Top 10 Favorite Movies of All-Time: #7 Radio Days

#7.  Radio Days (1987) In compiling a list of my favorite movies, I could have typed out Woody Allen’s filmography from Take the Money and Run up to Crimes and Misdemeanors and called it a day.  His movies have been with me as long as I can remember, and have been a major influence on what I like and don’t like.

As a kid, I cut my teeth on Allen’s early comedies, and could quote my favorite gags from Take the Money and Run or Bananas or Sleeper as easily as I could recite the Pledge of Allegiance.  Besides being laugh-out-loud funny, they also made me feel smart when I got some of the more subtle gags, like I’d figured out a secret handshake.  It was the same feeling I got as I started to pick up on the adult humor in the Warner Brothers cartoons.

When I was in college, I watched Annie Hall and Manhattan over-and-over again, feasting on the layers of comedy, philosophizing, references to foreign films, Allen’s horniness, and, in Annie Hall, the glimpses of his childhood in Brooklyn.  The bits of Annie Hall that included the young Alvy Singer/Woody Allen were brief but impactful for how accurately they captured a kid’s perspective, even though the scenes were highly stylized.  Part of the charm and genius of these scenes is in the casting.

Later, just before I dropped out of college, a wonderfully sour old English professor spent an entire class expounding on the pleasures to be had by feasting on Hannah and Her Sisters, which had just opened.  He compared it to a Hemmingway novel or the poetry of ee cummings, which is quoted in the movie.  Dr. Hagerman was right, of course, but my favorite moments were the dinner sequences where old standards played over a camera that moved through Hannah and Elliot’s apartment during holiday celebrations like one of the guests, capturing little moments, the way I do when I pay attention.  Those sequences demonstrated a great feel and affection for complex family dynamics.  With only pictures and mood music, Allen takes us on these brief detours that add layers of depth to an already great movie.

And so it is that Radio Days showcases these elements – the smartest writing you’ll find most years, laugh out loud moments, a story about kids and growing up and family – and woven together, they add up to a movie that is sweet and nostalgic, without giving way to sappy sentimentality.

Radio Days is a love letter to the New York of Allen’s youth (it starts in the late 30’s and ends on New Year’s Eve 1943), and he narrates the story himself, as a grown-up Joe, reflecting back on a slightly altered childhood spent in the Rockaways in Queens (rather than the Midwood section of Brooklyn where he actually grew up) with a large extended family living under one roof.  Allen introduces his family, then the songs and shows and celebrities from the era and connects them to moments from his and his family’s lives that they remind him of.  There was only one radio in the house and but a few channels, which forced a more communal experience than today, with so many devices and so much fragmentation.

The writing in Radio Days is economical and densely layered, with some gags set-up thirty minutes or more before they’re paid off.  For example, one of the minor characters, a teenaged cousin named Ruthie, is introduced as spending an inordinate amount of time listening in on the neighbors’ calls on the party-line.  She whispers to the family that the next-door neighbor, a Mrs. Waldbaum, is having an ovary removed.  Cut to the neighbors at the fence, yelling at Ruthie to get off the phone.  There’s a funny exchange, where half the family comes out on the porch to deny the snooping of Ruthie, with one of them finally saying, “What do we care if your wife has her ovary removed.”  Later, during a scene with some other family members, Ruthie interrupts the scene, much like the teenager she is, by popping into the room with her hand over the phone’s receiver and announcing that Mrs. Waldbaum has found a pocketbook on the subway…and doesn’t know if she’s going to turn it in.  She disappears and the scene continues.  It’s a throwaway moment, but the repetition of them adds up to greater texture and a deepening of the characters, as well as contributing a running gag-stream based on their quirks – Ruthie’s voyeurism, Uncle Abe’s obsession with fish, and more significantly, Aunt Bea’s rotten luck with men.

The real strength in the movie lies not with the stories of the glamorous celebrities, but in those of Joe’s family.  Though I was born in the 60’s, I come away from Radio Days feeling like I have a good picture of what it was like for families to band together, out of necessity, and cram three households into one modest home.  We feel the tensions of not having enough space, but mostly we see how the family makes it work – through a combination of humor and escapism, courtesy of the omnipresent radio.

One of the most touching scenes has no dialogue at all, but is a recollection of the Mills Brothers song “Paper Doll” and how it reminds Joe of an anniversary party for his parents – the only time he saw his parents kiss.  As the song plays, the camera moves through the house, like a stranger not wanting to interrupt.  There is no sound, just moving images, shot in a nostalgic amber light.  Everyone in the family is there, a glass of wine in hand, toasting Joe’s parents – a wedding cake in the middle of the table.  It’s a frozen moment in time, burnished by the passing of years to the point where all is pure and idealized, the way we often do with our own memories.

Of all the things I like about Radio Days, it’s Allen’s depiction of Joe and his friends that I like best.  Seth Green is wonderful as Woody Allen’s alter ego, a kid obsessed with the radio, especially “The Masked Avenger,” his favorite show.  Joe’s peers are a textbook example of how Woody Allen creates memorable characters, though they only have a line or two.  It seems there are two things he has his casting people look for – quirky looks and speech impediments.  Early on, we are introduced to Joe’s obsession with the Masked Avenger by way of a show-and-tell presentation by one of Joe’s classmates, a kid with sleepy, hound dog eyes, and a lispy impediment that is both funny and sweet.  He shows off his Masked Avenger Secret Compartment ring.

Joe’s buddies drive the point home even further.  We get snippets of them doing classic boy things, like swarming in the front door of Joe’s house, then swarming out the back door moments later, loaded down with food.

Another moment finds the boys on the beach, one-upping each other with their takes on the most beautiful women in the world.  Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable are thrown out.  These are ten year old voices, squeaky like mice.  Finally, one of them tosses out another name – Dana Andrews.  The others pounce and tell him Dana Andrews is a man.

“She is?” he asks, confused.

“Yeah.  Didn’t you see Crash Dive?”

“With a name like Dana?”  Dana is squeaked out with extra emphasis.

It’s a classic kid conversation.

Perhaps the funniest bit in the movie happens when Joe gets an idea for how he and his buddies can get the money to buy them each a Masked Avenger Secret Compartment Ring.  It involves stealing money from collection boxes they are given, in order to panhandle people on the streets of their neighborhood for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.  They are caught, of course, and the scene with Joe, his parents, and the Rabbi is priceless.  The Rabbi is aghast at the scheme to use this money for something so frivolous, and as he finishes his lecture, Joe pipes in, “You speak the truth, my faithful Indian companion,” a line from “The Lone Ranger.”  This sends the Rabbi and Joe’s parents into a comic fit of spanking, with each adult trying to outdo the others.

Instead of a tight plotline, Radio Days imitates life, surprising us with moments of love and grace and humor, found in the midst of the most mundane things.

Top 10 Favorite Movies of All-Time: #8 Nashville

#8. Nashville (1975)  There are two movies I remember from when I was a kid that I was too young to see at the time but wanted to because of the fuss that the grown-ups made about them – Chinatown and Nashville.

The fascination with Chinatown had to do with the weirdness of hearing about a guy getting his nose slit open.  Nashville was something else all together.  My mom and her friends from the neighborhood were scandalized by the movie – by the sex, of course, but more so, I think, by the assassination of one of the stars, a woman who was shot on-stage.  Years later, when we got our first VCR and the Video Vault opened on Dixie Highway, these were two of the first movies I rented with my own money.

Robert Altman is one of my heroes, and Nashville is my favorite of his movies – bold and joyful, like its creator – a cross between Evel Knievel and Jackson Pollock.

Though it was released in 1975, Nashville was shot a year earlier, as Nixon was resigning from office because of the Watergate debacle.  In the decade prior to that, there was Viet Nam, political assassinations, and the emergence of groups like the Weather Underground and the John Birch Society.  And so, Altman’s Nashville is his take on our country’s collective nervous breakdown in the wake of those unprecedented events, characterized by  the chaotic interweaving of about two-dozen lives over the course of a few days in Nashville during a heated presidential campaign.

