Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow, 2012
#11, 2012 Skandies
Zero Dark Thirty is a dramatization of what, in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Osama bin Laden, was the official account of how the al-Qaeda founder was tracked down and killed. Time will tell whether this turns out to be essentially accurate or whether fifty years from now we will look at this the way we would now look at a movie depicting a pitched battle in the Gulf of Tonkin.
Of course, Zero Dark Thirty is already inaccurate by virtue of being a Hollywood movie. Hollywood is not accustomed to stories in which thousands of different people all play small parts, so we get a story about One Determined CIA Agent who doggedly sticks with her theory about which lead to pursue, even if it means defying her short-sighted bosses, etc. Oh, and her motivation for doing so is to avenge her friend who was killed by an al-Qaeda double agent. Stephen Spielberg once said that he chose not to focus on individual Jews in Schindler's List because "I didn't want people to come away saying, 'Oh, yeah, the Holocaust. That thing that happened to those five people.'" Zero Dark Thirty is an engaging CIA procedural, but it does fall into the trap of turning its subject matter into "Agent Maya has her people kill Osama because his people killed Agent Jessica."
When this movie came out, there was a bit of a hubbub about its depiction of torture. Critics argued that the movie basically drew a straight line from CIA agents and their goon squads waterboarding prisoners to the discovery of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Defenders countered that just showing the brutality of the way captives at U.S. black sites were treated served as a powerful lesson in just how badly the country had lost its way. The filmmakers contended that they merely presented an objective account of events and left it entirely to the audience how to interpret them, which in turn led some of the aforementioned critics (e.g., Slavoj Žižek) to argue that to present scenes of torture and not overtly condemn them was tantamount to endorsing the practice. But here's what I tripped over. After watching this movie, I did a bit of reading about it, as I tend to do (since I'm pretty strict about not reading anything about movies before I watch them). And I found this quote from the screenwriter, Mark Boal: "A lot of people are going to be surprised when they see the film. For example, the president is not depicted in the movie. He's just not in the movie." And, uh, this is just flat-out FALSE! 52 minutes, 13 seconds in, Agent Maya and company are watching TV as Barack Obama says, "I've said repeatedly that America doesn't torture. And I'm gonna make sure that we don't torture. Those are part and parcel of an effort to regain American's moral stature in the world." This takes us to the 52:27 mark — at which point Agent Jessica shakes her head in what looks an awful lot like disgust at Obama's statement. So not only does Zero Dark Thirty imply that the road leading to Osama bin Laden started at the black sites, but the hero of the movie takes him down in memory of someone who seemed to scoff at the notion of closing down the black sites out of a silly concern like morality. Maybe I'm reading that scene wrong, but I don't see how else to read it.
However, that same scene got me thinking… Duncan Black has pointed out that every time we hear about some new facet of the world being awful — big banks rigging the global interest rate benchmark, the government collecting all electronic communication, you name it — the chorus of voices that had been insisting that those things didn't happen turns around and yawns that of course these things were going on and everyone with a brain took it as a given and you must be really naive to be outraged. And the black sites fell into that category. So if they actually were shut down in 2009 as reported, for reasons of conscience, in the face of opposition from all the Agent Jessicas in the system… that's actually the most important victory in the movie, and it's buried in the middle.
Matthew Weiner, 2007–2015
Over the past few years I have made a practice, and kind of a strange one in retrospect, of writing up TV shows after catching up to whatever point they happen to have reached when I've gotten around to them. So I wound up talking about The Sopranos in its entirety, while only covering the first season of Game of Thrones. My first article on Mad Men covered seasons one through five. This section isn't meant to cover six through eight; people have just been asking me whether I planned to expand on my tweet last month that "the more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that the last moment is what turned Mad Men from good to great", and while John Teti and others have already covered a lot of what I have to say, I guess I'll write up my version just to have it on the record.
Last month, in writing about 30 Rock, I noted that in workplace comedies, the actual work tends to drop out of the storylines pretty early on, and as an example asked what on earth the last few seasons of Newsradio had to do with a news radio station. Mad Men takes its name from Madison Avenue, the center of the advertising industry, but when it first went on the air, everyone I heard talking about it said that it was mainly about American society at the cusp of the 1960s: a world where everyone smoked, no one wore seatbelts, and little kids played with dry cleaning bags. As the show went on and plunged deeper into the decade, the consensus seemed to be that it was about a group of characters living through the changes of the '60s, chief among them the iconic Don Draper, who escapes his humiliating past and builds a new, picture-perfect life as a hotshot ad executive, yet finds happiness forever elusive. But the secret that was hiding in plain sight is that Mad Men is, above all else, about the work the Mad Men were doing. It actually is about advertising, and how it subverts the human drive for progress.
