Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Cries and Whispers (1972)

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Wow. Cries and Whispers was one of the major Ingmar Bergman films I had never seen, so I was very glad when Nathaniel Rogers, the host and mastermind behind the Hit Me With Your Best Shot series, chose it as this week’s entry. I should have expected, considering the movie’s reputation, and it being a Bergman movie at all, that it was going to be a fascinating and tough sit… I just didn’t expect it to be this powerful. I loved it, and despite it being one of the most intense movies I’ve ever watched, I can’t wait to watch it again.

It is, obviously the story of Agnes, a woman dying of cancer in early XX Century Sweden, and her sisters, who come to be with her in her last days. Frankly, I feel like the movie is way too deep for me to attempt to make any kind of smart commentary about it having only seen it once. It’s a movie about death, love, and faith… basically about some of the most important things in life, and a movie that seems particularly telling about Bergman’s view of the world. The sisters pretty much hate each other; they are all deeply unhappy, and they can barely touch or talk to each other without things turning ugly. The fourth main character in the movie is Anna, the housekeeper, who seems to be the only one capable of true human connection. Two of the movie’s most striking images, and most powerful moments, involve Anna and Agnes, since she is the only one who can calm the sick woman’s pain.

Those two moments are fantastic, but I feel a little out of my depth picking them. Instead, I’ll point to another of my favorite Anna moments, which comes early in the film. We see her praying. We learn that she is an incredibly religious woman, that she had a daughter who died, but she finds solace in God. After she finishes praying, she casually reaches for an apple and takes a bite. She is calm, completely at peace eating the forbidden fruit while she looks at a picture of her deceased daughter. What exactly Begman wants to say about blind and total faith in this movie isn’t really up to me to say, but I love this moment for how economically it introduces us to Anna’s inner life.

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Mad Men: For Those Who Think Young (S02E01)

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The second season of Mad Men premiered almost exactly six years ago today (July 27, 2008). By that point the show had already won a Golden Globe for Best Drama Series (along with a Best Actor Globe for Jon Hamm – one of the infuriatingly few awards he has won for his work on the show), and it was just about to become the first basic cable show to win the Emmy for Best Drama Series. Mad Men had suddenly gone from a show that aired on an obscure network best known for showing old horror movies to being the most talked-about show on television. This was definitely the height of Mad Men‘s popularity. It wasn’t a particularly well-rated show (its ratings would never be that good), but it was the coolest show. Most people at this point were just discovering the show, but if you were a fan of the first season and were tuning in for the second season premiere, you might have been surprised -even disappointed- by what the show had in store for you.

After seven season we have more than grown accustomed to watching Mad Men. We know its rhythms. We know the seasons usually start out slow, often a little shaky, but we also know most story-lines will come together and wrap up wonderfully by the end of the season. We are also familiar with the time jumps the show usually makes between seasons. This last characteristic of the show turned out to be particularly surprising when it came back for its second season, because after the critical moments in which we left the characters at the end of season one, fans of the show were perplexed to find the show making what is still the biggest time jump between seasons jumping almost fifteen months from Thanksgiving 1960 to Valentine’s Day 1962. It’s not that the first season ended in a huge cliffhanger or anything, but rather that creator Matthew Weiner decided to use the premiere as yet another episode that would teach people how to watch his show.

“For Those Who Think Young” was particularly confusing for fans of the show (like myself) because it didn’t seem particularly interested with had happened the previous season. It was almost disconcerting to find oneself watching an episode that didn’t address any of the big developments of the last episodes of the season. For the first ten or so minutes of the episode, we don’t even know what has happened to the Draper marriage since the finale; then we discover that it is pretty much at the same place it always was. Similarly, we don’t hear anything substantial about Peggy’s baby, except that the guys at the office are wondering why she lost so much weight after taking a suspiciously sudden break (they actually think it was Don that got her pregnant). As for other characters, Roger is back working full-time at the office after his heart attacks, and he is no longer seeing Joan, who is soon going to be engaged to a “non-jewish doctor”.

