Friday, 10 September 2010

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Mad Men: Structural Oppresion in "The Suitcase" "The Suitcase" may well be the best episode of Mad Men to date. Not that admiration necessarily precludes critique, but as I may gush a little bit about Jennifer Getzinger's direction or Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss's acting, I wanted to make it clear that 1) what follows is not an appreciation and 2) I may bear down a little harder on the episode's only flawed moment so everyone knows this isn't an appreciation. "The Suitcase" opens with the distribution of tickets to an "Exclusive Theater Telecast" of the Ali-Liston rematch. That these advertising folk are attending a viewing instead of the fight itself is no doubt significant, but not significant enough to dwell on in light of everything else going on in this episode, the first hint of which happens here: Getzinger places Danny Strong's "Danny Siegel" in what is clearly a subordinate position, which is ironic because 1) Draper is confidently predicting a Liston victory in the fight, and 2) Draper had coopted Siegel's idea earlier and is therefore his superior in name alone. Peggy will later remind Draper of this fact and precipitate the first of Draper's many breakdowns, but for the moment it is enough to note that the framing of this shot militates against its manifest content and move on to Don receiving the news that the wife of the man whose name he stole is about to die: Note how severely the camera frames this moment: a) despite being quite a distance from each other, the lamps on the desks in the foreground and background simultaneously occupy the center of the frame; b) the lights on the ceiling and the angles of the wall suggest a classic one-point perspective terminating in an unseen vanishing point; c) Draper and his secretary are not simply balanced, they are equidistant from both each other and their side of the frame; d) as are the secretaries in the background); e) coupled with the suggestion of an unseen vanishing point, the symmetry of Draper and his secretary occupy the same position relative to the architecture of the building and the lines of perspective. Let me show you what I mean as best I can given my limited Photoshop skills: Now that I've cleared that up, compare the above with the shot that immediately follows: The severely ordered world of the previous shot is unbalanced by the switch from a medium long to a conversational medium shot, with the overall effect being that a symmetrical abyss seems to have opened up behind Draper. By shifting the camera slightly off-center, however, Getzinger creates the impression that this orderly abyss has opened up to swallow Draper and Draper alone. At the bottom of it? His office: This is Draper shortly after receiving the news that the wife of the man whose name he stole is about to die. The room is brightly lit and his face is sternly composed, but the hunched posture and slight tilt of the camera undermine that composure....
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What makes death matter (to immoral idiots) Today is a better day than most to remember how odious Marvel comics were in the early 1990s. Why so? Because of the cavalier attitude Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, et al. took not only to the history of the characters they inherited, but to humanity in general. Consider the X-Force and Spiderman crossover from 1991, in which the ridiculous Liefeld creation "Cable" and the ridiculously re-purposed McFarlane Spiderman fight some Scottish terroist and the Juggernaut in the streets of New York City. Did I write "streets"? Because I meant backgroundless-space-Liefeld-is-too-lazy-to-draw: That yellow back there? It's all that remains of a building the Juggernaut just dropped on Spiderman: What building would that be? Can't quite tell there. Is there maybe an establishing shot that makes it clear? There is: That's correct: the Juggernaut killing tens of thousand of civilians (none of whom rate important enough to appear in either comic) is the fruit of Liefeld and McFarlane's 1991 collaboration. That Liefeld notoriously declines to even draw any background, that is, that he cares so little for where his mayhem occurs and chose to take out a Twin Tower anyway says more than I can about his apathetic morality. Lest you think him representative of comics (or tights-and-fights comics) at large, rewind comics history back to 1985, back to when Chris Claremount and John Romita, Jr. were at the height of their creative powers. Do their characters fight in a vacuum? They do not. Do their characters witness the deaths of thousands of civilians and saunter off once the villain-of-the-month has been dispatched? They do not. It's almost as if back in 1985 people and story matter more than explosions and disposably "cool" new characters. Saccharine as the post-September 11th comics were, they did at least signal a return to a perspective in which human death actually mattered. Sadly, for mainstream comics, that was quite a big deal.

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