Slumdog Millionaire! It's got everything. Chills, thrills, laughter, tears. Good guys, bad guys, action, adventure, romance. The leads are young, talented, and attractive. The locales are exotic but the cinematography captures them as lived-in, alive, not as post cards or social studies text book illustrations. It doesn't look like any other movie. And it has a great soundtrack!
Westlake was the author of mostly comic crime novels, the best and most famous of which starred a very unlucky thief by the name of John Dortmunder.
Stark wrote more hard-boiled crime novels. His main character was another thief named Parker. Parker's a nastier piece of work and the more successful for it.
The difference between Dortmunder and Parker, the difference between Westlake and Stark, can be seen in the titles of their books. Dortmunder appears in novels called Bad News, Drowned Hopes, The Road to Ruin.
One of those books, Bad News, begins, "John Dortmunder was a man on whom the sun shone only when he needed darkness."
Language creates the writer's attitude toward the particular story he's decided to tell. But more than that, language is a part of the creation of the characters in the story, in the setting and in the sense of movement. Stark and Westlake use language very differently. To some extent they're mirror images. Westlake is allusive, indirect, referential, a bit rococo. Stark strips his sentences down to the necessary information.
In "Flashfire," [Stark writes], "Parker looked at the money, and it wasn't enough." In one of his own novels a few years ago, Donald Westlake wrote, "John Dortmunder and a failed enterprise always recognized one another." Dortmunder, Westlake's recurring character, proposes a Christmas toast this way, "God help us, every one." Parker answers the phone, "Yes."
Same guy. Westlake was Stark, when he wasn't writing as Westlake. Stark was Stark, and apparently didn't like to have much to do with Westlake. One time he cut himself off from Westlake for twenty-three years.
Richard Stark just up and disappeared. He did a fade. Periodically, in the ensuing years, I tried to summon that persona, to write like him, to be him for just a while, but every single time I failed. What appeared on the paper was stiff, full of lumps, a poor imitation, a pastiche. Though successful, though well liked and well paid, Richard Stark had simply downed tools. For, I thought, ever.
It seems strange to say that for those years I could no longer write like myself, since Richard Stark had always been, naturally, me. But he was gone, and when I say he was gone, I mean his voice was gone, erased clean out of my head.
I'm one of those people who are sadder about Westlake, and that's probably why. During the years when I was discovering Westlake, Stark was on strike and I never got to hear of him or read his old books. By the time he started writing again, I was too much a devoted fan of Westlake.
Judging by things he's written, like this review for the New York Times, I'd bet James Wolcott is sadder about Stark. But what do I know? I'm sure he's sad about Westlake too.
What I like about Westlake's novels, besides the fact that they're funny, is that they are observant. That allusive, indirect style Westlake assigns to himself gives him plenty of room and time to wander away from his plot and work in wry but dead-on descriptions of people and how they live, the work they do, the things they surround themselves with, the places they go, their eccentricities and vanities and various insanities.
Westlake is an acute social satirist. Bad News, besides being about a crime---stealing a body from a grave, putting it in another grave to pass it off as different body, in order to defraud a couple of crooked casino owners---is also about how small town politics and small town economics collide and collude in small town court rooms. And it's about not getting the breakfast you want in a diner.
Dortmunder didn't like to start the day with humor. He liked to start the day with silence, particularly when he hadn't had that much sleep the night before. So, avoiding Kelp's bright-eyed look, he gazed down at the paper place mat that doubled in here for a menu, and a hand put a cup of coffee on top of it. "Okay," he told the coffee. "What else do I want?"
"That's up to you, hon, said a whiskey voice just at ten o'clock, above his left ear.
He looked up, and she was what you'd expect from a waitress who calls strangers "hon" at 8:30 in the morning. "Cornflakes," he said. "O---"
Pointing her pencil, eraser first for politeness, she said, "Little boxes on the serving tray over there."
"Oh. Okay. Orange juice then."
Another eraser point: "Big jugs on the serving table over there."
"Oh. Okay," Dortmunder said, and frowned at her. In then nonpencil hand, she held her little order pad. He said. "The coffee's it? Then your part's done"
"You want hash browns and eggs over, hon," she said, "I bring 'em to you."
"I don't want hash browns and eggs over."
"Waffles, side of sausage, I go get 'em."
