Tuesday, May 29, 2012

MAD MEN--"The Other Woman"

Wow, wow, wow.  This week's episode of Mad Men entitled "The Other Woman" made me rant and cry in equal measure.  Crucial decisions were made by the characters I care about the most, with a little Don and Meghan on the side.  The above image pairing reminds me of a feminist short film by Chilean director Cecilia Barriga called A Meeting of Two Queens (1991), in which she edits footage from the works of two glorious queer Hollywood Icons--Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich--so that they appear to be carrying on the grandest and most tempestuous love affair.

The longing and connection that registers between Joan and Peggy in the above image isn't quite what happens at episode's end, but I like the fantasy.  This season, their relationship to each other has become deeper and stronger, and the show feels like it's finally getting to the "click" moments that became synonymous with some of the feminist values of that late sixties time period.  The valuable emotional screen time Peggy and Joan possessed this week was countered by sharp contrasts, repeatedly made, of showing a bunch of dicks in a room.  Also, if one had any lasting sympathies toward Pete Campbell, they were probably truly annihilated during this episode.  I take some hasty notes while I am watching, and I wrote "Pete is disgusting and coarse and a dickhead and I hate him."  I also called him a "scum-bucket."  Granted, I was a little intoxicated while watching, for my partner and I had a couple of Cersei's Ruins beforehand.

This drink is a variation of a drink made at the Patterson House in Nashville TN.  I do not like my drink diluted, so instead of putting ice in the drink, I like to stick the highball glasses in the freezer before pouring so that they are nice and chilled.  Oh and the drink is called Cersei's Ruin because it's SO GOOD, it will make you sleep with your hot brother (thank you Game of Thrones).

Here's the recipe (makes one drink):

2 ounces high quality Bourbon
1/4 ounce fresh squeezed lemon juice
1/2 ounce St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur
13 drops lemon bitters
Absinthe Verte to coat the glass
garnish with lemon peel

Take your chilled glass and swish some Absinthe Verte around to coat it, then in a shaker, shake the other ingredients, strain into a glass, and garnish.  Yum, yum.  The flavors are sophisticated, well-balanced, and have a kick!

If having to face Pete doesn't cause one to drink already, this drink will certainly take the edge off--but also may contribute to a bit more passionate attachment to Mad Men than usual.  My partner was kind enough to talk me down a couple times.  I would not be opposed to saying goodbye to Pete for good in the season finale in two weeks (Sob. I'll miss you Mad Men. Not Pete, though).  Elevator Shaft fall?

The show opens with a bunch of dicks, dicking around, arguing over how best to get a bunch of dicks to buy a dick-substitute, which is then rationalized as a feminized fetish object--"At Last. Something Beautiful You Can Truly Own"--a Jaguar sports car.  For these men of the late 60s, this car is the proverbial "other woman," who will satisfy the fraught and precarious masculinity they so desperately need to maintain, especially in the face of the social changes underway.

Peggy is shut-out of this dickfest, where they are all swinging their wangs and eating lobster.  In fact, she saves the Chevalier Blanc campaign with some fast and fancy thinking (Lady Godiva saves the Beatles wanna-be), but she gets no credit for her work, as Don reminds her that it's MG's campaign.  When she protests, he tells her she can go to Paris, and literally throws money in her face.  WTF Don?  Even Ken Cosgrove's "pact" with Peggy just doesn't feel satisfying to her.  This confrontation with Don is the nail in her and Don's Samsonite Suitcase, for she starts taking meetings with other agencies, and is snagged by a competing firm that recognizes her worth and gives her more than her asking price.  I was simultaneously so proud of Peggy, and so sad, because I'm not sure that I can continue to watch this show if she actually leaves SCDP for good.  If she makes it to the top somewhere else, will she take Ken with her?  The pact implies equivalency, but in this episode, Peggy feels like it's all lip service, and she must be the one to make a change.

When Peggy gives notice, Don lashes out with "Let's not pretend that I'm not responsible for every good thing that ever happened to you," and asks her for her "number." Sure, he's hurt, but this kind of comment is exactly why she is leaving.  At this point, there is no number high enough to keep her putting up with Don's bullshit.  As she tells Don, he would do the same thing.  When he grabs her hand, Peggy can barely keep it together.  Hell, I totally lost it.

"Don't Be a Stranger."  Damn, how can these two people whose lives are so interconnected be saying goodbye for good?  Say it isn't so!  Will she be begged back for the finale??  I just don't know.

Meanwhile, last week's episode where Joan and Don test drove the Jag and tippled at the bar drove home the economic and romantic realities of Joan's situation.  Greg has filed for divorce, he's staying in Vietnam, and she's a single working mother with a new baby and no real financial security.  When that low-life scum-bucket Pete meets with the head of the dealer's association, Herb Rennit, about SCDP's stake in the Jaguar account, Herb lets on that he would be able to put a really good word in for them if they are able to set up a "date" with Joan.  Pete plays pimp, the hateful turd.

Then the sniveling weasel takes the proposition to Joan, who is understandably outraged and disgusted, and claims that they couldn't afford her.  The ignorant dolt then tells the partners that Joan is willing "for a price," which isn't how I read that scene, nor Joan I bet, but that bottom-feeding f**k wad perceives things this way.  Don thankfully walks out of the meeting, but the four other dicks--Bert, Roger, Pete, and Lane--think on it some more, and outvote Don, believing that $50,000 might be proper remuneration for sleeping with some disgusting pig.  Lane meets with Joan in private, tells her not to do it, but then says that if she's considering it, she should demand a 5% active partnership in the company (so that he isn't caught with his hand in the cookie jar).  Oh boy.  The stakes are so high here for Joan, and this kind of decision shouldn't BE a decision she has to make.  She brings the lecherous creeper/Pete into her office and informs him of her demands--no negotiations, buddy.  I like this exchange, although my heart was just breaking.

Joan:  "Which one is he?"
Lowlife scum-bucket:  "He's not bad."
Joan:  "He's doing this."

MG comes up with his spiffy catchphrase, and Don runs with it.  Pete comes in to tell Don that he's sure that creative will win the day, but that there are no other impediments keeping them from Jaguar.  He even implies that it was all Joan's idea, the loathsome toad. Don goes over to Joan's apartment to talk her out of this "date," and she appreciates his friendship and support, even if it's too little, too late.  What one does not realize, until after the following sequences unfold, is that Joan has already gone through with "it," making a devastating, but game-changing decision for herself.

The episode is constructed in such a way that the parallel editing sequence cutting back and forth between Joan's date with Herb and the pitch for Jaguar implies that they are occurring simultaneously--right up until the end when we see Herb's face in smug satisfaction.  I cried through this whole sequence, it hurt so much to watch Joan tolerate Herb's repulsive, lecherous desire.  When Herb states "let me at 'em" while groping for Joan's breasts, she turns her back, and her zipper to him, slowly pulling the dress down from her shoulders.  The wrenching look on Joan's face made my heart stop.

At the same time, Don is pitching the car as if it's a beautiful woman that a man can finally "own" to a room full of smug dicks, and when Mad Men stops for a commercial break, it's for a Stella Artois commercial whose ad line is "She is a thing of beauty."  I shit you not.  I couldn't find the exact ad, but here's a culture jammed version that will give you an idea of why it pushed me clear over the edge.

This Stella Artois campaign started in 2010, but it's proven so successful, that they're sticking with it.  This ad completely undercuts any progressive commentary on gender politics this show might be attempting, and gets at the heart of what's wrong with Mad Men.  This ironic kind of wink-wink retro-sexism seems to get a pass because it's cool, Sixties cool.  Here, this week, the writing and representations have made it glaringly obvious that women are faced with impossible choices, and that this kind of treatment is sexist, unjust, and deeply upsetting.  Then we get some retro commercial that sweeps all that painful, messy stuff away.  WTF!!  Oh, and tell me that this ad doesn't remind you of a certain Zou-Bisou-Bisou?

