Monday, June 25, 2012

Gods and Monsters: The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) ✭✭✭✭1/2

A classic horror movie becomes a symbol for humanity’s deceptions and delusions in The Spirit of the Beehive, Victor Erice’s minimalist allegory from 1973. Told mainly through the innocent eyes of a child, Sprit of the Beehive gently unfolds like a spring flower, with each new petal adding depth and symmetry to its rustic facade. Within the film’s surreal and delicate world, viewers will find pointed allusions to 20th century political struggles, the role of religion in warfare and shifting notions of man’s role in the universe.

Set on the windswept plains of Castilla circa 1940, The Spirit of the Beehive evokes the chilling atmosphere of loneliness and devastation that followed the Spanish Civil War. In the backwater town of Segovia, life appears to have changed very little in the past century. Pack mules and school children comprise the town’s only traffic. Missing from Segovia’s dusty streets is an entire generation of young men, lost in the fight against Franco. One day a battered delivery van arrives at the town’s makeshift cinema bearing a print of Frankenstein, James Whale’s monster epic from 1931. Among the excited villagers in attendance are seven year-old Ana (Ana Torrent) and her sister Isabel (Isabel Telleria), a few years Ana’s senior. But what should be an evening’s light entertainment has a profound effect on young Ana, and her attempts to understand the film’s disturbing mysteries will eventually lead her to an existential crisis.

The Spirit of the Beehive moves at a deliberate and meditative pace, bringing to mind the work of Carlos Reygadas - his Mexican Mennonite drama Silent Light in particular - and leaves plenty of space for magical thinking and unresolved issues. The film plays with changes in scale, applying its disturbing but logical metaphors in micro and macro settings. Ana’s father (Fernando Fernán Gómez), a cold and remote figure, bears a strange resemblance to a monstrous creation when clad in beekeeper apparel, yet his relationship to his wife and children reveals his heart as barren and devoid of love as Dr. Frankenstein. Isabel, sensing her little sister’s trauma, stirs the pot with mind-games designed to confuse Ana even further, her dark eyes a mirror of pained astonishment.

Erice twists his story into many challenging contours, forging a number of insightful and personal observations along the way. His visual storytelling is a primer on the everyday poetry of scant elements. Starkly formal compositions convey humanity’s bloated self-importance and feature Salvador Dali-style treeless landscapes that recede to infinity. And it is the infinite that boggles the mind of young Ana, her pristine soul suddenly invaded by the ugly and the unanswerable. Ana may soon lose her grip on reality, but considering the evil spirited world that humanity has created, who can blame her?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Summer With Julie: Part 2

It's officially Summer! What better way to celebrate than a Julie Newmar Pictorial?

Thank you Julie for all your encouragement and support.

For More Julie Pics CLICK HERE

To Order Julie's Book CLICK HERE

Summer With Julie: Part 1 CLICK HERE

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Love Hurts: A Man and a Woman (1966) ✭✭✭✭ 1/2

Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman from 1966 was one of those rare films that pleased audiences and critics alike. The film nabbed the Palme d’Or and two Oscars while playing to crowded theaters worldwide. And over the years it has remained a popular property, generating over 6 million dollars in home video rentals. These days, film scholars consider Lelouch something of a lightweight, never awarding him the gravitas of Truffaut or Godard, his nouvelle vague brethren. But A Man and a Woman was a highly influential movie, especially to Hollywood filmmakers who admired its near perfect balance of entertainment and innovation.

While generically described as a romantic drama, A Man and a Woman reduces the genre to a study of specific moments in the formation of a love affair. The film deals more with the mental and emotional processes of falling in love than actually being in love. The couple in question, champion race car driver Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and script supervisor Anne (Anouk Aimèe) spend relatively little time together onscreen - just a few Sunday afternoons - yet memories of these brief reveries fill their weekdays like a ghostly presence. The couple is only separate on the physical plane, as new passions fill their damaged souls.