So, if we have the power of hindsight and are expert watchers of Mad Men, what does “For Those Who Think Young” tell us about the season that is to come? Well, like most Mad Men premieres it hints at themes that will be important throughout the season while setting other important character dynamics. The clearest thing that this episode is trying to get across seems to be the fact that Don is getting old. Being a show about the 1960s, the quintessentially transitional decade of the modern American history, Mad Men has always been interested in the tension between the old vs. the new. Nixon vs. Kennedy. Don vs. Pete. In this case, we first see Don as he visits a doctor that tells him he should be more careful about his health, and it’s not too long until people at the office are pressuring him to hire younger talent. By the end of this decade, the youth would have become the be-all-end-all when it comes to dictating what is important in the culture, especially when it comes to advertising. We are not quite there yet, but we know it’s coming, and the first signs -like Kennedy’s win over Nixon- have started to show.

In any case, Don seems pretty lost at this point. He spends Valentine’s Night with Betty, and isn’t able to perform sexually. He is suffocated by the idea of having to turn to younger people. You can tell because after a young bohemian tells him that Frank O’Hara poetry collection Meditations in an Emergency might not be his cup of tea, he decides to buy and the book and read some of it himself. This book is particularly important for the season thematically. For starters, it shares its title with the last episode of the season, and perhaps more tellingly in the short run, this episode ends with Don mailing the book to an unknown person along with a message that says “Made me think of you”. Who is Don sending this package to was the first big question that was supposed to hook us on this second season of Mad Men, but one that the show, being its true self, would take its sweet time to answer.

Also in this Episode
I talked a little bit about what the main characters’ situation is at the start of this season, but let’s make a quick round-up of their psychological standings.

  • After that rather heartbreaking moment she shared with Glen in “The Wheel“, Betty seems to be pretty much in her usual place. More than anything, she seems to be particularly interested in filling whatever void she feels in her life by being the object of men’s desires.
  • Pete continues to be a jerk. He seems to be a little resentful of Don, but understandably not as willing to openly go against him. Most importantly, he and Trudy are having trouble conceiving, a development that seems to be taking a huge on toll on her, while it’s pretty clear that Pete isn’t really interested in having a child at this point.
  • Roger and Joan are no longer a couple, but they remain incredibly (and delightfully) flirtatious even despite the fact that Joan has been dating the aforementioned doctor and is expecting him to pop the question pretty soon.
  • Perhaps the character that has changed the most is Peggy, who has now been working as a copywriter for quite some time. She is much harder and unafraid to speak her mind, but when you think about it, she is as unpopular with the girls, and as under-appreciated by most of the men as she was when she started. She also has to share an office with a gigantic Xerox machine.

This all brings me to remember that Mad Men is also a show about change, or more accurately, how hard it is for people to do so. One of the frustrating things about this premiere when it first aired was how, despite certain changes, everyone seemed to be at the same place they were on the first season. I know now that is an important thematic decision, but it did bother me at the time.

Random Thoughts

  • Paul Kinsey has a beard now. The question of whether he looks more or less like Orson Wells now is up for debate.
  • The guys wonder how Peggy lost all that weight, to which Pete responds: “Far farm. I thought we had verification”.
  • “Didn’t you tell me you were the bridge between Accounts and Don?” “Doesn’t sound like me” Roger is definitely back to work, as John Slattery gets promoted from “special guest star” to regular cast member in the opening credits.
  • In case we had forgotten who exactly Betty is as a character, we get a quintessentially Betty line when Sally says that her teacher made her class give a valentine’s to everyone, to which Betty responds with a “well, that defeats the purpose”.
  • We can breathe a sigh of relief as the show were quickly pointed out the fact Sterling Cooper has both a person called Donald and a guy nicknamed Duck working under the same roof.
  • “That’s why I don’t allow crying in the break room (…) there are places for that, like your apartment”

