Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Home for the Holidays: the Poignant Lessons of “The Long Way Home”

The passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg just before the start of Rosh Hashanah has introduced many of us to the Jewish High Holy Day period, which begins with a New Year celebration and culminates 10 days later with Yom Kippur, the solemn Day of Atonement. This designated period of self-scrutiny has encouraged me to be introspective too. In a contemplative frame of mind, I watched The Long Way Home, a documentary that won a 1998 Oscar for its unsparing look at what happened to European Jewish refugees after their liberation from Nazi death camps in 1945. The footage, movingly narrated by Morgan Freeman, is a reminder of the power of documentaries to unearth aspects of reality we’d prefer to keep hidden. Moriah Films, the production arm of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (which is the sponsor, as well, of L.A.’s Museum of Tolerance) is adept at using documentaries to drive home lessons from the past that impinge on our lives today.

 Appropriately, the clip below from The Long Way Home contains archival footage of an event that’s both hopeful and painfully sad: of Holocaust survivors crowded together on Yom Kippur day at the Feldafing Displaced Persons Camp in Germany, fervently chanting memorial prayers for the loved ones they’ve lost at the hands of Nazi overlords. It’s September 1945 and they’re alive, though barely: in many cases their entire families have been wiped off the face of the earth.

 What makes the moment disturbing rather than triumphant is the fact that this D.P. camp—like others scattered across Europe—is being run like a military prison.     There’s barbed wire and cramped barracks: harsh discipline, too, for those who don’t follow the rules. As someone says, “the camp is filthy beyond words, sanitation is virtually unknown. With few exceptions the people of the camps themselves are demoralized beyond the hope of rehabilitation.” Over a shot of a group of men sprawled in a heap, staring off into space, a camp inhabitant chimes in: “We are living like a litter of puppies.” A visiting U.S. official named Harrison sends home a damning report: “As matters now stand, we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them, except that we do not exterminate them.” He fears this is a lesson that the German people will be happy to take to heart: that Jews are indeed not worthy of being considered human beings.

 President Truman appealed to British prime minister Clement Attlee to make the humanitarian gesture of admitting a large number of displaced Jews to Palestine, but his request was flatly turned down. Soon after the heart-wrenching Yom Kippur service at Feldafing Camp, General Eisenhower himself came to visit, along with General George Patton. Eisenhower too was dismayed by the camp’s squalor, and demanded changes. Patton thereby removed military guards, but considered this a major mistake. As he noted in his diary, “If the Jews were not kept under guard they would not stay in the camps. They’d spread over the country like locusts . . .  [Sympathetic U.S. official] Harrison and his ilk believe the D.P. is a human being, which he is not. This applies particularly to the Jews, who are lower than animals.”

Chilling words, which help explain a widespread way of thinking that allowed the Holocaust to occur in the first place. To his everlasting credit, Eisenhower removed Patton (whose blunt heroics we well know through the 1970 film starring George C. Scott) from having a say over the fate of displaced Jews. Still, the documentary shows how their tragedy continued even once the war was over.


Friday, September 25, 2020

Lighting Up the Tube with “Mad Men”

It’s a good thing cigarette smoke can’t emerge from television screens. Otherwise, viewers like me might be struggling now with lung cancer. When I was a kid (and among the first generation of regular TV watchers), I saw countless characters—parents, doctors, authority figures— lighting up. And, of course, I was bombarded with commercials sending the message that “You’ve got a lot to like with a Marlboro” and that “Winstons Taste Good Like a (clap clap) Cigarette Should.”  Growing up in a family of militant non-smokers, I never succumbed to the lure of nicotine. But watching the full run of Mad Men has reminded me how heavily smoking has figured in the advertising world, especially in the Sixties, the era portrayed so vividly in the series’ seven seasons.

 In Mad Men, both the characters who work in advertising and their spouses at home are constantly sucking on cigarettes. Of course, genuine tobacco products weren’t actually used on-camera, but I recall hearing that the producers, in organizing casting sessions, were screening out actors who had never smoked, because they wanted to populate their cast with  those who viscerally understood the lure of smoking . . . and the desperate need to reach for a cigarette in moments of agitation. Given how much happened in the course of the series—the times of tension and despair as well as the rowdy celebrations—naturally the air kept turning blue with smoke.

Of course there’s the fact that the show is set in an advertising agency, kept afloat for many years by its contract with Lucky Strike. When Sterling Cooper is unexpectedly cut loose from this lucrative account, Don Draper shrewdly makes lemonade out of lemons by circulating a large ad detailing the health risks of smoking, with Sterling Cooper congratulating itself for saying goodbye to the whole nasty business. Alas, this strategy backfires when other big tobacco firms begin to back away from Sterling Cooper. Soon the ad men are groveling once again for tobacco accounts –and smoking in the office goes on unchecked.