The movie itself is a wild ride of stops and starts and intersecting characters that are in or on the fringes of the country music business.  To try and describe the plot is impossible because there really isn’t one, at least in the conventional sense.  Nashville opens with a white van pulling out of a garage.  It’s painted up with campaign slogans for third-party presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker and outfitted with a loudspeaker system that plays a continuous loop of his campaign rhetoric.  The van shows up throughout the movie, like a mechanical Greek chorus, serving as what Altman called connective tissue, connecting the many strands of the story and giving them a sense of unity.  A few of the characters serve the same purpose, like Jeff Goldblum, as a hippie chopper riding magician or sorts, who never utters a line of dialogue, but interacts with a few of the characters nonetheless.  There’s also Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), a reporter from the BBC, who stalks, badgers, or sleeps with just about every character in the story.

Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) is the king of country music, a kind of Roy Acuff in a Nudie suit, who is being heavily recruited by a political front-man (Michael Murphy) to headline a benefit concert for Hal Phillip Walker, of the Replacement Party, a populist candidate who wants to change the National Anthem and ban lawyers from serving in congress, among other things.  Think Ross Perot on quaaludes.

Haven is pre-occupied with his protege Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), who has recently recuperated from a freak accident.  She’s also on the verge of nervous collapse, but is pressured by her husband/manager to perform at numerous local engagements, including the Walker campaign rally.  Does that sound a little like Loretta Lynn?  In addition to the Coal Miner’s Daughter, we get alternate versions of Charlie Pride and Lynn Anderson, and a song out of the Merle Haggard songbook.

Lilly Tomlin is a local gospel singer who goes astray with Keith Carradine, who is one-third of a popular folk trio, a narcissistic womanizer who also beds Opal and Mary (Christina Raines), the second-third of his trio, who also happens to be married to Bill (Allan Nicholls), the third-third of the trio.

Ned Beatty is Lilly Tomlins husband.  He’s also Haven Hamilton’s lawyer, and is being used by Michael Murphy to recruit Hamilton,  as well as other musical acts and even some strippers for a fund-raising event.

Suelleen Gay (Gwen Welles), is an aspiring singer who couldn’t sing her way out of a wet paper bags shot full of holes, but she plugs away, willing to do anything to be like Barbara Jean – even some stripping for the local Rotarians/Lions/Mooses at a “political meeting.”

Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn) is a local elderly man with a sick wife in the same hospital where Barbara Jean ends up.  His neice Martha (Shelley Duvall) flies in from LA looking like a cross between David Bowie and Olive Oyl, but never has time to see her sick aunt – she’s too busy running off with whatever guy catchers her attention.  Mr. Green also rents out rooms in his old house to young people who are often aspiring musicians.

David Hayward, Barbara Harris, and Scott Glenn all play visitors to Nashville, who have their own relationship with or desire for celebrity.

All the actors sing their own songs, and most wrote them as well.  In fact, Keith Carradine won an Oscar for “I’m Easy.” It was a ballsy move, and the results are mixed.  Lilly Tomlin, whose acting performance was wonderfully textured, gave an equally poor showing with her gospel number.  She’s no singer.  But that was beside the point, really.  Nashville is not a documentary about the country music scene, though it looks like one at various points.

All of these characters gather at the Parthenon for a concert/political rally where candidate Walker is due to give a speech that will never be delivered.  A violent act will shatter the frenzied tension of these lives, as well as the movie.  It’s a jarring conclusion that was shocking in 1975.  Today, it’s an eerie precursor to John Lennon’s murder – a bit of prophecy we could have done without.

In the wake of this act, one loser becomes a winner, if for only 15 minutes, when she seizes her opportunity to sing for the stunned crowd.  The remnants of the crowd come together as the song – an omnipresent top-40 hit – progresses.  Tomlin’s gospel choir assembles on stage and sings backup.  It’s a moment not too unlike the images of the crowds that gathered outside the Dakota on the night that Lennon was shot, seeking community to cope with a senseless tragedy.  With a ragged Pied Piper leading them, they all sing the chorus “it don’t worry me” over and over.

As they do this, Altman shows us images of children in the crowd, one after the other, clueless and innocent.  Rather than taking this as a sign of hope, I see it as a cause for alarm.  These little ones will inherit a world we’ve prepared for them – a world of violence, compromise, and shallowness.  It should worry us.  A lot.

Top 10 Favorite Movies of All-Time: #9 Breaking Away

#9. Breaking Away (1979)  Breaking Away will always have a spot on my top 10 favorites list because of the influence it had on my life.  I saw it with my family when it came out in ’79, and it sparked a passion for cycling that has never burned out.

The story, set in Bloomington, Indiana, is about a group of four townies who are stuck in the no-man’s land between high school and adulthood.  They are referred to by the college kids as Cutters, a derogatory reference to their blue-collar fathers who work in the nearby quarries.  And so, in addition to being a coming-of-age story, it’s also a story about class, and more specifically, identity.

Dave Stoller is a Cutter.  He’s a dreamy, goofy kid with only one noticeable talent – cycling.  His backstory involves some undisclosed illness in which a bicycle aided in his recovery.  The bike has become an extension of his identity, and to his friends and family, he’s a harmless eccentric.  But he’s got real talent.  His obsession with cycling is manifested in his devotion to all things Italian.  His room is filled with posters.  He listens only to Italian opera.  He even speaks broken Italian with an exaggerated accent.  Did I say he was a bit goofy?

His friends include: Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley, who also played Kelly Leak in the Bad News Bears movies), a dirty, sweaty, dog-loyal redneck with a heart of gold, Cyril (Daniel Stern, from Diner and The Wonder Years), a lovable loser, and Mike (Dennis Quaid).

Mike is the former quarterback/captain of the football team who can’t come to grips with the fact that he no longer has a real team to lead.  He desperately tries to keep the four guys together, even insulting and badgering them as they start to feel out new directions in their lives.  He becomes the archetypal ex-jock – soon to be the old guy with the beer gut who was once the muscle-bound hero for the local team.

And so all of these boys struggle with identity as they grope their way into the next phase of their lives.

As a kid, I identified completely with Dave.  Untouched by the harsh realities of life – in contrast to his cynical, hard-working father (brilliantly played by Paul Dooley) – Dave lives in a dream world where he passes himself off as an Italian exchange student in order to escape his drab existence and possibly win the love of a beautiful coed at Indiana University.

This carefree, head-in-the-clouds existence is galling to Dave’s father, who resents his son’s optimism and worries about his future.  And there to mediate this generation gap is Evelyn/wife/mom (Barbara Barrie, in an Oscar nominated performance), who knows how to encourage her son’s dreams while soothing her husband’s frustration.  She’s a cross between June Cleaver and Henry Kissinger.

Dave gets his dose of real-life soon enough when two events come together at once.  First, he has a hand in his father’s heart attack in a comic scene where used-car salesman dad argues with a dissatisfied customer who tries to return a lemon.  The second, and perhaps more damaging, incident occurs when Dave finally gets to race against his heroes from Italy’s Team Cinzano, who are touring America in exhibition races.  When the Italian’s can’t out-ride pesky Dave, they resort to dirty tricks and cause him to wreck.  In the process, they rob him of his innocence.

From there, things start to unravel for Dave.  He confesses his true identity to his coed girlfriend, who rejects him.  In turn, Mike loses confidence in himself and just about gives up his struggle against the smug college boys.  Moocher threatens to break up the team by secretly getting married.  Cyril is…Cyril.

Potential redemption comes in the form of yet another bike race.  Because of the bickering between the college boys and the Cutters, the school decides to open their annual bike race – The Little 500 – to a team from the town, which sets the stage for either cathartic revenge or crushing humiliation.

If the story sounds conventional, well, it is.  But it’s in the telling of the story – Steve Tesich’s writing, the acting, Peter Yates’ directing – that it rises above cliche and becomes something special.  Breaking Away has lost none of its resonance or charm.  Even after 31 years.

Top 10 Favorite Movies of All-Time: #10 The Incredibles

If I’ve learned nothing else from David Letterman, it’s that I like Top 10 lists, and what follows are my Top 10 favorite movies of all time…as of this writing.  Check back tomorrow, and it could be slightly different.

These are movies that I never tire of watching, that stir me as much today as they did when I first saw them.

