Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Did MAD MEN Sneakily Hint At What's To Come?

Spoilers for the latest episode of Mad Men follow.

This week's Mad Men was another terrific episode, ratcheting up the tension as Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce seems to come apart at the seams. After having lost the Lucky Strike/American Tobacco account, which made up half of their billings, SCDP has been unable to find any new business, as companies want to wait and see if the agency can survive. Layoffs began and everything looked very bad. And then Don Draper did one of those ineffable Don Draper things, throwing a curveball into the whole situation - a curveball whose outcome still isn't clear. But maybe looking at history - history that the show slyly alluded to last night - can help us figure out where this is all going.

Don took out a full page ad in the New York Times explaining that he was happy to be rid of Lucky Strike and that SCDP is out of the tobacco business for good. See, he says, tobacco is a 'product for which good work is irrelevant, because people can't stop themselves from buying it, a product that never improves, causes illness and makes people unhappy. But there was money in it, a lot of money. In fact, our entire business depended on it. We knew it wasn't good for us, but we couldn't stop and then when Lucky Strike moved their business elsewhere I realized here was my chance to be someone who could sleep at night because I know what I'm selling doesn't kill my customers, so as of today SCDP will no longer take tobacco accounts.'

This causes a major uproar, not just in SCDP but all across the advertising world and even in the media. When Don comes to the office the morning the letter is printed, Megan has a huge handful of calls that have come in. Among them, she says, is a call from a guy named Emerson Foote.

And here we come to the clue. See, Emerson Foote was a real guy. Emerson Foote was one of the titans of the advertising world in the middle 20th century. Emerson Foote had the Lucky Strike account, and he eventually took his own agency off of tobacco accounts. Don Draper has pulled an Emerson Foote.

Foote had been a vice president of McCann-Erickson (a name that will ring a bell for any Mad Men fan), and he resigned in 1964, just about a year before Don's stunt. Foote had been a lifelong chain smoker and found himself with a crisis of conscience; long concerned about his own cancer risks, Foote couldn't work for a company that peddled tobacco. He ended up working with the National Interagency Council on Smoking and Health, writing slogans and doing campaigns. One of the slogans he wrote for them was 'Give to Conquer Cancer - Strike Back,' a not so thinly veiled poke at Lucky Strike, a company he made iconic. Foote worked with the American Cancer Society, and he served on the 1964 President's Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer, and Stroke.

Foote didn't take out an ad when he left behind tobacco advertising, but he did take out an ad a year later when he wanted back in the ad game. Foote placed an ad in Ad Age, asking for another chance. He got over 100 replies. Foote ended up coming on board a small agency that had been crippled by a scandal and fine for false advertising - the first advertising agency to be held accountable for what it claimed. Foote took the struggling agency and turned it around.

Foote remained a tireless crusader against tobacco, and in the 70s supported a movement to have tobacco advertising banned. "I am always amused," he said, "by the suggestion that advertising, a function that has been shown to increase consumption of virtually every other product, somehow miraculously fails to work for tobacco products."

Like Don Draper, Foote came from humble beginnings - a small town in Alabama, and small time jobs that included working at an auto dealership. Foote's much older than Don - he was in advertising before Draper was even born - but as a major figure in creative, Foote seems to have influenced the character of Don Draper in no small way.

So whatever happened to Emerson Foote? He died in 1992, aged 85. I don't know that Don Draper will make it that long, but other elements of Foote's story seem likely to pop up in Mad Men. SCDP has already been approached by the American Cancer Society; might Don Draper end up writing that 'Strike Back' slogan? Could Don's move towards personal rehabilitation coincide with a period of public service? As the decade gets more political, it could be interesting to have Don himself getting a little political. And this could put him into contact with Henry Francis, Betty's dull new husband. 

Even if none of that is the case, I think that the Emerson Foote namedrop is a sign that things will get better at SCDP, although it may not be SCDP for long. In a 1967 profile of Foote, Time Magazine notes that the agency of Kastor Foote Hilton & Atherton has changed its name to just Emerson Foote, Inc. Maybe Don Draper, Inc is where SCDP is headed in the next season. Foote wasn't just a legend, he was resilient, and he came back on top after being counted out in 1964. Somehow I think Don Draper will do the same.

