What to Expect During the Final 7 Episodes of ‘Mad Men’

One can see it throughout “Waterloo” – the closing episode of Mad Men, Season 7.1 – this era, these characters, Matthew Weiner seeks to bring them all back to circle. Most things being cyclical in nature (as Jon Hamm and several Mad Men promos have recently alluded to them being), with significant weight being afforded to the notion Weiner’s team is going to leave the lot of Mad Men‘s characters better off than they began, one can begin to see the forest for its trees. And so here now, based on minor clues and insight, is what one can expect to see by way of 10 primary characters during Mad Men‘s final run:

Don 2Don Draper. The story of Don Draper reads like a new-age Gatsby, perhaps a more realistic one, at that, with the difference being Don Draper has already realized his nadir, and begun to claw his way back. Don is a master of reinvention, and this is critical, as rebirth signaled Don’s emergence on the scene and it’ll likely play a role throughout his bow.

As the age of the antihero begins to exceed its critical mass, showrunners find themselves hard-pressed to put a harrowing end to primary characters. Tony Soprano is presumably dead (regardless of how some asshole misinterprets David Chase), Omar Little is dead, Walter White is dead, Nucky Thompson is dead, and so is Jackson Teller. Fortunately, Matthew Weiner seems more interested in salvation. In a story with the setting of Mad Men, it wouldn’t make much sense for Don Draper to simply kill himself. Lane Pryce and Adam Whitman have already done that, and the chances of seeing three significant characters committing suicide in one critically-acclaimed series seem unlikely. Forget about the opening credits. If you believe any television exec secretive enough to avoid releasing new footage prior to every upcoming season is simultaneously stupid enough to tip his hand during the opening seconds of every episode … well, that might be a poor assumption, at best. The only way a ritual suicide would make any sense would be if Don somehow went out as a martyr, bequeathing a great deal of his fortune to Anna Draper’s niece, or, more to the point, that niece’s child. The idea of Don providing a chance for the indirect descendant of a man whose identity he stole – a child born into this world under similar circumstances, no less – would appear to thread the needle almost seamlessly. Yet the thing is, there really is no need for Don to die in order for this to happen. Instead, look for Don to make a permanent move out west, providing full support for Anna Draper’s niece’s child. Don may even raise the child as his own, depending on its status. Look for Don to abandon advertising, to reinvent himself in California. Given the time period – and the setting – one might even imagine Don as securing a foothold in the computer industry. Silicon Valley represented a goldmine during the seventies, and the idea of Don getting in on the ground floor would bridge both eras like a lattice. The long-shot? Don becoming some sort of pitchman inside the Hollywood machine. Would he be fantastic? Sure. But the publicity arm of Hollywood seems like an unlikely destination for any man who’s vowed to leave that sort
of thing behind.

Peggy 2Peggy Olson. One of the more fascinating aspects of a long-running serial involves going back after the curtain falls and re-watching the original pilot. Breaking Bad is almost heartbreaking in this manner. Along those lines, no showrunner seems more aware of what each character was initially meant to represent than Matthew Weiner. Less than 15 minutes into the Mad Men pilot, Peggy Olson is introduced as “Don’s girl,” one in a revolving carousel of secretaries handling his desk. Peggy arrives appearing homely, green and unassuming, yet deceivingly intelligent. Looking back – even without the benefit of Season 7.2 – it’s clear that Peggy’s character was always meant to be a symbol of empowerment. The only way to properly seal Peggy’s ascent is by placing her in the same position Don originally inhabited back in 1960. Look for Peggy to represent the creative force in Jim Cutler’s advertising agency of the future. She may be a partner (albeit just barely), and she may be on the cusp. Mad Men’s writing team has been teasing this for the better part of a decade, most demonstrably when Peggy eases into Don’s chair toward the end of Season Six, caught in the pose of an iconic silhouette from the show’s opening credits.

The most recent episode of Mad Men included a scene during which Peggy walks into her apartment, entering into an exchange with a contractor. This contractor’s name is Nick, and at one point Nick hands Peggy his number, saying, “In case you have any odd jobs, too small for Kaz.” The odds are long against this contractor disappearing. In fact, a guy like Nick makes perfect sense for Peggy Olson (i.e., a young Don Draper married the cotillion queen; why not have Peggy get it on with a strapping Dan?). Peggy’s got an apartment opening up and she may be in need of a super. To have Peggy Olson end up in the same place Don began, well, that would be some symmetry, to say the least.

Pete 2Pete Campbell. In terms of arc, Roger Sterling represents the same to Peter Campbell as Donald Draper does to Peggy. Though the show initially harped on the surrogate relationship between Don and Pete (with Pete perennially pushing for – and eventually earning – Don’s approval), Pete’s ongoing pissing match with Roger has taken center stage. Pete retains that blue-blood air, a family crest that got his foot inside the door. Yet at the age of 36, one can see him maturing into partner … an ill-begotten brat who’s earned his keep along the way. In Jim Cutler’s advertising agency of the future, expect Pete Campbell’s name to be the second on the door.

Jim 2Jim Cutler. One of the last things Bert Cooper said to Roger Sterling – or anyone, for that matter – was that Jim Cutler has a vision. For six-and-a-half seasons, Bert Cooper represented the most whimsical of Mad Men‘s characters, stunningly unaware of his own eccentricity. Cooper was the sage, buried deep inside his vault, popping out only occasionally to dictate proper course. Those glasses, the elitism, an outward lack of physical emotion … Jim Cutler is slowly turning into Bertram Cooper. In the ad agency of the future, Cutler will become the figurehead Bertram Cooper always was, steering the ship when it prevails on him to do so.

