Mad Men: Bridge to History

19 06 2015

(Spoilers. Why would I do that?)

[This would have been way more relevant back when I started writing it, when the series actually ended. But I’m not bothered if you’re not.]

I always enjoyed Mad Men most as a history lesson. A dramatic, unpredictable, emotionally turbulent history lesson. Surely that’s the wrong way to watch it. The show was never a mere nostalgia fest, but was driven by vibrant, three dimensional characters, as any story should be. Still, I’ve gotten more interested in history in the last ten years or so, trying to form a coherent mental picture of the decades and centuries flowing one into the next. TV dramas have been my primary tool, and probably what sparked my interest in the first place.

I knew some things about the 60s, and didn’t know a lot of things. Of course I’ve always heard about how it was a dynamic time of sweeping social change, but you always hear that in a way that emphasizes the goals and outcomes of the counterculture. Mad Men focused more on the entrenched old guard, and seeing them struggle really brought home the psychological violence of all that upheaval. Even as it happened gradually, almost in real time over seven seasons. The key to the whole series is Don’s reaction to Kennedy being shot: “We’re not who we thought we were.”

The last half of the final season takes place in 1970, the year before I was born. That makes the show a bridge from history to my lifetime. For the kid I was, the 70s was all fun and games. I was too young to understand the cultural vein of deep cynicism brought on by Vietnam, Watergate, economic recession and the failure of the Age of Aquarius to materialize. That understanding I gleaned later on from Philip K. Dick, Network, The Ice Storm, and so on. In Mad Men’s final episodes, we see the seeds being sown.

Out of a dissatisfaction he could never understand or articulate, Don has finally walked away from his whole life; his job, his home, his assets, his identity that was never fully his anyway. His family too, although I had the sense that he maintains a tenuous connection to Sally. He’s gone as far west as there is to go, and fetched up in a new age hippie commune. He attends workshops designed to plumb the emotions and access the truth. And it works, to a certain extent. The efforts of the gurus and the pilgrims are genuine, and the methods make sense in a time when so many longstanding, reliable traditions have been turned inside out. But we know where it all leads. It leads nowhere. The communes all failed, the gurus gave way to crooks, self-actualization degenerated into petty self-interest. (Is my Gen-X mistrust showing?)

The final shot is a cut from a meditating, ohm-chanting Don, with a smile spreading across his face, to the famous “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” ad. The prevailing wisdom among viewers said that Don conceived the ad in that peacenik love den, and brought it back to McCann Erickson (a real ad firm by the way, which really did make that ad), having learned just enough from the Aquarians to exploit their optimism and change the face of advertising forever.

I didn’t see it that way. Because I couldn’t imaging Don going back to the company after disappearing without a word for so long, I saw that cut as Don breaking away from the cynical world of advertising. He had stepped out of his fog at last, learned to see himself objectively, lost all interest in corporate achievement and could maybe start his life over for real. Meanwhile the company, absent Don’s sensitivity, ushered in a new era of advertising with a piece that was highly successful despite having none of the emotional truth of, say, the Carousel campaign.

Except the more I think about it, the more that outcome seems impossible. If Don is our window into history, it’s only fitting that he would design the Coke ad. It’s only fitting that he would transform the promises of the 60s into a cash cow. The Coke ad is the perfect summation of a cultural failure to awaken, and Don is the perfect vehicle to bring it to life.

Maybe it comes down to whether the show is about history, or about its characters.





The Best Opening Sequence

28 04 2015

The Best Opening Sequence For a TV Series Ever, in my expert opinion, belongs to Mad Men.

It perfectly captures the slow but inevitable disintegration of white male privilege, experienced through a cushioning haze of alcohol. With only a couple episodes left to go, it seems Don Draper’s whole life may disintegrate in similar fashion.
Am I wrong? Got a better opening sequence contender? I bet you don’t.





Universe Fatigue

8 04 2015

Mere days after my last post about the upcoming shake-up at Marvel Comics, DC has announced that they will make another round of big changes this summer. The plan is to bring more diversity to creators and characters, and de-emphasize universal continuity in favor of letting stories and characters breathe. Hooray DC!

As for Marvel…I keep searching the internet for some indication that they’re not really moving everything to a patchwork planet where everyone will just duke it out all the time, but I have not found any such indication. Of course, nothing is really permanent in superhero comics, and when everyone gets sick of Battleworld in a few years they will surely return to Earth. Battleworld would make a fun miniseries, but as a master plan, it’s just so aggressively dumb. I guess one way to maintain universal continuity is to throw out those pesky plot points altogether.