Happy July 28th! Peruvian Movies on Netflix

La Teta Asustada

July 28th? Yup. July 28th. Otherwise known as Peruvian Independence Day. It’s been a little over two years since I moved to the U.S., so in view that I can’t spend the holiday with my countrymen (and countrywomen?), I decided to check out some Peruvian movies. And in case you are also curious about Peruvian cinema, I got good news for you, there are actually some pretty good Preuvian movies that you can stream on you computer right now. Here are a couple of recommendations of…

Peruvian Movies You Can Stream on Netflix Right Now

The Milk of Sorrow (La teta asustada – 2009) This is probably the most well-know Peruvian film among international cinephiles. Director Claudia Llosa’s second feature became the first Peruvian movie to win the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, and the first Peruvian movie to be nominated for the Foreign Language Film Oscar (it lost to Argentina’s The Secret in Their Eyes). It’s the story of a woman named Fausta (Magaly Solier), who is suffering from “la teta asustada”, which superstitious beliefs say is a disease transmitted through the milk of a mother who was abused or raped during the pregnancy. It’s a quiet and delicate movie. I haven’t seen it in quite some time, but still remember some of its most powerful moments. It was kind of a big deal back when it premiered in Peru in 2009. Mainstream audiences were divided on the film (some find it fascinating, some couldn’t see what the big deal was). I would definitely recommend it. I mean, it’s without a doubt the most essential movie for anyone who is curious about contemporary Peruvian cinema.

Undertow (Contracorriente – 2010) The success of The Milk of Sorrow was followed by a series of movies that seemed to announce some sort of Peruvian cinematic new wave. That dream didn’t quite become a reality, but there is no doubt that Javier Fuentes-León’s Undertow is one of the best movies that came out during this period. It’s set on a seaside village in Northern Peru, and belongs in the quintessentially Latin American genre of magic realism, as a gay fisherman who is afraid to come out of the closet sees his lover come back from the dead in an incredibly touching love story. So, Peruvian Ghost meets Brokeback Mountain? Or Brokeback Ocean, as I called it when it premiered? Well, yeah, kind of, but that would be a very reductive way of looking at a movie that feels as authentic and genuine as this one does. Undertow is also notable for having won the World Cinema Audience Award at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.

Madeinusa (2006) This is Claudia Llosa’s first feature, which tells the story of a young girl named Madeinusa (again, Magaly Solier), who lives in an incredibly religious village in the Peruvian Mountains, where a lot of questionable rituals and traditions are performed every year without protest. Well, at least until the arrival of a city boy named Salvador, who takes a special interest in the titular girl. Now, this movie might not be as celebrated as the ones that came after it, but it’s definitely the one that started it all. I remember, because up to this point Peruvian cinema right before this point had been regarded as largely mediocre, and then suddenly, there was a Peruvian that wasn’t just good, it was actually pretty great. Llosa is still the most important auteurist voice of Peruvian cinema, and Madeinusa is an incredibly interesting movie. Some say even better than the more popular Milk of Sorrow. 

The Bad Intentions (Las malas intenciones – 2011) This is the first feature by filmmaker Rosario Garcia-Montero, and Peru’s official entry for the Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2011. The film wasn’t nominated, and I can’t say that I’m surprised. Not only did it not have that much buzz around it, it’s also kind of a weird sit. I’m not a big fan of the movie, which felt a little too over-the-place for my taste. However, it’s particular dark tone -this is the story of a girl fascinated with doomed historical figures who decides she is going to die on the day her brother will be born- is certainly unique, and it features some pretty interesting visuals because this movie, again, features elements of magical realism. Anyway, I would treat this one with a grain of salt, I only would recommend it to those who are really curious to watch more movies after the three I mentioned above.

