2015 If I could give awards…

No long explainers this year (I just don’t have the time), and if you follow me on here and other social media, you already know what I think. Listed are my five “nominees,” winners pictured and in bold. Tell me why I’m wrong @BrALatham.

Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

matt-damon-martianMatt Damon, The Martian

Michael Keaton, Spotlight

Ian McKellon, Mr. Holmes

Jason Mitchell, Straight Outta Compton

Jacob Tremblay, Room


Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

2015 45Cate Blanchett, Carol

Rooney Mara, Carol

Bel Powley, The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years

Alicia Vikander, Testament of Youth


Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role


Guillermo del Toro, Sicario

Tom Hardy, The Revenant

Tom Noonan, Anomalisa

Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight

Michael Shannon, 99 Homes


Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role

roomroom-xlargeGreta Gerwig, Mistress America

Brie Larson, Room

Maya Taylor, Tangerine

Katherine Waterston, Queen of Earth

Naomi Watts, While We’re Young


Original Score


It Follows

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant



Jukebox Soundtrack


The Big Short

The Martian

Mistress America

Ricki and the Flash


Artistic Production, including costumes and sets

(from left) Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara, and Aksel Hennie portray the crewmembers of the fateful mission to Mars.Carol

Bridge of Spies

The Martian




Film Editing

Photo credit: Christian BlackMad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation


Testament of Youth




The Duke of Burgundy

Mad Max: Fury Road

Me & Earl & the Dying Girl

The Revenant



maxresdefaultTodd Haynes, Carol

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, Me & Earl & the Dying Girl

Tom McCarthy, Spotlight

George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road

Peter Strickland, The Duke of Burgundy


Original Writing

920x920Inside Out

She’s Funny That Way

Sleeping with Other People


Straight Outta Compton


Adapted Writing




The Martian

Me & Earl & the Dying Girl




Stop saying awards don’t matter


Don Draper gets awards, why shouldn’t Jon Hamm.


Tonight, thousands of people will lean to their friends, either physically or digitally, and say that the Emmys don’t matter. Millions will watch the broadcast with baited breath to see if their favorite shows (this is especially true of the now-finished Parks and Recreation and Mad Men) come out on top.

Awards shouldn’t necessarily be taken seriously — especially the Emmys, which other than the Grammys seems to have the least interest in honoring great work over everyday pulp — but they definitely, unequivocally matter. If they didn’t we wouldn’t see ads boasting that a “X-time Emmy nominee for Best Comedy” is returning, or that a show “stars Emmy-winner” so-and-so. Hell, for movies, the number of Oscars won is sometimes bigger and bolder on the DVD case than the actual title is.

It’s no coincidence that a show like Halt and Catch Fire, which has no inherent appeal as a geeky and low concept drama starring mostly newcomers, had a massive spike in interest and got renewed for a second season immediately after winning the Critics Choice Award as most exciting new series.

It’s no coincidence that Mad Men went from nearly not getting produced and then not getting renewed for a second season until after its first Emmy nomination. It won that year, and its second season viewership more than doubled the first. Still only being granted contracts for one year at a time, it took three top honor Emmys before AMC signed on for four more seasons. This is more than Breaking Bad, whose ratings eclipsed Mad Men‘s by a big margin but whose critical and awards success was slow coming, ever earned. Viewers like those brought in by Breaking Bad are easy to find by aiming for the lowest common denominator, not to mention by having a certain, immensely popular zombie show. The respect and prestige that comes with placing a gold statuette on the mantle is not nearly so common.

(Even Mad Men‘s characters, who over the years became increasingly obsessed with the Cleo’s would agree. Roger’s assertion in season 7 that billings were down because “creative is invisible” since they only got one nomination undoubtedly echos AMC’s disappointment at the show’s Emmy drought.)

But more than for grasping audience’s attentions with boastful slogans, and more than impressing network executives, awards are for posterity. Do you know why anyone ever talks about the 1941 film How Green was my Valley? It defeated Citizen Kane at the Oscars. Award winners are more likely to get remembered because they will remain on a highly exclusive list until the end of time. It adds a sense of legitimacy, its a credential, and it can never be taken away.

The eternal nature of the award also allows it to sit timelessly beside everything that won before it or since. Is Mad Men destined to sit beside other four-time winners Hill Street BluesLA Law and The West Wing for as long as the record is kept? I think that would be a travesty. Hill Street Blues certainly had the kind of influence Mad Men does, and The West Wing similarly drove critical television attention to the writer, but none of them had the intricacy and thoughtfulness of AMC’s pilot drama, nor its cinematic quality of production. A fifth win would quite literally put it in a class by itself, one it rightly deserves to have.

Every winter when I think about the upcoming Oscar season, I think of the rafters inside the Dolby Theater. As you walk through that magnificent hall, both sides are lined with the names of every Best Picture winner from Wings to Birdman. I don’t necessarily think about which film from this year is the best, but which one deserves to share space with the grandeur of past winners and be the standard for future contestants. And the beauty of that is the very debate it inspires, the volume of films it draws people to, and the endorsement it provides the winner. No voting body is perfect — maybe least of all the TV academy — but make no mistake about it: Awards do matter.

