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Monday
Oct042010

In Which This Is Why Donald Draper Can Never Have Anything Nice

Sterling's Gold

by MOLLY LAMBERT

"RUN AWAY FROM ME BABY, RUN AWAY" - Don Draper

This hour of Mad Men was dedicated to the jerkoffs who never take work off. This season is also women themed like that one year of the Oscars. This past year's Oscars were way more woman themed in that a woman won best director for the first time in history, but also because of the sadistically evil media treatment of Sandra Bullock's surprise win for best actress and simultaneous marital cuckolding. You can't win.

Just like Roger Sterling, Bill Clinton always made his accountability into a joke. Politically liberal men with bad personal gender politics are the worst (hate u Bill Maher). President Obama makes Bill Clinton look the outdated dinosaur he always was. Not every man in a position of power needs to subjugate women to maintain power. There is not a direct correlation between one and the other. How about that!

Anyone who constantly requires outside validation, especially sexual validation, is obviously insecure, in direct opposition to the image of super strength that endless new sexual partners is supposed to reinforce. What's cool is that Jon Hamm is actually nothing like Don Draper in terms of his personal sexual politics. He is a total feminist with absolutely no interest in macho posturing (don't hurt that he's super handsome).

It's crazy that it's so radical for Obama and Jon Hamm to talk about genuinely respecting their partners, but it's awesome that they do. They present the radical alternative possibility that you can be a powerful alpha male with no desire to sexually exploit women, that you can address the fact that the bar is so low for how men are expected to treat women and discuss it in a productive way without anger or blame.

Joan had the all too common experience of having to reject somebody you would once have killed to be with. Dr. Faye rightly called Don a scrub for trying to use her to help save his suddenly flailing career in a way that could totally damage hers. It's a two way street Don, not a one way mirror! Shaking my head at u Don (Willow Smith remix). The stylistic device brought out in this episode seemed to be extreme closeups. Roger muting the phone to fake a call, Peggy's hand on her new boyfriend's back. 

Stan made the mistake of thinking that just because Peggy was horny she must be horny for him. Peggy was so Liz Lemon in this episode, from her man's reaction to her room ("you're a slob!") to the confident I just had sex glow that she was radiating in the early scenes that made her suddenly seem super desirable to the boys in creative, which was literally the plot of this past week's episode of 30 Rock (INCEPTED!)

Peggy is finally discovering her real sexual power, and it has everything to do with her confidence in her intelligence. It also has to do with her new boyfriend Abe, who perceives her the way she has always imagined she should be treated. It is a kind of sexuality that has nothing to do with the way a girl feels dressed up in "sexy adult woman" drag. That is, it's not about straight male perception of Peggy's exterior.

It is about a sex appeal that transcends physical looks. A kind of sex appeal that is assigned to men constantly; to comedians who are hideous but funny, men who are ugly but charismatic, or average looking but so talented it makes them attractive.

Sexual attraction is as subjective as anything else. For all of the cultural emphasis on women's appearances, personality is actually weighted equally (if not more heavily) towards attractiveness. Over on Jersey Shore, DJ Pauly D has been self-professedly "locked down" by a girl who is not even exceptionally hot, just cute and funny.

That is why Stan is in love with Peggy, even though he is too dumb or indoctrinated with traditional gender roles to realize that he can be attracted to a woman because of her personality even more than her looks. Of course something good never happens without something bad happening, as Peggy puts it. She nails her presentation without realizing she has lipstick on her teeth (also very Liz Lemon/Elaine Benes of her). 

Peggy's innate coolness and smartness is what makes Abe remarkably nervous seeming around her, even as he tells her admiringly that she is "unbelievable." He made the mistake a lot of guys make trying to impress smart girls, which was to try and prove he was smart enough to hang with Peg by writing an essay. Of course that is not the move because smart girls hate being turned into passive audiences. If we want to hang with you we obviously think you are smart and cool enough to hang.

Roger Sterling is kind of like Chevy Chase in that he spent the early bulk of his life being a rich handsome dick to everyone who is hilarious but mostly at other people's expense, and then when it began to catch up with him as his looks and youth and power faded he had no idea how to deal with the loss of the privileges he was probably too ignorant to realize paved his entire way in life. That sad thin little book.

Roger's attempt to get Joan back was totally pathetic. Joan's attempt to deflect attention from her hotness was to wear her pajamas again, but doesn't she realize she's even hotter in pajamas? If she had worn the glasses too it would have been like she was just mocking him. Roger made his own myth and now he has to die in it.

