October 9, 2009
I can’t go to Rome because I don’t have a time machine. Of course, I could take a combination of taxis and airplanes that would, after a certain number of hours, physically place me inside the geographical area that the rough guides and googled maps classify as “Rome, Italy”; I could go to that place and walk up and down the narrow streets and look at the ancient ruins and drink espresso and say “grazie.” I could do all those things but all those things wouldn’t really do it for me because I can’t go to Rome without a time machine, I can only go to “Rome, Italy.”
Even if I had a time machine, I still couldn’t go to Rome, actually, because a time machine, however advanced it might be, wouldn’t emulsify the air and turn the world black and white, it wouldn’t light every scene with perfect chiaroscuro, it wouldn’t make me look like Marcello Mastroianni and it wouldn’t make you look like Anouk Aimee; it wouldn’t slow life down to twenty four frames a second, which is the speed at which the only Rome I know moves.
I can’t go to Rome because the Rome I want to go to is a fantasy and however beautiful and artistic a fantasy can be, however well it can convince your mind to believe in it, in the end, it’s not real, fantasies aren’t real, they’re just pretty lies. There’s this story by Ann Beattie about fantasies and Rome and it begins with this paragraph:
Some time ago, when my husband went to stay at the American Academy in Rome in order to do research, I accompanied him because I had never seen the Roman forum. I had a book Harold had given me for my birthday that showed how the ruins looked in the present day, and each page also had its own transparent sheet with drawings that filled in what was missing, or completed the fragments that remained, so you could see what the scene had looked like in ancient times. It wasn’t so much that I cared about the Forum; in retrospect, I wonder whether Rome itself hadn’t seemed like a magical place where my eye could fill in layers of complexity–where I could walk the streets, daily performing my personal magic act.
The fantasy about Rome that the character has in Ann Beattie’s fantasy about Rome is magical and charming and is ultimately shattered by reality, broken into tiny jagged shards like the way they break glass to make mosaics. Another fantasy about Rome is in the Fellini movie which is named after the city, a scene in which workers building a subway under the city break through a wall into an ancient villa. The room is covered in beautiful frescoes which have been held in a vacuum and perfectly preserved; however, exposed to modern air, they very quickly break down and the beauty and history they hold in their pigments melt away. There’s a scene in the movie Lost in Translation where the main character visits this picturesque Japanese temple and then breaks down because she doesn’t feel anything about it. When I lived in Korea, I visited this Buddhist temple that was centuries old and built into the side of a steep cliff overlooking the sea and after I had made my offering like everybody else on the tour, I stood there outside the gift shop and stared out at the frothing waves under the dark sky and all I could think about was that movie, all I could experience was someone else’s fantasy.
So I can’t go to Rome. That’s really okay with me because I never enjoy vacations anyway. However great a vacation is, however much fun I have, in the back of my mind I’m always thinking of the fact that it’s going to end. Knowing when your vacation is going to end is, in some way, kind of like knowing the date of your own death. Some people can reconcile this and enjoy their fantasy while it lasts; personally, I have trouble staying in the present moment and believing in something so deeply, which is one of my deepest personal flaws, I think. I’ve felt like this for a long time, but I was never able to express it or understand it until I watched this week’s episode of Mad Men, which was in part about a trip to Rome. I’m at a point in my life where looking for revelations and epiphanies in a television show seems sad to me but I’m also at a point in my life where I am sad and so I will take revelations and epiphanies from wherever I can get them.
In this week’s Mad Men, Betty Draper goes on vacation and for a moment she is able to give herself over completely to this fantasy of how her life could be. When in Rome, you do as the Romans, and by changing her hair and wearing a pretty dress and speaking nella lingua italiana, Betty, by the sheer force of her belief in a dream, almost seems to become a Roman; it’s as if her trapped soul has been freed and she has been made anew. It feels so real and wonderful and powerful and then it’s over and she is back home and all she has is this gaudy piece of costume jewelry as a memento and she is so sad, she’s sad because she was promised this perfect vision of what her life could be and she let herself be seduced by it, she put her guard down and believed in the fantasy, and then of course it was revealed that the promise was a lie, that her life is no different than it was before, that nothing has changed, and she is just tired and sad and sick.
