Mad Men

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I’m still on vacation out West and Cyrus, I believe, has been in Europe in his capacity as an associate dean of humanities for NYU Abu Dhabi. I’ve meant to post more often than I have but really, I’m on vacation, my summer’s short this year, and I just haven’t found the extra energy required.

Still, for those four or five people who haven’t written us off completely yet, I thought I’d at least direct you to recurring features on two blogs I quite admire — both of which are ideas I’d had without being fast enough on the draw to execute.

Both features in question fall into the TV after-show blogging department. The first has to do with Work of Art, Bravo’s New York art world answer to Project Runway, whose formula it shamelessly mimics. Most people I know who have an interest in contemporary art watch the show, though they almost universally despise the contestants, the host, the challenges, and the end results. If it seemed a stretch to expect fashion designers to turn out something worthwhile in the 24-hour period allotted most Project Runway challenges, the task seems even steeper here. The bottom line seems to be: Can artists make anything interesting or even coherent under the circumstances of reality TV competition? Even if the answer, in most cases, has clearly been no, it’s been more than entertaining to watch them try, and it’s also been entertaining to watch critics, artists, and gallerists who are well respected become TV characters themselves. (My own experience with the art world is marginal, I admit: I own a little art, including work by someone formerly represented by one of the judges, and I was for a single show a member of a performance art Patsy Cline covers band with someone who served as a guest judge early on. I have friends who are artists and collectors, though, and at least feel conversant enough to know that Jerry is married to Roberta and to get the ways in which the show both magnifies and distorts the art world’s idiosyncrasies.)

Seriously, though, this show would be much less interesting than I find it if it weren’t for some intelligent and bitingly funny Twitterers (including some of the show’s contestants) and the aftershow posts on the blog Art Fag City. Not only is the main commentary there usually spot on, but the comments threads tend to attract art insiders, including eliminated contestants, and TV insiders who have smart things to say about the way Bravo’s producers are shaping the narrative that emerges over the course of the season. For instance, this week someone in comments introduced us to the Reality TV insider term “Frankenbite,” a set of spliced-together comments from a contestant offered in voice-over to introduce or manipulate a particular narrative thread the show wants to foreground. For the most recent episode this problem emerged when Miles, the OCD (faux-CD?) Machiavellian manipulator and darling of the judges, apparently plotted to get his challenge-mate naked and masturbating as they prepared their piece. (The show comes with a Parental Advisory.) However, as one AFC commentator explained: “if you notice he is not on camera saying those things and the inflection of his voice is different between the parts.” AFC, reviewing the tape, agreed. Do I recommend Work of Art? Yes, especially if you have more than a passing interest in new art. But I wouldn’t recommend the show without the new and social media commentary it occasions.

The same shouldn’t be said for Mad Men, which is, simply, terrific TV all on its own. Knowing that Cyrus was also a die hard fan, I suggested before the current season that we should start a series of Monday morning posts in which we tease out some interesting historical allusions or contexts from the prior night’s episode. The new season seems to have coincided with our summer travel, however, and it doesn’t look likely we’ll pull off this feature, at least not this season. But I’m thrilled to note that the intrepid and indefatigable Bowery Boys, among our favorite NYC history bloggers, have taken up the same idea and are offering post-show history lessons of their own. This morning’s post has to do with an allusion to the Ziegfeld Theater: “I’m not sure if Don Draper would have actually met anybody at the Ziegfeld in December 1964,” the Boys write, “as there were no shows running. Although perhaps NBC was still using it at this time as a soundstage; certainly Don might latch onto a script girl or production assistant while visiting a client filming a commercial.” If you’re into Mad Men, this talk-back feature over at BBs looks like a great way to start your week this season.

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Starting my morning over coffee by looking for clips of Frank O’Hara reading his own work. Wound up getting sucked down a rabbit hole of Man Men blogs. (Getting ready to teach O’Hara today has been more fun than getting ready to teach most things. Maybe it’s just that I don’t teach this stuff all that often and so it still feels fresh.)

First, O’Hara on O’Hara:

If you want to start making sense of O’Hara’s poetry, you could do worse than to think about his tongue-in-cheek manifesto “Personism” (1959).

Two: I found something sweet about the idea of a 15-year-old Jim Carroll dogging O’Hara’s steps one afternoon in an attempt to see everything he was seeing, so as to be able to identify, at some future date, the poem O’Hara was about to go home and write:

And finally, the Mad Men episode. I had forgotten the use of Meditations in an Emergency at the opening of Season 2. Don encounters someone in a bar reading the poems over lunch (heh, heh: lunch poems, get it?). He later winds up sending the volume to an unspecified lover, probably Midge, his bohemian girlfriend from the first season who had finally blown him off. (Too bad, too — I kind of liked the midtown/downtown tension of that relationship more than the similar function of Paul Kinsey’s beard or the pot-smoking punks brought in to help the firm reach a younger demographic.) The actual sequence from the end of the first episode of the second season has been disabled by request. Here’s the voiceover with a fan montage of scenes, which has the over-the-top effect of making the poem even try harder to get at Don’s particularly shifty interiority, but also extends the “emergency” to the rest of the cast:

“Grey” in the poem calls up the idea of “grey flannel suits” quite effectively.

For kicks, here’s where the Man Men blogs took me. One post noted that in the commentary track for the DVD release of the season, the series creator described how accidental his encounter with O’Hara was, and how chance the use of that specific poem (“Mayakovky”) was as well:

Matthew Weiner was at an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York where there were snippets from Frank O’Hara’s poetry on the walls. The poetry he saw that day was from a different O’Hara book, Lunch Poems. Weiner wanted to use this book in the show, but it had not yet been published in 1962. Instead, he chose Meditations in an Emergency, seemingly without having read it. When Weiner had finished the script for “For Those Who Think Young”, he and a co-worker looked at the last poem of the book out of curiosity and found that the last poem, “Mayakovsky”, fit perfectly with what Don was experiencing in the episode. This is how they came to have Don recite the poem as he walked to the mailbox in the last scene. Not the brilliant creative decision I had expected, but an interesting case of serendipity.

The folks at AMC’s house blog, though, have pushed a more academic approach, suggesting just how brilliant the creative decision was. They enlist David Lehman, the collective biographer of O’Hara and the other New York School poets, to tease out the “hidden messages and literary motifs” in the episode. Lehman obliges:

“‘Mayakovsky’ has the phrase ‘the catastrophe of my personality,'” Lehman explains. “It is part of O’Hara’s charm that he uses such self-deprecatory humor, and I think that charm extends to the voiceover. Also, the ending of that poem implies a split in the speaker’s personality: ‘It may be the coldest day of / the year, what does he think of / that? I mean, what do I? And if I do, / perhaps I am myself again.’ Note the difference between ‘I’ and ‘he.’ Does Don ‘feel like’ himself?”

Well read! Though I can’t help but note the sharp difference between O’Hara’s reading style, which camps everything up, and the gravity of Hamm’s delivery. Maybe that’s another point to be made: how the poetry can’t help — perhaps especially because O’Hara died so tragically young — but be more serious than his own delivery suggested.

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