Saturday, May 23, 2015

Coke. Is. It. And Mad Men Ends.

“I had a dream I was on the shelf in the refrigerator. Someone closes the door and the light goes off, and I know everybody's out there eating. And they open the door and you see everyone smiling and they are happy to see you but maybe they don't look right at you and maybe they don't pick you. And then the door closes again, the light goes off.”

This epiphany-inducing speech by Mr. Average at the Esalen-like retreat is strange, as dreams often are, until you realize that he dreamt he WAS—Kafka-like—a bottle of Coca-Cola. And he was worried that people were going to go for the Chablis on the door instead of him!

Yes, the entire Mad Men series was about Coca-Cola, pure and simple.


I appreciate that the Mad Men finale has been analyzed from every angle known to man, and a few that may be extraterrestrial in scope.

So in my week-later piece,  I'd like to start with a solecism in the all-hallowed Hilltop Coke song that everyone has blithely chosen to overlook:

And that is the bizarreness of "honey bees" and "snow white turtle doves" as direct objects of the transitive verb "grow."

"I'd like to build the world a home
And furnish it with love

Grow apple trees and honey bees
And snow white turtle doves

Come on people, this syntax makes no sense!
You "raise" honey bees and turtles dove, you don't "grow" them. 

And insult to injury: the the meter of the underlying jingle throws a stress on the word "snow" equal to the word "grow"--on top of the natural word rhyming-- making it seem as though it's a parallel verb construction:  "grow tress" and "snow white turtle doves."

Just wanted to put this out there. It's really has been bothering me since I was a kid.

Reverse Angles

Don's unlikely lotus position immediately brought a  reverse angle image into my head: Michael Keaton's opening scene of Birdman. For me Don chanting Ohm in Big Sur was as surreal as Riggan Thomson levitating in the same position in his dressing room.

That said, the interesting thing about the big reveal of Don as the creative genius behind "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing"--called one of the greatest commercials of all time--is that it illuminates for people their own view on advertising itself.

Me: I've never given advertising much of a thought one way or another. I accept the premise--"they" are going to try to sell me something--and I move on. I don't contemplate if they are toying with my emotions, because I don't invest enough in the ads.

People who see the finale as cynical have strong feelings about the evils of advertising. That what was a "real" moment of life as Don chanted at the Esalen-like retreat became perverted to peddle colored sugar water to the world. Hence Don has not changed, when if he had not created the ad, and stayed away from advertising, he would be changed/redeemed.

I like how Tom and Lorenzo put it in their recap:

 *Don took a week of depressed middle class white people and turned it into a minute of hopeful, ethnically diverse teenagers.

*He went from selling cancer to the American public to selling obesity to the American public and he did it using a message of brotherhood and tolerance that he himself would never experience because of his upper middle class trappings.

*This is what we mean when we say the ending is a cynical one. We don’t necessarily mean that as a bad thing. Mad Men has always been a particular combination of capitalist-fueled cynicism and family-based hope.

Matthew Weiner defended the ad at the New York Public Library event:

“I think it’s the best ad ever made,” he said. “That ad is so much of its time, so beautiful — I don’t think it’s as villainous as the snark of today thinks it is.”

So Weiner doesn't worry about the multinational corporation that is Coca-Cola and its impact on Don's soul. That they try to sell "happiness" as carbonated water in a bottle.  That they pervert the whole concept of "it's the real thing."

I don't worry either. I am Coke fan myself. I love the refreshing taste. I know it's not great for me, but I don't drink coffee and everyone picks his own poison. When I first started traveling to Europe 30 years ago it was hard to find "Coca Lite" but every once it a while you would run into it in a little epicerie in the middle of nowhere, and you bet it made me smile. And it usually made the epiciere smile too, at the American who found the Diet Coke. Commerce is not all evil.

As for the finale and the series: From a character angle,  I had trouble with Don's epiphany coming from the refrigerator speech. The dream thing is too weird except as an allusion to Coke bottles,  and I don't think it earned Don's breakthrough connection.

But then I never felt compelled by Don Draper the character. I enjoyed the artistry and style of a TV show that started with the distinct evocation of the 1950s and lead us throughout the decade.

These last episodes for me were a collection of Matthew Weiner's favorite things: particularly the enormous homage to Hitchcock.

But what Mattew seems to have loved most of all was the Coke commercial he saw when he was 6 years old. It's quite a story, especially why it's in Rome (it's because it was raining in England).  More details on Coke's own site.

I applaud people who are able to bring their passions into their work of any kind, and share it with the world, maybe even with a coke and a smile.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Mad Men: Where Hitchcock Meets Lawrence of Arabia, and We Say Goodbye to Don

In the beginning there was Alfred Hitchcock. He liked mystery, intrigue, issues of identity, Cary Grant, and cold, cool blonds.