Roger 1Roger Sterling. What does one do after he realizes money only represents one-third of the equation? If one is Roger Sterling, he winds up embarking on a vision quest in his 50s, drifting off in the hopes of rediscovering what’s lost. Expect Roger to take the money and run, spurred into action by the departure of Don Draper. Men like Roger Sterling prey upon prestige in the same way men like Cutler prey upon the investment. With little to gain and nothing to earn, you can expect Roger Sterling to bow out fiscally, and alone.

joan 3Joan Harris (nee Holloway). Matthew Weiner’s gone on record, explaining he knew exactly how Don Draper’s story would end when he originally pitched Mad Men. By way of contrast, Weiner’s also admitted he hadn’t originally conceived of Joan Holloway as being a recurring character. This is telling, in the same way it’s been telling to see the lack of evolution surrounding Joan throughout the seventh season. The perception of latter-day Joan is that of a beautiful-yet-aging woman who had to sleep her way into a minority share. Whatever comes of her, it won’t amount to much. Maybe Joan stays, maybe she leaves. Maybe she morphs into Ida Blankenship (who also shared a brief affair with Roger Sterling). The most tender thing about Joan is knowing her best assets are behind her. She’s got the money, yet she lacks the ingenuity that sent Peggy into orbit. You’ve gotta wonder what type of impact that might have on her, long-term.

BettyBetty Francis (nee Draper). There are only two reasons Betty Francis might play a critical role along the stretch. The first has to do with Don’s children, assuming that he leaves for California. The second has to do with what Betty knows regarding Don’s identity. Keep in mind, Henry Francis is an aspiring politician. The higher he rises, the greater the probability someone might dig into his spouse’s past. Is this a reach? It could be. But it’s also the most viable currency in terms of turning up the heat. With Bert Cooper out of the picture, and Jim Cutler slithering into Don’s garden, a reveal of that magnitude could shift the burners on, full-blast. Would disclosure set Don free? Would it send him into exile? In an odd sort of way, Betty Francis holds the key.

Ted 1Ted Chaough. Ted Chaough wants out, which is why it’s conceivable Don and Ted might reemerge as partners, in a new venture; one that reinvigorates them in the same way corporate advertising previously did. Barring that, expect Ted to show very little rage against the dying of the light. He’s been there; he’s done that. He wants a break that’s free and clean.

Bob 1Bob Benson. Bob Benson was brought in to introduce a point. And that point was that being gay and poor and Podunk in the late 1960s had the same stigma in a business culture as being black or Jewish or Dick Whitman in the fifties. Bob Benson … Don Draper. You do the math. We’ve seen what happens when an executive is unceremoniously outed during the sixties. Perhaps we’ll see how far that culture has evolved during the seventies.

sally 1Sally Draper. What viewers saw during “Waterloo” was the early maturation of Sally Draper, equal parts mother and father. Consider a scene in the Francis’ backyard. Sally kisses a boy, disregarding Betty’s one-time rule that, “You don’t kiss boys; boys kiss you.” Note that Sally kisses the pimple-faced nerd, as opposed to an older bohunk who arrives wearing a football jersey (this during an episode where Jim Cutler refers to Don as “a football player in a suit”). Following the kiss Sally remains in the backyard, alone, where she smokes a cigarette, striking the same pose Betty Draper did during Season One. Expect more along these lines throughout the remaining episodes. Sally is her mother. She’s her father. She’s seeking independence or validation from each one.

Related: “Ranking the Women in Don Draper’s Sex Life (1960-1969)”

(The final seven episodes of Mad Men begin Sunday, April 5th on AMC.)

Moving On: The Long Walk Back

Isle-of-the-Dead-Version-II-by-Arnold-BocklinIt was the Saturday after Thanksgiving and the majority of college students were enjoying one last night at home, eating leftovers, watching cable on the floor. Marci and I were not enrolled, nor were we sentimental. And as such, we had committed to one more night on the town.

Marci picked me up in a Chevy Cavalier, the champagne frame of which appeared almost identical to the Impala I had crashed back in October. A state trooper had helped me replace the blown-out tire on that vehicle, yet I remained on the hook for another 350 in damages – necessary replacements for the front axle, wheel and guard. The owner had proven patient, yet persistent, leaving messages on our answering machine at State College once a week.

Marci made a left onto MacDade, continuing north past Tom N Jerry’s, which used to be Discovery, which used to be Mattero’s, which rarely had a use for its industrial-sized marquee. We passed Laspada’s. We passed Italian Village. We passed that old-school Carmen’s Pizza sign with the quarter-eaten pie that looked like Pac Man. We crossed a four-way intersection, conjuring images of a night in 1990 when I had coasted through that four-way on my torso, full body splayed across the rooftop of a Chevrolet Caprice.

Marci made a left onto 420. She parked her car a block away from Folsom Field. We joined a half-a-dozen others near the dugout. Marci was the only female, and she kept referring to everybody as either brother, punk or dude. She introduced me. A guy in sweatpants nodded. I took a seat along the bench and smoked my cigarette alone.

In the interest of inclusion Marci mentioned I was a student at Penn State. I ran with this, deflecting questions about the football team, its record (10-2), and whether Joe Paterno should retire. I described what the campus felt like during the aftermath of a recent shooting. Every detail was a lie, emphatically so, given I hadn’t even returned to State College until a week or so after the incident. Undeterred, I shifted gears, relating a story about how my roommate and I had hopped the fence at Beaver Stadium, enjoying a six-pack at midfield during the first snow of the season.

Beer and football seemed to be the obvious touchstones, and so I stuck to those, avoiding any references to Swarthmorewood or high school. It had been my experience that – in circles such as these – admitting one had graduated from a semi-rival school (a catholic school, no less) represented grounds for immediate McCarthyism. It made no difference I was 22, or that every other person on that field was 21. We were drinking on a township lot, smack-dab in the middle of a place where childhood labels still applied. Three feet from where I was sitting, the words, “Folsom Forever,” had been hand-carved into a post, the bottom bar of one F representing the top bar of another. Nothing had changed here. Not even the words.