Bert Cooper tells Roger that nobody takes him seriously because he never took himself seriously, and he is right. The children of the wealthy are hobbled by expectation, but they are also gifted beyond measure with the powers of privilege and nepotism.

The scene with Roger and Jane on the couch of their mansion was spectacular. It was like a Scorsese film, although actually it packed more atmosphere than all of the Boardwalk Empire pilot. Easy exit is never that easy, Rog. I need a combined mega-edit of the recorded memoirs of Jack Donaghy, Roger Sterling, and Kenny Powers. 

Ken Cosgrove is engaged to Alex Mack! But be careful Kenny, because her father is Laura Palmer's father Leland and you seriously do not want to fuck with that guy. Also probably don't fuck with Alex Mack, since she is an amorphous blob of quicksilver. 

As for Megan the secretary, well fuck. Because Matthew Weiner is a genius, the characters are all somewhat three-dimensional. As much as I wanted to hate Megan, she was kind of interesting. She is worshipful of Don but just as much because she envies him professionally as because she wants to toot it and boot it.

I also totally didn't believe Megan (an artistic type from Montreal) that she's not going to get weird, because nobody fucks Don Draper without catching feelings. Nobody! I mean, did you see the way she kissed him on her way out? She is doomed! Also I do think they are probably going to get married when she said she has dabbled in acting. I don't know why, but that cinched it for me. Prove me wrong, Weiner!

That you sympathize with both Dr. Faye and Megan, and every once in a while Don, is the crux of a good love triangle. It sucks realizing that your romantic rivals are not very different from you. In fact if you like and attract the same person, you probably have all kinds of things in common as much as it nauseates you to consider. That is why Betty and Veronica are best friends, and also why Archie is kind of a total dick.

Two quick Clueless things: Stan's awkward come-on to Peggy (with the closing the door and locking it, jesus) totally reminded me of Elton coming onto Cher in the car. The noise Cher makes when she realizes what is happening is the noise I make when I'm really disappointed. And god this is so harsh, but Megan is kind of a Monet.

Pete Campbell struggles with his life/work balance. As per usual he is the most female friendly of the Mad Men men, and Vincent Kartheiser's acting is always incredible. He conveyed exactly the flash of elation followed by intense regret as he finds out that he missed his daughter's birth because he was in an emergency SCDP meeting.

Men are traditionally told to value autonomy above all else, but then they get super sad when they end up having nobody left to talk about their real feelings with. It is a tale as old as Philip Roth. It is also the Jack Nicholson story, Kenny Powers is struggling with it, and Kanye West grapples with it in his music and life.

Even superstar supersluts of the seventies like Michael Douglas and Warren Beatty actually wanted real romantic intimacy in the long run. Apparently getting cancer has made Michael Douglas realize that he cares way more about spending time with his kids than he cares about burnishing his legacy as a movie star.

Don sucks at emotional intimacy, but he is awesome at lying! Seriously, when he saw Dr. Faye in the hallway right after he just banged Megan on the office couch? I would have dropped my keys for sure but he was all smooooooth sailing (to be fair, he had just gotten laid). How would Don Draper deal with text messages?

As is now routine I felt hella sympathy for Dr. Faye, whose keen intuition betrayed her this episode when she didn't even try to do a Riskay on Don. How come he didn't smell like cheap French-Canadian perfume? Is Don going to pull a Ross Geller on Faye and be all "we were on a break!" when she does find out?

Life is full of logical gaps, and we create fantasy narratives in our head to explain them. Stan created a narrative that Peggy had to be harboring a secret crush on him just because he had one on her. Roger created a narrative that Joan would comfort and baby him for his weakness rather than be disgusted with his breach of ethics.

That one horse meat lady from last season had a narrative that she and Roger were soulmates, which Roger dispelled. But Joan finally dispelled Roger's emphatic notion that he and Joan are soulmates. Roger had a fantasy narrative involved believing that their intellectual and sexual connection with Joan, which he abused and took advantage of so many times, could withstand all his betrayals without wavering. I would like to direct Roger Sterling to a little R. Kelly song called "When A Woman's Fed Up."

Matt Weiner likes to do a false lead (SEE: JOAN ISN'T PREGNANT, DUH), so the whole set-up to make it seem like Dr. Faye was going to dump Don in a Dear Don letter totally tricked me. But no, presumably against her better judgment Dr. Faye tried to compromise, because women are always told to compromise. Women are told to make it work and men are told to cut and run, when it's really a lot more complex.

