Mad Men is less different from today than we think

Warning for “Mad Men” fans. This post contains an immediate spoiler about Episode 4, Season 4.

The most recent episode of “Mad Men” leaves us with a stunning image of a coming generation gap: As Peggy Olson bounds out the glass doors of her ad firm to join for lunch a group of 20-somethings wearing bright coats, her bosses at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce are standing on the other side of the glass in dark suits, preparing for a client lunch. Immediately, this image gave me chills, capped off as it was by Peggy and Pete Campbell, on opposite sides of the glass doors, meeting eyes for a second, as if to acknowledge their distance. Pete’s about to start a family, Peggy is moving ever farther from the possibility, at least at this time in her life.

And yet, I was struck that, as much as I think the show’s creatives want me to believe it is Peggy’s youth side that wins the race to the future, I think it is the men in suits that still dominate today. That doesn’t mean a youth culture doesn’t exist, but what struck me about Peggy’s young lunch group is their evocation of that fleeting period immediately post-college and pre- rest of our lives when you can still kind of be a teenager, when you don’t feel you need to make immediate decisions about a career or family or graduate school.

And let’s not kid ourselves about who is in charge today: it’s not the young people, it’s the ad people. Maybe they can’t drink at work like they used to and their jobs are less glamorous, but they still reign. Meanwhile, the guy at the West Village party who tells Peggy he would never sell himself to those forces of evil is nowhere to be seen. His spirit is a laughable hippie cliche now, why wouldn’t you sell yourself if you had the opportunity? For me, what’s been sad about watching Mad Men Season 4 is not marveling at how bad things used to be in the workplace, but how bad things still are. Not much has changed in the sense that the vapid advertising of the kind we see on the show, with the once new-fangled concept of focus groups now the awful norm, is what rules.

Old movies: Salesman

This 1968 documentary about four Bible salesmen from the Boston area explores the lonely and often uncomfortable world of the door-to-door salesman. We don’t see them much anymore, but in the 1960s, the nice man in shirtsleeves selling Bibles apparently was a welcome enough guest in the homes of Americans. The Maysles brothers, who made this movie and comprised its entire film crew, found the four salesmen near their Boston-area hometown.

Photo credit: DVD Times

The movie is entirely devoid of commentary or any kind of judgment or way of putting what’s onscreen into perspective. But the message is clear. These salesmen live a lonely life. When they come home at the end of a day of trying — usually unsuccessfully — to sell their expensive Bibles to Catholic families without much money, they go through the painful exercise of comparing sales with each other. Toward the end of the movie, when one of the salesmen, Paul, has had a very dry run, he is told by one of the other guys that he just needs to change his attitude.

When the salesmen are at a conference, one ambitious (or perhaps just boastful) guy stands up and says he’ll sell $35,000 worth of bibles a year because he has kids and his wife wants a bigger house. Another guy gets up and says he’ll sell $50,000 worth. You can feel our four characters’ guts wrench. Mine did, at least.

As one of the Maysles brothers say in their interview, the pursuit of money is a lonely process. “I think it’s depressing too anytime that you view people in a social situation, in a convention, where they’re really not that much together. Any kind of selling activity does not really bring people together..The film is about alienation. The salesman goes on his own lonely way from one little igloo to another, from one household to another–it’s as lonely and as difficult an existence as it is for an eskimo in the cold North. And it is the cold North because, unless he sells, he’s got no bread and butter.”

The other brother: “It’s always depressing…if your motivation in life is making money.”

The interview itself is worth watching, because the Maysles brothers answer questions like whether they render moral judgments on the four characters in the film. It is clear at least that the salesmen are nice enough guys trying to make money by selling people who don’t have money for something they don’t need. They’re not so unlike sales people today, except that it is seldom any of them knock on doors.

