We can’t help but fall hopelessly in step with the world that surrounds us, cutting out our shapes from it and becoming defined in that way like negative space against a backdrop. We are all products of our place in time but sometimes a shape comes out of the past and blocks the sun, obscures the landscape. We need these figures. No matter how much they intimidate they are a necessary part of our progress and well being. We need them because they hold us to account.
[related_content slugs=”canaries-in-the-coal-mine-why-ontarios-school-crisis-matters-in-alberta,correlated-young-adultcharmer,top-ten-comics,correlated-taxi-driver-kick-ass” description=”More from Theodore Wiebe” position=”right”]
In 1973 Robert Altman directed an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. The film starred a young, lithe, smartass Elliott Gould in the iconic role of Phillip Marlowe, an old-school PI living anachronistically in the then modern world of disco culture, sexual freedom and the growing self-interest that would come to define the 80s. Where most depictions of Marlowe take place in the character’s native time period of the late 1930s through 1950s, Altman chose to transpose the character’s setting into the Hollywood of 1973. What Altman didn’t do, however, was change the Marlowe character or address the tension that he had created between the movie’s modern world and its archaic protagonist.
Even when he was contemporary Marlowe didn’t belong. Like many of the greatest heroes of the hardboiled tradition, Sam Spade instantly comes to mind, Marlowe is a man who adheres to a personal code above all else. His code is ethereal and unstated. It doesn’t align with the law or the expected morals of society but he is uncompromising in his personal commitment to it. Marlowe crashes through the lives of the people around him, even if those people are the people who he has been hired to protect. He is a wrecking ball of integrity as he rejects intimidation, seduction and placations. He has closed all of the corridors that people use to influence the moral center of the brain and become an incorruptible, inevitable force for something deeper.
The movie begins with a pair of scenes that function as a representation of Marlowe’s loyalty firstly to his cat and then to his friend, Terry Lennox. Between the scratches on his face, the blood on his knuckles and his history of domestic abuse Terry Lennox is clearly a man up to no good, but Marlowe, despite all of his investigatory prowess, cannot see this fact because Terry is his friend and Marlow is a man from another time. A time that may never have existed but that we all remember through a haze of Rockwell paintings and black and white movies. A time when a man’s word was his bond. Terry uses his word and swears that nothing is amiss. He’s just had an argument with the missus. He just needs a ride to Tijuana. And Marlowe believes him, gives him the ride and opens his world to chaos.
The rest of the movie is a decent into bedlam as Marlowe refuses to acquiesce, accept the norm and let questions alone. First, the police tell him that Terry has murdered his wife and ask him if he knows where his old friend has gone. Marlowe lies and tells them, no. Then, Lennox is reported to have killed himself. Marlowe refuses to believe it, he taps into that mystical well of otherworldly wisdom and “trusts his gut.” We see him go to jail, talk down psychopathic mobsters and finally collect on Terry’s debts. We never see him bend, we never see him waver. Marlowe undercuts the assumptions of the world around him and imposes deeper truths upon it. Truths that were once commonly understood but got lost somewhere between the 1948 Lincoln and 1973 Corvette.
Like the dog from The Littlest Hobo or Bill Bixby’s Incredible Hulk Marlowe never changes, his arc always ends very near to the exact point from where it began. Instead he acts as an agent of change for others, a straw stirring the drink. It is for this reason that Altman’s portrayal of the character feels so natural. The outsider essence of the character is only enhanced by the change in period. In a way the transposition allows Altman’s Marlowe to engage even more fully in his role as the man keeping track of the ledger. It takes the emphasis away from the moods and textures of noir storytelling and refocuses it on the man and his mission. It is a welcome change that shoots life into both the character and story.
Mad Men, however, exemplifies an inverse. Where Philip Marlowe takes a bankrupt society to the bank and forces them to settle their accounts, Don Draper and his compatriots show us just how important it is that we’ve changed.
Mad Men is many things: an ensemble show, a family’s saga, a workplace drama, the story of one man’s continual decent, but perhaps above all of these, Mad Men is a period piece. A period piece that simultaneously loves and hates the period in which it is set.
It’s easy to see the gorgeous costuming, lush sets, warm lighting and think that Mad Men is a love letter to days gone by. In one sense it is. Series creator/show-runner Matthew Weiner clearly has recreated 1960s Manhattan with the obsessive zeal of a man lost in love. Everything from the product labels to the state of the produce being sold in grocery stores is researched and meticulously brought back to life. It’s compelling and attractive, this era. It’s tinted in shades of amber and comforting in its rigidity. It’s also dangerous and repugnant. Matthew Weiner knows this. It’s one of the reasons he made this show, to force us to look in a mirror that’s pointed backwards.
There’s a scene that sticks out in my mind when I think of Mad Men. It’s early in the run of the show and the marketing firm in which the show is largely set is researching a product that has been designed for women. There’s a point in the conversation where a mid-tier ad man suggests to the rest of the men he’s working with that they, “Throw this one to the chickens.” He means to say that they should give the product to the women who work in the office and then spy on their reactions. It’s stayed with me because of its disposability. The offending “chickens” line passes by in a second. If you’re yawning, you’ll miss it. However, it informs the scene that follows. As the women are given samples of the product -lipstick, I think- they begin to excitedly talk amongst themselves and the sound design warps that chatter into something resembling the chatter of chickens. It’s a subtle manipulation that underlines the cruelty and offensiveness of the line. The fact that it’s said in a professional context and presented as being common language functions to further underscore the cruelty.
Just like Altman used Phillip Marlowe to do with 70s Hollywood, Matthew Weiner uses the world of Mad Men to hold us to account. These are the sorts of things that polite, educated and respectable people used to say at work. This is the sort of attitude that used to be common. Those are facts and they are both embarrassing and horrible. Just like Phillip Marlowe forcing Terry Lennox to face the depravity that he has come to accept as normal, Matthew Weiner uses that scene to force his audience to look back at what they once were. To show them how wrong they were and how important change can be. To continue moving forward towards something more human and more understanding.
This is what makes these foreign objects that jut through the ambiance both important and imposing: They teach us about how we have been and, in so doing, hold us responsible for the ways in which we have changed for the better and worse. They require us to examine our status through a different lens and to be honest in our appraisals. They guide us toward one of the most terrifying things of all.
Follow us on Twitter @SpectatorTrib