#10.  The Incredibles (2004).  I love just about all of the Pixar movies (A Bug’s Life, not so much), but this one is easily my favorite.  Like the best Looney Tunes cartoons, The Incredibles has something for everyone: great animation, great action, funny gags, and at least a half-dozen fully formed characters.  But more than this, The Incredibles is great storytelling.

In addition to the super-hero-vs-super-villain-based plot that rivals the best of the James Bond movies, we get a sly bullseye of a critique of the way we in America both worship and destroy the extraordinary among us.  As the country takes the so-called Supers for granted, a backlash emerges, and the Supers are driven into what amounts as a witness protection program for the amazing.  As this happens, a super-villain emerges with the goal of distributing technology that promises to make everyone special – and when everyone is special, no one will be.

Finally, The Incredibles is a love letter to the nuclear family.  The Parrs – Bob, Helen, Violet, Dash, and baby Jack-Jack – have their problems, but their greatest strength comes not from their freakish talents, but from the synergy of coming together in moments of great need.

The Incredibles is the ultimate family film, the ultimate Pixar film, as well as a great film for anyone who likes more than just loud explosions and T&A.

Film Review: John Huston’s The Dead

The Dead, John Huston’s final film, was released just after his death in 1987 and based on the short story of the same name by James Joyce.  It was a fitting conclusion to Huston’s career, as it deals with the power our departed friends and loved ones have over us, even after many years of absence.

The movie takes place in Dublin in 1904, at an annual dinner party given by a pair of elderly sisters for their friends in the local music scene.  It’s the day of the Feast of the Epiphany, and it’s as though we’ve been transported, via time machine, to this point in time, where we are allowed to witness a simpler time, before mass communication, where people entertained one another by sharing their talents – singing, playing piano, and reciting poems.

As the guests enjoy the fine dinner prepared for them, the theme of death begins to emerge.  The party goers are both very young and very old, and as they discuss new a production of an opera, they share their opinions of favorite tenors.  This causes Kate Morkan, one of the hostesses, to reflect with deep affection on a long-dead tenor whom hardly anyone knows ever existed.  But we see that even in the face of near oblivion that this man lives on in the deep emotion that his memory still evokes in this old woman.  But it’s not a maudlin gathering.  These references and connections are made in the midst of joking, dancing, arguing, and eating.

As in real life, the dead are never too far removed from us, and it’s in moments like this that Huston confronts us with just how temporary our lives are, though he never comes out and says it.

At the heart of the movie are Gabriel and Gretta Conroy, a prosperous, happily married middle-aged couple played by Donal McCann and Anjelica Huston.  Gabriel is a fussy, insecure man prone to watching the others from the sidelines.  He’s nervous about the toast he is to give, and sneaks off to rehearse whenever he gets a moments.  Gretta is a woman who is moved by the various performances throughout the evening, and we understand her to be sensitive – the opposite of her husband.

This point is driven home when, at the conclusion of the party, Gabriel sees his wife transfixed half a story above him, on the landing of the stairs, as she is caught up in an impromptu performance, by another guest, a tenor himself, of The Lass of Aughrim, a melancholy song that captivates Gretta in a way that disturbs Gabriel.

Later, when the two are undressing at a hotel Gabriel has rented for the night, he pushes Gretta to understand what had happened earlier.  Under his prodding, she reveals that the song reminded her of someone who had also sung the song – a boy from her youth named Michael Furey.

Gabriel, his feelings hurt, accuses Gretta of being in love with this man, but she informs him that Michael Furey died when they were seventeen, and that she was the cause of his death.

This is all news to Gabriel, and he pushes Gretta to finish the story.  We learn that he was a sickly boy who disobeyed his doctor’s orders and went to see her in a cold winter rain, just as she was preparing to enter convent.  As she finishes her story, she collapses in tears on the bed.  Gabriel doesn’t know how to console her.  Instead, he watches her sleep and takes stock of his life.

As this happens, Huston cuts for the first time to narration and takes us inside Gabriel’s head as he meditates on what has just happened.  It’s a beautiful and sad moment of self-discovery.  He confesses to himself how little he knows his wife, despite years of marriage.  He confesses that he has never loved anyone, not even his own wife, as Michael Furey loved her – risking his life for love.  He confesses the shallowness of his existence, how his life is played for show, basically.

And then, Gabriel walks to the window, pulls the curtain, and gives voice to the beautiful last words of Joyce’s story as stark and lovely images of the snow covered Irish countryside fill the screen:

“Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland….”

John Huston took great delight in the weird twists that life throws our way, and it seems that he would have found the irony of dying just before the premiere of this movie irresistible.  If you’ve never seen The Dead, you should.  But first, read the story.

The Sacred Ritual of Pumpkin Carving

When I was a kid, carving pumpkins was one of the yearly rituals that marked the family calendar.

About a week before Halloween, Dad would come home with a pumpkin at least as big as a basketball, and on the night when we did the carving, Mom made us all snacks and made sure the kitchen table was covered with newspaper.

As with the Thanksgiving turkey, Dad did the carving.  First, he’d cut a hole in the top big enough for my sister and I to reach in and pull out the slimy seeds and stringy pumpkin guts.  We took our time at this task, playing with the innards and shaking them in each others’ face until Dad would tell us to knock it off so he could finish his job and relax.

With the pumpkin more or less hollowed out, Dad would take over and cut as gruesome a face as he could muster.  He had a talent for this sort of thing that would resurface years later in the form of beautiful wood carvings.

There were never any happy or friendly jack-o’-lanterns at our house.  Slucher jack-o’-lanterns were like the gargoyles on a medieval cathedral, meant to scare away evil spirits, but as hideous as they were, they failed to make an impression on the marauding teenagers who roamed the neighborhood late at night, looking for pumpkins to smash.

Every year, the morning of November first meant waking to find the streets covered with the viscera and busted chunks of every single pumpkin in the neighborhood that had been left out.  It was pumpkin genocide.

And now, I’m the Dad.

Last weekend, I rounded up the kids for the ritual carving of the jack-o’-lanterns.  My wife was working, so I also handled the newspaper and the snacks.  Each of my three daughters had their own pumpkin, which ranged from small to large according to age.

We held to my parents’ script, except that I let the girls draw the faces they wanted me to carve.  Ferocity is absent from my front porch, and in its place are three happy-go-lucky jack-o’-lanterns that are more Santa’s helpers than Satan’s henchmen.

Just as seasonal rituals like pumpkin carving at Halloween were important to me and my sister when we were kids, so too are they important to my own children.  My girls have embraced and taken ownership of the rituals in our house, which provide a sense of rhythm and continuity to a household that can often seem chaotic and improvised.

As my family celebrates the special dates on our calendar – birthdays, holidays, and other special times – my hope is that the repeated observance of these milestones will accumulate and build a backlog of happy memories, shared in the form of stories frequently told.

Mad Men Commentary: Episode 413 Tomorrowland

Mad Men’s first order of business has always been identity, and this fourth season – the strongest yet – opened with Don fielding a routine question from a reporter from Advertising Age: “Who is Don Draper?”

It’s a question that has stalked Don like a predator, and in last night’s season finale, Don seized on an answer that I don’t think anyone saw coming.  The episode was titled “Tomorrowland,” but it could have easily been called “Bizarroworld.”

As the episode opens, we find Don in bed, awakened by Faye, who has to leave on out-of-town business.  Don is nervous about his meeting with the American Cancer Society.  She assures him that they loved his letter (the open letter in the Times) and they’ll surely love him.

Unconvinced, he tells her he has a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, and this is where Faye shines.  She cuts to the chase and gives it to him straight:

“Listen.  Maybe it’s not all about work,” she tells him.  “Maybe that sick feeling might go away if you take your head out of the sand about your past.”

“You know it’s not that simple.”

“Of course it isn’t.  And you don’t have to do it alone.  But if you resolve some of that, you might be more comfortable with everything.”

“And then what happens?” Don asks.

“You’re stuck trying to be a person like the rest of us.”

Don takes Faye’s sage advice to heart, but we won’t see how it’s applied until much later.

Meanwhile, Joanie delivers some mail to Lane, who has an announcement.  I had to replay Lane’s speech, due to be being distracted by a bigger announcement – Joan’s tummy.  It was confirmation of what everyone I know of has been hoping for, and aborted abortion.

