Tuesday, June 30, 2015
"MAD MEN": THE WASTE OF A POTENTIAL CHARACTER
After the character of Dawn Chambers was introduced on "MAD MEN" during Season Five, some fans and critics had expressed disappointment at the series' failure to dip into her character. However, many of them - especially those writers from the SLATE online magazine, who with article after article, continue to defend creator Matthew Weiner's handling of race issues on the show. Even non "SLATE" articles such as this one get into "defend Matthew Weiner" game, claiming that "MAD MEN" is the wrong series to begin the topic of race. And honestly, I got pretty sick and tired of it all.
Race has really been a problem for Americans to deal with, let alone confront for God knows how long. It certainly seems to be a problem with Matthew Weiner. During an appearance on PBS's "CHARLIE ROSE", guest host Gayle King asked the following question:
"As you move through time, I’m wondering will we see some black people?"
Weiner gave this answer:
"I do feel like I’m proud of the fact that I am not telling a wish fulfillment story of the real interaction of white America and black America. … How is [integration] coming into their lives? [Black people] in the service industry, they’re in entertainment, and this is how people are experiencing civil rights, on television. Hopefully when we get to the part of the ’60s [where race is more clearly addressed on the show], you won’t have trivialized the contribution of someone like Martin Luther King. I don’t think people understand what that impact is, to have a world leader, an international figure who is an African-American who is telling the truth and poetic — Don hears the speech, “I Have A Dream,” and he turns off the radio. It’s just a news event. They don’t even know. If I was telling a story of the black experience, it would be very different. But I’m very proud of the fact I’m not doing this guilty thing.
Like you see a movie about California in 1970 and you see black and white kids going to school together. Guess what? There was no integration in California public schools until, like, 1972. It’s a shameful part of our past. Guess what? It’s real."
I suspect that Weiner was trying to simplify a situation that proved to be a lot more complex and chaotic. Yes, the California public schools did become officially desegregated by 1972. But Weiner failed to point out that a good number of them had ended segregation long before 1972. I should know. I had attended grade school in Southern California between 1971 and 1974. There were already African-Americans and Latinos kids attending school with white kids at Lankershim Elementary School in North Hollywood, California; a Los Angeles suburban district in the San Fernando Valley by the beginning of the 1970s. I do not recall any conflict between white and minority kids at the school I had attended during that period. Nor do I recall any white parents protesting against the idea of their children attending school with minority students. Hell, only the mentally and physically disabled kids were segregated from the rest of the school's students. Frankly, I find Weiner's simplified comments about segregation in California schools a cheap way to excuse for his failure to directly address race on "MAD MEN".
After Dawn Chambers was introduced as Don Draper's new secretary . . . nothing really happened. She was merely regulated to the background, except in one episode called (5.04) "Mystery Date", in which fear over racial violence near Harlem led her to spend the night at Peggy's apartment. Viewers learned nothing about Dawn. They did learn for the second time during the show's history that Peggy was capable of subversive racism. After "Mystery Date", Dawn was shoved into the background. She did not emerge as a major player in an episode until Season Six's (6.04) "To Have and to Hold". In this episode, Dawn clashed with former office manager-turned-partner Joan Harris after Harry Crane's secretary, Scarlett, convinced her to punch the latter's time card in her absence. The incident not only led to an embarrassing conflict between Joan, Harry and the other partners; it also led Joan to leave Dawn in charge of the time cards and with the key to the office supply closet. Although Dawn expressed gratitude for the new responsibilities, Joan warned her that she might not be so grateful in the foreseeable future. In this one scene, Weiner set up the possibility of some kind of conflict between Dawn and the firm's white secretaries. And as the season unfolded, Weiner did nothing to exploit this possible story line. Instead, Dawn resumed her role as a background character. In the end, nothing really happened to Dawn by the series finale. She remained an office manager after McCann-Erikson swallowed up Sterling Cooper & Partners in Season Seven's (7.11) "Time & Life". However, her chances of surviving with McCann-Erikson remains to be seen.
