Does it strike you as odd that someone writing a book on visual rhetoric has produced two long posts about a television show noted for the sophistication of its formal and compositional elements without addressing them?
Me too. Time to rectify that.
No contemporary television show employs a quieter camera than Mad Men. Its disdain for the Law & Order version of cinematic realism that reached its apogee (or nadir) in Cloverfield is palpable: the camera frames scenes from multiple fixed positions and the shots are spliced together at a pace designed to have a soporific effect on anyone born after 1980. The framing and the pacing are a deliberate homage to the films of the period represented on the show. Though it may seem natural to direct a series set in the early 1960s in the same mode Douglas Sirk shot films in the 1960s, it is anything but.Most films that aim to be realist depict the past in the dominant contemporary realist mode: Saving Private Ryan looks realistic to us because it panders to what we think looks realistic. Had Spielberg directed it in accordance with the realism regnant in 1942 the film would have looked dated. I point out the obvious here only to highlight the deliberateness of the decision to shoot Mad Men like a Sirk film (from the staid framing to the odd lighting and colors so saturated that even the most mundane act acquires the air of a particularly vivid dream). Mad Men is a show that depicts the seedy underbelly of the early 1960s in the style used in the early 1960s to hide its seedy underbelly. (It's not for nothing that it took two decades for critics to get that Sirk was being ironic.) The effect is unsettling: the visuals create the expectation that none of the unseemly stuff will appear on screen and then it does.
Peggy hits on men in bars. Peter forces himself on his neighbor's au pair. Sal accepts the advances of a randy bellboy. Joan is raped by her husband. The consequences of these events are seemingly contained by their framing: as if nothing truly terrible can come of something truly terrible because the shot is so tidily composed. One quick example from the last episode I watched. Peter and Trudy sit on the couch trying to decide whether to attend the wedding of his boss's daughter the day after President Kennedy has been shot and Peter learned of his humiliating demotion:
Here is Peter petulantly declaring his intention not to attend the wedding in a medium long shot. The lighting is three-point but naturalistic: the large window behind him picks him out of the background, but the fill light to his left results in deep shadows on his face because a dim black-and-white television set is functioning as the key light. Given that the fill light is supposed to diminish the shadows created by the key light, the fact that it is responsible for the shadows here is unsettling. Convention dictates that medium long shots of attractive men sitting on couches shouldn't contain such shadows: that this one does makes Peter seem shifty because the manner in which he is shot reflects poorly on his character. Or seems to. It also calls attention to the unusual light source to the right of the screen. The scene then cuts directly to a medium close-up of Peter and Trudy:
Because there is no pan, the scene moves from one framed shot to another. The cumulative effect of all these framed shots is to make the scene seem staged and Peter and Trudy mere actors reciting lines. The camera is complicit in making them appear to be playing roles even though that is precisely what they're refusing to do in this scene. The focus in this shot is deliberately deceptive: it appears shallow in order to create the impression that they are close together and suggest all that mutually invaded private space suggests. But cut to the next shot:
The abundant space to her left and the angle she cocks her head to speak indicates that these two are on opposite ends of the couch. Their intimacy was a cheap camera trick of the sort that makes Presidents appear to fancy asses. Framing this close-up on Trudy alone makes her appear isolated on her own couch. As if to hammer home the point:
The next shot frames Peter all by his lonesome. Because of all that it implies about gender hierarchies, it is of note that the camera directly faces Peter when it frames him but shoots her from an angle. But I digress: the camerawork here is pushing this couple apart by the simple act of framing them individually. They won't reach a consensus because they're not really together. How far apart are they?
So far they can't even occupy the same shallow focus because this time the focus really is shallow instead of deceptively deep like before. All is curtains for this couple that can't even share a couch without—