When Joy turns to Sadness: ‘Inside Out’ and cinema’s long fascination with nostalgia

Here I spoil a number of classicsas well as the newly released Inside Out.

Citizen Kane, Inside Out, Stand by Me, Mad Men

In Inside Out, Pixar’s newest, the protagonist-emotions Joy and Sadness spend the film engaging in a strange charade over Riley’s, the 11-year-old girl they inhabit and serve, “core memories”. All of these most important moments from Riley’s early childhood are meant to shape her personality, and to Joy’s pride they are all yellow. They glow in the unmistakable tone of sunshine and daffodils, meaning that they were all Joy’s doing, all moments that have made Riley the “Happy girl” and “Smiley girl” — in her parents’ words — she is when we meet her. The action makes way when her family announces a move from Minnesota to San Fransisco, and Sadness, one of the five emotions controlling Riley, develops a compulsion. She wants to touch the mostly-yellow orbs that represent Riley’s mostly-joyous memories. When she does, to the terror of the others, the memories turn blue, irreversibly. Joy cannot figure out how to turn them back, and relegates Sadness to tasks ranging from trivial (read all of the manuals in “headquarters”) to outright insulting (“keep all the sadness in this circle”).

Even the core memories are not safe, though they seem more resilient until Joy, in a panic, knocks them all loose, leaving Riley without a personality and leaving herself and Sadness lost somewhere in the maze of Riley’s mind. The movie documents their beautifully realized journey back to headquarters, rushing to get the core memories back where they belong while Riley’s life quietly falls apart. Over this time, Joy labors to carry all of the memories, fearing what will happen if she lets Sadness so much as touch one. Riley’s childhood would become blue, tainted by sadness, with no known way to expunge it once it’s there.

Here we see her playing in a play ground, laughing wildly as she goes down a slide. We see her slip on a frozen pond as her first goal slips past her father, happy to pass his love of hockey onto his little girl. There’s her running around in a diaper making goofy faces, or sitting on tree branches with her loving parents. For Riley at the beginning of the movie, these ought to be happy memories; they represent the best of what she has, great friends, great parents, a great attitude, and serious hockey skills. These are — literally, the movie argues — what make Riley, Riley, and she cherishes all of them. Perhaps this is why Sadness started creeping in when she moved away from that playground and from her best friend and her team. Away from the comforts of childhood to a land where you can only get one type of pizza and need to learn a new walk to school, she lost those memories in both the sense that she lost her present connections to them, and that Joy sent them tumbling down into the emptiness of her mind.

They cannot be happy memories anymore, Inside Out seems to say, because they have been relegated to just that: memories. Without a connection and even the faintest promise that she can still be as happy as she was as a little girl, she looks at those cherished moments differently. They are gone. They represent something that is lost and cannot be recovered, and this makes her sad. At the moment when joy becomes sadness, you get nostalgia.

Inside Out is not the first, and is unlikely to be the last, film to explore nostalgia. I’m not talking here of Frederic Jameson’s concept of the nostalgia film, which is essentially a criticism of contemporary movies set in the past for trying to strike an emotional cord with the audience by exposing this helpless vulnerability.  No, I’m talking about movies not that use nostalgia, but that are actively about it.

Nostalgia is defined in Mad Men — which qualifies as both postmodern nostalgia evoking and romanticizing the 1960s, and as about nostalgia and Don’s reluctance to leave his comfort zone as society changed — as “the pain from an old wound… It’s delicate, but potent… It’s a twinge in your heart more powerful than memory alone.” This speech, of course, could only come from the suave, intelligent delivery of Don Draper, Madison Avenue ad man extraordinaire. In the season 1 finale, “The Wheel”, Don is tasked to pitch a campaign for a Kodak slide projector. He does so by sitting Kodak’s men down in a smokey room, projecting photos from his own idyllic life, and loosing the aforementioned prose on the room. His own colleague leaves the room in tears.

Don, television’s greatest salesman, who is able even to convince himself of his own lies, rushes home to be with his family. But when he gets there to join them for a Thanksgiving trip he planned to skip for work, they’ve already left. For all of his sleeping around and workplace heroism, his life is empty to him because it lacks what it once had, or maybe even didn’t have. Mad Men tells us in the same season that the Greeks also had an interesting take on the life of Don’s dreams. See, “utopia” in contemporary use signifies a perfect, magical ideal. But Don has to learn that it comes from two roots in Greek: “‘eu-topos’, meaning the good place, and ‘u-topos’ meaning the place that cannot be.”

He has convinced himself of his own lie — the lie that he is a New York ad man, that he has the perfect family and perfect house in the ‘burbs, that he belongs in a skyscraper boardroom, even that he is Donald Draper — so deeply that he cannot recognize what is the truth and what is the lie. Showing photos of cherished moments, he pines for the days when he and his wife could celebrate together, but chooses not to spend Thanksgiving with her; he doesn’t want to let go of the days when he and his daughter would fall asleep on the couch, but he flees her birthday party and never returns with the cake.

