Saturday, March 14, 2015

Frames of reference: I don't know what the hell Alabama Shakes is/are. Do Alabama Shakes connoisseurs know what "North by Northwest" is?


No, you can't click on anything here; it's just a screen grab. If you want to watch the Exclusive New Mad Men Trailer Featuring Alabama Shakes, go here.

by Ken

So I got the an e-mail yesterday. owing to my membership in the highly exclusive Mad Men Social Club (so exclusive that the only way to become a member is by signing up), which contained a tease-and-link for the above clip. No, my blood didn't start racing. Because, keen as I am for the start of this final run of Mad Men episodes (come on, April 5!), I know perfectly well by now -- as we've discussed here so often -- that while Mad Men creator-mastermind Matthew Weiner knows as well as anybody that his product must be promoted, he's not going to let either his own people or the AMC PR corps reveal anything of substance about as-yet-unaired episodes.

(How would you like a PR assignment like that? You've got to try to drive people wild with anticipation without telling them [us] anything that they [we] don't already know.)

I respect the hell out of Matt W and any other responsible parties for this. There are movie and TV promoters who don't give a damn, and we wind up watching the first hour of the movie or the first episode or two of the TV series seeing all sorts of stuff we've already sort-of-seen. No sir, I want my slate for the episodes-to-come to be as clean as humanly possible when they finally come. (Come on, April 5!) Even if right now this is making me just the least bit crazy. Even more so since, as I reported, I zipped through the seven episodes that constituted "the first half of Season 7," as we're committed to calling the episodes that aired between April 13 and May 25, 2014, which sure sounds like "last season" to me. This is one helluva mid-season lull we've been enduring, waiting for the seven episodes that will constitute "the second half of Season 7." (In the event that April 5 ever comes.)

I've seen enough of these phony-baloney trailers to know that they're not going to tell me anything useful. And of course my official position is that I don't want to know anything about what's going to happen until it, you know, happens. It would be different if somebody were to slip me some secret link and maybe accompanying secret code so I could start watching those final episodes, but that's not going to happen. (Is it?)

Which doesn't mean that I didn't watch the damned "exclusive look" trailer. And, as I expected, I didn't see anything that told me anything about anything.

It was only after watching the clip, though, that I looked a little closer at how it was presented on-screen (see above) and then flashed back to how it had been teased in the AMC Mad Men Social Club, like so:

Do you notice anything different?

The e-mail tease was for a "New Trailer Featuring the Alabama Shakes." I didn't linger over it because I knew perfectly well that I had no clue what, or maybe who, "the Albama Shakes" is, or are -- an object or objects, a person or persons, or maybe a debilitating physical condition? I wasn't any the wiser, Alabama Shakes-wise, after watching the clip. But I did notice that here what I was being offered was a "New Trailer Featuring Alabama Shakes," which isn't quite the same thing. At this point I just went to Wikipedia and learned that, as I was coming to suspect, Alabama Shakes is a musical group. They could still be known, of course, as "the Alabama Shakes," just like the Rolling Stones are known as, well, the Rolling Stones, but I gather from glancing through the Wikipeda entry that this isn't the case. I don't rule out the possibility that the person who wrote the copy for the e-mail isn't a lot clearer about who or what the Alabama Shakes is/are than I am.

What we have here is what we might call "a frame-of-reference" issue, and a pretty crude one at that. The promoters of this promotion assume that the promotees will know who or what (the) Alabama Shakes is/are. I describe it as a pretty crude example of a problem with "frames of reference" because pretty obviously the promoters don't care whether I know who or what (the) Alabama Shakes is/are. I am, you might say, safely outside their frame of reference. Fortunately, this isn't exactly the first time I've found myself in this position. I am, by now, pretty well used to it. I'm often more surprised when I'm included "in the frame" of a current pop-cultural reference.