"Don't want those, either."
Eraser point: "Serving table over there," she said, and turned away...
...the settings in Donald Westlake's Richard Stark novels...where every boarded-up abandoned building is a potential stash site and many of those left behind are one missed disability check away from complete destitution.
Terry Teachout is sad about both Stark and Westlake, but he thinks Westlake will be best remembered for the work he did as Stark. I'm not so sure. But I'm biased. I think Westlake was the better writer because he had a bigger heart or, maybe it's better to say, when he wrote as himself he was more interested in the fact that other people had hearts.
Here's one of my favorite passages from my favorite Dortmunder novel, Drowned Hopes.
Wally Knurr, computer geek and innocent and clueless member of Dortmunder's gang of thieves, is talking to his computer, which he's programmed to respond to all inquiries as if any problem Wally gives it is part of an elaborate fantasy role-playing game, because that's the only way Wally feels he can safely approach real life. Wally wants to go see a girl he has a crush on but he's afraid that if he does it might somehow upset Dortmunder's plan to recover some stolen money from the bottom of a reservoir. He asks the computer what he should do and the computer advises him to stay away from the girl for now. Wally objects. Their conversation takes place on the computer screen.
Wally: But I've already met the princess.
Computer: Disguised as a commoner.
Wally: Well, not really.
Computer: You did not meet her in your true guise.
Wally: I still don't see why I can't just go over to the library and just happen to see her again and just say hello.
Computer: The princess does not at this time require rescue.
Wally: Not to rescue her. Just to say hello. I only saw her once. I want to see her again.
Computer: If the princess meets the hero in his true guise before it is time for the rescue, she will reject him, misunderstanding his role.
Wally: I don't think this princess is going to need to be rescued from anything. She works in the library, she lives with her mother, she's in a small town where everybody knows her and likes her. What is there to rescue her from?
Computer: The hero awaits his moment.
Wally: But I want to see Myrtle Jimson again.
Computer: She must not see you at this time.
Wally: Why musn't she see me?
Computer: She will misunderstand, and the story will end in the hero's defeat.
Wally: I'll risk it.
Computer: Remember the specific rule of Real Life.
Wally: Of course I remember it. I entered it into you myself.
Computer: Nevertheless. It is...
The tape of Real Life plays only once.
There are no corrections or adjustments.
Defeat is irreversible.
Wally: I know I know. I know.
Computer: Why any hero would wish to play such a game is incomprehensible.
"It sure is," Wally muttered aloud, and looked sadly out the window at the sleeping village.
Postings on your favorite blogs will probably continue to be light and fluffy over the weekend as your favorite bloggers continue to celebrate the various holidays and nurse their hangovers. I'm not talking not talking about me. I've never had a hangover and I might have more time to write over the next few days than I've had in a month. So it won't be me whose insights you'll be missing. But plenty of others will be MIA. Fret not, however; now is your time to catch up, renew old internet acquaintanceships, and discover new and exciting daily reads.
Modest Jon Swift, the last honest conservative in America, has posted his year-end round up of the best of the best chosen by the best themselves, which is to say the gracious and generous Mr Swift has turned over his blog to an army of egoists, including yours truly, in order to let us puff our own genius. Lots of good stuff there, because we really are geniuses.
Tom forgot to mention it, because he doesn't know about it yet---Sorry about that, boss---but there are some exciting times ahead this spring for newcritics.
Wednesday Night at the Movies will return, although possibly not on Wednesday nights, as soon as we can rope in a host or hostess and he or she comes up with a topic. Suggestions much appreciated, for a topic and a patsy to do the hosting.
And sometime this spring PBS will be broadcasting the BBC's recent adaptation of Charles Dickens' Little Dorrit, one of my favorites. The adaptation stars Matthew Macfadyen, who played Darcy to Keira Knightley's Elizabeth in the most recent movie version of Pride & Prejudice. I expect to be blogging it episode by episode. Not live-blogging, mind you. But immediate post-game summary-style blogging. I hope to be helped out in this by the Self-Styled Siren who has just finished reading the novel and is no doubt full up to the back teeth with thoughts and insights.
There's no homework, by the way. You don't have to have read the book to join in, though it never hurts to read Dickens.
At any rate, diving into the newcritics Year in Review is a good way to good addicted to the site so you'll be there and ready for our late winter and spring spectaculars.