Summer of ’92: Television

It’s time to take a break from the cinema of 1992, at least one week before we reach the finish line of the Summer of ’92 series (just three more episodes!). What am I doing this week instead? Well, if there is an artform that rivals (and maybe even surpasses) cinema in the influence it had on me, it’s definitely television. As a child, I loved television, and felt incredibly protective of it. This was mostly because, back in the early nineties, there very few, if any, people that considered television to be a legitimate artform. Ok, I actually don’t know if that is true, but it was definitely my impression at the time. All I heard about was how you shouldn’t watch television, how it was the “idiot box”, and how everything showing on television was crap.

As a matter of fact, I remember the day the theater director at my school introduced a play with a speech in which she said that “television is garbage”. The whole auditorium, which must have been holding around 700 people, started clapping as soon as that phrase was said (and it wasn’t the end of the speech). People certainly had a bad perception of television’s worth as a cultural medium.Well, guess what? They were absolutely wrong. These people were probably forgetting that such masterpieces of world cinema such as Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage and Kieslowski’s Dekalog were produced for television. I guess those programs didn’t air in my home country of Peru, but hey, you would have to be a very stupid person to not recognize the genius of a program like The Simpsons. Television is the perfect medium if you want to look at a snapshot of what the culture looked like in a particular year. So, without further ado, and in no particular order, here are…

11 Essential Television Programs to Understanding 1992

SeinfeldSeinfeld
The way Seinfeld influenced and shaped the culture of the 1990s is, without a doubt, one of the best arguments you can make for television being one of the most influential art-forms in the world. 1992 was especially important for Seinfeld, since it saw the premiere of its fourth season, widely regarded as one of its best, and definitely the most important one in turning the show from small critical hit into a ratings and cultural juggernaut. Seinfeld‘s undoubted dominance of the mid-to-late nineties just couldn’t have been possible without the hype around such episodes as “The Pitch” and “The Ticket”, the two-part episode that focused on Jerry and George’s semi-autobiographical pitch to make a show about nothing, and definitely not without “The Contest”, which aired on November 18 1992, and is, without a doubt, one of the most talked-about episodes of television. If you’re familiar with the show, then you’ll surely remember this episode, in which the four leads take part in a bet to see who can last the longest time being “the master of hi/her domain”. Season four of Seinfeld is magnificent, and it rightfully kickstarted the show’s popularity by being the big winner at the 1993 Emmys, winning Best Comedy Series and Best Writing for “The Contest”.

Homer the hereticThe Simpsons
If Seinfeld is the most influential show of the nineties, then The Simpsons is the most influential show of human existence. The Simpsons was, of course, a great show from the start (season two is particularly important in the show’s development), but most fans would agree that the show didn’t quite reach the pinnacle of brilliance until its fourth season, which premiered in September 1992. This is particularly noticeable in the third episode of the season, “Homer the Heretic”, in which Homer skips church on a snowy day and decides to start his own religion. Like I said before, The Simpsons was an incredibly well-written and smart show from the start, but season four brought for a philosophical point of view that wasn’t afraid of taking on deeper aspects of life and mixing them up with some of the most hilarious jokes ever written. At the end of “Homer the Heretic”, Homer asks God for the meaning of life, and just like that The Simpsons had established itself as one of the greatest -if not the very best- show in television history. 

Northern ExposureNorthern Exposure
The Television Critics Association, whose job you can probably easily decipher out of their title, started giving out awards for the best of television in 1985, and in 1992, they awarded their Program of the Year award to a CBS dramedy called Northern Exposure. I don’t know how many people are familiar with the show nowadays, since it was produced way before The Sopranos kickstarted the critical wave of television dramas, but it is a pretty good show. I haven’t seen it a while, but I remember catching it on reruns on some cable channel back when I was young. It’s very quirky show about a New York City doctor who moves to the small town of Cicely, Alaska. You may or may not be totally in sync with the show’s tone and sense of humor, but if you are a fan of such places as Pawnee, Indiana and Stars Hollow, Connecticut, then I think you’ll enjoy this show. What’s more, the show does have a connection to The Sopranos, since it’s one of the shows Sopranos creator David Chase worked for before creating his mob-and-psychiatry drama for HBO.