I’ve read comics pretty much my whole life. I’ve never tried too hard to get to know the whole universes of either Marvel or DC, until the recent reboots gave me a chance to follow along from the beginning. Marvel’s Ultimate Universe was great for several years, but a pile-up of crossover events and mini-relaunches eventually made it impossible to follow.

(At least, impossible to follow in the trade paperbacks, which are published a year or more after the comic magazines and are generally not shelved in any sensible order in the stores. But I’m sorry, I’m not paying $3-$4 for a 22 page pamphlet that is only a fragment of a story.)

DC’s New 52 was more uneven, and much more short lived than the Ultimate Universe. (For an excellent breakdown of the New 52 launch, and the market forces driving both Marvel and DC, read this.) But over the next couple of years, I’m guessing DC will put the smack down on Marvel. At least in their paper publications.

Marvel Studios still seems to have the lock on the movies and tv series, with several popular, interlocking franchises, and DC/Warner Brothers struggling to get a decent movie out since The Dark Knight. I should be thrilled at the mess of Marvel movies coming out over the next 4 years. (I am super excited about Daredevil hitting Netflix on Friday, despite all my complaining.) But part of me is just tired. It’s great that all these characters live in the same universe, it’s great when they interact with each other, but does every movie, episode, and comic have to be true to a universal canon? Can’t we all just relax a little bit, and accept that different authors will tell different, sometimes contradictory stories?

I read an article recently– and my apologies, the article and it’s author are lost to the mists of the internet– that talked about the difference between keeping an archive and telling a story. I think actually it was a review of The Battle of Five Armies. And the critic felt that instead of telling a story, Jackson was obsessively archiving Middle Earth. And that there is this impulse among nerds to archive all the background and history of fictional worlds, which can be a fine hobby, or (and here I may be mixing the article with my own opinions) an unhealthy variety of escapism that deadens the story by reducing it to a set of statistics.

All that energy spent archiving would be better spent seeking out new authors and new stories, or better yet, creating one’s own. In a worst case scenario, the marketplace gets flooded with remakes, reboots, and tweaks, by people who are better researchers than creators.

Is that where we are? It kinda looks like it. Between the lack of originality and the clear cash-grabbiness of multiple interlocking properties, I wish I could turn my back on the whole thing.

But I can’t. Not yet. Daredevil on Friday!!





Jodorosky’s Dune: Flawed Prophecy

16 09 2014
noxSquare

One of Moebius’ costume designs for Dune. Wings don’t make an angel.

Jodorowsky’s Dune is a documentary about a movie that was never made. Cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, having had great success in Europe with his 1973 surreal western The Holy Mountain, was given free reign by producer Michel Seydoux to make a new movie. He wanted to make Dune. Despite extensive pre-production work, including a complete storyboard of 3,000 images by the legendary Moebius, the film was never made. I watched the documentary. I’ve seen one Jodorowsky film (1970’s El Topo, another surreal western) and I’ve read many volumes of his comics, and I think the failure of his Dune was the best case scenario.

I discovered French artist Moebius as a teenager, when Marvel’s Epic imprint started publishing English translations of his comics. They are pure magic and I devoured all I could find. He collaborated with Jodorowsky to create The Incal, a sprawling esoteric space opera. I picked up The Incal for Moebius’ art, but I was also transported by Jodorowsky’s story, which builds an accessible science fiction world around colossal, reality-plumbing, spirit-bending themes.

As an adult, I find more and more to appreciate in Moebius’ art, but I find Jodorowsky lacking as an author. I still enjoy the wildly cosmic drama of The Incal, but the characterization is thin at best, and the dialog is pretty ham-fisted. The concepts are big and daring, but don’t add up to much in the end. It feels like it was written in a breathless rush of late-night, youthful, mystic self-righteousness… the mental state you get in college before you have to actually get a job.

Jodorowsky tells us that his ambition with Dune was to make a movie that would change the world, provide the effects of drugs without drugs, explode young minds: “…a movie that is a prophet.” I can see similar motives at work in El Topo and The Incal. But like The Incal, El Topo falls short. I found it to be a movie that creates the sensation of expanding your mind, without actually doing it. Which I suspect (I can’t speak from experience) is the same thing hallucinogenic drugs do. It’s a thrilling experience, but ultimately empty.

Can a work of art function as an expander of the consciousness? Absolutely. One might argue that all great art does precisely that. I have to admire Jodorowsky’s audacity, but I feel like while he’s lobbing cinematic missiles at the walls that bind the spirit, he’s neglecting his art. In the end it comes off as self-aggrandizing; he wants to be the guy that brings enlightenment more than he wants everyone to be enlightened. He also clearly has an attachment to violence, which is fine for an artist, but a deal-breaker for a guru (in my humble opinion as an unstudied humanist).

