Looking for Something Real
Michael Koresky on Mad Men (episode “Babylon”) and Inside Llewyn Davis
“Ian’s playing down at the Gaslight. We’re gonna go support him, pass the basket,” says the tidily groomed beatnik Roy Hazelitt (Ian Bohen) as he encourages girlfriend Midge (Rosemarie DeWitt) and her Madison Avenue lover Don Draper (Jon Hamm) to join him for a night out of downtown hepcat entertainment. It’s the first season of Mad Men, set in 1960, so the counterculture is still very much on the margins of the show’s insulated Manhattan world, cloaked in the smoky bars of Greenwich Village, the area where struggling artist Midge lives and barely gets by. Soon, Midge and her twin paramours, Roy and Don, uptown and downtown flipsides of the same self-righteous coin, are perched on cheap chairs in a drab, crummy recreation of the Gaslight Café, famed haunt of beats and folkies in the late fifties and early sixties. Sheets dangle around a patchily lit room of a handful of tables peopled by bored-looking extras. Eternally suited Don glances at the environs with his usual air of cool bemusement, which is often complicated by the sense that he secretly desires the very thing to which he feels superior. In this case, we share Don’s incredulity: what we’re looking at doesn’t seem quite real, as though he knows it will be all swept away and reverted to a sawdust-strewn soundstage if he blinks. A goofy amateur poet takes the tiny stage, and in a reedy, overly confident voice she intones, “Last night I dreamed of making love to Fidel Castro in a king-sized bed at the Waldorf-Astoria . . . Outside the window, Nikita Khrushchev watched us, plucking a chicken.” Someone in the audience catcalls her, urging her to take her shirt off. Without a second thought, she obliges.
Even Mad Men’s most devoted fans are wont to roll their eyes at the artificiality or “hokiness” of these scenes of Village hipster life, a handful of which pockmarked the show’s first season. There’s no denying that what we’re seeing in this sequence, from the sixth episode of the series, “Babylon,” is a cheap, hollowed-out imitation of early sixties downtown New York, and quite literally a poor man’s version of the Gaslight Café—the budget for Mad Men has always been low for an ambitious period television serial, and especially in the first season. Rejected by HBO, Matthew Weiner’s unapologetically serious-minded, existentialist take on the white American sixties found a home with AMC, which allotted about two million per episode. So the rather fake vibe—the fishiness—of the scene in the Gaslight Café could easily be chalked up to mere lack of funds. Yet the unconvincing shape of this setting, its synthetic nature, makes not just economic but also thematic sense.
The show is here foregrounding its essential irreverence. “I have a feeling you spent more time on your hair tonight than she did,” Don chides Roy in front of Midge. There’s nothing subversive or particularly original about popular culture taking the piss out of beatniks, of course: Audrey Hepburn had already performed her satirical beatnik dance in 1957’s Funny Face; in 1959, Allen Ginsberg himself denounced these hipsters in the Voice, while a Life magazine article called them “talkers, loafers, passive little con men, lonely eccentrics, mom haters, cophaters, exhibitionists with abused smiles.” There’s a motivation for Mad Men’s pronounced chintziness. By this time, this particular culture had become a touristy, commercialized near-parody of itself, the area around Washington Square Park a carnival of glasses and goatees, knapsacks and bongos, all easily purchased at the nearest MacDougal smoke shop. In his 2013 book The Village, John Strausbaugh reports that at an impromptu 1959 reading at the Figaro Café, Jack Kerouac and musician-author David Amram were received in a hostile manner by their audience for “not looking beat enough”; as they were on their way out, a young man from Ohio, doubting the artists’ identities, instructed them how to dress more authentically. Aided by its lack of verisimilitude, Mad Men foregrounds, inadvertently or not, the question of cultural authenticity.
