Pete Campbell carouselHow detailed is Mad Men‘s art direction? This detailed.

Take a closer look at the wrapping paper on the Barbie doll Pete brought “all the way from California” in “The Strategy” (S7, episode 6) — the Barbie chosen by the separated but still married man’s girlfriend, Bonnie*.

The pattern on that paper is a carousel, a reference to the first season finale in which Don Draper mourned the slow dissolution of his marriage, and turned that grief into a trademark pitch to Kodak.

This isn’t an isolated reference to Don’s carousel pitch. In “Field Trip” (S7 episode 3), during Don’s long, humiliating wait in the bull pen upon his return to SC&P, Ken Cosgrove detours from his meeting long enough to welcome him back, and to proudly show off snapshots of little Eddie Cosgrove on the Central Park carousel, a family outing that “always makes me think of you.”

The very next episode,”Monolith” (S7 episode 4), ends with a frustrated Don trying to clean up, buckle down, and — in the words of Freddie Rumsen — “do the work.” As he sits down and starts to type notes for Peggy’s Burger Chef campaign (on the typewriter he very nearly smashed through the window and down into the street in front of the Time-Life building), the strains of The Hollies’ “On A Carousel” begin to play: “Riding on a carousel, trying to catch up to you.”

Malibu Bonnie Malibu Barbie
*The outfit Bonnie’s chosen for their visit to the New York office is pure Malibu Barbie: pale blue chiffon, pale rounded sunglasses pushed up in her long blonde hair. The doll didn’t debut until the early ’70s, but if you didn’t know better, wouldn’t you bet a shiny nickel the doll inside that carousel wrapping paper is a Malibu Barbie?


And there’s always music in the air

David Lynch & Mark Frost’s groundbreaking weird-crime series “Twin Peaks” first aired 24 years ago this week. In commemoration, here are a few of the pieces I’ve written about the sleepy town and dreamy landscape of Twin Peaks over the years.

How “Twin Peaks” helped free television dramas from the yoke of pure plot:

In most shows, every moment must move the plot forward. In “Twin Peaks” (the show and the town), things move at a slower pace and odd digressions are not only allowed but encouraged. “Twin Peaks” embraces homey mundanity, which makes the deep horror more jarring and effective. And there are terrible horrors in that town, and deeply tangled personal tragedies, compulsions, and secrets. It is, in effect, a soap opera without the sudsy, fluffy, forgettable qualities.

Ronette PulaskiMy meditation on the moral gaps of “Twin Peaks” – the contrasts between golden girl Laura Palmer and Ronette Pulaski and how the show creates a moral loophole for the monstrous killer – contains huge, enormous, show-ruining spoilers preceded by a BIG BOLDED SPOILER ALERT, so click at your own discretion:

… but what about Ronette? Ronette Pulaski, a surviving victim of the same killer whom we first see staggering out of the wilderness across a railroad trestle, stunned and all but catatonic. In this image, she is presented to us as a girl literally from the wrong side of the tracks.

And it shows: in the lack of concern that the characters and writers (and presumably the viewers) show over Ronette’s reasons for the same behavior. Tacitly, the cops (and writers) of Twin Peaks are telling us that a child of privilege must be gravely damaged to sully herself so, but that a townie consorting with the same skeevy drug dealers, posing for smutty photos, and whoring needs no explanation.

How Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me redresses that imbalance and rebukes the television audience who witnessed the dark tale of a tormented young woman driven to death by her demons while we tittered about cherry pie and doughnuts and damn fine coffee:

The film relies upon the viewer’s familiarity with the cozy-quirky world of the TV series, but even as it employs the mythology and grammar of the show’s world, the movie viciously rejects the comforts we found in the drowsy little town of Twin Peaks.

I rethink the supposed virtues of Twin Peaks’ Sheriff Harry S. Truman:

Visiting investigator Special Agent Dale Cooper of the FBI (Kyle MacLachlan) takes to him right away, and it’s easy to see why: Harry’s welcoming and professional, quietly competent and well-respected, but completely without the posturing and rivalry Cooper faces from some local DPs when he steps into the lead on a hot case.

Harry’s appeal lies his down-home folksiness, his easy pace and unflappable manner. Even our putative hero, FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, sums him up with “Harry, you’re alllll right!” But is he? Is Sheriff Truman all right? Is he a good guy? Is he the boy scout he’s presented as, upright and true?