Now, one might bring up the topic of the episode that followed "To Have and to Hold" - namely (6.05) "The Flood". In this episode, the show's various characters learned of activist Martin Luther King's assassination in Memphis, Tennessee in April 1968. "The Flood" featured reactions and points-of-view from many of the show's white characters. Although the episode also featured the reactions of Dawn and Peggy Olson's secretary, Phyllis; it never explored the assassination from their viewpoints. Many critics and fans defended this aspect of the episode, labeling it original. I merely rolled my eyes in disgust. Would it have really killed him to convey Dawn's own personal perspective on the assassination? Even for one lousy scene?
After Dawn receded into the background once more, the show continued on its merry way. The last time Weiner brought up the topic of race - in more than a few seconds - occurred in the episode (6.08) "The Crash", when Don and Megan Draper's Park Avenue apartment was invaded by a middle-class African-American woman who happened to be a thief. "Aunt Ida", ladies and gentlemen. This home invasion occurred while Don and Megan were gone and the Draper children were staying at their father's home. And while actress Davenia McFadden gave a memorable performance, I found myself wondering what on earth had Weiner meant by getting to the point where race is more addressed on the show? In a potential storyline that was dropped by the following episode? In an episode about Martin Luther King's assassination in which audience never get a personal peek into a black woman's view on the event? Or in an episode in which the main character's apartment is robbed by a middle-aged thief, who happened to be black? "MAD MEN" had just finished its penultimate season, which was set in 1968. And it has yet to unveil the black perspective of one or two characters on the show. Not really. Not with any real depth.
Of course, one encounters the excuses made by critics and other fans. Excuses such as:
*Blacks in the 1960s only worked in service occupations.
*Dawn is a minor character.
*Both racism and gender are side issues on the show.
*Dawn is not intimately connected with a main character (as if this was an excuse to minimize her character).
*The number of blacks and other minorities in the advertising industry was less than 5% during the 1960s.
*Matthew Weiner can write about what he wants. "MAD MEN" is his show.
The above are only a handful of excuses I have encountered in the past. Allow me to address them.
*Blacks in the 1960s only worked in service occupations. - Contrary to social myths, middle-class and wealthy African-Americans have existed in the United States since the Colonial Era. Their numbers may have been a lot smaller than the middle-class and wealthy white Americans, but they have existed for over three centuries. And yes, there were African-Americans who have worked in advertising since the mid-1950s. The argument that a black copywriter or executive in a 1960s advertising agency would be unrealistic does not hold water for me; especially since the series featured a 20-21 year-old woman with no college degree and EIGHT MONTHS of secretarial experience becoming a copywriter by the end of the first season - a situation that I find ten times more unrealistic.
*Dawn is a minor character. - Really? Then why did Matthew Weiner even bothered to include her in the series' cast of characters, if she was mainly there to serve as background? And why on earth would he waste the show's only black character (since Carla's departure) as a minor character, when he could have easily used her to explore race issues on a personal basis?
*Both racism and gender are side issues on the show. - Race has been treated as a side issue on "MAD MEN". Gender issues have been fully explored, thanks to characters such as Peggy Olson, Betty Francis (formerly Draper), Joan Harris and Megan Draper.
*Dawn is not intimately connected to a main character. - Since when was sex the only liable excuse to explore any character? Dawn did not need a romance or tryst with the main character or one of the major supporting characters to have a bigger role. As I had previously stated, she has been the only major minority character on "MAD MEN" for the past two seasons. That fact alone should be a good excuse to explore race in the workplace . . . or at the now dubbed Sterling Cooper & Partners.