I’m probably coming off as a terrible old stick in the mud. Won’t do drugs, dismissive of youthful optimism, blah blah blah. The thing is, what Jodorowsky wants for his works, I want for them too. I would love to have my mind legitimately exploded. I crave it as much as he craves granting it. As an audience I’m dying to hurl my disbelief into the fire. Sometimes a work of art lets me do it, and I’m thrilled. But many works of art don’t, and life’s too short to pretend they do.

After his Dune movie fell apart, Jodorowsky started writing comics. It seems clear that he poured everything he wasn’t able to say with Dune into The Incal, and a few spin-off series including La Caste Des Meta-Barons, beautifully illustrated by Juan Gimenez. (I found a volume of Meta-Barons on a trip to France in 1995, and have since collected all 8 volumes in French. I have to struggle a bit to read French, but it makes the writing more palatable.) Meta-barons has some mystic elements, but it is more of a straight space-opera than the Incal. Still, it is the most operatic of space-operas, steeped in bloody tragedy and impossible stakes.

My biggest complaint with many film adaptations is that they are so different from the source material, they’d work better as wholly original stories. Jodorowsky’s Dune describes a movie like that, straying far away from Frank Herbert’s book. Jodorowsky, unable to adapt Dune, went out and authored many original stories. And they are aggressively, flamboyantly original, and thus destined to be classics.

I met Alejandro Jodorowsky at the San Diego Comic Con in the early 2000s. His attendance was not well publicized, and I was surprised to find him there. He was humble, eminently friendly, happy to sign a book and to take a copy of the ridiculous zine I was handing out. That encounter is one of the most enduring treasures I took away from Comic Con. It’s lucky– for me certainly, for the world I believe– that Jodorowsky’s Dune never materialized. His comics are a far better legacy.





Obsessives Anonymous

21 05 2014

Silence of the Lambs was on recently. I like that movie, mostly for Hannibal Lecter. I am a fan of monsters, from towering atomic lizards to human beings ruled by inhuman impulses. Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs is a great monster; alien, powerful, horrifying yet sympathetic.

I went on a little Hannibal kick and dug out my paperback Red Dragon, which I hadn’t read for 20 years or so. The writing wasn’t to my taste as much as it once was, but I read on, happily anticipating the Lecter scenes, figuring I would reread the whole trilogy. But I got to Lecter, and was disappointed. He seemed much more materialistic and petty, not so much the lethally wise enigma Hopkins brought to life. I have a lot of books to read, so I put Red Dragon away.

The other movies with Hopkins as Lecter don’t quite measure up either. Something magical happened in Silence of the Lambs, some confluence of acting, co-acting, writing, directing, cinematography, I don’t know what all. But that quintessential Hannibal Lecter exists in that film, and nowhere else. I wanted more of him, more of Clarice, more FBI vs Hannibal, but there is no more to be had. I decided it’s better to enjoy the one movie that really speaks to me than to chase pale imitations.

This is a new behavior for me, with a range of applications. There are many books, comics, movies, and tv series that I enjoy deeply. Many of those are media-crossing franchises. Now, I wouldn’t call myself an obsessive fan. I have seen obsessive fans, some of them are my good friends, and there are levels of collecting and consuming and trivia-mining that I don’t come anywhere near. Still, I have been known to latch onto a book or a show like an escapism-eating lamprey. And once latched on, I’ve been known to eagerly scarf up every new iteration on screen or page. And the experience is almost always disappointing.

The king of this phenomenon is obviously George Lucas. But like the houses of Westeros, plenty of others are vying for the throne. Steven Moffat is gradually ruining Doctor Who. DC comics have placed their faith in crummy filmmakers. Peter Jackson is burying The Hobbit in bloated sub-plots and self-indulgent special effects. Such is the way of the world. A great story maintaining its greatness for many volumes and across media is miraculous. Of course it doesn’t happen every day.

I used to pin gigantic hopes on newly minted iterations of my favorite stories, like all my happiness depended on the film or the sequel or the series finale getting it right. And sometimes they do get it right, and I will always find that thrilling. But if they blow it, they blow it. Whatever version of the story I fell in love with still exists. I will not require it to update or expand to keep me interested.

Now I’m off to see Godzilla!

 

 

 





My Life Story in Mixtape Cover Art

14 03 2014

Yes, mixtapes. I’ll try to skip all the nostalgia and just tell you the story.