The truth is Dr. Faye was right the first time, when she walked the fuck out of Don's big fancy office. But no matter how smart you are, no matter how logically sound or convincing your arguments against it, sometimes there's no way to stop yourself from caring too much about somebody who doesn't care enough about you.

Molly Lambert is the managing editor of This Recording and star of the popular comedic radio program Fibber McGee & Molly. She is on tumblr and twitter

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"The Morning Fog" - Kate Bush (mp3)

"Hello Earth" - Kate Bush (mp3)

"Jig of Life" - Kate Bush (mp3)


Sunday
Oct032010

In Which Catfish Swim Around The Internet

Everyone We Don't Know

by SARAH ZHANG

The most indelible cinematic image of Internet "romance" may be an emoticon: ))<>((. “You poop into my butt hole and I poop into your butt hole…back and forth…forever,” types Robby (Brandon Ratcliff) to a chatroom acquaintance in Miranda July’s 2005 film Me and You and Everyone We Know. Out of context, this quote seems to embody the muckiest corners of the web, where our basest desires make it into the pixilated light. But Robby is only a six year-old boy – the age when kids are most fascinated with poop – and he’s all innocence and just in way over his head. The tired adage goes that nobody knows you’re a dog on the Internet, but there is Robby, a puppy really, and then there is Catfish, an entirely different beast.

The documentary Catfish chronicles the relationship between Nev Schulman, a New York City photographer and Megan Faccio, whom he meets on Facebook. Abby, Megan’s eight-year-old sister, is a talented painter, and it is her paintings of Nev’s photographs that forges the first connections between Nev and her family, headed up by the mother Angela Pierce. Soon enough Nev finds himself regularly calling, texting, gchatting his “Facebook family.”

The story’s other characters are the filmmakers, Nev’s brother Ari Schulman and friend Henry Joost, who jump on the promising storyline of Nev’s relationship. It is the not-so-secret hope of all documentarians and nonfiction writers that a story gets juicier as it unfolds, and Schulman and Joost have stumbled into a gushing fount of drama. The camera often feels uncomfortably exploitative, especially when a reluctant Nev wants to stop baring his emotional life on screen or when the sad truth of Megan's family is revealed. Although Catfish too involves a child, the exploitations it’s embedded are no child’s play.

Catfish takes perverse pleasure in pacing, especially in doling out the lies. The first half is the slow burn of flirtation between Nev and Megan. It is not only Megan, but a whole web of her family and friends, whom Ned befriends. Facebook photos of these very attractive people, scrutinized so closely by the camera that white space becomes pixilated, flash across the screen. But as anyone with the slightest cynical impulse has probably already intuited: the photographs are lies, Megan is a lie.

It begins to unravel when she sends Nev her own cover of a song that turns out, like all the other songs she has posted on her Facebook page, to be rips of YouTube videos. Nev confronts her over gchat. Instant messaging is not especially cinematic – text on a screen conveys none of the tone or facial expressions that actors are trained to mimic – but Nev’s reaction says enough for them both. He wants to quit the documentary, yet his brother and Joost egg him on. This simple documentary about a guy and a girl becomes a quest for the truth.

So off they to go Ishpeming, Michigan to meet the family. Each time a lie is peeled away, the scab of a new lie takes its place. Angela turns out to be a frumpy middle-aged woman, not the lithe blonde of her Facebook. Abby does not paint; it is actually Angela who does. Megan is not there. First Angela says she is institutionalized. Then she admits Megan is not real, but the photos on Facebook are of a family friend. The photos are actually of a model and photographer living in Vancouver. The real Angela lives with her husband Vince and her two severely disabled stepsons. Whereas the Facebook family was a band of artistic bohemians, the real one seems to befit a Southern Gothic novel. Angela is living not a double life, but multiple lives of all the family members and friends of Megan that she has created.

In an age of consent forms, why would Angela allow all of her lies to play out across America’s screens? A one sentence plot summary – mocking New York types film a documentary about a sadsack family in the Midwest – smacks of exploitation, maybe even of revenge for being fooled in the first place. Schulman and Joost’s camera is actually much more sympathetic, giving credence to Angela’s hardships and space for her thwarted aspirations to be aired. Still, some part feels like the New Yorkers have persuaded a poor woman who actually is in love with Nev into something to further their own artistic careers. “All art is exploitation” according to Sherman Alexie, especially art that co-opts the true lives of other people.

