Saturday, August 02, 2008
Madison Avenue Blues
In catching up on the first season of AMC's excellent Mad Men, it is hard not see the show as a type of architectural low-hanging fruit. The show's set and production design is teeming with the bric-a-brac of high modernism: vertiginous shots of curtained walls, a passing glance at the Lever House (seen in the background, through an office window, of course), and even the ESTO-inspired views of Sterling Cooper's offices and copy pools. The show's title sequence is a CGI'd mélange of all these things: Saul Bass meets Robert Longo as suited men fall from the Madison Avenue glass canyons.
One could even say that "Modernism" and "Modernity" are even elided in a couple of scenes in the show's first episode. When asked by a trend researcher if he had ever read Freud, Donald Draper (Sterling Cooper's account manager, played by Jon Hamm) replies, "Freud? Now what firm did he work for?" This scene is played with a wink and a nod, as Draper knows exactly why Freud is being brought up in the context of an upcoming meeting with representatives of the Lucky Strike brand. Invoking the idea of a smoker's death wish does the exact opposite of leveraging a brand. Or does it? In another scene, Draper meets with Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff), an executive for a failing yet famous family-owned department store. When Draper's team suggests that the store print discount coupons in magazines, Menken objects, stating that in reality, there should be no difference between her department store and a Chanel boutique. In other words, she looks to the brainpower and talent of Sterling Cooper's mad men as generators of conspicuous consumption.
Again, the astute thinker of things architectural will note that all this is played out in a dazzling, ravishing series of depictions of New York ca. 1950-1960. One is apt to evoke solidity melting into air, organizational complexes, playtimes, etc. Insert critique of architectural modernism here.
There are other ways in which Mad Men treads familiar ground. In one scene, Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), Sterling Cooper's office manager, introduces Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) to an electric typewriter. Uncovering the machine, and raking the air above it with the back of her hand, she facetiously remarks, "Don't be afraid of the technology." A similar observation on the mechanical, rote nature of office work is also the focus of the opening moments of Billy Wilder's The Apartment, which was released in 1960 (the same year as the action in Mad Men). Here, C.C. "Bud" Baxter (Jack Lemmon) recites some memorable statistics as we see his hands banging on a computer.
No relief would be in sight for typists. Only a year later, in 1961, IBM would introduce its revolutionary, Eliot Noyes-designed Selectric typewriter.
Here then is another manifestation of the well-known observation made by Friedrich Kittler and others -- that the main producers of typing instruments were weapons manufacturers (Mauser, Remington, etc.). Like a modern firearm, the success of a typewriter in the workplace depends on interchangeable parts. The IBM Selectric offers a new phase in this well-worn conundrum. The very company responsible for the computing behind the SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) is also behind the most revolutionary writing instrument of its time. Again, exchange "interchangeable parts" for "interchangeable people", and you realized that we've read this before.
And this is precisely why - if we are to look to depictions of built environments to get a sense of Mad Men's psychological tenor -- some of the show's more potent scenes take place in the suburbs. In those first few episodes, when we take our first glances at Mad Men's normative universe, we don't know exactly where Draper goes when he goes home. There's a bit of affluence on display, as the few exterior and establishing shots of the Draper home show two-story colonials with sumptuous lawns and generous tree canopies. And only through dialogue do we know that the Drapers live in Ossining, in Westchester County.
The interiors in the Draper household reveal a combination of state-of-the-art appliances and neo-Biedemeier plushness. Kitchens sparkle with shiny metal and bakelite. The family room glows under a television set's blue neon haze. In the master bedroom, the most dominant object is an upholstered blue head board. In this and other ways, the Ossining home becomes Sterling Cooper's own buried mirror (to borrow a term from Carlos Fuentes): wholly reflective, yet waiting to be unearthed.
Don and his wife Betty (January Jones) thus occupy the same role in the city-versus-suburb divide. Each embodies, quite literally, attributes of their respective environments. If Don Draper embodies, in his demeanor, his dress, his figures of speech, everything that we want to find abhorrent about Madison Avenue, it is because these are things that are quite easy to read. But leave it to Rachel Menken, who in a memorable scene, tells Don that he too is an outsider, an observer watching everything laid out before him, and unable to participate. Betty, on the other hand, also becomes a bit of a cipher. A polished exterior barely conceals the onset of a psychiatric episode. And this too results in an inability to participate. Except that this inability is quite physical. In Episode 2, Betty's hands become numb, rendering her incapable of everyday tasks such as applying lipstick or driving her kids to the store.
The guidebook for this landscape could very well be J.D. Salinger's "Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut," one of the installments of his Nine Stories (1953). In that story, Mary Jane and Eloise, two suburban housewives get drunk and reminisce about their former lives. Through their drunken dialogue, we not only learn that Eloise is unhappily married, but that her daughter, Ramona, is near-blind. As Eloise continues to drink, she reveals an unrequited love for Walt Glass, who died in 1942 in an off-duty accident. Unsatisfied with life, and numbed by cocktails, Eloise's own universe begins to slowly collapse around her as she asks Mary Jane "I was a nice girl ... wasn't I?"
Like the Draper's Ossining home, Salinger's Connecticut does very little to conceal the unhappiness of its inhabitants. But the amount of consumption in this story as well as in Mad Men is remarkable. And here, I am not talking about conspicuous consumption but rather of alcohol and cigarettes. As Mary Jane and Eloise become drunker and drunker, the offices of Sterling Cooper and the Draper's Ossining home dissolve into clouds of tobacco smoke. G&T's, vodka gimlets, and Lucky Strikes -- these are first and foremost products conjured, packaged, and huckstered by people like Don Draper. As he tells Midge Daniels (Rosmarie DeWitt), his bohemian mistress, "There is no such thing as love .... it was invented by people like me to sell hosiery."
But back to the cigarettes. There is rarely a moment when Sterling Cooper's mad men are not puffing smoke. It is a fitting metaphor, for their job is to really get smoke in everyone's eyes. The men bristle with nervous energy, a seething nicotine-addled cockiness that Bobby Darin sings about in 1958, two years before the Mad Men's story line begins. The song in question is his very popular interpretation of Kurt Weill's "Mack the Knife", whose upbeat arrangement and swing stylings present a more comic, yet sinister reading of the song. And the cigarettes? A lyric from another "Shark" song -- Laurie Anderson's "Sharkey's Day" (1984) -- comes to mind. Right before a serrated guitar solo by Adrian Belew, Anderson belts out something that might as well be coming from Sterling Cooper's meeting rooms: Deep in the heart of darkest America. Ha! Ha! Ha! You've already paid for this. Listen to my heartbeat.