Sunday, September 6, 2009

Smoke and Mirrors

I've been watching Mad Men. A little late but with the zeal of the newly converted. The show has just started its third season in the US, but the first two have already been shown on BBC4 over here so apologies for the untimely nature of this post. Also, in proper TV critic fashion I should say that the following gives the game away on certain storylines so if you haven't been watching it and intend to be warned. I'm just saying....

There is a chi-chi shop called Mid Century Modern near my house which sells 1950's and '60's furniture. The term mid-century modern has become synonymous with a sense of ineffable stylishness, an aura of unimpeachable good taste.

At first glance Mad Men could be mistaken for being yet another example of this '60's genuflection. Its characters seem too familiar and its sets a little too chic, as if the show is simply uncritically in love with the era it depicts. As it turns out though Mad Men is obsessed with surface qualities and appearances but in a very interesting way.

Being set in a time and milieu so overcoded by previous films and TV shows allows Mad Men to subtly deconstruct these stereotypes as we watch. Like the collapsing Manhattan office of the title sequence - itself a homage to Hitchcock's North by Northwest - the familiar certainties of character begin to dissolve in front of us as the series progresses.

Mad Men reflects an ambiguous relationship with modernity*. It is in love with the slick grids and shiny surfaces of early '60's design. It also reveals the particular brand of modernism that dominated post-war US corporate culture. Modernism then was associated with money and power rather then the social egalitarianism of its European roots. Mad Men's modernism is the architecture of Philip Johnson and the novels of Ayn Rand. In fact Rand is name checked continuously in the show as a kind of intellectual cheerleader for the ferociously ambitious admen.

Mad Men revolves around a fictional Madison Avenue ad agency called Sterling Cooper. The agencies boss has a Mark Rothko painting hanging in his office, a reference to the way in which modernism (in the form of abstract expressionism) was absorbed into high style by the moneyed American classes. The arrival of this painting forms a central storyline to one of the episodes where its monetary value and artistic worth are eagerly discussed. Its aura is reinforced by its inaccessibility and the young copy writers have to break into the boss's office to finally see it.

The camera may pan lovingly up the steel mullions of curtain walled office blocks or track across the agency's open plan offices, but the show is concerned with the minute hierarchies and power plays of the people that inhabit them. The shiny surfaces and implacable grids of modernist architecture are also aligned with the smoke and mirror effects of advertising itself. Advertising is not just the background setting for the show but an important thematic concern.

Mad Men's central character is Donald Draper, the urbane and sophisticated creative director of Sterling Cooper. Draper's identity is a fabrication though. He is a hick from the sticks, a character with a murky past who has reinvented himself as a dapper ad man. His persona is analogous to the brand identities he dreams up, a clever piece of self-promotion. Interestingly, Draper is in many ways the show's most honest character. He may be a phony but he's also - as Truman Capote said about Marilyn Monroe - a real phony.

Draper's real phoniness is central to Mad Men's interest in the construction of personal identity. Towards the end of season two his life begins to unravel. He takes a trip to LA where he ends up staying with a mysterious group of idle hedonists in Richard Neutra's Kaufman House. Standing by the pool with his trilby he looks like early Connery era James Bond about to indulge in some guilt free casual sex. And yet the louche sophistication of the setting becomes a backdrop for Draper's spiraling loss of identity. The Kaufman house's lack of solidity and ambiguous reflections are contrasted with the gloomy solidity of his own home in the suburbs of New York.

Modernity - the show suggests - comes at a cost. The price being the previous certainties of life. The shifting attitudes and nascent social revolution of the early '60's permeates Mad Men. Everyone is unsure of where they stand. Interestingly too, given the tendency to view the early '60's as a period of effortless cool, the show doesn't pretend that everyone was a Kennedy voting beatnik. Sterling Cooper's admen are automatically pro-Nixon and some of the most telling scenes show them bewildered by Kennedy's hip, populist appeal.

One of the most important characters in the show is Peggy, an intensely ambitious young secretary who is quickly promoted to junior copywriter. For the other female characters this is an inexplicable achievement. Peggy's success is particularly galling for Joan, an old fashioned office manager used to getting her way within a prescribed set of rules. Peggy consistently dismisses Joan's double edged advice to dress in a more feminine way in order to achieve success. In doing so she implicitly realises that Joan's canny playing of the game is actually a trap and the exploitation of her sexuality can only bring limited success.

In a later episode we see Joan's ambitions thwarted as she tries to achieve a different kind of recognition as a TV script reader within the agency. Later on, at home, she rubs the sores on her shoulders from the straps of her bra, a reminder of the efforts she puts in her to achieve her own identity.

The show is made with an obsessive attention to period detail. What could be an overly dry authenticity actually allows the social mores of the '60's to be explored. There is a fabulous sequence for instance where Don takes his family for a picnic. The scene is saturated in cliche; Betty, the perfect blond wife, sipping coke through a straw, the children playing on the picnic rug and Don himself lying back with a can of beer. As they leave Betty shakes the rug out, scattering food wrappers, drinks cans and rubbish across the grass. She makes no attempt to pick any of it up and they drive off.

In another perfectly judged scene a new photocopier arrives in the office. This vast piece of state of the art equipment has no natural home and the characters idly speculate on where it should go as a kind of background chatter to the main story. This is mainly played for laughs until someone uses it to photocopy Joan's ID revealing that she has lied about her age. The copier is quickly utilised as a new weapon in the same old power battles.