The show seems to ungracefully ride the line between critique and celebration of these outdated gender roles, suggesting moments of critique, but then ultimately recuperating all this bullshit into a palatable, retro-sexy package.  Is it wrong to want more from this show?  I don't think so.  Are we going to REALLY deal with racism and sexism next season?  How about Stonewall and homophobia?  Rise to it Matthew Weiner.

Speaking of Zou-bisou-bisou, Meghan comes into the office at SCDP for a little "quickie" boost of confidence on her way to her audition.  Don has made it clear earlier in the episode that he's not thrilled with the possibility that Meghan might be called away to Boston for rehearsals for a couple of months; they are still trying to negotiate the changes her decision has wrought on their relationship.  Still, Don's trying, and that's more than we can say for almost every other male character on the show.  I love when Stan tries to get Meghan back in the game, and she says, "Jaguar:  It's your problem, not mine."  Nice, Meghan.

Meghan's audition is extremely disheartening, and she begins to realize that for so many roles, it doesn't matter if she ever utters a word.  Three men sit on a couch and subsequently ask the "sweetheart" to step forward and spin around.  She is a "thing of beauty" to them, and it's not clear that Meghan will be valued beyond this idea.  All her excitement and enthusiasm is shattered by a couch full of dicks.

When Don returns home from the pitch, they have a discussion which is quite moving, and gives me high hopes for their future relationship.  Don tells her that he doesn't want her to fail, and she points out that if she's forced to choose (between acting and Don), she'll choose him, but she'll hate him for it.  Pretty honest words!  Don has figured out that he doesn't want another Betty, and they end this scene in closeness and respect.  Baby steps.  These two have come a long way from that Howard Johnson's parking lot!

The next day, when the partners receive the news that they've won the Jaguar account, Joan is right there with them, driving home to Don that he did not succeed in stopping her (and making him wonder, perhaps, how much her sacrifice affected the winning of the account).  Of course, that skeezy little pissant seems fine with the sea change that puts Joan in a position of power, however small.  He's still an unforgivable slug. 

After all this painful viewing, the one redeeming moment that stands out, and leaves me with more questions than answers, is the episode's final image.  Peggy walks out of her office with her giant coffee thermos, turning her back on the revelry, and as she steps onto the SCDP elevators for what may be the very last time, she smiles.  And The Kinks burst into song (the music choices made on this show really are f**king genius). What's going to happen to Peggy???  Is she going to get her own spin-off series?

**Just so you know, I re-watched the episode stone-cold sober and cried in all the same places.  This episode was really powerful, and has me wondering where the season finale will take us.  I hate waiting.

Friday, May 25, 2012

DAMSELS IN DISTRESS vs. those other privileged GIRLS

Dancing is definitely a cure for the blues.  Getting your heart trounced may be devastating at any age, but it feels especially painful in your early twenties, when everything seems to take on an added weight.  The four women protagonists attending Seven Oaks College, the fictionalized liberal arts college in Whit Stillman's latest film Damsels in Distress (2011) may be just as confused and misguided as the young women on Lena Dunham's show Girls, but they appear to approach the world with more confidence, intelligence, curiosity and joy than any of Dunham's whiny protagonists.  Their goal, to cheer up depressed and suicidal students through the healing power of "tap dancing," then going on to create the dance craze "The Sambola!," may seem somewhat ridiculous.  Yet the scene where Hannah and Marnie dance in Hannah's bedroom at the end of episode 3 of Girls is the standout, relateable scene of the entire season.  Dancing can make you feel better, even if you're terrible at it.

Want to integrate different racial and ethnic actors into your privileged milieu, Dunham?  Damsels shows you how it's done.  These women may be a little younger (they aren't post-college yet), but they come off a hell-of-a-lot wiser.  Still, the narrative of the film is a little convoluted and all over the place, so I'll do my best at a synopsis.

Lily (Analeigh Tipton) has just transferred as a sophomore to the bucolic Seven Oaks College, and she is almost immediately absorbed into a clique of attractive, chatty young women led by Violet (Greta Gerwig), and including Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore).  Violet and her posse quickly indoctrinate Lily into their social milieu, which consists of working at the Suicide Prevention Center (healing through dance) and dating young men who are their social inferiors as a way of improving society.

Lily is somewhat critical of their (kind of silly) goals and interests, but goes along with their inclusiveness much of the time.  Things start to go haywire when Violet's frat boyfriend, Frank, hooks up with one of her depression victims, Priss.  Much to Violet's surprise, she is broken-hearted and sent into a "tailspin" of depression; after disappearing from campus, she returns from her roadside hotel experience, transformed through a bar of soap.

Meanwhile, Lily, who is friends with Xavier and his girlfriend Alice, inadvertently breaks up the couple, and hooks up with rebounding Xavier, who is committed to the Cathar religion.  He spins their approach to sexual intercourse (morally evil) as strictly non-reproductive, convincing Lily that anal sex is the only way he can be sexual.  When the posse hears of this bullsh**, they support Lily ditching this "playboy operator," as Rose would describe such a guy.  Oh, and Adam Brody shows up as Charlie, who initially expresses some interest in Lily.  He works in finance, buys her martinis, and runs around in a suit.  Violet thinks she recognizes him from her literature class.  He is actually masquerading as someone else, and his real name is Fred, and goes to Seven Oaks College.  Fred is actively searching for a girl from his past, who sounds quite a bit like Violet, whose real name is Emily Tweeter, and is harboring a mild case of OCD.

 In the midst of all this goofy madness is Aubrey Plaza as "Depressed Debbie," perfectly typecast as a gloomy affect-less coed trying to dance her depression away; Freak Astaire, who is the choreographer of the suicide prevention center's dance performance, and actually named "Freak;" and finally, Thor, a guy who has never learned colors, and ends the film literally chasing a rainbow.

For those of you who have seen Damsels, I know I didn't really do its narrative justice.  The film's funny and full of joy, even when it's looking at depression.  Fans of Whit Stillman's earlier work such as Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994), and The Last Days of Disco (1998) will find much to like, starting with the intellectual banter between characters, and their context within a world of economic privilege.  The guy hasn't made a film in fourteen years.  I sure missed him.  Stillman is an acquired taste, kind of like Hal Hartley who also broke out in the Nineties with films such as Trust (1990).  Their films have a mannered, self-consciousness to them.  Both directors have a clear "voice" that I really, really like.

Here's why Damsels is so much better than Girls:
  • Damsels has a mixed-race cast that is still true to its setting and context
Seven Oaks College is a small, elite, northeastern liberal arts college, so preppy, economically-privileged kids of all races and ethnicities attend.  Sure, there are more white characters roaming around, which reflects the fact that white people have been dominating economic privilege thanks to institutionalized racism for a long, damn time.  Rose, played by Megalyn Echikunwoke, is sweet, funny, and perhaps a bit too much of a sidekick.  Still, like Stacy Dash in Clueless, she is vital to the film, and not just window dressing.  And she's Violet's best friend since her tweens.  Girls takes place in NYC and Brooklyn, but clearly in some alternative universe where practically everyone is white.  Give me a break.
  • The women characters are confused and fumbling, but not beaten or pitiable
Violet and her friends are so insecure about getting their hearts broken that they rationalize "aiming low" when it comes to their male love interests--although Violet's feelings for Frank are real and she's very hurt by his rejection.  Rose's mantra that all confident, hot, and intelligent men are "playboy operators" sounds like the wary defensiveness of a woman afraid of hurting.  Heather is admittedly rather dopey and says some really dumb things; she's the perfect match for the bumbling Thor.  Their naivete is summed up by poor Lily, who goes along with the older Xavier's dogmatic sexual needs; still, she wises up pretty quickly (whereas it appears Hannah on Girls will continue to date that bottom-feeder, Adam).  All these young women are fumbling around in a confusing hook-up culture, making mistakes and learning from them.