In the early 80s, I owned a half dozen cassettes, all Men at Work and The Fixx and Depeche Mode if you really want to know. I also had a couple mixtapes of odds and ends; bits of movie soundtracks I captured by holding a tape recorder up to the TV, a handful of Queen songs, Flight of the Valkyries, etc. Around the summer of 1985 I put some favorites on a 60 minute cassette, which I christened Neal’s Pirated Tape. I brought this to a kind of summer camp where we lived in a college dorm and took all sorts of crazy classes, and the tape went over well with my small circle of friends. Pretty soon I was assembling a second tape, and in the process decided to revamp the first one, to give it more variety and a more satisfying narrative. Thus, 1986 (my first year of high school) brought about Neal’s Pirated Tape in it’s only surviving version, and Neal’s Other Pirated Tape. And now I was hooked.

I would buy albums, but only by my favorite bands (and I would slowly amass all their albums). Other songs I liked had to go on a Pirated Tape. I always had one in progress, and always named them some variety of Pirated Tape. Throughout high school and college I completed one every 3-9 months. There was always a wealth of songs to be discovered from my friends and family. The tapes began to function as an abstract journal, chronicling my changing connection to pop culture.

After leaving college, the process slowed down drastically. Maybe my own tastes had gotten too specialized, maybe I just wasn’t close enough to enough people, but the fountain of discoverable music just dried up. Even working in a company with lots of cool young (and less young) adults, the fertile sound network just wasn’t there. It took me over a year to complete my first tape out of college, and the one after that languished half-finished for two or three years. It became clear that like staying up all night, spontaneous road trips, and boffer sword battles, the Pirated Tape series belonged to a magical time of high independence and low responsibility that must come to an end. In 1999, I made an effort to fill up the remaining minutes and close the book with Neal’s Last Pirated Tape.

Obviously everything is different now, with every song and album instantly accessible online. I still prefer to hoard music, even if it is pure data, rather than stream Pandora or other such services. I’m still making mixes as a home for stray favorite songs, but now they are playlists, ever fluid and changable, not so much a magnetic engraving of my history with music. However, I’ve finally gotten around to digitizing all 24 of my old Pirated Tapes and adding them to my iTunes library. Naturally, part of the process was to create album artwork for each one. I did what I always do when I need album artwork in iTunes: image search some evocative words from the title and see what comes up.

And now we come to the point of this post: below is all the cover art I came up with for all the Pirated Tapes. Most of it is pure found imagery, but a few I messed around with in Photoshop. Some of the image searches got a little more specific. Like the tapes themselves, the art won’t mean much to anyone but me, but I wanted to share anyway.

NPTcovers





Disassembling on Breaking Bad

7 01 2014

breakingbadscoreWarning: fat stacks of spoilers ahead

Sometime in the last few years, I heard a segment of Fresh Air which brought up the soundtrack to Breaking Bad, composed by Dave Porter. Terry Gross or her guest (I don’t remember who it was) described the soundtrack as being not tuneful or musical, but noisy, droning, and very powerful, and perfect for the show. I had been watching the show, hadn’t particularly noticed the music, but the comments on Fresh Air intrigued me. And after that I did start to notice the music, and it sounded a lot like some of my favorite industrial/ambient stuff. I thought, I should get that soundtrack, and that thought sat in the back of my mind with all the other albums and books and comics I would own by now if I had unlimited money.

Then the final season hit Netflix. And then I got to the point where Jesse is pushed past the breaking point of all breaking points, pretty much loses his mind, and tries to burn down Walter’s house. Gas Can Rage is the name of the music track, and it is a series of downward spiraling drones that perfectly capture the fall off the deep end that goes on and on, the feeling of watching oneself dig one’s own hole deeper and deeper, untethered from any hope or desire to do better.

Then I bought the soundtrack. Both volumes. What follows are the most lasting impressions I got from the show, as evoked by some of the music tracks.

Matches in the Pool: The affable chemistry teacher, living in quiet desperation, diagnosed with cancer, sits at his backyard pool making chemical reactions. Matches light, matches go out. In the pilot episode, Walter White says of chemistry, “I prefer to think of it as the study of change.” When the show’s creators were filming the pilot, did they have any idea how thoroughly every character would change throughout the series? Hank going from pot-bellied buffoon to flawed hero cop? Marie rising above her habitual pettiness as her family rips apart? Walter Junior, the self-styled Flynn, coming into his own and turning on the father he once idolized? Skyler, shifting from controlling shrew to stymied mother, to desperate victim, to tormented collaborator, before finally emerging a poorer, sadder, wiser, ethically sound human being? Jesse, a character who wasn’t supposed to survive the first season, living through an arc more akin to a POW than a drug pusher? And of course, Walter White himself. Did anyone picture the stunning scope of his atrocities when they filmed the pilot? I like to think they did not.