Lelouch’s stylish direction, complete with memory sequences, color shifting and music- cued montages, speaks a language that has become standard, some could say trite, filmmaker vocabulary. But here Lelouch wields the tools with skill and assurance, supporting and deepening the film’s existential air. Whenever the film threatens to become a bit too precious, Lelouch cleverly ups the ante with exciting scenes from the race track, including a harrowing nighttime sequence depicting the Monte Carlo Rally. But these are not mere empty thrills, for Jean-Louis and Anne will find the twisting course of love an even more perilous navigation.

In a rarity for a 1966 production, today finds all the principles alive, well and still productive. Lelouch has created an extensive filmography, although he has yet to match A Man and a Woman’s commercial success. Composer Francis Lai, whose portfolio contains a number of hit themes - Love Story among them - is scoring Lelouch’s new film Les chemins de l'orgueil currently in production. Anouk Aimèe’s career has found new traction as a character actress, lending her elegant air to several recent French comedies. And Jean-Louis Tringinant, having won accolades at Cannes last month for his work in Haneke’s Amor is poised for a new round of international success.

Its influence extending to such iconic films as Midnight Cowboy,  Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and countless music videos of the 1980’s and 90’s, A Man and a Woman continues to be relevant and rewarding. Neither nihilist nor fluffy, the film ultimately resolves with an honest appraisal of love’s dangers, and the courage required by lovers to venture on. Jean-Louis and Anne may not be a match made in heaven, but within the realm of flawed humanity they could do a lot worse.


Sunday, June 17, 2012

Days of Future Passed Part 8: A Father's Day Memory

My father was a big believer in community. He helped form the local volunteer fire department, was very active in his church and belonged to a civic organization called Woodmen of the World. While not as famous as the Lion’s Club or the Rotarians, the Woodmen were a fast growing fraternal network in the 1960s and 70s. Based in Omaha, Woodmen clubs - or camps as they were called - were located mainly in rural areas and catered to the lifestyles and concerns of honest men who performed manual labor in the great outdoors. No stock brokers, choreographers or pool sharks need apply.

Their logo, a golden maul dynamically protruding from a newly sawn oak stump, reeked of constructive manliness and lent the outfit an Arthurian ethos. Members received a number of perks, including a modest life insurance policy which could come in quite handy to folks who spent their days mucking about in nature with dangerous equipment. We also received a monthly magazine filled with interesting articles on such topics as home maintenance, fishing lures and proper methods of riding a horse. Each issue also included an extensive selection of photographs of various Woodmen from across America clad in their Sunday best and receiving plagues of recognition for good deeds well done. My father appeared in one of these pictures circa 1970 when he was selected to represent his camp at the big annual meeting in Virginia Beach. I have yet to locate it, but there are several more boxes of papers to investigate. I’m sure it will turn up.

While women weren’t specifically barred from the local lodge, it was informally understood that “Woodmen” should be taken literally in terms of gender. My father’s camp met one Saturday night a month and it was always a strange evening in our house as my Mom and Dad rarely went anywhere separately. My mother never lobbied to come along - in fact she was probably grateful for a night to herself - but that didn’t stop her from giving my dad a good humored razzing about the agendas of these mysterious meetings.

“How many dancing girls y’all gonna have tonight?” she’d sneer while my Dad buttoned a freshly ironed shirt.

“I don’t know exactly. 5 or 6 I reckon. I just hope they’re pretty as you.” he’d shovel it right back.

“If you’re not back by Tuesday, I might run off to Florida.”

“Well I’ll miss you. Could you pick some butter beans before you go? They should be ripe by then.”

And with that, Dad would don his best Dekalb Seed cap - the one reserved for formal occasions - and head out for his monthly dose of male bonding.

Adult sarcasm is often lost on children, especially not particularly bright children like me. I became quite curious about these Woodmen meetings and the shroud of mystery that surrounded them. Did they engage in ancient rituals that revealed the secrets of the universe? Perhaps wild animals were ceremoniously sacrificed while the men pounded on rough hewn drums. And if there were dancing girls, where did they come from? We lived in a small town and I knew just about everybody. There were no hoochie-coochie candidates that I could recall, save for a few spinster school teachers and inverting fractions was probably the limit of their exotic capabilities.