Two sides of the drug war get screened tonight for newcritics' Wednesday Night at the Movies open thread. The Siren's theme this week is resilience and she's hosting a double-feature discussion of a pair of movies about characters who resiliate with the best of them, a cop, Serpico, and a drug-dealer on his way to jail in 25th Hour.
Tonight wraps up the Siren's series on movies exploring the heart and soul and gritty streets of her beloved New York City. Stop on by to tell her what a great job she's done. Thread opens at a little before 9 PM Eastern and like the City itself never closes.
Just for fun, here are the links so you can catch up on the previous threads and even add to them if you have a mind to:
Come over tonight at 9 pm Eastern time and wallow in the 80s, those
halcyon days when Danceteria was still open, the East Village was
affordable and raffish, and Madonna showed promise as an actress. Feel
free to debate those last two points, and indeed whether this movie
should be included at all. Bustiers encouraged but not required.
It's Wednesday Night at the Movies at newcritics. Tonight the Self-Styled Siren's given me the key to the apartment so I can host a little party. You're all invited. Our movie feature is The Apartment, starring Jack Lemmon, Fred MacMurray, and Shirley MacLaine as the adorable Fran Kubelik. Party starts at 9 PM Eastern. Nobody has to stand outside in the rain catching cold while the rest of us are inside having fun.
Miss Kubelik: I never catch colds.
CC Baxter: Really? I was reading some figures from the Sickness and Accident
Claims Division. You know that the average New Yorker between the ages
of twenty and fifty has two and a half colds a year?
Miss Kubelik: That makes me feel just terrible.
CC Baxter: Why?
Miss Kubelik: Well, to make the figures come out even, if I have no colds a year, some poor slob must have five colds a year.
CC Baxter: Yeah...it's me.
It's me too, which one of you is not having a half a cold right now? Because I've got a cold an a half. Nevermind. I'll be able to tell by which one of you isn't sneezing tonight. See you at 9.
The game of "guess who THIS is" is quite fun and all but basically
irrelevant, and Minnelli signals that in part by keeping the
connections so flippin' obvious. Lana Turner's father-obsessed starlet
stands in for Diana Barrymore, the Southern writer (Dick Powell) who
hates Hollywood and wants to go home is an obvious take on Faulkner,
the director (Barry Sullivan) plays Jacques Tourneur to Shields' Val
Lewton on a movie called "Attack of the Cat Man"--I mean, with that
last you wonder why they even changed the names. Aside from the Lewton
echo the Shields character rings a bell, or more like a cathedral, for
David O. Selznick, what with producing a large epic with a big death
scene, even if it's set in Russia and not Georgia, and then moving on
to Dick Powell's sexy Southern epic, The Proud Land (Faulkner would have thrown up, but never mind).
Go on over to her place to read her post and then follow the link to Goatdog's for more fun. I especially enjoyed reading Bob at Forward to Yesterday's take on the Blake Edwards' S.O.B., a movie I'm sorry to hear Bob doesn't think quite holds up. For some reason I can't explain to myself S.O.B. grabbed me by the funny bone and wouldn't let go. I went to see it about six times when it was in the theaters, dragging friends along and demanding they love the movie as much as I did. Nothing in Bob's post tells me what in God's name might have enthralled me, and, no, it wasn't the sight---a quick glimpse, really---of Julie Andrews' "boobies." They were perfectly charming, but I'm sure I had other reasons for liking S.O.B. so much, and no it wasn't the sight of Rosanna Arquette's tits either. Geez. You people. I think it was Robert Preston's one-liners, none of which were actually funny, he just made them funny.
Patient: Will this work?
Preston (as a doctor about to stick a needle in the patient): Is Batman a transvestite? Who knows?
Pretty girl at a party: What do you do?
Preston: I breed armadillos.
Pretty girl: Is that satisfying work?
Preston: Oh yes. You know what they say. Make an armadillo happy and the world is your oyster.
Pretty girl: I think I have heard that.
Preston: I used to breed oysters but it didn't have the same ring to it. Make an oyster happy and the world is your armadillo.
Or maybe it was Julie Andrews' breasts.
At any rate, read Bob's post, read the Siren's, and keep in mind this:
Wednesday Night at the Movies is returning to newcritics in September!
