Saturday, April 20, 2013
Those of us in my generation trace one of our earliest memories to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. From that moment, we progressed on through a number of other mid-to-late-20th century bloody assassinations, and right into the ongoing carnage of the Vietnam war. In between it all was the civil rights struggle that saw eruptions of street rioting coast to coast. We were raised on violence and mayhem. As children we saw our President shot through the brain. As teens we watched blood and guts in Vietnamese rice paddies every night on Walter Cronkite’s evening newscast. As young adults we were already inundated with unnatural acts of horror. By the time we were full adults, the Murrah Federal Building (left) was blown up in Oklahoma City. This time the carnage was the work of a disgruntled American angry at the government for another violent confrontation in Waco, TX two years earlier. And then the road winds around right into 9/11.
The day JFK was murdered, the U.S was about as low-tech as a developed nation could be. When the riots happened late at night in Washington, D.C. and Harlem the night Martin Luther King was murdered, many of us had no idea it was happening until the next day. Vietnam happened on our TV screens, but generally not in real time. Even so many years later when Oklahoma City happened, and later when the planes hit the buildings in NYC, although we watched it happen live on TV, there was not much social media happening and cameras in phones were not widely available yet.
But Boston? The world is so high tech now that not only did law enforcement rely heavily on private citizens’ phone photos, but the second suspect was caught after a helicopter used infrared imaging technology (right) to determine that he was hiding under a sealed canvas in a boat. Those in the know explained it to us laypeople as technology that senses heat
to indicate there is an animal or human being in the targeted region. X-Ray vision, 21st century style. Technology did in the Tsarnaev brothers. As one network reporter put it, the phrase “lost in a crowd” no longer exists in 21st century America. If not technology, what other explanation is there that the Tsarnaev boys were identified and targeted by law enforcement within 24 – 48 hours of the marathon bombings?
But there are other differences between Boston and the history-making violent events through which we have lived. Chief among them may be the fact that Chechnya, a country of just over 1.2 million citizens could be a threat to the mighty USA. It speaks to the undeniable shift in world security that these two boys were able to pull this off. Another meaningful difference between Boston and past violent incidents is the complex fact that although they caught us by surprise with the bombings, we are no longer fully shocked that it could happen. We know now that terrorist attacks can happen anywhere, anytime. Three days after the Boston bombings a bomb threat at the New Orleans Marriott hotel forced its officials to evacuate the entire 41 floors and 1300+ guest rooms. Right here in New Orleans – we’re not a major U.S. center of commerce; we’re not a national government seat; we’re not even a tremendously populated city, compared to our more cosmopolitan sister cities. Yet even we have bomb threats.
It is still the freest country in the world, but freedom has been somewhat redefined. It now means we are on camera most of the time that we are not at home. It means there is even technology being used that can determine if someone is indeed in their home at any given time. The new normal holds that we Americans are not internationally adored. In many places just the opposite is the case. And the new normal holds that those who would commit violent mass attacks walk right among us. The surviving Tsarnaev brother is described by some of his American high school and college classmates as a great guy, fun, and just “one of us.” So far, to a person they describe someone who they would never have known had it in for Americans.
Tuesday, April 9, 2013
I’m one of those people who can’t get enough “Mad Men,” and after waiting almost a year for the show to come back with new episodes, Sunday night was a major event. Maybe it’s the focus on the 1960’s, the decade in which I grew up, and the uncanny social accuracy the creators achieve. The sets, the costumes, the drinks, the cigarettes, the music, the sexy overtones (more on that later!), but especially the mindset. How could our cultural status have appeared so sophisticated, but really have been so, so innocent? This new set of episodes appears to be set right around 1968, and if ever there was a year that altered the American psyche and the future of the society, it was that year. As one who is obsessed with the show, here are 10 objects of my obsession from the first new episode:
1. THE CHANGING ROLE OF WOMEN: Main character Peggy Olsen represents the antithesis of what women were supposed to be back then. Career-laser-focused, Peggy is in a new, more responsible advertising position, and true to form,her behavior is now mirroring the behavior of her male counterparts at her former ad agency. That’s what women thought they had to do back then, and well into the 1980s, actually. They believed they had to become men to make the unlikely climb up the corporate ladder. “Can you get me some coffee?” she barks from her office while working all night on New Year’s Eve and forcing her male subordinates to do the same.
