and concentrate on the latter.

It is one of the thousands of bricks that, along with other fill and debris, was used to build levees and build up low spots along the shoreline of the Little Arkansas over 100 years ago when people began to build residences in this area. One morning this spring, I brought it home with me as Scruffy and I returned home from our walk. My intent was to see if I couldn't find out something, anything, about the brickyard that produced it and see if I couldn't prattle on here about what I found out.

Several toe-stubbings later and with it being almost August, this morning I finally got around to doing a bit of Googling around for an area brickyard, extant or not, with the name Mesch in it. No luck. I have my suspicions that it was used as a paver--it's very heavy for a brick its size (paving bricks are made to be much more dense than bricks used for buildings); one side is smooth and mortarless, and on the other, the name and two raised ridges bracketing the name on either side, along with some traces of mortar (a standard procedure for laying street bricks is/was to set them in mortar)--but beyond that, I cannot make it yield any more information. It is a messenger from the past that, in and of itself, bears no message from that past other than its materiality, its weight and mass, and the place where I found and from which I removed it--which itself is a sort of message (the brick's original intended use, I think it's pretty safe to say, was not levee-building).

None of that is invention. It is attention to these matters, in conjunction and combination with other matters from the past, that are at the essence of what we call History or, as Paul Ricoeur briefly defines it, "reconstructions of the past. . . . [Historians] owe a debt to the past, a debt of recognition to the dead, that makes them insolvent debtors" (Time and Narrative, 3.142-143). This one brick, if I just knew a bit more about it--its maker, the street (or building, as it may be) where it was originally laid, the circumstances that rendered it useless in its original purpose but useful in another--that knowledge would go far in aiding me, an occasional (very) casual historian, in reconstructing the history of my little section of the city of Wichita (once known, I just learned today, as the Peerless Princess of the Plains). This brick, in its small way and many, many degrees of separation later, in part helped make it possible for people to build a building on this site hard by the river from which I can write stuff about this same paving brick's having eroded out of a levee and--oh, the presumption!--presume that you still reading this have decided that that brick might be worthy of a bit of your attention as well (what Ricoeur calls the trace as "sign-effect" (3.120)--the trace in this case being the brick).

So: I look at this brick, grow curious about it, try to find out some things about it, make some reasonable guesses about it, and along with all that drag in a little Ricoeur. Navel-gazing on my part, sure, but I'm also hoping (again, if you've read this far) that some of this might resonate with you as well at some level.

All this brings me to the TV show: Mad Men

It may doubly disqualify me from commenting on this series that I've never seen an episode of it and have no real interest in seeing one. I hasten to add, though, that that's not a judgment as to its quality. But in my meanderings about the blogosphere I keep bumping into commentary on it; and I'm struck by how the topic of discussion in these pieces is, in so many words, "Aside from its fastidious attention to the material and socio-cultural details of the early '60s what does this have to do with me?"

Consider these two observations on the show which I bumped into this morning. The first is by Lance Mannion:

Mad Men is not about the time it's set in, 1960 in Season One, 1962 in Season Two, which begins tonight at 10 EDT on AMC.. The fashions, the trappings, the historical references, the depictions of the, to us, crazy social mores and ridiculously rigid but cartoonish gender roles, the glimpses at the pop culture and fads of the time are meant to place us in an alien world. The Madison Avenue and suburban Ossining are like thos planets on Star Trek where the inhabitants are living as if in Chicago of the 1920s or as if Nazi Germany won World War II or as if the Roman Empire never fell. All the attention to period detail is a trick. We're meant to think of Mad Men as a period piece but creator-producer Matt Weiner and his writers and designers and directors are inventing their own universe in which their are no real people. There are only roles for people to play.
Brendan Bernhard of the NY Sun (via James Wolcott), states things another way:
After all, how many times can you watch the show's star, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), furrow his brow, smoke an herbal cigarette while pretending to smoke a real one, and take a long, pensive pull on a fake alcoholic drink, and convince yourself that this is real drama as opposed to a televised version of an interior decoration magazine?
Yes. I would have said "photorealist painting" instead of "interior decoration magazine," but the ideas is the same: Cultural references as discreetly-deployed throw-pillows. Surface is all. If my meditating on a paving brick is navel-gazing, I get the feeling that watching Mad Men is akin to looking closely at the fibers and colors of the lint collected from the navels of these '60's-era folks. "White cotton! How very early-'60s!" But to what end? If, as Lance says above, it's the intention of "creator-producer Matt Weiner and his writers and designers and directors [to invent] their own universe in which their are no real people," then the makers of Mad Men aren't reconstructing the '60s--they are constructing it, which isn't the same thing as "a debt of recognition to the dead." The show ends up being a celluloid trompe l'oeil that no one contained in it is interested in examining and interrogating (which is, like, you know, what thinking human beings do to their environment from time to time) and thus leaves nothing for the viewer to do but admire. That, of course, is something, and not to be dismissed lightly either. But after a while, I'd think it wouldn't be enough.


