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"Mad Men," The '70s, Despair and John Cassavetes

By admin Published: August 19, 2010

A New Yorker critic once referred to "the stifled rage of middle-class, middle-aged ennui" -- a pretty fine description of what is going on with Don Draper these days. But the line was in a review of John Cassavetes' 1970 film "Husbands," and I have been seeing more and more of Cassavetes in the fourth season of "Mad Men."

As I mentioned in a previous post, there seems to be a '70s-movie vibe to the current season, which started late in 1964 and has now moved into 1965. "Carnal Knowledge" seemed influential. And the troubles afflicting Don, self-inflicted though they are, have reminded me of Francis Coppola's description of "The Godfather Part II" as punishing Michael Corleone; he achieves and consolidates mob power but gives up everything personally important to do so -- the love of his wife and children, the trust of friends, even the life of his only surviving brother. Don, too, has achieved a measure of power, as a partner and inspirational force in his firm but he is giving up more and more; not only has he lost his family, he has lost his power over family, his creative grip and his control of his drinking. He is painfully alone; the shot of him sitting on his office couch, drinking, reminded me of the scene of Michael, isolated and alone, late in "Godfather Part II."

Coppola's career overlaps Cassavetes', and both were part of the movement away from the big Hollywood film. Coppola found greater commercial success, but he was also more willing to make commercial compromises; the first two "Godfather" films are richly and despairing but also straightforward storytelling wrapped in a cinematic grandeur at considerable remove from the raw, rough, sometimes rambling and never compromising work that Cassavetes did. I remember sitting in a theater, seeing "A Woman Under the Influence" for the first time, surprised by its seemingly crude look but drawn ever more into the realness of the thing. It provided one of the most emotionally turbulent times I have ever had in front of a movie screen.

I think that there is more than a little Cassavetes, and especially "Husbands" rolling through "Mad Men" right now. The Don-and-Lane-on-the-town sequence was an especially effective parallel (although it, again, reminded me of "Carnal Knowledge," where a friendship leads only to shame and sadness). The men of "Mad Men" are feeling all the pain and emptiness that their forebears in Cassavetes' work did. They are placed in a slicker milieu, but that is part of what "Mad Men" has been doing to foreshadow what awaits all of America later in the '60s and beyond.

The final scene in last Sunday's episode underscored it as well, with Peggy choosing to at least try out a more iconoclastic society (and the whole sequence of her at the party felt very Cassavetes to me), while Pete remains locked in the old school -- with old men. As much as Peggy carries around the longing that she had a husband, and that people could have celebrated her having a baby with Pete, that two-worlds scene suggested that she is better off without it; Pete is walled in, behind glass, like a creature in a zoo, while she is going out into the world.

Then there's Don, ever more the wreck, ever more the embarrassment. His philandering has affected the workplace, his drinking is out of control, his creativity is fading. The movies, which used to inspire him, are now just a place to offer titillation to Lane. The one woman he trusts is dying. His world is off course -- drifting on a tide of "middle-class, middle-aged ennui," enraging everyone around him while trying to stifle his own fury.

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