Everyone in Damsels is trying to figure out who they are, and wearing different masks as the film evolves.  Violet's real name is Emily Tweeter, and she created a new persona in order to cope with her parents' untimely death and her OCD.  Charlie, is really "Fred," and not someone in a suit who works in finance.  Finally, Rose has a British accent, even though she only ever visited the UK for five or six weeks.  (Violet says at one point, "I miss my American friend.")  All the characters are trying to figure themselves out, but the women characters are burgeoning women, not infantalized "girls."

Princess Cowboy from Judgmental Observer suggests in her "reconsideration" of Girls:  "A 23-year-old is like a very independent, very entitled toddler who can drive a car and is legally allowed to drink. We say and do very, very dumb things when we are in our early twenties, and that seems to be what Girls is about."

While her post is smart and thoughtful, I'm not buying that representation of twenty-three year-olds (and if you read through the article's comments, the commenter who worked her way through college is not buying it either).  As I said to three of my graduating female college seniors the other night, "You are already so much smarter than any of those young women."  The women characters' portrayal suggests that they're graduating a bunch of bloody idiots at Oberlin College.  On Girls, all the women characters come off as rather dumb, ripe for humiliation, unable to make good choices or learn from their mistakes.  The show has been lauded as "realistic," and I would suggest that it shares some of that cringe-worthy quality of reality television.  Most of the time you're watching, you're thinking "Thank God that's not me."  And we have to sit through the most egregious sex scenes imaginable.  No thanks.

Stillman's younger female characters are competent, assertive and capable, even when they screw up.  They are independent, thoughtful, witty and intellectually curious.  These women might still be in the throes of "growing up," but one feels admiration for them, rather than disgust and pity.
  • Characters in Damsels feel joy, and that feeling is contagious
I'm not a fan of Musicals, or musical numbers, but I get why dance is therapeutic, and that characters bursting into song lifts one's spirits.  As is characteristic of a Whit Stillman comedy, not everything and everyone is resolved at film's end. The unveiling of the dance craze, the Sambola!, is a bit of a dud.  All the characters are not neatly paired off, although Heather and Thor end up together and he finally can name the colors in a rainbow.  The film ends on an up note with a stirring song-and-dance number accompanied by Fred Astaire's "Things Are Looking Up (A Damsel in Distress)."  The scene does not feel incongruous or odd; it feels just right.

If that's not enough, all the characters dance "the Sambola!" during the credits, with detailed enough instructions so that you, dear viewer, can try the new dance craze at home.  I was grinning and grinning when I left the theater, and I'm still smiling now in recollection.

Girls makes me feel angry, depressed, and worried.  I'm angry because these spoiled little girls are unintelligent, narrow-minded, and rather hopeless.  I feel depressed because all the other characters, especially the men/boys, are morally bankrupt, misogynist, and inconsiderate.  No one is really likeable or admirable.  Finally, I'm worried, because if the show is as "realistic" as so many claim, then my women students are stepping into a world where they will feel powerless, mortified, lost, and miserable.

Hey, I'm not some Pollyanna, and I know that the world is full of crappy disappointments and difficult years ahead.  Young people, and young women, are talented, resourceful, optimistic, passionate, determined, thoughtful, curious, and full of possibility.  Girls just shits on all those possibilities.  Ugh, I've got to stop, since I'm just getting pissed off again.  I'm really turned off by apathy and helplessness.  Here's hoping Lena Dunham grows up and changes the world to a place more hospitable, which one can do with the privilege she has as a film and television "maker" whose voice is part of the contemporary zeitgeist. Meanwhile, for a good time see Damsels in Distress.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

SWIMMING POOL by Alexandra Hetmerova and STAIRS TO NO END by Daniella Koffler

It's getting to be that time of year again in the Northeast, where folks try to get in shape in order to run around in their swimming attire.  One way to circumvent bathing suit fit issues?  Skinny-dipping!  I envy every person out there who has the kind of beach/pool access to indulge in this most delightful of pastimes to their heart's content.  Others have to sneak around, which can sometimes add a necessary frisson of forbidden pleasures.

Here Czech animator Alexandra Hetmerova fulfills our wishes for a sweet little bit of escapism, with a delightful surprise at the film's end.  Synchronized swimming never looked so lovely or so fun.  Check out Swimming Pool (2010) below!

On a bit more serious note, Israeli animator Daniella Koffler's meditation on religious fundamentalism and the freedom that knowledge can bring, Stairs with No End (2011), is both a stunning and unsettling film.  The young narrator's beloved Uncle tells her that "Not to ask questions is to live life asleep," and champions her intellectual curiosity, even though her questioning alienates her from her family.  The light does shine a path onto the stairs of knowledge, which thankfully have no end.  As Koffler thoughtfully explains: 

"The film was inspired by Ayaan Hirsi Ali's book “Infidel” and Richard Dawkins's book “The God Delusion”.   I wanted to tell the story of many women I know, who chose to stand alone, think for themselves and paid a price for asking unwanted questions."

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

MAD MEN--"Dark Shadows" and "Christmas Waltz"

Meh.  Since I'm such a stalwart Peggy fan, watching two episodes in which she was barely a blip on the radar of the show didn't do much for me.  In fact, the last couple of episodes--"Dark Shadows" and "Christmas Waltz"--seemed  heavy on filler, and very light on "holy crap" moments.  Still, each episode had some memorable highlights, so I'll just say a little about those:
Ah Betty.  Mad Men continues to paint her as a villain, but I couldn't help but feel some pity for Don's ex in "Dark Shadows."  I could almost feel her seething jealousy as she took in Don and Meghan's cool city digs, and then gazed surreptitiously at the ever-lovely Meghan as she dressed.  Yet, even when Betty is at her most villainous (using Sally as a way to poison Don and Meghan's marriage) or her most pitiable (heading straight for the fridge to mainline whipped cream directly into her mouth), something about January Jones's portrayal always feels flat. Betty is the ultimate cold fish, but is that because January Jones is a bad actor?

A recent article by Willa Paskin for Salon.com claims that bad acting can keep careers like Jones's afloat for quite some time.  This prompted my partner and I to immediately talk about another "bad actor" on a television show we enjoy--David Guintoli, or Nick, on Grimm.  This guy is the STAR of the series, in almost every scene, and whenever he's on, we're just bored, bored, bored.  Really, the reason to watch the show at all is Silas Weir Mitchell who steals every scene, except for the ones that Sasha Roiz steals.  Even Reggie Lee, who's woefully under-utilized as Sergeant Wu is a hundred times more interesting to watch.  The fine cast of supporting actors seems to allow Grimm a modicum of success, despite its lead's flatness. Ensembles can save bad actors.

Mad Men's Betty is an extremely well-written character, and the situations in which she's thrust are visceral and discomfiting; yet, Mad Men is very light on close-ups of Jones, as if the situation is more important than the play of emotions that crosses her face.  As I've posted earlier, the show vacillates between sympathizing with women who struggle against the oppressive beauty culture of the Sixties, while simultaneously reveling in that culture with supernaturally beautiful characters such as Meghan and Joan (and Betty before this season).  The connection Mad Men draws between aging and the period's obsession with youth is crucial.  Betty's new dieting obsession fits into this context, yet I find it really hard to care about what happens to her.  Contrast these scenes with the one a couple weeks ago with Roger's ex, Mona (Talia Balsam), and one can see how a really talented actress can effortlessly steal a scene.  I haven't completely given up on Betty.  One really great temper-fueled explosion might solve this ambivalence I feel, but until it happens, I'm just not sure that Jones can carry that emotional scene off.