Gray Matter: Every time Eliot or Gretchen show up, I feel like we are glimpsing the life Walter should have had. Throughout the series I was haunted by the question, what went wrong? Why isn’t Walter a high-profile, highly paid researcher with his old friend’s company? All we know is there was something between him and Gretchen, and it ended, and Walter’s attachment to Gray Matter ended with it. Did they shut him out? Did he walk away out of pride? Was he always his own worst enemy? There’s no way to know. I believe Walter when he tells Skyler she is the love of his life in his aborted video farewell, and his devotion to his children is beyond question… unless his wife and children are just the objects of devotion he needs to play the role of provider he imagines for himself.

The Bike Lock: By the time Crazy 8 is imprisoned in Jesse’s basement, Walt has committed several criminal acts, but nothing he couldn’t conceivably walk away from and return to his old life. However, he knows there is no coming back from deliberate, premeditated murder, and he’s desperate not to cross that line. Walter’s cancer diagnosis liberates him somewhat. As a man with no future, he’s free to assault the bullies picking on his son and blow up the douchebag day-trader’s car (two of the most gratifying moments in the entire series). But he’s not a man with nothing left to lose. Not until after he kills Crazy 8. Soon after that, he dons the black porkpie hat of Heisenberg. After bombing his way into business with Tuco, Walter is overcome, surpassed by his own actions, and we witness his alter ego growling to life with bestial birth pangs.

Dead Freight: There is something wrong with Todd. He is missing some basic component of humanity. It’s not surprising, given the family he comes from. But he is a stark contrast to just about every other character in the show. No matter what awful things they do, they all are complex people, generating sympathy on some level. Not Todd. His crush on Lydia is kind of endearing, but he treats her the way he treats everyone he is eager to please, which ultimately comes off as a pure sociopath looking for a place to fit in. It’s hard to believe he could do worse than shooting the kid on the minibike, but of course he does.

Hank’s Last Stand: The death of Hank is the last big turning point for Walt. Up to that point he has done awful things, made terrible decisions, made even worse sacrifices, but essentially always come out on top. But when a member of his family finally dies, he has to see that he has scraped by on equal parts ingenious cunning and dumb luck. It’s hard to tell what pains him more, the death of his brother-in-law or the shattering of his illusions. In the same encounter he loses the bulk of the money he’s amassed for his children. The folly of Heisenberg is undeniable. A bit of the old Walt re-emerges then, leading to a synthesis of  his two sides; a less reckless man, less dangerous to innocent bystanders, but perhaps more dangerous to the objects of his singular purpose.

Chained Dog. Walter White drives the show, and his long transformation is fascinating, but I was much more emotionally invested in Jesse Pinkman. And holy cow, what a brutal investment that is. He’s a decent kid, basically smart but with terrible judgement, trying to play the hardened criminal, unaware of the depth of his own caring. And in 62 episodes he endures enough suffering, tragedy, and guilt to spawn literary traditions for whole nations. By the last few episodes, the question that ate at me was will Jesse survive? By the final episode, I wondered if he’d want to. While enslaved by Welker’s gang, he flashes back to crafting a wooden box, with all the patience and devotion that Walter always wanted him to apply to cooking meth. Is this also a vision of his future? Burdened by his past, but finding a way to live, bringing some beauty into the world? I have to believe it is. Jesse killing Todd gave me a bloody, nihilistic urge to cheer that I’m not at all comfortable with. When he smashes through the compound gate and hurtles away in the car, boiling over with grief, rage, joy, relief, free for the first time since he partnered up with Walter, I could barely take it. Aaron Paul better win every award there is for Season 5, or there is no justice at all.

Heisneberg’s Theme: a spare series of notes, sounding like the devil’s own footsteps. Did Heisenberg emerge from some netherworld to occupy Walter White’s last two years on Earth? It often seems that way. But I think it’s pretty clear that Heisenberg was always present in Walter, that it’s a mistake to think of Walter and Heisenberg as separate entities, despite the yawning gulf between the chemistry teacher in episode 1 and the man who has torn apart the lives of everyone he’s ever touched in the finale. As he says to Skyler (finally giving her the honesty she has always needed), “I did it for me. I liked it.”

Dave Porter talks to Wired about scoring the show here.








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