He can do all of that, he can return to the perfect life he had hoped to build. Perhaps he didn’t realize that it was what he wanted while he had it, but now he feels that it is past and gone. Charles Foster Kane, protagonist of American cinema’s most celebrated treasure Citizen Kane, can also do pretty much whatever he wants. He is the walking embodiment of spoiled rotten, turning his various offices and homes into nothing much more than mazes filled with invaluable artifacts and knick-knacks and women. But like Draper and Riley, he pines for something he once had. When he meets his second wife, Susan, he says he was on his way to see some of his mother’s old things in a storage unit, to literally dig through the past. At the time, we don’t know if he’s looking for anything specific or just browsing down memory lane (which Joy and Sadness literally do, by the way). Inside her house, he becomes enamored with a snowglobe of Susan’s depicting an idyllic winter scene with a small cabin. The snow globe appears in other moments, once leading him to ferocious vulnerability and again at the moment of his death. “Rosebud”, he says as he drops it with his last breath, and the quest of the movie is to understand the meaning of the word, the sole motivation he had behind his moves, the last thing on his mind that he took to the death bed.

Those of you who have seen the film know that Rosebud was his childhood sled that he used to rush through the snow in his Colorado childhood home. Like Riley and the emotions, when he looked at the snowglobe on the night he was already thinking about his past, it was through a new lens, the understanding that happy memories of childhood are tainted in adulthood by the fact that they are lost forever. Kane kept Rosebud for his entire life, but it is unclear that in his massive manor and mixed in with his thousands of possessions he even knew it was there. He could afford anything and everything. He wanted his wife to be an opera star, so he built an opera house. But he could never get what he truly yearned for, which is, the chance to go back, to be a kid again in the snow with a sled.

Citizen Kane is told largely through flashback. But it isn’t Kane’s flashbacks, they belong to his friends and family. So, the exact perspective of his nostalgia, the pain from the old wound of the end of his childhood, is missing. Still, one of the close comrades interviewed about Kane is Mr. Bernstein. Bernstein tells a story that drills home the film’s theme in a brilliantly tangential way. He once saw a girl, a beautiful girl in a white dress. He noticed her from afar, was blown away by her beauty and kept going about his day. All these years later, he has forgotten more than many of us will ever know, but he still holds onto the memory of that girl and the remorse of never having spoken to her. The pain of his memory, the delivery of which is so rehearsed it seems to lack any emotion at all, comes from reaching for the unreachable. He wants to talk to her, to savor and appreciate her beauty, but she isn’t there any more. He isn’t even there any more. He has been replaced with an older, worn version of himself. Kane experiences the same trauma. He wishes young Charlie Kane could go play in the snow. But the snow is not there, and young Charlie has been replaced by newspaper mogul Charles Foster Kane.

Perhaps the ultimate study in nostalgia through flashback in screen culture is Stand By Me, the cult classic ’80s coming-of-age flick about a group of boys who go out on their own in search of the body of a missing child, and on the way learn about life and about each other and the plights they share growing up in an impoverished factory town. Actually, that’s not quite the plot, exactly. Based loyally on a Stephen King novella The BodyStand By Me is the story of a grown man sitting at his computer much like I am right now, and typing out the story of one of the adventures he and his friends had when they were 12 years old.

The story, therefore, is told with distance and mature reflection. Time has probably inadvertently revised his memory. His best friend Chris, who was killed in the time between the story and the grown protagonist writing it, is probably inflated and remembered as more heroic than he actually was. Gordie, the writer-protagonist, remembers himself self-consciously with limited embellishment. Still, he has chosen which details to hold on to. He remembers that he would distract his friends and pass the time by telling stories, something the would-be novelist ought to hold dear.

Part of nostalgia, the part that leads me to bring up Stand By Me in the mix of these other much more straight forward examples, is time’s influence on memory. In Inside Out, the emotions seem to forget what they want to forget about Riley’s childhood. That great moment with Mom and Dad on the tree branch before being hoisted by her teammates? It happened because she had just missed the would-be winning goal in a hockey game and was heartbroken and embarrassed. It was a sad memory with a happy ending. They chose to keep it as only happy. Joy probably could not see the problem with that, and it takes her the quest of the film to appreciate the value of holding onto sadness.

