Falling Man and Mad Men (1:54)

Curator's Note

Mad Men’s opening credit sequence is full of obvious and hidden clues as to what this series is all about. The program is a stylistic hybrid merging elements of Hollywood movies and television programs from the late 1950s along with TV’s contemporaneous “quality” dramas of today. For example, the debt Matt Weiner and his creative team owes to Hitchcock is immediately apparent in this sequence with its pastiche of Saul Bass’s title work from Veritgo (the optical disorientation), North by Northwest (the iconography of the Manhattan skyline), and Psycho (the foreboding strings à la Bernard Herrmann). The use of a protagonist in black silhouette even suggests the 1955-1965 television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, where the producer-director steps right into a black silhouetted profile of himself during the opening credits of that show.

  Still, the most striking aspect of Mad Men’s title sequence is the depiction of the male protagonist falling from the top of a skyscraper. The action begins as he enters his office in black silhouette, puts down his briefcase, and watches as his furniture begins to implode, almost melting. A small rotating fan spins in an open window, but we never see how the silhouetted man ends up outside the building; we just see him in a graceful freefall for over half of the sequence tumbling past seductive images of women, a glass of whiskey, advertising slogans (“Enjoy the Best America Has to Offer”; “It’s the Gift That Never Fails”), two hands wearing wedding rings, a couple kissing, a smiling nuclear family, and four old vintage photographs.   There’s a lot going on in just thirty-six seconds. The slow, languid pace of the fall almost suggests a dream where the protagonist is watching his life pass before his eyes. We can all relate to dreams of falling which typically express our latent anxieties, even our feelings of being out of control and overwhelmed. On a deeper level, moreover, Mad Men’s perspective is resolutely post-9/11. This vantage point is not just chronological; it is psychic and visceral.   On the surface, Mad Men’s mise-en-scene and iconographymay appear nostalgic, but it comes with an attitude towards the past that exposes the workaday sexism, racism, adultery, homophobia, and anti-Semitism of the era—not to mention all the excessive smoking and drinking. Mad Men unapologetically presents the early sixties through the eyes of the present. It is an antidote to the overly simplified and saccharine poetics surrounding the cottage industry of books, films, and television programs that has emerged since the late 1990s mythologizing the World War II generation. The characters in Mad Men—who are basically stand-ins for our parents and grandparents—are hardly representative of a “greatest generation.” They are merely earlier, confused, and conflicted versions of us, trying to make the best of their own transformative moment where they too are caught in a kind of freefall wedged between the recent past and a shadowy onrushing future.   Let me conclude with a caveat: my intention in linking Mad Men’s opening credit sequence with Richard Drew’s famous photograph of the Falling Man in these notes and in the accompanying video clip is not meant in any way to trivialize or diminish the personal tragedy and pain felt by family members and loved ones on 9/11 and afterwards. 9/11 is what it is and Mad Men is after all a television program. On a more iconic level, though, the Falling Man shares space with the firefighters and police officers of 9/11, but it suggests a much darker reality (just as Mad Men undermines the wistful nostalgia of the “greatest generation” ). After appearing in hundreds of newspapers right after 9/11, the Falling Man image was airbrushed from history as being too callous and inappropriate to be seen. It probably forced people to confront head-on the full life-and-death implications of 9/11 too soon after the event, including their own mortality.   That being said, the highly-charged perceptions evoked by the Falling Man image cannot be suppressed forever. It has already found its way into Eric Fischl’s sculpture, Tumbling Woman (2002), Henry Singer’s documentary, 9/11: The Falling Man (2006), Don DeLillo’s novel, Falling Man (2007), and now Mad Men’s opening sequence(2007- ). The terrible, quiet serenity of that image provides a disturbing template for Mad Men’s animated black silhouette, capturing the full intensity and unease of our time. As the protagonist lands smoothly on his chair, his perspective is ours as we look over his shoulder. He may strike a confident pose with a cigarette dangling from his fingers, but situated as we are behind him, we know better.

Comments

Jeremy Butler's picture

Falling Iconography

Mad Men’s opening credits, as Gary points out, are a perfect evocation of the late 1950s/early 1960s, right down to the furniture and the fluorescent lights (see my post on Wednesday regarding those oppressive rectangles). And the connections to Bass/Hitchcock are undeniable. Indeed, Cary Grant’s character in North By Northwest would’ve traveled in the same circles as Don Draper.

 

I have a slightly different take on the deconstruction of the iconography of the 1960 executive office. I would suggest that it does not "implode" or "melt" so much as it falls, too.