Film Economy: Sullivan’s Travels

Where I write a bit about a movie –old or new– that has to do with the economy…

Appearing near the end of a Depression and during a war that forced Americans to ration and live in their means, Sullivan’s Travels (1941) is a movie about whether Hollywood can genuinely portray suffering and hardship and whether it should. Ambitious director John Sullivan wants to make a movie about real people and their problems, instead of the light-hearted fare he has become recognized for. His credibility as a chronicler of the downtrodden challenged by his studio executive bosses — Sullivan is a well-healed prep school and Ivy League grad — he decides to travel outside of Hollywood and experience destitution for himself.

The film is a funny and honest take on the theme of whether those removed from hardship can genuinely portray it through art. Supposedly, writer and director Preston Sturges, made the movie to go after those of his contemporaries who produced serious work about the depression that were heavy in a certain aesthetic (think the movie version of the Grapes of Wrath) and in a certain moralistic view of the goodness of frugality (think It’s a Wonderful Life). At the same time,  Sullivan’s Travels is greatly influenced by those movies (which I happen to like), and seems a bit in debt to them. The scenes of poverty, which include freight cars traveled by hobos and the travails of a chain gang, look similar to the aforementioned aesthetic.

Sullivan’s ultimate eagerness to return back to his life of wealth and ease after he gets into real trouble teaches him that sometimes people need to be transported from difficulty rather than reminded of it. Whatever your take is on that statement, it is a thoughtful movie, its theme perhaps best summed up by this line from Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

“I had rather have a fool to make me merry than experience to make me sad, and to travel for it too!”

Sullivan’s Travels (Photo credit: Night Hawk News)

Currently reading: The New Deal, the Real Estate Craze and the Mad Men Era

The economy has me reading about what exactly constituted the New Deal and its signature program the Works Progress Administration in Nick Taylor’s American Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA (When FDR Put the Nation to Work).

Before this, I finished the sprawling late-’90s novel Man in Full by Tom Wolfe, which depicts the fall of a grandiose real estate developer in Atlanta. Lately, I have found that reading things from the late ’90s evokes an almost foolishly  optimistic and unaware time, and this book’s depiction of a developer’s gluttony and false sense of self is more cheerful than grim. It is still compelling to read about the seeds of the kind of avarice we are today accustomed to from the latest news reports on investment banks profiting from the foreclosure crisis .

I also just began Kitty Kelley‘s biography of Frank Sinatra, His Way, which gives the exhaustive, warts-and-all account that she is known for. I picked up the book after watching the somewhat vapid musical High Society, which Sinatra starred in opposite Grace Kelley and Bing Crosby. Frank’s marriage to first wife Nancy is straight out of Mad Men (well, Mad Men, more likely was inspired by marriages like theirs). He is a consistent philanderer who is rarely home, and she is a jealous wife who nonetheless acquiesces to her role and wants above all else to prevent Frank from divorcing her. It is the kind of dispiriting story that is best read without attachment to either person.

But back to the New Deal book. As Taylor says on his website, “The WPA symbolized an impulse of government that before the 2008 election was under severe attack. But that impulse toward generosity and human dignity is poised to make a comeback.”

American Made describes a program that was arrived at not only because the unemployment rate was 25 percent when Franklin Delano Roosevelt entered office in March of 1933 but also because he and the chief administrators of the program made no bones about the fact that the government would create a comprehensive jobs program. There was no love lost between them and those who FDR referred to as “economic royalists.”

Though it had its share of inefficiencies and infighting, the good of the New Deal and Works Progress Administration seems to far outweigh the flaws. It left the nation with national facilities, bridges, parks, schools, art and civic buildings that have sustained us since. Although I’m pessimistic a similar program will be enacted soon, what with the prevailing skepticism of powerful people toward the government’s role in job creation, convincing arguments have been made that no one else will.

Right now, the Obama administration seems to be averse to political risk. As Paul Krugman says in a recent blog post about Obama’s administration:

[T]hey have to propose new initiatives that might not pass, and be prepared to run against the do-nothing Republicans if the initiatives fail.

Now consider what FDR said during the 1932 election, as quoted in American Made:

The country needs and unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.

