Friends, I started watching Mad Men yesterday. With three episodes of Season 1 under by belt, I am sorry to say that I think I've had enough.
It's a lot easier to criticize others' creative output than to be creative yourself and it's obvious that Mad Men is a collective labor of love. The achievements of Mad Men stylist Janie Bryant in recreating the look of the period deserve praise. But the writers' take on Sixties attitudes and relationships is one big politically-incorrect cliché.
This series -- which could be dubbed Cigarettes and Alcohol and the Miserable Sexist WASPs Who Consumed Them -- feels like it was made by people who have no living knowledge of the period, but can't get over the fact that women were once called girls.
The theme of the banality of prosperous postwar America and the stultifying conformity that oppressed so many affluent white Americans is a familiar one. We've been here before -- from Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, to John Updike, to films like The Graduate, Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven and many, many others.
In Mad Men, all the men are aggressive louts and lotharios, the women submissive, competitive (with each other), or outcasts. Nobody's happy because, you see, the American Dream is....... a MYTH! (Sound familiar?)
This series is so bogged down in recreating Sixties style -- long-line dress silhouettes, knotty pine kitchen cabinets, vintage IBM Selectric typewriters; endless close-ups of office bars and ashtrays and rotary phones and tailfins -- that the substance takes second place.
And the substance -- society's "winners" and their lives of quiet, nicotine-addicted desperation -- is old news.
The postwar world of corporate conformity was already ripe for satire while it was happening. Just watch Billy Wilder's Oscar-winning The Apartment starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine, from 1960. Nobody was more cynical about contemporary American life than Billy Wilder, and this classic film nails the greed, the sexism -- indeed the sickness -- beneath the slick veneer of American success.
The Apartment still feels fresh today. It's funny, knowing, and terribly moving. You'll learn much more about life in 1960 than you ever will from the Postwar America 101 version that is Man Men.
Looking for a deftly clever satire on advertising? Try Lover Come Back, starring Doris Day and Rock Hudson from 1961, another brilliant send-up of the duplicitous, appallingly sexist, cut-throat world of the early Sixties three-martini-lunch business world.
Both Lover Come Back and The Apartment address the competitive "jock" culture that was very much in evidence in (and in many ways defines) the corporation. But unlike Mad Men, these films handle these themes with a lightness and charm utterly lacking in the contemporary series, not to mention sharp writing, masterful acting (neither Jack Lemmon nor Doris Day has ever been better) and genuine affection (and sympathy) for their characters.
Watch these films and then go back to Mad Men and you'll know what I mean instantly. The slurred diction and amateurish acting alone make it painful to watch. And the unrelenting ugliness of the human relationships represented is depressing.
In other news, friends, I also watched Coco Before Chanel and I loved it. Audrey Tautou gives a beautiful performance as the young, soon-to-be-famous couturier, and the period styling is perfect without the film ever being about the period styling.
Why are French films able to present human relationships with subtlety and non-judgment and create characters of such dimensionality -- even when they're biographical films and have to stick to the facts -- and why can't Hollywood do this anymore (if it every could)?
In closing, friends, I'm taking off my film critic hat for the day now; I'm much more comfortable with the sewing machine. And there will be sewing today. There must be!
Happy Wednesday, everybody!
Anyone seen The Apartment or Lover Come Back?