Shortly before my 12th birthday, my grandfather was hospitalized for an emergency appendectomy. My mother’s family took turns staying with him - families did that in those days - and one of her nights happened to fall on Woodmen Saturday. Having no other options, my father grudgingly took me along to the meeting. Finally the dark, impenetrable secrets of the brotherhood would be revealed to me. I was giddy with anticipation; my father’s instructions only throwing gas onto the fire...

“Now when we get there, just be quiet and behave. And whatever you do, don’t tell ANYBODY about what you see and got that?? If you do, I’ll have to give you a whippin’. I MEAN IT!”

I vigorously nodded in total agreement, and assured him I would never, ever divulge a word of the proceedings. It wasn’t that I feared the punishment. In truth my father had only spanked me once, and  afterwards he seemed to feel much worse about it than I did. No, I was being granted a rare and sacred trust; a trust that would be unthinkable to betray. It was like knowing Batman’s secret identity.

As we entered the sacred halls of the lodge - a former one room schoolhouse retrofitted to the simple needs of the Woodmen - I began to hyperventilate from excitement. Most of the membership had already arrived -- about 10 men all told -- and were sociably milling about. My entrance raised a few eyebrows, and I worried that my attendance would spark uproar and anger. But the Woodmen rank and file, all of whom turned out to be men I knew, just smiled and said “Hey there Crockett.” Fess Parker’s performance in the Disney biopic had struck such a chord in the popular culture that “Crockett” was the official nickname of anyone named David in the 1960s.

My father explained that my mother was staying at the hospital and he hoped it would be OK with everybody to bring me along. The other men offered their understanding, saying that it would be a pleasure to have me as a guest. Then they became solemn; expressing their condolences on my grandfather’s illness and wishing him a speedy recovery.

Mr. Williamson, by day the owner/operator of a bulldozer, then called the meeting to order. As we took our seats on metal folding chairs, I scoured the room for any sign of dancing girls or any sort of odd equipment possibly associated with mystical, arcane rituals. There wasn’t anything of that nature on view, but there was a suspicious looking door in the back, no doubt the portal to the Woodmen’s cryptic land of unspeakable wonders.

Mr. Williamson began the meeting with a prayer, asking God’s blessing on this assembly and especially for my grandfather and others in the community with illness. Then the minutes of the last meeting were read in a high quivering voice by Mr. Everett, who was badly wounded in Italy during WWII and had never fully recovered. I gathered the previous meeting had dealt mainly with the annual presentation of a large American flag to the graduating class at the local high school.

Then Mr. Kern, a retired farmer, excused himself from the meeting and made his way to the secret door in the back. Ahhh I thought, now we’re getting somewhere. He’s probably going to fetch the dancing girls, inspect their sequined feathers and issue instructions on the finer points of their performance. I was crestfallen a few minutes later when the unmistakable sound of a toilet flush informed me that the true purpose of this mysterious chamber was not storage but removal.

Meanwhile, the Woodmen had moved on to new business, specifically the yearly July 4th Brunswick Stew sale, which Mr. Williamson gravely reminded everyone “would be here before you know it.” All eyes then turned to Mr. Gormley, who worked at the big meat packing plant in Lynchburg and his renowned employee discount.

“Chickens have really gone up since last year," he said nervously. "I don’t know if I can get much of a break on them...beef is reasonable though. Can we make stew with hamburger?”

Mr. Parker, for decades the camp’s official stew chef and a temperamental sort, rolled his eyes and said, “That’ll be fine Tommy, if you want a stew so greasy nobody will touch it.”

Immediately tensions around the table began to rise. Apparently, discord among the Woodmen was a rare and troubling occurrence. My father, ever the conciliator, suggested that perhaps chicken and hamburger could be combined for a saving of cost and fat. But Mr. Parker was not open to compromise.

“Y’all know that I can fix a good stew. People come from all over for it and we always sell out. Some folks say it ain’t Fourth of July without Woodmen stew. Now I ain’t never made stew with hamburger, and I don’t think it’s smart to experiment at a time like this. We make most of our money for the year on this sale. Boys, we need two dozen chickens and that’s how it is.”

