Return of the Age of Anxiety

Plugging Away: Return of the Age of AnxietyHollywood has made a habit of giving loud shout-outs to madison avenue lately. tnt's dramedy Trust Me about Chicago creative directors - created by former Chicago creative directors - is the latest. Meanwhile, the Emmy Award-winning Mad Men is on amc featuring Don Draper, a creative director during the so-called "creative revolution" in advertising in the '60s. And let's not forget Revolutionary Road, the Sam Mendes film based on the classic Richard Yates novel about Frank Wheeler, who is not an adman per se, but a familiar type of toiler in the marketing department of a business-machine brand during the Age of Anxiety in the '50s.

I'm sure we've all noticed the similarities between Revolutionary Road and Mad Men - the abundance of porkpie hats, clouds of cigarette smoke in the offices, extramarital hijinks in the cubicles, many martinis at lunch, and an overall tone of cynicism. It's no coincidence: The creator of Mad Men, Mark Weiner, who reportedly worked briefly at an ad agency, was inspired by the Yates novel - he said so himself. Yates, by the way, worked freelance as a copywriter for a time and his third novel, Disturbing the Peace, is about an adman's emotional and physical collapse.

I confess. I'm a heretic. I don't follow Mad Men. I've seen three full episodes and a few online clips and for some reason I thought the series would be a bit more, I don't know, mad. I was hoping for something eye-opening. Instead I agree with George Lois who told Fast Company magazine: "There's nothing wrong with Mad Men if it's supposedly a series on a bunch of phonies screwing their secretaries and having three-martini lunches and not giving a shit."

Revolutionary Road, on the other hand, is not over-sexed; it is provocative and, yes, mad. Movie stars Kate and Leo are sexy, but their characters are so bruised and raw and volcanic they make Jennifer Jones and John Hamm look like a pair of dummies.

Frank Wheeler is like a lot of creative dreamers who end up in the advertising business - anxious about his future, he compromises on his long-held desire to "really live." He becomes an "indoor man," an office drone and suburban commuter, and this destroys him and April, his intense wife. Frank Wheeler is a poster boy for the postwar Age of Anxiety generation that was apparently so worried about the Cold War and an uncertain nuclear future they sought shelter in second-rate suburban lives.

The film, which is remarkably true to the book, unfortunately truncates a key character, Bart Pollack, rock-star marketer at the business-machine company and the man who leads Frank down what might be called a counterrevolutionary road. In a crackerjack passage from the book, Pollack shares a core belief of his profession; it's not in the movie but captures the essence of both: "Frank, a lot of people tend to look down on plain old-fashioned selling today, but I want to tell you something. Back when I was first breaking into the selling field a very wise and wonderful older man told me something I've never forgotten. He said to me, 'Bart, everything is selling.' He said, 'Nothing happens in this world, nothing comes into this world, until somebody makes a sale.' He said, 'You don't believe me? All right, look at it his way.' He said, 'Bart, where the hell do you think you'd be if your father hadn't sold your mother a bill of goods?' "

Mad Men's Don Draper is not without a conscience - he struggles with the fact that he sells an American dream that he knows, through his own life, is hollow - but he and his associates just have too much fun for us to take them seriously. The suits at Sterling Cooper are lightweights. They really don't give a shit.

So neither do I.

We are clearly entering a new age of anxiety. The American dream is in crisis, an uncertain economic future lies ahead, and Madison Avenue appears to be emerging as the symbol of everything that is wrong with the world.

Kind of makes you feel mad now, doesn't it?

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