The Siren has chosen our feature films and she'll be hosting the open threads, starting with Hitchcock's Rear Window on September 10.
All six of her chosen films are set in and about life in New York City, and the Siren's picked them with themes in mind. Here's her schedule:
The Siren, always gracious, has graciously yielded the hosting duties for The Apartment to a fellow blogger who counts that Billy Wilder classic as one of his ten favorite movies of all time, and with this one I know why I love it.
Free Official Lance Mannion baseball cap to the first three readers who correctly guess what I already know I'm going to title my post.
Send your guesses by email. Caps designed and embroidered by Uncle Merlin. Colors may vary.
The theme that developed quickly in the first season of Mad Men, that all the world's a stage---particularly that part of the world that has its offices on Madison Avenue and split-level homes in Ossining, New York---and all the mad men and women merely unhappy and restless players trapped in soul-constricting roles of their own, society's, or someone else's devising was picked right up in the opening moments of the Season Two premiere.
Picked up, enlarged, underlined, circled, and emphatically marked with three exclamation points, in red felt tip.
The first shots of the episode, "For Those Who Think Young," are of three of the show's most successful chameleons standing before their mirrors as they dress and primp for work, judging and touching up their own images as coolly, objectively, and professionally as actors putting on their make-up and costumes in front of their dressing room mirror. It's showtime for Joan, Peggy, and Pete, but only Pete looks as though he's suffering any stage fright. Pete, in fact, looks miserable. Joan and Peggy smile with a somewhat detached approval at what they see in their mirrors. Pete appears to be fighting back tears or nausea.
That's because, while Joan and Peggy have written their own parts, Pete is stuck with a script that was handed him at birth, playing a character he despises---Pete Campbell.
Pete hates being Pete because Pete is a very limited character, a type not an original, the spoiled rich boy who gets by entirely on his charm and social connections and who's pretty much of no use in the world except to the degree that other people can put him to use for their own purposes and ends. His bosses at Sterling Cooper like him and keep him around for the clients his family connections bring through the door. His clients don't care about his ideas, only about his ability to get them into clubs and hook them up with pretty women. His wife seems to want only one thing from him, his well-bred genes for her children. And his own family has apparently never been able to see him as anything other than his older brother's less worthy little brother and his father's pale imitation, the chip off the old block, that will never get larger than a chip, who will never make any mark of his own and will get by simply by reminding people of his old man, and the old man was an old fraud, a fact only Pete seems aware of. In last week's episode, "Flight 1," when his brother reveals that their father has died broke he uses a euphemism, "insolvent," that conveniently doesn't carry any moral or ethical weight. Did their father lose the money in a bad investment, was he screwed by a business partner or robbed by his accountant, did he gamble, did he spend it all on fast cars and faster women, did he just fritter it all away? Doesn't matter. Insolvent is a more genteel word than bankrupt and so it better fits the image the family wants to maintain, that he was a gracious and admirable gentleman of the old school. Pete seems to know better, but no one wants to hear it, just as no one wants to hear that Pete isn't the person they think he is.
It wouldn't be any wonder that Pete Campbell would long to be anybody other than Pete Campbell.
But Pete doesn't want to be just anybody else. He wants to be one very specific somebody else. Don Draper.
When Pete gets the news that his father has been killed in a plane crash, the first thing he does is rush off to find Draper. He doesn't want Don's sympathy. He wants to be told what he should do next. To be precise: he wants to be told what Don himself would do if this had happened to him. He wants Don to instruct him on how to act like Don Draper.
Of course, Don can't tell him, because there is no Don Draper. Don Draper exists by acting like someone else. He does what he sees other people do. And that's what he tells Pete to do. "Go home and be with your family," he says, "It's what people do."
Pete leaves the office baffled and disappointed. He doesn't want to be like people. He wants to be Don.
Asked about it, and even if he isn't asked he will be glad to give you his answer anyway, Pete would tell you that what he wants is to be like Don Draper, recognized and rewarded for his talents and skills as an ad man, known as Sterling Cooper's resident genius, liked and admired by his bosses, feared but respected by the men who work under him, loved by...well...just loved.
The fact that Don Draper doesn't exist, that he's a work of fiction created by someone named Dick Whitman, and Pete knows it, doesn't bother Campbell a whit. If anything, it makes becoming Don Draper that much more desirable, because it's proof that a person can reinvent himself, that he can take on whatever role he chooses and force other people to play along.
