Sunday, September 06, 2015

A wistful final visit to the Museum of the Moving Image's spectacular "Mad Men" exhibition


One of the head-slapping features of MoMI's Mad Men exhibition, which closes Friday, is a re-assembly of two actual sets: the original Draper family kitchen (above) and Don's famous SCP office, each adorned with an adjacent screen showing a loop of scenes that took place on that set.

by Ken

Speaking of the re-assembled set of Don Draper's office in the Museum of the Moving Image's Mad Men exhibition, (produced, as we've noted here, with large amounts of cooperation from the participants, especially from creator-mastermind Matthew Weiner, who seems to have gone all out) at a recent MoMI screening of the about-to-open Queen of Earth at which star Elisabeth Moss -- known to Mad Men fans for seven seasons as rising-star advertising copywriter Peggy Olsen -- and director Alex Ross Perry were on hand for a post-screening discussion, Elisabeth talked a little about her powerful emotional response to her first viewing of the exhibition, in which naturally she and her character figure prominently. She seemed freaked out to find herself on exhibition in a museum. She also spoke about the time-warp sensation of seeing Don's office again -- and the memories it brought back of all the time she spent during production hanging out or napping there.

Another thing we learned is that Alex has worked up a bit of shtick for joint appearances with Elisabeth. When the interviewer gets around to asking about their future plans, he announces that he's looking forward to seeing what happens in the next season of Mad Men. Elisabeth seems to enjoy this less than you might think.

Alex and Elisabeth have now made two films together. (I got to see both at MoMI. Alex's two earlier pictures were also screened, but I couldn't make those.) So tell us, Elisabeth, what does happen in the next season of Mad Men?

But I've gotten ahead of myself. So far this holiday weekend I've faced an almost impossibly strenuous schedule of almost nonstop sitting -- in the darkened auditorium of MoMI, watching the initial offerings in this month's See It Big! New York in Film series. Friday night it was a restored 251-minute version (plus intermission) of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America. Then yesterday I was scheduled for three Martin Scorsese pix: Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, and The Age of Innocence (which I was especially curious about, since I'd never seen it, and in the last year I've been doing a humongous quantity of Edith Wharton reading). Today was, by comparison, a piece of cake: just Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing.

I may as well own up that although I was scheduled for the three Scorseses yesterday, I bailed out of Taxi Driver -- in part because of blogorific obligations. Skipping it meant I didn't have to be in Queens till 4:30 instead of 2:00, and made the day oodles more manageable. I was sorry, because I don't think I've seen Taxi Driver since it was released, and I would have been curious to see how it holds up. I was also sorry because it would have been interesting to see it along with King of Comedy, as a sort of Scorsese "These Guys Be Nuts" double bill.

Alas, I didn't get to see Travis Bickel say, "You talkin' to me?" My goodness, De Niro looks young! (I guess 'cause he was.) I did, however, get to see him as Rupert Pupkin in Scorsese's later King of Comedy and as "Noodles" Aaronson in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West. I'm not sure there's anything to add to what's already been said about these astounding performances. Luckily, they're there to be watched over and over.

In addition, it would have been nice to have Taxi Driver as the middle link of a triptych of astonishing and utterly different Robert De Niro performances, begun Friday night with Once Upon a Time in the West (all 251 minutes of it!). Then too, Once Upon a Time in America bookends neatly with Do the Right Thing as a pair of New York-centric epic films -- even allowing that Leone's Lower East Side is a figment of his own particular imagination, bearing little resemblance to the real thing at any point in time.

There's lots we could talk about here, but the dominant image I left with today came from one last visit to the spectacular Mad Men exhibition, which opened in March and, after multiple extensions, finally ends its run on Friday. I've paid a number of visits to it, both long and short, and today after the movie, since I didn't need to rush out, I thought I'd give it one last look.

The first thing I discovered is that even after all this time, the exhibition was still packed, and visitors seemed just as absorbed and enchanted as they've seemed in all my visits since March. It's hard to describe the exhibiton without making it sound like just lots of old stuff put out on display. In fact, it's made up of a huge collection of exhaustively researched and fastidiously presented displays of the work process, including the enormous background work and inventive fernebt, involving the entire creative team at all stages of the process, covering characters, places -- including the re-assembly of the sets for the Draper kitchen and Don's office at SCP, not to mention the MM writers' room and such other fascinating items as an actual secretary's desk, showing how the desk drawers were filled with relevant objects. It's explained that Matt thought this kind of attention to detail would help the actors function in the time and place ot the show.