Oh, and Joan was promoted to Director of Agency Operations, a title-only promotion.

At the meeting with the American Cancer Society folks, Don is asked why he wrote his open letter.

“Well, most of it was in the letter, hopefully,” he tells the gathered old moneybags.  “But I think, in my heart, it was an impulse.  Because I knew what I needed to do to move forward.”  Remember that exchange.  We’ll be coming back to it later.

Don aces the meeting, and gets them to agree to explore a relationship further and a future date.  Upon returning to the office, he and Pete gather Roger and Ken for a strategy session.

Roger’s greeting upon their return: “So, did you get cancer?”

It turns out that a board member of the Cancer Society is a big shot at Dow Chemical, and Ken’s future Father-In-Law is an executive at Corning, a division of Dow.  Pete and Don and Roger pressure Ken into arranging a foursome at a local golf club, where the board member can be invited and influence can be further exerted, but Ken recoils from the using of his personal relationships for personal gain.  He nobly stands up to Pete’s haranguing, and excuses himself to manage the 30% of SCDP’s business he services.  Message sent and received.

This exchange brings to mind another great theme of this season – work and its relationship to identity.  Don and Pete and, to a lesser degree, Roger (not to mention Peggy and Joan) have always put work before all else.  To them, it hardly registers as a choice.  It’s just what you have to do to make it in this world.  But in this episode, we see Ken as decent and fair, a pleasing antidote to the workaholism that dominates SCDP.

And then there’s Betty.  True to her word, Betty is boxing up her family’s possessions and moving them to a new house in Rye.

Glen stops in to say goodbye to Sally, having waited for a moment when Betty is gone.  Carla gives in to Glen’s request to see Sally, knowing full well how Betty feels about him.  But she sees what we know, that there is nothing sinister in this relationship.

Glen knocks on Sally’s door and asks if she’s decent, something he no-doubt copied from home.  They have their goodbye, and we learn that Sally and Bobby and Gene are going to California with Don while Betty and Henry get the new house settled.  Glen asks Sally to bring him back something from Disneyland.

Betty enters the kitchen as Glen is leaving, and they have an ugly exchange in which he tells her that just because she’s sad doesn’t mean everyone else has to be.  Betty turns her childish anger on Carla, not only firing her but insulting her multiple times in the space of a few moments – the kind of hurt that no amount of apologizing can undo.

As this is going on, Don is meeting with his accountant, making plans for the future.  Don is yet again worrying, but the accountant soothes him, encouraging him to “enjoy the harvest and plant some seeds.”  As Don’s phone rings, he adds, “Don’t you want to come home one day and see a steak on the table?”

The call is from Betty, informing Don that she’s fired Carla, which – surprise! Surprise! – puts a huge wrinkle in Don’s California plans.  Carla was to help with the kids.

Though it’s never spelled out, we’re left to wonder how conscious Betty is of her actions.  The evidence is damning.  As with the power play move out to Rye, to “win” against Sally, Betty seems to have no reluctance to pulling out all the stops to maintain even the slightest illusion of control.

Don, to his credit, is determined to take the kids to California, and it’s in this decision that Betty’s maneuver will ultimately backfire.

Don puts Megan on the job of lining up childcare, but it’s a patchwork quilt that seems like a logistical nightmare.  In a flash of inspiration, Don gives Megan his “gotcha!” look and asks her how much she makes a week (funny question, since he’s her boss).  Before you can say “The Sound of Music,” Don, the kids, and Megan are checking into a nice hotel in sunny California.  Uh oh.

Go west, young man!  And woman.

While Don is in La-La land, Peggy’s friend Joyce brings her a present in the form of a fragile model named Carolyn Jones (not THAT one), who’s just been fired from a shoot.  Harry Crane, seeming more and more the lecherous old man, creepily hangs around, hoping for a chance to be the big shot mentor.

Peggy learns that Carolyn has been fired from a job for Topaz Panty Hose – along with the agency – and before you can say “L’eggs” she’s hatching a plan with good-guy Ken that involves working hard over the holiday (Labor Day?) weekend for a chance to pitch some much-needed business.

Out in California, Don comes in from a day of meetings for find Megan and kids in a state of pure bliss.  Gene sleeps while Sally and Bobby sing Don a French lullaby Megan has taught them.  Megan goes to her own room, leaving Don to have some happy Q-time with the kids.  Weird, right?

The next day, Don leaves Gene with Megan and takes the kids to see Anna’s house, where they meet Stephanie.  Naturally, the kids are drawn to the painting that Don and Anna did the last time he visited.  Sally asks who Dick is, and Don tells her the truth…sort of.  “Well, that’s me.  That’s my nickname, sometimes.”  Another baby step towards living out in the open.

Don sends the kids out to play, and in their moment alone, Stephanie gives Don something that Anna wanted him to have.  It’s the engagement ring that the real Don Draper gave her.  It floors Don, who doesn’t feel as though he should have it.  Stephanie insists, and he tucks it away into the breast pocket of his sport coat, stunned.

Don asks Stephanie what she’s going to do.

“I don’t know.  That’s the best part.  I’ve got my whole life ahead of me.  So do you.”

Don and the kids return to the pool, where Megan looks like Jackie O in the pool with little Gene sitting on the side.  The kids shuck off their clothes, swimming suits used as underwear for just such an occasion.  They beg Don to join them, but he declines, saying he’s beat.

Up in the hotel room, Don ponders what has just happened, and unexpectedly, he returns to the pool and does a huge cannonball, a west coast baptism performed to the song “Hot Dog.”  He seems genuinely happy, as do the kids and Megan, thrilled at his presence.

Later, he and the kids are planning their assault on Disneyland, the following day, when Megan stops in with a friend to say good bye for the evening.  She’s stunning in a black dress, and Don has that I’m-gonna-#%@*-you look on his face as she leaves.

As the scene closes on this moment, which will certainly be a highlight for the Draper kids, Bobby announces, “What about Tomorrowland?  I don’t want to fly in an elephant.  I want to fly a jet.”

Next, we see Henry Francis, all serious and probably wondering what went wrong, when Betty returns from showing the old house.  It’s easy to empathize with Henry, monstrous as Betty can be, and we take his side as he chews her out for her treatment of Carla.  His confusion is palpable as he tries to make sense of her erratic actions and explanations of them.

When she claims that all she wanted was a fresh start, he says more than he may know when he tells her, “There is no fresh start.  Lives carry on.”

When she accuses him of not taking her side, he gets the final word when he tells her, “No one’s ever on your side, Betty.”

Just as the Francis marriage appears to be unraveling, a new romance is brewing in California.  When Megan returns from her night out, Don goes to her room, claiming to want to go over the plans for Disney.  She calls him out, but invites him in anyway.  They end up out on the balcony, make some small talk, then make out.

This time, it’s Megan who sounds the caution, and Don is the one to make assurances, telling her he’s been thinking about her so much.  Caution averted.

There’s this cool transition between Don and Megan ending up in bed, where Betty goes to Sally’s nearly empty room and lays on the bed on her side and stares off into the night.  Cut to Don, on his side, staring into Megan’s eyes.  Though Don and Betty are divorced, these two are far from through with each other.

That said, Don is caught up in the moment and asks Megan if this is what she thought of when he asked her to come with him.  She confesses that it was the very first thought.

Even though it was obvious these two would end up in bed, what wasn’t obvious to me was how Don would respond to Megan.

He tells her, “You don’t know anything about me.”

“But I do.  I know you have a good heart.  And I know that you’re always trying to be better.”

“We all try.  We don’t always make it.”

Aside from them being naked, this could have been Dick and Anna talking.

Don pushes on.  “I’ve done a lot of things.”

“I know who you are now.”

Don asks if he can see her again the next night.  He needs to know if this is just a one-night stand, like back in New York.  Megan assures him it’s not.

The following day, the last in California, Don and Megan and the kids are eating at what looks like the same diner as the last scene in Pulp Fiction.  Sally and Bobby bicker, and in the process, a milkshake is spilled.  Don starts to erupt, but Megan swings into action, daubing up the mess and announcing that there’s no use crying over spilled milkshakes, something Betty never would have shrugged off.  Every one is silently amazed at this new presence in their midst.  Tense bodies go loose with relief.

