Mad Men – Far from Heaven, the series?

The highly anticipated return of the series Mad Men finally pulled me in- the show is set in the early 60’s in the legendary era of the martini lunch. Set in a high-power ad agency, it reminds me of the Billy Wilder classic The Apartment, with the subversiveness of Douglas Sirk, and 20/20 hindsight of Todd Haynes’s Far from Heaven. “Mad Men” was the self-imposed nickname that the Madison Avenue crew gave themselves, and they live up to the title.

Joan has wits to match.

The series concentrates on Donald Draper, a top ad executive working in New York City in the early 60’s. The show has gotten many accolades for its realism in recreating the look and feel of the era, from the skinny ties and slim suits to the well-coiffed women in office and home. Everyone smokes and drinks like mad, office liaisons are commonplace, every man is a cad with a piece on the side, and woman chafe at the societal boundaries that still corral them.

You’ve come a long way, baby.

Don is in his mid-30’s and has younger men nipping at his heels, but he is still the big dog; though he often lies tortured on the couch before getting a brainstorm that comes up with the perfect ad campaign. The ad industry was just on the cusp of using known psychological concepts to market products as a lifestyle, and Don rejects it, though when he comes up with concepts on his own, they are certainly crafted as if by a head shrinker; he just doesn’t link the two yet.

Peggy smiles like a shark.

What reminded me of the excellent Todd Haynes film Far From Heaven was not only the technicolor look of the show, but the update to Douglas Sirk’s brilliant subversiveness. In Sirk’s classics All That Heaven Allows, Rock Hudson is the artistic and freethinking bachelor who Jane Wyman falls in love with, to the disdain of society and even her own children; in his remake of Imitation of Life, two single women, one black and one white, meet and manage to succeed; the black woman’s daughter passes for white and is ashamed of her mother. He skirted what was considered acceptable and there was always the suggestion of things still labeled taboo; in Far From Heaven, Haynes goes that extra step and lets us see what Sirk might have done, unfettered.

Do I want a child? Oh, the irony.

In “Mad Men,” society still has taut reins of conformity around its neck, and we see even the paragon of 60’s manhood Don Draper (Jon Hamm) chomping at the bit, though he hides it quite well. The women are more fascinating than the men, in how they consolidate what little power is left to be had. Joan (Christina Hendricks) the office manager, a buxom redhead with wits to match her … wiles, is the de facto alpha female; Peggy (Elizabeth Moss), the newcomer in the first episode, has clawed her way into copywriting by the beginning of season two, after some trials and tribulations I’ll leave you to discover. The men have their own problems; they live hard and it affects their home life. Super-cad Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) doesn’t think he makes enough to support a child yet, and his new wife is tortured by the bouncing babies throughout their social circle.

“Mad Men” is able to show us a side of the mythical 50’s and 60’s that even Sirk couldn’t allude to, and it makes for riveting viewing. The first season is available On Demand with some cable providers (even in HD) and the show plays Sunday nights at 10pm EST for the DVR-deprived.

Criterion Collection: The Naked Prey

Before there was Apocalypto, there was The Naked Prey. A man chased by a group of warriors through the jungle, with only his wits and perseverance to help him survive; it’s a great premise for an action film, and both Mel Gibson’s version and Cornel Wilde’s are excellent pictures. They’re both in part based on the experiences of one John Colter, known as the first “mountain man” of the American frontier. He began as a guide for the Lewis and Clark expedition, helping them discover passes in the mountains, and he was their best hunter, keeping them fed with wild game. After he was discharged from the Army, he became a trapper and is believed to be the first white man to find what would become Yellowstone National Park, and his tales of geysers and bubbling mud pits were laughed at, at the time.

Not-so-great white hunters

Later in life he was trapping with a companion was killed by Blackfeet warriors; Colter was instead stripped naked and told to run. They gave chase, and but Colter was able to kill one with his own spear, and eventually fled to the river, where he hid under logs until they assumed he’d drowned. It took him 11 days to walk 200 miles back to the nearest fort, with only a stolen blanket for warmth. That’s a little less exciting than being chased for days by armed warriors, but still one hell of an survival tale.

You need three fiddy, you say? Poppycock!