The blinds, the lights, the desk… Everything tumbles down. The silhouetted man (the "man in the gray flannel suit"?) then follows them.

 

Jeremy Butler

http://www.tcf.ua.edu/jbutler

Frank P. Tomasulo's picture

MAD MEN Opening Credits

Continuing the thread regarding the credit sequence’s allusionism to Hitchcock, I’d like to add to the Curator’s reference to "Saul Bass’s title work from Vertigo (the optical disorientation)."

Although not actually a part of Vertigo’s credit sequence, Scottie Ferguson’s nightmare scene later in the film shows a black, silhouetted male figure falling into the background space of the image very much akin to the first, fleeting shot of the "falling man" in Mad Men’s opening.

Connecting that falling cardboard cutout to the 9/11 leaper(s) was a stroke of genius on the part of Gary Edgerton. Another reference might be to the semi-mythical Wall Street investors who jumped from their office buildings following the stock market crash in 1929.(Tall tales about panicked speculators leaping to their deaths have become part of the popular lore about the Great Crash. But although jumping from bridges or buildings was the second-most-popular form of suicide in New York between 1921 and 1931, the "crash-related jumping epidemic" is just a myth. Between Black Thursday and the end of 1929, only four of the 100 suicides and suicide attempts reported in the New York Times were plunges linked to the crash, and only two took place on Wall Street.)

Nonetheless, the Mad Men credit scene (and the show itself) creates a semi-mythical time and space that absorbs many iconic social myths, so all of these cultural-media images are appropriate fodder for a postmodernist TV show.

Mad Men and the 1960s

Thank you for this wonderful post, Gary! This seems so fitting to start out a week on Mad Men by examining the opening credits.  I find the juxtaposition of the "Falling Man" photo and the sequence to be chilling.  I am reminded of  another controversial 9/11 text, Neil LaBute’s "The Mercy Seat," which tells the story of a man who worked in the WTC but had skipped on 9/11 to be with his mistress.  He considers whether to let the world think he died in order to create a new life for himself, much like Dick Whitman actually takes advantage of the death of Donald Draper to reinvent himself in Mad Men.

I am intrigued at the characterization of Mad Men as a retort to celebratory depictions of the post-WWII "greatest generation"; I had thought of Don and much of Mad Men’s cast as caught as caught in between the "greatest generation" of and the youth and social movements of the 1960s —  too young to be part of the former, potentially too old to participate in the latter.  They note that Kennedy doesn’t wear a hat and that DDB’s Volkswagen ads are innovative, yet they don’t know how to respond.  They recognize that they’re unsatisfied with the model of American life bequeathed by postwar prosperity, but most likely will not be on the vanguard to change it.

Gary Edgerton's picture

Mad Men and the Early 1960s

 

Thanks for the reactions so far. As far as Jeremy’s post, yes I was viewing the credit sequence through the lens of 9/11, thus taking the “falling” one step further to “melting.” Of course, we’re dealing with a kind of dream logic in this scene, but the silhouetted man doesn’t just fall from where he’s standing inside the building; he somehow has gotten outside, and unlike his office, the Manhattan skyscrapers appear perfectly stable as he tumbles past. Consequently, it seemed to evoke Falling Man to me. Interesting in Frank’s post that he points out that the number of jumpers in 1929 turned out to be much less than first reported. In contrast (from research I had previously done on the televising of 9/11), the New York Times and USA Today estimated that the number of jumpers during 9/11 ranged from between 5% to 10% of all the fatalities at the twin towers (or approximately 150 to 300 people).  The media blackout was quite effective in this regard. And Allison, yes, there’s probably more representatives of the silent generation (Peggy, Pete, Betty, Joan, etc.) than the World War II generation (Bertram, Roger, Duck) with Don caught right on the cusp. I was thinking of JFK in the ascendancy; and more of Nixon yet to come. One of the things I like most about this series is how it is preoccupied with the front end of the sixties, a part of the decade largely suppressed and forgotten in much of popular media of late. 

 

 

Janet McCabe and Kim Akass's picture

The Falling Man

This is a particularly interesting post as we have been discussing the effect of 9/11 on the opening credits quite recently.  As Allison says, this is quite a chilling piece of film.   Especially as, since the original live footage of the tragedy, the falling people have been edited out of most media reporting.  

The credit sequence (for us) also has a strong sense of a man dizzily falling past advertising images of women’s products and monstrously sized women.  It maybe that the falling (mad) man has created a monster and as the women get stronger the men seem weaker and more confused than ever.  

