The Whole Town’s Talking is a delightful promenade through mid-30′s confusion. It was during this confusion that John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Alfred Hitchcock cultivated a style that ultimately shaped their legacies. No better time to do it. With the production code slowly falling into operation and many studios still struggling to mobilize the camera, The Whole Town’s Talking proves to be an enjoyable 80 minutes of viewing.
John Ford was the great adaptor. He knew when he had a star in front of the camera and he let them perform. In this case, we have Ed Robinson playing two parts — a polite workingman and a wanted fugitive gangster. They spend a lot of time together and through split screen editing and crafty staging we are given some rich, textured, dimensional scenes with one man playing two very different men. The way Robinson can change his face and immediately seem older or younger on demand is borderline frightening. Then moments come where the gangster version of Robinson (Mannion) must play act as the other (Jones). The scene is rich with tricky drama, not so far away from the multi-level exploration of acting in John Woo’s Face/Off. In addition, Robinson’s acting is at its finest during a scene where he is forced to drink a few shots with his boss. Instead of cutting out of the scene just as he drinks and cutting back in when he is drunk, we watch it happen. And it’s one of the funniest acting beats you’ll remember. Ford elects to stick with him for at least 20 seconds and he just doesn’t know what to do with himself. A very funny moment.
Robinson’s ability to play both of these parts is a signpost to his future work with Lang — the man who best extracted the comfortable and violent energies and dichotomies within Robinson in, above all, Scarlet Street. Jean Arthur, too, is delightful — funny without having the burden of Capra’s righteousness on her shoulders. She is spitting out Riskin’s words (Capra’s choice writer), but they’re lighter and more open.
It is fascinating to consider what this film would look like if Hawks or Hitch got their hands on it first. There are so many big male groups for Hawks to work with and organize. Hitch has his “wrong man” situation — already in the script. Ford plays it like he sees it and for that the film reaches its most curious trait. Whole Town’s Talking isn’t simply a comedy or drama. At once it is screwball, gangster, “wrong man”, proto-noir, and newsroom. When it comes to genre, this film doesn’t care. And all for the better. Ford is perhaps more free and mobile in this feature than The Informer, which was released in the same year and boosted his career. This film is certainly inferior to The Informer, but it is an example of how a director can recognize material that isn’t concerned with convention and use that as an advantage. Here, Ford makes a good movie with crappy set pieces and little to no art design. In the end, it’s another good film starring Ed Robinson and Jean Arthur and directed by John Ford. And we all like having that around.
It’s not right to call Wes Anderson ‘shameless.’ For what should he feel shame? It’s not right to call him ‘fearless’ either, as every filmmaker has their fears. The same people who condemn his signature are the ones who mourn the end of cinema. He’s one of the few working auteurs with an undeniable personal stamp. Even his commercials are littered with splashes of color coordination. [Not too bright, of course.] Probably the right way to articulate Anderson’s joie de cinema is ‘earnest.’ It’s surprising that in a universe of such total fabrication an audience might be allowed to see honesty. Or at least to see a picture of what an artist demands. Moonrise Kingdom isn’t made of truth. It’s a dream. And are dreams anything but honest?
Sam and Suzy are 12 years old and, feeling rejected and feeling love for each other, they run away. It’s an old, boring story that’s been told often enough. Instead of expelling the inherent nostalgia and pretense, Anderson uses it as a fountain. We all go to the movies for the same reasons that these heroes ran away and he knows that. The feelings experienced by Sam and Suzy aren’t condemned as lost childhood fantasies or false purities, they’re very honest and forthright presentations of those naked emotions. I had my first kiss at 12 and it was every bit as awkwardly plotted and arranged as theirs. Indeed, that love scene on the beach – waves surging in and out – is as inspired as any encounter in my memory. Anderson is ideally suited to work with children. His style has often been characterized as having childish whimsy – a point with which it is difficult to argue. But Moonrise Kingdom is imbued with a marriage between style and subject that has avoided the rest of his work [save for perhaps Rushmore].