Sadness builds in these memories and the added emotion of loss to the original emotion of love render memories larger than life. Gordie, like Kane and his sled or Don and his family, pines for a lost past that he cannot retrieve. Perhaps Chris and the rest of the guys were as great as he says; perhaps they weren’t. What counts is that he remembers them in such a way that his nostalgia has hurt his appreciation of the new; he fights so hard for the joy in those memories that he forgets to have joy in his present. Anyone and everyone can relate to the devastating final line of the film, as adult Gordie has a painful moment of clouded self-reflection about how his life has gone since that memorable summer: “I never had an friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”

It hurts to admit that, and it is something we all feel. When I was twelve, I was at my happiest on the school bus. I’m not joking. That was where I would spend the best quality time I could with the best friends I ever had. We goofed off, acted like ourselves, and nothing else mattered. Were we ever as happy as I remember us being? In Mad Men, the projected slides suggest we were. But they are just projections, selected bits preserved from a sea of others forgotten. The same is true, oddly enough, in Inside Out. Unlike the television period piece, Inside Out had near boundless creative freedom. It could have shown images from Riley’s memory in any way modern computer imagery would allow, but director Pete Doctor and his team decided to show it very much like a movie.

Film is shown by holding images in front of light and changing them 24 times per second. In headquarters, Joy summons memories and then lifts them in front of a stream of light so they can be enlarged and shown on a screen. Perhaps cinema is so obsessed with nostalgia because it is itself nostalgic. Photography cannot capture the present, and it isn’t designed to. It captures a moment for preservation into the future, a future when the depicted moment has become the past and comes with the associated feelings of melancholy and loss. Today, even the medium of film is nostalgic to many, as digital projection has all be eliminated lighted film projectors, and video is the preferred method of image capture. Even the hum of a projector stirs memories of cinemas of not too long ago, and some of us imagine a better world in which inperceptible blackness every 24th of a second enlivens the frame.

We let the movies run in front of us and look up at them helplessly — sometimes we enjoy watching things unfold before us, sometimes this helplessness is binding and why won’t you look behind you! — in the same way Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust look at Riley’s memories. They flicker on the same screen through which they watch her life unfold, and are only changed  by a switch from yellow to blue. This switch is natural, something everyone goes through in the growing up process. Most of us don’t have to grow up in one moment like Riley has to with the move, but slowly and steadily it happens. Maybe that’s why so many tears have been shed by the older crowd accompanying children to Inside Out. Nostalgia. The members of the audience went through that change and remember when they had to let childhood go, too.

9 Films That Dive Into the Mind Before Pixar’s ‘Inside Out’

inside-out-still-3On June 19, Pixar’s much anticipated and already critically celebrated new film Inside Out — the once groundbreaking studio’s first original story since 2012’s Brave and 2009’s Up — will bring audiences into the mind of an 11-year old girl, where the characters are as mysterious and familiar to us as their names suggest: Disgust, Anger, Sadness, Fear and of course Joy. Director Pete Doctor and the rest of the Pixar team say the idea came from the simple question of what goes on in the thinking process of an average joe. Inside Out is not the first film to enter the human mind literally, much less metaphorically, as many great films of the past have sought to explore the same depths. Others still later reveal themselves to be complicated dreams (The Wizard of Oz), imaginings (Mulholland Drive), or even mix and confuse these real and created worlds (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Take Shelter, Brazil, A Beautiful Mind, and on and on and on). Doing this on screen obviously comes with challenges, but filmmakers have come up with many clever visual metaphors used to personify the abstract concept of thoughtInside Out brings the audience knowingly into artistic representations of what goes on between the ears maybe more bluntly than others, and I for one am counting down the days until I get to see it.

Here are some of the best prior examples of films that delve head first into the process of thinking, being and creating to let the viewer walk the halls of a characters mind, literally:

 600full-being-john-malkovich-screenshot-1Being John Malkovich

This Charlie Kaufman-penned (ctrl-C) science fiction creation explores not the generic thought process of the Everyman, but exactly what its title suggests. It is about an entertainer played by John Cusack who literally finds a door into the brain of beloved actor John Malkovich. It’s as weird as it sounds, and director Spike Jonze made the excellent observation that the film was a huge risk taken by Malkovich because not only would his name be in the credits, but in the title. The mind of John Malkovich offers the ability to see through his eyes and manipulate his speech, while his subconscious is full of the strangeness of puppets and impossible realities that in all seriousness probably actually exist in John Malkovich’s head.

0292727_31397_MC_Tx304The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

The story of Jean-Dominique Bauby adapted from his own memoir is a masterpiece of contemporary cinema and one of the most unique viewing experience you can find. Because it is drawn from the account of a man suffering from Locked-In Syndrome — his mind functions perfectly, but his body is nearly completely paralyzed, allowing him only to communicate by moving his left eye — it takes place almost entirely through his thought process, as the audience is locked in with him. The full first act and much more of the film is shown from his perspective, through an unmoving and blurred lens up at the many doctors and loved ones who come to poke and prod and his limp body. But as his story takes shape, memories replace the bare hospital interiors and narration and imagination brings to life the one-time magazine editor’s thoughts. Bauby is our guide to his own perspective and inner-workings and to the limited world around him.