By 11 PM, the nostalgia of drinking outside had given way to frostbitten fingers. Marci spent 10 minutes encouraging a pair of friends to leave with us, regardless of where we were going. I found this frustrating, given I had assumed Marci and I would eventually end up alone. We were good that way; we had always been, going belt-for-belt in the post-party hours before dawn. Marci had grown up three blocks away from me, yet we hadn’t actually met until she started dating John. For half-a-decade, our relationship had never graduated beyond the platonic. And yet, there was an unspoken charge in the air now, filtered clean in the burgeoning period after John and Marci called it quits.

Marci looked fantastic. She was wearing a cream-colored coat over a shimmering pantsuit, in contrast to the stagnant array of denim in her car. Marci had blonde hair and her body smelled like perfume. For as long as I had known her, she had always smelled superb.

We were driving on MacDade now, Marci, Barry, Jimmy Nicholson and I. I was drunk, in the backseat, making jokes about how Marci wouldn’t do this or wouldn’t do that. “The old Marci would’ve offered that guy on the corner a blowjob,” I’d say, or, “A year ago Marci would’ve laid on her horn.” Jimmy Nicholson took a shine to this idea, and as Marci made a right on Milmont Avenue, he began to riff on it alone.

“You won’t run that stop sign,” Jimmy Nicholson would say, or, “You won’t do a hundred down
this road.”

Marci responded by pressing her foot down on the gas pedal. She accelerated through a red light, barreling hard into a turn. Marci’s car began to serpentine, careening left, jumping a curb. The entire chassis seemed to plummet; the engine cut across a lawn.

Everything went quiet. I thought I heard a dog bark. Marci’s car began to rattle, sliding
down into a pole.

“BOOM!” I banged my head against the window. “FLAP!” A dozen beer cans hit the floor.

“Is everybody OK?” Marci whispered. For a moment no one answered. I was scanning nearby porches, expecting to see a light outside each door.

Marci put her car in Drive. She maneuvered free of the pole. She eased us down onto the roadway, rear bumper scraping like a hoe. Marci made a right, wedged her car into an open lot. She told us to get out. There was no humor in her tone.

Jimmy and Barry began to leave. “You weren’t with me,” Marci reminded them.

She and I remained there in silence. We were sitting outside a bar known as the Friendly Cafe.

Marci got out. We surveyed the damage. The back tires were blown, and they appeared like spools of mud sprouting patches of green grass. The car looked like a sinking ship with a running dent along its side. We followed several scrape marks up the street. They led onto a lawn that was eviscerated. Beyond that, a pair of skid marks, dark as night. Collectively, these beacons told a story with an indisputable beginning, middle and end.

Marci just kept walking. She showed no sign of turning back.

We made a right on Woodland Avenue, a dead-end block that ran deserted, the midnight air unfurling slow, like rolling mint against my tongue. The moon hung in the west, as if it had been smeared across a chalkboard. Notre Dame, the elementary school I’d once attended, loomed 300 meters in the distance. Its frame ran pale and ambient, like some factory whose only output was its furnace. To our left, Grace Park, the red-brick elementary school that Marci had attended. There was a football field between, all divots and dead earth. That field gave way to Nelson Hall, a banquet space equipped for basketball and bingo. Growing up I had attended summer masses in that hall, an air-conditioned alternative to the whirl of fans inside our church.

“What are you gonna do?” I said to Marci.

“What am I gonna do about what?” she said.

“About the car?”

“Nothing,” Marci said. She was laughing. “Whatever I was gonna do, I’ve already done it. So far as I can tell, somebody must’ve stolen that motherfucker.”

“Stolen the car?”

“Fuck, yeah,” Marci said. “You think I’m stupid enough to drive my Cavalier across a lawn?”

“So how did we get home?” I said.

“I walked,” Marci said. “Fuck if I’m supposed to know how you got home. Who would even think to ask?”

We parted ways at Fairview Road. Marci wandered off toward her parents’ house, and I continued southeast toward mine. I passed Notre Dame, and then the Lieper Cemetery, continuing down along a string of houses, TV tubes against drawn curtains. I passed the jaundiced blinking of a school zone, lights still operating after midnight. On this night, much like any, the only traffic was an occasional jalopy, burning pistons back and forth from either Wawa or MacDade.

Swarthmore was a Quaker settlement, and it still retained that Quaker air, right down to borough ordinances that forbid the sale of alcohol within its limits. There were signs all over town: “Do Not Enter – Local Traffic Only”. Behind closed doors, civil unrest was known to ensue. As a child, one might experience this at home before running into it at a friend’s house, perhaps even encountering it through walls. Swarthmore thrived upon the idea of domestic issues being handled “in-house” – a friendly euphemism meaning nothing ever changes, from a lack of transparency to several costly levels of shame.

I made a right into my parents’ driveway, squeezed my body between cars. I pulled the gate and let myself into the yard. I grabbed a chair and lit a cigarette. I cracked a beer that I’d kept stashed inside my pocket.

For a moment I could remember being happy here, could remember playing with my action figures, or riding around on a Huffy Extreme. I could remember hanging out two yards to the north, dressing up in homemade capes with David Fox. The Foxes moved away in 1981, and I lost touch with David Fox a few years after. From what I understood David was working as a tattoo artist now. He was competing as a freestyle biker and playing electric guitar in a band. All of this while I sat smoking in my parents’ yard, dangling a cigarette behind my back for fear that somebody
might see.