Gary’s post has certainly given us much to think about.

 

 

Nelson Hathcock's picture

Gary's post and the credit sequence thread

 Thanks to Gary for his excellent post and to the respondents; I’d simply follow up Jeremy’s observation and point out that, when the sequence concludes, all the trappings of professional power and status have disappeared, and our figure stares at a blank slate (except for the title).  So, although the spatial trajectory is downward, the 30 seconds also manage to convey a narrative arc in which the signifiers of identity will be stripped away, an archetypal fall that seems borne out by Don’s travails in the second season.  The screen is ready for new projection.  

Gareth James's picture

Some Extra Links

It’s also worth taking a look at an interview with title designers Mark Gardner and Steve Fuller of Imaginary Forces at http://blogs.amctv.com/mad-men/2008/03/qa-title-design.php

Here they discuss the influence of Anatomy of a Murder on silhouette design, as well as the titles to Casino, which also features an extended falling man sequence designed by Saul Bass, shaped through a series of neon overlays of Las Vegas and an eventual screen fill of flames. The shared themes here, between hyper-commercialism and post-war male identity also provide a neat counterpoint to some of Mad Men’s elements.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jqUyRE4HPzo&feature=PlayList&p=93BE3157C8276EC6&playnext=1&playnext_from=PL&index=3

Also check out the Imaginary Force website for some great reel work, including another great institutional cut-up montage for Dollhouse, and some interesting cityscape work for Gossip Girl and montages for Southland.

http://www.imaginaryforces.com/

Matt Soar's picture

Question re sources

Delighted to see an informed discussion about credit sequences - one of my favourite topics. That said, I’m slightly troubled by the fact that the first half of the video is not attributed to its original source (ie Henry Singer’s 9/11: The Falling Man, from the CBC’s Passionate Eye documentary series) - a film Gary actually mentions in his short article. I’m sure visitors like me could be forgiven for thinking we’re actually watching a video made and narrated by Gary (Which would have been neat!).

Janet McCabe and Kim Akass's picture

The Terror Dream

This is an addendum to our last comment, but I wanted to thank Gary for reminding us how Mad Men works as a post-9/11 text - about cultural trauma, about memory, about forgetfulness. While I agree with Frank, about how the series plunders past iconic images, I have just finished reading Susan Faludi’s highly provocative thesis on ‘What 9/11 revealed about America’. From the beginning Mad Men infuriated/fascinated us with its hideously beautiful portrayal of women, but isn’t that the point. Building on Faludi’s thesis, about how the terrorist attacks tapped into a much broader context of America’s experience of power and vulnerability, doesn’t Mad Men do the same. As the ad man falls passed ‘restortation’ images of ‘family’, ‘marriage’ and ‘femininity’ he has helped to create, do they not in turn prove to be his downfall. Thanks to Gary’s smart and provocative posting one realises what a powerfully original and crucial cultural product Mad Men will prove to be.

Gary Edgerton's picture

Diminutive Mad Man

Thanks to Janet and Kim for their insightful posts on Mad Men’s credit sequence. I hadn’t thought about it, but they are right on target to suggest that all the men—including Don in this instance—seem to be shrinking (slowly losing stature), as they are caught unawares on the wrong side of history, while Peggy, Joan, Betty, Rachel, Midge, etc. make Mad Men more about them than the men. Along with Don, they are indeed the most interesting characters in the series because of their potential and desire for change. As far as Matt Soar’s post, I’m glad he identified Henry Singer’s 9/11: The Falling Man. I guess it never occurred to me that my video posting would be seen as anything other than two pre-existing broadcast-quality clips edited together for effect, especially since the titles of the pieces—9/11: The Falling Man and Mad Men—are clearly part of the segment. Be that as it may, I’m happy extra attention is also being paid to Henry Singer’s wonderful documentary, which is available for viewing in its entirety on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BXnA9FjvLSU.

David Lavery's picture

The "Mad Men" Title Sequence That Wasn't

Wonderfully insightful post Gary, and the comments are fascinating. I wonder what it means that this was not the original conception for the title sequence, as Weiner reveals in an interview in Written By (a WGA publication):

 

AMC was uncomfortable with the idea that I was originally going to do. In live action, this man driving into the city, and then going up into his office, and then walking past his secretary, and we just see the back of his head as he walked into the office, and put his briefcase down, and opened the window, and he jumped out. Then you see this blur coming towards you, and it would say Mad Men. And they were like, "Uh… okay." And then I said, "Well, you know, I can do it cheaper." And they go, "It’s not about the money."