Mr. Parker’s wise, if prickly, evocation of the long term view had a chastening effect on the Woodmen, who became quiet and reflective. The majority slowly realized Mr. Parker was correct. A second rate, unsatisfactory product would be disastrous, perhaps crippling the camp financially for a generation. Mr. Everett then proposed that since he had a chiropractor appointment in Lynchburg on Wednesday, perhaps he and Mr. Gormley could meet with the plant’s management that afternoon and see if a reduction in price could be arranged. The members immediately agreed that this was a fine idea, with a good chance of success. No corporation, no matter how profit-driven or heartless, could refuse a request from a Disabled Veteran Woodman. It was the trifecta.

The Woodmen, greatly relieved that conflict had been averted, returned to their usual light hearted bonhomie. Spirits continued to lift when Mr. Williamson announced it was a good time for the refreshments and withdrew to the lodge’s makeshift kitchen. Finally, I thought, this is it! Bring on the braised wild boar! Bring on the homemade mead from ancient Scot-Irish recipes! Bring on the lutists and scantily-clad nymphs! Let the festivities begin!!

But my hopes were dashed once again when Mr. Williamson soon returned with a two-liter bottle of Pepsi and a stack of paper cups. Oddly, there seemed to be no disappointment among the Woodmen, who eagerly rose from the table to partake of the carbonated nectar while the air filled with conversation and laughter. The men broke off into smaller groups. And since the members were all current or former farmers, there were intense discussions of recent rainfall amounts.

A few of the men stepped out to admire the sunset of this fine June evening. Newly lighted cigarettes in hand, they debated the merits of Chevrolet versus Ford, with some admitting a preference for the late, lamented DeSoto. Mr. Blankenship was buffeted with questions about his recent trip to Nashville, in particular the performances he witnessed at The Grand Ol’ Opry. He assured everyone that it had been a wonderful experience and that his wife should have the pictures back in a few weeks. Several men expressed a desire to see them and suggested Mr. Blankenship present the photos at the next meeting.

After a half hour or so of chitchat, Mr. Duffy announced that he really needed to get home and check on a hinky cow before it got too dark. Mr. Williamson then moved that if there was no further business the meeting should be adjourned; an idea greeted with a hosanna of ayes.

On the ride home, I sat quietly trying to organize my stunned impressions. Where were the foul temptresses? Where was the groaning board of exotic delicacies? Where was the endless bacchanal? No secret rituals, no sacrifices to Pagan deities, no debauched midnight ceremonies illuminated by fiery torches. Nothing. Just a bunch of middle-age guys standing around sipping Pepsi, shooting the breeze and trying to get a good deal on chickens.

“Remember now,” my father said to break the ice, “You promised not to breathe a word of this to anybody. And that goes double for your mother.”

He then broke into a big grin and asked, “Well, what did you think?”

“Well, to tell you the truth Daddy, it was kind of boring.” I admitted.

“Yeah, I guess it was tonight. But you should see us when there are no kids around...”

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Mad Men Season 5: Part 3

(Spoilers Ahead)

Season 5’s pace began to quicken in its final 4 episodes. It seemed even Matthew Weiner realized the show had been dogging it dramatically and it was time to get on the stick. Changes and revelations came fast and furious, while some foreshadowed story elements never came to fruition. Peggy (Elizabeth Moss), now firmly established as Don’s top lieutenant, appeared settled into the routine of a confident professional. But her tussles with the unimaginative Heinz advertising managers began to wear away her dispassionate veneer. However it was clear she had taken another important evolutionary step toward her goal of becoming a full fledged creative: she’d developed a disdain for her bosses and her clients.