Mad Men's well-established characters--Betty, Roger, and Don--are desperately trying to remain relevant.  Betty is the cast aside beauty, replaced by a younger, more exciting version.  She tries to ruin things, with Sally as her emissary, but fails miserably, faced with a frugal Thanksgiving plate of food and a tummy full of bitterness.  Roger is still coasting off his LSD trip, and asks Jane for one last favor, then succeeds in ruining her new beginning (away from him) by tainting her new apartment.  Yet the single best gambit for relevancy is Don's, where he admires the blabbermouth MG's copy-writing creativity, but still wants to remind the twit of his place at SCDP.  Don purposefully leaves Ginsburg's campaign ideas in the cab, only bringing his own mock-ups to the pitch.  They win the campaign, but MG's pretty miffed.

Don and MG's conversation in the elevator takes MG down a much needed peg.  This guy is just too cocky and full of himself for his own good.  I know that excessively proclaiming one's accomplishments can be a sign of deep-seated insecurity, but MG just pushes his cockiness too far.  When MG, in all his puffed chest youthful glory lands his "I feel bad for you" pity zinger, Don merely deadpans, "I don't even think about you."  Even though we know that Don thinks about MG quite a bit, his nonchalant dismissal felt pretty satisfying as Don leaves MG alone in the elevator, slack-jawed and properly dissed.  Many of the best scenes of this season seem to being playing out in the elevator.  Coincidence?  I think not.  That chasm between the older and younger generations yawns ever wider.

Oh, special shout-out to the scene where Meghan is teaching Sally how to fake cry, highlighting a her newly learned acting techniques.  You just know that teaching Sally that trick will come back to bite them all!

"Christmas Waltz" spends way too much time with Lane Pryce and his financial problems, without really properly explaining what he's done and the repercussions (he hasn't paid his taxes in the UK, tsk tsk).  Also, after the revelation that Paul Kinsey has fallen in with the Hare Krishnas, that whole plot-line fell kind of flat.  Really, is Weiner trying to kill his viewers with boredom by focusing on Lane and Harry this week?  WTF?  Even Roger's belligerent drunkenness produced yawns, even though I'm a fan of his There's Something about Mary hairdo.

He's definitely on a crash course toward wearing socks with sandals.  One more LSD trip will definitely send him over the edge.

That twerp Greg serves Joan with divorce papers, and Joan throws a delightful and uncharacteristic fit in reception, taking it out on the receptionist by hurling the Mohawk Airlines plane model.  Joan is usually so carefully controlled, so her emotional scenes this season have really elevated her character and added a necessary degree of depth to her fiery beauty.  Don witnesses the meltdown and whisks Joan away to test drive a new Jaguar automobile.  Here the two most ridiculously beautiful characters get to have a proper sit-sown and chat at a bar--truly one of the standout scenes of the season.

Yes, their easy camaraderie is a little booze-soaked, but their history allows them to be open with each other. Don admits that he misses Meghan at work, even though he couches the feeling as "the firm" missing her.  He suggests that Joan "start over," not really thinking through how challenging it is for women of a certain age, and divorced women especially, to find someone meaningful--especially with a small baby at home.  Loved Joan's "no one brings me flowers anymore" lament, which Don alleviates with a bouquet of roses from "Ali Khan" later in the episode. Sweet and thoughtful.  Still, Don's fierce and somewhat demented expression as he drunkenly drives the Jaguar suggests that he's still troubled by the split developing between his personal and professional lives.  All is not quite well at home, as both Don and Meghan negotiate her choice to leave advertising and SCDP.

I cannot help but sympathize with Don when he and Meghan attend this self-conscious, high concept theater piece that mocks consumerism. ZZZZZZZ.  When Don shows up late for dinner after carousing with Joan in a Jag, Meghan's fury is understandable, and one senses her conflicted feelings.  Don is pretty drunk, indicated by his inability to hang his coat anywhere.  Meghan demands to know where he's been and throws a plate of (plain) spaghetti against the wall--she still hasn't graduated to sauce.  He tells her the truth, and points out that she likes to be angry, and he's not far off; they often rage at each other in order to have hot "make-up" sex later.  Yet things have changed between them.  Whereas not long ago Meghan would have accompanied Don, rather than Joan, to the car dealership, now Don's extra-curricular work-related activities no longer include her.  One can sense the emotional gulf growing between the couple.  Don's impassioned speech to his SCDP co-workers at the end of "Christmas Waltz" does not bode well for his marriage either, as he makes clear that family and the holidays will fall by the wayside in pursuit of the coveted Jaguar contract.  I'm fairly certain they'll get the client, but I'm skeptical as to how Don and Meghan will weather the storm.  Here's hoping they get through it.

I also hope that we'll see some more inner workings of the advertising "game" on Mad Men, instead of fast forwarding through the creative process and just showing SCDP's success or failure with Jaguar.  The scenes that focused on advertising this season were pretty damn fascinating.  How are they going to pitch these stylish automotive "lemons?"  Will the agency be "established" once they land their first car campaign?

Alas, I've been trying to jettison as much television as possible in order to focus on more film analysis, but I'm a little hooked on The Pitch right now.  I loathe the reality show format, and fast forward through all the "personal" scenes--as I do with every reality series I've watched--but I love watching the ideas happen.  Almost every week I tend to pick the losing team and their campaign, but I still find the process fun.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Animating Poe

Check out this gorgeous animated film, The Boundaries of Life and Death by director and animator Saskia Kretzschmann.

This film is infinitely better than any John Cusack film could ever be.  Animators have been translating Poe's words and vision for some time.  I recommend UPA's The Tell Tale Heart, narrated by James Mason, from 1953. The film uses limited animation to tell its story, which differs from the Disney studio's work by using fewer animated cels, emphasizing sound, and employing a moving camera over the animated cels.

I also recommend The Masque of the Red Death created by the Zagreb studio in the former Yugoslavia in 1969.  Again, this film uses limited animation to tell its harrowing account of the plague run amok.

All three films have a haunted, painterly quality, even though Kretzschmann's film utilizes contemporary computer technologies.  She knows her antecedents, and I wouldn't be surprised if Kretzschmann drew influences from Lotte Reiniger's The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) as well.  Reiniger worked tirelessly for three years on this brilliant animated film, hand-cutting the backgrounds and the shadow puppets, and then animating them frame by frame with the very first multi-plane camera.  She had some assistance from Berthold Bartosch and Walter Ruttman as well.

"Hannah's Diary" and ditching GIRLS

Okay.  Quick Quiz.  How many of the following things have happened to you?
  • someone read your diary, and then used it against you
  • you were sexually harassed at work by your boss
  • someone tried to help you with your make-up, but made you look more like a clown
  • you've supported your friend's really crappy band/musical act
All of the above?  Yeah, that sounds about right.  Now, how many things have never happened to you?
  • someone sexts you a picture of their penis, and then tells you that the pic wasn't meant for you
  • you lose the kids you are babysitting, but the parent says "It's okay.  It happens to all of us."
  • a guy goes down on you, but when you offer sex and tell him it's your first time, he climbs off of you and states that "he doesn't do virgins"
  • you throw a drink in your BFF's face because your sad boyfriend reads her diary onstage
Hmmm.  Not so much?  That constant oscillation between amusement and annoyance is what makes the episode of Girls, entitled "Hannah's Diary," so hard to watch.  The dance is one step forward and two steps back, and the steps back are really getting on my nerves.

