Thursday, March 29, 2012

From the blogroll: Two artworks I feel deserve mention

Photography by Lissy Elle, as found on But Does It Float (check it out at the latter site... it's a very compelling collection, with a perfectly minimalist presentation).

A series of women, terrifying in their vulnerability, defying space and narrative, suspended in seizures of contingency. Women without faces -- complete and confrontational in their abstract existence -- facing down their mirror images, artifacts of constraint (walls, cardboard boxes), tokens of arrested grace (the bed, standing en pointe). Photography is the process of freezing the fluctuation of light as a chronological cross-section, and these particular photos attest to the impossibility of this feat, just as the impossibility of levitation, replication, and perfect balance are the roots of the power of grace, eros, and equilibrium.

A skull of books, found on Colossal.

No matter how abstract and enigmatic your thoughts have become, they are still stuck in your head, smushed between cells and confined to your gray matter, always on the verge of becoming completely inert. When the pages in between your ears melt into the soil, they will feed the worms and the soil and become the fibers of the tree that becomes the paper of the manuscript where somebody writes the next manual for web developers. And those words, in turn, will become as useless as the ones that became the paper they're printed on, and if they're lucky, somebody will turn them into something truly durable, like a skull, filled with stagnant language, carved from the pulp compressed between the arms of a vise.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Mad Men: Peggy and Pete as two faces of Don Draper

I think I have the tendency to turn every story I consume into its own inner world in order to understand it. It's sort of a New Criticism tendency, I think... the show/movie/book/game sets it conditions, and then everything gets to fall into place within that framework. So the observant viewer gets the privilege of figuring out what the framework is, and coming to a more robust understanding of how the specifics fit into it.

As I've watched Mad Men (mainly seasons 3 and 4), I've discovered that the world of Mad Men gravitates entirely around Don Draper. Yes, I realize he's the main character, and sort of our stand-in/protagonist/flawed hero, but he's present in the narrative as more than just a character. His personality also determines the personalities of the people around him, and I think, in a certain way, the whole cast of characters can be seen as refracted rays from the prism of his personality.

Consider: aside from Don, two of the centerpieces of his show – Peggy and Pete – are under his supervision (more or less). Both have risen in the corporate ranks to the point where they're no longer strictly his underlings, but they certainly both answer to him, as the whole of each company he works with has done. I would say that Peggy and Pete are the two most important characters in the world of Mad Men, even more important than Betty, Joan, or Roger Sterling. And I think the reason they're so important is that they share a special triadic relationship with Don -- specifically, as his twin proteges, they have come to embody two contrasting aspects of his personality.

Peggy is Don's introspective side, his hard-working, straight-talking, insightful, and creatively pragmatic inner artist. She not only overcomes her social barriers, as he has overcome his... she actually turns them into advantages without letting herself become defined by them. Over the seasons of the show, she repeatedly shows an uncanny ability to see into the obscure heart of business and personal situations. She stays with Don late into the night when he needs to develop a visual solution for Samsonite. She is the only employee at SCDP who understands his publication of the anti-cigarette editorial in the New York Times. In Season 3 Episode 10, she defies the writer's block that's set in with Don and Kinsey by dropping a pitch-perfect tagline, after Kinsey has spent a full night struggling to come up with something.

In this light, it's worth watching the relationship between Don and Peggy develop. Don, at times, uses Peggy as a cognitive appendage, letting her write copy and disgorge ideas, and then editing them into high-profile ads and taking credit for them. He makes an effort -- whether warranted or not -- to keep her controlled, demanding that she stay humble, even when her work has gained new ground for the firm. Don knows that the creative force in the ad business has to stay organic, opaque, and mysterious, and even as he guides Peggy to her full potential, he also helps delineate the space in which she is most effective. He places a mask over her to keep her secrets safe.

It's also worth noting that in her personal life, Peggy is caught between two pursuits: the pursuit of self-reliance and independence, and the pursuit of lasting happiness and stability. She struggles to honor her own family without being caught in the force field of her moralizing mother; she searches carefully for a sort of love that provides both growth and consistency. Her grounded, carefully-calculated relationships with her various male paramours (Duck Phillips, Mark, Abe Drexler) mirror Don's relationship with Betty, who provides him with stability, but who defers to him on matters of family and business.

Pete, on the other hand, is a reflection of Don's extroverted aspect. He aggressively courts clients and projects a calm, genial persona at all times. His specialty -- something Don, at his best moments, is also able to effect -- is identifying and targeting the specific desires of the client... telling clients what they want to hear, even if they don't realize it themselves. As the series progresses, Pete becomes an expert at raising stakes at the right moment, a skill he puts to use in his negotiations with Trudy's father in the episode "The Rejected."

Through the course of the show, Pete learns a lot about competitive diplomacy. He learns to lie (hastily pretending to be sick when his bosses show up at his house during a job-hunting absence) and he learns self-preservation. This reflects the side of Don that can lie so audaciously to Betty when she suspects him of cheating... this is a crass, calculated lie, never really convincing, but always barely sufficient to give Don some plausible deniability. And Pete, like Don, is an impulsive cheater -- just as he has learned Don's skills of public appearance, so he has developed the same self-indulgent addictions.

When did Pete become a shade of Don's public persona? Probably at the end of Season 1, when he threatened to expose Don's past as Dick Whitman. This, in effect, literalizes the relationship between Don and Pete. After this, Pete not only symbolizes Don's public facade... he also becomes a sort of guardian familiar, responsible for keeping Don's secret and protecting his identity from exploitation and collapse. He is called upon more than once to bear this burden -- for instance, when he intercepts the security clearance in Season 4 Episode 10.

So in Peggy and Pete, we see the Yin and Yang of Don Draper. Peggy is the introverted, creative, ambitious, observant, and faithful side of Don, and Pete is the extroverted, cunning, impulsive, entitled, and carefully suppressed side. So what do we make of the fact that in episode 1 -- the VERY FIRST EPISODE of a long and complex series -- these two facets come together and conceive a child? Is it possible that once Don sublimates into a disembodied marketing blurb signed by the long-lost Dick Whitman, the love-child of Don's two proteges will become a new Don Draper, a Janus-faced ad-man for our own generation?

I hope the answer to this question is as interesting as it deserves to be.