But Pete is very much like Robert Ford as Casey Affleck plays him in The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. His admiration for his hero has gone beyond a boyish over-identification into a vicarious assuming of the older man's identity. In his mind, Pete is already Draper and that explains his petulance and his impatience. He can't understand why he isn't already enjoying all the perks of being Don Draper.
Pete's problem has become the same as Robert Ford's. There can't be two Don Drapers just as there can't be two Jesse Jameses. One has to go. Actually, when Pete traded in a wedding gift for a rifle last season I got very worried for Don, if for no other reason than the Chekhov's Gun Principle. That gun still hasn't gone off, by the way, and I'm still worried, for Don or for Pete himself, who is a suicide waiting for an opportunity, although given Pete's general talent for screwing up his own plots, I wouldn't be surprised if when the opportunity arrives Pete, like Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, misses.
The irony is that Don would almost be happy to hand over the part of Don Draper to someone else. Don has grown sick and tired of being Don (although not quite to the suicidal extent as Brad Pitt's Jesse James has grown sick and tired of being Jesse James) and by the end of last season he was on the brink of "destroying" Draper himself. In fact, he tried to do it and it was Pete who gave him the means and opportunity.
Pete, having proof in hand that Don Draper is a fake and convinced that the only reason Dick Whitman decided to pretend to be Don Draper was to hide a criminal past, tries to blackmail Don into giving him a promotion. (Pete just can't bring himself to actually be like Draper and work to earn the rewards he thinks he deserves.) It's an idle threat. Pete is too much of a weakling and too much in awe of Don yet to bring himself to smash his idol. But Don seizes the moment and drags Pete to Bert Cooper's office and pretty much forces Pete to spill the beans. It's a shock to both of them that Cooper shrugs it off.
Both men had forgotten that Bert Cooper is a very pragmatic and selfish human being and that other people only matter to him for what they can do for him. Who they are is irrelevant. He values Pete for his social connections, Draper for his talents, for the same reason, they make him money. Who each man thinks he is or wants other people to think he is is completely besides the point.
At the end of that scene, after Pete has stormed out of the room, Cooper tries to warn Don that Pete is still a threat to him and he offers some useful, if cryptic, advice about how to defuse that threat by befriending Pete or at least making him an ally.
But Don hates Pete too much to listen to that advice. One of the reasons he can't stand Campbell, in fact, is Campbell's obvious desire to be liked by Don. For too long now anyone offering himself as a friend is a mortal threat to Don. The women in his life---Betty, Midge, and Rachel---are attractive to him precisely because they don't ask questions or expect real intimacy. Betty wants to play the part of Don Draper's wife, so she needs Don to play the part of himself. Midge just doesn't care who he is only how much fun he can be. And Rachel has somehow found her way to whatever there is of a real person inside Don and in falling in love with that has made the fake Don Draper invisible to herself, probably because that's what she wants for herself, for the Rachel Menken the world sees, the dutiful daughter of a boring and old-fashioned and Jewish, which is to say old-world, traditional, unglamorous, outsider father, to become invisible. Anyone else who comes near, though, forces Don to play the part he's gotten tired of playing with more conviction and concentration than he can muster anymore.
Having an adoring acolyte following him around all the time would be exhausting.
But Draper has another reason for disliking Pete and pushing him away.
Although he might not be consciously aware of it, Don sees Pete as already being too much like himself. Pete is a cracked mirror's image of Don, another fraud getting by on his ability to pretend to be what people think they see when they look at him.
The overt literary influences of Mad Men, Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road, Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, the novels and stories of John Cheever and John Updike, are, I think, cheerfully and respectfully acknowledged by the show's writers within the episodes. But the idea that America is a society of liars and frauds, of people living one life in public while longing for another or hiding another, that in fact there is something about America that requires people to be frauds, in private has been around for a long time. It's there in the works of Edith Wharton, particularly House of Mirth and Custom of the Country. It's a favorite of Mark Twain's given its best expression in Huckleberry Finn but having a whole novel devoted to it in Pudd'nhead Wilson. Charles Dickens spotted that taint in our national character and satirized it in Martin Chuzzlewit. Dickens saw us as an entire country of bald-faced liars, braggarts and blowhards throwing temper tantrums whenever anyone showed signs of not buying our whoppers. As far as the author of A Christmas Carol was concerned, we're a people so taken with our own myths that we don't even see the point of having to live up to them. The most obvious knave and fool can call himself a king and then feel free to take violent offense when you point out the holes in his shoes. But here's the thing. We're generally willing to let each other get away a lie, as long as it's to our advantage to do so, just as Bert Cooper's willing to keep Draper and Campbell on his payroll, no matter that the former may be a criminal and the latter is a no-talent dope, because it's worth a lot of money for him to have them around. And the novel about this fact of American life is The Great Gatsby.