Perfect example: Barring unforeseen developments, like maybe getting hit by a bus or maybe the world coming to an end (hey, these things happen!), tomorrow I'm going to be writing a little about North by Northwest. Ohmygosh, do I love North by Northwest, and tomorrow I'm all booked for a real, live big-screen screening of it at the Museum of the Moving Image, the first of the movies chosen by the aforementioned Matthew Weiner for the MoMI film series, "Required Viewing: Mad Men's Movie Influences," being shown alongside the museum's Mad Men exhibition, which opens today and runs through June 14. (I had to skip the "members' preview" of the exhibition last night in order to finish a post, but I should arrive early enough tomorrow, even traveling from my NY Transit Museum tour of the Mother Clara Hale Bus Depot in Harlem, to have a first look through the exhibition before the screening.

Am I psyched for this, or what?

The only thing is, I'm realizing before I even set down any actual words for the blogpost I'm imagining, that I have a whopper of a "frame of reference" problem. North by Northwest came out in 1959. In its time it was, I think, an extremely well-known movie. (Yes, it's a movie, in case you didn't know.) As you would expect, considering that it surely has to rank on any serious list of the Greatest Movies Ever Made. I'm not saying flat out that it is the Greatest Movie Ever Made, though I'm not saying it isn't. I'm just saying that, if you were to try to compile such a list, how it, not only do I not see how it could be left off the list, I don't see by what criteria it could be kicked off as you tried to whittle the list down.

And yet, as I was reminded some months back when I was preparing to take the plunge and was shopping for a Blu-ray edition of the film, and looking at Amazon comments for guidance as to the quality of the versions possibly on offer, a whole hell of a lot of people have, or at least had, never heard of the picture. Quite possibly a lot of people who consider themselves conversant with movies generally, would guess that a film as ancient as this must be in black-and-white -- well, heck, the film Alfred Hitchcock made immediately after North by Northwest, which is to say Psycho, is in black-and-white. And many of those same people might guess that a film of this antiquity may not even have talking. Assuming. of course, that they're aware that there were once such things as "silent" movies.

And wait -- even as I typed the name of Alfred Hitchcock, I was painfully aware that there are a lot of people today who have no idea who Alfred Hitchcock is, or was. No, is, because there seems to me no chance that he will ever be dislodged from the list of the greatest of all movie directors.

Then there are a couple of names that were once as famous as any that have been bandied about in Hollywood -- Hitch's two most frequent leading men, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. It was Cary Grant who was cast to play North by Northwest's Roger Thornhill, and his performance is not only the crowning glory in one of Hollywood's most storied careers but a performance of a kind I can't imagine any other actor, past or present, being able to give. I had never known, however, until I was diving into the zillion or so hours of special features that came on the Blu-ray, that as the script was in development, Jimmy Stewart wanted ever so badly to play the role. And while his Roger Thornhill wouldn't have been anything like Cary Grant's, I'll bet he would have been fantastic too.

Now, as I approach writing this piece, I'm inclined to guess that with the DWT audience, I'm probably going to be okay with Hitch, Cary, and Jimmy. How about, say, James Mason and Martin Landau, though? How do you talk about the astonishing achievement of North by Northwest without hailing their stunning performances, making such dazzling use of every second of the limited screen time they have, and making their characters' curious relationship if anything more interesting, if less shocking, in 2015 than it was in 1959?

I put this shot of Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill in Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest atop my earlier post about the Museum of the Moving Image's grand celebration of Mad Men, including the Matthew Weiner-selected film series "Required Viewing: Mad Men's Movie Influences." Now I have to wonder, how many readers today will know who Cary Grant and Alfred Hitchcock are?


Very good question! No, it didn't just come to me spontaneously. It was entirely prompted by the latest piece, in the March 9 New Yorker, in John McPhee's ongoing series of "Writer's Life" pieces reflecting on his occupation as a writer: "Frame of Reference: To illuminate -- or to irritate?"

It's not as if I was unaware of the issue, or didn't have it at least in the back of my head with everything I write or edit. What I have to say I wasn't crediting fully enough is just how pervasive the issue can be for anyone who tries to communicate with fellow humans in any medium. John really had me reeling! And so I'd like to talk a little more about his piece in my 7pm PT/10pm ET post.

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