Sep 102008

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.


  20 Responses to “The Mystery that Will Never Be Unfurled”

  1. 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.

    I'll be in my bunk.

  2. Obligatory acknowledgment of jealousy re:seeing Jon Hamm on the big screen.

    Ever since the "Don's Jewish" phase, I realized that Weiner really relishes his red herrings. I no longer really care so much about the "mysteries;" it's all about character for me. If you draw out mysteries too long, if you've had time to examine every possible solution from every possible angle, whichever one the writers finally settle on becomes moot.

    Same principle with Battlestar Galactica: who cares who the final cylon is?

  3. I watch the episodes a few times through out the week and try to catch something I didn't see in he previous viewing. 80% of the time I do. It is like a nice riddle I am trying to solve. I look closely for anything that is uncharacteristic of the characters. I look to see in there was any lessons learned and if anyone is heading down a certain path.

    I try not to read too much into some of the dead-ends and think of them more as adding to the character's depth.

    Say Ken knowing the painting. It showed that he is deeper than thought. I aso think it made Sal take a closer look at him.

    I really wish Pete could have been in the scene. I admit, I look forward to his storylines the most, because he is just as much a mystery to me as Don. Pete is usually predictable, but there are times he suprises me.

    I understand that we may never find what happened to Chauncey (I built my own storyline that he was found and adopted by a nice functional family and lived a nice doggy life.) But his situation was to show us how far Duck had gone down. Show us not only what he is capable of, but how much his life is really messed up.

  4. I suspect if they had Jon Hamm on the big screen in nothing by the pink towel. I would have been the audience member who ran to the edge of the screen and pushed my head against the screen looking up in an attempt to see his goodies.

    Damn, Hamm should have been filming those porn scenes in his past, not set work!

  5. Hullaballo, fabulous work as always!

    Jon Hamm + pink towel= Hells yeah!

    *fans self*

  6. Spot on observations. And I can't help thinking that this is where (the inevitable mention and likenesses of…) the Buffyverse comes closest to Mad Men. I'd love to see an interview with Marti Noxon where she's asked about how the two compare. (I haven't seen the Sopranos, and I do agree on the kinship with the epic narratives of writers such as Tolstoy and Dickens, but Whedon's world is an obvious and intriguing link here, at least to me).

    Matthew Weiner's approach seems to be similar to that of Joss Whedon: the build-up of the seasonal story arc, the unfolding of the characters, and the use of details or scenes that, no matter how throwaway they appear, either plant the seed for future storylines or character development, or have an intrinsic value in themselves, symbolic, cinematic or otherwise.

    Here in London, there's a screening of Last Year In Marienbad (with La Jetee) next week at the BFI Southbank (timely!), and this is what Time Out magazine had to say about it "A key film in the development of concepts of cinematic modernism. Deliberately scrambling chronology to the point where past, present and future become meaningless, Resnais creates a vaguely unsettling mood by means of stylish composition, long, smooth tracking shots… and strangely detached performances."

    On a side note, if only Don had sent that book of poetry to Ken. After the Gold Violin/Rothko incidents, he seems even more like the real boho maverick of the office, and he's not even aware of it (whereas Paul wants to be so much but isn't). Maybe Ken could teach Don how to feel… Oh wait, Sal might want in on that.

  7. Love. This. Post.

    Totally correct interpretation of his quote. Yes, everything means something, but not everything will lead to something. Handprints… could have led to a big fight about the handprints, or not. This ain’t Harry Potter. Like Harry Potter (sorry, it’s all I had), everything is carefully planted. But unlike it, not everything is some seed for the future. And not knowing which is which does create incredible tension. I mean, I’m pretty sure we’ll find out more about who Don sent that book to, but there are plenty of other things that won’t ever get revisited, and we don’t know which is what.

  8. I watch Mad Men in the same way that I would read a long novel by Richardson, Dickens or Tolstoy. Those little moments that seemingly don’t go anywhere in terms of plot still work for me as filling out details about characters or the time period. I wait for the next episode to answer my questions, to see what will be revealed as central to plot or what helps contribute to the tone of the whole piece. I love this show so much.

