Saturday, June 27, 2015

The real Mad Men: tales of fear and loathing from Madison Avenue

If you are a fan of Mad Men, then you recognize brand names being bandied about, and people running around in advertising agencies, desperately trying to get new clients or hold on to old ones. It all seems like life and death. In a way, it is. Advertising is a tough racket, and the streets of Madison Avenue in New York City are probably bloodied by those who have been pummeled and beaten down in such a competitive and cut-throat business.

Jerry Della Femina was an advertising man who wrote a best-selling book, From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor in 1970, telling tales of the high pressure advertising business. He told it in a very personal and funny way, though, and when I began watching Mad Men I wondered if they had used Della Femina’s memoirs as a jumping off point for the series.

Before the book was published, New York magazine did a two-part excerpt, a look at how advertising agencies work. I read the book originally in the early seventies (and it made me glad I was no longer considering that business for a long-term career). In re-reading the excerpts from New York I am surprised at how much I remembered, even after 45 years. It made an impression, just as the television series does.

Della Femina, though, did all right for himself. I saw online he had sold his house for $25 million. Not bad for an ad man.

Copyright © 1970 NYM Corporation

Friday, June 19, 2015

More film noir: Inviting The Uninvited Guest

The Uninvited Guest is a movie I reviewed nearly five years ago. I recently found it listed on one of those internet teaser sites under the heading, “Ten of the best horror movies you’ve never seen.” Seeing it listed got me to dig out my DVD of the movie.

The movie is not a horror movie, although what goes on during the film is strange, often surreal, and has a nightmarish quality. It is more correctly a psychological thriller, and in terms of theme and style I would guess its godfather would be David Lynch, whose movies create their own nightmares. Guest uses some of Lynch’s techniques, although it resists the urge to change characters into other characters in mid-movie. Actually, not quite. There are parallels in Guest, which I also notice in Lynch. The parallels come in protagonist Felix’s total paranoia during the first half of the film, wondering whether there is someone living in his house whom he cannot locate, and the second half, where Felix becomes a person who is living in someone else’s house surreptitiously. Another trick is to use the same actress to portray both Felix’s girlfriend, and the wife of the man Felix believes is the one who was hiding in his house.

I did not mention the most obvious parallel in my first review because, frankly, I wasn’t smart enough to pick it up on first watching. After nearly five years of experience and at times total immersion in films and techniques, I am more aware of those storytelling devices that can be unique to movies.

The Uninvited Guest is also film noir. It is dark and brooding, and presents an existential mystery.

Here is my original review, written October 27, 2010:

Felix is an artist and architect who lives in a huge house he designed. He's alone because his girlfriend, Vera, has left him. One night a man comes to his door and asks to use his telephone. Felix leaves the man in a room, then comes back, but the man has disappeared.

Felix searches for him, but doesn't find him. That night he hears noises as if someone else is in the house.

Is someone, that man, there or is Felix's mind playing tricks? Is he paranoid, or is there a stranger living in his house, a master of evasion, moving one step ahead of Felix while he obsessively searches?

As the audience for the movie, The Uninvited Guest, we're unsure ourselves. Felix draws a portrait for Vera of the man he saw. Later he finds out his portrait looks like the man who lives in Number 5, just up the street.

Felix goes back to his own house with a gun, goes upstairs, where a dark shape emerges from the shadows. Felix fires, hitting the shadowed figure. Rather than call the police, he locks the door so the person cannot get away, leaving him to die. In yet another strange twist, he then enters the house where the man lives, and then Felix becomes the uninvited guest.

The man he believes was in his house is named Martin, and his wife, whose legs are paralyzed from an accident, is Claudia. Both Claudia and Vera, the girlfriend, are played by Mónica López. The resemblance between the two women keeps him from leaving Claudia's house. The bizarre scenes of him staying one step ahead of her are choreographed almost like a dance.

This 2004 movie, in its native Spanish called El Habitante Incierto, is a film written and directed by Guillem Morales. It stars handsome young actor Andoni Gracia as Felix. The film has been called Hitchcockian, but I don't see it as that. It's a horror-suspense movie that plays on some of our primal fears, like unseen presences. The ending leaves some questions, but I like that. I like to think back and figure it out. Some people don't like having to figure out an ending, and some people don't like subtitles. If you don't speak Spanish you need the subtitles, and if you haven't been watching the film you'll find the twist ending enigmatic.

I recommend this movie.

Friday, June 12, 2015

When less is more

I’ve been watching film noir movies lately, specifically the classic films done after World War II, when a new consciousness emerged. It accepted the world as a flawed and dangerous place, and the people in it equally flawed and equally dangerous. It is also because the movies that are described as noir are artfully conceived.