But Angela is a consummate artist too, if not exactly type the type she wanted to be. “A lot of the personalities that came out were just fragments of myself,” admits Angela. The dreams that she harbored of being a dancer and artist came to fruition with the creation of Megan and her artistic family. The false identities created by Angela are a type of art and a type of exploitation too. In a reversal of roles, it is Angela who stands the most to gain from Catfish. Nev, Ari, and Henry were already fairly successful artists in New York, whereas Angela goes from a lonely woman in Michigan to a minor celebrity.

It is hard to see her as guileless because she has proven herself so casually manipulative, going so far as to fake cancer to engender sympathy when the first holes in her story are blown. Since the documentary was filmed, she has set up her own websites to further the sale of her paintings and photographs.

In Me and You and Everyone We Know, the woman with whom Robby is chatting turns out to be an uptight curator for the contemporary art museum. At the end of the film, the camera pans across a banner announcing a new exhibit at the museum called "WARM: 3-D and TOUCH in the DIGITAL AGE." I wonder if Angela’s vast web of lies – a kind of performance art that perfectly demonstrates the continued need for human warmth and touch – would be considered in such an exhibit.

The representative image of this documentary is the catfish, which carries all of the foul and none of the innocent connotations of poop. It comes from a final monologue by Angela’s husband, Vince. The story goes like this: catfish were kept with tanks of cod to keep the cod nimble and on edge. Otherwise, their flesh would turn to mush. We need catfish in our lives, says Vince, people who will keep on our toes. As part of the film’s viral marketing campaign, Universal has been drawing chalk catfish all over the streets of Harvard Square. Near one row of chalk catfish, someone drew a giant barracuda devouring the catfish. Angela is no catfish. She is a barracuda. 

Sarah Zhang is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Cambridge. This is her first appearance on these pages. She tumbls here.

"Polygons" - Magic Man (mp3)

"Monster" - Magic Man (mp3)

"Daughter" - Magic Man (mp3)

Friday
Oct012010

In Which It Feels The Same But Different Somehow

Half-Awake

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Boardwalk Empire

creator Terence Winter

The list of things that would never have existed without The Sopranos grows longer by the day. Mad Men, Ryan Gosling, the Brown University class "Middlemarch & The Sopranos," Michael Imperioli's career, 326 instances of James Gandolfini having sex with women, some of my fashion choices during 1998, and now Boardwalk Empire. People enjoy comparing these shows to novels, and since novels usually have terrible beginnings, we shouldn't be surprised that Terence Winter's version of the Roman myth begins slowly. As someone remarked, they should have just had a title card that said "Prohibition Begins."

Let's not let that discourage us from what appears to be an astonishing new show with a few severe but not unfixable problems. No one remembers that the first season of The Sopranos was a cartoonish melange compared to what followed. You usually need a season to work out the kinks in a concept, although Weeds only needed one season to completely ruin one.

Fictional depictions of historical life either adhere devoutly to realism or descend into wild fantasy. No one can take anything Chuck Bass says seriously anymore, but in contrast Boardwalk Empire seems fairly keen on not having anyone wear out his welcome. Many Gentiles struggled to tell the faces of the Italian foot soldiers apart in Winter's previous television effort, and there are no shortish of burly, mustachioed guys here. Al Capone looks more like a NJ extra than a crime lord on the come.

But no matter — you can always recast, or just kill people off, especially when one of those people is being played by Gretchen Mol. (Unfortunately for a lot of people, you can't kill off Al Capone.) The number one problem foreseen with Boardwalk Empire was whether audiences could tolerate Steve Buscemi's pasty face, and it's generally been concluded that he's at least competent in the role. Here's what I don't understand — other actors gain and lose weight for roles, and Joaquin Phoenix performs an accidental bj on Casey Affleck for the sake of his art, and yet Buscemi can't hit the tanning salon on the way to the set?

In The Sopranos Buscemi played a convict relation to Tony who returned to the family as an awkward accoutrement not long for this world. (They had smuggled his character's semen out of jail, and it became two twin boys. Remind you of anyone?) Here he is the most permanent fixture of life, a googly-eyed reproduction of a boss that is itself new enough to garner our attention. The fact that the real life Nucky Johnson more resembles James Gandolfini is a sad reminder that life is not usually as novel as it appears on television.

Does Boardwalk Empire attempt a simulacra of the period in which its action rests? Occasionally; but it is more insistent on a steampunk aesthetic that makes its denizens more like aliens than real folk. The show's real protagonist is Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), a up-and-coming thug who returned from the first World War lacking a healthy fear of death. His relationship with his wife is easily the highlight of the show so far, as she is the proto-New Jersey Jew and they get along in a funny way.

