July 27, 2010

The Antonionian Ennui of Mad Men

by Vadim Rizov

MAD MEN's Don Draper

In 1962, Don Draper went to see La Notte and loved it. He's up on his cinema, and that's no surprise. When someone asked if he'd seen The Bridge on the River Kwai, he responded, "I've seen everything, and I have the ticket stubs to prove it." Not that Don could assimilate Antonioni into advertising that quickly. He's much more likely to use Bye Bye Birdie as a starting point for his work; foreign innovations are, for now (the show's up to 1964), just that. As Kieron Clark pointed out, "Advertising then did exactly as it does now: it co-opted, re-used and ripped-off cinematic culture, both high and low. As both Don Draper and Matthew Weiner know only too well, the Mad Men of Madison Avenue ignore the movies at their peril." Right now, Don's viewing choices may not have much to do with his work. Soon, they may have to if he wants to survive the '60s gracefully.

Marcello Mastroianni in LA NOTTEStyle-wise, the show's oft-muted colors make the '60s seem more modern than a meticulous recreation: its influences are ahead of the chronological period, even as the characters fight to keep pace with the '60s. As James Wolcott notes, Don's living in "Gordon Willis dark" rooms "without Godfather justification," a man out of time in a way that’s not fashionable yet. Maybe not quite The Godfather— although Draper brooding in the dark in the fourth season's premiere episode isn't far off either—but visually, Don's ahead of the times, meanwhile struggling to keep up with them.

People love to talk about Mad Men as "novelistic," in the same way that any long-form serial program could have that term thrown at it, but if Mad Men's a novel, it's a decidedly modernist one in its persistent elisions and fractured narratives. (The Dickensian aspect isn't really coming up much here.) What's omitted matters as much (sometimes more) as what's there. Refusing to use title cards to let you know what year it is, the jumps between each season form their own miniature form of suspense. Meanwhile, the production design keeps the show grounded in the familiar sleek lines and buildings of '60s cinema, albeit with the colors tamped down; the intertextual visual points could keep you up for nights, and have created a small cottage industry of online annotators.

MAD MEN's Don Draper As Wolcott points out, the possibility for aesthetic frames of reference is as small as the budget: there's no money for "location shooting in the canyons of Manhattan (which would necessitate period wardrobes for the extras, a fleet of vintage cars and buses and taxi cabs flowing by as if fresh-painted from the factory floors of a virile Ford and GM, all that pointillistic-detail verisimilitude)." So the actual number of visual references to draw upon is unsurprisingly small, more to do with furniture and functional spaces than colors or fashion: the usual suspects of The Apartment as the key guide to '60s office spaces, the hollowed-out upper-class and Bohemian haunts of Breakfast at Tiffany's, and so on.

Draper's affinity for La Notte comes from a different place; none of the Hollywood films of the time reflect his life the way that kind of disaffection does. (And if you're looking for an argument that the show's too heavy-handed, Don's affection for that most emphatic of Antonioni films, lovely as it is, is a good place to start.) It obviously has to do with the themes of marital dissolution, casual heavy drinking as expression of ennui and a vague, indefinable sense that the current order of things can't last much longer. Those would resonate with the perpetually brooding Draper, who—over the course of the series—will have a chance to have society as a whole catch up with his inner discontent, and hopefully keep up. But also: the characters onscreen are rich, bored and recognizably of Draper's age, fashion sense and build. Marcello Mastroianni was born in 1924, Draper—if you believe these guys anyway—in 1926. Mastroianni had a successful career, but as an icon he's most firmly associated with the period Draper's so far felt successful in. Watching his cinematic doppelgänger is like seeing European id get glamorized; Don has to keep it quiet and uncelebrated.

David Hemmings in BLOW-UP If the whole idea of Draper's show arc is that he'll evolve and change to survive the '60s (both personally and professionally), think about what Draper looks like, his cut and broad jaw inescapably tagging him as an increasingly outdated look for all men to aspire to. If and when Don makes it to 1966 and gets around to Blow-Up, he'll be watching David Hemmings—16 years and a whole generation younger—and a form of rebellion he can't actually follow. In the meantime, Mad Men doesn't really look like the '60s we think of onscreen, but it does, literally, look like the far-off future: maybe 1972, with an aging, once-powerful man commanding power in increasing darkness. That visual distance is the show's main way of reminding us it's not a time piece, but an interpretation done at a distance.

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Posted by ahillis at July 27, 2010 10:07 AM


With no aforethought of "sucking up" to the writer, but this piece is one the best things Mr. Rizov has written ... at least of the work this reader has seen from Mr. Rizov's output. It perfectly expresses what this reader felt about what little he had seen of the MAD MEN visual sense and could not, himself, articulate.

Posted by: THE FUTURIST! at July 27, 2010 10:54 AM

Keen stuff, Vadim.

Posted by: Noel Murray at July 28, 2010 5:40 AM

Excellent article. I've felt that Mad Men has always flirted with its references to film such as examples listed and the unnamed example of "Last Year At Marienbad". I've always wanted more exploration with cinema as it relates to Mad Men, but understand that what makes Mad Men so fantastic is its ability to pull the audiences into the characters' psyches with little to no verbal exposition.

Posted by: Brady Kimball at July 31, 2010 8:15 AM
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