8 12 camerawork8 1/2

I can contribute nothing about Federico Fellini’s 1694 magnum opus that has not already been written. It was made under no pretense, basically on a whim when Fellini secured funding and a cast but lacked a screenplay. The result is that it is about a famed Italian director trying to make a movie on the fly while keeping it a secret that he has no idea what the movie is about. It has been described as the only film in history that doubles as its very own making-of feature. But when the plan found its stride, 8 1/2 was awarded moments of surrealist extravagance then unheard-of in Italian cinema. It is an incomparable study of the creative process, and we go along with the protagonist (a proxy for Fellini himself) while his mind wanders and enter his dream spaces where his story comes to him and is discovered.

vechnoe-siyanie-chistogo-razumaEternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

A genre-bender like few others, (ctrl-V) this Charlie Kaufman-penned movie features not only the audience entering a stranger’s mind and memories, but a third party as well. This film imagines technology that allows people to order a service that erases unwanted memories from their minds, all in one peaceful overnight. When protagonist Joel changes his mind and begins fighting against the process, Eternal Sunshine becomes the world’s weirdest chase film, as we go through his memories in every imaginable direction as the hazy metaphysical world threatens to crumble around us. It is an excellent piece of filmmaking, one that let cinema thrive as a technological medium, and with a premise just believable enough to make us wonder.

1972 --- Tony Randall and Burt Reynolds operate the body's control room during the sperm scene in Woody Allen's Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask. --- Image by © Steve Schapiro/CorbisEverything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask)

Woody Allen’s strangest movie is his daring adaptation of the famed non-narrative, nonfictional book with which it shares a name. One way Allen managed to answer the trying questions in the book in visual form is to literally set chunks of the action within the human anatomy. This includes the brain — the “Control Station” — among, um, other places. This is the most overt literalization of bringing the audience into the brain listed and the visuals play more or less how you’d expect them to, which is to say, there is a lot of chrome and white.

imaginarium-of-doctor-parnassus-review-4The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

Heath Ledger’s final film cast him as an explorer of sorts who helps paying customers reach euphoric states of enlightenment by navigating them through the eponymous doctor’s dreamscape. It extremely cleverly brings to life the fact that things and people are never recreated in the mind exactly how they are in the real world by recasting Ledger’s character to have him played by different actors (Jude Law, Johnny Depp and Colin Farrell) each time he enters the Imaginarium. But when he returns to the physical world he is back to his old self, which is how we remember him, or is it? Sometimes the return to a believable reality and a return to the A-list star is as shocking as it was to leave them in the first place.


No need to fret, here it is. Christopher Nolan’s epic released in between the second and third installments of his Dark Knight-trilogy, Inception is probably the most buzzed-about movie in recent memory. It takes its characters and audience deep into the human subconscious, theorizing different ways to navigate the mind the relationship between the dream world, memory and the physical world of the dreamer in ways that were very convincing. The images that haunt viewers the longest are those of the rotting purgatory of “limbo,” unconstructed dream space in which the dreamer can be lost for decades, if not forever entirely. The crumbing and eroded city in the film’s limbo is a heavy-handed reminder not to be a full-time dreamer, but to leave the highly decorated world of the dream and return to reality every once in a while.

the-matrixThe Matrix

The premise of The Matrix is plain and simple: the mind enters a created false world where it lives in blissful ignorance, while the body is wired up in a lab producing energy for a futuristic evil corporation. The Matrix of The Matrix is not unlike Inception‘s limbo. It is a space populated by the mind that becomes the mind’s reality if you aren’t careful. This movie is a cultural landmark, setting in motion a generation of technology minded sci-fis over the next decade and carrying cinema into the 21st-century. Like the victims in the Matrix allowing their projections to walk unknowingly through a false world, the audience of a great and inventive film enters the world of the story and lets go, swimming through the imagination of the creator.

bffd7eec3a934cb07ea63dce840c86c3Synecdoche, New York

Another genuine masterpiece — note, every film here is excellent, or it wouldn’t be here —  Synecdoche, New York is unique among this list. In (ctrl-V) this Charlie Kaufman-penned philosophical exercise, the audience is not brought into a world within the mind. Instead, the protagonist brings his thoughts out into the physical world, where he constructs his view of his life in physical form in the shelter of an impossibly large warehouse. He manipulates his memories by casting actors to replay scenes from his life, he categorizes parts of his personal history by placing them into different blocks of apartments in his created city. He even recasts himself, forcing himself to view and consider a third-party presentation of himself. It is a strange film that not only rewards but demands repeated viewings, and the association between the created world and physical truth is brought to our attention in no filmic moment more than the final shot here, in which the “director” whispers a final instruction before the screen cuts to black: “Now, die.”

The New York Times Doesn’t Want to Review Your Movie

largeAfter years of strain and months of debate, the New York Times has officially changed its film review policy, which previously promised that the paper would cover every film that opens in New York City every week in its Friday Arts section. Now, the selection of films that will be reviewed will be in a case-by-case process likely overseen by arts editors and by co-chief film critics A.O. Scott and recent Pulitzer Prize finalist Manohla Dargis, who has publicly opposed the policy for the past year.