Across the street, at an angle south-southeast, I could make out the red-brick twin where Joe Kennedy, my best friend throughout high school, still lived. In years past I might wander over there around this time of night, wake Joe up and talk him into drinking with me. Those days were over now. I had no idea whether Joe would even be at home, and his parents were getting older. Besides, I hadn’t spoken to him in months. My late-night privileges had been repealed.

Everything felt so tainted, from the streets that ran so empty to duplex houses I could hurdle. The only thing that lingered was the memory. I had turned on my father. I knew that now, just as I was aware that I had done it with good reason, my reason; the type of reason one resorts to when practicality is gone.

A week before I left, in May of 1992, I had gone out one evening with friends. There were eight of us – six guys and two girls – all of whom had just completed finals. We bought a case of Busch Light pounders and a plastic gallon full of vodka. We were drinking in the Arboretum behind Swarthmore College, in a clearing that ran perpendicular to Lang Auditorium. We passed that bottle till it emptied, causing me to black out before 11 PM. Based on what I was told, security had descended upon the area around 11:30, giving chase by way of flashlights. I was unable to walk, and so a friend tossed me over his shoulder, carrying me out like a sack of potatoes. Upon arriving at his car, a group of friends threw me in the hatch. They drove me to my parents’ house, where they carted me along the driveway, then watched me timber in the door.

My father came downstairs, attempted to stir me. He turned me over. I asked him who he was. He helped me up, allowed me to go to the bathroom. I leaned my weight against a window and put my forearm through the glass. The only thing I can remember after that is static, freeze frames of me lying in bed, very possibly in tears, my father talking sense as I began to babble incoherently. Looking up from where I was sitting, I could see the Tot Finder sticker still affixed my old bedroom window, a reminder of Belgian poet Emile Verhaeren’s claim that  “There remains in the atmosphere of an empty room a little of the human soul.”

My parents assumed I was on drugs. I wasn’t, but who could blame them? I mean, the level of frustration that must accompany finding one’s son lying face down on the floor? Even prior to that, the rift had reached a point where there could be no equal ground. My father’s only mode of communication was anger, and my response had gone from apathy to silence. Putting sentiment aside, there appeared to be no point in sparring. What the two of us were suffering from was a fundamental split, a separation in our stars. One might argue it ran deeper, and I might counter that I had benefited immeasurably from slowly learning how to disengage.

I dropped my cigarette. I listened to it fizz inside the can. I hid the two of them beneath some garbage and made my way toward the door. It was late now and I was cold and tomorrow I’d be returning to Penn State. So far as what I knew about the accident, well, who would even think
to ask?

Day 1,171

(Moving On is a regular feature on IFB.)

©Copyright Bob Hill

William Styron on Melancholia (That Is to Say, ‘Depression’)

“In depression this faith in deliverance, in ultimate restoration, is absent. The pain is unrelenting, and what makes the condition intolerable is the foreknowledge that no remedy will come – not in a day, an hour, a month, or a minute. If there is mild relief, one knows that it is only temporary; more pain will follow. It is hopelessness even more than pain that crushes the soul. So the decision-making of daily life involves not, as in normal affairs, shifting from one annoying situation to another less annoying – or from discomfort to relative comfort, or from boredom to activity – but moving from pain to pain. One does not abandon, even briefly, one’s bed of nails, but is attached to it wherever one goes. And this results in a striking experience – one which I have called, borrowing military terminology, the situation of the walking wounded. For in virtually any other serious sickness, a patient who felt similar devastation would be lying flat in bed, possibly sedated and hooked up to the tubes and wires of life-support systems, but at the very least in a posture of repose and in an isolated setting. His invalidism would be necessary, unquestioned and honorably attained. However, the sufferer from depression has no such option and therefore finds himself, like a walking casualty of war, thrust into the most intolerable social and family situations. There he must, despite the anguish devouring his brain, present a face approximating the one that is associated with ordinary events and companionship. He must try to utter small talk, and be responsive to questions, and knowingly nod and frown and, God help him, even smile. But it is a fierce trial attempting to speak a few simple words.”

(Excerpted from Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness)

Moving On: Blowout

Turnpike 1The initial puncture threw me for a jolt, the right side of the vehicle sinking low onto the road. I was doing 80 in a 65, driving somebody else’s Impala, and I could hear the tiny pebbles turf like rock salt on the guard. I had no money, no means by which to pay for repairs. I had no clue whether there was even a donut in the well. And so I just kept driving, ignoring sparks that burned like embers as they flew into the air.

I had driven from State College all the way to North Philadelphia – 200 miles to take a girl named Shannen, four years my junior, to see The Ghost and the Darkness. Shannen, the blonde, pony-tailed waitress whom I had been flirting with all summer, whom I had kissed during the final week of August, whom I had screwed at Gerry Vessels’ house, whom I had refused to just let be.

The rites of autumn left me empty, drinking hard inside the Wildwood bars. I was still paying rent at State College, and – due to a combination of stupidity and exhaustion – I had mailed my August payment in the form of paltry bills. Come September, I received an invoice for two month’s rent, plus accumulating fees ($2 a day). The setback boxed me in, particularly at a time when there was less work, more drinking, and little savings to be found. I went to my parents for $600. I went to Bill Salerno for more. I began to pay off the balance in dribbles, $2 late fees accumulating one day at a time. My student loans were entering a period of repayment, a dynamic which I ignored for lack of money. I had no phone. I had three addresses (none of which I was calling home). There were collection agencies contacting my parents; urgent notices arriving at school.