*The number of blacks and other minorities in the advertising industry was less than 5% during the 1960s. - That is true. But that is not a good excuse to exclude a story line for Dawn or any other potential minority character. The number of women in the advertising industry was just as low or almost as low. That did not stop Weiner from exploring gender issues or allowing the 21 year-old Peggy Olson to become a copywriter with no college degree and eight months of secretarial experience, Joan from becoming a partner with the firm or Megan from becoming a copywriter following her marriage to Don.
*Matthew Weiner can write about what he wants. "MAD MEN" is his show. - I have no argument with that excuse. "MAD MEN" is Weiner's show to do what he please. But if Weiner is only interested in exploring race from a limited point of view, why did he bother to include Dawn to the cast of character in Season Five? What was the point? But if Weiner can do whatever he wants with the show, as a viewer I can either praise or complain about any aspect of his show. Which is what I am now doing.
Speaking of Weiner, I am drawn back to that comment he made on "CHARLIE ROSE". In his comment, Weiner said:
"I do feel like I’m proud of the fact that I am not telling a wish fulfillment story of the real interaction of white America and black America. … How is [integration] coming into their lives? [Black people] in the service industry, they’re in entertainment, and this is how people are experiencing civil rights, on television."
What wish fulfillment story? No one is demanding that the employees of Sterling Cooper & Partners or McCann-Erikson accept Dawn without any bigotry on their part. No one is demanding that the series' white characters behave with any political correctness when they are around Dawn. Some of us would be interested to know Dawn on a personal basis and watch how she deals with racism in the workplace. Was that so damn hard for Weiner to fathom? Apparently, Weiner suffers from the same myopic view that all black Americans only worked as servants or entertainers before the 1970s.
After Season Six, Weiner had one more chance to explore Dawn's world from a persona point-of-view. Needless to say . . . he failed. Miserably. My instincts that Weiner would continue his usual shuck-and-jive regarding Dawn and race issues proved to be right. I should have known that Weiner would not be able to rectify six seasons of treating race as a minor issue with one last season. Poor Teyonah Parris. Weiner had a perfect opportunity to explore race with her character. Instead, he simply wasted her time -except in one episode - for three seasons.
Whatever feelings I had about the series when it first began had somewhat eroded with Weiner's reluctance to fully explore the issue of race and his treatment of one or two other characters. Perhaps other fans of "MAD MEN" had not mind. As I have stated earlier, Americans are generally reluctant to confront the issue of race - even to this day. They are especially reluctant to face the fact that racism is alive and well in the United States, despite the presence of a president of African descent in the White House. This is very apparent in many of the show's fans and critics. They either make excuses for Weiner's failure with race issues or pretend that such issues do not exist. I came across several articles on the Internet about "To Have and to Hold". Very few articles explored Dawn's role in that episode. Some of them briefly mentioned her presence. And some pretended that her presence had a bigger impact in that episode (and others) than it truly did. I even came across one article that featured a photograph of Dawn and Joan from that episode. But it never mentioned Dawn's name, let alone her situation with Joan and Scarlett. I found that a joke.
For a series that explored the nation's changing social scene throughout the 1960s, I find its creator's reluctance or refusal to explore one of the biggest social issues of that decade remarkably short-sighted and a major blight on the series' reputation as one of the finest in television history. The ABC series "HOMEFRONT" told a story about a small Ohio town in the years following the end of World War II. This series only lasted two seasons and featured "MAD MEN" cast member John Slattery. Yet, it not only explored gender, class and religious issues, but also race without any of Weiner's pussyfooting. Between the acting, writing and willingness to confront social issues on all levels, "HOMEFRONT" makes "MAD MEN" resemble a portrait of mediocrity in my eyes.
Sunday, June 28, 2015
"WUTHERING HEIGHTS" (2009) Review
I have no idea how many times Emily Brontë's 1847 novel, "Wuthering Heights" was adapted for the movie or television screens. I do know that I have seen at least three versions of the novel. Although the 2009 television adaptation is not the latest to have been made, it is the most recent I have seen.
