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Monday, August 17, 2009

Mad Men: Dirty Martinis and Ant Farms



So how many of you watched the "Mad Men" season premiere? Go ahead--raise your hand. I’m counting. Nice. I think your Facebook statuses indicated this and I am happy to report that you’re not alone out there, my 1960s slick suit wearing, brandy in the office sloshing and non-filtered Marlboro loving friends.

Most of my fellow entertainment brethren agree that the writing, acting and art direction of the show is beyond stunning. Many shows try to layer in all the most important aspects of storytelling, but few succeed like "Mad Men." No detail is left behind. But within all the layers of storytelling comes something I usually rarely find in worthwhile television...

Symbolism.

How many of you noticed the hidden (or not so hidden) symbolism that the writers and directors use to convey theme and emotion as an integral part of the show? Yes. You in the back--from Dubuque, Iowa. You noticed? Bravo! Julie, go ahead and call Sprinkles stat! Dubuque gets a cupcake.

Images provide the audience with something I love about storytelling: Show, don’t tell. The subtext that is not only visual, but also visceral. And of course, sometimes a cigar is just a big ole fat...well, cigar.

Sure we see symbols in great movies. They can be conventional (fire, water, wind, the puppets in BEING JOHN MALKOVITCH). Or unconventional (the briefcase in PULP FICTION, the blue box in MULHOLLAND DRIVE, the loons in ON GOLDEN POND). But symbols are often left unexplored on most airing TV shows.

"Mad Men"’s premiere offered many eye-catching, provocative symbols. Season three starts with birth. Don is at the stove, boiling something that he then leaves unattended while reflecting on birth. And that something boils over, which gives us the sense that something ELSE will boil over this season. What could it be?

And when Sal engages in a kiss with the male bellhop - who somes up to check the overly warm (boiling) temperature in his hotel room - his pen explodes, leaving his starched white shirt pocket dripping with oozing ink. Sal’s tension fueled by a deep desire to be with another man bursts phalically and symbolically forth onto the screen.

And then there is the more nuanced symbol of Cooper’s ant farm. Did anybody else tune into that? It sits in the old Head of Accounts' office; when the new British boss (Pryce) and his underling (Hooker) meet, one of them comments, “This place is a giantocracy.” Hooker and his British boss will watch their ant farm of an ad agency from upon high. Then, they’ll command their little worker ants to grow their new empire with a fiery controlled chaos they surely will delve up by the truckload this season. Just like how they have already begun to pit Pete and Ken against each other as the new co-heads of Accounts.

It’s very simple, but, if interwoven well, symbols can really help reinforce your stories and premises throughout each and every scene.

How do you know it’s done on purpose in "Mad Men," Mr. Mike? Well, the frequency an object or character is mentioned is uber vital. I think "Mad Men" is subtler in its approach. But, if it is mentioned often, it is probably important. Another way to find or write about a symbol is to look at how much detail is used in describing it. Do your characters talk extensively about the object? These two methods give clues that the writer wants you to infer something about a particular object. You should do the same!

Please, writers (especially TV writers) – watch for this as you scribe your specs and future cable or network hit pilots. It enriches the world in which your characters play and thrive. And ask yourself, “Is there something more I can do to include symbols, images and icons to heighten my story and better convey emotion, theme and conflict?”

Now punch up that DVR and watch the season premiere again. Then, whip out your stogies, dirty martinis, underwire bras, skinny ties and enjoy those subtle as well as not so subtle symbols all over again...

Michael Perri is a writer/producer/comedian/techno-geek and partner with Yes No Maybe Productions in Los Angeles. Mike has produced and written plays, content for game shows, short movies, features and some scribbling on bathroom walls as a small child. He successfully helped create and launch some of the most critically acclaimed web series online including Citizen Kate and the latest smash hit - Weed Shop. Mike is currently developing original film and animated content that will soon hit the net and airwaves this year.

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5 comments:

JPSmith said...

"Giantocracy"? I heard "gynocracy", which would also work in the mind of the character.

And those non-filtered are Luckies (Marlboros were always filtered.).

Christian H. said...

Wow, now all I have to do is make it more clear for readers when I use symbols.

Dickie said...

I've noticed lately that symbolism is changing. It is more like your MULHOLLAND DRIVE sort of symbolism, where the symbol may not really refer to anything at all. I feel like movies are moving away from visual references that support the themes, that is, ones that refer to a common notion that is summed up by an object (a bird in a cage seems to be a popular example of this), and now the references we get in movies only refer to another reference. By this I mean, we are getting references to the things that todays filmmakers relate to from their youths, which is TV and movies. We have people like Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, Tarantino, Rodriguez, Wes Anderson, who seem to be innovating, as well as a string of people making grown up versions of all our favourite cartoons from the '80s (TRANSFORMERS, WATCHMEN, GI JOE). Even Batman has become sophisticated. We seem to have moved, or be moving away from things like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, or DUEL, or ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOOS NEST, which used symbolism very well, and into newer territory where the symbols relate to the TV generation.

I guess my question is, is symbolism in the traditional sense still relevant? I know it is valid, but if your goal is to make a film that stands the test of time, should you be trying to innovate? In history, most of the works we remember are ones that give you an idea of the thinking that was going in that period. The art we remember summarizes the period. Not to say there wasn't other great art, but we hold on to the ones that help categorize the thinking of the day. I don't know, but I think symbolism is an old trick, a 20th century trick.

This is just me speculating, I'd love to hear if anyone agrees/disagrees with me. I've sat through a lot of theatre that uses symbolism, (granted a lot of the time for budget reasons, symbols are cheaper to make than realism), and it seems outdated to me. I guess that is why my ears pricked up when I heard the word symbolism.

Papageiena said...

I'm pretty sure Sterling Cooper was described as a gynocracy, in reaction to Joan.

I only started watching 'Mad Men' two weeks ago, I'm through the whole series, and I'm going nuts for next week. If there's one thing I've noticed is that the series is overwhelmed with symbolism, but in a good way. Everything works and when you pay attention to what everyone is saying or doing, it's quite rewarding.

And kudos to Sal finally hooking up with someone. Here's hoping this isn't the last of that! :)

JPSmith said...

Speaking with my novelist hat on, we tend to avoid any overt symbols these days. Back in the day English majors tended to overuse them, due to lazy teachers spending their time having student "pick out the symbols, kids", as if literature were a puzzle waiting to be picked apart. It made young writers feel their work had more gravitas if laden with symbols.

But that time has passed. Simple answer? If you're a smart and canny writer, steer clear of them and let any of the unconscious symbols make their way to the forefront.