Meanwhile, back in New York, Peggy and Ken have a meeting with Topaz.  Ken lets Peggy do the talking, and in Don Draper fashion, she melds preparation with improvisation and impresses a tough New York businessman.  Things are looking good for ending SCDP’s losing streak.

On the morning of their return, Don is dressed for work, sitting on the edge of his bed.  Megan stirs.  He’s been up for hours, thinking.

Don tells her, “I feel like myself when I’m with you.  But the way I always wanted to feel.  Because I’m in love with you, Megan.  And I think I have been for a while.”  After these words are uttered, he produces Anna’s engagement ring and presents it to Megan.  And proposes.

Megan is flustered, and as she gathers herself, we learn what Don has been thinking.

“Did you ever think of the number of things that had to happen for me to get to know you?  But everything happened, and it got me here….  What does that mean?”

Of course, after that speech, Megan could only say “Yes!”

After a quick call to Megan’s mother in Montreal (in French), they decide to announce the engagement that day to the folks at SCDP.

Don gathers Roger, Lane, Pete, and Joan and tells them that he and Ms. Calvais are getting married.

“Who the hell is that?” Roger asks.  Joan tells him it’s Megan.  “Megan out there?  Well, let’s get her in here.”

And with that bit of Roger Sterling humor, the congratulations begin, with Lane being the first to step forward and wish Don and Megan the best.

At about the same time, Ken finds out the good news about Topaz and rushes to tell Peggy, giving her the lion’s share of the credit.  Poor Peggy.  They rush to Don/Daddy’s office, only to be upstaged.

Ken is genuinely happy for Don and Megan, but Peggy squeezes out a smile as thought she’s trying to get the last bit of toothpaste out of the tube.  “You must be so happy,” is all she can muster.

They tell Don their good news, and he’s all back slaps and atta-boys, but his thoughts are obviously elsewhere.

Peggy sends Ken on his way, closes the door, and faces Don.  “Wow.”  Don tells her he appreciates her concern, and steps in a big ol’ pile by telling Peggy that Megan reminds him of her, that she has the same spark.  He finishes the botch-job by telling Peggy that Megan admires her as much as he does.  Peggy hugs him, then gets the hell out of there.

Joan seems to be waiting for her when Peggy barges into her office.  “Whatever could be on your mind?” she asks, a smug grin on her face.  A weird thing happens here.  She does her Joan-thing by predicting that Don will make Megan a copy writer, not wanting to be married to a secretary.  This sends Peggy over the edge, of course, as Joan intended.  But when Joan tries to put the cherry on the sundae with her comment about having learned a long time ago not to get her satisfaction from this job, Peggy calls her on it.

And then they share a laugh.  At long last, Joan and Peggy are like sisters-in-arms.  Joan even shares her own humiliation, having gotten her promotion-with-no-pay…and no announcement, either.

And then there’s Faye.

It’s Megan who finally gets Don to stop procrastinating and make the call he’s been dreading.  Nice, how Megan knew all about her.  It’s as if she got revenge on Faye from their little catty exchanges last week.

So Don calls her, and she immediately senses that something is up.  He asks her to coffee, but she tells him to just get to it.  And when he does, the tough façade crumbles as the pain of his confession sinks in.  She asks who it is, but Don dodges the question.

Faye pulls herself together enough to get in a couple of nice digs.  She asks Don if he’s going to write a letter to the Times, saying that he doesn’t like her.  Unlike with Peggy, he has the good sense to shut up.

She goes on to say what could very well be another prophecy, that Don only likes the beginnings of relationships.

And with that, Don hung up on what may have been the best thing he had going.  Faye was unvarnished, harsh truth.  She accepted Don’s transgressions, even as they swept her decision making up in them.

She was clear-eyed about his need to move on, and he took that advice to heart.  It just seems that the choice he made was for yet another story book image, like his marriage to Betty, of what a marriage/family should look like (consummated at Disneyland, in LA, in California, where Americans go to recreate themselves as easily as one would change a hairstyle or trade in a Buick for a Corvette), rather than a challenging equal of a wife who would push rather than pamper.

And remember Don’s response to the lady from the American Cancer Society about why he impulsively wrote his open letter?  Well, his response to her seems to hold as well for his proposal to Megan – he did it because he knew what he needed to do to move forward.

We’ll see whether it was the right impulse soon enough, I suspect.

That evening, Joan tells Greg everything that has happened, but all he’s interested in is whether her pregnancy (she’s evidently told him that the baby is theirs) has enlarged her breasts even more.  Once she assures him it has, he’s ready to go and goof off with his buddies, like a freshman rushing a fraternity.

Finally, Betty and Don meet at their old house.  Don is there to show the house to prospective buyers.  Betty seems to be there for the sole purpose of seeing Don.  She’s softer and prettier than she’s been all season, much like the old Betty from two seasons ago or more.

It seemed obvious to me that she was at the very least wanting to flirt with Don (but I suspect she had something else in the back of her mind, even if only subconsciously).

They talk without jaws clenched for a change.  Betty asks Don if he likes the new house.  He admits that he does.  He finds an old bottle of something, Scotch perhaps.

She asks, “Remember this place?”

“I do.”

“It’s different.”

“Isn’t that what you wanted?”

“I don’t know, Don.  Things aren’t perfect.”  She’s lowered her guard.

But Don isn’t game.  “So you’ll move again.”

“So much change.  It’s made everything difficult.”

She’s trying, but Don finishes the moment off by telling her of his engagement.  She composes herself and congratulates him.  It’s a painfully sad moment.  Another miss for these two.  The doorbell rings, breaking the spell once and for all.  They part ways – him to the front door and her to the back.

The show closes mysteriously with Don and Megan in his bed in the Village, and as Sonny and Cher sing “I’ve got you Babe,” Megan sleeps while Don glances out the window.  What is he looking for?

Will he follow through with Megan, or will he leave her as soon as the newness wears off, as Faye predicted?  Did his trip to California help him deal with some of his baggage from the past, to the point where he is stuck trying to be a person like the rest of us?  Or was it all just a fairy tale?

Only tomorrow knows.

Mad Men Commentary: Episode 412 Blowing Smoke

In this week’s episode of Mad Men, Don and Peggy have yet another of their family squabbles.  Peggy offers some unsolicited (and sound) advice to stressed out Don, who is having none of it, as usual.  Finally, she throws a Don-ism back at the master – “If you don’t like what people are saying, change the conversation.”

Once again, Peggy originates the “kernel” of a great idea that Don runs with and adds his own brilliant spin.  Except this time there’ll be no Clio award.

Changing the conversation can simply be that, or it can mean blowing smoke, as the title of the penultimate episode of this season suggests.  The gang at SCDP are stressed to the breaking point, especially the partners.  Secretaries and copy writers can get jobs elsewhere, but the partners have invested more than their egos in this enterprise, and with the flight of paying customers, it’s coming down to the partners taking out lines of credit just to keep the lights on.  No one likes the conversations that are taking place at SCDP.

The episode, well directed by John Slattery, opens with Don having lunch with an executive from the Vinegar, Sauces & Beans division of Heinz.  This is the same account that Dr. Faye compromised herself for to make Don happy.

But it ain’t going well.  Despite an obvious rapport and an understanding that the executive appreciates, it’s no dice on getting the business – at least for now.  Don pushes and uncovers the barely hidden objection.  Heinz wants to wait six months to give SCDP a shot.  Why?  To see if they’re still around.  Don loses his cool a little, and pushes once more for “yes.”  Nothing.  When Don resorts to a discounted price, the client rises to leave, assures Don that the business will come his way IF he lasts, then suggests that Don sticks to ideas and leaves the deal-making to the account guys.  Ouch!

Back at the office, the top brass meets with a consultant to discuss the future of SCDP.  The consultant, a fat, balding, old man with a smug demeanor paints a picture that everyone gathered knows all to well.  Roger fires off a trademark Roger line – “we know there’s a spot on the lung.  You don’t have to keep poking your finger in it.”