There’s something pointed about Mad Men’s insistence on exposing the downtown scene as a milieu that’s as commodified and soulless as the sleek Upper East Side offices where most of the series takes place. The series is continually, harshly reminding the viewer of the artificiality of its world. From its boho backrooms to its Madison Avenue boardrooms, Mad Men, in its first season, seems to exist to either throw darts at the past or stare at it aghast. Either way, these are the bad old days. We are not transported to an earlier era; we stand outside of it, peering in. This distance would become less pronounced: as the series soldiered on through the sixties, and burrowed further into the psychologies of its characters, it increasingly engendered an overwhelming empathy, borne of soap operatics. With any drama harboring long-term ambitions, one must allow for a learning curve in its first season, for only with the gradual accretion of incidents and character details can one begin to glean a show’s philosophy and worldview. For Mad Men the setting of an elaborate period scene alongside the crucial establishment of multiple characters created a disconcerting effect. But not an altogether unpleasant one. The airless, studied, nearly David Lynchian removal that seemed to typify the first season was also what made it uncannily fascinating. Though the show evolved, these negative feelings lingered. There is no sense of illusion in Weiner’s show, but rather a feeling of toxic plasticity.
One would never cite the Coen brothers as keepers of any flame, but their 2013 film Inside Llewyn Davis, for all its insistence on demythologizing the era in which it’s set, is comparatively reverent. It avoids overt cartoonishness or stereotyping in favor of a more coldly pragmatic view of the Greenwich Village music scene of the early sixties; it stays well outside the realm of hagiography, but it nevertheless maintains a standard of respect in representing its milieu. Here, folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is stuck in an endlessly looping cycle of non-success because he doesn’t suffer fools, or because he makes self-defeating decisions, or because the universe is against him, or some combination of these. An opening title card establishes the setting as the Gaslight Café and the year as 1961, definitively situating us in a time and place. The bar is dingy but humming with electricity, a hushed cinematic space, shot by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel with a soft spiritual glow, as though a rustic church basement. A microphone waits patiently on the right of the screen until the camera gently moves to bring Isaac into frame. He begins to sing the folk standard “Hang Me Oh Hang Me” in a heartfelt, pure, slightly gravely voice we’ll come to know well. He’s illuminated in high contrast by a shaft of light that’s nearly Spielbergian. The audience he serenades is respectful and stoic, indicating that we should be the same. The Coens will go on to reveal layers of deceptive artificiality endemic to the Village folk scene, as Inside Llewyn Davis is nothing if not a questioning of authenticity within a counterculture reliant on maintaining an aura of authenticity—but when Llewyn plays the Gaslight, at the beginning and end of the film, we’ve essentially entered a sanctified space.
It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the comely poetess in “Babylon” would show up at the Coens’ Gaslight. After all, its owner, the fictional Pappi Corsicato (Max Casella), is seen salivating over the female acts, including Llewyn’s erstwhile girlfriend (Carey Mulligan): “That Jean. I’d like to fuck her.” Pappi utters this in the back of the bar during a particularly lovely, lilting performance by Jean, her bearded boyfriend Jim (Justin Timberlake), and clean-cut army boy Troy Nelson (Stark Sands) of the folk chestnut “500 Miles,” a song popularized by such similarly scrubbed singer-songwriters as the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul, and Mary. Pappi’s line is a startling moment of the profane in the ostensibly sacred, functioning as a reminder of both the mercenary, deflatingly average people who often provided the financial foundations for our major artistic movements and of the sexual motivations behind even our most hallowed histories. It’s this averageness that most rankles Llewyn. There’s something similar in the distaste with which both Llewyn, when an audience member, and Don Draper respond to the performances before them: both are posited as enormously talented artists within their wildly different milieux. Don excels at selling other people’s brands; Llewyn, unwilling to become a brand, has no idea how to effectively sell himself. Llewyn would undoubtedly want to lay Draper flat for bringing his Brooks Brothers getup into the Gaslight, not realizing that Draper is at heart as lost, identity-searching, and essentially anti-authoritarian as he is.
Inside Llewyn Davis comes across as sculpted, fully formed. It’s confident, clearly the work of seasoned auteurs. Mad Men feels like it’s making itself up as it goes along. Neither of these is necessarily a positive or negative, but rather an expression of the different ways in which a film or a television series come about their aesthetic or philosophical approaches. As evidenced by “Babylon,” Mad Men began its life as an exquisite bit of fakery, a simulacrum of the sixties that seemed to ooze contempt for the period in which it was set. Jokes abounded about the characters’ lack of enlightenment (at least in relation to us): Don’s suburban housewife, Betty Draper (January Jones), barely batting an eye when her little daughter plays with a plastic bag over her head; Don and Betty throwing their picnic trash all over a public park and driving away; a gynecologist smoking in the examination room while warning patient Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) about the perils of being a loose woman. But it went darker, eager to reveal the casual cruelty with which its characters wielded their racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and, most frequently, misogyny.