Reportedly 17 films will open in the City this week, and 22 did last week. Scott and Dargis felt that the paper was being stretched and strained too much to cover all of these. The effort to review all of them resulted in taking up valuable page space within the weekly edition and limiting the output to brief, cursory, basically useless reviews of movies that the majority of readers are never bound to see (or outside of New York even able to see).

Obviously, this is to the benefit of the Times and its senior critics, and in some ways to the city’s film culture, which had been burdened by floods of releases of films that only screened because distributors wanted the Times‘s review to help legitimize the project or the filmmaker. These reviews were used to pad advertisements and synopses. Many of these are films that would otherwise go straight to Video-On-Demand, but would have a brief, single-screen run in New York to force the Times to cover it. Now, there will be no motivation for that, and theaters will not be flooded with minor fare and vanity projects.

So look, I get it. I see the benefit for the paper and for cinemas and understand why so many people in arts media are excited by this announcement. But I also see the risks and am pessimistic about the long-term results of the move.

The New York Times is a stabilizing force in the entertainment world, and the universal coverage was the ultimate equalizer, forcing Marvel pulp to share a page with micro-indies. Now, that’s gone. Scott and Dargis and their staff probably know which of those two needs the review more, and knows which one people who actually seek out New York Times film reviews are probably more interested in, but at the end of the day it comes down to selling papers and collecting clicks. As much as we (and they) would like to think otherwise, the decision-makers are going to wind up being business minded people trying to sell ads — or even journalism minded people looking for the key story — and not the film minded people looking to promote great art.

It it only a matter of time, I fear, before there is no market at all for those micro-indies without the help of a major — ehem, sorry — THE major print news source. Putting a transformer or one of the Avengers on the top of page one with where to find the review is endlessly more likely than something promoting the next release even from established distributors like Bleecker Street, IFC or Magnolia. These films will cease to benefit from renting out a theater or fighting through the process of being played in a specialty theater, and for the first time, a majority of movies will only be available in VOD. New York was the testing grounds, and any degree of success in a short New York release is what gets your film played elsewhere and brought to more and more eyes.

On a slightly different but equally pessimistic note, I am curious how many Times critics are about to get laid off. The past decade or so has seen a purge of staff critic positions and the high demand that the Times had to meet every week to keep up with the flood of releases kept those jobs safe. Now, who knows. At best these people will lose staff standing and be held as freelancers as long as the paper still tries to see as many movies as it can, but they will have a huge target on their backs every time the paper has to make a cut. The minor critics at the Times responsible for writing the hundred-or-so word bits about tiny releases are now excess fat, and with every time fat gets trimmed, that means another critic out of a job and another movie never going to be reviewed.

This is the end.

Mad Men (Season 5)

This is a shockingly spoiler-free commentary on the ending of television series.

After countless hours of a show has aired, whom does the end belong to? In all storytelling media there is an emphasis — I’d argue an over-emphasis — on the importance of the ending. It seems that the first 99 percent of a story can be masterfully told, yet the total can be dismissed if the audience doesn’t get exactly what it wants with the last one. And that is wrong.

This, I fear, is the fate of Mad Men, whose incomparable 93-episode run comes to an end on Sunday night. Mad Men is an interesting case when considering the question I posed above. After what amounts to nearly four days worth of viewing, Mad Men‘s audience likely deserves a pay out, something to not only provide closure and neatly tie the bow, but also that actively gives viewers satisfaction and joy, a loving departure to their favorite ad execs. It is a show that has never been a smash hit according to the ratings, where it was by far the least viewed of AMC’s three-pronged attack that also included The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad. But it’s fans are perhaps more passionate about it than the fans of any other drama, leading it to be the most cited program in water-cooler “Best TV Show Ever” debates. But those fans also understand that the show they love is the product of the mind of creator/writer/showrunner/part-time director Matt Weiner, who is notorious for being incredibly possessive with his Emmy-winning brain child. Weiner demands a writing credit on any episode that has at least half of its words rewritten from the original script. He does not allow any prop onto his set unless he is shown photographic proof it was used in the month before the episode is set. It’s his show, and as such he has sent it every which way, with very odd memorable episodes and stand-alone elements that are never bothered to be resolved. Why should we expect the finale to be any different?

The relationship between fans and a show’s series finale was brought into cultural discourse last spring with the end of CBS’s How I Met Your Mother. For that show, the end is built into the title, but that proved to be misleadingly nonspecific, as fans and critics were uproariously angry with the events of the finale which covered 15 years, going way beyond meeting the mother and showing events that would better have been left to debate and the eternal halls of fan theories. In this example, the fans thought the finale belonged to them, and the creators felt it belonged to them. Fans wanted closure and a respectful good bye to their friends. I’m a fan, and have been since 2005, knowing Ted and the gang for longer and through a more important chunk of my life than most of my tangible friends. All I wanted was to hear Bob Saget say “And that’s the story of how I met your mother,” and the last scene to introduce us to the eponymous woman. Showrunners Craig Thomas and Carter Bays wanted to send their message and tell their story, which was about how people are fundamentally unchanging and that life goes on even after the story ends. Really, the ending should be the product of the story, not chosen or forced. It should belong to the characters. Fans should realize that the characters theoretically have lives outside of the frame; and the writers should realize that the show had matured and changed dramatically from the first few seasons when they first imagined-up the ending.