Don Draper is what Jimmy Gatz would have made of himself if he'd come of age in the buttoned-down 1950s instead of during the Roaring Twenties.
I wouldn't be surprised to find out that in his brother Adam's shoebox
full of photographs and mementos there was a list made by the young Dick Whitman that included
resolutions like "practice elocution" and "save ten dollars."
Don Draper is a Jay Gatsby with an honest job who kept his ambitions in check and got to marry his Daisy.
Pete Campbell is what the young Jimmy Gatz, and probably the young Dick Whitman, wished he'd been born, rich, privileged, secure, well-regarded by all the right people.
Ironically, Pete Campbell wishes he'd been born someone more like Jimmy Gatz or Dick Whitman, that is someone with the talents and intelligence to make himself into someone.
Pete is a prince who would rather have been a self-made man. He's the spoiled son of an elite that no longer commands real respect, just flattery and imitation, and he's set out to make himself into what he thinks these go-go times regards as a success even though like the young Jimmy Gatz he doesn't have a real, practical idea of how to work or how to win friends and influence people, and so, more like Gatsby than like Draper, he's tempted to take the easy way, which is to say he's willing to cheat and play dirty.
Which is why he's in the meeting with American Airlines using the fact of his father's recent death to drum up business. Duck Philips is Pete's Meyer Wolfsheim.
Programming note: No live-blogging of Mad Men tonight at newcritics. Tom Watson and M.A. Peel are both otherwise engaged. I'm cross-posting this over there, though, so feel free to use the comments there, or here, as an open thread on tonight's episode.
Ten o'clock tonight, Eastern time. Mad Men live blogging over at newcritics with your hosts Tom Watson and M.A. Peel. Mrs Peel provides the lead in with this post, looking at the ways the theme of taking flight is beginning to reveal itself in the show this season.
Meanwhile, the Chairman of the Board delivers the last word on the subject of flying in a beat all the Mad Men and all the Mad Women would have dug and danced to.
A problem with Mad Men's designers' perfect recreations of the late
1950s and early 1960s in the look of the characters, the clothes they
wear, the offices and living rooms and bars they work, live, and play
in, all the period details rendered exactly right is that it can fool us
into thinking Mad Men is a period piece.
It allows us to kid ourselves into thinking that the bad behavior of
the characters is as much a part of the times as fedoras and wood
paneled offices, that their materialism, their hollow ambitions, their
sexism, their phoniness---above all, the phoniness---are all vices
peculiar to back then.
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 those 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.
universe, every person is an invention, either of the person playing
the part (Dick Whitman has invented Don Draper) or of other inventions
(it's hard to say who invented Betty Draper, her husband, her mother,
or her friends and neighbors---when Betty makes an attempt to create a
self for herself, it's as a fashion model, which is to say as a doll
for other people to pose and dress; the only self she can imagine for
herself is even less of a real person than the one she's been handed by
others). In short, everyone is a fraud. And everyone is leading a
double life. Nobody wants the life they have. Nobody knows himself or
herself except in how well the fake self they present to the world
fools other people. It's a world in which people are each other's
audience. It's a demanding audience but an audience of extremely
limited imagination, expecting each other not just to play a part but
to play that part strictly to type, even as they inwardly chafe and
rebel against the same restrictive demands being placed on themselves.
It's a world of bad actors, obvious phonies overplaying their parts,
and the only way it can continue is through a mutual agreement: "I
won't point out what a fake you are, if you don't point out what a fake
Seven-thirty, Friday morning. It's pouring rain here. I'm
huddled inside a coffee shop instead of out for a walk or a bike ride.