Thanks to Rian Johnson for linking to the Time Magazine piece mentioned above, starting this whole train of thought.

Monday, October 4, 2010

If Women Had Invented Facebook, They Would Have Invented Facebook

WARNING: I guess some of what follows is spoilery, but I think that concept, besides being generally dumb, is inapplicable to this film.

It's exciting to see serious discussion pop up around the number one movie in America. 2010 may have been a weak year for film, but with Inception creating a national internet discourse and now The Social Network not only coming in at the top of the charts but spurring lots and lots of talk about gender roles and equality, the year is shaping up as a good one for people getting on on the discussion.

But it's weird to see so many people leap into the debate about women in The Social Network without actually taking the time to examine the movie itself. I'm reading lots of reactions online complaining about the lack of strong women in the film, but these seem like kneejerk responses and not thought-out critiques. I know there's a bit of a straw man argument going on here since I'm not responding to any particular complaints (although one screed from Jezebel is notable for being pointlessly shrill and without any seeming understanding of things like narrative, theme and subtext), but I believe that on a larger level The Social Network is actually about the things that people are decrying. Yes, Aaron Sorkin wrote a script totally intending to include lots of one dimensional, slutty women.

First it's important to understand what a movie that's based on a true story is. It's  not a documentary. It's not a fact by fact recitation of reality. It's an adaptation of reality, just as Spider-Man was an adaptation of a comic book. The reality gets, to some extent, molded and changed to fit not just the needs of drama but also the needs of the film's theme and meaning. There's a larger discussion to be had here about what's acceptable in these cases, but the fact is simple: The Social Network is a film that's a fictionalized account of a real story. And it's a fictionalized account intended to service Aaron Sorkin's vision not just of Mark Zuckerberg but of the modern world of internet boom billionaires and the meaning and context of social networking. 

So Sorkin takes facts and reality and bends them around a little bit to make points for himself. After all, he's just got two hours to tell not only an interesting story but also to explore themes and meanings behind that story. The big theme that drives the film is the concept of rejection as the fuel for ambition. The entire film is predicated on the concept that Mark Zuckerberg succeeds because he has been rejected. He starts Facemash because a girl has rejected him; when she rejects him a second time he throws himself deeper into his work to expand Facebook. He double crosses the Winklevosses because they represent everything that he views as rejecting him in society - handsome, athletic Aryans that come from money. And he pushes Facebook further because of his rejection by the final clubs, personified in his former best friend Eduardo. These are the things that motivate Zuckerberg, and they're the same things that motivate Sean Parker - the only person who doesn't reject Mark but rather brings him in. Parker started Napster because a girl he liked was dating someone else; later Facebook gets an important investment because Parker enlists Zuckerberg to give a fuck you to a venture capitalist who screwed him over. Again and again success is bred from rejection. 

It's important to note that The Social Network is bookmarked by two strong women, both of whom not only see through Zuckerberg, but who reject him entirely. The film leaves Zuckerberg a lonely Michael Corleone, with all the money and power in the world but unable to get the one thing he wants - Rooney Mara's character to like him. Rashida Jones's lawyer character and Rooney Mara's Erica Albright represent the women outside of Zuckerberg's world, and they're the women he yearns for but also sort of avoids. 

Yes, women are treated poorly in The Social Network, but that's on purpose. As Zuckerberg comes to the idea of Facemash, the site that is a precursor to Facebook, he considers comparing women to farm animals. That scene is intercut with shots of the Phoenix-  the prestigious final club to which the Winklevosses belong - busing women in to their party. They're literally transporting them like livestock, and that's how they're treated. The scenes of debauchery at the Phoenix party aren't meant to be titillating, they're meant to show the way that women are treated by these men. And the film posits that Zuckerberg shares the same feelings towards women - they're cattle - and only aspires to be let into the party where the women don't reject you anymore. 