Finales, like How I Met Your Mother‘s, tend to be anticipated with a degree of sentimentality. It’s like graduation, where you acknowledge that for better or worse there is a certain sadness to the fact that there are people you’ve spent large amounts of time with that you may never see again. Even other comedies that spent years being devoid of sentiment know that the finale is as much for the fans as the writers. 30 Rock, for example, defied the network comedy mold proudly, until trying for at least two tear-jerking and comforting moments in the celebrated finale. It even did the traditional ending action of corresponding the end of the plot with an ending within the plot. In 30 Rock it is the cancellation of Liz’s show and end of her single life. In Friends it was leaving the apartment. In M*A*S*H* they leave Korea.

Perhaps the comedy most comparable to Mad Men — tonally if not at all narratively — is Seinfeld. Arrogantly calling itself a show about nothing in which there are no hugs and no one learns anything, Seinfeld pretty much did whatever it wanted, at least by NBC sitcom standards. Mad Men, similarly, does no think of itself as bound to anyone or anything and is very willing to reinvent itself and and push forward with a determined vision regardless of what other people think. Seinfeld ended with no one learning anything, but a parade of blasts from the past that die hard fans loved but critics look back at with a disgruntled eye-roll. Because of the nature of the show, however, no one judges Seinfeld or experiences prior episodes of it any differently because of the misdirected finale. Mad Men shares that show’s attitude toward its characters and audience, but while also being the premiere case in long form storytelling with a tight plot that continues with its established richness 7 years later. Finding a middle ground might not be an option.

Neat endings also appear in dramas, though too. Walter’s tale is resolved in the finale of Breaking Bad. The Taylors move out of Texas in Friday Night Lights. Nucky leaves bootlegging in Boardwalk Empire. Claire moves away in Six Feet Under, which has the most masterful final sequence I’ve ever seen and probably the most perfect final handful of episodes to have aired.

But we all know that when you talk about ending a drama, you have to talk about The Sopranos, the most buzzed-about, controversial and mythic ending to any story in our time. You know the scene. Tony alone at a diner playing “Don’t Stop Believing” on the juke box. His family joins him. In walks a number of other uncanny looking strangers, including a man in a member’s only jacket who uses the bathroom. Meadow can’t parallel park. The bell dings every time the door opens. Meadow approaches the door. “Don’t stop…” Ding. Cut to black.

The Sopranos is Matt Weiner’s alma mater, his first experience writing TV drama professionally. It was on the strength of that show and his role as a senior writer and producer that he was hired on AMC and allowed to make Mad Men in the first place. The message of the finale is not whether Tony is alive or not (this is still debated ad nauseum, though, and How I Met Your Mother might have benefited from following that lead). It is that life, as is said by Steve Perry on that soundtrack hit, “we go on and on and on and on”. I don’t expect Mad Men to be any different. Weiner’s epic collection of short stories from the world of Madison Avenue in the 1960s is going to end on its own terms, and I for one am going to accept it because I know the brains behind it are more powerful than mine, and they probably got it right, even if I can’t see that right away.

Mad Men Season 7, Part I: How Mad Men Took a Page from Alfred Hitchcock

404cb50b6a7f5706_don-draper-mad-menThe title sequence in Mad Men features a lonely silhouette as his world literally disappears underneath him. It was built on a foundation of conceit and false promises, manifested in the form of advertisements from billboards and magazines, and leaves him falling, falling from his once-safe skyscraper but never landing.

Motivating protagonist Don Draper throughout the show’s soon-concluding seven seasons is the fear of that metaphorical floor falling from underneath him. For the first half of the seventh season, which aired from April 13th to May 25th of last year, Mad Men put Draper at the bottom of the proverbial totem pole and forced him to climb. The fear of falling is front-and-center in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 psychological thriller Vertigo. Draper is Mad Men’s Madeleine Elster, its Scottie Ferguson and its Judy Barton. Played by Kim Novak, James Stewart and Kim Novak in the film, this trio demonstrated 57 years ago what Mad Men has masterfully examined throughout its run: That people become who you perceive them to be, no matter what is under the hood.

A poster for Mad Men's third season, inspired by the title sequence, bears striking resemblance to the artwork for Vertigo.

A poster for Mad Men’s third season, inspired by the title sequence, bears striking resemblance to the artwork for Vertigo.

To summarize that dynamic in Vertigo requires many a spoiler, and Hitchcock’s narrative is so winding and complex that you’ll have to forgive my dramatic oversimplification. Scottie falls in love with a woman named Madeleine, and is devastated when she dies, evidently by her own doing, right in front of him. Then he encounters Judy, whom he notices looks eerily like Madeleine, and begins to forcibly change in many ways, ranging from minute — the particular cut of a suit — to much more significant — her hair color. He turns her into Madeleine, fabricating her new identity out of his memory down to every nit-picky detail. What he takes a while to realize is that a heavily disguised Judy was the original Madeleine all along.