The boarding house I had been living in was shutting down toward the end of September. And so I sat one night, and I worked out what I believed to be a viable plan. I would rent a P.O. Box in Wildwood, using the residence on my New Jersey driver’s license (212 East Magnolia) as a reliable proof of address. I would stake my claim for unemployment, enlisting a friend to pick up the checks (before depositing them in my account). I would return to State College, where I would supplement my unemployment writing papers for straight cash. I’d re-enroll, thereby avoiding any delinquency on student loans. I’d use the refund check to stay on-point with all my bills. I would pay back Bill Salerno. I would pay back both my parents. I would lie about my inclination to pay back either one.

Meanwhile, I would continue heaping blame. Upon my parents for pushing me into an engineering major that had nothing to do with my goals. Upon my father, for dismissing – and simultaneously trashing – my ongoing interest in writing. Upon an under-this-roof philosophy that had previously been enlisted to control my education, my vocation, and a student loan that kept on mounting with the meter stuck in spin.

I had little stake in returning to State College. I felt imprisoned by that lease, indebted to a real estate agency that had more than likely stolen one month’s rent. I was broke, living in a town that ran bone-dry on eligible employment. I had debts, and the only way I knew to keep from paying was by extending interest limits while holding creditors at bay.

I harbored no aspirations of becoming someone’s parent, or husband, or cantor, or witness. I had spent 18 years genuflecting before an altar where every word meant staged response, where morbid Godheads ate their young by way of platitudes, where dim-lit thinkers heaped dull nonsense down one’s throat. Literalism, contextualism, mindless blather cast as Dogma? Pedophile priests as vessels of Jesus; strong-minded women given the title of “none”? I had resisted; I had taken my stand, planting my freak flag on a hill. And yet, I could not seem to shake the old world’s traction, bleeding fingers wrapped in tendrils as I fought to gain control.

Rock n roll had saved my life in high school, providing heroes who inspired love and hate and questioning of authority, who sparked synapses that had never felt fresh wood before. Rock n roll pushed open doors that harbored art and myth and cinema, that harbored strength without demanding equal share. Rock n roll preserved ideals that held no sway in oil-barrel America; a place where guts ran wide with flesh and aging skin drooped low as wattle.

The illusion became one of squelching ambition, of convincing average dreamers that their lives were not their own. Small-town heroes earned felt letters for excelling at male sports, speeding long into a world of tending bar, peddling insurance, leasing an office on the second floor of a mall. Conformity became the only currency, a scale upon which mainstream order was controlled. Reasonable prejudice was applauded; county lines ran deep as moats.

To appear un-cog-ly was to welcome scorn, counseling sessions, parent-teacher meetings, whatsoever-will-we-do-with-Kevin? The disease was validation; a supreme level of we’re-all-just-so-OK that swept fresh air out of a room. Strained mortgages, starched collars; entire lives playing out like unconscionable business agreements. What kind of world was that? Forty years worth of Sisyphean discord.

By the age of 18 I had grown restless, displaying early symptoms of a mental illness that would gestate through the years. I was suffering bouts of depression, uncomfortable in social settings to an extent my only inclination was to drink. It had been explained that every impulse I held dear was wrong, that I was a screw-up, a letdown, a cog for which there was no wheel. Meanwhile, I was type-A, at risk, intelligent, innately built to battle hard. And so it came to pass one afternoon, a little over five years removed, I was driving west along the PA Turnpike, heading back toward State College in a broken-down Impala. The front right tire had just given way, causing the CV joint to cave. There were sparks flying and stones glancing and the smell of burning oil bruised the air. The steering column shook just like a jackhammer, several control-panel lights began to flare. And yet I could not seem to lift my foot off of the gas pedal. I was afraid of what might happen if I yield.

Day 1,144

(Moving On is a regular feature on IFB.)

©Copyright Bob Hill

‘Selma’: Resolving the Dilemma Between a Great Motion Picture and Culturally-Relevant One

Selma ItalianIn 1993, Denzel Washington was nominated for an Academy Award based on his lead role in Malcolm X. Washington lost that year, to Al Pacino (for Scent of a Woman), and in the wake of it, Director Spike Lee went on record, saying he believed that Denzel Washington had been robbed.

Pacino’s performance in Scent of a Woman was brilliant, this despite the fact it represented only the third, or even fourth, most impressive turn of his career. While no one should be faulted for having such a remarkable track record, it stands to reason Denzel Washington pulled off an acting feat that still endures. Washington would not collect for another eight years, at which point he received the Best Actor Academy Award for his performance in Training Day – an equally powerful turn in a more box-office-friendly movie.

The fact that Denzel Washington was even nominated for Malcolm X seems oddly relevant, particularly given the stink surrounding Selma in light of this year’s recent Oscar nominations. The question being: how – or why – would the Academy nominate one actor for his portrayal of a deeply polarizing African-American Civil Rights figure, only to snub another for his betrayal of a more beloved one? In other words, why Malcolm X and not Martin Luther King?

The answer is that Denzel Washington provided a much more penetrating performance in a vastly superior display of cinema. Selma, despite an opening scene that absolutely commands the audience’s attention, very quickly disintegrates into schmaltz. A pair of venerable British actors (Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth) clumsily cast as Lyndon B. Johnson and Alabama Governor George Wallace? An understated turn by Tessa Thompson that pales in comparison to her lead role in Dear White People? The repetitive appearance of Oprah Winfrey serving as nothing more than a distraction? Little by little, these faux pas take their toll, compounded by a screenplay that literally whitewashes the despicable grit of Southern-American Confederacy.

According to Deadline, Director Ava DuVernay rewrote close to 90% of Paul Webb’s original script. Included in these rewrites was a necessary revision of Martin Luther King’s original speeches, the rights to which had previously been sold to Dreamworks (by way of Warner Brothers). So now you’ve got a sanitized script, toned down to satisfy a PG-13 rating, featuring speeches that were never delivered at assemblies that never actually took place. The costumes worn by poor, black activists have no grime, the attitudes of rich, white bureaucrats arrive entirely declawed, and any investigation into deep-set attitudes that originally gave rise to widespread ignorance (i.e., the groupthink mentality of long-held American institutions) comes bearing no real weight at all.

