Before mercury, my blood was used to fill thermometers.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The crazed vivisectionist of his destiny.

...she was the crazed vivisectionist of his destiny. It is hard to imagine today how potent and overwhelming the experience of sex must have been in those early decades of the twentieth century, when orgasm seemed an experience like the discovery of radium. 
- Virginia Nicholson, Among the Bohemians
A few goals:

In order to finish the introduction to my Girls book by October, it is necessary that I watch Sex and the City in its entirety. I am halfway through it for the first time since it premiered. The way the men blur together, the dialogue — significantly more explicit than the sex scenes — maybe the first appearance of weird Matthew McConaughey (my frame of reference here is not iron clad; if we have enjoyed at least fifteen years of weird McConaughey, that is valid), plus Sex and the City's innovations were television's to ignore/take and claim belong to other shows that came along in its wake, and it still feels fresh for that while simultaneously feeling repellently and fascinatingly retrograde for its approach to gender and queer sexuality and fashion, respectively.

After that escapade is over, I am going to replace powering through seasons of television with something else. I am confident that, except for Mad Men, I will not have a problem addressing or finishing or starting or failing to abandon any of the other innumerable things I have been suspending this year instead of watching television. But putting Mad Men away is the challenge. When I am not doing well, I always go to it, and the frequency with which I feel I need to put aside what I am doing to watch Mad Men is grim, obnoxious, and ultimately counterintuitive. Instead of distracting me from unwellness, the extremely familiar sequences now have this eternal-recurrence-esque uncanniness.

And besides writing, I am going to avail myself of the convenient storage solution in my apartment and approach my unread books shelf by shelf. The shelves are small (and legion) and hold between ten and twenty books, so instead of the Sisyphean task of considering all my unread books as one whole obstacle, I can go one shelf at a time.

First:


Have read: Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals by Patricia Lockwood; Heroines, both copies of Green Girl, and Fallen Angel by Kate Zambreno; the Ravenous Audience and E! Entertainment by Kate Durbin; Inferno by Eileen Myles; Zipper Mouth by Laurie Weeks; the Argonauts by Maggie Nelson; Two Whole Cakes by Lesley Kinzel; Pity the Animal by Chelsea Hodson (resting on top)

To read: Balloon Pop Outlaw Black by Patricia Lockwood; 70% Acrylic, 30% Wool by Viola di Grado; Essential Acker, Empire of the Senseless, and Blood and Guts in High School by Kathy Acker; The TV Sutras, Cunt Norton, the Buddhist, the Letters of Mina Harker, and Barf Manifesto (resting on top) by Dodie Bellamy

The "to read" column includes and will include henceforth books I read in high school — Essential Acker, for instance, made an impression on me, but I did not understand it — books that I cannot remember reading, and books I have not read yet because I am still recovering from Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels and a months-long fugue I fell into with Poets in their Youth. I need to restore recreational reading as a priority. Especially the reading of The Story of the Lost Child.
Pulling on his pipe, [Hermann Broch] might talk in a very preoccupied way about "twilight consciousness," or be very down-to-earth about a New Yorker cartoon. 
- Eileen Simpson, Poets in their Youth
The history of the Olympia Press I found this weekend definitely will not sabotage this plan in any way (although Girodias was so miserable to Valerie Solanas and the book does not seem to address it, so). Also, on the subject of reading, I am reading submissions for Catapult (and have been since December, but time is either a rubber band or a flat circle depending on your HBO original programming preferences), and by doing so am successfully recouping some of that time I do not want to mismanage. I would rather be reading manuscripts than almost anything else.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Mad Men exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image by the numbers

Pieces of paper with valuable insights into the development of Mad Men's story: many — thirty, maybe? Fifty? The contents of the first chamber should be a book. I would read a book of notes on the development of Mad Men with unexplored plot lines, mood-boards of scenarios and half-scenes, and as much of Horseshoe* as there is in existence. But I knew I would read a book of those things. I would also continue to pay money to read those notes tacked on a wall in a very thin hallway.

Potential trolling via Easter egg: at least once. At least. My datemate saw in the recreation of the writers' room library a copy of The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton, or "the good book" according to Jon Hamm's Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne in The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. It's better imagined as part of a conspiracy.

Instances of crying that surprised even myself, inveterate public crier: two. Over things I would not have expected: the sight of the "Why I'm Quitting Tobacco" letter and the golden age Draper kitchen. I love Mad Men but I figured walking through this exhibit would err on the side of delightful, not devastating. So eight years of Mad Men taught me absolutely nothing.

