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Detailing the Decades

Like many Americans, I find myself in front of my TV on Sunday nights, watching Mad Men. I like the show – certainly enough to watch it at least semi-regularly – but whenver I start to get sucked in, I’m yanked out of that dream state that John Gardner talks about by the show’s unflagging insistence on reminding me when it takes place (the 50s; actually, the show takes place in 1960, but the 50s are the cultural and political moment being portrayed). The degree of self-consciousness is so great – it’s as if the show itself were an advertisement for an era – that when we see a scene in a doctor’s office with the doctor smoking, we feel as if the scene itself were inserted just to show us a smoking doctor. Just to remind us, that is, in case we forgot, that it’s 1960 we’re talking about and, boy, were things different then. Now, there’s nothing wrong with self-consciousness, but in most other ways Mad Men isn’t that kind of show. This is not Being John Malkovich. It’s not Adaptation. It is, rather, by most standards fairly traditional on the level of narrative and character, and so the camera’s relentless focus on period details feels intrusive in a show that otherwise aims not to be. The same things happens in the movie The Ice Storm – a good movie, it seems to me, but not a great movie, despite some great peformances (Christina Ricci is wonderful, just as she is in the terrific Buffalo 66). For me, at least, one of the reasons the movie is distracting is the way it fetishizes the 70s details. In that sense, the movie is true to the book, though the book, I would argue, is a great book, not merely good. Now, in the book, too (perhaps even more so), the 70s details are fetishized, but they’re fetishized in a way that’s much harder to do with a camera – at least when the movie itself is otherwise fairly narratively conventional. The Ice Storm, the book, is narrated in a distant third-person voice (though at the end of the novel we learn that the whole book has been filtered through the sensibility and voice of the older son), and so the wonderful opening chapter that announces the era in which the book takes place is filtered through a particular character and a particular voice and sensibility. In the book, the era becomes a full-fledged character in its own right – which is what the movie may also be trying to do, but it does it much more clumsily. None of which is to say that movies and TV shows should ignore period details. But the ways in which a book is self-conscious don’t always translate seamlessly onto the screen, which is why it’s often the case that the truer a movie is to a book, the more trouble it finds itself in. (The Virgin Suicides is another example of a movie that’s very true to the book, but because the book is not a filmic book–it’s deeply internal–the movie doesn’t succeed nearly as well as the book does.)

Joshua Henkin, author of Matrimony, is guest blogging on Jewcy, and he’ll be here all week.  Stay tuned.



Not to toot my own horn (OK, I will, if only briefly), but the book was a 2007 NY Times Notable Book, and the way this is relevant to you is that I’m offering a free copy to three lucky Jewcy readers. All you have to do is send me an email at Jhenkin at SLC dot edu with the subject "Achin’ for Matrimony" and you’ll be entered in the drawing. For more about the novel, click on here, and for those of you who want to skip straight over the foreplay and buy the book for yourself, your friends, your cousins (Chanukah isn’t far away!) here’s the place for you. Finally, a note to book groups. I’ve been participating in a lot of book group discussions of Matrimony, so if you’re in a book group, or know people who are, and would like a visit from the author either in person or by telephone, get in touch with me at the aforementioned email address or through the book group link on my website

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