I've already ditched Veep on the same network because, however much I enjoy male parliamentarians making fools of themselves on British film/tv, something about a show that humiliates a female politician in a country where half of its population is NOT adequately represented is too damn much for me to swallow.  Hey, this is the same country where that dim-wit Palin was a candidate for Vice President not that long ago.  In fact, Veep's existence right now says to me, "Hey voters. Don't vote for a woman in this upcoming/any election, because this is the kind of politician you're going to get."  Oh, here come the myriad of comments about how I'm such a humorless feminist.  Yeah, you know what, you're right.  I don't find politics in the U.S. very funny right now.  Politics feels pretty life or death to me, and a hell of a lot of other women too.

So, is Girls on the chopping block yet?  Well, not just yet, but it's getting there.  I'm delighted when the show deals with issues like sexual harassment in the workplace, even in a semi-humorous fashion.  While it's unfortunate that Hannah, once again, will not be gainfully employed, because it's pretty certain that she's not staying with "touchy Rich," the responses that her co-workers have to the situation is what makes the episode both thoughtful and troubling.  And the eyebrows that they give her!  Yikes.  My cousins did something similar to me with blue eyeshadow when we were all visiting our grandmother as kids, but they were younger and not trying to "help" (they painted my entire face blue--not cool).  I'm on the fence whether Hannah's co-workers are over-the-top caricatured or not.  We probably will never see them again.

The scene where Jessa babysits, and loses, the kids at the park was pretty complex.  All the other nannies don't imagine her as a sitter, but she informs them that she's "just like the rest of you."  Right.  Fast forward, and once she realizes how woefully underpaid they are (and overpaid she is for the same job), she decides that they should all form a union, demand pay raises, and she'll demand a pay cut.  The black woman in the group then asks her where her kids are.  Whoops!  And she eventually finds the kids for Jessa, who impotently twirls her long blonde hair while calling their names.  Yes, the nannies that surround Jessa's impassioned and clueless call-to-arms are another Benetton-like grouping (a black woman, a Latina lady, an Asian grandma, and gay guy, oh my)!  At least the scene makes clear how privileged Jessa is, how class impacts the lives of working women, and how crappy she is at her job.

I liked that this scene follows Jessa petulantly whining that the one weird thing about having a job is that "You have to be there, every day, even on days when you don't feel like it."  OMG, what a ridiculous and horrible thing to say!  So Girls is purposefully making one of its main characters seem pathetic and stupid, right?  Well, that's the problem with Girls.  Dunham makes all four of the leads look like idiots, week after week.  As I just mentioned, that attitude made me jettison Veep after episode 2.  Still, the fact that Girls is written and directed by a woman means that, for me, there's just more at stake.

And this week, Girls really served up a wham-bam in order to annihilate the good feelings that came from the last episode, where, even though Marnie and Hannah are surrounded by annoying, dick-ish guys, they still have each other (and dancing).  This week, Charlie's friend, Ray, reads Hannah's diary (see above), setting the stage for Charlie to read about Hannah's feelings regarding Marnie's feelings for her "suffocating" boyfriend, Charlie.  Convoluted, I know.  See, that's the funny thing about diaries.  They are private.  And about people's feelings.  AND not meant to be read by someone else.  EVER.  I have had my private journal surreptitiously read by three people, and every time that happened, everything exploded.

Hannah's diary is read on two separate occasions:  Once, with Ray and Charlie as they snoop around Marnie and Hannah's apartment (first violation), and then, onstage, in front of a small group of onlookers listening to Charlie and Ray's lame band (violation #2).  Instead of getting mad at Charlie for such a horrible violation of Hannah's trust, Marnie throws a drink in Hannah's face when Charlie and Ray perform and read passages from the text.  So much for that bonding moment between Hannah and Marnie last episode.  Now Marnie's rendered unlikeable.  Heavy sigh. Girls is starting to feel too much like heavy lifting, and my back hurts (curmudgeonly fist-shake).  Patience is wearing thin.

I like what Abra Deering Norton has to say about the show:

"Why — oh why — can't there be one character in the show who gives a rat's ass about her career? Is career a dirty word to these Girls? Is trying uncool? How about just a passion about anything? Like, even, a hobby? Is learning freaking Windows and Word macros that difficult?"

She's given Girls the heave-ho.  I'm about to do the same.  One more week.

MAD MEN--"Lady Lazarus"

Even after all the love of retro and vintage on the Gilmore Girls, Rory Gilmore grows up to be a confused, shaky depressive married to a dick-ish insurance salesman, who tragically sleeps with that pathetic villain Pete Campbell--a jerk on his own one-way trip to suicide town.  The moment she erases that heart by opening and shutting her window, I pictured Pete stepping into that amazing elevator shaft back at SCDP.  Bu-bye.  Appropriate considering the title of this week's Mad Men--"Lady Lazarus"--taken from a Sylvia Plath poem detailing her attempted suicides.  Everyone has their desperate moments on the series this season, but Pete seems the most ready to do himself in.  Perhaps on the ski slopes with his nifty new skis??

I realized also that I'm really all about identifying with Peggy.  To the point that I was really pissed off at Meghan during and after the episode, even though part of me admires her willingness to follow her dreams.  After last week's intimation by Emile that Meghan has given up on her dreams and surrendered to a life of ease with Don, I wondered, "Is Marxist Dad upset that Meghan's not an actress?"  The crux is that she's landed success (w/Don, at SCDP) without much struggle.  Well, turns out that Meghan was underwhelmed by her success at advertising, and Emile's words hit the mark.  Even though, as Don admiringly told her last week "you're good at all of it."

I guess I really wanted Peggy to have another female teammate and supporter, someone to bounce ideas with and become a pal to.  In some ways, Joan serves that function, but she's not another creative like Stan and MG, and Peggy's worried enough about "acting like a man."  Last week felt like that mentoring relationship was really starting to blossom; but then everything has to unravel on Mad Men.  First, Meghan lies to Peggy, saying she's going to meet Don for dinner after she's told Don that she couldn't join him and has to stay and work.  This scene occurs after a mysterious phone call straight out of a Hitchcock film, with Meghan looking very mysterious.

Don, of course, calls multiple times looking for Meghan, putting Peggy in a really uncomfortable position.  When he keeps demanding to know where Meghan is, Peggy snaps, "I don't know.  Do you know where Abe is?"  He's treating her a bit too much like his secretary, and she's understandably frustrated.  My favorite moment is Peggy hesitantly picking up the phone, Don asking "Hello?  Hello?  Peggy?" and her crying "PIZZA HOUSE!" and hanging up on him.  Hilarious.  When the phone rings again, she wisely decides to split.

The next morning, Peggy drags Meghan into the bathroom to find out the scoop, and Meghan divulges that she hates working at SCDP, and that she's thought about trying to get fired.  She wants to pursue acting.

After recovering from shock, Peggy is furious, and I'm surprised that she doesn't shake Meghan like a rag doll and mess up her perfect hair.  Instead, she yells "You know that people are killing for this job?!  You're taking up a spot, and you don't even want to be here!"  Yep.  Peggy clawed her way up the ladder, was treated like crap, just to get to where she is.  Meghan lands in a coveted spot, without struggle, and she's dismissive of what Peggy has fought so hard to achieve. Urgh. Arrgh.  How do you spell privilege, Meghan?  Still, Peggy does give Meghan the advice to tell Don the truth ASAP--partially because Peggy is a crappy liar and doesn't want to carry that secret around.

To add fuel to the fire, shortly after their bathroom talk, Peggy and her fellow creatives are discussing the Cool Whip campaign with Don.  He asks where Meghan is, and Peggy (still pissed) states that she's not coming.  Then Meghan sashays in, giving Peggy a satisfied little smirk.  That was the moment when I started loathing Meghan again.  A woman who had almost completely won me over the last couple weeks, was back in the Zou-bisou-bisou slot.  Boo.  See catty smirk below.  Oh, Mad Men, why did you have to go there??

