Screened August 2009 on Columbia DVD in Brooklyn, NY
As a card-carrying fan of Mad Men, at times I have to check my enthusiasm against the complaints of its detractors. One consistent criticism is that the series operates too much from the vantage of winking, condescending hindsight. I’ll have to save the full length of my counterargument for another time, but for now, the skinny: this critique is based on a presumption that such a thing as an authentic historical viewpoint is fully possible, much less preferable to one whose subjective filters are made plain. For me, Mad Men is less about achieving verisimilitude than it is about the making and misleading of desire, and not just the desire among the show’s characters, but the desire of its audience for an idealized past. There’s a fascinating dynamic between the show and its audience as they collectively explore the nature of nostalgia. Our longing for a romanticized history runs parallel to the characters’ Pyrrhic pursuits of happiness.
Strangers When We Meet illuminates some of these issues concerning Mad Men. Unlike Mad Men, it’s absent of any mention of historical events or other markers, other than what’s simply on screen: outfits, the make of cars, the products in supermarket aisles. The film boasts a wonderful realism that gives authenticity to its essentially sudsy suburban adultery plot. But that’s not a knock on Mad Men per se – again, the historical references in the show have everything to do with modulating its contemporary audience’s desire for the past as a function with our dissatisfaction with the present. That fundamental discontent with what one has is also at the core of Strangers When We Meet. What I find shocking about the film – and what has me wanting to board a time capsule to check my own take on period sensibilities – is that there’s no moral virtue to the affair between Kirk Douglas’ architect and Kim Novak’s housewife. They’re basically horny and bored. The electricity between them is not based not on mutual understanding but lust and desperation. The feeling of tragedy and loss that cascades over the ending isn’t over the failure of a true romance, but of a life built upon shifting values and ethereal desires, doomed never to be fulfilled.
Who knows how audiences at the time reacted to this (maybe after Picnic and Peyton Place the door to illicit suburbia had already been flung open?). But what elevates this film beyond potboiler status into the realm of cinema is Richard Quine’s attentiveness to these hollow, well-groomed spaces of affluence (it may be too easy to namecheck Antonioni’s L’Avventura, made the same year, and yet there it is… there’s a party sequence in this film that anticipates the one in Antonioni’s La Notte, made one year later). They’re breeding grounds for bad behavior among a class that’s grown accustomed and entitled to getting what they want. They’re also the sites for some remarkable acting, each character treated with sensitivity to a shared plight, even as they become adversaries. Kirk Douglas gets to smash Walter Matthau’s jaw after catching him trying to cheat on his wife (Barbara Rush), but the horny neighbor is really the philosophical standard-bearer of the whole block. The only thing really separating the two are degrees of tact and consent with their targets.
They both come away relatively unscathed compared to the women; both Novak and Rush have devastating onscreen breakdowns inside their domestic prisons. Novak’s performance here is revelatory: whether it’s great acting, or the wear of her off-screen breakup with Quine seeping on screen, there’s a genuine tiredness in her eyes and shoulders that accentuates the tight-mouthed neuroses already familiar to Vertigo fans. One can almost be certain that Quine saw Novak through a Vertigo-shaped frame – he’s constantly boxing her profile in doorways and other suburban outlines like a magazine ad. She’s an image of perfection, searching for substance beneath a world of surfaces, including her own (notice how she scowls in true Betty Draper fashion when her lover’s young son calls her “pretty”).
In the end, the film maintains the same kind of ambivalence towards the objects of desire it holds up for audience consumption as Mad Men. Whether this amounts to perverse have-your-cake-and-eat-it indulgence-cum-social critique is up for argument. But I’ll take self-reflexive consumerism over the blind variety any day.
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