The guys at the next table are huddled inside of a coffee shop instead
of out on the driving range, where they'd intended to be. They are in
their early thirties, but dressed like college guys about to go play
Frisbee, in t-shirts, gym shorts, and flip-flops. From their
conversation I gather they are married, on vacation together with their
wives, one is the father of a very small child, the other has a
sister-in-law who is sharing their vacation with them. The
sister-in-law seems to need as much attention as the baby, according to
him, but he's one of those guys who would talk about his adult
sister-in-law as if she's a spoiled child. They are both one of those
guys. Just the second guy is a little more so.
They work in offices. The first one has the more demanding job and
he's trying to escape it. He's been interviewing around. His best
prospect is an even more demanding job, one that will have him
traveling a lot. The second guy asks if the first guy's potential new
boss has kids of his own. A boss with kids might be more understanding
that a guy with a baby can't spend his every waking minute at work or
dealing with work. The potential boss has two kids. One's in college,
the other's a sophomore in high school. No way, then, of gagueing.
The potential boss doesn't have the same family demands on his time,
but maybe he still remembers what it was like. The first guy can't
say. He doesn't sound hopeful about landing the job.
The second guy may have an easier time of it at his office, but he
doesn't like his job any better than the first guy likes his. The
difference is that with very little effort he can pretend to be
enjoying what he does and make his bosses think he's a good guy to have
around the place. In other words, he keeps his job, and therefore his
lifestyle, by being a complete fraud. In his way, he has to give up as
much of himself to his job as the first guy has to.
But work isn't really on their mind this morning. Golf is. They
have a ten-thirty tee time somewhere. They're both optimists. They're
convinced that the rain will let up by then. What has them worried is
that things might have backed up on the course. Probably parties with
earlier tee times canceled. But others might have decided to hang
around and wait out the rain. The guys might not be able to get out on
the course until much later. How are their wives---known to the guys
as they---how are they going to react to that?
The second guy isn't worried about his wife, so much. He's worried
about how the first guy's wife's reaction might affect---infect---the
feelings of his wife and sister-in-law. They will band together, no
matter what, he thinks, and if the first guy's wife is ok with the news
that that the guys are going to be out all day instead of part of it
then his wife and her sister will be ok with it too. But...
"She'll be fine, won't she?" he asks hopefully. "What does she
expect you to do on day like today anyway? Sit inside? Do girly
things with them? Take the baby shopping?"
The first guy says he has no clue.
Of course he has more than a clue. He knows. The question isn't
whether or not she'll be angry. It's how angry and for how long and
how she will make him pay.
He decides to call her. Out comes the cell.
"Hi. It's me. I'm sorry. Did I wake you up?"
His voice has gone softer, full of concern, with a note of pleading
already. It sounds fake as all get out. He's playing a part. The
solicitous husband. What I can't tell, what I'll never know, is if
this a part he regularly plays or if he thinks he has to adopt it for
the situation. What I also can't tell, what I'll also never know is if
this is a part he's written for himself or is someone else wrote it for
him. If it was someone else, is that someone else his wife? Or is she
playing a part too? Have they both been assigned parts to play in
their own marriage? Are they each trying to be what they think the
other wants them to be? Are they each trying to be what they think
they are expected to be, and who's doing the expecting?
In a conversation in the Drapers' kitchen, Betty Draper and her friend
and neighbor, Francine Hanson, agree that their husbands are "better"
when they're at home and not at the office---better as in more likable;
better as in nicer, kinder, more loving, more open-hearted; but also
better as in not sick, as in well, or getting well, better as in
This, by the way, is in an episode that comes after one in which Don Draper leaves his daughter's birthday party to go pick up the cake and does not come back until long after the party's ended.
Clearly, both women believe that their husbands are not their real selves when they are at work, that they are only pretending to be the kind of men their bosses and colleagues expect them to be. Their real selves, their better selves, are the men they are when they are at home with their wives and children.
It doesn't seem to occur to either Betty or Francine that their husband might be pretending at home, that his real self is his office self. It wouldn't occur to either woman that their husbands might be pretending in both places, that the men's real selves aren't allowed to show them up at home any more than they are allowed to show up at the office. And it certainly wouldn't occur to them that they themselves are the writers of the scripts their husbands are following around the house.
