Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Fixer

The curated past of Mad Men

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Jessica Paré and Jon Hamm on Mad Men

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What has Mad Men inspired you to seek out?”

Now that Mad Men is entering its final stretch at last, it’s time to acknowledge a subtle but important point about the source of its appeal. This is my favorite television drama of all time. I’m not going to argue that it’s the greatest series ever—we’ll need another decade or two to make that appraisal with a cool head—but from one scene to the next, one episode after another, it’s provided me with more consistent pleasure and emotion than any show I can name. I’ve spoken before, perhaps too often, about what I like to call its fractal quality: the tiniest elements start to feel like emblems of the largest, and there’s seemingly no limit to how deep you can drill while analyzing even the smallest of touches. For proof, we need turn no further than the fashion recaps by Tom and Lorenzo, which stand as some of the most inspired television criticism of recent years. The choice of a fabric or color, the reappearance of a dress or crucial accessory, a contrast between the outfits of one character and another turn out to be profoundly expressive of personality and theme, and it’s a testament to the genius of both costume designer Jane Bryant and Matthew Weiner, the ultimate man behind the curtain.

Every detail in Mad Men, then, starts to feel like a considered choice, and we can argue over their meaning and significance for days. But that’s also true of any good television series. By definition, everything we see in a work of televised fiction is there because someone decided it should be, or didn’t actively prevent it from appearing. Not every showrunner is as obsessed with minutiae as Weiner is, but it’s invariably true of the unsung creative professionals—the art director, the costume designer, the craftsmen responsible for editing, music, cinematography, sound—whose contributions make up the whole. Once you’ve reached the point in your career where you’re responsible for a department in a show watched by millions, you’re not likely to achieve your effects by accident: even if your work goes unnoticed by most viewers, every prop or bit of business is the end result of a train of thought. If asked, I don’t have any doubt that the costume designers for, say, Revenge or The Vampire Diaries would have much to say about their craft as Jane Bryant does. But Mad Men stands alone in the current golden age of television in actually inspiring that kind of routine scrutiny for each of its aesthetic choices, all of which we’re primed to unpack for clues.

Jon Hamm and Matthew Weiner on the set of Mad Men

What sets it apart, of course, is its period setting. With a series set in the present day, we’re more likely to take elements like costume design and art direction for granted; it takes a truly exceptional creative vision, like the one we find in Hannibal, to encourage us to study those choices with a comparable degree of attention. In a period piece, by contrast, everything looks exactly as considered as it really is: we know that every lamp, every end table, every cigarette or magazine cover has been put consciously into place, and while we might appreciate this on an intellectual level with other shows, Mad Men makes us feel it. And its relatively recent timeframe makes those touches even more evident. When you go back further, as with a show like Downton Abbey, most of us are less likely to think about the decisions a show makes, simply because it’s more removed from our experience: only a specialist would take an interest in which kind of silverware Mrs. Hughes sets on the banquet table, rather than another, and we’re likely to think of it as a recreation, not a creation. (This even applies to a series like Game of Thrones, in which it’s easy to take the world it makes at face value, at least until the seams start to show.) But the sixties are still close enough that we’re able to see each element as a choice between alternatives. As a result, Mad Men seems curated in a way that neither a contemporary or more remote show would be.

I’m not saying this to minimize the genuine intelligence behind Mad Men’s look and atmosphere. But it’s worth admitting that if we’re more aware of it than usual, it’s partially a consequence of that canny choice of period. Just as a setting in the recent past allows for the use of historical irony and an oblique engagement with contemporary social issues, it also encourages the audience to regard mundane details as if they were charged with significance. When we see Don Draper reading Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer, for instance, we’re inclined to wonder why, and maybe even check it out for ourselves. And many of us have been influenced by the show’s choices of fashion, music, and even liquor. But its real breakthrough lay in how those surface aspects became an invitation to read more deeply into the elements that mattered. Even if we start to pay less attention to brand names or articles of set dressing, we’re still trained to watch the show as if everything meant something, from a line of throwaway dialogue to Don’s lingering glance at Megan at the end of “Hands and Knees.” Like all great works of art, Mad Men taught us how to watch it, and as artists as different as Hitchcock and Buñuel understood, it knew that it could only awaken us to its deepest resonances by enticing us first with its surfaces. It turned us all into noticers. And the best way to honor its legacy is by directing that same level of attention onto all the shows we love.

Written by nevalalee

April 3, 2015 at 9:33 am

Revisiting the victim story

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One of the first lessons we’re taught as novelists, right after “Show, not tell,” is that we shouldn’t write victim stories. Narratives in which the central character is constantly being trampled down by circumstance, without making any effort to take his fate into his own hands, may be superficially affecting for the author, but for the reader, they’re a bore. We want our heroes to take action; if they fail, it should be because of their own choices, not the result of an unfair universe. It’s largely for this reason that I’ve never been a fan of the trope of the innocent man wrongfully accused, unless, as in North by Northwest, it’s merely a pretext for a more satisfying series of adventures. Such plots tend to be built around cosmic bad luck, misunderstandings, and institutional indifference, which is why they’re much less interesting than stories that grow organically from the main character’s decisions. (I’d much rather watch a movie about an otherwise innocent man rightfully accused.)

But sometimes a victim story is the only honest way to approach the material. I’ve been thinking about this ever since reading Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer, which gives us the victim story in its purest form: the title character, the unassuming Jewish handyman Yakov Bok, is arrested in the second chapter for a murder he didn’t commit, and spends the rest of the novel being held without trial in a Russian prison. The result is a highly readable yet intentionally frustrating novel, based loosely on the real Beilis case, in which Yakov’s situation gets worse with every passing page, leaving him with no way of altering his own fate, except in his refusal to confess. At times, the novel’s relentless bleakness becomes hard to take. Yet it’s hard to imagine a conventionally satisfying version of this story that would still be intellectually honest: Yakov is a victim, like many real men and women before and after him, and to credit him with more agency than he really possessed would be a lie.

This is also true of such writers as Kafka, and more recently of those authors who have written about modern absolutist or totalitarian states. To read Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, as I did earlier this year, is to be reminded that there are entire generations of human history in which the usual conventions of fiction—that protagonists are primarily in control of their own decisions and rise or fall on the actions they’ve taken—amount to a historical falsehood. Fighting back isn’t an option here; it can only lead to death. While there may be room for small triumphs and moments of dignity, they don’t have much in common with the kind of action that we often demand from the stories we read. And the same holds true, to a lesser extent, of the traps in which we can all find ourselves, in which, rightly or wrongly, no real action seems possible: depression, addiction, emotional desperation. These are all worthy subjects for fiction.

So what’s a writer to do? Ultimately, the rule to avoid the victim story is just like any other writing guideline: a form of safety first. Given the choice, especially early on, we should write stories in which characters are able or willing to take action to change their own circumstances. Such a story is likely to be more readable and engaging than one built around a character’s helplessness, and only by writing this kind of fiction can we learn to write meaningfully about the lack of action without falling into sentimentality. “With me, it’s story, story, story,” Malamud once said, and a novel like The Fixer wouldn’t work if it weren’t written by a novelist who understood how to construct this kind of narrative. Most writers, even those who publish books like this, aren’t at that level yet—because writing a victim story requires incredible reserves of strength.

Written by nevalalee

August 9, 2012 at 9:40 am

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