Instances where an absence of public crying on the part of myself inspired me to stop and wonder if I have any shred of humanity left: two. I did not lose it in Don's Time Life office. I was absorbed in it and wanted everything and so was overcome with a compulsion to make note of all its details like I was not going to go watch Mad Men again and have, really, much greater access to those details in a comparatively more private space. Also, the Chip 'n Dip was there. It does command attention.

Cameos by Scout: one.

Attempts by other museum-goers to skirt the "no photos" policy: innumerable. Their collective force succeeded in transforming me into Veep's Amy Brookheimer.

* - The Dick Whitman character was originally named Peter, and my life is now divided into the times before and after I realized the line about how "he was named after a wish his mother should've lived to see" still worked.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The ad was making me sick.

I was ready think about something else other than the Mad Men finale when I watched Matthew Weiner's decompression at the New York Public Library (with AM Homes! The circumstances of that talk fulfilled my high school dreams and my young professional dreams all at once).
I did hear rumblings of people talking about the ad being corny, and it's a little bit disturbing to me....The people who find that ad corny are probably experiencing a lot of life that way and they’re missing out on something. Because five years [before that commercial ran], black people and white people couldn't even be in an ad together, and the idea that some enlightened state and not just co-option might have created something that is very pure — and yeah, there's soda in there with good feeling — but that ad, to me, it's the best ad ever made....I felt that that ad in particular was so much of its time. So beautiful, and I don’t think as...villainous as the snark of today thinks it is.
That is such a slap in the face!

Mad Men forfeited the ability to make race an organic component to the finale. It gave up on Dawn, it gave up on Shirley. It is not a reach to read a vision of utopian racial harmony concluding a story that lost interest in exploring racial tension in any degree as cynical.

"Utopian" is an important Mad Men concept. I do like the idea as Don plunging from one utopia — the domestic one of the fifties — into another — the peace-and-love one of the sixties — that the coming decade will inevitably shatter as he contributes to the excavation and exploitation of it, making the seventies a rehash of what Don spent the sixties doing.

The commercial is "not just co-option" but is also enlightenment, but why did Don have to reach enlightenment? Because he desired. And advertising is desire. Enlightenment can't begin with "I want," which is exactly how Don's revelation starts. Discovering what he wants makes sense for Don, coming to terms with the fact that making advertisements is the least harmful thing Don can do for his loved ones and the people of the world makes sense—poignant, awful, sad sense considering that he found out Betty has lung cancer from the cigarettes he used to advertise. So somewhere in the future there's a page in the New York Times titled "Why I'm Quitting Sugar by Donald Draper."

I am okay with eternal return. That is not the part that wounds me as a viewer. But the ending of Mad Men was not part of the story of Mad Men. The show did not earn that ad — it is too famous — and even if it had, it is a real ad for a real product that of course did not need money for its use in "Person to Person." It's an ad. It made the company money. I agree with Emily Nussbaum:



Co-option, continued: The presence of the ad is double co-option: it is co-option within the narrative of Don's experience at the retreat, and it is co-option of the narrative, of the story and experience by the viewer of Mad Men, to sell something. Because there is nothing of that ad that does not exist in the service of selling its product. And that is what Don is, too. Weiner did acknowledge that in his talk when he addressed Don's love of seducing strangers who, as soon as they familiarize themselves with him, he ditches, repulsed. It is valid, in my opinion, to leave on the note that Don has nothing more to offer, no better a love note to write, than an ad.

But I never watched Mad Men expecting Don to grow. I watched Mad Men expecting Don to be discarded, for Pete and Peggy to realize the Don-model was worthless to them, for it to be revealed that the anxieties he was exploiting in his work were missing a nuance. That is what I thought they were driving at effectively with the constant invocation at the end of the way people "come and go as they please," the epiphany Ginsberg had about Megan that led him to the Jaguar tag, a tag that exploited Don's anxiety about the way people are not products. His commodification of harmony and togetherness and products as "the real thing" severs him once and for all from his family and his coworkers, who are all shown to be off in their own, enjoying actual real things (which, for all of them, is some variation of work/life balance — except for Sally, who is still tied to the Betty model that life is work, "you're painting a masterpiece," etc.).

