Having majored in cinema studies in my time at RMIT, I’m no stranger to the close textual analysis of audiovisual forms. That said, I’ve never approached a television program in this way. An open homage to the visual style of classic film, AMC’s Mad Men (2007-) seems an appropriate place to start.
Set in the 1960s, a decade of great political and social change in the USA, Mad Men explores the personal and professional lives of men and women employed by advertising giant Sterling Cooper. At its centre is ad executive and master manipulator Donald Draper (Jon Hamm).
The reference to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) in the show’s animated opening credits, specifically the symbolism of a falling man, is too perfect not to mention first up.
On initial viewing, with little knowledge of the show, I immediately read this image as symbolic of crumbling patriarchy. Having reached the halfway point of season one, the opening credits are richer with meaning for me. They infer mystery (particularly Don’s enigmatic character), suggest the growing power of women during the 1960s and critique capitalism and consumerism. I could go on and on, but let’s save that for my group presentation with Paul and Blake.
In this week’s lecture Brian screened “The Wheel”, the thirteenth and final episode of Mad Men‘s first season. Instead of examining the unknowable Don Draper, however tempting that may be, I’d like to take a closer look at the episode’s opening sequence.
The sequence depicts two simultaneous conversations – one between Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) and his father-in-law Tom Vogel (Joe O’Connor), the other between Pete’s wife Trudy (Alison Brie) and her mother Jeannie Vogel (Sheila Shaw). Smart, neat clothing abounds. Perhaps surprisingly there’s not a cigarette in sight. But there is alcohol, it wouldn’t be Mad Men without it.
Subtle brass music plays throughout the sequence but it never escapes background status, encouraging viewers to concentrate on the dialogue.
Naturalistically lit, the sequence begins with an extreme close-up of a fabric pattern propped up on a dining table – a vivid lime green number with colourful bubbles and “powder-room” items printed on it. A pull back reveals Trudy and Jeannie keenly assessing the pattern.
Without a cut, the camera tracks right to show Tom talking to Pete about “man stuff”, namely sports and politics, in an adjoining sitting area, before pulling back to show all four characters in the frame. The women are in the background and out of focus and their speech is inaudible. It’s clear who we are meant to be looking at and listening to. Hint: it’s not the women.
The separation of the men and women in the sequence’s staging highlights the gender division that’s a common theme throughout Mad Men. Think of the Sterling Cooper work environment, with female secretaries working in an open-plan space for men in offices. It is interesting that Tom takes it upon himself to tell Pete about Trudy’s feelings, reiterating what she has told Pete herself during season one.
Having established the setting and locations of the characters within it, the camera then cuts away to a mid-shot of Pete. This is the establishing shot in the shot-reverse shot pattern that follows, an editing choice used to signal an abrupt change of direction in the men’s conversation. This new trajectory is categorically marked by Tom clearing his throat, moving from politics to the business of baby-making.
The latter topic seems to be in direct opposition to the “secret men’s business” vibe of the men’s exchange, but is neatly positioned in the ideological construct that is “The American Dream” – financial independence, nuclear families, white picket fences, traditional values…the works.
Notably, the subject of work (Pete’s promotion opportunity and Tom’s own business expansion) proves tempting for Tom. It’s a hurdle he gradually overcomes in order to discuss the issue of starting a family – something he believes he should, but is not necessarily keen, to address.
By this stage Jeannie and Trudy are no longer able to remain unresponsive to the men’s conversation. Upon hearing the word “child”, the ladies join the men in the sitting area. Jeannie sits next to her husband on the couch and Trudy stands behind her parents. This staging creates a “Wall of Vogels” effect that screams “CONCEPTION!” – it’s three against one. All Pete can do is smile and nod in awkward silence as the sequence comes to a close.
One thought on casting. No matter how much I watch Mad Men, I can’t see Alison Brie as anyone other than Annie from Community. It can be truly bizarre, almost as though Brie is playing Annie playing Trudy. I expect to get over that at some point…but maybe not for a while.