Monday, April 16, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About 2012

One of the difficulties on Mad Men, or on any period show, is locating the right pitch between public event and personal response. The show has been a bit heavy-handed this season in the ways it dramatizes its characters reacting to cultural events in media res: the yawning Generation Gap (Rolling Stones); the perceived escalation of random violence unto a peaceful idyll (Richard Speck, Charles Whitman); the Vietnam War. This got me thinking: how do we talk about stuff when we talk? I'd like to think that I refrain from regurgitating newspaper headlines as so many stiff period characters sound as if they're doing. The tensions among exposition, historical context, and character development require a delicate touch: Mad Men writers were smart not to mention Speck by name in the "Mystery Date" episode, as that might've imported characters into a more informed future when everyone knows Speck's name, infamy, and fate. In the summer of '66 we hadn't gotten there yet. The writers acknowledge this again in the episode "Signal 30," when Don Draper corrects another character's misstating of Whitman's last name; they weren't familiar enough with his surname yet. That was a nice touch, as there is always more unfolding to come. I think of Flannery O'Connor's comment about the worth of a short story: "A story really isn't any good unless it successfully resists paraphrase, unless it hangs on and expands in the mind.” This is how memory works, too: a thing happens, a thing expands. We're usually too close to events to gauge their impact on us personally, let alone on culture at large. 

Did you hear...?
But here's the thing: of course people complained in their rec rooms about Elvis's swiveling hips, about the Beatles' long hair, about streaking, about Disco, about Gen X. How did they sound when they complained? I tell my students who incorporate dialogue into their essays that the great myth of effortless-sounding, realistic conversation—and I always point them to Raymond Carver, one of the masters—is that it is simply conversation transcribed. In fact: our actual conversations are full of um's and er's and pregnant pauses and half-developed thoughts and trailing off and.... Not to mention body language. Let's face it: most of our conversations are on the dull side, which is why great dialogue writers like novelists Lorrie Moore or Michael Chabon make it look easy while shaping their characters' conversations as detailed set-pieces.

Here's actor Vincent Kartheiser, who plays Mad Men's Pete Campbell, on public and personal histories: "The times are a-changing and in the first few episodes we've seen it make its way into Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce."
Times have been changing for the last few years. There's been riots and integration and things have been changing but it hasn't affected the lives of these people as profoundly as we maybe the history books would want you to believe. Let's take something huge, like the war in Iraq. It's huge and in 30 years we'll look back and think that everybody's life was inundated with this war but for most of the people I know, including myself, it had very little effect on us. It has an effect, but we can't quite see it yet. It's the same with the 1960s, and we look back and say: "Oh, there were these great changes, everyone must've felt it." It takes a while for these things to take effect in the exclusive, upper- and middle-class office buildings. We're just starting to see it now. It's '66 and it's starting to hit home.
How do we talk when we talk? I wonder, what did I say—precisely—when I heard that the Challenger exploded? When I learned about that guy who blow up the building in Nebraska—no, it was Oklahoma—before I knew McVeigh's name? How did I react to the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan in real time? To Kurt Cobain's suicide?

Over morning coffee recently Amy and I talked about Facebook, its appeal, its dilemmas, its irritations, its future. Etc.. Forty years from now if two actors were playing us, how would their screenwriters shape the conversation? Would the characters name Mark Zuckerburg the way Amy and I didn't? Would they make Big Pronouncements About Culture the way Amy and I didn't, eventually bungling our way through caffeine and hesitancy and reflection and the give-and-take of talking toward a decent, thoughtful conversation? Will they avoid our Well, you know what I mean's? How will we talk about 2012 in 2052?


Richard Gilbert said...

This is an interesting way to dissect the show--it made me realize how much I was struck by the way they used news items, too. I remember both events but was especially affected by the Speck murders and recently tried writing about that. As for Mad Men, what obsesses me about the show currently, and what I've been pondering writing about myself on my blog, is how they can keep the show going when its natural or at least historical narrative arc is spent and has been for two seasons.

Unknown said...

Looking back on this post in the context of the season as a whole, I wonder if that heavy-handedness early on wasn't intentional, as a way of (perhaps clumsily) hinting to the viewer, "Hey, something BAD is going to happen in our little world."

That, of course, was not the thrust of this piece, but it's something that's been rattling around in my head ever since the season ended.

Joe Bonomo said...

I think that foreshadowing the decade's unrest and unpredictability was certainly intentional. I wish that they hadn't ladled it on as heavily as they did in the first half the season.