2. COUNTER CULTURE: A few seasons ago there was an NBC TV drama called “American Dreams,” also set in the 1960s, in which the year 1968 was just touched on in the third season. Those who didn’t live through the “hippie era” were about to see how it changed some young people from innocents into members of a new societal counter culture. It got cancelled. “Mad Men” is about to pick up right where “American Dreams” left off, with a view of how some young people rejected convention and formed their own youth movement.
4. DEATH: Don Draper is focusing too often and too heavily on all things death-related. In one scene, a drunk Don questions the doorman at his apartment building, who had suffered a heart attack a while back and been declared clinically dead before being revived. “What did you see?” Don demands. “What was it like?” In another scene, Don plays the doorman’s death over again in his memory in slow motion. When Don attends a funeral gathering for co-worker Roger Sterling’s mother, he throws up in front of the entire crowd. In a rare faux pas, Don creates an ad campaign for a hotel/resort company that is rejected by the client, who says it strikes him as suggestive of suicide. Don’s got death on the brain.
5. VICES: Cigarettes and booze are players in almost every scene in “Mad Men.” There is smoking in hospitals and at dinner tables, drinking at the office and even at funerals. When Roger Sterling’s secretary must inform him of his own mother’s death, he quickly pours her a stiff one, which she downs in one long gulp. On vacation in Hawaii, Megan Draper trudges down to a skeezy part of the beach to score a joint, which she victoriously brings back to the hotel room to smoke before she and Don have sex. Smoking pot was still considered sneaky, naughty, and yes…sexy. Very sixties.
6. MEN’S BURIED EMOTIONS: If you think men are denying their feelings orconcealing their emotions today, you really had to see 1960s men. Don Draper is great at withholding everything he feels and internalizing it all into some deep, dark tunnel of grey matter. And Roger Sterling, who barely blinked upon hearing of his mother’s death, cries wild tears upon hearing that his regular shoe shine man died – but only in his office, alone. 1960s men are accurately depicted in “Mad Men” as in emotional denial about everything and unable to converse with anyone in any circumstance about feelings.
7.FASHION:“Mad Men” captures the look of the 1960s better than almost any fictionalized piece I have ever seen. In my first job out of college (1975) I worked at a TV station in which we absolutely had a woman of the Joan Holloway genre. Full figured, proud of it, and dressed to accentuate all of it. The office attire is dressy, tailored and dry-cleaned within an inch of its fibrous life. Men’s fashion is stylized, but understated. But, as mentioned, it’s 1968, and I predict soon we’ll see the leisure suits, chains, miniskirts, platform shoes, etc. But by 1968, office attire was still very 1960ish. My hat is way off to the costumers. Perfect.
Even with all of my above-mentioned obsessions, the real genius in the series rests in the writers’ words. For five seasons the writers have slowly and meticulously revealed that Don Draper is a human train wreck. Now it becomes more obvious: On vacation in Hawaii, he is on the beach reading “The Inferno,” of all things. Creator Matt Weiner walks a fine line of over-symbolizing… “The Inferno” was a bit much, but it fits with everything we already know about Don’s dark psyche.
The writers are also smartly and slowly working in references to Vietnam. So far the references are pretty benign, but 1968 was the year of the Tet offensive, a series of attacks by the North Vietnamese that escalated the war in an unprecedented way. Some say the Tet offensive did in Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, caused Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s military career to crash and burn and caused everyday Americans to truly realize we were in a war. How will “Mad Men” handle this new infusion of faraway blood and guts to influence its scripts? How will the writers balance their material between Wall Street, Hanoi and Haight Ashbury. That 1960s innocence I mentioned earlier? It’s due to fade to black in this season’s “Mad Men.” Why oh why aren’t you watching???!