Monday, May 3, 2010

Mad Men and the creative temperment

Note: spoilers of Mad Men, particularly the third season, abound.

I recently stumbled upon a new blog (through Mike Konczal’s), and it contained some interesting thoughts on Mad Men, including this:
Mad Men is self-evidently not about the 1960s, any more than Discipline and Punish is about the late 18th century. It is about us today and the contingencies through which we came to be so. One very smart way that Mad Men goes about this is to shift our habitual understanding of when a key historical break occurred. We typically equate 'the sixties' with the late 1960s, with 1968 as their epitome. But this is only what the self-important baby boomers want everyone to believe, on the solipsistic basis that they insist on having changed the world, not their parents.

Mad Men overthrows this assumption, with a similar disdain as Tony Judt pours on the Western boomers who think throwing rocks in Paris was historically important. By focusing on the exit from the 1950s and the early sixties, it reminds us that the decade was about a shift from one model of middle class conformity to another, from one model of capitalism to another. The supposed abandonment of conformity and capitalism was a hippy delusion or, at most, a sideshow (Thomas Frank's Conquest of Cool is also brilliant on this point; see also this smart piece by Alex Petridis on the nineties reinvention of the sixties).

Then there is the subtle questioning of liberation. The historical constant in Mad Men is libido, which empowers and dominates in equal measure. The shift from one epoch (of sexism, domesticity, formality) to a new one (of equality, self-fulfillment and informality) is not represented as progress in any way whatsoever, but simply what Foucault might call a reconfiguring of the economy of desire. In this respect Mad Men - and this is the genius - is a satire of both conservative and liberal America, showing the choice between the two as arbitrary.
These issues are there in every scene, making it utterly captivating. Every individual is a bundle of desire, and the society at large is simply an aggregate of desires that needs to be understood and then tapped for personal monetary and sexual gain. The fact that Mad Men looks aesthetically magnificent is entirely necessary for it to take effect, for this then plays on the viewer's own desires also.

…which is all very interesting and a good take on the show. But I wanted to add my own thoughts on the show. Like most of the important serials on television, the show is an ensemble story with many rich, well-drawn characters but the most resonant culturally is Jon Hamm’s Don Draper for very interesting reasons. There’s the sort of Gatsbyish element of self-invention of his character, combined with his discomfort of that fact (see the Don/Betty confrontation scene where she first broaches the idea of divorce: “you’ve always had your nose up” at me, the implication being). But the self-invention of Draper is only one element of the grand idea of the show: the power and importance of creation and creativity and creation’s relationship with what you’re doing as a job (and how that job defines you.)

That’s quite a pick to unpack in a thesis statement, but let’s do it anyway. The main division of Sterling Cooper is between accounts and creatives; account characters are constantly sniffing at the creative’s slowness and their nonresponsive ad campaigns while they’re out doing the deeply unpleasant but very necessary business of getting the actual clients whose dollars are the whole point of the enterprise. The creatives, meanwhile, make their claim on the necessity of their work as the product and the fickle whims of the whole creative process.

We often see this kind of conflict in other more typical dramas wherein it is Art versus Commerce. We are usually supposed to sympathize with Art, it being about ideals and the wonder of civilization. Mad Men is obviously not about that because advertising is a deeply compromising product, something whose purpose is in theory to sell by informing but in practice is to sell by misleading or sell by aspersion (see: beer commercials implying you aren’t a man unless you buy Budweiser.). Some ads are different; some ads are actually entertaining and good even independent of the quality of the product sold. This is why people watch the Super Bowl ads every year.

We appreciate the chutzpah, I suppose you could say, the attempt at conning us. So you can watch the show feeling as if you’ve been drawn into a conspiracy with the characters, as if we’re insiders. So it’s that sympathy that leads you to thinking about work.

If you’re doing it right, you’re creating while you work. I guess you could call it a Marxist critique: man is a creating animal, always trying to make something useful or just plain neat. There’s something to that, I think. And for a number of professions, the connection is fairly direct. If you build a house, you know there’s some sort of purpose to it; if you harvest corn, etc. etc. There’s a tangible result to your actions. Things get tricky when you consider what the consequences are of your production. After all, a housebuilder this past decade has built acres upon acres of empty houses in Las Vegas, Florida, California and so on that will house nothing more than air and vagrants. The farmer raising corn is simply creating more high fructose corn syrup. But I think it’s easier to not consider these types of consequences when you produce something tangible.

For example I was recently cleaning out the pond in our backyard today. Over the course of the spring leaves and other old plant debris have fallen in and it needs cleaning, apparently. This involves sticking your hand in the pond and picking up leaves bit by tedious bit while kneeing on stones. It’s the sort of task that starts out easy and becomes more difficult because as you’re trawling the bottom of the pond for various vegetation, you kick up dirt and cloud up the bond so that you’re trawling blind while all the while you’re kneeling on rocks with all of the radiating pain that implies…And so nearer to the end eventually you ask, what exactly is the purpose of all this?

But that’s much later. During most of it, you can talk yourself into the idea that you’re doing something very real and concrete. That’s basically what it feels like to be Don, who is creating ads that he will see later in the papers or in magazines or what have you. It’s a very prideful feeling, I’d imagine. It’s that feeling that leads him to initiate the major plotline that conclude Season Three: Don, the creator, is facing the prospect of working for McCann-Erickson, a big ad firm that’s described as a “sweatshop” (or something similar; I confess I don’t remember). In a particularly modern touch, Sterling Cooper has been sold from one conglomerate (a British firm) to McCann, without so much as a say-so from any of the principals in the firm. Not even the British manager of Sterling Cooper is alerted to the change until it’s too late. Modern man, underneath the boot of the modern conglomerate. Draper, however, has a plan: to create a new startup, a task that he recruits all of the old partners plus the British manager to make the new Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. The firm is to be housed in a hotel room, with several people using a bed as a desk. Pete Campbell’s wife, Trudie, comes by with sandwiches. It’s a thrilling moment full of projected wishes for the audience: they’re doing it their way. The season ends with that idea, and it must be an idea worth complicating, but at the moment it seems like an answer to the office politics of the past three seasons: strike out on your own. Create something.

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