Conversations Real & Imagined: Mad Men (and Women)

All That Heaven Allows, 1955. Directed by Douglas Sirk, written by Peg Fenwick. Starring Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, Agnes Moorhead, Conrad Nagel, Gloria Talbott, William Reynolds, and Hayden Rorke.

From the files of street critic Guy” Fresno. 

All notes found scribbled on both sides of seventeen pages of RC Cola stationary, and included with a packet of photographs of the first meeting of the “New Underground Detroit Cinema Society That Tells Mike Ilitch to Go Fuck Himself and His Expensive (and Discrimanatory [sic] Against Homeless) Fox Theater”.

These are blurry shots of a Douglas Sirk film festival that Guy curated in the basement of the abandoned Michigan Central Railroad Station. Also included was a bill, for $52, payable for a copy of the lost Barbara Loden script about Ida Lupino. All of which came packed in a greasy Dunkin’ Doughnuts box that had been wrapped, like a cocoon, in cheap packing tape.

Pay attention, now, because it must be known about Douglas Sirk. You wouldn’t think an old bike-riding and half homeless man such as myself would dig a man like Douglas Sirk. Douglas Goddam Sirk, who was one of the fucking best, the best, a director who knew what emotion was, and more, he knew how to be a zombie and how not to be a zombie. Like All That Heaven Allows. That’s a zombie movie, and it’s more terrifying than any of that blue-faced, vein-chomping crap that Romero shits out every few years.

See, the zombies are the people who walk this earth living without any life in them. You know what I mean and if you don’t then you’re a fucking zombie. They try to get it on television, with Mad Men shit. See, Douglas Sirk did Mad Men before someone figured out that Mad Men was a subject worth talking about. Who set the stage for all those suburban, man-moving-up-in-the-world, woman-dying-at-home flicks. All those “dead housewife” movies of the 70… Douglas “I Will Fuck With You!!!” Sirk. All those guys trying to break free from the shackles of their jobs? Sirk, Sirk, Sirk. The King of Melodrama.

No, the guy isn’t Bergman, he’s not trying to be the Big Swede, he’s trying, and succeeding, to be Sirk. Fucking look at Mad Men. I knew it was shit the moment I laid eyes on it. The show claims that those advertisers called themselves “Mad Men”. That’s bullshit and anyone who lived in the 50s and 60s knew that it was Mad Magazine that hung that title on the boys with the tight collars and, of course, they ran with it.

That show… ugh. Original? No. Someone’s sitting at a typewriter, or, yes, I know, at a word processor, at a computer, at a fucking iPad, and typing away while Sirk’s movies spin endlessly in the background. Melodrama! All the dopey plot twists we’ve seen a million times before, the romances, all the fucking pop culture references they sprinkle over every episode like angel dust on inner city marijuana. (Maybe that’s a pop reference of my own, you’re right, you’re right…)

Look at All That Heaven Allows. Now that’s melodrama, that’s the Mad Men done right, with a woman at the center. Some poor lady, Cary Scott (Jane Wyman–who looks old and sad!), a widow, sitting bored at her home in small Connecticut town. I think it’s Connecticut, because it looks like it fell out John Cheeverwood. Anyway, this poor lady wonders what to make of life–her dead husband was the pillar of the community, and she keeps getting invited to country club gatherings where guys with a lot of gray hair and martini breath paw at her, or ask for her hand in marriage. Shit, give Sirk a lot of credit for making this look like hell on earth, this land of the Undead, at a time when everyone thought this was the big old United States of American Dream.

There’s no in-between for poor Cary: the drunk and successful man wants to meet her “in town”–I assume New York–at his apartment which he clearly keeps just to fuck. The sober and successful guy’s a sexless pile of clean clothing, a health nut who wants “companionship” and speaks of it with the reverence of the prune juice he no doubt guzzles every day.

