Archive for October, 2010

October 28, 2010

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner to Narrate “Mad Men”…

***Spoiler Alert for those who have not seen Seasons 3 and 4 of Mad Men***

Mad Men has built up quite a following over the course of its first four seasons.  And why shouldn’t it?  It’s about the drama that permeates the private lives of the rich and absurdly attractive.  (Sound familiar?) We love the stories with the backdrop of the 60s – a racy, yet somehow simpler time.  We follow the characters – devilish or not, they’re hot.  But the critical acclaim that the show gets is a byproduct of its depth of themes, and it’s as much about the ascension of African Americans as anything else.  Who better to tell that story than Blacks themselves?

Now, I must apologize, dear reader, for having to focus a lot of my attention on Season 2 and on the character who was in the running for “Biggest Douche on the Show,” Paul Kinsey, because he, in exercising his exceptional talents for douchebaggery (Yeah, you can use that), spends the bulk of his bearded face time in that season with Sheila, his black girlfriend.  Kinsey’s body is such a safe haven for douche that when the partners ditch the Brit-owned office at the end of Season 3, Draper and Co. leave him behind.  Shit, they even bring Pete “I Knock Chicks Who Aren’t My Wife Up” Campbell with them!

But I digress.

One of the opening scenes of the Season 2 premiere quickly establishes African Americans as potential narrators, sympathetic figures, even voices of reason.  Joan is trying to decide where in the office to put the tremendous new copy machine.  In front of the black delivery guys, she seeks the counsel of the girls, with Kinsey, shoehorning himself into the conversation as well.  After Paul humanely exits the shot, Joan turns her attention to one of the men charged with setting up the monstrosity.  He kindly, sincerely says, propelling blacks into a positive light, “I’ll try as many places as you want.” And throughout the series, African Americans like him are looming in the background, performing their service work without any complaints or grudge.

We see maids, floor buffers, and, quite prominently, elevator operators.  In the same episode, Don Draper is in an elevator with the operator and two other white guys from some other office, who are having a nasty talk about recent female conquests.  They continue even when an older woman gets on, but Don breaks it up by telling one of the jerks to take his hat off.  The elevator operator certainly couldn’t stand up to the white men due to his status, so Don’s the hero here; however, the black man has born witness to the impure side of the white, dominant race.  Much of the same occurs at the 30-minute mark of Episode 6 when Pete Campbell, while riding an elevator with his wedding band prominently displayed, irrefutably hits on a blond model who was at Sterling/Cooper, hoping to get ad work.  Half of the operator’s body is in the shot, as if to point out that blacks are always present, but not entirely noticed – nor appreciated.  As Pete and the blond leave, the operator is back in the shot, eyeballing each.  The next scene is of Pete laying the girl, taking advantage of the notion that he could get her a job.  Again, we have been privy to what a black man has seen and we don’t like it.


Kinsey, the Douche of Montclair throws a house-warming party for himself in the opening scene of Episode 2.  (On the way in, Campbell’s wife gives an example of her likability when she says to Pete, “I have no problem with Negroes, I’m just worried about the car.”  M-hm.)  In a desperate ploy to sell to his own friends and coworkers the façade of someone with stellar depth of character, Kinsey has moved outside of Manhattan, grown a new beard, and has taken up smoking a pipe.  Worst of all, we see him simply use Sheila as a billboard for his apparent counterculture affiliation.  In introducing her to Joan, Paul calls her his “baby,” and I do believe I heard an ever-so-slight hint of a put on “black-cent” there too.  To prove her worthwhile of his time, this monger of douche is compelled to promote the fact that Sheila is “saving for school” while working as a grocery-store checkout girl.  Joan offends Sheila by saying that she was surprised that Paul was so “open-minded,” but in another example of self-restraint, the black woman only retorts with a compliment of Joan’s purse.

Later in the season, the 9-minute mark of Episode 10 to be exact, Kinsey tells Sheila in the middle of the office that he is going to put off going to Mississippi to register new, black voters with her because he has to go to Los Angeles for a “convention,” saying that he’d rather be “yelled at and maybe shot at” after he goes to California.  In trying to smooth things over, Paul walks Sheila into the famous elevator and is greeted by the black operator with: “Hello, Mr. Kinsey.”  Without skipping a beat and in quite an earnest tone, El Douché de Leche says, “Hollis, please; it’s Paul,” as if he’s told him a thousand fucking times.  Then, Paul goes out of his way to introduce Sheila as his “girlfriend” to Hollis.  Hollis has never heard Mr. Kinsey, or anyone else for that matter, implore him to use a first name in addressing a passenger.  But he graciously nods his head and smiles, going along with the rouse.  Then, Hollis is lucky enough to hear Sheila give it back to Kinsey a bit by asking him: “Did you ever really plan on going down south?”  His phoniness shines here because Kinsey’s response (“Why can’t it wait?”) is coupled with him pointing out that Sheila can get a job at any supermarket, any time, but he, of course, “can’t just walk into an ad agency.”  So, clearly, there is little genuine interest on Paul’s part in taking the trip.