It's a pity it wasn't possible to camp out at the museum for, say, a week, and start fresh each morning exploring a new area of the exhibition. Today I kept seeing all sorts of things I knew I'd seen but that I hadn't properly taken in, as well as all sorts of things I didn't remember having seen or at least taken proper notice of at all.

One thing I lingered over today was the re-creation of the Mad Men writers' room, with its plethora of information about what went on there. It's awesome to think of what came out of that room.

One corner of the exhibition I know was new to me. In one corner there's a little screening area where a series of Mad Men clips are played in endless repetition -- one from each season (including the two "halves" of Season 7), following filmed intros from Matt Weiner. I wandered in at Season 6, the scene in the finale where Don, in front of the clients, to the astonishment and horror of his agency colleagues, tells his own personal Hershey's story -- what a Hershey bar meant to him growing up dirt-poor in the whorehouse, rolling clients' pocket change. And even without available seating until that scene came up again. It was my impression that pretty much everyone who found the little space was doing the same thing. There were all kinds of scenes, all great to watch again, but the draw was the information that came out in those intros.

With regard to Don's performance at the Hershey's meeting, by the way, Matt doesn't think of it -- as a lot of us do -- as a "meltdown." He thinks of it rather as a "cleansing," a coming-to-grips with the Dick Whitman part of him that he's been struggling with all season. Matt says he always thought there would be a scene where Don tells his own past story to Roger and the others. Well, here it is. (In talking about Season 7, though, Matt does acknowledge that the meeting was "catastrophic" for Don -- getting him fired, after all.)

From Season 1, for example, the chosen scene was Pete Campbell's breathless ratting out of Don in Bert Cooper's office, only to have Bert say, "So what?" Matt explains that the writers had made the decision to allow Don's secrets to hang over him, perhaps subject to blackmailing, they would end that plot thread in 15 minutes, and he revealed that their guiding principle in arranging this dénouement had been a line of Japanese-inspired philosoph¥ that Bert in fact quotes -- something like "The Japanese say that a man is the room he's in."

From Season 5 there was the scene where Peggy comes to Don's office to give her notice. In the intro Matt talks about the arc of the Don-Peggy relationship, noting that by Season 5 he had become so hard on her that the writers told him they just couldn't let her keep working there, and Matt agreed. He insisted, though, that Don was no harder on Peggy than he was on himself -- it's just that she's a different person.

I was especially tickled to have Matt set the stage for the scene in Season 4, Episode 12, "Blowing Smoke" (directed by John Slattery), where Don deals with the agency's loss of the indispensable Lucky Strike account by writing the letter "Why I'm Quitting Tobacco," which he will have published as a full-page ad in The New York Times. Matt explains that they always planned to do this as a video collage, which begins with a voice-over as Don begins writing, then has the voice-over continue as we see Don typing and correcting the letter, then opens up to a wonderful assortment of other individuals and groups reading it in the Times.

Don begins writing "Why I'm Quitting Tobacco." You can watch this extraordinary scene here. There's also an Inside Episode 412 Mad Men feature in which John Slattery, who was making his directorial debut, and others talk about the episode.

What tickled me was that I had just come from the nearby Don Draper exhibit, where I had read a posted version of the ad!

The exhibition is not only a glorious tribute to a show that stands as one of TV's great achievements, but an education in what it took that large team of fantastically skilled and hard-working people to produce it. There's so much more I'm sure I could have learned from it. Now I'll have to settle for the shows themselves. I still haven't bought those final two half-seasons, which are incredibly expensive, but maybe it's time for me to go back to Season 1, Episode 1.

Labels: ,


At 7:27 AM, Blogger cybermome said...

Great read. I am a HUGE Mad Men fan and the single best ever episode on TV was The Suitcase .

Also sorry that I didn't know about the exhibit as I have business in NYC and travel from Philly ( in fact will be in NYC on the 26th again )

At 5:23 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Hi, Lee! That's a shame. You would have loved the exhibition. And I'm not aware of any plans to try to reassemble it anywhere else. Elisabeth Moss mentioned at the "Queen of Earth" screening that she had negotiated permanent possession of, I think she said, a Thermos that had been Peggy's, but when she asked about it, she learned that it was included in the exhibition. She was very happy to see it again when she toured the exhibition, and is looking forward to finally taking possession.

I've written about the exhibition a bunch of times, so my conscience is clear!



Post a Comment

<< Home