I think of Don less as a character and more of the thing that happened to all of the other characters on Mad Men. I was hoping Don would be come, as Dear Television put it, "decentered," and season five — with Ginsberg's Jaguar tag that played on Don's anxieties the way it did — beautifully set the show up for that after season four gave Don every opportunity to forge a new paradigm. He chose not to, and Ginsberg figured out why. Season six did not entirely swerve off this trajectory — both Pete and Peggy had to confront the extent to which trying to be Don was failing them (Pete lost his family, Peggy kind of lost her grip on her career trajectory when her staff started to revolt) — but it did get mired deep in stories that stalled (Don vs. Ted, which was the most promising of all the Don-centered season six stories) or dragged on without a climax (Don's stories with both Megan and Sylvia).

Joyce Carol Oates identified the trouble and appeal in decentering Don:





If Don Draper is an advertisement, Mad Men could not transcend him unless Peggy or Pete — preferably Peggy and Pete — took over as protagonist/s, particularly after their attempts to follow Don's example broke down so hard for them in season six. The strongest themes that recur in the finale are from season one, which is understandable, and season five, which made season six seem all the more an exhausting exercise. Because season six was about the extent to which the Don-model was supremely failing Don himself. All this, only to end on Don embracing the product that he is.

But, then, what product works? Is this a criticism of the cathartic potential of art? Was "Person to Person," again, Mad Men's attempt to kick you out of the TV and into bed? Were you supposed to turn off the TV as soon as that song crept in at the end? Was your half of the bargain already over?

It was villainous, but it does give the viewer the ultimate opportunity to reject Don Draper, and maybe that is how Mad Men had to end: something that provokes the viewer to move on the same way Peggy and Pete did.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

If I had my way, you would never advertise.

Mad Men jumped off the cliff.

In "Lost Horizon," I believe it came to pass that Peggy's Belle Jolie pitch was the most important one made on the show.

"The Milk and Honey Route" reminded viewers that whatever, death imagery — cigarettes killed Don Draper a long time ago.

And beauty was still the easiest thing to sell by the time "Person to Person" depicted the ultimate Mad Men moment when a Hershey bar gave a bottle of Coke a hug.

I keep thinking about lots of things, particularly what it means for Don to share an ad with the audience. Don articulated these concerns about the efficacy of advertising in "The Crash":
I keep thinking about the basic principle of advertising. There's entertainment and you stick the ad in the middle of the entertainment like a little respite. It's a bargain. They're getting the entertainment for free. All they have to do is listen to the message. But what if they don't take the bargain at all? What if they're suddenly bored of the entertainment? What if they don't — what if they turn off the TV?
Was "Person to Person" Mad Men's attempt to do the reverse of what Marie did to Roger? She kicked him out of bed and in front of the TV. "Person to Person" kicks you out of the TV and into bed.

Don warns Stephanie that because she was not raised with Jesus, she does not know what happens when people "really believe" in something. He really believes in advertising because, as Mad Men painstakingly demonstrated over seven seasons, it is the least harmful way he can connect with people and give them something. So his ability to shed friends and family, enter solitude, and find the best way to show his love for them that will not make them cry or leave them emotionally disfigured or exploded — it will just emotionally blackmail them into buying a soft drink.

But does that meta-diminish the connection Don made with Mad Men's audience, by defaulting to the use of an ad to pay them back for following his story? Is that a failure to acknowledge what "a great ad" means within the context of the show? Would this be as much of an issue if it were Peggy whose face filled the screen, knowing as the audience does that it is her one dream to have "a big idea," where for Don that is just what he does?

Mad Men achieved a lot, but did it achieve the ability to show its audience an ad through Don's eyes, divorced from the reality of that ad? That is an especially difficult challenge when the ad in question is a real ad that people have real, separate associations with that is so famous to not even really (arguably) be the subject of nostalgia. I did not exist until sixteen years after that commercial aired. I feel like I was born tired of it.

I think apart from its aptness — it makes sense as an endpoint for Don Draper — it is necessary to question whether or not Mad Men earned it. Was it really so afraid viewers would turn off the TV?

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

His big song was "I'm Alright."

Pretending I was not so sick the life was seeping out of me was not the worst way I could have chosen to spend a one-off Saturday alone in New York. At the end of the day, I was so worn out that I could only lie in the pod I arranged to sleep in and play episodes of How Did This Get Made. I stared at pages of Brian Kellow's Pauline Kael biography but did not have it in me to read it, really, just ask myself aloud what was going on inside Kael to inspire her unnatural noise. All of which amounts to what passes for me as relaxation.