Wonderfully enough though, Draper declares that he is traveling to California in Kinsey’s place.  After a fair amount of pouting, Paul gives in and, while on a bus jammed with black protesters, we marvel as he audaciously proclaims that in advertising, “the consumer has no color.”  Upon his return to Sterling/Cooper, Kinsey says, “I think we really made a difference.  And it was the adventure of a lifetime.”  Quickly, Krane highlights that Sheila dumped him three days into the trip.  Unfortunately, but understandably so, it took heading to the deep South and a few moments of black pride to have Sheila realize Paul’s disingenuous motives and cut ties with the underhanded bigot.  She is able to provide for us viewers a righteous perspective on those whites who were “involved” in the civil rights movement really for personal gain only.

Mad Men jockeys its attention between the Draper household and the Draper workplace.  The black elevator operators, among others (i.e. the waiter, Cleveland, who is “trustworthy” and actually in the room with Cooper and his sister while they are discussing the sale of Sterling/Cooper to the British in Episode 12 and, much later, the gorgeous black cocktail waitress that Lane, in charge of accounting, declares his very requited love for in this last season, while the new office is going through gigantic financial woes) successfully eavesdrop and can account for all the goings-on with the two Draper offices throughout the series.  This leaves Don’s personal life up for grabs.  But that’s an easy one: Carla.  At the end of Season Four, Betty fires the nanny of the Draper children, who has been in that position since “their birth.”  That line says it all.  Carla has been in the house constantly and has witnessed and heard everything.  Sure she doesn’t stay with the newly single Don when he’s living in the East Village, but it doesn’t take a genius to fill in those blanks.  (He was getting laid…a lot.)  Carla is also the epitome of the strength of character of these black narrators in that she knows she must put up with a lot before the fast-approaching horizon of equal rights creates a wave of change in America.  In other words, she minds her business, but quietly observes all of the Draper shortcomings and internal family conflicts: the drinking, the cheating, the lying, the need for psychological treatment, the pain of the divorce, and the like.

When put in the context of the 21st century, we easily grasp the irony in having a show about the coarseness of the whitewashed ad business and the lack of family values in wealthy homes being narrated by African Americans – the “have-nots” shining a grim spotlight on those who “have it all.”  However, outsiders have the best perspective for judgment.  Blacks weren’t second-class citizens at that time; they were third, as made evident by the obnoxious treatment of white women in the show as well.  Because, to some extent, in the workplace, blacks were ignored, they could then become convenient observers of the corrupt, prevailing race.

Plenty of African Americans then were spending much of their time protesting in the streets of hypocrisy and generating momentum that would lead to the Civil Rights Bill being passed.  I’d suppose that about all of them had jobs, many like those on Mad Men, and surely couldn’t constantly demonstrate.  Blacks knew though that their time, the time of Martin Luther King, Jr., John and Robert F. Kennedy, and Muhammad Ali, and of equality, was upon them.  So, when they had to, they bit their tongues and waited patiently for guys like Paul Kinsey to find the road to irrelevancy.

***Special thanks to Stephen and Kim for helping me make this post possible.***

October 21, 2010

Pitt vs. Norton: A Brutal Casting Call

Fight Club. Great movie. Awful ending.  You didn’t really buy into the Narrator not blowing his own brains out while ridding himself of Tyler, did you?  Come now.  Get a B&N card and read the damn book for a much more plausible and satisfying conclusion.

But I digress.

One of the great aspects of that movie is its observation of the new American male’s effeminate tendencies to consume.  You remember that scene guys; the Narrator is on the toilet in what should be a familiar position: that of a teenaged boy readying himself to masturbate.  However, the porno that “we used to read” has been replaced with publications filled with material wants, such as a “clever […] coffee table in the shape of a yin-yang” that he “had to have.”  Instead of adjusting the magazine to look at a Playboy centerfold and pleasuring himself to a pair of impeccably airbrushed breasts, he is attempting to fill the void in his life with “stuff.”  This is capitalism at its very best and, according to the film, it has emasculated him.  He says: “I’d flip through catalogs and wonder ‘What kind of dining set defines me as a person?’”  A total chick thing to do and think.  With the emergence of waves (literally) of feminism and broken, fatherless homes seemingly becoming the norm, the definition of masculinity for many Americans has been upended (much like John Wayne’s grave, presumably).

Enter: Tyler Durden.

Throughout the film, Tyler exemplifies typical, often overblown, definitions of masculinity.  He does what he wants, when he wants to.  After meeting the Narrator, Tyler steals a sports car right in the middle of a fucking airport.  Later, he bangs the hell out of Marla Singer.  He commands the respect of all the men of the fight club, as he becomes their natural leader, despite the fact that he and the Narrator founded it together.  Tyler is in control of his life.

So if his goal in the film is to bring to a halt his effeminate and vapid consumerist tendencies, why is the Narrator taking up residence with Brad “The Sexiest Man Alive As Voted By People Magazine” Pitt and his designer fucking shades that he actually wears on an airplane?

