Old friend, new start

Yesterday I ran into an old friend on the street and it was almost unbearably awkward.  I’m generally able to turn any situation into an awkward one for any number of given reasons so this is far from a new sensation for me but THIS awkward was very particular.  My discomfort was of a much more specific type than usual.  So after I pretended to not know she was working downtown where I also work and feigned some interest in ever going to an alumni of anything event, I thought more about exactly what this specific brand of awkward was.

It was embarrassment.  I was embarrassed about what I’m doing in life–or better said I’m embarrassed about what I’m NOT doing in life.  I knew this girl as part of a scholarship group that paid my tuition through my four years at UW.  The students that made up the scholarship group were the cream of the crop.  I didn’t stack up to any of them in academics or ambition.  Most of them were bound for graduate school bound an I’m sure the ones that weren’t had lives filled with international travel or something equally trite and meaningless like medical research or the like.  In the face of this old friend–who for the record is a funny, warm girl who had never given me a reason to feel judged or threatened by her for a moment–I saw the woman who ran our scholarship.

Call her ML.  ML was an overwhelming woman.  She was in a female minority in a position of power and leadership at a major university.  She knew adversity and challenge and hard work and dedication and met it with a smile and a steel will.  She expected the same of her scholars so “having a hard time adjusting” freshman year or “girlfriend problems” could not be further from acceptable excuses.  I felt embarrassed to sit alone in her office while I knew that my ambitions and intentions were so far below what she would want and expect of her scholars.  There were times where it was hard to look her in the eye, knowing that I was taking tens of thousands of scholarship dollars to major in radio, television and film.  Don’t get me wrong, I loved my Communication Arts degree and still don’t think I’d trade it in for something more practical.  But even within those studies, I certainly didn’t get everything out of it I could have.  I sauntered halfheartedly to a degree and then went about settling into a perfectly complacent existence.  ML would have been disappointed, as she should have been.  The guilt now, as it was then, is perfectly justified.  And it doesn’t come from without but from within.  I’ve always been somewhat aware of my own shortcomings and the guilt for a wasted gift–any of my own talents, or the scholarship money, or the time on earth itself that I’ve been given–weighs heavy on my shoulders.  ML should have served not as a guilt trip personified but as an inspiration.

So there I was bumbling through a thirty second conversation that I managed to make feel like thirty minutes with a person that I actually miss and actually would love to catch up with.  I was nervous and avoiding eye contact because she was a reminder that I am STILL not doing all I should be doing.  I’m not doing anything I truly love or deeply fulfills me.  I work with long time friends and truly tremendous people that I love.  But I don’t care about what I do there.  I simply go through the motions and just sloppily check all the boxes.  My haphazard approach to my responsibilities surely bleeds into my work product as well but I’m always making sure to get to that point of “just good enough” for none of these long-time friends to oust me from the position.  After the explosion, I tried to change course and quit my corporate cubicle job to go back to work with some friends for a local company.  I changed the setting and the characters but I didn’t change the story; my plot remained stagnant.  Quit one place where you loathe most of your daily tasks to start at a place where you’re simply indifferent to your daily tasks.  So I’ve decided to create a fork in the road.  The new path is murky and unclear but I’ve got go push forward and try something.  More specifically, I’ve got to write something.  Even if all I do is write these meandering, vaguely personal missives, then so be it; at least I’m writing again.  Even if I’m talking from a soapbox to an empty park, at least I’m talking.  Once a week this blog will be updated one way or another.  No matter where the new path leads, I can hopefully be a little be prouder that I’m on it.

“Tea Leaves” or “Harry and Donald Go to White Castle”

As its the characters that I find most compelling on Mad Men, I’ll be using them to frame my reviews/meanderings/half-assed analyses.  Unless I change my mind in the future.  Which I might do.  So shut up.

Betty Francis

After bookending their season premiere with events meant to place our favorite ad agency in a greater historical frame work, this week opened with Betty Francis; the character arguably the farthest removed from any of the cultural upheaval of the period.  Largely, this episode belonged to her as its largest through-line was her health scare.  Where another show may have used the cancer-scare to build sympathy or some type of goodwill for the character, Mad Men pours a double of Haterade on the rocks for Betty Francis.  She drops bombs from start to finish; when Mama Francis politely suggests the pills it’s, “Why haven’t you tried them?”  BOOM.   When she gets the good news later and Henry tries to console her that he doesn’t even see her more cushion for the pushin’, she serves him up with, “I know.  Your mother’s obese.”  ZING.  No, no, no there will be no good will built up for Betty just from some little cancer scare.  She even manages to run to Don in the absence of her actual husband, begging him to say what he always says.  He consoles her and expresses real concern which she repays by letting him hear the good news from her new husband.  She’s as coooold as ice.

