This past Monday I had the pleasure and privilege of attending a special Mad Men symposium sponsored by the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. For those of you not paying attention, that’s where Matthew Weiner received his MFA, and no doubt learned to craft such enthralling stories. This event was part of a classroom lecture series geared primarily toward film and television students at USC, but as a notorious gatecrasher I felt it was my duty to at least try and wheedle my way in. Fortunately, I didn’t have to try too hard as there were spaces available for the general public. All I had to do was flash a smile, show my driver’s license, and VIOLA! Happy happy joy joy
Participants included Matthew Weiner, Scott Hornbacher (Producer), Dan Bishop (Production Designer), Amy Wells (Set Decorator), Katherine “Janie” Bryant (Costume Designer), Debbie Zoller (Makeup), and for comic relief, Vincent Kartheiser (Pete Campbell). Howard Rosenberg, the Pulitzer Prize winning former TV critic of the Los Angeles Times and noted USC professor moderated the panel, which also included screenings of the original Perry Mason series as well as the Maidenform episode of Mad Men. Love me some Don Draper on a big screen! How nice that this was the episode which featured him frolicking beneath satin sheets, and then wearing nothing but a pink terry-cloth towel. On a huge cinema screen. Now that’s what I’m talking about!
My taped notes indicate there’s at least an hour and a half of discussion, so I’ll try to present bits and pieces over the next few days, weeks, months or…There is a lot of stuff to sift through, but there are some good nuggets worth sharing, so I’ll do what I can to bring them to you.
One of my favorite quotes from the evening was Matt discussing the enigmatic nature of the show:
There’s a mystery being unraveled and pieces are not connected and sometimes they are. Some things go nowhere. If there wasn’t stuff that went nowhere, you wouldn’t be excited about the things that go somewhere. When you’re telling a story where you don’t want people to know the end it’s very important that you keep them on their toes
So there you have it. That is Weiner’s philosophy in a nutshell. And it’s why we sometimes get that fantastic HOLY-COW-DID-YOU-SEE-THAT kind of pay-off, while other times we end up scratching our heads and wondering WTF.
Think about the mechanic’s hand prints on the hood of Betty’s car, Duck releasing Chauncy onto the streets of New York, the call girl having Don’s business card, Betty and Sara Beth commiserating on whose daughter is fatter, or Don watching a movie in the middle of the day. What’s the significance of any of that?
Maybe we don’t need to understand those moments. Maybe they don’t mean anything. Maybe, like Ken Cosgrove said about the Rothko painting, we’re “just supposed to experience” them. They make us feel. They draw us further into the plot, and reveal a little about the characters. They may lead somewhere, or maybe they’re the meaningless stuff that keeps us on our toes.
People have been speculating and wondering and guessing about Don’s movie to no end, trying to understand its symbolism and what it means to the story. I know I’ve tabbed through my own mental database of international cinema trying to figure out the score. Last Year at Marienbad, La Tour de Nesle, Hiroshima Mon Amour, La NotteT,,he Red Balloon… Who knows? Maybe it doesn’t matter, so long as we just “fall in” and experience “the deep.”
I was completely ready to buy this line. I had accepted it and was going to own it wholeheartedly without question. So imagine my amusement, when, after being asked about the movie, Weiner finally gave us this:
It’s a very rare French film. A film by a famous director. I won’t tell you the name. I won’t say the title. I’ll never tell. Because I don’t have the rights to it.
Heh. That is one cagey dude. Like Bert Cooper’s purchase of the Rothko painting, the film’s mystery is more for practicality’s sake than to convey any kind of deep, symbolic gesture. After all is said and done, it’s just about the Benjamins.
YodaBert would be proud.