The consultant outlines a plan of action that sounds good.  Based on SCDP’s past success with Lucky Strike – 25 years of expertise, to be exact – they should pursue other tobacco brands.  The cherry on the tobacco sundae is a meeting with Philip Morris – about to launch a new woman’s cigarette to replace the re-branded for men Marlboro –  orchestrated by the consultant.  Backs are slapped.  Assurances are proclaimed.  And Slattery shoots a nice little montage of the SCDP crew responding to the current situation – a bit of confidence in the agency/Don mixed with navel gazing self-interest.

Meanwhile, out in the burbs, Sally and Betty Draper are having a kind of Freaky Friday thing, with Sally looking more like the mature half of the duo than Mom.

Sally visits with Dr. Edna, who tells Sally how proud she is of controlling her anger.  Sally is doing so well, that Dr. Edna suggests they cut their meetings back to only once per week.  All this is done over crazy-eights, as if these were two friends playing cards on a weekday while the kids were at school.

But is it genuine?  Sally is meeting with Glen, the creepy neighbor kid who broke into the house and vandalized it to get back at Betty for Sally.  Glen asks Sally if Dr. Edna has told her kiss her Mom’s ass (or blow smoke), as his doctor did.  Sally assures Glen that Dr. Edna isn’t like that, and again, she seems so self-possessed.  Is this a pose, or has Sally achieved some new level of maturity?

At another of their secret-but-innocent meetings, Sally goes deep on Glen by asking him if he ever noticed the Indian lady on the box of Land O Lakes butter?  She holds a box with a picture of her holding another box with yet another picture of her holding a box….  Glen says he wishes she hadn’t mentioned that, and you can already see them in the not-to-distant future, sharing similar discoveries over a joint.  Or maybe not.

And what’s up with Sally paying such close attention to packaged food?  Is this some sort of nod to her old man, with whom she is more partial?

On the flip side of all this deepness and maturity is Betty, who also pays a visit to Dr. Edna, whom she has come to depend on for some sense of security.  And in stark contrast to Sally, who’s been praised for controlling her anger, Betty launches into a bitch session against Henry, recounting an argument where she slammed doors to punctuate a point, only to find that Henry hadn’t heard her.  She compares him to Don, but Dr. Edna sees through all of this.

When notified of the recommendation to cut Sally’s sessions down to only once a week, Betty makes it about her and panics.  She needs Dr. Edna way more than Sally does.  When Dr. Edna suggests that Betty see a colleague, Betty says it all when she asks, “Why can’t I talk to you?”  If you didn’t get that, then let Dr. Edna help – “I’m a child psychiatrist.”  To be fair, who wouldn’t want to talk to Dr. Edna once or twice a week?

Another woman who used to sleep with Don figures prominently in this episode.  As Don leaves work, who does he bump into in the lobby of the Time-Life building but Midge Daniels, the greeting card artist/hippie he was sleeping with back in season one, when we first met him.

Pleasantries are exchanged.  She learns that he’s divorced.  He learns that she’s married, but it’s a marriage of convenience, not passion.  He compliments her looks, but she squirms and says she’s skinny – a starving artist.

Don tries to evade a “drink,” but Midge persists, eventually playing on his square sense of chivalry by confessing that she’s lost her purse and has no train fare home.  Don relents, and a weird scene is played out in the shabby apartment of Midge and her husband, a struggling playwright.

Midge excuses herself, and the husband launches into a desperate sales pitch, seeing Don as a mark.  Don admires the painting, but is non-commital.  This leads the husband to up the ante by offering Midge as part of the deal, saying there’s nothing she won’t do to close a deal.  Don recoils at the vulgarity of the offer, and in that moment we see a mirroring of what Don has been through earlier with the executive from Heinz.

The husband also lets it slip that Midge didn’t just bump into Don, but tracked him down, seemingly for the purpose of getting into his wallet…via the fly of his pants, if necessary.  If this wasn’t bad enough, Don learns that Midge and her husband have a heroin addiction that neither of them can or will kick.

Don buys Midge’s painting, and gets out of her apartment as quickly as possible, but not before she tells him, “I’m glad you haven’t changed.”  We’re left to wonder whether this is a blessing or a curse.

This is significant.  Midge is/was an artist, someone Don respected.  It’s safe to say that Don considers himself, if not an artist, then something approaching one.  Regardless, he uses words and images to tell a story and evoke an emotion, arguably not too unlike what the artist does.  Midge becomes a mirror, reflecting back the ugliness in Don’s life.  This point is made stronger a day later, when Don sits in front of Midge’s painting for a long time, absorbing the “after image” until he is moved to do something about what he sees.

The next day, we find Don in his office, nervously pacing and reciting verbal warm-ups.  It’s not the Don we’re used to seeing.  This is more like Korea-era Don/Dick Whitman.  But the preparation and warm-ups are for naught.  As Don gets word that the partners are in the lobby waiting for Philip Morris to arrive, he joins them as the consultant steps out of the elevator alone.  There will be no meeting.  SCDP was used as leverage against another agency.

Bert herds the partners into an office, where panic ensues.  Harry and Ken sit in the next office wit their ears to the wall as the bosses resort to name calling and chicken-littlery.  Finally, Don calls the spade a spade by saying that the reason non one  will really do business with them now is that they reek of desperation.  This quiets them all down enough for Lane to announce a plan that is the lesser of evils – the senior partners must contribute $100K each and the two junior partners, him and Pete, will contribute $50K each.  That, along with a series of brutal firings, will be enough to keep them afloat for six months – that magic number that keeps being flown around as the gestation period for resuming business with SCDP.

All but Pete takes this news in stride.  Being new to this level of accountability, along with a brand new baby and a job offer from a dreaded rival, Pete waffles.  $50K is a big, bitter pill for him to swallow, and after a heated exchange with Don and a fight with his wife, Pete seems at the end of his rope.  He’s actually sympathetic in this case.  He’s been busting his hump bringing in accounts, one of whom had to be jettisoned for Don’s safety, while Roger can’t manager the one client in his book – their cash cow.

When Pete goes to Don for some sort of explanation or assurance (and hasn’t he learned better by now?), Don has nothing for him but a barked exhortation to get Don in front of a paying client.  Not willing to accept that answer, Pete asks Don why he’s being punished for the sins of others.  At this, all Don can say is that they are all being punished equally.  And with that, Pete is whisked out of his presence.

Enter Peggy, who steps forward on behalf of the staff, wanting to know what Don would have them do.  This is a testament to the respect that Don still wields that when everything else is in flames and ruin is quick approaching, his team is ready for action.  But Don has no orders or answers.  He seems content to sit and let the burning building collapse on him.

But not Peggy, who’s been thinking about their conundrum.  She throws out ideas that Don craps all over (including changing their name, which seemed like a very good idea – and one that looks increasingly likely), until she lobs his own mantra back in his face, a la changing the conversation.  That said, she turns and leaves Don to his anger – no smoke blower she.

At the end of the day, Don returns home to find #4, Midge’s painting, waiting for him like a guilty conscience.  He starts to throw it away, but stops and sets the painting on the couch and grabs a chair and sits and stares at this thing, soaking up the afterimage of Midge and what her life has come to – and where Don’s life is surely leading.

Later, when it’s dark, Don goes to his writing table and rips a bunch of scribbled over pages from the journal he keeps and tosses them in the trash.  It’s as if he’s making a fresh start, and when the narration kicks in, we know that it is indeed a fresh start.

“Why I’m Quitting Tobacco” is Don’s Jerry Maguire moment, and although many see this as a cynical ploy, I think there is sincerity in Don’s words.  Pete will characterize it as throwing a temper tantrum on the pages of the New York Times, which is a fair assessment.  Even Don would characterize it as such (or maybe even as blowing smoke, if not blowing Lucky Strike), but as we’ve seen with his other writings, there’s depth to the man, despite the deep flaws.

The next morning is weird.  Don gets up early and swims laps and seems to have the peace of just.  And there’s this weird dichotomy.  The rank and file ad people look at him anew, as though he’s just slain Goliath.  Even that smartass Stan gives him an oh-so-faint tip of the cap as they run into each other in the hallway.  The old Don is back.

Megan, too, can hardly contain herself, but first let’s deal with the partners.

The partners storm into Don’s office like angry villagers hunting for witches, only needing torches and pitchforks to complete to picture.  Don is greeting by jeers and accusations, especially from Bert who totally loses his cool – ultimately and hilariously resigning his partnership by calling to a random employee, “You!  Bring me my shoes!”