“Twin Peaks” and a memory 20 years old, in which I reminisce on the weekly ritual of walking home my friend S, who would come over to watch the show, then get too spooked to walk through the dark streets home alone… which meant I ended up walking home alone every week:

And every week, I would leave S at her brightly lit doorstep, take a deep breath as if I could breathe in that bright light and carry it with me into the night… and then I would step into the dark to start walking home.


[SPOILERS for S2 ep 4 of Hannibal]

Hannibal screenshot

I just figured out what’s in Hannibal’s basement that would shock Beverly Katz into lowering her guard (and her gun) by simple dint of asking myself “Well, if I were a monster in a human suit, what would I keep in my cannibal surgery cellar?” and the answer rose in lazy majesty like the sun over the horizon, shining its bright face in certainty.

What? I said “if.”

Owning Mahowny

In memory of the great Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was a master of his craft, an irreplaceable talent, and whose untimely death is a tragic loss not only to his family and friend but to the art of a generation.

Owning Mahowny is one of the best movies you’ve never heard of. What’s more, it’s more-or-less factual; the names have been changed, but the facts and figures are roughly accurate.

Powerhouse actor Philip Seymour Hoffman (known ’round these partly simply as “The Hoff”) plays mild-mannered Dan Mahowny. His colleagues at the bank know him as quiet, dependable, maybe a little dull. They don’t know that he has a crippling gambling addiction… and his recent promotion has given him access to more and more money to feed that compulsion. And it turns out that the casino bigwigs (including an urbanely sinister John Hurt) are only too happy to help him feed it, no matter where they suspect the money is coming from.

This could have played out as a flashy potboiler or a slick heist flick, but in the able hands of director Richard Kwietniowski (who also directed John Hurt in the excellent Love and Death on Long Island), it’s a powerful portrait of obsession. For the first time in his life, Mahowny has the means to gamble virtually without limit, and that is what the film is about: a man single-mindedly immersing himself in the mixed pleasure and misery of an all-consuming passion, pursuing it wherever it leads him.

He keeps gambling, knowing it will likely cost him his job, his reputation, his home, his fiancee, his freedom. The Hoff’s performance is more than masterful; it’s the very portrait of intensity, of self-containment, of completely internalized mania. It’s riveting.

This reprinted review originally ran in VideoReport 341, February of 2012.

It’s pronounced Frahnkenschteen

A few weeks ago, I tweeted a playfully snap about the truly awful-looking I, Frankenstein… and was immediately followed by the film’s twitter. I felt obscurely guilty and protective, like when you spritz a naughty kitten with the spray bottle and she runs to you for refuge. (I have not failed to consider that I, Frankenstein is exploiting pity as a marketing tool.)

In honor of discovering that a current theatrical-release big-budget schlockfest will follow you on Twitter for mentioning it even in jest, I suggest a handful of movies and shows to rent [instead of/in addition to] attending I, Frankenstein‘s theatrical release.

Young Frankenstein. Even I, who am iffy-to-uncomfortable about Mel Brooks’ oeuvre, must salute the marvel that is Young Frankenstein. The film revels in loving parody, which is only enriched by the authenticity of its aesthetics. The crisp, luscious black & white, the midcentury costumes, and the period sets perfectly recreate the look and feel of Universal’s classic monster movies – in some cases, literally; Brooks was able to rent the original electric apparatus used for James Whale’s Frankenstein from the engineer who created it.

The perfections of the film are too many to count: Gene Wilder (and his wild shock of hair) as Frederick Frankenstein (“It’s pronounced Frahnkenschteen.” “You’re putting me on.”); the unparalleled Madeline Kahn as Frederick’s chilly fiancée, Elizabeth; Marty Feldman’s rolling eyeballs as he humps his way along drafty, dusty corridors; Cloris Leachman as the sinister chatelaine, Frau Blücher; Peter Boyle creaking, groaning, and side-eyeing his way through his role as The Creature. But this is much more than a slapsticky rip on an enduring tale; Young Frankenstein displays an endearing fondness for its source material even as it upends the dramatic tropes of Frankenstein films past.

Gods and Monsters. James Whale, the director of Universal’s iconic Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, flouted the dictates and strictures of polite society, refusing to repress or hide his homosexuality despite a culture and career most inhospitable to it – and, eventually, to him.

Gods & Monsters

Gods and Monsters stars Sir Ian McKellan as Whale in his last days, Brendan Fraser as Clayton Boone, the young gardener Whale ushers into his life and his home, and Lynn Redgrave as the stern housekeeper who defends and chides Whale in equal measure. The Oscar-winning screenplay was adapted by director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, Kinsey) from Christopher Bram’s 1995 novel Father of Frankenstein, and the whole film has a sometimes sweet, sometimes salty nostalgia that never goes where you think it will.

