On a Valentine’s trip to New York City last week with my better half, we spent a day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The experience of going to a big museum can be overwhelming, so I never try to see everything, instead choosing to walk for hours and gravitate towards whatever moves me. I caught a few big hits—Washington Crossing the Delaware (hard to miss), Bridge Over a Pond of Water Lilies, and several Van Goghs, whose sheer physicality never fails to mesmerize—but the work that I found most memorable was one I’d never seen or even heard of: John Singer Sargent’s Padre Sebastiano.
The subject, a priest Sargent befriended while traveling, sits at his desk with a pen and a notebook. But he’s not writing, as his notebook appears to be empty. He looks out a window or open doorway to someplace beyond the canvas’ domain; his eyes are turned slightly upward, as if watching a bird fly by. His surroundings are chaotic and cluttered—his desk covered in flowers (the father was a botanist), a pile of clothes on the unmade bed, a watering can hanging next to a separate line of hanging clothes—conveyed in wild, heavy brushstrokes, but the father’s completely still. His face is the eye of a storm, hard and purposeful and indifferent to everything around it. His eyes sing a Townes Van Zandt lyric: “Sorrow and solitude, these are the precious things/And the only words that are worth remembering.”
I caught norovirus on the train back to Baltimore and was laid up for a couple of days with little to do but drink water, eat saltines and revisit season seven of Mad Men. I’ve been making my way through the series for the first time since it aired at a season a week clip, and among the many things that distinguishes it from other major TV dramas of the last 20 years—the writing, the acting, the period detail, or that it’s essentially a workplace drama about ordinary people living (mostly) ordinary lives and not murdering anyone—is a visual style that leans heavily toward Sargent’s brand of heightened neo-Realism.
Like no other series on TV, Mad Men punctuates its running time with moments of quiet and stasis. Sometimes alone, sometimes arranged in elaborate tableaux vivants, the characters are frozen in time. These understated moments have a way of slyly complicating the rosy-lensed nostalgia inherent to the show’s Rockwellian visual sensibility. A scene in season two’s “The Gold Violin” depicts a Draper family picnic as the model of Americana: the handsome Don (Jon Hamm) laid out on a blanket on a hill, his beautiful wife Betty (January Jones) and his daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka) kneeling beside him while his son Bobby (Mason Cotton) plays nearby. Don notes that they should get going in order to beat traffic; while Betty gathers their belongings, Don polishes off his beer and tosses the can down the hill like a quarterback throwing a Hail Mary. We cut to a static wide shot, taken from the bottom of the slope: Betty pulls the picnic blanket up by the corners, carelessly whipping a pile of garbage and food wrappers onto the grass. She neatly folds the blanket, placing it in her bag and grabbing the picnic basket, which she hands to Don to put in the trunk of their ‘61 Dodge Polara. Once they’re inside and drive off, the camera lingers for a second. Absent the Drapers and their car, the shot takes on a quality somewhere between landscape (the scenery) and still life (the trash), which combine to create a washed out snapshot of American waste and ignorance in the mid-20th century.
Come to think of it, “Washed out snapshot of American waste and ignorance” isn’t a bad description of Mad Men on the whole (though as a tag, it would surely get shouted out of Don’s office). The show’s rooted in historical fact, but it leaves just enough breathing room for quiet little scenes like these that have no clear purpose, historical or narrative. The characters’ eyes, like Father Sebastiano’s, are looking for something we can’t fully know, barely batting an eye while the storm of the 1960s whirls around them. A housewife stands in her dining room after smashing a wobbly dinner chair; a little girl sits in the pale glow of news report about Thích Quảng Đức’s self-immolation; a father says goodnight to his son while his wife stands by the door in a nightgown; five people stand in an empty office, backs turned us, staring out the window; a man and his pregnant wife share a private dance in the dark corner of a country club lawn. While no TV dialogue is as sharp as Mad Men’s (about 90 percent of its best lines courtesy of the silver fox Roger Sterling), it’s these quiet moments that gives the show its unique power. To paraphrase another old country song, the characters on Mad Men frequently say it best when they say nothing at all.