The Cosby ShowThe Cosby Show
Now, I must admit that I haven’t seen a lot of The Cosby Show. Just a couple of episodes here and there, but enough to get a pretty good sense of the show was like back when it was at the height of its popularity. 1992 was actually when the show aired its last episode, “And So We Commence”, on April 30. Thus, the fact that The Cosby Show ended its run just when The Simpsons and Seinfeld were rising in influence debuting what would be retroactively recognized as their most important seasons, makes it clear that, in many ways, 1992 was the end of an era. One that foreshadowed the changes that were going to come to the television comedy. Families that were happy and loved each other weren’t going to be enough. A satyrical, or ironic spin was what audiences of the nineties were clamoring for, and something that the urban sitcoms of NBC, and the adult-oriented animated comedies of later in the decade would deliver in spades.

VUE downloadsThe Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson
Since we’re on the topic of shows that went off the air in 1992, I couldn’t possibly go on without talking about The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. After thirty years on the air, Johnny Carson aired his final show on May 22, 1992. Since I was born in ’92, and not in America, I never got to watch a single episode of Carson’s Tonight Show live, but I am pretty much aware of his influence on comedy, television, and American culture. Again, the end of this show is another sign of the end of an era of television that was slowly transitioning from a traditional past into an edgier future. Whether or not that’s a good thing is up to debate, but there is no denying that something changed when America went from watching The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson to the days of the late night war between Jay Leno and David Letterman.

Sinead O'Connor SNLSaturday Night Live
I’ve been talking about the early nineties as some sort of transitional phase for television, but it’s not true that the comedic sensibilities of the nineties sparked out of nowhere. Saturday Night Live had been on since 1975, and being the jumping ground for the likes of Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, and Eddie Murphy surely proved to be one of the most important shows when it comes to having an influence on American comedy. The early nineties were a pretty good time for SNL. These were the days when Dana Carvey dominated a show that included future movie stars Mike Meyers and Adam Sandler in its cast. Back when they weren’t synonymous with horrible, unfunny, comedies that is. Also important to SNL in 1992 was the episode in which Irish singer Sinead O’Connor decided to rip a picture of Pope John Paul II on live tv during her musical performance. O’Connor was banned from the show, and her career never fully recovered from the backlash. I wonder if the same thing would’ve happened had she ripped a picture of Benedict XVI.

heart of iceBatman: The Animated Series
And while we’re talking about influential tv shows… definitely one of the most influential shows of the nineties, and one of the best animated television shows ever made was Batman: The Animated Series, which debuted in 1992. What was so special about this show? Well, just like The Simpsons was taking animated comedy to a more mature and intelligent audience, Batman was doing the same for saturday morning-style action shows. Instead of being a toy-commercial-turned-tv-show like G.I. Joe or Trasnformers, Batman: TAS had a particular vision, starting from its stylized, art-deco inspired visual style, and its complex characters. A perfect example is the episode “Heart of Ice”, which took Mr. Freeze, one of the silliest Batman villains, and turned him into a tragic figure who wishes to save his wife. It’s not exactly Chekhov, but it’s incredibly poignant for being a children television show of the early nineties.

Murphy BrownMurphy Brown
Here is when I want to point out that this is not necessarily a list of the best television shows that were on in 1992, but the shows that make for a better overall picture of what television looked like back in that year. That is why such classic sitcoms as Cheers or Roseanne are not on the list, and why Murphy Brown is. If you’ve seen Murphy Brown in recent years, as I have, you probably noticed that it’s a show that hasn’t aged particularly well. Most of its comedy seems to be very much rooted in the late-eighties-early-nineties period in which it was produced. There are a lot of topical jokes, and quite frankly, despite Candice Bergen’s pretty great performance, none of the characters are all that interesting as to make the show completely watchable all these years later. Why is it important to 1992, then? Well, it won a spot on this list thanks to Presidential candidate Dan Quayle, who criticized the show for its portrayal of Murphy Brown as a single mother, thus undermining the role of fathers in a child’s upbringing. This ridiculous claim was addressed in the season premiere “You Say Potatoe, I Say Potato” in which the character of Murphy herself raises her voice against the real-life politician. Pretty unique as far as television plots go, and the reason why Bill Clinton playing the sax on The Arsenio Hall Show didn’t make the list.