The beginning of "WUTHERING HEIGHTS" veers away from Brontë's novel in two ways. One, the television production is set forty years later than the novel. Instead of beginning at the turn of the 19th century, this movie or miniseries begins in the early 1840s before it jumps back thirty years. And two, the character of Mr. Lockwood, who appeared in both Brontë's novel and William Wyler's 1939 version, did not make an appearance in this production. The novel and the 1939 film used Earnshaw housekeeper Nelly Dean's recollections to Lockwood as a flashback device. This production also uses Nelly as a flashback device, only she ends up revealing her memories to Cathy Linton, the daughter of Edgar Linton and Catherine Earnshaw . . . and Heathcliff's new daughter-in-law.
Do not get me wrong. I personally had no problems with these changes. With or without the Lockwood character, Nelly Dean is used as a flashback. There were other changes from the novel. Heathcliff left Wuthering Heights and Yorkshire and returned three-and-a-half years later, six months after Catherine's marriage to Edgar. In the 2009 production, Heathcliff returned on the very day of their wedding. Well . . . I could deal with that. What I found interesting is that screenwriter Don Bowker seemed dismissive of the 1939 film adaptation, claiming that the movie's screenwriter succeeded because "with classic Hollywood ruthlessness they filleted out the Cathy/Heathcliff story and ditched the rest of the plot. It's a great film but it does the novel a disservice." I realize that many fans of Brontë's novel would probably agree with him. I do not. Wyler's film may not have been as faithful as this production, but I do not accept Bowker's view that it "filleted out" the Catherine/Heathcliff story or did the novel any disservice. This version included the second generation story arc and to be quite honest, I was not that impressed.
There were some problems I had with this production. I also found myself slightly confused by the passage of time between Heathcliff's departure and his return. I also felt equally confused by the passage of time between young Cathy's first meeting with Heathcliff and her marriage to the latter's son, Linton. The Nelly Dean character barely seemed to age. And once the miniseries or movie refocused upon the second generation, the story seemed to rush toward the end. Both Bowker and director Coky Giedroyc seemed reluctant to fully explore Heathcliff's relationships with his son Linton, his daughter-in-law Cathy and his ward Hareton. I could probably say the same about the friendship and developing romance between the younger Cathy and Hareton.
"WUTHERING HEIGHTS" is a visually charming production. But I can honestly say that it did not blow my mind. There was nothing particularly eye-catching or memorable about the production staff's work, whether it was Ulf Brantås' photography, Grenville Horner's production designs or Fleur Whitlock's art direction. If one were to ask my opinion on the miniseries' score, I could not give an answer, simply because I did not find it memorable. The most noteworthy aspect of"WUTHERING HEIGHTS", aside from its writing, direction and the cast is Fleur Whitlock's costume designs. I admire the way she made every effort to adhere to early 19th fashion from the Regency decade to the beginning of the Victorian era.
I had very little problems with the cast. Tom Hardy - more or less- gave a fine performance as the brooding Heathcliff. He certainly did an excellent job of carrying the production. My only complaint is that once his Heathcliff returned to Wuthering Heights as a wealthy man, there were times when he seemed to portray his character as a comic book super villain. His later performance as Heathcliff brought back negative reminders of his performance as Bane in the most recent Batman movie, "THE DARK KNIGHT". I was also impressed by Charlotte Riley's portrayal of Catherine Earnshaw, the emotional and vibrant young woman who attracted the love of both Heathcliff and Edgar Linton. Riley gave a very skillful and intelligent performance. I only wish that she had not rushed into exposing Catherine's jealousy of Heathcliff's romance with her sister-in-law, Isabella Linton. Another remarkable aspect of Riley's performance is that she managed to generate chemistry with both Hardy and her other leading man, Andrew Lincoln. Speaking of Lincoln, I felt he gave the best performance in this production. There were no signs of hamminess or badly-timed pacing. More importantly, he did an excellent job of balancing Edgar's passionate nature and rigid adherence to proper behavior.