The Naked Prey moves the action to Africa, mostly because it was cheaper to film there. For this, the film gets decried as racist, because his savage pursuers are quite brutal in their methods. But the story felt more sympathetic to them, to me. Cornel Wilde plays the prey- an unnamed man working as a safari guide for a rich, pompous ass. When they come to hunt on the land of a local tribe, he tells him to give the natives a gift of tribute, in respect of using their hunting grounds. He refuses, and insultingly pushes past the lead warrior, to Wilde’s dismay. He even calls it a hand-out, making an oblique criticism to those who disdained LBJ’s recent societal welfare.

You can choose death… or unga-bunga!

Later, when they are hunting elephants, they are set upon by the tribe in full force. Their carriers are beaten and butchered, and soon overwhelmed, they are all dragged back to the tribe’s encampment, where they are tortured. This is probably what generates automatic revulsion to us; seeing the white hunters treated brutally, we expect it is to make us hate the “savages.” But I see it as outside of our “civilized” rules; this is the law of the land. The invaders have insulted their hosts, and this is their punishment. I really felt no sympathy for the rude guy when he’s put in the way of a cobra’s only escape route; another man is covered in clay and baked alive. Our guide fellow, the only one who showed them any respect, is given a chance to live- stripped naked, like Colter, and given a head start of a hundred yards, a warrior is chosen to kill him.

The chase begins

I don’t think the Lead Warrior (Ken Gampu- Zulu Dawn, The Gods Must Be Crazy, Kill and Kill Again) believed this was anything more than target practice for a young, untested warrior, and he’s shocked when Wilde kills him with his own spear. We cannot understand anything the tribesmen say, but from the emotions on the dead boy’s face and the leader’s, I assume he was his kinsman, or even his son- or maybe just one of the tribe’s young warriors that he was training. The chase begins, now fueled by revenge.

The enemies are consistently humanized.

I’ve said before that films without much dialogue, like Wall*E and silent films, tend to engage you more deeply, if you give them the chance. The Naked Prey is no exception. The fugitive’s adventures in the African sveldt, between five murderous men and the jungle’s menagerie of hungry beasts, makes it easy to keep us on the edge of our seats. He has only his skills as a hunter, and perhaps the inexperience of his pursuers to help him.

The blood is off-camera but feels visceral through smart direction.

Like Apocalypto, the stunning scenery is almost a character in the film. Our protagonist uses it to his advantage, hiding, hunting, and tricking those behind him every way he can. He gets a lucky break here and there, but there is nothing that says he triumphs because of any innate superiority. Later, when he sees a neighboring tribe being attacked by what seem to be slavers, he even helps fight them until they are overwhelmed. He narrowly escapes, and meets an orphaned child from the village, who saves his life; they wander together for a while. He even manages to garner a mutual respect with the Warrior Leader chasing him.

And now you decide to step on a mamba? Thanks, man.

The film is still engaging and exciting, and there’s not much a remake could add; Apocalypto has more insane stunts, but those can take you out of the spell a movie casts. The Naked Prey’s influence reaches further still- when I finally watched Duel, the little driver’s triumphant jig is a lot like Wilde’s when he pulls a fast one on his enemies. The film revels in its natural surroundings and uses them for allegory; there’s an extended sequence of a baboon and a cheetah fighting to a standstill; we’d expect the baboon to be an easy meal, but like Wilde, it’s a surprisingly formidable foe. The tribesmen are never looked down upon as savages; the hero is transformed by the land to behave just as they do. Their deaths are never as throw-away cannon fodder; they are formidable, and their obsessed leader mourns them, and treats them with value. When one is bitten by a snake, they stay behind and tend to him, whereas in your typical action picture he would be killed as a burden. And no one says “bwana.”

And let us never speak of this again.

While it’s still a pulpy type of story, it still manages to be a great survival story, and and a great action movie. The Criterion Collection DVD has a stunning picture except for some grainy wildlife shots which is due to the source material. The extras include Paul Giamatti reading the story of John Colter, commentary, and music cues created by the director for the film.