‘Mad Men’ Inflation Calcuator

Along with many other Americans, I have become engrossed by the show “Mad Men” on AMC. It is enjoyable on many levels. It is filled with seamy affairs and internecine rivalries that threaten to unravel in just about every episode. It is also taut and evocative of the early 1960s. Everyone abides a tacit appreciation for discretion that seemed to be a hallmark of social, professional and familial interaction during this time. Because of this air of secrecy, each episode brings with it a new revelation about a character that moves the plot along. For instance, the dashing Roger Stirling, head of the show’s fictional advertising agency Stirling Cooper is in fact revealed to be succumbing to some serious health problems. Earnest secretary Peggy has a knack for writing clever advertising copy. Anyway, anyone who watches the show knows the rest, the even darker secrets that these characters hold.

Another neat thing about the show is getting a sense of what it was like to live and work in New York in the late 50s and early 60s, and sometimes it seems not too different from today. Corporate ad man Don Draper has a funny confrontation with a beatnik who seems not much different in attitude than today’s New York hipsters one meets in Williamsburg. Snivelly junior ad guy Peter Campbell buys a penthouse with his wife on the Upper East Side, with help from her parents. Today, a Peter Campbell would have likely done what the yuppies here do and bought a similar place in the East Village or Chelsea, but you get the idea.

Curious, I consulted an inflation calculator to figure out how much that $30,000 penthouse would have cost today. Amazingly enough, it would only be $215,766, which is not actually that much for an Upper East Side condo. Campbell’s salary of $3,500 on the other hand would be a meager $25,173 today, probably less than the average starting PR person makes. No wonder he was reluctant to buy the penthouse.

The language of Seinfeld

There are many modes of communication in New York that initially were foreign to me: train line conversation, which consists of figuring out the fastest routes around town (“I never switch to the 2/3 at Atlantic-Pacific, because it takes forever”), the requisite nod and hello to doormen (you always initiate), and the loud rather than polite excuse me (everything in this city is loud).

But one language I am quite proficient if not fluent in is the language of Seinfeld, which is spoken freely and naturally all over this city. If you can reference a Seinfeld episode in New York, you will feel a bit more at home here, whether or not you’re a true New Yorker.

Last night at a restaurant, the guy at the table next to me had his overstuffed wallet lying on the table. The waiter noticed it as he came up to the diner to collect the check. “Nice George Costanza wallet,” the waiter said. The diner knew exactly what the waiter was talking about, laughed, and said thanks.

You’re well-served in this city if you watched “Seinfeld,” a lot, at least if you’re in the Upper West Side and Brooklyn.

State of Play for Washington D.C. People

If my former city of two years, Washington D.C., were as it is portrayed in State of Play, it would be a helluva lot more of an exciting place to live. Although the movie disappoints in many regards, its greatest strength nonetheless is how authentically it captures the fair city, in contrast to the garden variety D.C. political thriller. Sure, we get plenty of overhead shots that are in every D.C. movie, but we also see places like the Southwest fish market and the Americana motel off Jefferson Davis Highway in Arlington, that only D.C. residents and the most intrepid of tourists would recognize.

Gung ho Mt. Pleasanters will have yet another reason to boost their neighborhood seeing that Russell Crowe’s reporter character lives above Heller’s Bakery on Mt. Pleasant Street. Local politicians, U. Street denizens, and Bill Cosby will be thrilled to see Crowe have a reportorial epiphany that appropriately looks like heartburn as he is ordering a chili half smoke at Ben’s Chili Bowl.  The filmmakers even give a shout to Ben’s famous list of people who eat free: “Bill Cosby. No one else.” Anyone who has worked or had a Graduate School or LSAT class near L’Enfant Plaza will discover that those lifeless prison-like grid buildings are good for something: a suspenseful sequence in a hospital where the unleashed killer strikes again.

And the film does a commendable job placing characters in their appropriate neighborhoods. Crowe lives in Mt. Pleasant. The young fun-loving female Congressional staffer is seen walking down 18th Street in Adams-Morgan to the Metro right before she is murdered. The merciless ex-military man with associations to a Blackwater-like defense contractor lives in a drab mauve apartment complex in Crystal City. The sleazoid PR guy (Jason Bateman) dines at the Daily Grill in Dupont Circle.