Yeah, well, like the best storytellers, Sirk gives her an opportunity, and it’s fucking great: Rock Hudson’s Ron Kirby. He’s the son of Cary’s former groundskeeper, though not like a teenager, but a mid-twenties, back-from-Korea tree farming man. He’s grown up. You read that right. The guy who thinks “Walden” is the bible and somehow managed to make a good friend in the ad biz gave it all up to run a tree farm.

Now, it’s true that the dude looks nothing like Thoreau, in fact, well, truth be told Rock’s Ron Kirby looks like Madison Avenue’s version of a back-to-nature type, with his turned collars and L.L. Bean clothing. But the big deal isn’t that he’s fucking square, it’s that he’s fucking young. And she’s fucking old. And they have chemistry, man, like in the best fifties romances. There’s sparks and embraces like you’d see… well, like between two hot lovers. Because these two are hot lovers. Hollywood wouldn’t cotten [sic] for this shit today. No fucking way. Oh, yeah, an old man and a buxom babe. Or a “cougar” like whats-her-bitch Courtney Cox, who looks buff and biting but doesn’t have college age kids who are square and constipated and cruel. No way. Won’t happen in today’s Hollywood.

But it happens in All That Heaven Allows. These two get down… but then the whole world doesn’t just come crashing down, it burns, it vomits, it slaps, punches, kicks, and stabs, before it finally hurls itself on the floor in a tantrum. It’s the zombie attack. Worse than the new Dawn of the Dead and that was a pretty good movie.

Sirk makes it a hell of a lot more subtle than Dawn of the Dead, though. Dude was a master, visually, each scene a fucking incredible composition. Cary’s two annoying children, and half of the town from the local gossip to the butcher to the doctor to her best friend, are reacting like those angel dust snorters to her affair. And Sirk makes each confrontation a laceration, a paper cut right across your eye, but gorgeous to see.

Like when her dopey, asshole son, Ned (William Reynolds), tries his damnedest to make his mother feel like some kind of a whore. Sirk sets this up so that at that angle he’s looming over her, lit cruelly, while the poor old lady cringes, looks desperately in her son’s eyes for just a flicker of kindness, and instead we see her literally broken from him visually, a giant privacy screen separating them. You find me a scene like that in Mad Men and I’ll buy you ten McDonald’s shakes.

Or the moment, that fucking cruel moment, when the kids, who are all but abandoning her after wrecking the poor woman’s love, buy for Christmas a televison set… to keep her company. And there’s Cary, wondering first how she found someone as wonderful and fucking alive as Ron, and now equally stunned wondering how the fuck she lost him, and how she ended trapped. Sirk zooms in and we see the poor gal’s reflection in the television set, and we know she’s nearly gone. Because of her own fucking children.

You tell those pricks at Mad Men to watch some Sirk and maybe get a couple of tiny, hotel-sized shotglasses of genuine human concern into their show. For Sirk really knew, he knew he was attracting the women who were sitting at home dying a little bit every day, and who either went alone or with their grumbling husbands and watched All That Heaven Allows and made them think “I’m in that TV, too.” That’s ballsy.

Who the fuck is Mad Men challenging? Everyone who dresses up like it’s 1961 and goes to get bombed to watch the show’s premiere? Please. Old Jim who sleeps by the Ambassador Bridge dresses like it’s ’61 because that’s the last time he bought clothes. He doesn’t even know Mad Men.

That’s why Sirk matters. He wasn’t about the fifties, he just reflected it at its worst, and then made it so it would choke us all the way up to now, almost sixty years later. Sure, it’s suburban, it’s fifties, but the fucking movie’s alive. So damn alive. Life and love triumph over those martini-drinking corporate zombie men, but not before there’s considerable emotional carnage.

Does that describe Mad Men to you? You know it doesn’t. Nifty set pieces describes Mad Men and people wanting to live in the past sums up its audience. Who would want to live in a Sirk film? Well, I might want to live in Ray’s little Millstone shack, but truly I’d rather be shooting zombies and living off old Olive Garden fare than whatever that little town was that Sirk created. It gives me the creeps even now. That God damn Sirk. Not enough people know the fucker was a master. Give the fucker his due, man, give him his due.


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