Coffin Joe: At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul

The first Brazilian horror movie, and it’s not a wax job put on film either. “Coffin Joe” is the nickname horror fans have given the top hat and cape-wearing undertaker who stars in this film and a dozen others– vilely performing acts of violence, murder and worse yet, unabashed atheism– before he gets his comeuppance from God and/or the spirits of the dead. He possesses piercing eyes that turn bloodshot right before he commits some fiendish act, and unwholesomely long fingernails that are good for poking someone’s eyes out in a pinch. He is actually named Zé do Caixão, but to conserve accent marks I will call him “Coffin Joe” like his fans do.

Coffin Joe the undertaker.

He’s sort of the Freddy Krueger of Brazil, an evil and murderous rogue who is yet somehow likeable and enjoyable to watch on screen as he commits his nefarious deeds. His cavalier attitude toward the superstitions and religious beliefs of his fellow villagers is also entertaining. The movie begins with him demanding meat for dinner on a Friday– he actually says “Where’s the Beef?” Later he’s gambling at the tavern and he chops a guy’s fingers off with a broken bottle when he won’t give up the pot.

Wendy’s lady spins in her grave

Coffin Joe’s obsession is “the continuity of the blood,” and he wants to make a child with the perfect woman. Problem is, his wife ain’t perfect. So he kills her by tying her up and letting a poisonous spider bite her. This baffles the authorities, so he is left to pursue Terezhina, who just happens to be engaged to his best friend. Sorry Antonio, you gotta go. When they go to see a witch to have their fortune told, she predicts that tragedy will befall their marriage, and Joe is happy to force the hand of fate. He invites Tony over and knocks him out, and drowns him in the bathtub.

If only O.J. thought of this.

Then he hooks up with the perfect woman, but of course she rebuffs his advances. That’s no obstacle for old Coffin Joe. He just beats her around and has his way with her. She commits suicide so he can’t have his perfect child, but doesn’t incriminate him in her note. So he’s still walking around free, wooing the village women and beating and whipping men who defend them. One even gets a small crown of thorns stuck in his face, the ultimate sacrilege.
When the town doctor writes a report that may implicate him in the village’s recent spate of tragedies, he puts his nails to good use and pokes the man’s eyes out in delightfully gruesome fashion.
As the Day of the Dead approaches, the witch woman repeats her warning that Joe will pay for all his evil works. Instead of repenting, Joe stays up all night mocking God during a thunderstorm, demanding that he prove his existence.
Well, you don’t mess around on the Day of the Dead, even if you’re Coffin Joe. As he walks to the crossroads by the graveyard, the words of the witch come to haunt him, as he encounters sign after sign that her imprecations are coming true. Finally he sees the Procession of the Dead: Antonio and his wife return for vengeance. But is it real or in his mind? He flees the ghostly apparitions and finds himself in their burial crypt, driven mad with terror. In the morning the villagers find him sprawled at the crypt, his crazy bloodshot eyes wide open.
Like the old folk tales of Stagger Lee and other badmen who get their comeuppance, it’s a cautionary tale justifying our belief that justice will be meted out in this world or the next. José Mojica Marins plays the role with relish; no one else wanted the part, so he directed and starred in it. He’d eventually grow his nails out and become the boogeyman of Brazil, playing Joe or directing 11 other films involving the unrepentant evildoer.

“Coffin Joe” José Mojica Marins on the right, with a serious fan.

He’s making another Coffin Joe movie called The Incarnation of the Devil that should be out this year. The original movie has cheap effects, but doesn’t come off cheesy because he films it like it’s a silent film, with a lot of expression in the actors, and it’s all taken very seriously and without camp. It’s still funny at times, intentionally and not. The sequel This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse is on the DVR, and I’m told he goes to Hell in that one. If you like old horror movies, this is a must. If not, it’s still entertaining, and I imagine it is projected on the brick walls of hipster bars wherever Pabst Blue Ribbon is ironically served. With a shot of Curaçao, or better yet a caipirinha.

What is life? It is the beginning of death. What is death? It is the end of life! What is existence? It is the continuity of blood. What is blood? It is the reason to exist!
The original Brazilian movie poster.

Putney Swope – Don’t Rock the Boat… Sink It!