Stylistically, there is little new to report. The camera is still obsessed with defeating physics, passing through walls, etc. The entire opening sequence inside of the Bishop household will look incredibly familiar to anyone with an Anderson memory. These intensely choreographed tracking shots do more than reveal setting, they add a level of coherence to these habitats. It can’t be a mistake that these shots make Anderson’s structures look like an ant farm. They’re an extension of a larger trend in his work – allowing the camera to assume impossible positions. In a tender scene between Sam and Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), the camera takes the place of a wall that has been made very visible. Anderson has no patent on the idea, but he does it with more awareness and intimacy that anyone else. Also, Moonrise Kingdom is the most camera-conscious film by Anderson, not least represented by the ubiquitous/mysterious travel-guide narrator. The only stylistic addition seems to be a more frequent handheld camera. I can recall brief handheld work in Life Aquatic, Tenenbaums, and Bottle Rocket, but nothing as extensive as we see here. The woods might have suggested a more unruly and unmeasured visual approach which works marvelously, juxtaposed with the stable, ultra-tight close-ups with which conversation is delivered.
The island of New Penzance is another perfect playground for Anderson’s obsessions. Sam and Suzy create their own place for dreaming and it is no wonder that Anderson requires the same. By pairing an island environment with a period setting, we begin to see the full stylistic potential of Wes Anderson. The more he is able to separate himself from reality, the closer he comes to finding something honest.
There is a spiritual dimension to Moonrise Kingdom that has been avoided in previous Anderson efforts. The union between these children is not only affirmed by the film, but made sacred. In addition, the ghost of Noah both haunts and blesses every corner of the film, full of the Old Testament’s fate. Sam and Suzy meet backstage at a production of Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde (Noah’s Flood). After, the film makes no effort to distance itself from the story. Sam and Suzy’s most transcendent partnership, even after their sexualization and marriage, is when they are finally dressed as the same animal, still running away from everything. Anderson understands that the love between these two isn’t merely real, but necessary for the health of his own universe. If we’re going to keep having Wes Anderson movies, they need to procreate, right? It’s a beautiful affirmation of those feelings that we all remember and frequently consider – wondering if they were real.
Even if someone is boring enough to reject this film, Anderson should be celebrated for creating a world where Benjamin Britten and Hank Williams can coexist so harmoniously. It is that earnest presentation of his dreams that make it so inhabitable, if only for a while. In addition, the ensemble cast is at the very least adequate. Bill Murray and Frances McDormand share a remarkable moment – “We’re all they’ve got, Walt.” “It’s not enough.” Edward Norton and Bruce Willis are made, through Anderson’s signature deadpan, to be even more emotive in moments of heroism.
There are two “Moonrise Kingdom”‘s — the film itself and the paradise established by our heroes. But aren’t they the same thing in the end? Anderson has pitched camp for his own creative excess. Like Sam and Suzy, running away from the same thing every rejected kid tries to escape, he made his own kingdom and ruled over it for 90 minutes. Nostalgia, false hopes, and pretension aren’t pushed away, but invited in to play. Nothing is above or below Anderson’s radar, save for reality, perhaps. Let’s pray that Anderson never leaves his island and his dreams, but continues to export his work as often as possible.
One of the most consistent criticisms I’ve seen of this season is that the thematic content has become too obvious, too dictated. It’s not a radical stretch to say such things — the moral underpinnings of Mad Men have been made, in season five, to be more neatly arranged and apparent. Most importantly, they have been abbreviated. Thematic ties were tailored more towards episodic continuity than the earlier seasons of the show have coached us to expect. Indeed, there has been some telling instead of showing recently. But, in this viewers’ futile opinion, it has reaped much reward, evidenced by a weaker but propulsive finale episode, “The Phantom”.
Surfing around some of the big recapitulations this morning, I’ve noticed a healthy bit of complaint about the lack of forward-motion in the finale. Truly, we didn’t pack up and leave Sterling Cooper and no one got pregnant and there wasn’t an iconic pitch. But we all watch this show to see some incredible characters flicker in lights for an hour every week. The finale moves things forward with characters more than events. Last week took care of that.
Lane Pryce wasn’t mentioned once in “The Phantom” by name, but he is in every scene. In a literal sense, he is the phantom. His chair looms in the shadows of their home. His seat remains empty at the office. People are ignoring it, which is what people do. His death is the primary impulse for the motion of the episode — it coaxes the remaining characters to act on a life impulse. Lane is only floating on the fringe, but he’s behind every decision any of these characters made.