Semi-tangentially, Zunguzungu has a thoughtful meditation on his recent bike-trip along the C&O Canal and the Great Allegheny Passage and the (re)constructions of history he observed along the way. Well worth a visit over at his place, if you have some time to spare.


Bobby R. said...

What? you mean it's fiction?
Just this last week I caught the whole series (it is on Cox OnDemand) and my first thought was, "every young girl needs to see this to get a whiff of why early feminists seem so angry". Well actually my first thought was, "I was four when this is supposed to be going on and I remember the cool toys!!"
The attention paid to details is fun to see but its not what makes the characters or stories interesting. In fact the period is a character in the story. So is the place (New York City) and situation (Mad Men was a self chosen nickname for Madison Ave. advertising men). It is a lot like "Bonfire of the Vanities" (the book NOT the movie) in using the unique details of a time to tell the timeles story of hubris. Not just of an individual but of any time that believes its people are free of the same old defects and sins of previous ages.
I enjoy it. It makes me think. But, as always, your mileage may vary.

John B. said...

Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

You said, "[Mad Men is a lot like "Bonfire of the Vanities" (the book NOT the movie) in using the unique details of a time to tell the timeles story of hubris. Not just of an individual but of any time that believes its people are free of the same old defects and sins of previous ages."

I think this is precisely my point, as well as that of the commenters I've referred to. If human hubris is indeed timeless--and I'd agree with that--then "the unique details of a time" ultimately become incidental to that theme. Oedipus the King surely is at some level a dramatization of the perils of hubris (not just Oedipus', either, but Jocasta and Laius' as well, for thinking they could derail Fate), but Socrates doesn't feel the need to have all his characters drop references to 8th-cen. BC (or whenever it was) Thebes. My sense of Mad Men, though, based on the critiques I've read, is that its story is, or is in danger of becoming, subservient to the show's makers' slavish attention to period accuracy.

I admit: my comments are based on some comments written by others who have watched; as I've thought about this post more, I find myself thinking that I should watch an episode or two as well to find out what the fuss is all about. My larger point, though, is simply this: whether we're talking about historical or fictional narrative, the ideal is that the setting should ultimately serve the story in some way, rather than overwhelm it.

zunguzungu said...

I wonder if some of the purpose of that scrupulous care about detail is to safely isolate such hubris within another time, when everyone was oh-so-very-different from us? After all, the more the narrative-making focuses on establishing that this past is a foreign country (in exactly the way Oedipus does not), the less threatened we are by the possibility that its message might really be universal, might apply to us. In this senses, if the setting is "overwhelming" the story, as you say, this might be a defensive response to th efact that that story is an uncomfortable one.

Haven't seen the show, though, so I may be way way off. but what you said resonates with some of the ways I've been thinking about historical fiction (and fiction that takes place in a culture linked with the "past"): so often that medium becomes a real part of the message, an implication that because "we" are no longer like these people, we can safely criticize them without worrying about the glass houses we ourselves live in.

And thanks for the shout out. I was actually reading your post thinking "Man, I should have written something more like this!" I liked the bit about the brick.

R. Sherman said...

I've got a lot to do but this post caused the following thought: With photo-realist painters or Mad Men's attention to detail, it's almost as if, the more detail the artist/writer incorporates into the work, the less "real" it becomes. Such detail is only possible after many hours of observation. In that sense, the act of observation removes that which is being observed from reality altogether. Call it The Heisenberg Principle in art.

I'm not sure how the above fits in to your post, and I'm probably a moron, but I need to flesh this out some more in my own mind.


John B. said...

Right. "Seeing" is a tricky term, isn't it?