the real worldThe Real World
I don’t know if I have ever watched a single episode of The Real World, but I’m told that it is a very important show historical speaking. First, for starting MTV’s discovery that being the producer of cheap unscripted programming might be a better financial prospect than airing music videos. Second, because it was a pretty huge hit, and it was pretty clearly the forefather to the reality-show-infused age of television we live in. And if we’re being honest, it’s pretty hard to imagine The Real Housewives, Honey Boo-Boo, Duck Dynasty, or Kim Kardashian being a thing without this show paving the way. So… love it or hate it, those are just the facts, and at this point, it might not even be worth complaining.

Ben Stiller SHowThe Ben Stiller Show
Surely you know about comedic actor-turned director-turned bad actor Ben Stiller. But did you know he had his own television show? That’s right, back in the early nineties, a sketch-show named The Ben Stiller Show premiered on FOX, and featured some of the best comedy you’ve ever seen. Which is not all that surprising when you consider the show’s core cast consisted of Stiller, Jeanine Garofalo, Andy Dick and none other than Mr. Show creator Bob Odenkirk. At this point the legend of The Ben Stiller Show, which was cancelled after just one season due to low ratings is pretty well known, but if you have only heard and never seen it, then I recommend you head over to Youtube, search for some videos, and make this into one of the funniest days of your week.

El Chavo del OchoEl Chavo del Ocho
“What the hell is this?” You might be saying. Well, you wouldn’t be asking that if you had been born in a Spanish-speaking country. The popularity of El Chavo del Ocho along the Spanish-speaking world might be hard to grasp, but he is basically as famous as Mickey Mouse or Superman. “But what is it?” Well, El Chavo, as it is usually called, is a sitcom created by Mexican comedian Roberto Gomez Bolaños aka Chespirito, who stars as the titular Chavo, an orphan boy who practically lives in a barrel in a small Mexican housing complex populated by a series of quirky characters. The characters first appeared in a sketch in 1971, but El Chavo became its own show in 1973. It aired up to 1980, with sketches being produced all the way until 1992, when at the age of 63, Bolaños decided that he was finally too old to keep playing a young orphan boy. For the Spanish-speaking world, the end of El Chavo definitely signaled the end of an era on par, if not bigger, than the end of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson or The Cosby Show. 

Hyperactive Philosophy: A Review of Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’

Lucy

I had very mixed feelings when it came to my desire to watch Luc Besson’s latest movie, an action-thriller with science fiction elements starring Scarlett Johansson. I didn’t care for the trailer, and the fact that the movie’s premise was based on the scientific myth that says humans only use 10% of their brains only helped to make me more irritated by the idea of watching the movie. But then, reviews of the movie started to come out, and while they weren’t all positive (I’d say the critics’ reaction has been pretty mixed), a lot of them certainly made it look like at least an interesting movie to watch. What’s more, after watching Under the Skin again this week for Hit Me With Your Best Shot, and coming off the gigantic success of Captain America: The Winter SoldierI was starting to believe that 2014 was shaping up to be the year of Scarlett Johansson.

So, as far as my actual reaction to the movie is concerned, let me begin by stating that I definitely do not regret having watched Lucy. Meanwhile, how good of a movie it is, or if it is a good movie at all, is a much harder question to answer. I’ll say this: 2014 is definitely the year of Scarlett Johansson. She has grown leaps and bounds as an actress and as a movie star. The days in which she was the clunkiest part of The Prestige are long gone, she now tends to be the best thing about the movies she is in (as is the case with Captain America). I would go as far as to say she is the best female movie star we have right now, and the first fifteen minutes of Lucy are a testament to her star power. In these moments, Johansson balances tension, horror, desperation, and hilarious comedy in a way that most actors could only dream of.