Sure, there was a distinct chance of Meghan outshining Peggy rather than working alongside her, and that situation becomes reality when Meghan and Don do their little schtick about Cool Whip.  Megan is really good--AT EVERYTHING.  And she doesn't even want the success that Peggy craves or struggles to achieve.  Meghan wants to explore her dreams, and being married to Don gives her the ability to pursue them.  Her dreams do not need to be about making money and surviving financially--she will always land on her feet.  See.  Over-identifying with Peggy here.

To her credit, Meghan wakes Don that night to tell him that she wants to quit her job and go back to acting, admitting that "she'd rather fail at acting, than succeed with Heinz."  Don's disappointed, but he gets points for not giving her a hard time and being supportive.  He thought they made a great team, and now Meghan wants to venture out on her own. At least he recognizes what a woman who feels trapped and resentful might become (Hi Betty).  Don also acknowledges that he put Meghan in an extremely awkward position by marrying her and then continuing to work with her at the firm.  But Meghan flat out says, "I don't want to do it, Don." Ouch.

The next day, Meghan seems genuinely sad when she says goodbye to Peggy, Stan and MG.  Peggy immediately sheds her bitchiness and shifts to concern, asking Meghan if she's okay.  (Damn if I didn't soften too at her tears).  Ginsberg hilariously jumps to the conclusion that Meghan's been fired and responds with outrage; maybe this guy really is from Mars, since, as Meghan pointed out, she would never be fired.  Stan, incredulously asks if she's kidding (about quitting to pursue acting), but Peggy smacks him down, so they both graciously shake her hand and say they'll miss her.  Peggy's reaction is the crucial one.  She asks firmly if Meghan's sure, and Meghan replies, "Peggy, I've always appreciated what you've done for me.  Not just yesterday."  Awwwww.  Okay, more softening from my surrogate, Peggy.

Peggy and Joan's pow-wow over Meghan's departure is also very telling.  Joan was always suspicious of Meghan's role at the firm, and states that she was frankly surprised that Meghan didn't spectacularly fail.  Peggy admits (oh, Peggy) that she might have been too hard on her, and scared Meghan away.  When Joan suggests that these events might be all part of Meghan's cunning plan, Peggy defends her:  "No, I think she's just good at everything.  She's just one of those girls."  Joan responds, "Then you had every right to be hard on her."  Peggy realizes, this episode and last week's, that she's never going to be "one of those girls," and will have to fight for every single success, professionally and romantically, that she achieves.

Joan has really transformed over the seasons, and her comment reflects her new-found insight.  As a woman who has capitalized on her exceptional beauty for quite some time, Joan now sees how advantages can be limitations.  One senses a mixture of envy and maturity in the way in which Joan regards Meghan.  Joan's portentous thoughts on "second wives" and Don's penchant for actress/models suggest that Meghan's choice will have significant consequences for the future.

Peggy and Don's confrontation at the Cool Whip text kitchen is one of those consequences, and a long time coming.  Everyone at the Cool Whip HQ is expecting the witty Don and Meghan banter, and Meghan's absence, and replacement by Peggy, is palpable.  Don and Peggy "screw up" the schtick, because they're both still reeling from Meghan's departure, and Peggy's no "Meghan."--both Don and Peggy know it.  These tensions produce the following exchange:

Peggy: "Meghan is not the problem."
Don:  "You didn't want her there.  You were threatened by everything about her."
Peggy:  "I spent more time training her than you did, and eight months defending her!"
Don:  "Defending her?  She was great at it!
Peggy:  She thinks advertising is stupid.
Don:  "No, she thinks that the people she works with are cynical and petty."
Peggy:  "I did everything right, and I'm still getting it from you.  You know, you are not made at me, so shut up!"

Yeah!  You know how sometimes when you love someone, you get mad at them when you're really mad at something else entirely?  Like, you get mad about "A," but you're really upset about "Q" and you aren't even aware that you are angry about "Q?"  Well, Peggy comes to that realization (and verbalizes it), a moment earlier than Don, but they both are going through the same mix of emotions (albeit for different reasons).  And they can argue with each other in this way because of their connection and understanding of each other.  Still, I'm glad that Peggy's willing to stand up to Don's petulance and give him a little wake-up call.  Yay, Peggy.  Don is just starting to process what Meghan's loss means to him and SCDP, which that earlier encounter with the elevator shaft made painfully clear.  Hello encroaching sense of foreboding!

Mad Men really makes apparent, week after week, the growing chasm between young and old, and the older generation's discomfort with change.  I admired the way in which Meghan tried to play down Don's "out-of-touch" worries early in the episode, when she said that it's impossible to keep up because the world (and popular music) is constantly changing.  The exchange Don and Roger have later on emphasizes this growing divide.  While Roger says, "I was never able to choose my dreams," Don reminds him that he grew up in the Thirties and dreamed of "indoor plumbing."  Again, that curmudgeonly fist-shaking coming from two characters desperately trying to stay in touch with the upcoming youthquake, whether from taking LSD or marrying young and hip.

All these tensions come together in a lovely concluding montage scene.  Don arrives home from work just as Meghan's leaving for acting class, and she hands him The Beatles Revolver album, telling him to play "Tomorrow Never Knows" before she skips out the door in her perky Audrey Hepburn beatnik get-up.  Don pops the vinyl onto his gorgeous hi-fi console, and sinks back into his recliner and lets the lyrics wash over him:

Turn off your mind relax and float down stream
It is not dying, it is not dying

Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void,

It is shining, it is shining.

Yet you may see the meaning of within

It is being, it is being

Love is all and love is everyone

It is knowing, it is knowing.

The camera reveals our characters from "Lady Lazarus" at their various pursuits.  Meghan lies on the floor in her acting class, immersed in some visualization exercise.  Pete watches in misery as Beth/Rory draws a heart on her car window, and then erases it, stomping on his heart as well.  Peggy and Stan share a joint while working on a campaign at SCDP, which softens their "reality" of Heinz Baked Beans.

And Don?  Don cannot even sit through the whole song, but gets up and shuts off the stereo, drink in hand, and leaves the room.  He just doesn't get it.  Watch out for that elevator, Don.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Guilty Pleasure--Syfy's LOST GIRL

I'm a huge fan of adult Urban Fantasy fiction.  I've devoured books by Kim Harrison, Kelly Armstrong, Charlaine Harris, Ilona Andrews, D.D. Barant, Seanan McGuire, and Gail Carringer, just to name a few.  And NO, Twilight does not count in this grouping.  I could barely get through 20 pages of that book.  Lost Girl is basically an Urban Fantasy woman-driven novel come to life, similar to True Blood (whose last season I found virtually unwatchable), with a dash of USA's La Femme Nikita thrown in for some action vibe.  The show is Canadian, and originally aired on Canadian TV before Syfy picked it up; they are showing seasons one and two in tandem right now.  It's part of "Powerful Mondays," along with shows such as Being Human and Eureka.

Those Canadians know a thing or two about putting together a solid urban fantasy series, with the great Blood Ties, and the slightly less so Forever KnightLost Girl's is written and created by a woman, and is an adult series, rated "mature" and purposely full of sexual situations.  Thankfully, nobody goes to high school on this show.

The series centers on the supernatural walking among us, and stars Anna Silk as a voluptuous, ass-beating succubus whose main power comes from sex.  Now you might think, "Great, another show where a woman's strength comes from her sexual power!" but the show is not that simple or that cliched.  Here's a synopsis from an interview with creator, show-runner (for the first season) and writer Michelle Lovretta:

"Lost Girl is the story of Bo, a young woman who realizes she’s a succubus (a woman who uses sex to feed, heal… and kill) when she hits maturity and drains her high school boyfriend to death during her first sexual encounter. Oops. She tries to run from her past and her nature, until encountering others like her and learning she’s part of the Fae, an ancient race living amongst humans and feeding off of them in different ways. They pressure her to join their ranks, but she distrusts their motives and chooses to go it alone, navigating the terrain between the humans and the Fae while trying to figure out her origins and gain control of her predatory sexual hungers."

