Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Sun Also Rises Over Manhattan

Hemingway’s Mad Men

If you feel yourself getting a little drunk while watching Mad Men, it’s because you’re mostly watching people drinking. It’s hard to believe that America was gripped by Prohibition just 30-odd years before Don Draper et al operated, seemingly successfully, amid a haze of cigarette smoke and alcohol fumes.

The good folks at Slackstory have put together a fine little film featuring every drink consumed by a character on Mad Men — and even with mind-bogglingly rapid cuts it runs to five minutes long. It’s the sort of meme project you’d expect to be made from Mad Men — not just because the constant drinking is a nostalgic glimpse into a world most of us never inhabited (or would have survived), but because the writers have dipped into Hemingway’s bag of narrative tricks.

Read a Hemingway story and see how much he tells us about the setting, the mood, and the character’s internal lives by the way they handle drinks. They’re either ordering one, or cupping one, or sipping one, or swigging one or contemplating one. A drink is a perfect prop to cut to when two characters are interacting because it’s a way to take a look at their hands. In “Hills Like White Elephants,” the couple wait for a train and have a subdued spat while drinking. They talk about drinking. They kill time by drinking some more. Who knows? Maybe they’re still sitting on that platform cracking open beers to this day.

One could, if one were being a smarty-pants, argue that Mad Men is a version of The Sun Also Rises, in which every man is a facet of Jake Barnes and every woman a version of Brett Ashley. Sure, we can imagine Jake Barnes looks like Don Draper — but he also has Bert Cooper’s balls (that is to say, none). Betty Draper looks as much like Brett as you could imagine an irresistible, neurotic blonde could be — but she also has Joan’s sexual confidence and Peggy’s grit. The dashing matador Pedro Romero is Henry Francis, sweeping Betty / Brett off her feet, but whom she is only superficially infatuated with. Roger plays the role of sidekick, a combination of Bill Gorton and Mike Campbell — a wealthy, charming, funny, drunk war veteran type who feeds Don / Jake his best lines. Pete Campbell, with his ambition and insecurity, is Robert Cohn, always on the verge of being punched in the face until he really is punched in the face. Manhattan is one big fiesta, Wall Street provides the bulls. The matadors are the admen in general, creating and dodging drama for the crowd, selling them adventure. Alcohol is a driving force in the novel’s narrative, with the characters moving from one drinking occasion to another. Eventually, the drinking catches up with them, and violence ensues — much as it does in Mad Men. It has to: alcohol is both a facilitator and a show-stopper.

Take a look at the film. Imagine you’re in a Hemingway novel. Easy, right?

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