Similarly the incessant drinking and smoking becomes a knowingly absurd device, an endlessly recurring trope that ceases to be in any way aspirational or cool. Losing it, or dissolving into complete dipsomania, is an ever present possibility. At one point a character oversteps the line, pissing himself unwittingly during a meeting. Later, swilling whiskies from huge tumblers, the agency bosses shamelessly conspire to give him the boot.

Mad Men is set at the start of an era of massive social change. It is also an era that has passed into popular folklore as a signifier of effortless cool and stylishness. The programme pulls the rug from under this gloss, showing it instead as a period of anxiety and uncertainty, more similar to ours than we would like to admit. The corporate modernism of Sterling Cooper's office suggests an allusion of egalitarian transparency but actually harbours the same old dark spaces of the mind.

* There are good photos of the empty set here, ironically enough together with some tips on how to recreate the style.


numbers bloke said...

Oddly enough, none of this is relevant to British (and European) modernism - rather it could apply to "British Modernism After Postmodernism". I think it'd be more interesting to think about how a combination of semi-conscious revisionism and starchitecture has totally obliterated the actual history of modernism this side of the ocean.

Charles Holland said...

Yes, i think it is specifically about American modernism which became the corporate style AND somehow associated with all sorts of dangerous European ideas which I have written about before in connection with Ayn Rand.

I'm not sure that the modernism-lite which you talk about over here is exactly the same thing. Certainly there is a sense of boring good taste being the order of the dat, But actually mid century modern wasn't particularly tasteful in many ways and Mad Men explores its tensions very well.

Overall I'm not sure that the two things - current Brit architecture and corporate modernism - have much in common bar the fact that they are both shorne of left wing political conviction.

owen hatherley said...

Excellent post - have recently been belatedly discovering Mad Men myself.

Agree (unsurprisingly) with Numbers Bloke though on its applicability to the UK, (and Blair-era aesthetics aren't all about taste at all - think of all those lime green Big Brother chairs, or anything that ever appeared on Bad British Architecture) and not just for political reasons. Kosmograd had a good post a little while ago likening Mad Men to a doc on John Madin - it didn't quite work, nowhere near glamorous or shiny enough, all cardigans and bad hair, still with a perceptible whiff of Bovril...

Kosmograd said...

Quick, before anyone notices - it's Sterling Cooper, not Stirling.

The Hath's criticism of my Madin Men post is fair enough, but I still think there's mileage in a Mad Men meets Fountainhead by way of thirtysomething TV series set in an 80's architectural office. Stirling Wilford?

Mad Men is just about my favourite TV show ever, up there with Twin Peaks and Camberwick Green.

Charles Holland said...

Perhaps there is a similarity in that both mid century US modernism and 90's Blairite modernism are corporatised and bereft of the political conviction. There are so many other temporal and political differences in circumstances though that it seems a stretch to me to make the connection stick. But, its certainly an interesting point.

I like "the whiff of Bovril"....

Kosmograd - I've just (re)read your post on Mad(in)Men and greatly enjoyed it. I think James Stirling would make a fabulous dramatic character. Imagine the scenes between him and the crazy haired acolyte Leon Krier! Or the infamous peeing against the glass at the Yale architecture faculty building incident!

owen hatherley said...

There's plenty of differences of course, but I can imagine a Blairite Don Draper, as there are so many people in that milieu who are much more complex and have much shadier pasts than they let on, who aren't quite the ultra-efficient enterprise machines they paint themselves as...think of Gordon Brown's own constructed past for instance. I suppose the difference is that, as you point out, Draper is a much more convincing (and charming) fake.

Agreed on the Stirling Wilford film. Someone write the script!

owen hatherley said... also, Draper on Nixon - where he disdains Kennedy for his inherited wealth and claims 'when I see Nixon I see myself', and this other K-Punk post - 'Brown is Nixon to Blair's Kennedy'.

Charles Holland said...

Re: shady new labourites. Yes I can think of some too. A drama about the millennium dome would be good as that certainly lined the pockets of various individuals and epitomised a certain vacuous vainglory about the whole new labour enterprise.

The self invented persona has a much more pertinent history in america of course - Jay Gatsby, Holly Golightly, Monroe and the Kennedy's themselves. So Draper is obviously a part of that, a double edged tribute to the American dream of wish fulfillment and self-invention. One of the reasons for the programme's smartness is that it recognises that everyone is a sham to some extent. There is a great scene where everyone gets; undressed at the end of the day, takes their uniform/mask off as it were; the priest, Peggy, Joan, Don. They are all their own personal inventions and the stability of that threatens to destabilise constantly.

In the UK the self-invented character is more linked to straightforward social climbing and class snobbery and normally gets 'exposed' quickly enough to reinstate the status quo. That's why the scene where Cambell tries to expose Draper is so great because cambell is too naive to realise that everyone is faking it.

I can totally see the Nixon thing and the nice aspect about that comment when Draper makes it is the undertow of self loathing in it. And Kennedy's wealth may have been inherited but they were of course supremely dodgy themselves, and the money was very dirty.

retoque fotografico said...

Great article and great photos. One observation are the actors sponsored by the tobacco industry.

Charles Holland said...

No, but the characters are....

owen hatherley said...

Seemingly coincidentally, this post is short and sweet.

Charles Holland said...

yes, that's good. takes about a quarter of the words to say something very similar.