In another sign of her maturation, when the talented Ginsburg became the new hot flavor of the month, Peggy put aside her professional jealousy - or at least appeared to - in favor of a team first attitude. But her notions of equality within the walls of SCDP were made delusional when the agency was awarded the Jaguar account. The Jaguar pitch - and all its associated manipulations - was the perfect manifestation of how little had changed in the sphere of sexual politics. Jaguar was won by a sexist ad campaign, created and presented entirely by men, for an old world sexist clientele. Even the car itself resounded with the faults and fallacies of male domination. Beautiful to behold but finicky and unreliable in performance, the vehicle embodied all the rationales men have used to degrade women for centuries. The smug, cocky expressions of the presentation team when they returned to the office was a priceless Mad Men moment. Without a word of dialogue, Don, Roger, Pete and company announced to the agency it was time to stop the warm and fuzzy stuff and get to work. And bring me some ice.

All this was a bridge too far for Peggy, who’d been banned from working on Jaguar because “she wouldn’t understand”. After she blew up at Don during a meeting at a test kitchen the die was cast, and Don’s tossing of money in her face a week later sealed the deal. Peggy began to consider her options, leading her to the doorstep of Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm), Don’s sleazy, untalented doppleganger. Her goodbye to Don was a moment steeped in poignancy, yet it served as a classic distillation of their difficult, and quite confused relationship. But the show was not done with Peggy yet, as she and Don accidentally reunited at an art house cinema in a scene reminiscent of Yoda and Luke Skywalker from Return of the Jedi; the cautious respect of sudden equals, with years of shared experience adding a conspiratorial layer.

Joan (Christina Hendricks), in many ways Peggy’s opposite, appropriately moved in the opposite direction, becoming permanently entrenched in SCDP as a voting partner. Her path to partnership was controversial, shocking actually, but served to shine a bright light on sexism’s Achille’s Heel. Joan became the symbol of the agency’s Faustian bargain with Jaguar, and this bit of original sin could be “the gift that keeps on giving” to the show’s writers in future seasons. It seems unlikely that the sexual appetite of the Jaguar folks will stop with buxom Joan, and one wonders which of the Mad Women will be next, and how the affected Mad Men will react. One thing's for sure, who ever it is Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) will be all for it. While he had little screen time this season, Cooper proved himself throughout the Jaguar affair to be a heartless, soulless scumbag. Underneath his kindly professorial facade lurks the true Randian spirit. When it comes to evil, he makes Pete look like a rank amateur.

But Joan was not just a sacrificial lamb with a big pay day. Her character proved this year to be a survivor, and pity anyone in her way. When her husband Greg (Sam Page) returns on furlough from Vietnam, she is not truthful about the origins of their new baby. While the deception is counterbalanced by Greg’s history of domestic violence - violence he occasionally got the worst of - it still seemed out of character for Joan to so thoroughly mislead. Her acquiescence to Jaguar was disturbing as well, but a realistic appraisal reveals her options basket quite empty. Just as there’s a demand for Peggy’s talent there’s one for Joan’s. And this was the cleanest, quickest and most lucrative market for her wares.

Jon Hamm was credited as a producer this season, but the added responsibility didn’t distract from his performances one bit. Season 5 displayed many sides of Don Draper, and Hamm was never less than riveting in all manifestations. There was the happy-go-lucky, madly in love Don from the early going, the prickly and out of touch Don from midseason and the concerned, gallant Don from year’s end. The season began with Don’s fortieth birthday, and subsequent episodes made good use of the assets and liabilities of this milestone to maturity. For the first time, Don was not the office’s hippest maven of popular culture and was often victimized by the shock of the new. In a hilarious scene backstage at a Rolling Stones concert, Don looks as out of place amid the pimply, rebellious youth as Bob Hope. After a contentious debate among his young staffers over which rock n roll song to use in a commercial, a clueless Don throws up his hands and asks, “When did music become important?”

Other allusions to his impending dotage were not nearly so benign, including a terrifying peer down an empty elevator shaft. While this shot is open to interpretation, its foreshadowing of mortality is undeniable. Of course, as a severely wounded soldier, Don faced death in Korea as well. But that was the old Dick Whitman, the penniless whore’s son he abandoned in a blood-soaked ditch to become the dashing and successful Don Draper. Death just doesn’t happen to heroes of fairy tales, and Don’s momentary glimpse of the future seemed to shake him to the core.