I have no complaints regarding the supporting cast. Sarah Lancashire was first-rate as the Earnshaws' housekeeper, Nelly Dean. I wish she had a stronger presence in the production, but I am more inclined to blame the director and screenwriter. Burn Gorman did an excellent job of balancing Hindley Earnshaw's jealous behavior and fervent desire for his father's love and attention. Rosalind Halstead gave a steady performance as Edgar's sister and Heathcliff's wife, Isabella Linton. However, I must admit that I was particularly impressed by one scene in which her character discovers the true nature of Heathcliff's feelings for her. As for the rest of the cast - all gave solid and competent performances, especially Kevin R. McNally as Mr. Earnshaw and Rebecca Night as Cathy Linton.
Overall, I enjoyed "WUTHERING HEIGHTS". Mind you, I believe it had its flaws. And I could never regard it superior to the 1939 movie, despite being slightly more faithful. But I would certainly have no troubles re-watching for years to come, thanks to director Coky Giedroyc and a cast led by Tom Hardy and Charlotte Riley.
Saturday, June 27, 2015
Below is a gallery featuring photos from the 2002 television version of George Elliot's novel, "DANIEL DERONDA". The series starred Hugh Dancy, Romola Garai and Hugh Bonneville:
"DANIEL DERONDA" (2002) Photo Gallery
Thursday, June 25, 2015
Below is a list of my favorite movies (so far) that are set in the 1830s:
FAVORITE FILMS SET IN THE 1830s
1. "The Adventures of Huck Finn" (1993) - Elijah Wood and Courtney B. Vance starred in this excellent Disney adaptaion of Mark Twain's 1885 novel about a young Missouri boy who joines a runaway slave on a journey along the Mississippi River toward the free states in antebellum America. Stephen Sommers directed.
2. "The Count of Monte Cristo" (2002) - James Caviezel starred as the vengeful Edmond Dantès in Disney's 2002 adaptation of Alexandre Dumas, père's 1844 novel. Directed by Kevin Reynolds, the movie co-starred Guy Pearce and Dagmara Dominczyk.
3. "Pride and Prejudice" (1940) - Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier starred in this entertaining adaptation of Jane Austen's 1813 novel. Robert Z. Leonard directed.
4. "The Count of Monte Cristo" (1975) - Richard Chamberlain gave an intense performance in the 1975 television adaptation of Dumas' novel. Tony Curtis and Kate Nelligan co-starred.
5. "Impromptu" (1991) - Judy Davis and Hugh Grant starred in this comedic tale about author George Sand's pursuit of composer Frédéric Chopin in 1830s France. James Lapine directed.
6. "Armistad" (1997) - Steven Spielberg directed this account of the 1839 mutiny aboard the slave ship La Amistad and the trials of the Mendes tribesmen/mutineers, led by Sengbe Pieh. The movie starred Djimon Hounsou, Matthew McConnaughey, Morgan Freeman and Anthony Hopkins.
7. "Wide Sargasso Sea" (2006) - Rebecca Hall and Rafe Spall starred in this 2006 television adaptation of Jean Rhys's 1966 novel, which is a prequel to Charlotte Brontë's 1847 novel, "Jane Eyre". It focused upon the early marriage of Antoinette Cosway (Bertha Mason) and Edward Rochester.
8. "My Cousin Rachel" (1952) - Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton starred in this adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier's 1951 novel about a young Englishman's obsession with his late cousin's widow. Henry Koster directed.
9. "The Alamo" (2004) - John Lee Hancock directed this account of the Battle of the Alamo, the only production about the Texas Revolution that I actually managed to enjoy. The movie starred Billy Bob Thornton, Patrick Wilson and Jason Patric.
10. "The Big Sky" (1952) - Howard Hawks directed this adaptation of A.B. Guthrie's 1947 novel about a fur trader's expedition up the Missouri River. Kirk Douglas and Dewey Martin starred.