I’m no idiot.  I know this was Hollywood’s attempt (and an ultimately successful one) at creating mass interest for the film.  Anytime a moneymaker like Twentieth Century Fox can grant top billing to the biggest movie star in the nation, no matter what the theme and content of the film may be, they’ll jump at the chance.  However, this casting call painfully dilutes the film’s brilliant message, which likely would have worked much better with a lesser-known, but highly respected and skilled actor…like, oh, say…Edward Norton.

By the time Fight Club was released in 1999, Pitt had found significant fame, while starring in many commercially successful movies, such as Interview With the Vampire, Legends of the Fall, and Seven.  Those mere three flicks grossed domestically around $261 million combined (  So, David Fincher and company, in hiring Pitt in the lead role, had solidified commercial success for a movie that is, at its core, about the rejection of consumerism, capitalism, and pop culture.

Conversely, Edward Norton, who, ironically, plays the role of the Narrator and who, at first, “buys into” the consumerist life, was only credited with two leading roles before the release of Fight Club: Derek Vinyard in American History X and Holden Spence in Everyone Says I Love You (Yeah, I don’t know it either).  Though Norton earned an Oscar nomination for his role in American History X, those two films domestically grossed $16 million combined (

Movies with counterculture themes and content should be reserved for the indie world.  As well-known as Fight Club is and as good as Pitt’s portrayal is, I can’t help but imagine how much better it would have been with an unknown actor anchoring the play and delivering the film’s message.  I sometimes wish that Norton had kept on that toned American History X weight, stripped himself of the hardcore Nazi tatts, and took on that role of Tyler.  And with a toned down wardrobe budget (Remember that fur coat with the black mesh shirt underneath?), the studio would have much more accurately delivered the film’s true theme.

October 13, 2010

Walter Peck Was Just Doing His Job

Everybody has seen the movie Ghost Busters. Everyone. One time I was on line, waiting to take a wiz at Dodgers Stadium, and I warned the guys in front of me that if they were going to “double up” to make sure that they “Don’t cross the streams.” Immediately the dude behind me shouted, “Hey Ghost Busters! My dad was the special effects coordinator on that movie!” I replied, “Man, I just watched that flick last week and those effects hold up.” He said, enthusiastically, “Thanks!”

But I digress.

Because I’m on summer vacation, I have a shitload of time to do something most others rarely do: think. I figured I’d spend it considering the debut scene of Walter Peck in that timeless, American classic film.

We all love Dr. Peter Venkman. Everyone. We find him endearing as he tirelessly tries to lay Dana Barret (“I am madly in love with you.”). We admire his balls when he repeatedly electrocutes that goofy student, while trying to lay the hot student (“You are a legitimate phenomena.”) And we look up to him as the solid leader of The Busters (“I believe there’s a reason for being thrown out of this dump […] To go into business for ourselves.”) All of that sets a gold comedy standard for garnering an audience’s sympathy for a character.

So, when Walter Peck arrives, greets that Venkman, and is welcomed with a slime handshake, we, the trained viewer, immediately laugh at that lovable rebel, yet feel unjustified scorn for the EPA visitor. Before Peck even sits down, we dislike him. I guess, aside from the actual ghosts, who, at this point in the film, are getting their proverbial ectoplasmic asses whipped by The Busters, that movie lacks a villain. Peck’s role in the film is to be the antagonist, but, when approached without preconceived bias, there is no tangible reason for a member of the audience to disapprove of him so vigorously.

In his initial discussion with Venkman, Peck simply asks him a series of questions that are clearly relevant to his reason for the visit and pertinent to his job. Things get touchy only when Venkman, our hero, becomes evasive and sarcastic. He gives vague answers and mocks Peck’s reasonable request to “see the storage facility” by childishly pointing out that he hadn’t said “Please.” Before you know it, there are shouts and talks of “court orders” and lawsuits for “unlawful prosecution.”

None of this is necessary. In this era of “Going Green,” people that work for the EPA are probably a little better revered. However, I guess, in 1984, when aerosol cans were much the rage, EPA guys could be shitted on with some regularity. So, clearly Venkman was just a product of his culture and time. Regardless, Peck did not deserve to be treated with such hostility. He was just doing his job.

In an earlier scene, there are pretty clear indications that even The Busters themselves aren’t totally sure as to what they are doing. While on their first assignment, they throw the switch to Ray’s backpack in the elevator and Peter and Egon, most humorously, and fearing incineration, jockey to be as far away from him as possible.  Egon and Peter Worry

Considering that, is it not reasonable then for Walter Peck, on behalf of the EPA, to wish to examine where The Busters store their game? After all, there were a lot of “wild stories in the media” and I could see why the man would “want to know more about what [they] do there.”

As the movie continues, Peck goes after The Busters with vendetta-like spirit. This is understandable. Sure he lets all of the ghosts out, but that was only because Venkman and the guys were not in compliance. As witty and hip as your local restaurant manager can be, would you eat there knowing that their food handling permits weren’t up to snuff? I didn’t think so.

So, next time you watch Ghost Busters, try not to sneer when the red-bearded and apparently “dickless” Walter Peck shows up. Instead, think about those (few) government officials who actually are out to do their job and keep all of America and the environment safe. Dickless?

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