Pete’s dabbling with Beth was meant to reach some form of a summit in the finale. It surprises me that people aren’t complaining more about the awkward design of this encounter, so (melo)dramatically tailored to allow Pete a self-conscious moment. Though there are marvelous moments — when they start having sex, Pete so consciously ‘dips into the crazy’ (if you’ll allow a college colloquialism) before panting out a passionate “Oh, God”. It’s a startling instance of animal behavior that Pete is understanding as intellectual. In fact, the entire relationship was predicated on a type of philosophical communion between them. It wasn’t Beth’s sexuality that crept into the Campbell home, surely rotting the walls from the inside, it was her nihilism. She proved to Pete what he already wanted to believe — that his home life isn’t built on genuine feeling and that it all really doesn’t have a point. This show is doing some amazing work with aging. It isn’t hard to wager that Pete (and perhaps Peggy) will look ancient after the end of this series if we look back to the pilot.
Pete’s moment of self-consciousness is directly followed by Don’s visit to the dentist. I am typically averse to almost any use of drugs as a method for narrative revelation and this is no exception. [Roger's is.] This particular scene provided a mouthpiece for those who believe the show to be too “ham-handed” in its exposure of themes this season. Even I was squinting at the screen when Adam says, “it’s not your tooth that’s rotten.” Does he win a prize for getting the right answer? The use of Adam up to that point in the episode was so ghostly and precise that it had me all heated up for some kind of neat deconstruction of Don’s relationship with death. No delivery. This was an irrefutable instance of telling without showing, a characteristic about which Mad Men is allowed to be criticized. The shows’ integrity is structured on a reversal of that concept.
Though it is in Don that we see the most beautiful elements of this finale play out. It was stressful to watch the clock as it was winding down to 11PM. The final commercial break left only 3 or 4 minutes for wrap-up and it was a charged sequence. We were given a brilliant juxtaposition of success and emptiness in the image of SCDP’s new space. Don’s walk away from the sound-stage and into oblivion was full of more foreboding than any words he could speak. And finally, a moment that is sure to become iconic — “Are you alone?” Cut.
Megan has been failing on all cylinders since leaving SCDP. As her mother says, she has the “artistic temperament” but is not “an artist.” She doesn’t know it, but she’s also speaking about Don. Don’s fixation on her acting reel is another way for him to rediscover this woman. His love for her is genuine, I’m sure of it. But in allowing her to succeed, she may be lost. Craftily, she’s referred to as ‘Ms. Calvé’ on the set. It’s a story of letting go, really. I think Weiner used the word “sacrifice.” That’s what the image of Don walking away from an ever-receding box of color and “Beauty” so magnificent. It’s also what makes that final moment — the prowling glance — so magnificent, as well.
The thing that makes the ending of “The Phantom” so successful is that it takes all of the thematic material that we’ve been given throughout the whole season and refuses to wrap it up in a neat bow. It is the opposite of Don’s tooth extraction. It is the fact that, when he looks at that woman, we are totally unsure whether or not he plans to sleep with her. Is the “old Don” back? Would that be a good thing? His love for Megan is pressed directly up against his life-impulse and his loneliness. He looks at that woman because he is alone. Everybody is. That ending montage is all about loneliness and chasing some sort of unattainable void. Peggy sees the dogs in her Holiday Inn. She’s the happiest by 10,000 leagues, but we all know what she’s chasing and it isn’t there. Pete’s headphones are on, the only way he can suck himself out of his own home while he’s there. Finally, we see Roger, perhaps more tragic than Pete, dropping out on his own. Beautifully, he had asked Marie to go on the voyage with him, but she tells him, “Don’t as me to take care of you” — in beautiful contrast to an understated line in the season premiere that women are great “until they ask for something.” Roger is chasing the same demon as all the others — enlightenment, happiness, illumination — but he seems to be even more alone than anyone.
There is far more to discuss but there simply isn’t enough time or brain capacity to really get to the bottom of things right now. I expect to do a season wrap-up after rewatching when the commentary comes out. But, for now, the ending of this finale is my argument against the subtlety argument. While there are moments that this is true (tooth extraction, Pete at the ward), it is more a sign of how intimate we have become with these characters. Looking back on previous seasons, there are events and moments that neatly correspond with life altering experiences — almost every pitch Don has ever given for example. Like the Jaguar pitch was intercut with Joan, the “wheel” pitch is highlighted by images of Draper’s own family. I am arguing that Mad Men has transcended the already high level of character counterpoint and has become a thematic fugue, a level generally reserved for art, not the bastard son of art — entertainment.
There is a moment in “The Phantom” when Don comes home, meeting Megan and Marie. Simultaneously, Roger calls Marie and Megan asks for the job. Three characters inhabit the same space at the same time, yet each embody a specific order of human aspiration. Their lives might be weaving a larger fabric, but they are ultimately individual threads working for what they want. And each of them can be conceived as a representation of Mad Men‘s numerous themes and moral textures.