Gargoyles. So there are gargoyles in this nonsense Frankenstein movie? WHATEVER. For a proper tale of gargoyles, you gotta go to the 90s series “Gargoyles,” which features… well, y’know, gargoyles.

gargoyles tv

When a jillionaire purchases a Scottish castle and has it rebuilt, stone by stone, atop a New York skyscraper, he unwittingly awakens the castle’s ancient gargoyles, who were turned to stone and doomed to remain so until the castle should soar above the clouds. HA, TAKE THAT, CURSE.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show. An innocent young couple (Susan Saradon, Barry Bostwick) are driving through ominous countryside when their car breaks down, stranding them and sending them search for help at a nearby estate.

It’s a classic set-up, and RHPS delivers a classic plot… with a twist here and there. The nearby estate is staffed, as classic monster-movie grammar requires, by a taciturn handyman (Richard O’Brien) and wild-eyed maid (Patricia Quinn). It’s owned by an urbane and welcoming scientist (Tim Curry) of dubious ethics. And there is a most… interesting… experiment underway. But that’s very nearly the end of Rocky Horror’s similarities to the classic monster movies of yore.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. If you disdain the guttural moans and bleats of the classic movie Frankenstein’s monster and instead insist upon the eloquent Creature as Mary Shelly envisioned him, Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the movie for you.

In this ambitious if uneven epic, Doctor Frankenstein (Branagh) endows his resurrected man with his own mentor’s brain, but soon denounces and casts out his creation to seek his doom. But who among us will settle for such short shrift? Not you, not I, and not the innocent walking death that Frankenstein has brought forth from the world beyond.

The film follows Shelley’s plot more faithfully than any other adaptation I’ve seen; though Branagh’s directing wasn’t yet up to the sweep and grandeur of this tale, it is gratifying for the pedants among us (AHEM) to see The Creature acting with the volition and intelligence that the original story envisioned.

The X-Files “The Post-Modern Prometheus,” S5 ep 5, is a stand-alone Monster of the Week episode, so don’t worry about finding your place in the long-arc mythology of “The X-Files.” Just sit back and let it wash over you.

Mulder and Scully (David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson) arrive in rural Indiana to investigate reports of a disfigured person or creature (witnesses are both fuzzy and, well, unkind in their descriptions) roaming the area, impregnating unconscious women. The assailant resembles The Great Mutato, a comic-book protagonist created by the grown son of one such woman based on townspeople’s descriptions of their encounters. Bring in the local hubristic mad scientist (every town has one, right? APPARENTLY SO), Dr. Pollidorri, and let’s see the sparks fly. Literally, right? I mean, this is a Frankenstein allusion. Speaking of Frankenstein allusions, “The Post-Modern Prometheus” is filmed in glorious black & white in homage to the great James Whale Frankenstein films of the ‘30s.

Gothic. During the long sunless summer of 1816, young Mary Shelley (née Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin) and her lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley, paid a visit to his dear friend Lord Byron in exile on the shore of Switzerland’s Lake Geneva. Over the course of this visit (and inspired by the ghost stories they took turns reading aloud), the assembled guests, all writers of some kind, undertook a friendly competition: each would write a ghastly tale to entertain and horrify their fellows. This contest is famously the event that spurred Shelley to write her iconic Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.

Gothic Lord Bryon portrait

Ken Russell’s Gothic tells a fictionalized account of this visit, reducing it to a brief and harrowing weekend of the dissipation and debauchery for which Lord Byron was infamous, packed with laudanum guzzling, scantily-clad chases through a dank manor, and all steeped in lascivious innuendo. The film heaves with excess and imagery, and it’s either chomping great fun or crassly off-putting, depending on your temperament. (For me, it’s both.)

But I can’t find fault with the performances: Natasha Richardson made her film debut as the ingenuous Mary Shelley, Julian Sands plays Percy with an odd combination of sleepy-eyed wonder and schoolboy zeal, Miriam Cyr is beguiling as Mary’s “cousin” (factually, her stepsister) Claire Clairmont, and Timothy Spall’s Dr. Polidori, leech enthusiast and literary lapdog, is indelible. But it’s Gabriel Byrne who carries this film on his capable shoulder, investing Lord Byron with every ounce of louche charm and repulsive assurance, making every facet of the character shine and shade as bright-and-dark as the sky in a thunderstorm.

This entry is cross-posted to The VideoReport.