Quite the blueprint for Matthew Weiner. 

Mad Men opened with the the intriguing "falling man" while it's Roger Thornhill in Hitchcock's North by Northwest who is the original falling man (with what I think is a much more closely matched "fall" than the oft-cited Vertigo poster) and an advertising man to boot who can't get people to believe who he is once he gets mistaken for a spy.  And so we know whence Don Draper sprang fully formed from the head of Matthew Weiner.

Much of the magnetism of the series came from the evocation of the 1950s (which the series rightfully depicts as continuing on well into the 1960s). North by Northwest opened on July 28, 1959; Mad Men debuted on July 19, 2007. Weiner brought us the great visual quotes of the NxNW cornfield scene in "Lost Horizon," and the "Thornhill at bus stop in the middle of nowhere" quote in "The Milk and Honey Route." Weiner has elegantly achieved the homage to the Master.

The Plot: Through the series we've learned a bunch about how Dick Whitman became Don Draper, taking on the identify of his lieutenant in Korea, after he accidentally killed him.

And why did he want to change his identify? He had a difficult childhood. For me, none of this was why I watched. I've watched because of the visual beauty and artfulness, a distinct place on the TV landscape to spend an hour a week, sporadically through the years.

Everybody Loves a Mystery
So how will it all end? Don has been stripping himself of the Don Draper identifiers: his beautiful wife Megan; their apartment (and furniture, which her mother took); his advertising career; his first family; his car.

And . . . we last saw him at a Thornhill-like bus stop in the middle of nowhere. (h/t Michael Beschloss for the Cary Grant screen grab.)


Hmm.  Happiness, at having little left to lose, made me think of one person . . .


Thomas Edward Lawrence struggled with identity his whole life.  His father, Sir Thomas Chapman, was married with four daughters. They hired a nanny, Sarah, to help, and Tom fell madly in love with her.

He left his wife and daughters, and started a new life with Sarah, under the name Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence. He never divorced his first wife, and he had five sons with Sarah, of whom T.E. was the second.

T.E. had an enormous intellect, which is what propelled him to great heights in leading much of the war in Arabia during WWI. He idenfitied with the Arabs, and believed he was fighting for their independence.  That's not what happened: Arabia was portioned off between the English & French. He felt he had been a fraud (this is all in enormous shorthand.)

When Lawrence returned to civilian life we was given a teaching gig at Oxford. Perfect, right? But he enlisted in the R.A.F. under the name John Hume Ross, to lose himself. When it was discovered who he really was, he was thrown out. Then he enlisted in the Royal Tank Corp, as T.E. Shaw. He didn't really like that and he petitioned to be let back in to the R.A.F, which happened in 1925. He served until 1935.  Two months after he left the service, at the age of 46, he was mortally hurt in a motorcycle accident, and died.

Lawrence wrote about his time in the RAF & the Tank Corp. in The Mint, which was published after he died. It is a tortured telling of wanting to be a complete non-entity.  Shedding all identity was the only way he could find peace, dare we say happiness. That's why he popped into my head when I saw Don's smile at having nearly nothing.

I don't think this has anything to do with the actual ending, but I did find Weiner made a reference to none other than David Lean's movie in a Washington Post interview on the idea of Jewish-ness & Other-ness. . . .HA!

"So when you start making a decision to represent people, and you have Ginsberg’s father, who’s a Holocaust survivor, who is from Poland, you’re gonna have him talk like Lawrence of Arabia?"

Clues That Have Been Dropped
John Slattery is on record as saying that the ending is "Of course."  I believe that Weiner has said that he's known how it will end since he started.

I love the D.B.Cooper idea.  Such a creative exercise, to take one of the great mysteries of the 1970s, and trace it back to who D.B. was before he disappeared.

Other than that, I'll just be happy with almost anything as long as it doesn't have any completely illogical occurence: like a man who clearly is dying of frostbite, in a car enclosed in ice with a dead battery, and then miraculously turns up in a kitchen in sunny Arizona . . .

Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Songs Our Mothers Sang to Us: Happy Mother's Day 2015

Yoko & Isoko Ono; Ellen & Betty O'Neill

One of the great delights for me is stumbling upon a touchstone, and if it's one that has been long forgotten, all the better.

This one starts with a news article back in January that recordings of "lost" Desert Island Discs had recently been discovered by the BBC.

What is a Desert Island Disc? It is a unique interview show on BBC 4 that has been on the air since its first episode on January 29, 1942. That's 73 years and counting.

Each week a distinguished "Castaway" chooses 8 pieces of music that they would want on their desert island, along with one book, and a luxury item--nothing that can help them escape, but something that will improve their life.  They are also given the Complete Works of Shakespeare, and the Bible.

