Friday, April 11, 2008

"The universe is indifferent"

I will write further about "Mad Men" when the season finishes on the Beeb in a month or two. Suffice to say, its incredibly good, complex, witty, beautiful and moving, and quite possibly my favourite American television show since "The Wire", which is the highest praise I can imagine. If you haven't watched it, shame on you, and go order the DVD Box set right now to redeem yourself.

What I can talk about is its stunning opening credit sequence, which sets the tone for all that follows, and is a quality piece of work in its own right. It consists of a series of animated tableaux depicting a man in a suit and tie arrive at a spartan office, which then melts away around him, to send him plunging through a city skyline formed by skyscrapers, their facades containing the images of typical adverts from the 1950s. Thats it. Yet this sequence, less than a minute long, manages to distill the thematic essence of the show while also suggesting the look and design adopted in each episode.

The man is a silhouette, generic, his clothing and hair and briefcase and the ubiquitous cigarette suggesting just every one of the men at the centre of the first Season, but also hinting at a certain ambivalence in the creators attitude to the dominant masculinity of mainstream (what was still Eisenhower's) America in 1960. These men are interchangeable, anonymous, strange precursors of the Japanese "salarymen" of the last few decades, which they resemble in many ways, a thought that would horrify any one of them.
The office is bare, bottles inevitably standing upon its desk, a fan turning in a corner, all angles and lines - venetian blinds, "modern" 50s furniture. The pictures we see slide down the wall appear to be adverts of some kind, in three primary, somehow male (by their absence of feminine warmth, perhaps) colours - black , white and red. The man stands still, powerless, as the room melts away, and even before this his movement has been slow, tired, a heavy step into the room and then a weary stoop to lay down the weight of his case.

His fall amidst the skyscrapers is lovely, an establishing shot to identify where he is then a beautiful long shot of his slow drop alongside a building covered in an image of a woman's long, shapely legs. Many of the images surrounding his fall are of female beauty - we see a collage of eyes and busts and hair, shoulders and varnished fingernails, red lips shaped in wholesome but nonetheless provocative smiles, eyebrows, and most especially; legs. Women's legs and a particular appreciation of them seems quite an archaic image - in the 1950s, where there were vastly different standards of public morality, legs were about as racy as sexual imagery in advertising in the USA got. There are also images of the American nuclear family. Smiling men and women with cute children. A slogan above an enormous glass of whisky reads: "Enjoy the best America has to offer". The man is shot side-on, as if he is plunging backwards into the glass, into the whisky. Another slogan reads: "Its the gift that never fails" above what appear to be two hands, male and female, both wearing wedding rings.

These images all appear to represent what these men fear, what they perceive as threats to their status as masters of the universe. Women and the power of feminine sexuality, family life and alcoholism are all explored in detail in the series itself, as is the American dream and its dark side, perhaps the shows main concern. One of the questions "Mad Men" asks echoes that billboard - what if this is the best America has to offer? What then?

Also notable is the fact that these are images created mainly for men, by men. The characters in "Mad Men", it becomes clear, played a big part in the creation of the modern world, quantifying it, branding it, selling it, smoothing down its edges. And yet these credits - where the man, a figure of stark, simple black and white, is surrounded during his fall by warm, feminine skin-tones and robust colours - seem to suggest that they feel as ambivalent about the world they have made as anybody else does.

That the sequence ends with a slow crawl back away from the silhouetted man, sitting calmly, still and with a cigarette in hand as a beat kicks in and changes the tone of the theme music is perhaps its most revealing aspect. It suggests that everything we have seen in the preceding 25 seconds or so - the office melting away and the entire fall through the advertisements -is happening inside this man, mentally, emotionally, all of the time. And yet he keeps a lid on it. The beat is solid, disciplined, unlike the erratic strings which preceded it. This attempt to control these raging fears, this insecurity, is normal, this sequence says. Which is what the show ultimately says about its main character, Don Draper. Only the credits say it, beautifully, in 36 seconds.

Stylistically, the sequence is pure Saul Bass. I went to a Bass exhibition at the Design Museum in London a few years ago, and the invention and purity of his work as a designer - both of credit sequences and movie posters - was inspiring and decades ahead of its time. The image of the man falling seems a lift from - or homage to - his poster for "Vertigo" (1958), with perhaps a nod in the direction of his work on the credits for "Anatomy of a Murder" (1959), both of which are topical within the universe of "Mad Men".

This Bass influence may be a fortuitous accident, because creator Matthew Weiner's original concept was, in his words, "An idea about a guy getting up in the morning. A faceless man going to work and jumping out of office window. I imagined we'd do it live action, and freeze frame with his jacket flapping, when he's from twelve feet from the ground, and it would say Mad Men." But executives at the AMC network didn't like that idea, and so the animation was developed. The music is by RJD2, "A Beautiful Mine", and its Herrmann-esque strings also feel sympathetic to the period, while containing an entirely fitting jittery melancholia.

The credit sequence in all its glory:



Blogger Ross said...

Look at you, writing a passionate, informative and interesting piece about what is technically incidental, a mood-setter, something likely to be ignored while the audience sorts out their tea and biccies or three fingers of malt.

I've said it before but I often feel like there's nothing left to say to many of your posts, they seem to cover all the bases, all the angles.

Thus all I have to offer are admiration and envy.
But you're head's too big so that makes me feel better.

9:00 pm  
Blogger David N said...

It is incidental, but then its not.

My head is big, but then its n - oh alright it is.

Credit sequences seem to be disappearing from mainstream tv, almost - neither Lost nor Heroes has one, just a title, then the names of the crew over the action for the first few minutes. I get why - more story-time - but it seems like a bit of a shame. I love the credits of the shows I like - The WIre, Deadwood, Rome...the weird mood of the Battlestar Galactica credit sequence tells you whether or not you're going to like the show, I think. I guess what I'm trying to say is that credit sequences can be art, obviously. Its just that most of the time, they're not.

12:13 am  

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