The film also captures a certain tenor of the city that goes beyond the White House and Congress. At the beginning, Russell Crowe, a metro beat reporter for a Washington Post-modeled paper, goes to a crime scene underneath the Whitehurst Freeway in Georgetown and perfunctorily spars with the city’s police chief to get the identity of the victims.

Rachel McAdams’s chirpy political gossip blogger is a pretty nice send-up of the crop of the young people who shape D.C. gossip from their keyboards. Her conflict with old school reporter Crowe, who actually leaves the newsroom to get his stories, is much appreciated by this journalism student as is the ode to newspapers credits sequence.

Bateman’s PR slimeball is perfect, in his striped shirt, slicked hair and showy car. The face-off between him and Crowe is deliciously symbolic: the slick but empty world of PR against the raggedy but penetrating reporter. Crowe indeed is at his disheveled best. As David Denby said, he looks like “a dumpling in a wig”.

It is a shame with all of these familiar scenes and characters that the movie is such a let down in the end. It is “overstuffed,” as one reviewer put it, makes promises that it does not deliver. Perhaps it is a fault of this viewer and others who hoped for an indictment of all of the subjects the film touched on: defense contractors, disingenuous Republican majority leaders (Jeff Daniels), the surface treatment of underreported news stories that today’s news models value, and the dissonance of Washingtonians daytime and after hours selves. Maybe because it is a lot to take on or because former residents like me want a movie about Washington to be an emperor-stripping tour de force or because of the mis-casting of Ben Affleck does this film fail in the end. But I’d like to blame it on the writers. State of Play is nonetheless a perfect love letter to D.C.

The New York Times, Me: not with it

The New York Times apparently just discovered the neti pot.

And I just discovered Susan Boyle (and can’t believe what an Internet phenomenon she is. It is actually kind of scary how this video has swept the world. She could probably be a fascist dictator if she wanted).

Apocalypse part II: in art

The great thing about economic crisis is it compels New York Times reporters to produce articles like this one, forecasting and encouraging a revolution of New York City’s quickly fading art world.  I do not read many articles about visual art, but this one is pretty fun.  Here’s a choice ‘graph:

Why not make studio training an interdisciplinary experience, crossing over into sociology, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, poetry and theology? Why not build into your graduate program a work-study semester that takes students out of the art world entirely and places them in hospitals, schools and prisons, sometimes in-extremis environments, i.e. real life? My guess is that if you did, American art would look very different than it does today.

Such changes would require new ways of thinking and writing about art, so critics will need to go back to school, miss a few parties and hit the books and the Internet. Debate about a “crisis in criticism” gets batted around the art world periodically, suggesting nostalgia for old-style traffic-cop tastemakers like Clement Greenberg who invented movements and managed careers. But if there is a crisis, it is not a crisis of power; it’s a crisis of knowledge. Simply put, we don’t know enough, about the past or about any cultures other than our own.

I guess the dying world could be called the art-industrial complex.  After reading about how mutually-enriching the art world is in this article, I have to wonder, aren’t artists, at least the idealized versions, supposed to be people who turn away from society and think for themselves?  I wonder how much that can happen in an establishment setting like the New York art scene.

As a journalism student, I notice that the writer of this article, Holland Cotter, as nutty as he sounds–and I love nutty–has authority in this article, which is something our profs encourage us to build.  He clearly knows what he is talking about, or at least projects very well.  This comes from years of “beat” reporting, or at least much research, which is why it is a bit sad that many people in the journalism world who know what they are doing are losing their jobs or taking buyouts.  A new, smaller, more overworked class is going to have to take their places.


Found out about Vitas, the Russian pop star sensation, the other night at a party. (We proceeded to watch this video three or four times).  As someone said, it is great to know we live in a world where this is going on.  And his swagger as he hits that unconscionable note is proof that anything can look good with confidence behind it.


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