This is not to say that Selma is not a good movie, or even to deny that it is one of the most important motion pictures of the year. It is simply to say that Selma is not an Oscar-caliber picture, nor does it feature any Oscar-caliber performances. Any outlet that would promote a case of bias along race lines is guilty of manipulating its audience in the most underhanded way possible. I am speaking here of the Huffington Post, of Bloomberg News, of the New York Times (by way of David Carr). I am speaking of the Associated Press, The Washington Post and Entertainment Weekly. I am speaking here of any entity that would poison the well by way of disingenuous means. This … This is race-baiting in the age of aggregate film criticism. This is castigating the Academy for its failure to recognize Selma as a movie that received the same approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes as Paddington. This is the same narrow thinking that led America down this rabbit hole to begin with, and it is propagated by several syndicates that – for one reason or another – have something to gain by trading upon race.

When a motion picture like 12 Years a Slave confronts racism with precision, that film deserves not only the nine Oscar nominations it received, but the three Academy Awards it later won. Point being, in the case of Selma, capitalistic media perpetrates a disservice by encouraging noble fare as a popular surrogate for craft. And I will use here, by way of example, Clint Eastwood’s recent biopic, American Sniper.

American Sniper, which whitewashes its subject in a wholly different way than Selma; American Sniper, which evokes jingoism on the Right in much the same way Selma already has among the Left; American Sniper, which is a better motion picture than Selma despite not being nearly as important; American Sniper, whose lead actor, Bradley Cooper, does not deserve an Oscar nomination any more than Eastwood’s biopic deserves to be nominated for Best Picture.

American Sniper is the beneficiary of people embracing ideals over value and substance. How else does one explain Bradley Cooper being nominated in a year when Oscar Isaac (A Most Violent Year) and Tom Hardy (Locke) remain simultaneously out in the cold? How does one explain American Sniper AND Selma being nominated for Best Picture while A Most Wanted Man remains nominated for nothing? You won’t hear about any controversy surrounding A Most Wanted Man for the simple reason there’s no percentage in it. Instead, media outlets will treat you to an embedded clip of Jennifer Aniston referring to herself as “the number-one snubbed” on Ellen (Is there anything more repugnant?).

It bears mentioning that both Lee Daniels and Spike Lee were offered the directorial reins for Selma. Daniels turned it down in lieu of The Butler. Spike Lee, well, who really knows why Spike Lee might have turned Selma down. It could be Paramount wouldn’t relinquish creative control. It could be the script appeared too formulaic. Then again, it could be Spike Lee, a director who demonstrates a brilliant, honest vision for whatever he seeks to accomplish, simply recognized Selma maintained no oratorical access to Dr. Martin Luther King; to several speeches that defined not only the man, but the most strident push for equality in this country’s history. Assuming that was the case, Lee’s directorial instinct might have proven unequivocally correct.

(Selma is currently playing in theaters nationwide. It received Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Song, but none for Best Director or Best Actor.)

Moving On: A Faustian Bargain (AKA Those Wildwood Nights)

lapinagileharlequinThe night ended with “See Ya Later, Alligator.” The night always ended with “See Ya Later, Alligator,” as originally recorded by Bill Haley and His Comets. It was 4:45, and all the bottom-shelf liquor had inevitably risen from 50 cents all the way up to $2.50. I was standing near a DJ booth, watching warm-bellied drunks parade the dance floor like blades of grass into a bale. It was dark, a reassuring dark, interrupted by the penlight registers alongside every bar. There was a couple standing next to me, and they were making out despite the rising smell of sewage seeping out from the commode. I had been there for eight hours, had smoked my way straight through a set of standards – Maxine Nightingale directly into “Dancing Queen”; “Mony, Mony,” into “Come On, Eileen.”

It was late now, and I had partnered up with a sprite-sized Irish girl who was wearing a slick-black tank top over camouflage, the purple satin of her bra straps peeking out from either side. This girl’s hair was cappuccino blonde, and her eyes ran sharp and dark with wild mascara.

“Do you want a shot?” I hollered. And she hollered back that we should leave.

When the lights came on, the ugly lights came on, this girl, she led me south along Pacific, past the brawlers, past patrol cars, past the Irish stretched out wide in front of Romeo’s. She made a left onto East Garfield, another left into a driveway. She kissed me long against house siding, then led me inside through a door that scraped the asphalt like a grind.

“I want you to fuck me,” this Irish girl whispered, and she pulled me by the shirt onto a couch with broken arms.


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IFB’s Top 10 Movies of January, 2014 to January, 2015

Please Note: None of these movies was originally released during January of 2014 or
January of 2015.

10. Selma

Despite several highly questionable casting, screenplay, and directorial choices, do not avert your eyes. This country’s history of ignorance – in all its forms – is galling. The triumph of human dignity is only slightly more enduring.

9. Whitey

There is no motion picture that can reveal Whitey Bulger to be more of an indiscriminate asshole than this documentary does.

8. Locke

Tom Hardy cannot fail.

7. Foxcatcher

The acting is so remarkable one tends to forget just how depressing this incident was.

6. Snowpiercer

A warm tonic for a bitter day. So it is.

5. A Most Wanted Man

A most under-appreciated movie.

4. Still Alice

Julianne Moore has a deeper range than any other actress in America. She IS this movie. No other actress should be within a mile of her throughout this year’s award season.

3. Gone Girl

Marriage equals prison, but we are both in this together.