I was there to go to the Emily Books party, where I let my insecurity about how close I was to passing out/crumbling into a pile of germs get to me, but what an event that was. I am so grateful to be familiar now with Berl's Brooklyn Poetry Shop — the opportunity to handle and purchase so many small press titles I've wanted and so many I could not afford on this trip took me right out of my swirling sick vortex.

And the reading lineup was worth all the money in the world. Eileen Myles could have read virtually anything, but I was excited she chose a part from Chelsea Girls since I've been heretofore unable to get a copy and am looking forward to reading it for the first time this fall. Elisa Albert, author of After Birth, read from her journal, and she concluded by vowing never to do that again. It was hilarious and surprising in a way I have never experienced in a reading, so should she hold herself to that, I treasure all the more the opportunity to have heard it. Johanna Fateman read her tweets, which reinforced Emily Gould's introductory note that those not following Fateman are fucking up their lives — every reader at this party was a font of joy to a crazy degree. And I was looking forward to hearing Jami Attenberg read since I have not yet read her work myself, but her choice of material made the whole event so special: Niina Pollari's Dead Horse!

Niina came to the Midtown Scholar in April for a reading organized somewhat by me, mostly by the whirlwind of inspired ideas that is Meghan Lamb, of whom St. Louis will get the benefit when she moves there to attend the Washington University MFA program in the fall. Niina read with a radiant lineup — Carina Finn! Paige Taggart! Margaret Bashaar! Erin Dorney! Melody Johnson! — and hearing Jami Attenberg's takes on them brought a whole other dimension to what a tremendous pleasure it is to hear them read. I loved having Niina's voice back in my head.

I also procured, finally, Carina's Invisible Reveille and Paige's Want for Lion; Ottessa Moshfegh's McGlue, which made me scream "YES" when I found it; the aforementioned Kael biography; The New Fuck You ed. Myles and Liz Kotz; the new biography of the publisher/founder of New Directions; Virginie Despentes' Apocalypse Baby; Bhanu Kapil's Ban en Banlieue; and (finally) the Arcades Project. And I walked two miles with them strapped to my person. It was worth it. I feel better now.

That was my first time in Brooklyn. I told the cab driver that, and that I thought Brooklyn is lovely, and he rebutted, remarking about the blight in the neighborhood we were driving through. Then he asked me where I'm from, and I told him — Harrisburg, Pennsylvania — and he conceded that I know what I'm taking about when I'm talking about the quality of a city's blight and that Brooklyn is lovely.

Also: I ran into Eileen Myles on Houston Street afterwards and she recognized me and I had an elderflower lemonade in my hand and the weather was perfect and this weekend could not have been better (state of my health notwithstanding).

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Called out of darkness a new life to begin.

I'm getting ready to go to the Emily Books party. I'm getting over a cold. I wrote about "The Forecast" and "Time & Life," and this weekend, Mad Men gets antepenultimate.

Some things to ponder: What does Joan want? Where is heaven? Who would win in a Sterling Cooper secretary battle royale?

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

I think he's making Clara nightly.

Just when I thought I had my priorities in order, at work, I was installed on the Mad Men beat. In addition to writing about the episodes as they air — like "Severance" and "New Business" — I am also writing about the motifs that reappear throughout the seasons.

Photo: Dou Hyun/AMC
The characters on Mad Men might drink alcohol to avoid confronting the changing world around them, for instance, but every time the agency takes on a client that sells alcohol, it catalyzes big change in the way they do business (although they frequently respond to that with tantrums that include, among other things, drinking).

Idealistic Peggy and Don both consider Paris a dream place where they can take a proper reprieve from their worlds. This despite the fact that everyone on Mad Men who has been to Paris associates it with some personal disaster — a pivotal lover left Roger there, Sylvia Rosen's son got his draft papers while he was there. Like Carmella Soprano before them, if either of them get there, I bet they will see a ghost.

Don and Roger's changing — or unchanging — attitudes towards women can be charted in their approach to buying fur. And when put that way, it is clear why.

And while Don wants to make people into piles of money so he can escape having to deal with their emotions, Joan — sadly — wants to become a pile of money so she will not have emotions anymore.

Did you notice the story of season one is happening again, quietly, in the periphery of season seven? Actually, a lot of previous seasons are happening simultaneously, but this is the creepiest.

And if Mad Men ended like Twin Peaks, that would not be the worst thing. I mean, even if it ended the way Twin Peaks ended, with a slog through the Red Room, Roger up all night waiting for Don, and evil Don roaming the Earth, I would not resist.

Also: Mad Men is one big ham joke.