Let’s reflect more on that “good news.”  Her face doesn’t seem to have the same relief that Henry’s does after that phone call.  Before she said it aloud, I thought it was bad news.  Perhaps she WAS looking for the other diagnosis; maybe it would’ve finally given her the direction and meaning she’s been—usually unwittingly—pining for since season one.  The former Mrs. Draper may’ve seen a death sentence as her path-of-least-resistance out of the “mess” she’s leaving behind.  It could’ve justified another huge upheaval of her life; she could have run back to the comfort and familiarity of Don’s baritone cooing of “Birdie.”  But no.  She’s condemned to the lie in the bed she’s made for herself.  To silently share ice cream with a daughter that she seems to now realize she’s wrongfully alienated and abused.  All this is best for us anyways.  I don’t want to be deprived of her Don Rickles send ups of anybody in arm’s reach.  And if she’s self-aware and content we definitely don’t get the line of the episode, “Everything still tastes good to me.”  Yes, Bets, clearly it does.

Don Draper

Don spends most of this episode reminding us that he’s on the wrong side of the pending culture clash in America.  Megan notes he’s “so square <he’s> got corners” and he even tells a hard-partying teenager that he’s just worried about her. Thanks, Dad.  Wasn’t this the same guy banging a bohemian in the city and pontificating about how he’s living like there’s no tomorrow because there IS no tomorrow?  Now he’s finger-wagging at a tween I would have previously been worrying about him bedding?  Don tells Megan that he has to “look like the man” but to us he probably just looks like he always has.  And I wonder if he’s fooling himself.   He attempts to leverage Betty’s potential illness into getting out of seeing Megan’s—likely much younger—friends.  He knows that her 26 year old fear of death doesn’t compare to his middle-aged certainty of it but he won’t tell her that.  Even in the office, he seems more of an account man than the creative warhorse he once was.  Peggy noted it in the season opener, wanting him to do what he always does and tell the client they’re wrong.  (Side note:  I really felt like Betty’s calls for “Say what you always say” echoed Peggy’s request the week prior)  But to me, it looks like Don doesn’t do much of anything around the office.  He comes in late, leaves early, and tries to get some tail on the sly from the wife.  No one said he’s not living the dream but he sure isn’t the Don Draper, ad-god we saw pen The Letter or wax nostalgic with Glo-Coat.  Maybe I’m jumping the gun a bit here but I think we’re going to see him standing on the shoulders of Peggy—and possibly Michael Ginsberg—this season.

There’s obviously a lot more to say about this episode, its plot, character development, etc but I’m sadly running out of time before the next episode airs.  I’ll do my best to get this out earlier next week and I promise to actually edit it.  So I do beg your forgiveness for all the slapdasshery of it and hope you’ll return next week.  I’ll leave you with some underdeveloped nuggets of thought and a few of my favorite quotes from last week.

Bits and Pieces

  • As angry as Sterling was at the end of this episode, he didn’t sound ready to fight, he sounded ready to take a dive.  Pete punk’d him once this season with the 6am meeting time but with that public bait-and-switch he pulled with Mohawk?  That could be a knockout blow.  “I’m sick of hanging onto a ledge and having some kid’s foot on my fingertips…Bombs away.”  Only to be followed up by the even-darker, “Actual life and death?  I’ve given up on that.”  Take a damn Zoloft, Roger.
  • Harry Crane is the best douchebag on TV today.  (not including Daniel Tosh or anyone on a show that starts with “Real Housewives”)  “That’s my recommendation for anyone getting married:  eat first.”  Also, “We should do this again!”  To which Don deadpans, “Bye, Harry.”
  • Michael Ginsberg looks to be a great addition to the show and to the agency.  He appears to have the right mix of talent and ass-kissing necessary to climb any corporate ladder.  Plus he’s got a penis.  (which Peggy is only NOW starting to work on?!  Jeez, pick it up, Margaret)
  • More on Ginsberg:  his home life reminded me a bit of Peggy’s when she first started.  He’s something of a man-child still at home with a parent who appears ready to push his own beliefs on the child who’s got bigger plans.  Although any old dude who can segue that quickly from hookers to prayer is okay in my book.  Oh and I loved that cross-fade into the Sally-Betty scene.  I’ll take disconnected parents and their disillusioned children for 600, Alex.
  • I’m no music guru but that final song which my fiancé helpfully informed is from The Sound of Music, says that “your life, little girl, is an empty page that men will want to write on.”  It might be a bit on the nose for a lingering shot of Betty Draper shoveling an ice cream sundae down her gullet but it was just right by me.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Beginning with its strange and hypnotic opening credits, David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo excites and confounds, making it hard to turn away from in even its most repulsing moments.  The American adaptation of a Swedish crime novel and film centers on recently maligned journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) and his tortured research assistant-savant, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara).  The two form an intense bond while holed up on a wealthy Swedish family’s island, hired by one of their own to investigate a longstanding secret in the salacious family history.