It also made him realize Megan’s ultimate shallowness, and the possibility that his new actress wife was approaching their marriage as a theatrical exercise. When Megan began to pursue her career in earnest, she shifted from a supportive executive's wife to a demanding, self-centered brat. Don’s final solution, inspired by a conversation with Peggy, has a double prong effect. It alleviates his guilt over the past and paves the way to his future freedom. One way to avoid the elevator shaft is to never settle down and grow old.

Season 5 is best remembered as a kaleidoscope rich with intriguing images and those extraordinary moments that make Mad Men the best show on television. Don and Joan, two veterans of romantic cynicism, rediscover their youthful innocence in a smokey bar. The vain former copywriter Kinsey is now singing the chants of Krishna; his shaven head shining like a cue ball. Don’s helpless panic at a Howard Johnson’s when he fears the worst for Megan. Lane’s cathartic and bloody thrashing of Pete Campbell at the height of his obnoxiousness. And possibly the most unsubtle yet perfect metaphor in the series’ history: while in Virginia to land a cigarette account, Peggy witnesses two stray dogs copulating in the parking lot of her motel. Mad Men Season 5 entertained, frustrated, enthralled, repulsed, befuddled and seduced us. And despite all the strange and new, fans were left in an old familiar place, desperately wanting more.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Mad Men Season 5: Part 2

(Spoilers Ahead)

By mid season, the novelty of new faces had thoroughly tattered and shades from the past began to re-enter the proceedings. The tortured Betty Draper Francis continued to fascinate, although at times it seemed January Jones had tired of playing her. Maybe it was the extra weight from the fat suit, but this year’s conniving, pathetic Betty killed any desire viewers may have had for a reconciliation with Don.

Sally Draper (Kieran Shipka) now 14 and bustin’ with hormones, has become the anti-Don; a spoiled child of privilege who channels her father’s work ethic and tenacity into extended melodramatic hissy fits. Whether through a gift for mimicry or superbly detailed direction, Shipka reproduced Don Draper’s facial tics and eye rolls with an uncanny accuracy. In a series teeming with illegitimate offspring, there’s no doubt about Sally’s provenance. Don and Betty have another child, a son named Bobby, but you wouldn’t know it from this season. Both he and Betty’s new husband, the beleaguered Henry Francis, were all but missing in action.

Speaking of bastards, Season 5 was devoid of any reference to Pete and Peggy’s secret bundle of joy. And Pete Campbell (Vincent Cartheiser) needed some comeupping as he basically used Don and Roger’s distractions to turn the agency into his own private fiefdom. Pete got away with it by delivering the goods, bringing in lots of new business while proving instrumental - though not in a good way - to the agency’s acquisition of the Jaguar account. Of course, Pete couldn’t just relax and be grateful for his success; he had to lord it over his superiors and virtually demand everyone kneel at his feet. The scales began to even when he initiated an affair after a chance meeting with a fellow commuter’s wife named Beth (Alexis Bledel). This lady turned Pete’s emotions - yes, he does have them - into an even more confused jumble, prompting Pete to suggest they run away to Los Angeles together during a moment of pillow talk. But Beth has some twisted proclivities, not to mention the possibility of becoming real trouble. In short, she’s the type of woman Pete deserves. He certainly doesn’t deserve his wife, the adorably steadfast Trudy (Alison Brie). It’s a good thing Ms. Brie has Community to fall back on; for second year in a row Mad Men gave her little to do.

While Pete’s star rose at the agency, Roger’s fell further into eclipse. Stripped of cash cow Lucky Strike and his good ol’ boy Rolodex now filled with retirees, Roger (John Slattery) began a new career as corporate deadwood. But he didn’t go quietly and often engaged in humorous schemes to glom on to Pete’s new triumphs. Roger’s new leisure offered ample opportunity for narrative exploration. In one of the season’s best episodes, “Far Away Places”, Roger and his increasingly annoying wife Jane (Peyton List) drop acid with hilarious results. Their trip is shown without a single psychedelic visual cliche, instead the focus is on surreal occurrences and auditory hallucinations. The experience has a profound affect on Roger. In fact, one could easily imagine him running off to San Francisco for the Summer of Love. Not surprisingly, his hasty marriage to the shrewish Jane does not survive seeing God, and a passionate night with the exotic Marie puts the final nail in the nuptial coffin. This season Roger emerged as the show’s most dependable purveyor of comic relief; remaining witty and charming while his life turned into, for lack of a better word, shit.