Which is kind of how I feel after I watch Mad Men. I watch Mad Men every week and I think it’s a really good television show but I don’t know if that means I should love it or hate it. This is the thing about advertising; the very best advertising is actually the very worst, because the more seductive and beautiful and perfect a piece of advertising seems to be, the more insidious and evil and awful it actually is; the best and most amazing pieces of advertising are powerful deceptions and cruel fantasies; they feel like they’re building us up but they’re really just breaking us down.
Of course, it’s not really fair for me to judge Mad Men in this way, since Mad Men is art and not advertising; the difference between the two is that art exists to give something and advertising exists to take something away. It’s obviously more complicated than that, though. I think the creators of Mad Men are trying to create a work of art with their show, but sometimes I worry that the end result, whether by their fault or ours as viewers, is actually just product, is actually just very well made advertising for a fantasy which maybe was never real and certainly isn’t real now. Sometimes I feel like the much heralded attention to historical detail and production design are not artistic high points of the show but are only opiates that let us dream this dangerous dream more deeply, that let us ignore whatever unpleasant truths the show may reveal because hey look at that gorgeous dress and isn’t that lamp beautiful and imagine if we had a coffee table like that one that we could rest our martinis on, imagine if we could live in Manhattan and dress fancy every day have interesting and creative jobs like those people do, imagine what it would be like if cars still had fins and smoking pot was an adventure and television was exciting and brand new and all the days of our lives were just so, imagine imagine imagine. You watch it and the smoke gets in your eyes and all you see is beauty and fantasy, I worry that happens sometimes, I know it happens to me. Some people might say that this kind of fantasizing is harmless and even necessary and I think I agree with this and believe in it to some extent, but then isn’t wanting to live in our fantasies one of the root causes of the mess the country is in right now? Isn’t the American dream, a fantasy if not created then nurtured and inflated and burnished by genius American advertising, isn’t that the reason why we’re all so fucked now?
The best scene that will ever take place on Mad Men is the scene in the Season one finale in which Don Draper pitches his campaign for the Kodak rotary slide projector, which the Kodak executives had been calling “the wheel.” To describe all that happens and is said there seems stupid, just watch it if you haven’t seen it and remember it if you have. In the scene, Don goes off on this wistful monologue about nostalgia, and the whole time in the background he’s showing pictures of his own family. The scene is so perfectly rendered and deeply felt that it’s almost like Don Draper has done a magic trick and transcended advertising, like he’s not doing a pitch for this brilliant advertising campaign for Kodak but is just talking about essential things like love and family and memory, that he’s telling us something true and important. He says:
This device… isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine.
It goes backwards, forwards.
It takes us to a place where we ache to go again.
It’s not called the Wheel.
It’s called the Carousel.
It lets us travel the way a child travels.
Around and around and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.
It’s maybe the most beautiful and powerful scene I’ve ever seen on a television show and after the episode was over I just sat there in front of the TV and I wanted to live in it forever, I wanted to stay there, I didn’t want it to ever end. It did end, though, as all things do and must do, and I turned off the TV and the screen went black and I had to go on with my life and that was so hard because the fantasy that the show had created for me was so beautiful that, by contrast, the reality I had to return to seemed like a waste of time, like a burden, like a pain. What had felt like a magic trick now just felt like a trick. For a couple of minutes, the show was so good that it made me believe this lie was the truth, the same way Betty Draper allowed herself to believe she was a Roman instead of just a tourist in this week’s episode. For a couple of minutes, I felt like I had gone back in time or had moved through space, like I had traveled by the force of my belief to this place of beauty and perfection, this platonic ideal, and it was warm there and the light was soft and nothing would ever go wrong and I could live forever.
Of course, those feelings were just a wonderful lie, a little fantasy about advertising, a daydream, and when I realized this and snapped out of the trance, I kind of felt like I had just gotten off of a carousel, since sometimes the carousel isn’t a time machine or a spaceship and sometimes it doesn’t take you to a place where you know you are loved. Sometimes it just spins you around for a while and you get off and you feel dizzy, sometimes in a pleasant way, sometimes not.