Gary Edgerton's picture

Mad Men and 9/11

Hi David, thanks for the post. At first blush it seems the essence of Matt Weiner’s original idea is still intact, where the protagonist walks into the office with his back to us, puts his briefcase down, and a jump involving him happens. As is evident by an earlier post of mine, I wondered how he got out of the window, which is a way for Weiner and the animators to soften the act, by leaving vague the intentions of the black silhouetted man. There was a fringe reaction to the jumpers on 9/11 that condemned them for what was interpreted as their committing suicide, despite the fact that these poor souls were confronted with the choice of being burned alive or attempting to escape to an impossible fate seventy-to-one hundred and ten floors below them. Similarly, Weiner may have never consciously intended to evoke 9/11, but as that old saw of literary theory— the intentional fallacy— suggests, artists (like all of us) are only consciously aware of so much of what we communicate (which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t always be on guard against reading too much into things). In a similar vein, after reading Don DeLillo’s terrific novel, Falling Man, which features a performance artist who makes unexpected post-9/11 jumps around the New York metropolitan area with the use of a bungee cord, I read an interview with DeLillo that said he was unaware of Richard Drew’s photograph until someone pointed it out to him after reading his manuscript. Likewise, when I finally caught up with Henry Singer’s 9/11: The Falling Man, I couldn’t help but see the graphic and tonal similarities to Mad Men’s opening credit sequence. Most likely, Weiner and Singer were unaware of each other’s work at the time each produced 9/11: The Falling Man and Mad Men, respectively, but 9/11 is in the air. And as you and I have talked about earlier at the Sopranos conference last May, the first season of Mad Men was produced by essentially the same New York-based creative team and crew that worked on The Sopranos, who were on hiatus between season six, part one and season six, part two of that series. Just as there is a 9/11 sensibility that infuses The Sopranos after season three, I think there is an unmistakable 9/11 awareness that impacts much of Mad Men as well.

Kyle Barnett's picture

(Falling) Men in the Cities

Thanks, Gary, for an interesting post.  I want to follow Frank Tomasulo’s further reference suggestions by a reference path of my own.  When I first saw Mad Men’s title sequence, I immediately thought of the artist Robert Longo, whose "Men in the Cities" series depicted men in various poses, suggesting writhing, dancing, and falling.

The falling suit-and-tie man trope shows up even more dramatically and explicitly in Longo’s video for New Order’s 1986 video for their song, "Bizarre Love Triangle."  The first section of the music video features quick-cut images suggesting media overload interspersed with performance footage of the band.  But when the song reaches the chorus, the scene shifts to a man falling out of the blue sky in a suit and tie, just as in Longo’s earlier painting series.  The difference here is that by the second chorus, we see a woman in business dress tumbling from the sky as well.  Here, gender equity seems to be the right to collapse under the collective weight of modern life. The video: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x7h89_new-order-bizarre-love-triangle_music

In relation to Mad Men as a show, what I find interesting here is a consistent "through line" of crises of masculinity in the light of various societal changes.  Mad Men, like the Sopranos, certainly mines this topic with relentless regularity in a variety of interesting ways.  So too Hitchcock, who Frank mentioned, especially in films like Vertigo.  Reading Weiner’s comments conveyed here by David Lavery, I find this more figurative approach to the title sequence more evocative, as evidenced in all the different touchstones we’re finding over the last ninety years or so.

Alyxandra Vesey's picture

Contemporary music and the recent past

Fascinating stuff here. Something I’ve been struck by is the show’s use of contemporary music and how it is woven into the period. One example is the use of the Decemberists’ song "The Infanta," in the opening moments of season two’s "Maidenform" episode.

But a more relevant example is instrumental hip hop artist’s RJD2’s "A Beautiful Mind," which serves as the show’s theme song. While little has been commented upon it, I wonder what a contemporary song that so seamlessly fits this world functions in the show’s larger context. I also pause on what it means to absent rapper Aceyalone’s vocals in this edited version, so that the Hermannesque strings can take full focus and pull us into the period. While assuredly Aceyalone’s rhymes would kick us out of a world that hasn’t yet invented or discovered rap, I wonder how race might factor into this and speak to the show’s intentional absenting and silencing of African Americans (white Decemberist lead singer Colin Meloy’s vocals are present in the "Maidenform" opener, after all).

Thus, I wonder how politics inform song selection and editing, particularly with regard to the theme song. Like the free-falling man, I wonder if it gestures toward the wedge "between the recent past and a shadowy onrushing future"?

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