Friday, September 05, 2008

"The illusion just happens": Revisiting Mad Men

Edward Hopper, Office at Night, 1940. Click to enlarge. Image found here.

I remember what I said before about Mad Men. But then the Mrs. and I sat down this past weekend to watch the 6 episodes of Season Two presently available via Cox Cable's on-demand service.

The Mrs. and I agree: If Hopper paintings could talk . . . with, for me, the emphasis on the "talking" bit.

[Aside: I'd originally said "Vermeer," she said "Hopper." She wins; whatever else Mad Men is, there's no escaping its American-ness.]

When advertising works well you don't even know you're being spoken to in a way. The illusion just happens.--Michael Gladis, who plays copywriter Paul Kinsey on the show, speaking on "the craft of ads."

And so it was for me as I watched these episodes, just as it has been for me with my recurring visits, both personal and virtual, with especially-compelling Hopper paintings. "The illusion just happens." Which is to say that whereas, in that earlier post, when I said this--
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.
--now, having actually seen some episodes, I'm not distracted by that surface (though I was more than a little startled when one episode began with "The Infanta," the opening song on the Decemberists' album Picaresque). The show is, after all, about what lies below surfaces, whether of fabric, of image and, in particular, of language.

I'm still not sure what these people and their stories have to do with me--there's still, for me, an emotional distance between me and them, they still being new to me and all. But I do have to say that this show's craft, the demands it makes on the viewer to watch and listen closely, makes for compelling watching.


Doc said...

The girls are 5 and 3 so TV is a non-starter in our home; 30 minutes -tops- of approved videos: Poof, Charlie & Lola, way early Disney, Talking Heads concerts, that sorta thang...

However, I have always admired this particular painting. More so than Nighthawks...

Maybe it's because I know she is going to step to the side of the desk, turn jsu enough and then bend from the waist to pick up that errant sheet of paper.

And then he's going to...

Todd Epp said...

I started out as a skeptic about Mad Men and have since become a big fan. It absolutely captures the early 60s, when America was on the cusp of so much change.

I think the Hopper analogy is interesting but perhaps about 20 years too early. I think Hopper's most famous works capture the 40s rather than the 60s.

Excellent post.

Todd Epp
Kansas Watch

John B. said...

Thanks to both of you for visiting and commenting.

Doc, I love this painting as well, though I've always read it as the woman's rather sadly longing for the man. I find myself wondering just who dropped that document and just how accidental the dropping of it was. How we answer shapes what we think each of the figures is thinking--to the extent that each is thinking anything at all. Ah, ambiguity in Art! As for Nighthawks, it's becoming awfully familiar, isn't it? It's not your typical Hopper, which for me usually makes me wonder not so much about the scene itself as what has been happening before it and what will happen next. When I look at Nighthawks, though, I do wonder what has brought those folks to that place at that time, but there's such a clear, solid sense of their having arrived somewhere that I don't wonder what will happen next to them. It's a very static painting that way--which is not to say that it's at all a bad painting, just different from most Hoppers.

Todd, I know that this Hopper isn't contemporary with Mad Men's setting, but for me it captures the show's atmosphere well: ostensibly depicting a workplace, the painting is filled with an unspoken but very nearly palpable tension that is just as significant as the ostensible narrative of that workplace. And, for dramatic purposes, it may be more significant. Add to that Hopper's big theme of alienation--which Mad Men is shot through with--and each, for me, has a strong sense of "on-the-cusp-ness".

The show's very name embodies that complex, unspoken ambiguity, no? Ostensibly, "Mad Men" is a play on what these people do and where they work: they're Ad Men who work on Madison Avenue. That's the too-clever-by-half surface that I was thinking would be about all there was to the show. But man: I don't (yet) know what's happened in Season One, but sooner or later, someone is going to lose it in some significant way, or perhaps already has--for example, aside from his ignoble origins, what in particular has driven Don Draper to assume a dead man's identity? And, the show's title is pretty firmly gendered; but as, in particular, Peggy's (a junior copywriter for the firm) and Joan's (the office manager) characters show, women are trying to play in this world as well and finding out how best to play it. What choices and compromises, comfortable and un-, do they make while still (again, ostensibly) confined/defined by the still-fairly-clear role of a Good Girl? (the real-life fantasy of Marilyn Monroe notwithstanding, of course)

Sigh. I knew this comment would go on and on once I started it.

Doc said...

"...the woman's rather sadly longing for the man."

which is why she's going to bend over and rub the guy's face in it.

; ' )

you're right, of course: how we interpet 'actions' in static paintings more often says more about us rather than the artist's intent. so i read this from a present day perspective where the woman is waaaaaaay past tired of waiting for Mr. Clueless to make a move. the underlying theme probably had to do more with the hidebound mores that came with the 40s and their attendant frustrations...

Bobby Rozzell said...

Ha! Told ya so!
Just kidding. I tried to watch the first episode when the series first started. I stopped halfway through. It just didn't click. But when I watched the first series as a whole in about five days...I fell in love. It's the writing. It's smart and layered and its about now AND then. The dangerous things the kids do (plastic bags over the head!) that are ignored are fond memories from my childhood.
If I had the first season on DVD I would loan it to you John. But all I have is Lost, West Wing and Homicide full series.
As always I enjoy your blogs.

John B. said...

The whole time I was writing this post, I thought you'd be showing up to say you told me so.

I think, just as you say, that it clicked because we saw the episodes back to back; its textures were more in evidence because succeeding episodes built on the previous ones while they were still fresh in our mind.

As for the first season, the Mrs. has bought and downloaded it, or most of it, online. But thanks for the offer.