Advertising is inherently evil, insofar as it is based on the deliberate creation of unhappiness. Few ads in living memory restrict themselves to competing for customers who are already in the market for the product in question; instead, they try to expand that market by subtly or unsubtly suggesting that, however content you may have thought you were, in point of fact your life is lacking in some crucial way, and this product is the only remedy. When Mad Men begins, in 1960, Don Draper and his colleagues are making their living selling people on the notion that they can live a fantasy 1950s lifestyle if only they buy Belle Jolie lipstick and Lucky Strike cigarettes. But that trick only works so long as that fantasy 1950s lifestyle actually appeals to people. Once your target consumer realizes that Richard Nixon is wrong and that what's missing from her life is not a new dishwasher — that the fantasy '50s are no better than the real '50s — the jig is up. And we see, through the varied cast of characters, that the '50s fantasy life is indeed becoming increasingly unsatisfying to American society at large. Don Draper knows it: his gift, the thing that makes him such an ad wizard, is that he is able to tap into the public's collective unhappiness, because he feels it himself. He's living the male version of what is supposed to be the ideal '50s life — a high-status job that brings in piles of money; the big house in the suburbs, stocked with a young blonde housewife and two children (one of each); the sexy bohemian mistress; good looks and stylish clothes — everything that the people gathered around their big black-and-white televisions are supposed to think is right around the corner once they buy the right brand of liquor or deodorant, Don already has… and it's not good enough. What we see as we get deeper into the series is that millions of people find that they too want something different, something better, and spend the '60s trying to find it, transforming American culture in the process. Instead of buying things to try to combat their dissatisfaction, they actually try changing their lives: new types of living arrangements, new sexual mores, new subjective experiences through drug use, new openness to different types of people. It's a real threat to the established order and to the stakeholders in that order — in falling apart as he does, Don Draper serves as a sort of synecdoche for the establishment during this period. Except that there comes a point when the initial excitement of all of this gives way to disappointment, as the real '60s life inevitably falls short of the fantasy — and that's what gives the establishment an opening to reassert itself. Mad Men concludes with Don pulling himself together, and we see what he has in mind: a real-life cultural landmark, the "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke" commercial, and in the context provided by the show, we can see it for what it is. It's capitalism adding the distinctiveness of the 1960s to its own, advertising to the disillusioned that the fantasy '60s lifestyle they've come to dream of can be theirs if only they buy this product.
I saw someone online mistakenly say that Mad Men ends in 1968, and it's not just pedantry to point out that, no, it ends in 1971, with that Coke commercial. Ending in 1968 would have left us at a point when the counterculture had put society into a furious tumult, making for a very different story. Ending in 1971 leaves us with the counterculture reduced to a commodity that the advertising industry can sell to us.
Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist
Jonathan Katz and Tom Snyder, 1995–1999
In my article on It's Such a Beautiful Day, I made a passing reference to Dr. Katz, a cartoon that was done in Squigglevision, a technique that uses a short loop of slightly different frames that keeps the picture from looking like a still comic strip even when the figures aren't moving. I wound up going back and re-watching the series on Youtube, and while I watch a fair number of reruns on Youtube without writing them up, I did want to say something about this one. While it was hard to turn on Comedy Central in the '90s without winding up in the middle of a Dr. Katz episode, I guess that a lot of people reading this may not have watched much in the '90s outside of Teletubbies, so for the sake of a quick introduction: the basic idea behind the show is that Jonathan Katz is a therapist to dozens of comedians, who come in and sit on the couch and do highlights of their act, while Katz interjects an occasional "I see" or "And how did that make you feel?" Each episode also contains a story, usually involving Katz's slacker son Ben, who lives at home at age 25. These segments are "retroscripted" — that is, Katz and the actor who plays Ben would improvise banter, then go back and refine it into a script. They have good chemistry and their back-and-forth is usually good for a smile.
In my 30 Rock writeup, I lamented that the writers of that show seemed to be under the impression that because they were writing a comedy, every character had to be horrible — you know, as if "Ha ha, isn't this person the worst?" were the fundamental thing that makes sitcoms funny. Dr. Katz suffers from this to a certain degree as well. Dr. Katz himself is fine — he's enough of a milquetoast that it can get a little annoying, I guess, but he's pretty droll and is actually kind of a remarkable character in how unabashedly affectionate he is toward his son. But Ben is pretty awful. He has some amusing lines, but not only is he a total leech, but he's an entitled, insolent leech. There are frequent exchanges in which Dr. Katz gently suggests to Ben that he think about looking for a job, and Ben's reply is something like, "God, just shut up! I have TV to watch!" It's hard to summon any goodwill toward him after that.
The third most important character in Dr. Katz is Laura, Dr. Katz's receptionist, and she's the one I want to talk about. Laura is as bad as Ben. She spends most of her working hours sleeping, making personal phone calls, and taking unannounced breaks. And she's just not a nice person. She's always grouchy and communicates primarily in annoyed sighs and monosyllables. And yet she is easily my favorite thing about the show. Why? Just because of her voice! I cannot get enough of the way voice actor Laura Silverman delivers her lines. To pick some examples at random, here's a clip from an exchange in which Dr. Katz asks Laura to get him some coffee:
"Yeah, we are, kind of" doesn't seem like a hilarious line on paper, but just the way she says it — like she's grudgingly impressed at how insightful an observation Dr. Katz has made — just kills me. Or take this, when Dr. Katz says that his new call-tracking system has alerted him that someone in the office had been making calls to Prague, and Laura replies, "Well, I could have told you that." That also looks like kind of a flat line on the page, but she says it like this:
I have no idea whether all of you out there listening to these clips are like, "Wow, yeah! Laura Silverman is a brilliant voice actor!" or whether this is totally idiosyncratic — whether there's just something about the timbre and breathiness and accent of her voice that works for me. I've noticed the same sort of thing is true for music: sometimes I can say why I like or dislike certain vocals, and sometimes I can't. Like, I can say that I can't stand Alanis Morissette's music because she sounds to me like a donkey getting set on fire, and a lot of people will agree with me… but I can't quite put my finger on why They Might Be Giants are equally odious to me. There's just something about those vocals that makes me want to run away with my hands over my ears, but in this case no one else seems to hear what I hear. But in any case, Dr. Katz is totally a Pattern 25 series for me. The comedians are sometimes funny, Dr. Katz and Ben are mildly amusing, but as far as I'm concerned, the whole point of the show is to hear Laura say stuff.