Sopranos production designer Bob Shaw creates a wonderworld of unlikely lighting and subtly changed interiors given the limitations of stage sets to represent entire whorls: Atlantic City, New York, and Chicago, the three centers of crime. When Buscemi's Nucky hits the boardwalk, it's more reminiscent of Disney's hotel than the actual degrading atmosphere of that troubled city, but let's face it, the bright and pastel fantasy is more interesting than the reality.

So it is with much of the milieu. When Boardwalk Empire gets historical, or tries to make fun jokes for tenured professors with unique portrayals of Lucky Luciano and gags about Arnold Rothstein fixing the 1919 World Series, it gets a little bogged down by its details, letting the background of the characters speak more loudly than their actions in the drama. Then again, part of the fun of The Sopranos was constant set-up with unexpected payoff — it was never too certain if your favorite hood was going to make it through another episode or become the next boss.

Deadwood experimented with the same time-shifting, and gradually morphed from hard-boiled western to a gaudy fantasy world of death. Boardwalk Empire is violent, but death and dying is not savored in a sadomachistic way. Wildness is celebrated, is cherished, as an expression of freedom. Once you start dating a call girl and gambling in the six figures every night (adjusted for inflation) a lot of joy is sucked out of things, a happiness that can only be regained by continuing to behave as if nothing else mattered. These are the feelings even a contemporary journey to Atlantic City invariably elicits.

Nucky rules the roost, taking kickbacks from every commissioner in his bureaucracy. Jimmy is his driver, and when he meets up with his mirror image in Chicago Al Capone, blood runs thick. Scorsese shoots the whole thing exactly the same way he would have in 1988, adjusting for inflation. Actually the Ray Liotta of 20 years ago would be a great add here. As in all Scorsese productions, the unattainable women are blondes and your sister and wife are brunettes.

The show is already better at creating convincing storylines for its women than its northern NJ cousin. It was genius to cast No Country for Old Men's Kelly MacDonald as a battered wife in Nucky's parish seduced by his power. Her inclusion was a master stroke; things will likely improve when they discard her immigrant accent and have her journaling about how much she loves Henry James. Her romantically-challenged storyline with Enoch has yet to be very convincing. No matter how many times they show Steve Buscemi pleasuring a woman, it never gets any easier to believe.

The rest is easy to fabricate, because our ideas of these times is already bound up in films like The Untouchables. (Mamet's influence on the dialogue is almost painful.) The way of speaking is neither too foreign or too modern, and the show takes advantage of the fact that modernity lurks 75 years in the future in Bill Gates' garage. Misunderstandings and isolated incidents affect life in unexpected ways. The freedom of doing whatever you want during a restrictive time in America is literally intoxicating.

Sometimes we forget how restrictive the society we live in now is. It's disappointing to live in a world where there is not more than an outside chance you will not be caught after committing a murder. The inherent chaos of perpetrating crime in this context creates a sprawling pastiche of action and character that is unlike even Boardwalk Empire's obvious progenitors.

Comparing any television show to a novel is an unserious analogy. No novel written in this period or any other had the luxury of so much action or such a spread of characters. Boardwalk Empire is more reminiscent of The Canterbury Tales, an epic poem with many individual endings and stories.

Eventually the show will focus on who really possesses power — basically men in ballrooms stroking dogs — and will soon become a not-very-veiled attack on the indiscretions of the financial industry. All shows about criminals seek to prove that the taint of crime touches every sphere of life. It is tough to equate the actions of America's early entrepreneurs with offenses against the SEC. The first was the inevitable byproduct of the wild American economy, the second was the inevitable failure of a bureaucracy that was itself unregulated in a regulated industry.

In fact, there is a great danger in judging the past by the standards of the present. We live perpetually with the idea that this is the only age, but in reality the ancient Egyptians pursued the dream of flight and may have even constructed airplanes, the Indians of central America built massive suspension bridges, and indoor plumbing in Crete far predates the birth of Jesus. The tumultuous but vibrant life of another America is proof that these times look straight at their antecedents, not down at them. We have come not far at all.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He last wrote in these pages about the double life of James Tiptree Jr. He tumbls here and twitters here.

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"Don't Wake the Dead" - Guards (mp3)

"Crystal Truth" - Guards (mp3)

"Long Time" - Guards (mp3)

Time Has Been Kind To You My Friend