2. Birdman


1. Inherent Vice

Over the past few weeks, film critics (i.e., long-form movie recappers) have been employing terms along the lines of “trippy,” “wild,” and “wacky,” when attempting to describe Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Inherent Vice. In five years those same film critics will be employing the term “cult classic.” In 10 years they will have shortened that generic term to “classic,” which is, ironically, what Inherent Vice happens to be right at this moment, what with all its mixed metaphors and Biblical subtext, its pop culture references and lack of equity in sequence, its Coen-level oddity and all its incandescent lightness. Look, I could go on for 3,000 words here, and there may very well come a moment when I do. For now, allow me to quote from Ram Dass: “Let us consider an example of the relation of a group called ‘hippies’ and a group called ‘police’. If a ‘confrontation’ occurs during a protest, what is the result? If the hippies see the police only as ‘them,’ then the result is an increase in polarization and distance between the two groups. Each returns to its headquarters and plans an increase in its own strength to overcome ‘them.’ Why does the distance increase? Because nobody wants to be ‘them.’ Everyone wants to be ‘us.’ And if you meet someone who sees you as ‘him,’ or ‘one of them,’ that meeting arouses in you all your paranoia, and you, in turn, see the other person as ‘him,’ or ‘one of them.’ Such cycles get worse and worse until there is violent confrontation. What is the conscious alternative? It is not to avoid protest or confrontation. Rather, it is for the participants to become more conscious. And what does that mean? It means that though you may be protesting against someone or some group, you realize that behind the ways in which you differ, you are the same.” Anyway, the point being, Inherent Vice is just so fucking great I think I’ll see it one more time. On a related note, I am totally moving to Venice Beach in 2019. You can bet your ass on that.

Why I’d Take Courtney Love Over Kurt Cobain Any Day of The Week

Kurt-Cobain-and-Courtney-Love-1992Kurt Cobain was a victim, the world’s only martyr, or so he might have you believe. I am speaking here of the man, and not his music. I am speaking of an addict who masqueraded behind his pain, who put off treatment for his ailments, who felt violated by the media, who threw his soul onto the tracks for fame. Is this the voice of a generation (as Rolling Stone declared Cobain to be)? Is this the voice of any generation? For in the case of Kurt Cobain, die-hard fans have been consistently confronted with the sentimental divide between great music and a tortured soul. Cobain’s demeanor – gray and foggy as the Aberdeen sky – seemed preprogrammed to reject any apparatus it had an inability to control. Cobain hated the publicity, yet he made a spectacle of himself. He hated the fame, yet he kept popping up on MTV. He hated the machine, yet he bent over backwards to be accepted by it.

By Cobain’s own admission, he hated average people. He maintained what he referred to as an “imaginary hatred” for anyone from Seattle. He hated dogs, primarily because they were loyal. He had a “problem with the average macho man – the strong-oxen, working-class type”. He felt “pissed off about everything, in general,” according to Michael Azerrad’s audio portion of the documentary About a Son.

Kurt Cobain lied about being on drugs. He lied about suffering from depression. He lied when he called members of the media “fucking liars” for implying he was lying about not being on drugs. Time and again, Cobain’s contempt came masked by an insistence upon appearing smug – an unconditional version of smug that bows one’s credibility once major truths have been revealed. Cobain was the broken child of a broken home, carted off by his own parents before the onset of pubescence. And while his ascendance – given the circumstances – was nothing short of incendiary, it also came unbalanced by a constant fear of abandonment, along with rote skepticism regarding the ever-growing publicity surrounding him.

Kurt Cobain appeared to be gentle and gracious and altogether compassionate whenever dealing within his element. He gravitated to the fringe; minor, haunted factions that had been subject to a similar level of persecution – the punks, the gays, the feminists; any group that had been denied its equal share. Cobain became the poster boy for disenfranchised youth, and perhaps quite fittingly, he got it on with its Rapunzel.

Courtney Love was an IT girl, an oracle, the genuine article dressed up ala a baby doll; vicious, brilliant, seething and measured, it was unclear whether she might kiss you or kill you. The more Cobain receded, the more his wife came bearing fangs. Lynn Hirschberg’s scathing-yet-honest 1992 Vanity Fair profile presented Love as a frenetic maelstrom, choreographing a series of counterintuitive maneuvers, each of them executed with ramshackle precision. According to author Victoria Clarke, who’d been working on a tell-all book about Nirvana at right around the same time, Courtney Love bashed her over the head with a beer glass inside a Hollywood club known as Raji’s, just prior to dragging her across the floor by her hair. Cobain, on the other hand, very calmly threatened to have Clarke “snuffed out” via a voicemail message left on her answering machine. Kurt’s message, while fiendish, sounded as if it had been recorded from the inside of a closet. More importantly, it lacked the jagged follow through of Love.

Courtney Love does not dawdle. And while the results might seem vindictive, Love deserves credit for coming pre-packaged as the devil we know. There is a pulse to Courtney Love, a clear and steady frequency that leaves no trace of static. “She is the least loyal person I’ve ever known,” ex-lover and collaborator Billy Corgan admitted during a 2013 Howard Stern interview. “I was standing there watching a band and Courtney Love walked up and attacked me,” Bikini Kill singer Kathleen Hanna acknowledged during The Punk Singer. There is nothing surprising about such claims, as Love tends to bring out the diminutive in people. Independent of the opponent, Love douses the fire with semi-mortal intent.