Lovretta goes on to explain what the series shares with other fantasy series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena, and Dollhouse, but the differences are what interest me.
  • Bo is bisexual
The show is tailor-made for "shippers" to follow (if you're not clear what that phrase means, you should check out this EW article). Bo's two primary love interests are with a male werewolf, Dyson, who almost never has a shirt on, and a female scientist, Lauren, who is smart, gorgeous, witty, dependable--OK, you get whose team I'm on.  The show is littered with hot guys, and they are really fun to look at (although I'd be even more into it if they made out with each other); but the heart of the show, to me, seems to be the relationships between women.  AfterEllen.com is pretty devoted to the series, mostly because Bo's attraction to and desire for Lauren is never an "issue," but an understandable reaction to their friendship and Zoie Palmer's incredible brainy hotness.  Oh, and scenes like this:

Now some queer women might complain at how stereotypically femme and beautiful these women are, but A) it's still exciting to see these kinds of scenes on cable, and B) their sexual relationship is one based on friendship and trust, and has been carried through the show's series--it's not some titillating one off.  Now Dyson's a fine specimen and all, but now that *spoiler he gave his love for Bo to some ancient Fae in order to save Bo's life in the season one finale, she can get back to spending quality time with Lauren.  Lovretta praises Syfy for their interest in queer representations:

"They’ve been really supportive and their marketing campaign has been fabulous and they are pairing us with Being Human, which is a lovely show. Because I’ve had in development a couple of different projects there that had lesbians as leads and nobody there ever batted an eye – no one was saying ‘that’s going to marginalize your audience,’ there was nothing like that. Which is, I’m coming to appreciate, a great gift."
  • Bo and Kenzi's platonic friendship is what drives the series
Ostensibly, the show is a private investigator series with some mythology aspects to explain the world of the Fae that Lovretta has gracefully built.  Bo and Kenzi are roommates, best friends, and have saved each other's butts multiple times.  The show makes clear that, even though Bo is bisexual, she doesn't desire or have sex with everyone.  Kenzi is her confidante and her support network, and Ksenia Solo is kind of the reason I watch the show.  She's full of snappy lines and awesome wigs and goth goodness.  Yes, she's technically a sidekick, but most of the time I think she's more interesting than Bo, and the Kenzi/ Detective Hale (played by K.C. Collins) ass-kicking team  is better than the Bo/Dyson pairing any day.  They have much better banter.

Fans can produce such amazing content.  I found this collage at this site.  While I'd clearly watch a show devoted to Kenzi, the show shines because of the close, platonic bond that she and Bo share with each other.  Sure, the sexual hijinks give the show it's kick, but the affection and trust that these women have are strong and unwavering.

  • the hottest men on the show are Black Men
Following the (convenient) mythology of the Fae universe, many of the Fae are supernaturally gorgeous, and thankfully, the show isn't just a sea of white, although characters like the aforementioned Detective Hale, who is a Siren, and the Light Fae leaders "The Ash" and "The Black Thorn" (Light Fae name their leaders after trees) do not have the central roles I'd like them to have.  But they are beautiful, beautiful men, and if I'm devoting so much of this post to eye candy, it's only fair to show them off.

The guy the Black Thorn is about to fist bump is Trick, the proprietor of the Fae pub, The Blood King, and (supposedly revealed in a future episode), Bo's Grandad.  He's also a phenomenal actor, conveying pathos, strength, wit--and he happens to be a little person.  Granted, fantasy television will always be much more eager to give little actors their due, and Peter Dinklage's Game of Thrones powerhouse performance is just one example (although everything that man has EVER done, from Nip/Tuck, to Threshold, to The Station Agent is phenomenal).  Still, Richard Howland is wonderful, and his relationship with Kenzi is definitely one of the series' highlights.
  • Michelle Lovretta is the creator, writer, co-show runner, and executive producer for the series
As Melissa Silverstein's remarkable and brilliant website has made endlessly apparent, women have a very small foothold in film and television, and that dang glass ceiling is still firmly in place.  In interviews, Lovretta plays down her role as a woman in the industry, suggesting that many male creators have produced shows that headline women. Okay, so there are television shows that are created and run by men that have strong female leads.  Big f*$#ing deal.  That's not good enough when one considers that those shows are still in the minority of stuff that's out there.  And Charlie Sheen is getting another show?!  Just saying.

Lovretta's involvement in creating a show that focuses on female friendships and diverse sexualities is exciting and crucial to the pantheon of stories from women's perspectives.  Those stories need to be heard in all their richness and diversity.  Yes, this show sometimes has really goofy dialogue, wooden acting, and extremely superficial storylines.  Still, Lost Girl is better than a certain show with five times the budget, that has become buried under far too many story arcs, and is focused on a whiny, southern blonde lady.  Although, thinking back to the embarrassing special effects used on the season four premiere of True Blood, what budget??  The only connection that show has to the books on which its based, at this point, is that it's making Charlaine Harris a ton of money.  She deserves it.  If Harris wrote some more queer characters into her world, Lovretta might be a little more interested.  And at least there are no hundreds-year-old vampires attending high school.

Friday, May 4, 2012

MAD MEN--"At the Codfish Ball"

Poor Sally.  She "saw something nasty in the woodshed," to quote one of my favorite films, Cold Comfort Farm (John Schlesinger, 1995).  Even though this episode ends on a down note for just about every character featured during this show, the focus on Mad Men's women in "At the Codfish Ball" really made this episode stand out.  Two moments in particular made me outright cheer, and I'll explore them in more depth.  Also, the show is clearly trying to rehabilitate Don Draper after his "dream murder" and the horrifying fight he had with Meghan last week.

This season, Mad Men has been exploring in some form the growing youth movement and generational tensions synonymous with the Sixties, and nowhere does that storyline carry more power than in the struggles and  preoccupations of Sally Draper.  This episode is bracketed by Sally's phone calls to her friend, Glen, who's been a fascinating character from the earliest days of the series.  His crush on Betty was so creepy and weird early on, but his steadfast friendship with Sally has really come to define him.  That he's played by Matthew Weiner's son, Marten, always blows my mind a little.

It seems that Sally and Bobby are often left at the mercy of Grandma Pauline, and Sally is continuing to complain about this woman (justifiably) to anyone who will listen.  (Betty, Henry, and baby Gene seem to be out of town all the time).  Sally gets much more mileage from conversations with Glen than with Don, and in a burst of comic slapstick, Pauline trips over the phone cord spread across the hall, and breaks her ankle, sending the kids over to Don's by default.  Sally's delighted, because she's undoubtedly Daddy's girl.

Unfortunately for Don, Sally and Bobby aren't his only house-guests; he and Meghan are entertaining her parents as well.  Emile and Marie are French Quebecois, and very, very unhappy.  From the moment that Emile walks through their door and tells his wife, in French, to drink so that she'll "become nice," you get the sense that this visit will not be a pleasure.  Emile is some kind of lefty professor who is turned off by their stylish apartment and displays of wealth.  Conversely, I'm delighted by that cool lamp next to the bar, and Meghan's fab dress even matches.  Nice.

Sally and Bobby briefly interrupt the tensions at dinner when they arrive, and Don frames Sally's calling 911, icing Pauline's ankle, and "keeping her calm" as downright heroic.  Sally's relationship with Meghan is also warm and friendly, and it's always nice to see a stepmother not portrayed as creating a rift between father and daughter; those petty jealousies are absent.  Still, with a mom like Betty, Meghan's bound to seem kind and supportive by comparison.  It's unlikely that Meghan will ever tell the kids that they are "boring" or that they should go "bang their heads against the wall."