How Draper plays all three of these roles — the false creation, the willful creator, and the puppet — is that he has never been Don Draper at all. Born Dick Whitman and raised in a cat house in rural Pennslyvania, he switch dog tags with Lt. Donald Draper’s charred body in a trench in Korea. Since, he has meticulously blocked Dick Whitman out of his persona in the same way Scottie buried Judy’s identity somewhere under Madeleine’s clothes and hair. Still, no fabrication is perfect, and the most human and powerful moments in this season of Mad Men came when Dick Whitman managed to sneak into the show.

At all times, the show’s protagonist, like Hitchcock’s signature blonde in Vertigo, is two people at once. Even though her hair changes, Madeleine is always Judy. In Mad Men, Don reveals Dick when he is most vulnerable. As much as his finely tailored suits, the fabrication of “Don” is about cold distance, selfishly working his way to the top of his trade, leaving scores of discarded women in his wake. At the end of the sixth season, under the influence of alcohol, Dick Whitman took over in a meeting, spilling his secrets and getting Don forced into vacation. When season seven begins, he must deal with those consequences but also is more willing to be Dick, be natural. It is Dick, not Don, that flies to California to take care of a girl in need (ironically, the nephew of the first Donald Draper). The same goes for a particularly moving scene in the season’s sixth episode, “The Strategy.” Don Draper, drunken king of Madison Avenue, does not have the capacity for friends. When long-time colleague Peggy says she has just turned thirty, his response is, “Shit, when?” Dick Whitman feels bad for forgetting his friend’s birthday, and is proud of his one-time apprentice. The StrategyThis image comes from the above-mentioned scene, as Don then takes Peggy’s hand and they share a dance. The framing demonstrates the duality of the character by picturing him tightly framed in the doorway and with his reflection across the screen. This is one of many scenes in “The Strategy” to employ Hitchcock’s technique of literalizing duality with mirrors, and the series as a whole does this is a lot of ways.

mirrors mmv

Top-Left: Scottie spying on Madeleine before knowing she’s also Judy. Top-Right: Judy looking at Madeleine in the mirror. Bottom: Mad Men’s Meghan makes eye-contact with herself in the middle of a conversation with Don in “The Strategy.”

Over the years, Mad Men has repeatedly employed other ways of establishing duality. Literally, it exists in the Don Draper / Dick Whitman situation (and in the similar puzzle over the identity of recurring character Bob Benson), but is also reflected through symbols and semiotics. For example — in this case of unity of two bodies, rather than the splitting of one — Don’s first wife Betty flies to Reno to end their marriage with a quickie divorce. That season three episode ends with her pictured on the plane, from the left at a slight low angle. Four seasons later, after moving out her belongings but before verbally ending their relationship, second wife Meghan is shot in the same way on a plane to Los Angeles. Hitchcock in Vertigo turns the singular lead woman character into two, Madeleine and Judy, by changing her hair color. Mad Men repeatedly does the same.

In the show’s third season, Don and his team have to come up with an advertising campaign for Playtex pantyhose. The resulting campaign pictures a brunette woman dressed in black undergarments standing next to a blonde woman wearing white, and claims, “Nothing fits both sides of a woman better than Playtex.” The ad, titled “Jackie or Marilyn,” is clever because it uses only one model to play both roles. If changing wigs can turn a woman from a “Jackie” to a “Marilyn,” then the show is investing in the power of hair color, and future references should be taken as a serious message. Betty, in season five, dyes her hair brown. While on an LSD trip, Roger sees himself in the mirror with half of head covered in white hair, the other half black. Meghan, an actress, adds a blonde wig to play her primary character’s evil twin.

What is interesting is that the Jackie or Marilyn ad was created in the show’s 1963, only five years after the release of Vertigo, and it is likely that someone in the company caught the movie. It is possible that Hitchcock’s film inspired the fictional characters of Mad Men as much as its real creator and showrunner Matthew Weiner. In the current hiatus after the first half of season seven and this spring’s final batch of episodes, Weiner curated a series at the Museum of the Moving Image of films that inspired Mad Men. Among them are two of Hitchcock’s: North by Northwest and Vertigo. From 1959, North by Northwest is of particular importance to the aesthetic of Mad Men because it was shot in New York City at the time when the beginning of the show is set (it is also about a man who works in advertising). Vertigo‘s influence goes much deeper. Weiner said: “I was overwhelmed with its beauty, mystery, and obsessive detail. I remember watching the camera dolly-in on Kim Novak’s hair and thinking, ‘this is exactly what we are trying to do.’ Vertigo feels like you are watching someone else’s dream.”

This essay was written for an assignment for a class on the films of Alfred Hitchcock, but it had to be turned in electronically, so I figured what the hell and put it on here.