In fact, I would say the opening third is Lucy’s strongest passage. It’s also where the movie is at its most conventional, which doesn’t mean that it is, strictly speaking, conventional. These are the events that lead Lucy to be captured by a Taiwanese drug cartel that cuts her up and puts a bag of a new synthetic drug in her belly. What these gangsters weren’t counting on, though, was that the bag they put the drugs in would break, and that Johansson’s body would absorb this incredibly strong substance, allowing her to be able to use her brain at full capacity. If this sounds like an incredibly stupid premise, it’s because that’s exactly what it is. The supernatural abilities that Lucy gains as her brain evolves are even more ridiculous. Watching Lucy actually reminded me of a similarly themed movie that came earlier this year: Wally Pfister’s Transcendencewhich I despised. Lucy and Transcendence might be equally dumb when it comes to the pseudo-science of their screenplays, but the difference is that Lucy is an incredibly fun movie to watch.

Not only is it pretty funny, it is filled with moments that are better described as “kick-ass.” Some of the movie’s detractors have complaint about its failed attempt at making some kind of pretentiously philosophical statement on par with 2001: A Space Odyssey, or The Tree of Life. While I can’t deny that Besson might have been inspired by those movies (in the case of 2001, he actually went as far as to attach a note on the first page of the screenplay saying so), I don’t find pretension in his filmmaking as much as I find unbridled enthusiasm. For example, he seems to have no interest whatsoever in the morality of the character. The movie isn’t concerned whether what Lucy is doing is good or bad, it is too excited just with the fact these things are happening at all.

As for the “big themes” of the movie, he only explores them superficially (if it all). This is hyperactive filmmaking, hardly as concerned with any of its themes as it is with finding the next cool scene. It is also pretty bonkers. Besson made the movie with independently of any big Hollywood studio, which granted him the advantage of being able to make whatever he wanted, and that is exactly what this is. It’s a filmmaker playing in the sandbox of his own id. But you’ll know this the second the movie starts, since the first shot reveals that the reason behind the titular character’s name is that it is the name of the “first human being”, or more accurately, one of the oldest found fossils of Australopithecus afarensis. This is all to say that the movie opens with the prehistoric Lucy drinking water from a lake. From then on, the movie indulges in all sorts of crazy visuals -most of them tongue-in-cheek, as the cutting to documentary footage of different animals in the middle of different scenes. Lucy might be stupid and immature, but it is also a surprisingly engrossing piece of filmmaking.

Grade: 7 out of 10

Mad Men: The Wheel (S01E13)

Screen Shot 2014-07-24 at 1.23.32 AM

A small reminder: I’m making my way through all of Mad Men before the last episodes premiere next spring. The plan is to do two episodes a week, with reviews going up Mondays and Wednesdays, but the schedule might vary a little bit. 

Is there a difference between perfection and greatness? After watching “The Wheel”, I would say there definitely is. The season finale of Mad Men‘s first season is by no means a perfect episode of television. It’s not even a perfect episode of Mad Men. It is, however, one of the finest, deepest, most effective, and overall great episodes of the show, and one of the finest hours of television ever produced. It doesn’t matter that “The Wheel” is not perfect. Actually, it’s better this way. It had to handle too many of the season’s story-lines as to be able to have its themes and character arcs wrap up in a neatly tied bow. So, what we have instead is an episode in which the characters’ stories are somewhat tied through plot, and loosely tied through a pretty general theme. But also, what we get is some of the most poignant moments the series ever produced, and an ending that defines our understanding of the series as a whole.