Putney Swope is probably best known for the reference in Boogie Nights; Don Cheadle’s character, Buck Swope, is named after the film. It’s somewhere between a 60’s head film and a 70’s rebel film. It succeeds in some ways and fails in others, but if you like the weird films of the 60’s, it’s a must. Filmed by Robert Downey Sr., it’s the story of a Madison Avenue ad agency that puts its one black executive in charge, and the hijinks that ensue. I’m a big fan of Melvin Van Peebles’s movies such as Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song and Watermelon Man, so was eager to see another film of this sort.

Putney Swope and his bodyguard

Putney Swope is the one black member of the board of an advertising agency; when the Chairman dies during a board meeting, they vote by secret ballot for the new Chairman, and since they all want a “token” vote for Putney… he gets elected by a landslide. He immediately takes over, renames the company Truth & Soul, Inc., refuses to advertise cigarettes or war toys, and brings in his afro and dashiki entourage.

It’s less of a satire on race relations than a pointed jab at Advertising, and most of the best jokes are either the bizarre commercials Swope and crew come up with, how people and companies both eat it up, or the insane products the companies foist on the public. Swope isn’t really a revolutionary, and this is certainly not a “Madison Avenue meets Blazing Saddles” kind of movie. It’s more like The Magic Christian and other Terry Southern-inspired films of the 60’s that attack the status quo. They poke at the revolutionary fervor of the 60’s as well, with Antonio Fargas as a black Muslim and others.

Viva le revolucion, baby.

When someone from the Audie Murphy toy company is raving about their Junior Flamethrower that runs on ordinary lighter fluid, and Swope suggests selling a crappy window cleaner as a soft drink in the ghetto, you know their targets. The commercials themselves vary from amusing to insane, though in my opinion none of them do better than the skit comedy anthology The Groove Tube for laughs, but the satire is biting and poignant. For example there’s this ad for Fan-Away, which shows a gal dancing in a trash-strewn alley with a bum passed out in it, and she says “You can’t eat an air conditioner.” This type of commercial actually made the air later, where street sensibility and an abstract concern about starving homeless people would be used to hawk products and a lifestyle, so the film was ahead of its time with this one.
Another was for Lucky Airlines, which just has 3 sexy girls in slow-mo bouncing their boobies in an airplane, and wrestling with a guy in his underwear, which would have been shocking in 1969 but with a few edits could be an ad today.

Tig Bitty Airline commercial

The commercials are in color and most of the movie is in black and white, so they pop out at you. My favorite isn’t on youtube, sadly. A voice-over describes “Ethereal Cereal” and its health benefits as the camera slowly pans in on a black family at breakfast. The man of the family looks oblivious, as he boredly eats his cereal, when the voiceover asks him, “Jim, did you know it also has .002 ESP units of pectin?”

“No shit?”

The film isn’t above having products like Dinkleberry’s Chicken Pot Pies, either. It’s actually quite a bit of fun, as Swope transforms into “The Man” he set out to crumble, begins donning a Fidel Castro outfit as his cohorts call him a cop out. The film starts to fall apart at this point, aiming for absurdity. Swope’s rival turns out to be a dwarf, but nothing really funny happens with him. Mel Brooks has a tiny cameo as a customer in sunglasses who says “Forget it, baby!” when Swope takes over, and I wonder if this influenced Blazing Saddles in any way.

Mr. Big

The film does have its comedic moments like when the War Toy manager realizes he’ll be out of a job:

A homosexual… or worse!

It also riffs on artists, such as when a photographer is trying to get a job with Swope, starting at an outrageous price and then bargaining himself down because he needs the work.

The sad lot of the freelancer.
The movie isn’t perfect, and part of it comes from Robert Downey’s decision to dub his own voice over Arnold Johnson’s for Putney Swope. He has a plain, gravelly delivery that isn’t obviously a dub, but it seems just off enough. He also does a lot of shots with Swope’s mouth obscured to make the lip syncing easier. With the right actor this might have been a less forgotten classic. It definitely has its moments, and is commendable for its daring. It just lacks that spark that would catapult it into hilarity, and a more lively, charismatic star using his own voice would have done it.

Who was going to do it, though? Sidney Poitier? There weren’t a lot of lead roles for blacks back in ’69 and something like this could sink a career. Or make one. 5 years later Cleavon Little would be unforgettable as Bart in Blazing Saddles, but it would be his only lead role. So it’s hard to fault it. It’s still one of a kind, a great poke at TV commercials, and still funny today.