What's more, it doesn't occur to Betty (and probably not to Francine either) that she is playing a part too, that she has no real self, that she, the person she thinks she is, doesn't exist. Betty literally can't feel herself. She can't feel her life. But it doesn't dawn on her that the numbness in her hands is symbolic. She can't feel because there is nothing to feel. It's all made up.
The story of Mad Men is the story of how Dick Whitman created and now maintains a new life for himself under the name Don Draper. The central conflict of that story is the ways that life is threatened with exposure as a fiction. Oddly enough, it's Don Draper who presents the chief threat. Don Draper doesn't like being Don Draper any more than Dick Whitman liked being Dick Whitman. A fiction can't maintain itself as a fiction if it is aware of itself as a fiction. Draper doesn't feel his life any more than Betty feels hers. It's no wonder that Don is happiest when he is with his bohemian lover Midge Daniels. It isn't that Midge allows him to be his true self. It's that she doesn't expect him to be himself or any self when they're together. She doesn't care who he is. Midge, then, offers Don an escape from having to be.
Don and Betty aren't the only characters living their lives as characters.
And it's not just the characters on Mad Men who are playing parts, pretending to be people they are not, in order to get along at work and make life easier at home.
Mad Men is set in a fictional universe that looks like New York City in the early 1960s but it is about living as fake, about not being real. Which is not a problem exclusive to that time and place.
Back to Friday morning. It's eight-thirty now. Still raining hard. Outside the coffee shop the parking lot is flooding. The guys at the next table are still planning to make their tee time. They're so sure the rain will let up that they're going to head to the driving range now. The second guy is insistent.
"You should get a job at a driving range," the first guy says. There's a note of irritation and impatience in his voice.
"I should!" the second guy agrees. "I really should. Can you imagine that?"
The first guy isn't listening. The phone call to his wife ended inconclusively. She hadn't asked him to come home, but he doesn't feel as though he has permission to stay out all day either. He'd offered to bring his wife something from the coffee shop and she'd turned him down. "Maybe I'll bring her something anyway."
"I thought she said she didn't want anything," the second guy says. He sounds a bit panicked. He doesn't want to stop at the house on the way. "We go there, we'll never get out again."
"Just some hot chocolate. We can bring them some hot chocolate. Your sister-in-law like hot chocolate?"
"Hell if I know. Why bother? Let's just go."
"It'd be a nice gesture," the first guy says. "It'd be a good thing to do."
Then, last week, after I brooded miserably on the thought that The bad guys are going to get away, several of my commenters did their best to cheer me up by referencing old movies that somehow seemed to predict the current sad state of things. My favorite came from Doghouse Riley, who advised me:
"Forget it, Lance. It's Chinatown."
Cracked me up.
Didn't make me feel better about Bush and Cheney, but it cracked me up.
And Jason Cravat came through with a riff on The Wild Bunch and HenryFTP brought up Costa-Gavras' Z, and they got me to thinking that it might be interesting to follow up a series on the politically and culturally optimistic Oscar winners of 1967 (even Bonnie and Clyde is mostly a cheerful film) with a look at the some late 60s-early 70s paranoia and nihlism, beginning with those three greats---Chinatown, The Wild Bunch, and Z---and including films like The Conversation, The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, MASH, and Network.
What d'ya think?
But my favorite idea so far is to shanghai the Siren herself and force her to host an open thread based on her own post, New York City of the Mind. Frankly, I think she was coyly applying for the job with this one. I mean, look at this line-up:
Rear Window, The Sweet Smell of Success, On the Town, The Lost Weekend, Desperately Seeking Susan, and The Apartment.
How about that?
At any rate, we'll have come up with something soon. Leave your suggestions and votes here or over at newcritics.
Now, all of this presumes there will still be a newcritics website. You can help make sure this. Our fearless leader, Tom Watson, has been maintaining the site on his own, but the recent malware attack forced a move to a new server and that's money out of Tom's pocket. Please help put some back in by following this link and donating a few bucks to the cause.
Meanwhile, I'm feeling a little lost and alone here. I don't know what to do with myself with no movie to discuss.
The fifteen year old's inside watching one of the best of the Star Trek movies, The Undiscovered Country. Anybody want to talk about that?
Re-opening old threads: As I like to say, the beauty of open-threads is that they can stay open forever. The threads on the first series are still there, waiting for you to read, re-read, and comment upon.