 In a way, Don’s whole troubled existence relates to smoking. We learn via a complicated flashback that Don’s discarded match on a Korean War battlefield is what accidentally dooms his commanding officer, a failing he’ll never entirely live down. And at the show’s end his beautiful but troubled ex-wife Betty is dying, much too young, from lung cancer. The daughter she’ll leave behind, a privileged but restless teenager, is by this point an experienced smoker too. Here’s hoping her mother’s sad example will scare Sally into quitting before it’s too late.

 Of all the characters on Mad Men, the one with whom the audience can best identify is Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), who is first seen as a ponytailed “everygirl” secretary, then slowly rises toward the coveted role of creative director with the help of brains, talent, and a determination to work harder than anyone else. Peggy, who initially lives at home with her stern Catholic mother, doesn’t start out as a smoker. But she desperately wants to fit in, and to prove herself one of the guys. Pretty soon she’s being made the point-person for a “lady’s cigarette” campaign. At the tail-end of the final season, when Sterling Cooper personnel are being swallowed up by a much bigger agency and she feels her authority threatened, Peggy nervously stays away from the new digs. Then, at last, she rallies. Entering McCann Erickson , she swaggers down the hall like the Terminator, with dark shades and a determined look on her face. And yes, a cigarette dangling from her lips.



Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Mad About (and sometimes Mad At) “Mad Men”

As a passionate movie fan, I tend to ignore television. Yes, growing up I had my favorites. But in recent decades I’d movie-go for pleasure, and use my TV set only for special events like the Oscars and the Olympics. Which means I missed a lot of the famous series that everyone else was discussing, like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad.

 What a difference a year makes! Now, quarantining at home, I look to my nightly TV time as a chance to glance back at shows I’d missed. I can now converse knowledgeably about The Crown, The Good Place, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. And it’s been a pleasure to dig into the terrific series that took home all the Emmys a decade ago. While Jimmy Kimmel was distributing Emmys over the weekend via messengers in tuxedo/HAZMAT combos, I was polishing off the adventures of Don Draper and his colleagues in the wonderful world of advertising. Believe me, it was quite a ride.

Movies, of course, must establish and “sell” their characters in about two hours’ time. The leading roles should ideally be complex, but there’s a need for shorthand. We simply don’t have time to explore every facet of a character’s existence. In a long-running series, though, a guy like Don Draper can go in all sorts of directions (as we ourselves tend to do in real life). Don (played by the astonishingly handsome and square-jawed Jon Hamm) is larger than life in his professional world. He’s a brilliant ad man, respected by one and all for his creativity, integrity, and business smarts. But, over seven seasons, he’s also proven himself to be at times petty, cruel, and narcissistic. He’s capable of great love, especially for his children, but he’s also a serial philanderer. He’s also both rock solid and (occasionally) a quivering mass of Jello, someone who’s never gotten over a grotesque childhood and a deception (while serving in the military in Korea) that proves to have long-term consequences for his psyche.

 Don isn’t the only rich character on Mad Men. The lusty “silver fox,” Roger Sterling (John Slattery) is a total heel when it comes to the women in his life, but he can also be loyal and sweet in a surprisingly childlike way. Vincent Kartheiser’s Pete Campbell is a genuine snake in the grass, but over time we also see him grow up and, perhaps, become a better man. But of course I’m especially rooting for the female characters, and this series set in the Sixties has a lot to say about women’s slow march toward professional advancement. The bodacious Joan (Christina Hendricks), she of the impossibly voluptuous figure, starts off as a kind of living blow-up doll but turns out to have a head as well as a body. And eager, ambitious Peggy Olson (break-out star Elisabeth Moss) is someone for whom we can root, even when she makes terrible choices.

 I love the way characters evolve, shift in their alliances, and find new paths. Still, seven years is a long time for writers to keep coming up with ideas, and, as the series wears on, some of the incidents on-screen seem too wacky to be believed. Still, I adored the send-off given to the elder statesman of the group, played by the once up-and-coming Robert Morse. This slightly mysterious Zen-like oldster dies in Season 7 while watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. An episode or so later, he reappears to Don in a vaudeville-type routine, crooning “The Best Things in Life Are Free.” It’s a message that perhaps Don finally takes to heart.


Robert Morse's finale: "The Best Things in Life Are Free"