Each has their say, but it’s Roger who seems somewhat sympathetic to what Don has done, if only for the sense of theatre.  I think Don believed that he would be greeted as a hero, and as his bile rises, he tells Pete, but it could’ve been directed at them all, “If you don’t understand it, you shouldn’t be in the business.”  It’s the difference between the visionary and the drone, the leader and the led.  It’s what Don brings to the table. And they don’t get it at all – he’s completely changed the conversation.

But they think he’s just blowing smoke.

When Don arrived, Megan mentioned that an Emerson Foote had called.  This is interesting, and could be the next “real” person, a la Conrad Hilton, to show up in the series.  Foote is one of the iconic figures of advertising, famous, among other things, for resigning the American Tobacco account, which constituted 20% of his agency’s billings – and counted Lucky Strike among its brands.  Foote became a vocal opponent of tobacco advertising, and served in the Johnson administration and the American Cancer Society at about the time that Don pens his manifesto.  We’ll see what happens.

Throughout the day, the fallout of Don’s actions impact SCDP in unexpected ways.  Where calls weren’t being returned in the wake of Lucky Srike, now everyone wants to talk to/about SCDP.  Don has created buzz.  He’s hijacked reality by spinning the Lucky Strike decision as one of conscience, not business as usual.

Another unintended consequence is the resigning of the SCDP account by Geoffrey Atherton – Dr. Faye’s employer.  Don expects anger from Faye, but instead, she seems to hold him in even higher esteem, wanting to take their relationship out in the open, now that professionalism isn’t an issue.

Earlier in the episode, when Don and Faye meet, we see Megan through the glass of the board room – a perfect triangle.  When Faye shows up to tell Don of her company’s decision, there’s this icy vibe coming from Faye, as if she knows what has happened (and how could she not, unless her olfactory senses weren’t functioning the night Don found her on his doorstep after his tryst with Megan?).  The final touch is when they finalize dinner plans and Faye tells Don to “have your girl make the reservations.”  Don seems clueless, but we know that she knows.

The one person whom Don seeks out for feedback is Peggy, of course.  We hope he’s learned his lesson and gives her credit for sparking the idea….  Yeah, right.  When he asks what she thinks, she withholds her praise by throwing another of his philosophies back in his face – “I thought you didn’t go in for those shenanigans?”

As a way out of the SCDP mess is just beginning to come hazily into view, Betty sees a way out of her Dr. Edna problem.  She catches Sally with Glen and completely overreacts, accusing Sally in thought, if not actual words, of doing inappropriate things with Glen.  And with Glen’s track record, you almost sympathize with her, except that she overplays her hand.

When Henry shows up unexpectedly early for dinner, Betty plays her card, telling Henry – in Sally’s presence – that it was a bad day, that the neighborhood is going downhill, and that they should move.  This news brightens Henry, but sends Sally running off to her room, where she clutches the keepsake left by Glen on the night of his vandalism.

Betty’s victory is that she has proof that Sally isn’t “cured,” that she still needs her twice a week visit, and thus Betty’s, to the doctor to get fixed.  Sally knows her Mom is blowing smoke, but will Dr. Edna?

Finally, we have the partners, reassembled with Joan for a regular board meeting.  They’ve agreed who will be fired, and the list has been divided among them for notifications and severance.

In the midst of this glum news comes word of a call from the aforementioned American Cancer Society, who wants to talk about a possible campaign.  Pete is unimpressed, as it means free work.  But the others see it as prestige and access to the Society’s influential board.  It’s a ray of hope.  A toe-hold.  Something.

As the meeting breaks-up, Pete calls Lane to him.  As Roger leaves, he gets the last laugh – “Well, I’ve got to go and learn a bunch of peoples’ names before I fire them.”  When he’s gone, Pete confesses to Lane that he cannot come up with the $50K.  Lane is confused.  “Don paid your share,” he tells Pete.

Stunned, Pete steps into the hallway, to see Don leading Danny Siegel into his office.  They share a glance.  Don nods.  Pete raises his glass in solidarity, then moves on.

A moment later, Don emerges with a composed and professional Danny.  They shake and Danny leaves.  Don pauses before calling the next victim.  He looks around at the carnage.  Women sobbing and consoling one another.  Men sagging under the weight of their boxed possessions and stalled-out hopes.  It’s a very bad day at SCDP.

But they’re alive – still drawing breath, still blowing smoke.

Mad Men Commentary: Episode 411 The Chinese Wall

This week’s episode of Mad Men, “The Chinese Wall”, seemed like an opportunity for us to catch our breath and for the stage to be set for the season’s finale, which is coming in what, one or two episodes?  But first, what is a Chinese wall?  The term got its start in the financial world, but has been extended to refer to any barrier that restricts the flow of information within an organization.

This week, the cat is let out of the bag on Lucky Strike.  Roger has been acting as a Chinese wall, keeping the news of the impending loss from everyone at SCDP.  Ken Cosgrove, while on a date with his fiancé and future in-laws, runs into a rival from BBDO, the firm that has won the Lucky Strike account, who informs him of the bad news.  Ken tries to resume his meal, but in this world, it’s business before pleasure, and he runs off to find Pete Campbell, who’s at the hospital awaiting the birth of his second child (the first being w/Peggy, of course).  Pete follows Ken’s work-first lead and the two of them call Don and wind up in Roger’s office with Bert for a late night summit meeting.  Losing this account is akin to getting a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, so it’s all hands on deck.

Roger is the last to arrive, and pretends to call Lee Garner Jr.  With his thumb pushing down the receiver, he play acts at learning of the loss of the account.  After a heated exchange, he tells the men that he’s been hung up on.  Don immediately volunteers to go with Roger to North Carolina in the morning, but Roger rebuffs the offer, saying he’ll go it alone, knowing full well that the trip is doubly impossible, since he’s known about this for a week or two.

SCDP is in crisis mode.

As the pressure mounts, we see the principals in the firm tested, each in his own way.  Roger handles his by compounding his fraud by only pretending to fly to NC.  His call to Bert and the boys, the following day, is made not from the offices of American Tobacco, but from a nearby hotel room.  Roger’s fate as a totally irrelevant relic of a bygone era is all but sealed in this episode.  A mirror of this is represented in the death of a rival account man from a competing firm, a man with as WASPy a name as Roger’s – David Montgomery.

As everyone else in the firm is scrambling to protect the remaining accounts from a panic-induced flight, Roger sits in the same hotel room, drinking and feeling sorry for himself.  It’s all he knows.  Later, when he calls Joan and confesses, she’s obviously disgusted at his admission, and we can sense her respect for Roger (and thus, her romantic attraction) quickly fading to pity and perhaps anger, for now she is a Chinese Wall, if she chooses not to rat out her lover.

But at least Roger gets the best lines.  After paying a surprise visit to Joan at her apartment, in which he is rejected, Roger gets his coat and hat and pauses at the door.  “So that night we were mugged, that was the last time? [pause]  I wish I’d of known.”  Why, to savor the moment or take a bullet?  Bert gives what may be Roger’s epitaph the following day when he tells a defeated Roger, “Lee Garner never took you seriously because you never took yourself seriously.”  Touché’.

In the meantime, Bert and Don rally the troops, along with one of Lane’s lieutenants from accounting.  Don keeps the full impact of Lucky Strike’s departure from the staff, assuring everyone that even though the cash cow has died, everything will be fine.  Because Don is so highly revered, the staff seems to accept the news as a minor setback.

At the end of last season, Don led the rebellion that gave birth to SCDP, and in this episode, he is accountable for the failings of the firm.  Roger is as good as gone.  Bert is passé.  Lane is in London.  Pete is not ready for prime time.  And despite snapping unfairly at Pete at the loss of Glocoat, he handles himself fairly well…that is, until it comes to his women.

After a long day of being rejected by fleeing clients, Faye pays Don a visit to check-up on him.  As they talk, he asks her how she copes with rejection.  When she mentions angry clients, he asks which ones, meaning he wants some insider information.  Faye bristles at Don’s impropriety, offended that he would cross that line.  The scene quickly devolves to a fight in which Faye storms off into the night, but maintains her integrity…and dignity.