It’s all very comfortable territory for Fincher as he turns would-be tedious scenes of Salander’s hacking into terse investigative sequences.  And though this film is void of any severed heads, there are a few scenes startling enough to fit snugly in with his most graphic and visceral works.  The film sprints through its mystery at the pace set by the keen minds of Blomkvist and Salander with little regard to any slower-sleuthing viewers.  This is not a whodunit film for the viewer to out-analyze the on-screen characters, it’s one for a viewer to enjoy the breakneck pace of their hunt and the atmosphere of tension created by Fincher throughout.  That atmosphere is aided in no small part by the disquieting soundtrack from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

Craig is fine as an in-over-his-head journalist but the film would’ve been better served by someone who could appear truly jolted and flustered by the danger surrounding him; some of Craig’s reactions still smacked of Bond-esque calm and collectedness.  Mara, on the other hand, broods her character into life.  She manages to teeter between a doe-eyed victim, laden with insecurities and a seemingly unstoppable heroine full of anger and vitriol.  Salander romances the audience with her quiet candor but intrigues them by revealing the bare minimum of her own history.  That character’s mysterious allure also leads the film to its greatest fault.  Suffering from a problem common to the first film of a trilogy, Fincher and company manage to tell a story but it’s clear that the story is left for future installments.  Though the Swedish family’s affairs have a tidy little bow on them, Salander’s story, the most interesting of the film, is incomplete.  No matter how taut and entertaining of a film Fincher, et al created, the viewer is still left cold as a Swedish night until their next installment.

Grade:  B

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Tree of Life

Terrence Malick stole my money and my afternoon.  Tree of Life is 138 minutes of blow hard preposterousness that manages to come off as both arrogant and undecided.  The story—if we’re applying that word generously—centers on a Texas family in the 1950s, the mother and father of which offer sharply contrasting philosophies on life.  These yin and yang teachings seem to tear at their oldest son both in the fifties and as he looks back as an adult.  And…uh…There’s a big bang, evolution, dinosaurs, a comet, humanity, and a beach.  Yeah.  I think that’s about it.

The movie isn’t without successes.  The cinematography is unequaled.  Even the (far too) lengthy CGI sequences are hard to turn away from.  Brad Pitt, as the incorrigible and frequently belligerent father, is magnetic.  He, his counterpart Jennifer Chastain, and the oldest son—played as a boy by Hunter McCracken—all turn in performances with great emotional depth and nuance.  McCracken was especially impressive, encapsulating the constantly undulating emotions of youth.  The problem is that these performances are cut short by Malick’s seemingly endless masturbation.  He keeps each character at arm’s length, never allowing the viewer to empathize and barely to relate.  The viewer is given five minutes of a nail-bitingly tense dinner table scene followed up by fifteen minutes of pretty pictures without meaning and wistful narration.  The story could be made up of a dozen of these scenes and it would’ve been impossible to take your eyes of the screen.  Instead it was hard to keep your eyes open.

For all its moments of strength and entertainment, the film still flops.  It’s an attempt at something grandiose, enlightening, and divine but lacks the backbone to take a stand regarding what it all truly is or what any of it might mean.  Malick’s film buckles under its own weight.  The average viewer won’t be able to carve a true story out of the film’s shapeless narrative.  “Did he die?  Who was talking?  What was that?  Why are they…”  The questions will proliferate as the film unfolds.  Don’t bother trying to answer them, Malick doesn’t.  Tree of Life is a visual triumph but an abject failure in most other senses.  It poses questions that it never answers, sets up conflicts without resolutions, and starts telling stories without endings.  If Malick intended to parallel the seemingly random nature and frustration of life itself then I guess he was more successful than I’ve given him credit for.  If his goal was to entertain an audience, then he fell abhorrently short.  As a preacher informs us in the film, misfortune falls on the just and unjust alike.  And if you spend money to go see Terrence Malick pleasure himself in a theatre, then it looks like misfortune fell on you too.

Grade:  D

TV, Movies, and Other Musings