Meanwhile another partner, Lane Price (Jared Harris), found new and exciting ways to screw up his life as well, but with shockingly different results. Lacking the deep wells of history shared by the other principals, the show has never been quite sure what to do with this character. Lane’s emergence as a tragic figure undone by pride was believable, if a tad convenient. The Lane arc does provide key narrative motivation for Don's subsequent epiphanies, and it serves as yet another example of Mad Men’s endearing habit of subtly exposing hypocrisy. Don admonishes Lane for engaging in a deception not too dissimilar to his own. The irony is lost on Draper at the time, but eventually his guilt opens the door between the new man Don thinks he has become, and the old ghosts that linger in his soul.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Mad Men Season 5: Part 1

(Spoilers Ahead)

Mad Men Season 5 was a year of fits and starts, shocks and sputters, symbols and sacrifices. In all, 13 hours of interesting - at times excellent - television marred by occasional missteps into its own thickening narrative weeds. We saw Pete Campbell plumb new levels of despicableness - we always knew he had it in him - while the glass ceiling proved to be no match for the unique talents of curvaceous Joan Harris.  Many critics and fans of the series have reacted to Season 5 much the same way Sci-Fi lovers have reacted to Ridley Scott’s Prometheus; grudging respect laced with disappointment. But Mad Men was able to right its foundering ship - at least seal off the leaky compartments - with a strong, if confounding, finale. And there’s the sense that Season 6, presumably set in the tumultuous years of 1968 - ’69, could very well see the Mad Men finally return to warp drive after a year of poking along on impulse.

Season 5 began with great shebang in a 2 hour episode that renewed our acquaintance with the principals and, after an 18 month layoff, it was a welcome refresher. The highlight of the installment, and possibly the season, was Mrs. Megan Draper (Jessica Pare) and her breathy performance of a naughty French pop song during Don's fortieth birthday party at the Draper’s new, design book perfect mid-century modern apartment.

This bit of prehistoric karaoke established two unquestionable facts: that French pop songs are somehow simultaneously sexy and annoying, and that the new Mr. and Mrs. Draper were happy and very hot for each other. Only problem is that a happy Don Draper is no use to us. Without his dark secrets and class-struggle shoulder chip, Don is just another expensive suit roaming a Manhattan skyscraper; admiring the view from his corner office while a legion of underlings sweat blood over their sketch pads to pay the bills.

The most often heard criticism of Season 5’s early episodes can be distilled to “Too Much Megan”, and it's a valid ding. Never has series creator Matt Weiner attempted so hard to sell a character. The show absolutely insisted that viewers like her. But the more Megan was pushed, the less interesting she became and the more resistance grew. By the final episode everyone, including Don apparently, were wondering just what he saw in her. Megan’s saving grace was she motivated Julia Ormond’s recurrent character of Don’s mother-in-law Marie. Ormond’s worldly, refined sensualness was a refreshing contrast to the existential confusion and pettiness that plagued the regulars.

The emphasis on all things Megan for the season’s first month was doubly vexing for it caused a number of other, more interesting plot lines to go undeveloped. In a rare fit of corporate consciousness, Sterling Cooper Draper Price signed their first African-American hire, a secretary named Dawn (Teyonah Parris). Despite intriguing nuggets of backstory, the series completely misses this opportunity for a have-and-have-not subplot, and by season’s end Dawn had virtually been reduced to a nonentity. Similarly, the life and times of the new copywriter Ginsburg (Ben Feldman) is never explored beyond cursory data. A wiry kid from the wrong side of the tracks, Ginsburg has plenty of raw, if undisciplined, talent and ultimately proves to be the agency’s savior at a critical moment. But a single, unremarkable scene of his impoverished home life is the only glimpse we get into the origins of this burgeoning wunderkind.