And just in case you thought that the Phoenix was supposed to be taken seriously by you, the viewer, our intro to it is a frat boy telling the women how important the club is... while wearing a backwards baseball cap. The guy is a douchebag on sight, and it's obvious that his world is one of unqualified douchebaggery. Watching the scenes of women dancing and making out and thinking that the film is celebrating this business is a sign of an inability to read a film. The statements are clear, and the attitudes that men have towards women are clearer. They don't like women. 

Which leads to them surrounding themselves with sluts and bimbos. Sean Parker's womanizing isn't cool; in fact it's a touch desperate and sad, as he travels from bed to bed because he doesn't have a home. Parker not only surrounds himself with women he doesn't respect (look at how he treats the two bong hit girls in the Facebook house), he actually goes for younger, possibly underage girls. Parker is a creep. It would be actually weird if he had a strong woman at his side, or were interested in getting female programmers. This is the guy that Zuckerberg is drawn to because he sees Parker as the geek who has gotten bigger and cooler than the final clubs. 

Some people have objected to Eduardo's girlfriend, the crazy jealous Asian girl Christy. I suspect that her nationality is a nod to the fact that nerds simply love Asian women and culture, as well as a nod to the fact that Zuckerberg's real life girlfriend is Asian. But more than that, the character is a piece of subtext personified - she's a metaphor. Eduardo's story has him getting nothing but grief and pain from the cool thing that he started. Everything that comes from Facebook is poisoned, including his relationship - and it's all poisoned from the start, but he doesn't know it. Giving Christy more dimensions would utterly sabotage the point of the character, and totally undermine the thematic elements. Like the president of Harvard or Zuckerberg's roommates, the girlfriend is tertiary at best, and has a specific role to fulfill - a role that doesn't include a completely fleshed out life. The president of Harvard is just as cartoonish, but there are no school administrators getting up in arms about him. He exists to illustrate the way that everything in the Winklevosses lives is turning against them, and he fulfills that function and moves out of the film. 

The secret to The Social Network is that it's Revenge on the Nerds. Following a decade of geek chic, this film deconstructs our current nerd plutarchs and restores the most basic geek stereotypes. Zuckerberg and company aren't aspirational, they're pathetic. They're driven by pettiness and insecurity. They're socially retarded, and they surround themselves with lesser people they can dominate. Zuckerberg and Parker are creating the frat house they could never enter, and they're changing the rules of exclusivity so that it's all about being a coder and a hacker. They're not overcoming the establishment, they're becoming it. And in the end it leaves them unfulfilled and unhappy and alone and fucked up. The tragedy for Zuckerberg is that he secretly knows it; it's why the film has him ignoring all the sluts and skanks around him and only really being interested in the two strong women. Even the blowjob that he gets in the bathroom is completely upstaged by the simple sight of Erica Albright. This is all on purpose, and not an accident. Sorkin put the second Albright scene right after the bathroom blowjob to make a very specific point.

I haven't read The Accidental Billionaires or researched a ton about the real story of Mark Zuckerberg, so maybe there are strong women who were integral to the founding of Facebook. I would be interested in finding out about them, if they exist, but knowing what I do about computer programmers and nerds, I suspect that they sort of don't. There probably were other women in Zuckerberg's circle (he had met his current girlfriend by the time the film covers, although I don't know if he was actually dating her then), and there were probably gay people and more black people and even Indians who weren't angry little twerps, but filmmaking isn't about checking off inclusion boxes. Art is not about making sure the full spectrum of humanity is displayed. It's about telling a story and getting across ideas. Aaron Sorkin, for whatever reason, is attracted to boy's club atmospheres - the White House, sports TV, the military - but he almost always finds room to include strong women into his stories. The Social Network is no different. And it's important to note that since the film is told entirely in deposition flashback, that only Rashida Jones' character exists outside the influence of differing viewpoints. If there's any single character who speaks for the filmmakers, it is her, and her final judgment on Zuckerberg is clearly meant to be theirs.

(Thanks to the strong woman in my life, Lindsay Maher, for helping connect the dots between Facemash and the Phoenix club bus)