For instance, yesterday I watched a DVD of Crossfire, a 1947 movie with a theme of intolerance and ignorance. It originated with the Richard Brooks novel, The Brick Foxhole, which was about a homosexual murder, but the movie censors in 1947 would have none of that. The producers changed the character to a Jew.

Crossfire was produced as a B-movie, with a small budget. But because it is so well made and broke new ground (confronting anti-Semitism), it was nominated for five Academy Awards and in addition, it did well at the box office.

As director Edward Dmytryk explained it, during the opening scene he wanted to cut the expense of a fight scene, plus keep the murderer’s identity a secret. So he and his cinematographer devised a shadow-play fight. As the movie opens we see the shadows of two figures struggling, we hear the sound of blows being landed. In a 90-second sequence we are given all the information we need that someone is being beaten to death. It is confirmed as the sequence ends when the dead man is flung into camera range.

What was done to save expense actually is a brilliant move on the part of the filmmaker.

When more is too much

Crossfire successfully avoids displays of violence, and presents a suspenseful story through dialogue and human interaction. I wonder if the modern film viewer, addicted to special effects and graphic violence, would accept a story told in such a way.

Special effects are sometimes being used in lieu of making a good movie with a good story. I am not opposed to CGI, but massive action sequences using CGI can actually be boring, rather than exciting.

I found myself yawning during the battle over Metropolis in the Superman movie starring Henry Cavill as the Man of Steel. Was it really any better than the original two Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve, which used comparatively low-tech effects? In one of the infamous hacked Sony memos there was an executive who complained that in Man of Steel (2013) Superman crashed through the windows onto the floor of office buildings more than once (I counted three times). Why? Because money was spent on the effects and the filmmakers could not waste those repetitive shots?

I admit I am not part of the demographic the filmmakers are looking for. They want to bring in young audiences, the guys who play video games, and maybe those guys love that sort of action. The mindless scenes of violence and destruction, accompanied by eardrum-busting sound effects, induce boredom in me, not admiration.

Apparently I am not the only movie viewer who thinks this way.  Sarah Larson, at, wrote an opinion piece called, “An Open Letter To the White Walker Army,” which, among other points concerning an attack by zombies in a recent episode of Game of Thrones, says:
“To be fair, White Walker Army, it’s not just you. It’s the entire tradition of long, boring fight scenes in movies, on TV, everywhere, made more stultifying by recent years’ onslaught of visual effects, able to conjure anything. I’m sure they enchant some of us, including their creators [Emphasis mine]: you wights, for example, appear in various lovingly rendered stages of decomposition. Some of you are “super-fresh,” dead for a week or two, your flesh only beginning to fall off; some are “mid-decomps,” dead six months to two years, and looking terrible; and some are greenscreen wights, dead as a doornail with decomp to match, rattling around full of negative space. I’m not a zombie connoisseur, but to me, all of you nincompoops, however brilliantly executed, have the emotional pull of an army of ants, minus the ants’ dignified social structures and attractive formic-acid exoskeletons.

Many people love battle scenes and C.G.I.; zillions of them strap on headsets to kill friends and strangers in live-shooter video games all over the world. Plenty of those people must find zombie battles exciting, whole fields of yuckos scrapping and yelling and dying; to me, they’re just a lot of frantic silliness.”
I just love it when thinking people agree with me. It makes me feel I am not alone.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Satirizing God

After the murders of cartoonists on the Charlie Hebdo staff in Paris, and the attack on a right-wing conclave in Dallas inviting cartoonists to draw the prophet, Muhammed, the subject of whose prophet or god is okay to satirize came up. Some cultures are pretty touchy about their deity and prophet, to the point of killing those who mock.

In our culture we don’t censor a cartoonist from razzing a creator.

The New Yorker takes on prophets as well as gods.

As far as I know, for their efforts author Andrew J. Schwartzberg and artist Drew Friedman were not killed by hooded men with machine guns for producing this three-page feature in Mad #347, from 1996. But what would have happened had they poked fun at another god, and not the Judeo-Christian god or prophets? And you know what “other god” I am speaking of, don’t you?

So I don’t have to risk waking up to find a group of armed men in my bedroom, insert the name of that god here: ____________. Shhh. No shouting it out, now.

And while we are at it, it is worth mentioning that the god featured in “What If God Were One of Us?” is pictured as none other than William M. Gaines.

Gaines, publisher of Mad from its inception in 1952 until his death in 1992, was certainly a god to some. A god of iconoclasts, that is.

Do you remember the song by Joan Osborne that was the springboard for the above article? As always, if the screen is dark on this YouTube video it is not due to an act of god, or me taking a lightning strike from above, but because YouTube withdrew it.