The thing about any narrative, fictional or non-fictional, is that for the story being told to get anywhere, the narrator has to make decisions: What to include, what to exclude. A story seems genuine to us if enough is included so that we can make some judgment about it along the lines of "I can relate." But if too much is included, we're left saying, What's the point? (I'm reading a book of criticism now that, almost 30 pages in, has yet to propose an underlineable thesis; it's about to drive me nuts.) I'm pretty sure that photorealists make some choices re what to include/exclude; the illusion, though, is that their works are whole and entire: literally everything to be seen at that place and time is in this painting. But how many of us, just dashing into the store for a gallon of milk, really "see" the cut flowers displayed in the aisle we're dashing down? Again: I say this without having seen Mad Men, but the impression I get from the critiques I've read is that, as it were, the show is taking its own sweet time getting to the milk.

One other thought: Deciding what is "real" requires some input from the observer--input that can be nothing other than subjective in nature: You can't know something's genuineness without having had some prior experience with something akin to it as a basis for comparison, and/or someone else's confirmation. You can know only what you know.

Anonymous said...

Is the idea that too much detail detracts from the message true in a visual medium as well? Sometimes a lack of detail or poor attention to detail can detract from a message too. One of the wonderful things about a good novel is the detail that it provides.
Did Tolkien really need to fill his books with so much detail?
I am curious John (and not in an argumentative way but in a, well curious, way) Are there any television series you have or do enjoy?

John B. said...

There is indeed such a thing as too little detail leading to a story's failure, too. Narratives can't exist in vacuums--they have to have some grounding in a space and time the audience either knows or can imagine, and it's description that provides that grounding.
Re Tolkien: Off the top of my head, I'd say that the story's essentials (I'm thinking here of LotR) didn't require all the detail. One of his goals, though, was to create an English myth, and that task--to create that world as being at once distinct from England and yet somehow recognizably English in its sensibilities--would indeed require a fair amount of what Orson Welles called "shadow stuffing."

As to your last question: I don't watch a lot of television, but earlier on I gave some thought to the matter of shows I like that pay lots of attention to detail. The one that immediately comes to mind is the late, lamented HBO series Carnivale: meticulously set in the Depression-era Southwest, but its story's themes--Good vs. Evil, the doppelganger, a son in search of his past, etc.--aren't overwhelmed by the detail. There's little overt referencing to the time and its cultural and historical artifacts; we just notice them as the stories themselves get furthered. Elsewhere on this blog I described Carnivale's pace as "glacial"--and that that was a good thing, I thought: there's lots of both narrative and visual space in that series that gives the audience room to ponder what's going on--and, I'd argue, if the show is going to work (and it did, at least for the first season--I've not yet seen the second (and last) season), it requires that pace.

R. Sherman said...

More thoughts, occurring when I should be reading insurance policies:

Doesn't too much detail become self-indulgent? I mean especially in period pieces written long after the fact. To me, they just scream "Look at me? I'm an artist who does her/his research, dammit!"

Or, think "Thomas Kinkaid" on the screen.

Tolkien is a different case. As you point out, for him it was as much a linguistic exercise, as anything and he needed a context for the language(s) he was creating. The context required detail. Without it, he'd be long forgotten or if not, he'd occupy a very small section of the trash Sci-Fi section of the local Barnes and Noble.


bobby rozzell said...

I was going to leave this alone till I saw the Thomas Kinkaid comment. Is Kinkaid's problem overwhelming detail? It seems what makes him so predictable and sad is his emphasis of certain elements (ooooo, warm interior lights) and an intentional overlooking of other details.
I enjoyed Carnivale. I am sure its a revelation of my quirkiness (flawed, fallen, bad taste) but the television show (or movie or comic book, ahem, novel) that has people who are not all good or all bad yet doesn't deny the existence of evil (and good) gets my eyeballs. Oh, and if its well written. Carnivale did that. Deadwood did that. Mad Men does too. The Cleaner? Not so much.
Thanks for the stimulating conversation.

John B. said...

I agree with you about Kinkade's predictability. I won't presume you'd be interested by linking to it here, but in the bowels of this blog is a post on Kinkade that you might like.

I've not seen much of Deadwood, but I liked very very much what I have seen--the writing was just extraordinary. Of course, it too died an early death, so what do you and I know, eh?

And: you're quite welcome. I hope you'll keep on coming back.