So, let’s stop getting around it, and talk about the big moment in the episode: Don’s pitch to Kodak. Sterling Cooper is aggressively looking for new business, and they hear Kodak is unsatisfied with the pitches it has been getting for their new slide projector, nicknamed The Wheel. At the same time, Don now has the package Adam sent him in his possession, and looking at the pictures of him and Adam as young boys sparks some sense of nostalgia in him. He decides to give Adam a call, and he, of course, finds out that his brother has killed himself. It’s a development that shakes up Don’s inner life, but one that colors his pitch to Kodak in a wonderful way. And so, The Wheel becomes The Carousel, a machine that doesn’t travel in space, but in time. A piece of technology that lets us look at the precious moments of our past. There is no way I can do justice to this scene, so here it is.

And in case you can’t watch the video right now, here’s a transcript:

Teddy told me that in Greek nostalgia literally means the pain from an old wound. It’s a twinge in your heart. Far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called ‘The Wheel.’ Its called ‘The Carousel.’ It lets us travel in a way a child travels. Round and round, and then back home again. To a place where we know we are loved.

Don’s pitch is masterful, thanks in no small part to Jon Hamm’s superb performance. It leaves Harry Crane, who is been sleeping at the office after cheating on his wife, in tears. Most important to the company, it leaves the Kodak executives in awe. The people in the room, however, are not the only ones sold on the pitch. It wouldn’t be completely accurate to say that Don sells himself on his own pitch, but rather that his speech is so effective because he already had bought into it. The idea of The Carousel is essential to Don Draper’s existence. We’ve spent thirteen episodes with this character, and now it’s finally the moment when we understand where he’s coming from. He is trying to escape a childhood that brought him nothing but misery, he is trying to create a new life that will give him that nostalgic pain. Somewhere where, as he says, he can be loved. Whether or not he has achieved it (I would say he hasn’t), it doesn’t matter, he did a good enough job selling this product as to believe that he might have.

Very early in the episode we learn that Betty and the children are going away for Thanksgiving with her family, but Don is not going. What Don learns about Adam, and the especially the Kodak meeting have such an effect on him that he runs home in order to catch his family and go spend thanksgiving with them. That’s where the brilliant gut-punch of the episode comes, he gets home, and they’re already gone. The last image we see is Don sitting alone in the shadows of an empty home, once more being unable to reach the happiness he has been striving for all these years.

Also in this Episode:
I think the connective tissue in this episode is the theme of loneliness. For example, we get a wrap-up to Betty’s story-line as she finally finds out his husband has been calling her therapist to hear about her sessions. Betty is without a doubt one of the most fascinating characters of this season, and she gets a defining moment in the scene in which she encounters Glen at the parking lot. We see a deeply sad woman, who is desperately trying to connect to someone, holding hands with a small child, because there is nobody else she can go to. Similarly, we finally learn that the reason why Peggy gained all that weight was because she was pregnant, and the scene in which she refuses to hold her and Pete’s child is also heartbreakingly dark. Pretty much every character in this seasons of Mad Men has been on a futile quest for happiness, trying to find it in places that prove to be nothing but empty boxes.

Random Thoughts

  • We, of course, know that it wasn’t Teddy that told Don that nostalgia mean the pain from an old wound. It was Rachel Menken! I’m still not sure what the meaning of Don incorporating such a pivotal Rachel line into his pitch means, but I expect to be thinking about that question all throughout this re-watch.
  • The show’s treatment of Peggy’s pregnancy is a very divisive point of discussion. For once, it made Elisabeth Moss wear that terrible fat-suit for half a season. A lot of people also question how Peggy couldn’t have realized that she was pregnant for a whole nine months. To that complain, many people respond by pointing out that there are whole television shows devoted to women who don’t realize they’re pregnant. Anyway, I’m not quite ready to give my final word on the show’s treatment of this story-line at least until I write about next season.
  • This episode brings us yet another introduction to a character that will play a bigger role in future episodes: it’s Carla, the Draper’s housemaid.

And now, some funny lines:

  • “It’s too bad your voice is so annoying”
  • “I got the bonus, and Cooper gave me some book by Ayn Rand”
  • “Your first account will be delivering Clearasil to the spotted masses”