Mrs. Peel Is Found

In January, one of the missing Castaway recordings for Diana Rigg was found, which is why the series caught my attention. (The others found were Louis Armstrong, first Doctor Who "Doctor" William Hartnell, and creator of Thomas the Tank Engine, Rev. W. Awdry.)

I first heard about the radio program at a Tallis Scholars Summer Workshop, where Patrick Craig played the interviewer and Jan Coxwell was the castaway. That was loads of fun, and wherein I learned the song Puppet on a String, one of England's Eurovision song winners.

But it was the "lost" news announcement that brought me to the wonderful BBC website and the Castaway Archive, for which I am eternally grateful. The archive lets you search by Castaway name, or specific piece of music or artist (to see how many Bob Dylan songs are among the choices, for instance) or a specific book, etc.

That search function brings you so easily to the intimacy of the human voice. The voice of a loved one is one of the most precious aspects of the human condition. And then there are the distinctive voices of beloved public figures: Michael Caine's cockney-inflected accent; David Tenant's Scottishness; Alec Guiness's uber English clip. It is a delight to hear their stories about their choices in those voices that are so familiar.

Yoko Ono and Her Mother

One of the stories that I found profoundly touching was from Yoko Ono, recorded Friday, June 15, 2007, when she was 73 years old. 

It was for her selection of the song "When I Grow to Too Old Dream." Here is the story she tells of why she chose it.  Her distinctive, slight voice somehow made the story even more poignant and resonant:

Yoko:  "This is a very personal memory for me.

One day I just felt I wanted to call my mother.

The way she said "Oh Yoko" I thought there was something strange.

And then she said "I just fell in the kitchen," or something like that.

And I thought, this is serious and I thought I had to do something, but I was in New York and she was in Japan.

So I said, "Ok Mommy, let's sing that song, remember that song you used to sing."

and I started "When I grow too old to dream."

[And my mother started to sing back very weak and very haltingly.]

Ok. Let's start again, "When I grow too old to dream. . ." 

I kept repeating it and repeating it and she finally sang the whole line.

I was so choked up. And my assistant called to Tokyo, to the hospital and got the ambulance to go to my mother, and she was saved."

And that is how Yoko Ono kept her mother calm and alert while her assistant telephoned Japan and got her mother help.

"When I Grow Too Old to Dream" is a song with music by Sigmund Romberg and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, published in 1934. (Yoko Ono was born in 1933). It is one of those extremely special tunes, like Amazing Grace and Danny Boy, that strikes a chord deep within many, many people.

The terrible scenario of an elderly loved one who has fallen is one that every family has known.  Keeping her mother calm and alert was absolutely the thing to do, very quick thinking on Yoko's part. And of ALL the songs in ALL the world she could use, what pops into her head in that desperate moment is a song in English that her mother sang to her as a child.  Isoko of course sang songs to Yoko in Japanese, but "When I Grow" has a tune that can connect soul to soul very deeply. Perhaps that is why it popped into her head in that stressful moment.

I hadn't thought of the song in years, but my mother, who was born the same year as Yoko, sang it to me too when I was a child. 

What makes my mom's rendition so special is that she cannot "carry a tune."  My mother can hear distinctive notes in a song, and can recognize songs, but she struggles to re-create differing pitches of any kind. Her notes often come out as a monotone. And yet, her love of songs and desire to share was so strong that I did hear "tunes" come through that monotone. And this song in particular, which I have known practically since birth.

Yoko tells her story beautifully, and sings the first line through twice. I hope you will click over to the Desert Island Discs website and listen to it, and all of her song selections, which of course include John Lennon.

Stumbling onto Yoko's story brought me an unexpected connection to the whole beautiful, shared notion of mothers & daughters, a choral connection across cultures and decades. Amazing.

When I grow too old to dream
I'll have you to remember
When I grow too old to dream
Your love will live in my heart
So, kiss me my sweet
And so let us part
And when I grow too old to dream
That kiss will live in my heart
And when I grow too old to dream
That kiss will live in my heart

The song was used in the 1935 film The Night Is Young, starring Ramon Navarro and sung by English light opera actress Evelyn Layne.

Leonard Maltin is not fan of the film: "Novarro, wretchedly miscast and mugging mercilessly, brings his 10-year MGM career to a pitiful end playing a Viennese archduke who spurns his royal fiancee for a fling with ballerina Laye. Oscar Hammerstein/Sigmund Romberg score, including "When I Grow Too Old to Dream,'' is an insufficient saving grace."

Gracie Fields and Nelson Edy had early hits with it, followed by Nat King Cole and Doris Day. Yoko used the Gracie version for her Desert Island Disc. That is not my favorite, because it's too operatic for such a gentle tune (although it does have the nice intro verse).  Here is Linda Ronstadt in a lovely duet with Kermit & Muppet chorus, also with the intro verse.