In “Babylon,” Peggy, then Don’s new secretary, and the other women who work at ad agency Sterling Cooper are lassoed into being test subjects for new makeup client Belle Jolie. In a tiny room decorated with a one-way mirror, the women try on different shades of lipstick; on the other side of the mirror, Sterling Cooper’s men watch with a mix of lascivious, animalistic glee and utter contempt (“Anyone mind if I take off my pants?” says one). When the spectacle is over, Peggy passes a wastepaper basket full of lipstick-stained tissues to senior copywriter Freddy Rumsen (Joel Murray), cutely and cleverly saying, “Here’s your basket of kisses.” Pressed by Freddy for her opinion on Belle Jolie, Peggy claims she cannot choose just one: “I don’t think anyone wants to be one of a hundred colors in a box.” Impressed, he later tells a doubtful Don that Peggy has a way with words. However, Freddy, who will turn out to have been a crucial figure in initiating Peggy’s gradual ascension up the ranks from secretary to copywriter to creative force at the agency, is no knight in shining armor. Upon relating Peggy’s aptitude, he states, “It was like watching a dog play the piano.”
The episode further exploits its white, heterosexual, Christian male characters’ biases and—rather unconvincing—lack of worldliness by having them begin work on a tourism campaign for Israel. The Sterling Cooper brainery might as well be figuring out how to market a trip to Mars for their befuddlement over how to entice Americans to the Promised Land, which Don offhandedly dubs “a quasi-Communist state.” “These communes . . . kibbutzes . . . it’s positively Soviet!” exclaims Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser). “The Jews there don’t look like the Jews here. Have you been to the diamond district?” jokes Sal (Bryan Batt), peering at an images of a stunning Israeli model. All agree, of course, that Leon Uris’s then bestseller Exodus is a hell of a good read. Don himself is so lost that he turns to shameful crush object Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff), a beautiful department store heiress and apparently the one Jew he knows in all of New York City, for advice on how to handle his new client. She explains the importance of a homeland to Don, who, unlike Rachel, has spent his entire life trying to shirk his identity rather than assert it. “Then why aren’t you there?” Don asks her earnestly. It’s a breathtakingly myopic question, but it also betrays Don’s tendency to rootlessness, his secret desire for a promised land. “It’s more of an idea than a place,” she elucidates.
Rachel might be talking about Mad Men’s 1960s as well. The Coen brothers’ New York, on the other hand, is more of a place than an idea. This is a radical shift for filmmakers who have always erred on the side of high concept, and who have often seemed to poke at rather than nestle all the way into whatever region of the United States they’ve trained their camera on. Llewyn Davis’s hapless odyssey through a weathered, unforgiving Manhattan is richly drawn; the environment feels wholly lived-in, authentic as a place and as a visualization of a headspace—a remarkable filmmaking feat. The shoestring downtown through which Don Draper slums, on the other hand, is ersatz, but it’s affectingly so. Partly because of budgetary restrictions, Mad Men can only represent sixties New York by way of interiors, but this makes for moving psychological portraiture. The trademark image for Llewyn Davis is of him outside, his light coat barely protecting him from the winter chill. Don, eternally suavely dressed, is ensconced in catalog-ready interiors, whether at home or in his office. The world bears down on Llewyn; it closes in on Don.
For both men, it’s music that provides momentary release. At the climax of “Babylon,” Roy’s friend Ian performs a haunting version of Don McLean's arrangement of the psalm “By the Waters of Babylon” (which wouldn’t be written until 1971). The song, with its biblically soulful and, for this episode, thematically apt lyrics (“We lay down and wept for thee, Zion”) nearly cracks Don’s steely exterior, revealing him as a little boy lost. Like Llewyn’s climactic, rousing rendition of early twentieth-century folk number “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song),” it transcends the historical moment and lives outside of the past.