  9. @ miamimami:

    In Episode 3, The Benefactor, Don ditched work and is seen watching a French movie. While he was watching the movie, Jimmy insulted Mrs. Utz. Roger and Duck jumped on Don, who then fired Lois because she didn't "manage people's expectations" of him.

  10. interesting – i was just given a copy of la Jetee, which came out in 62.

    i have to rewatch that episode.


  11. Miamimami, I zipped through La Jettee, on YouTube, kind of fast (like in five minutes) but I didn't recognize any of the distinctive images from The Benefactor. I don't believe it's the right one.

    For those of you not from New York, revivial houses were everywhere. If a movie had been made in 1960 or 1950 or 1940, Don might plausibly have caught a matinee in Manhattan.

  12. Thanks, Hullaballoo, for sharing with us about this fabulous evening! As a big Vincent Kartheiser (Pete Campbell) fan, I was wondering if you could share with us anything about what he had to say during the presentation. Also, how did he look? (I know – total "fangirl" question!!). Thanks!

  13. ok, i feel silly –

    “People have been speculating and wondering and guessing about Don’s movie to no end”

    i guess i missed this. which episode was this in???

  14. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    *lives vicariously*

    I am one of those viewers who really doesn't care which movie it was Don saw.

    The point for me, is that he was out at the friggin' movies in the midst of the work day. Before lunch.

  15. "I would have been the audience member who ran to the edge of the screen and pushed my head against the screen looking up in an attempt to see his goodies."

    @ Ellelleque # 6:
    You think I didn't do that? Actually, there was a line. I had to take a number…

    "I was wondering if you could share with us anything about what he [VK] had to say during the presentation. Also, how did he look? (I know – total “fangirl” question!!). Thanks!"

    @ adriannen #13:
    I'm going to try to get a little from everyone who was there. Vincent is so entertaining, and a complete goofball, but he had some interesting things to say. I've been to a couple of these things, and it's funny because when Jon Hamm and John Slattery are there, VK shows up dressed to the nines: nice suit, cool shoes, edgy hair style, maybe a little stubble. He's in competition with the best, so he has to look the part. But when neither of those guys are there, Vincent is, shall we say a little more "casual." He had on jeans, and a t-shirt, and I think a hoodie, and his hair was some strange mix between bedhead and floppy. He looked like one of the students…That's not a diss on any students, mind you, just a comparison between him and the others on the panel. I do think he's much better looking in real life than he is on the show, and could totally have VK lust if I wasn't always comparing him to Jon Hamm.

  16. For anyone who really wants to hunt down The Movie – and has the spare time to watch all 94 minutes of it – the entirety of Last Year at Marienbad (L'Année dernière à Marienbad) may be viewed on YouTube starting with Part I:

    Bonne chance!

  17. Thanks, Hullaballo, for the Vincent details! I know that he always comments on how he’s kinda the “class clown” on the MM set (hence the behind-the-scenes photo of him in those oh-so-short tennis shorts looking like he was practicing some sort of karate move between takes), but then when you hear him on the Season One MM commentaries, and read interviews with him, he’s very well thought out……and now, he’s sporting bedhead (wheee!). As far as your crushing on Hamm, I totally understand. The image of that man wearing that pink bath towel is forever etched in my brain (sigh).

  18. I find Vincent Kartheiser wonderful.

    For one thing, he knows how to play to type. The look and the voice: he knows how to use both to slip right into the Pete Campbell chamber of horrors.

    The thing about being Pete is that he has to hint at a soul while revealing creepy self-loathing. And then, dig deeper … to unearth more creepiness. Dodge the soul again — but make sure the viewers glimpse it first. Kartheiser can do all of that. He is really, really good.

    And he's young. Imagine how much further this guy can go, with Mad Men on his resume.

  19. […] Peggy Olson and her sister Anita get compared to East of Eden’s brothers. Meanwhile, we get a little inside scoop on the mystery of the French film in the episode The Benefactor. We also have an exclusive […]

  20. Now I don't make a habbit of quoting Star Wars per se, but like Yoda was to Luke Skywalker. David Chase was to Matthew Weiner! You can hear that plainly on the 'nature of the show' quote above. Long may this form of writing continue in the US television drama.
    Safe to say that Mathew Weiner is doing a fine job making sure it does!

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