So many sequences can be understood as having this type of fugal relationship. It’s what makes Mad Men worth all of this critical nonsense.
To anyone who has been reading these capsules this season, I’ll see you in a few months. I do this for myself, but the greatest value in this show is the dialogue it inspires. Thanks for joining me.
No Country for Old Men is a faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel. It was impossible to foresee such a remarkable fusion of genius between the Coen’s and McCarthy. Both harness a proud idiomatic style, but down to the weird rhythms and pregnant pauses the two form one of the great literary/cinematic matches in recent memory. Perhaps long-term memory. The Coen’s precise ambiguities blend perfectly with McCarthy’s ability to fill one conversation between two strangers with the wisdom of the world. Especially in Tommy Lee Jones’s monologues, we hear a type of earnest realism — somehow simultaneously so contrived and so faithful to our imaginations.
The denizens of No Country are not interested in us. They don’t want to be our friends. Anton Chigurh is at once an animal and a god. He is on a mission seemingly more powerful than even he. And the mission is a spiritual one. There is a scene inside of a gas station that, not unexpectedly, pits old against young. The elderly clerk cannot come close to understanding Chigurh’s deranged existentialism. Like many of the other scenes in the film, this one seems to hold the mysteries of the film — presenting an incomprehensible and unstoppable force with simultaneous belief and disbelief in mysticism. “It will become just another coin… which it is.”
We are trapped into accepting Llewelyn Moss as our hero. We meet him looking through his own scope and endure a regular cycle of point-of-view shots until his death. Indeed, this is what makes his death so unbelievable. So frustrating, even. Some have complained about the offscreen death of our hero but we are never meant to see him die. We are led through a gripping, near-silent chase for 60 minutes — always aware of the sheriff lagging behind. Just as he is allowed to engage in the chase, we assume his point of view. One step behind the rest. Like the sheriff, Llewelyn is a man who understands the operations and mysteries of the land but cannot comprehend the ghosts. This is what makes them old.
One character calls it “The Dismal Tide” of youth coming in. We are meant to think of Chigurh and his final scene. He is a ghost, capable of enduring all. However, it is right to call it a “Tide.” For the tides come in and go out regardless of our small plans. Youth force out the old regardless of theirs. But it isn’t even that simple. Not only can the old not comprehend the young — they were once the young themselves.
The Coen’s have presented a complicated perspective on their interpretation of the film’s style. Thus, a flurry of nonsense has been written about No Country. However, it is impossible to deny the influences of silent Westerns, Sam Peckinpah, and Hitch. Hitch would have been proud of the Coen’s and their astonishing mastery of editing to serve suspense. There are long chase sequences. Twenty to thirty minutes of minimal dialogue. But you never look away. The cuts are so specific. They are more than motivated. They’re somehow essential. The impressive thing here is not the silence, it’s the fact that you’ll never notice if you’re not listening. When characters do talk, their dialogue seems to drop away just when we least expect and least desire but always at the perfect time. Visually, it is impossible to deny Peckinpah’s eye on the West. Horizon’s are mostly in the middle of the frame, unlike Ford and Mann. Things are arid and empty. No Country harnesses the old idea of the West that has been lost on my generation — the existence of a place populated by another side of the human spirit; castaways, ghosts, gods, and prostitutes. The landscape isn’t one that crushes or waits. It’s merely the place where the coin is flipped and fate is decided.
What ultimately lends No Country with enduring greatness is its overarching simplicity. The Coen’s are always looking back and revisiting formal structures. Consider how the plot breaks down — Good Guy finds Money. Bad Guy hunts Good Guy. The states are clear and so are the roles. These characters might be archetypes, but they inhabit a separate realm. Only something so simple can harvest the contradictions of humanity. Only in creating these timeless, ghostly creatures can we see so deep into ourselves. The film is a triumph of the highest order.
“Commissions and Fees,” the penultimate episode of a deceptively placid season, begins with Don in a barber’s chair. Another ad man (mad man?) walks in and congratulates him on winning the Jaguar account. He says, “that’s a big win for your little agency.” These little characters hardly know that their small talk quickly becomes the focus of the show. In this episode, we see Don get hungry, Lane run out of steam, and Sally cross the avenue.