“The fact is men always get a much easier time about their problems than women do,” Love insisted during a 2011 interview with The Fix. “Just look at Keith Richards. That guy has done more drugs in his life than I could ever imagine. But he gets celebrated as this cool survivor, while I’m branded as some shameless skank.” This is true, despite the fact Love never acknowledges that dynamic as both a hindrance and a blessing. For it is Love’s late husband, Kurt Cobain, who still gets celebrated as a deity, 21 years after leaving both Love and their baby daughter to fend for themselves. Had the tables been turned, Courtney Love’s death would have been regarded as a pathetic, weak and selfish act. To wit: When Love maybe attempted suicide back in 2004, the majority of outlets presented the story with a “controversial-vixen-spiraling-out-of-control” vigor that vehemently smacked of condescension.

Allow us to be clear: Kurt Cobain was a heroin addict. He lived in an ongoing state of pain because he put off, or flat-out refused, decisive treatment for both a stomach ailment (most commonly associated with an ulcer) and scoliosis. Once he began to dull the pain by self-medicating, it compounded the issue from a perspective that he was now not only dealing with the burden of multiple conditions, but also a close-ended cycle of addiction. Withdrawal would more than likely have resulted in an unimaginable threshold of discomfort, combined with an immense level of guilt, fever and nausea, all of it escalated thanks to an intense-albeit-familiar torment radiating throughout his torso. The root of the problem: an ongoing series of weak-minded decisions, each of them predicated upon Cobain’s refusal to confront rather than avoid.

The final word of Kurt Cobain’s suicide letter – Cobain’s final word to anyone, about anything – was “Empathy”. Empathy? A cry, a plea; the ability to identify with others. This is precisely the type of sentiment that any ninth-grade slouch who harbors aspirations of falling ass-backward into rock stardom might appreciate. And yet, one gets the sense that Kurt Cobain was applying that term even more to himself than he might have been to others. Empathy strikes at the very heart of Kurt Cobain’s world view; it appeared to be the central thesis behind songs like “Polly,” “Rape Me,” and “All Apologies.” Empathy resided at the molten core of every Cobain documentary, and it signaled Kurt’s eventual retreat following the release of Nevermind.

Nevermind was a groundbreaking record, but it was also reminiscent of an eerily depressing period – for Kurt Cobain, for Freddie Mercury, for the Soviet Union and the U.S. Military. Live Through This, on the other hand, remains almost timelessly removed. The same can be said for Celebrity Skin, and even Nobody’s Daughter, which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard Alternative Charts. The difference between Nirvana and Hole is that Courtney Love’s music is versatile, emotional, perfect for running, or walking, or brooding, or drinking, or banging someone’s head against the wall. Courtney Love’s imagery is dark, all of her references, surreal; Hole’s choruses are fierce and unafraid of sounding catchy. And that voice, while increasingly produced, still manages to claw its way up from the depths.

In the days following Kurt Cobain’s suicide, Courtney Love became the story: Courtney Love, who received the news while in rehab; Courtney Love, who had a major-label LP entitled Live Through This dropping only four days later; Courtney Love, who recorded herself re-reading Kurt Cobain’s suicide letter (with commentary), then allowed it to be played over the P.A. system at an open-air memorial; Courtney Love, who – despite certain questionable motives – responded to the list of personal grievances Cobain listed in his suicide letter by saying, “Well, Kurt, so fucking what? Then don’t be a rock star, you asshole.” Courtney Love, who summed up in two sentences what three-quarters of the American public was already thinking.

Everything about Courtney Love tends to punch people in the gut, and – perhaps for that reason – there’s very little allowance for her genius. Love is pugnacious, sure, and she has single-handedly done more damage to herself than any PR campaign could’ve possibly managed. Yet, despite that, Love moves forward, making music, making television, making headlines, taking stands. In 2012, Courtney Love fought eviction from a West Village townhouse, and won. In 2014, Love defended herself against a defamation lawsuit involving Twitter, and won a second time. At the age of 50, Courtney Love is still that same outrageous fuck-up, only now she’s branching out into the worlds of art and fashion and haute couture.

Kurt Cobain, on the other hand, well, Kurt Cobain is still dead, by his own hand, and for this he has been honored with both a statue and a local holiday (among other things) in his hometown of Aberdeen. HBO has picked up yet another Cobain documentary, and while this one promises to be a bit more engaging than its predecessors, chances are it’ll still rely upon that same old dour back story. Hit So Hard, meanwhile – an absolutely searing documentary regarding one-time Hole drummer Patty Schemel – will presumably continue to languish over on Netflix.

Ultimately, Kurt Cobain was a man who found no hope in life. His ideals were born out of escape; out of running away and cowardice. And the idea of going out like Jim Morrison – of living fast, dying young, and leaving behind a marketable corpse – well, that idea begins to fade once any grounded individual reaches the age of 25.  It’s easy for Universal Music Group to repackage Kurt Cobain these days. There is no risk involved in liking him. Courtney Love, on the other hand, has 21 extra years worth of publicity to live down, the digital kind that inevitably leads to a Pavlovian response.

Anyone who’s disappeared into the Cobain wormhole, sifting through countless hours’ worth of interviews, print articles, and promotional media, has eventually noticed a negative pattern emerging. Specifically, the majority of Kurt Cobain’s personal recollections appear consumed with getting over – on record execs, on ex-bosses, on rival rock stars … anyone who Kurt Cobain potentially perceived to be a threat. The level of animus is palpable, and while that may not be Kurt’s fault, it certainly serves to cheapen the Merlot. Courtney Love, comparatively speaking – despite demonstrating an acute inability to appear objective whenever considering herself – boasts an even darker background than her husband. On balance, Love has fought back much longer, and more admirably, than Kurt Cobain ever could. Whether you’re a critic, a cynic, a punk, or a fanatic, perhaps it’s time to give Old Mother Love her due.

(Courtney Love is currently co-starring in Kansas City Choir Boy – a theatrical concept piece – @ Here Arts Center in New York City from January 8-17th.)