24 hours later, Don is wrapping up yet another rough day when Megan, his beautiful French Canadian secretary refuses to take no for an answer when she offers to help him work late into the night.  She out-Dons Don in this scene, smoothly seducing him (not exactly heavy lifting when we’re talking about Don Draper) by assuring him that their fling means nothing beyond that moment on that couch (we’ll see about that.  Can you say “Jane Siegel”?).  She’s done her homework, even going so far as to say that she, like Don, only judges people on their work, with everything else being sentimental.  Don, of course, is game.  Nothing clears Don Draper’s head like a one-night stand.

The cosmic check comes due on the Megan decision later that evening when Don finds Faye in the hallway of his apartment, leaving a note for him.  It may be a break-up note.  Fay invites herself in, and we find out, instead, that she’s compromised herself.  She’s brought Don a meeting with Heinz.  And with that decision, that toppling of the Chinese wall, we see some of the dignity leak out of another character.  The message is brought home when Don and Faye end up on the couch in the exact same pose as Roger and Jane from a scene or two earlier.  It’s a beautiful mirroring act.  Roger cares nothing for Jane, of course, and we’re left to guess that it’s the same for Don and Faye, a good woman who genuinely cares for Don, but who has sold herself out for him.

Speaking of Jane, after Megan and Don’s fling, there’s a cut to Jane at home, waiting on Roger.  This paring means something – is it that Megan, like Jane, is a conniving climber, looking for a trophy husband?  Perhaps.  She said she wouldn’t run weeping out of the office after her one-night-stand.  I think her grasping of Don’s arm, followed by warning against drinking too much might be a clue as to whom we’re dealing with.  She makes an implicit promise to be discrete – to keep this information to herself.

And then there’s Peggy.  In this episode, we see Peggy reach an important milestone in her career, but it’s as if it’s merely a footnote to the larger drama.  Indeed, Peggy spends the episode cut off from the rest of the SCDP action, in her own little bubble on the outside of the fear and drama that has come with the Lucky Strike bombshell.  While everyone else is running around putting out fires, Peggy is happy-go-lucky, taking the pressure of giving a solo pitch in stride, suffering the constant hazing of Stan with good natured aplomb, and knocking her pitch out of the park, despite having lipstick smeared across her teeth.  Sometimes walls punish.  Sometimes they protect.  For example, by not knowing that she had the lipstick smeared on her teeth, Peggy had no self-consciousness.

Though she’s only in a few scenes, the one’s where we see Peggy are priceless: the relaxation exercise with Stan, designed to loosen her up before the big pitch (and give Stan an opportunity to steal a kiss); the meeting with Danny, where Peggy does her own take on a Don Draper poetic finale to a presentation.  And of course, her lipstick smeared pitch.

Finally, there’s the funeral scene, where Bert, Don, Pete, and Freddy Rumsen have gone to troll for business.  It’s a beautifully constructed moment.  Montgomery’s widow and daughter sit next to the dais, glum and vacant.  Two speakers give remarkable speeches that are designed to be testimonials of what a great guy Montgomery was, but what we learn instead is that he spent almost all of his time away from his family.  One man tells of the time Montgomery missed his daughter’s fifth birthday (cut to Pete, missing the birth of his own daughter) to win the Buick account in Detroit.  Montgomery compensated with a thoughtful present.  Another man told of the thimbles Montgomery collected in England while away on business, yet another male-oriented testimonial to the man’s sensitivity – that somehow, the tokens that Montgomery purchased should be sufficient substitutes for having the actual man present in the lives of his wife and daughter.

And it’s here that the meaning of the Chinese wall is expanded, I think, to include the barrier between work and home.  Don and Pete and Ken and Pete’s father-in-law have all, like the deceased Montgomery, put work before family, and only Don seems to grasp this during the eulogies for the dead rival.  And seeing that Don recognizes this on some level is what is so infuriating about the man.  There is depth to him, for sure, but he can’t pull himself out of the muck and mire of the bad decisions he can’t quit making.

And so, at the end of the episode, as Don sits on the couch, a mirror of his hollow mentor, we can only guess at his state of mind.  Is he repentant of his transgressions against Faye, or is he only sleeping, having moved already moved on, if only in his mind?

Film Review: Greenberg

In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield’s oft-quoted meditation on the act of creating, he describes the great enemy of our creative impulses, that constant negative force that seeks to block us from rising to our higher level, a mocking, doubting-Thomas voice that rises up to tear us down when we strive for something better.  Pressfield calls this force Resistance, and in his cataloguing of the methods employed by Resistance to keep us stuck where we are, he could have included a DVD of “Greenberg”, the latest release from Noah Baumbach, the director of The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, and co-writer of Wes Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Roger Greenberg, played by Ben Stiller, is a man plagued by the fallout of a colossal failure from fifteen years earlier.  When we meet him, he’s just been released from a New York psychiatric hospital and has travelled to Los Angeles to housesit for his more successful brother.

It turns out that Roger was once the front man for an up-and-coming rock band, and on the eve of making it – of being signed by a major label – Roger freaked out – gave in to Resistance – and single-handedly killed the record deal, along with his band-mates’ careers in music.  Roger ended up in New York, a carpenter, cynic, and a writer of sarcastic and angry letters to companies and governmental agencies that don’t measure up to his perfectionistic standards of excellence.

Once in LA, Roger re-connects with old friends, like former band-mate Ivan, who know nothing of his breakdown, and are   He declares that he just wants “to do nothing for a while,” which is perhaps the highest expression of Resistance.  It’s also a project at which he fails miserably.

First, he re-connects with an old girlfriend, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, at a party and learns that she’s going through a divorce.  She reminds him of himself pre-collapse, and he sets out on a half-hearted attempt at rekindling the flame.

Second, and more pivotal, is Florence, played by indie it-girl Greta Gerwig, the personal assistant of Roger’s brother.  Florence is a woman cast adrift in her mid-20’s, alone and unsure of what to do with her life.  That is, until she meets Roger.

Having gotten his old girlfriend’s phone number, Roger can’t bring himself to call her.  Instead, he reaches out to Florence, time and again, to avoid being lonely.  An unlikely bond takes root as Roger at first uses Florence, but comes to depend on her good will and unspoiled nature to help him regain himself.

But it ain’t easy.  Throughout the film, Roger pushes Florence away, in favor of his quixotic pursuit of the old flame.  It’s this inability to let go of the past emerges as Roger’s (and Florence’s) primary stumbling block to contentment.

Greenberg is filled with fine performances, with Ben Stiller leading the way.  Though he’s played variations on this angry, dysfunctional guy before, Stiller has never been this good, this complete in his portrayal of a deeply flawed character.  It’s a testament to his performance that we root for him, even as he behaves terribly.

Similarly, Greta Gerwig takes a spin in familiar territory playing a girl who’s just getting started without a clue as to where she’s headed.  See her in Nights and Weekends and Hannah Takes The Stairs and you’ll see a progression from Mumblecore goddess to mainstream movie star that is as seamless as it is appealing.  Gerwig keeps us from writing Florence off as a masochistic loser by infusing her with depth and sureness of purpose, even as we question her choices.

Rounding out this fine cast is Rhys Ifans, from Notting Hill, Roger’s former songwriting partner who has struggled with life after music, but comes to not only accept but also love the life he’s struggling to maintain.  As Ivan suffers through Roger’s self-obsessed rants and tantrums, he finally explodes on Roger near the end of the movie, and as he vents his anger at Roger’s thoughtlessness, he inadvertently challenges Roger to a new mission.  “…to embrace the life you never planned up.”

With credits that include Kicking and Screaming, The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, and now Greenberg, Noah Baumbach is building an admirable catalog of very good films that feel like they could have been adapted from great American novels, complete with memorably quirky characters that challenge the conventions of what film heroes and heroines are supposed to be. Roger Greenberg is his most daring yet.  In giving us a protagonist who is angry, whiny, self-absorbed, and a whole host of other negative traits, Baumbach challenges us to see past the outward expression and find ourselves in Roger’s struggle.

The people in Roger’s world all roll with life’s punches and fight Resistance in their own way – some more successfully than the others.  And by coming home, at long last, Roger must decide whether to stay mired in the past or join the fight for an uncertain future.

A first-draft take on life