In a season that suggests we all have a price printed on our forehead, it’s impossible to exclude the bookkeeper. A few weeks back, Lane embezzled funds from SCDP in order to pay backed taxes to Her majesty. The entire season hasn’t been kind to him. He is clearly unstable romantically, making passes at Joan and having a bizarre interaction with the woman on the photograph. After last week’s charade, there has been some backlash in the critical community about characters acting out of character — most of it centered around the disbelief that everyone has a price (or at least having a price so quickly). It is interesting, then, to be given Lane, a man who is less concerned with money than with honor.
After Don discovers the embezzlement, he offers to let Lane write his own resignation. Some have construed Don’s response as uncharacteristically principled. Really, the offer is incredibly kind. The company bookkeeper embezzled money from his own books and forged a partner’s signature. He had to be fired. He couldn’t be trusted. There is no way that Don could have known where the events would lead. Don has found finesse in starting over — it’s an art. To Lane, it’s unthinkable. It’s shame. He could care less about the money. It’s about honor.As a result, Lane commits a type of harakiri. Hanging himself from a rope in the middle of the night. In a cruel cruel joke, this all happens after failing to commit suicide in his new Jaguar. I was questioning the process until the heartbreaking moment when Lane snaps his glasses in half. That was proof enough that he was really ready to go. He knew that he just didn’t need them anymore and that he hated them his whole life.
Some may be disturbed by the scene where he is discovered, but it was treated with ease and concern for character. Pete, Ken, and Harry’s reactions are all revealing — not to mention Don, who frantically helps to cut him down, hugging his body to hold him up while Pete cuts the rope.
Lane’s suicide neatly (and more than a little strangely) coiled around to meet the beginning of another cycle. Sally has been walking the line of womanhood all season long. We are given the climax of that character’s arc in “Commissions and Fees”. Yet again, she is entranced by the romantic glow of adulthood while out with Megan. Did she not learn anything at the Codfish Ball? (That said, there was a beautiful moment when Sally orders coffee so as to appear grown up — dumping a long stream of sugar into it.) She reacts by enticing our real favorite Weiner, Glen Bishop (played by Matt Weiner’s son), to meet her for a day on the town.
Wearing the boots and makeup that her father denied before the Ball, she takes Glen to the natural history museum. As they stand looking at diorama’s, all of families of animals, we are reminded that they both come from broken homes. It’s not unexpected, then, that they softly share their problems, sort of. Glen speaks about being bullied and reveals how he lied about “doing it” with Sally. Sally doesn’t care, of course. All of these words are still dreams to her — vague images that will transform her into Megan. Alas, and very conveniently for Weiner&co, Sally runs away to the bathroom, discovering that she had gotten her first period. She runs away to her mom, which was an incredibly earnest end to that story as well as Betty’s. Betty has had a truncated role this season, but there is clear anxiety over her role in Sally’s life, competing with Megan’s trappings. Their unity over a simple matter of biological necessity seems right. They are brought together by the natural force that allows motherhood. We all understand the relevance of mothers in this show and last night’s “Sally Plot” was particularly well-crafted to subtly (as subtle as Mad Men can be) touch on some less-articulated motifs.
Finally, we come back to Don who, after going to the barber, is so hungry for business. Complacency is his worst enemy and he cannot understand the concept of settling. It can’t be unusual for us to see his impulsivity. “What is happiness? It’s the moment before you need more happiness.” Well said, Don. I think you just found your own mantra.
His obsession for freshness and passion is balanced by the final image of the show — allowing Glen to drive himself back to school and appreciate the simplest moments of happiness. While Mad Men has, to some, become too “obvious” or “packaged” this season, this final scene resonates as the kind of oblique, but earnest storytelling that made the show popular. The episode dealt with death, life cycles, happiness, and need. The writers seem to be reminding us that the moments of true happiness are simple joys rooted in the freshness of childhood. In that way, are they also affirming Don’s impulsivity? He asks Glen, “if you could do anything right now, what would it be?” Either way, they are allowed to be in a moment where happiness isn’t a moment before you need more — it’s a moment where you can forget.
- I predicted that we would not see Peggy this week. Will we see her next week or will they make us hang on for our dear lives?
- “Do you want something to eat?” “If you don’t mind”
- “You’ll tell them the next thing will be better. Because it always is.”
- The green car recalls Joan’s robe and some other potent uses of green this season.
- Don couldn’t stop looking at Lane’s corpse. This is not the first person close to Don who has hung himself. Recall Adam.