In fact, knowing that Sally doesn't like fish, Meghan makes spaghetti for the kids (weirdly without any sauce), and Marie fondly tells Sally that she used to make Meghan spaghetti when she was child.  This nostalgic moment becomes the inspiration for Meghan's saving the Heinz beans campaign, conjuring an idealized scene of mother and child, through the ages, cooking beans--from caveman days to futuristic moon colonies.  When Meghan presents her ideas to Don at work the next day, coming up with "Heinz Beans--some things never change," Don looks at his wife with new respect.  Whenever he tries to box her into the "wife" category through sexual innuendo, she insists that "this is about work" and "I don't want to change the subject."  She wants to prove herself.  Still, Meghan is hesitant and conflicted; she fears reprisals from Stan and Michael Ginsberg, and initially wants Don to take credit for the idea.  Thankfully, Don refuses, saying "You don't really want me to do that," to which she replies "no."

The guys do grumble to Peggy about the changes, questioning whether the new campaign was actually Meghan's idea.  Yet they good-naturedly recognize that this campaign is better than what they had. Building on last week's camaraderie, both Stan and MG respect Peggy, and they playfully tease her over take-out Chinese, stating to Abe, who joins them, that if she keeps eating Chinese food, she'll go up a cup size (referring to the Playtex bra account).  When Abe takes off for home, Stan says "he's too good looking for you!"  This comment will come back to haunt Peggy when Abe calls to meet for dinner the very next night, and hangs up before she can say no.  Their fighting last episode still weighs on Peggy, and she believes that Abe's about to end things between them.  She goes to Joan for a cigarette and some womanly advice.

Sally and Joan's friendship continues to evolve this season, and as two working women with history at SCDP, they are well matched.  (Yes, I'm a secret fan of their getting together, just as I dream of Alicia and Kalinda together on The Good Wife.  Not going to happen).  Joan wisely tells Peggy that "men don't take the time to end things," and instead just ignore you until all that's left is hate.  She thinks that instead, Peggy may be looking at a marriage proposal.  Peggy never imagined this possibility, and is equal parts stunned and delighted by the idea.  Joan warns her to prepare a careful answer, especially if that answer is going to be "no."

Peggy shows up to the Minetta Tavern in a new dress, beaming at Abe.  They both seem a bit awkward, and Abe looks extremely nervous.  The "proposal" isn't quite what Peggy expects either.  Abe asks her "to move in together," and her smile is still on her face, but their is something just a little flat in her eyes.  She was expecting more.

Still, she grabs his hand and says "yes."  Her reaction to his proposal helps define the line she continues to push in regards to female hetero respectability.  Last week, she gave a stranger a hand job.  This week, Stan suggests that Abe's too good looking for her.  Does Peggy say yes because she's worried about losing Abe, and ending up alone, or is it because she's tasting the so-called sexual revolution, and liking the flavor?  I think her ambivalence in this scene, and when she tells Joan her news, speak to her conflicted feelings--and her daring.

Peggy is the focal point for both cheer-worthy scenes this week.  When she arrives to SCDP the next day, she is met by Joan delivering the news that there's champagne in the conference room because Meghan landed Heinz at dinner the night before (yes, Don gives Meghan credit here too, and she deserves it).  Then Joan notices Peggy's ring finger is bare, and says that champagne may not be right for the moment.  Peggy haltingly tells Joan that Abe proposed they move in together, worrying that Joan will be disappointed for her, but defensively stating that they don't need a piece of paper to prove anything.  Joan snaps that the piece of paper Greg has with the Army is more important than any paper she shares with him (nailing that coffin down tight).  Joan congratulates Peggy, believing the proposal romantic and Peggy brave before giving her a big hug.  Yay!  I'm grinning just remembering this beautiful scene between these two incredible women.

And yet things get even better!  Meghan steps out of the celebration and runs into Peggy, who immediately cries, "Meghan, congratulations!" and embraces her.  When Meghan sheepishly tries to undercut her accomplishment, Peggy exclaims, "I know what you did, and it's a big deal!"  What I love about Peggy, is unlike any other character on this show, she is utterly devoid of guile.  She blurts out how she feels, even when it's sometimes inappropriate.  She tells Meghan "I tried to crack that nut.  If anything, I should be jealous, but I look at you, and...I don't know...I'm getting to experience my first time again....This is as good as the job gets, savor it."  One can see Meghan's complicated reaction here.  She's used to experiencing jealousy, pettiness, and blanket dismissal.  Instead, a fellow woman colleague she respects is cheering her on.  She decides to "savor it" giving Peggy a quick squeeze in solidarity.  This moment is a triumph for Peggy, Meghan, and Mad Men!  Yay!  I'm smiling as wide as Meghan!

Ah, but Mad Men is always eager to bring viewers back down after they are up.  Back at chez Draper, the griping and sniping turns into full on screaming matches with the two in-laws.  After a little shopping interlude, Meghan, Marie and Sally return home.  Sally politely asks "papa" if she can attend his awards dinner that evening; Don's being lauded by the American Cancer Society for his letter denouncing tobacco (last season).  Marie points out that daughters need to witness their father's successes, and then Emile explodes, screaming in French that Marie won't be happy until he's dead.  He storms off to his room, and she joins him.  Screaming ensues.  When Don asks what the hell happened, Meghan explains that at one point, after an unsuccessful meeting with a potential publisher, Emile called his grad student girlfriend, sobbing.  Marie walked in and overheard his conversation, and was understandably furious.  Meghan's reaction says so much about why she's willing to put up with Don's volatile moods; this kind of behavior is standard operating procedure for her.  As she tells Don, "They do this all the time.  They'll recover.  They always do." Wow.

Roger pops by before they depart, and there's noticeable sexual tension between he and Marie; she openly flirts with him while she ties his bow tie for him.  Before Emile has time to protest, Sally emerges in her dress for the "ball," looking young, hip, and older than her twelve years.

Don's shocked reaction is priceless, but Emile warns him, "No matter what you do, some day your little girl will spread her legs and fly away."  Hilarious implied butchering of English coming off as disturbingly Freudian!  Don tells Sally to get rid of the boots and make-up or she has to stay at home.  Meghan replies, "wings, Daddy," but everyone gets the drift.  Sally's not a little girl anymore, and she is about to witness some very adult behavior!"

Disappointments come fast and furious throughout the rest of the episode.  Peggy and Abe invite her mother to dinner to tell her their "news," and she ends up taking back the cake she brought them, declaring that she will not help them celebrate their "living in sin."  Mom basically tells Peggy that cliched "he won't buy the cow if he gets the milk for free" story, and the evening turns pretty damn sour.

At the ball, Sally asks where the "staircase" is, disappointed that she cannot make a grand entrance.  Then she's served codfish (with the head on) for dinner, inspiring this episode's title.  Marie and Roger massively flirt with each other, and then leave together.  Emile accuses Meghan of surrendering her dreams for Don's love.  Don is told by Ken Cosgrove's father-in-law (played by Ray Wise) that everyone admires his work, but corporate businessmen don't like and will never work with Don because he "bit the hand" with his anti-tobacco letter.  Finally, poor Sally, taking a wrong turn from the bathroom, opens a door to find Marie giving Roger a blow job; she gets an eyeful before she runs back, no longer interested in her sweet "Shirley Temple.''

The episode's final image is a striking contrast to the idealized version that Meghan uses to sell the Heinz campaign.  Instead of generational equanimity, these generational relationships are riddled with strife.  The realities that this group are forced to face, about themselves, and each other, continue the tensions that underscore this entire season.  Sally's encounter with the sordid side of the "city" has undoubtedly only just begun.