Early in Episode 3, Season 7 of Mad Men, Don Draper sits in a nearly deserted Manhattan cinema smoking and watching Model Shop (perhaps it’s the Loew’s Orpheum, 86th Street, near 3rd Avenue, where it played when it opened in February, 1969 and near Don’s apartment). On screen we watch with Don as Gary Lockwood drives his little red MG in pursuit of Anouk Aimee (who wouldn’t?). The clip is all a couple of minutes, if that, yet Mad Men writer/producer/director Matt Weiner wouldn’t include any situation that doesn’t somehow explicate a character trait or inform a plot vector. So there must be a reason for referencing Model Shop, and it’s my job to discover what it might be.
Model Shop was filmed in 1968, in L.A., California and released in 1969, and the current season of Mad Men takes place in and around February 1969 and in both L.A. and NYC, a proper alignment showing once again that Mad Men’s producers are sweating the small stuff. The film was directed by Jacques Levy, one of the biggies of the French New Wave, and best know for Lola, also starring Ms. Aimee, and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. One of the features of New Wave is their self-contained story-telling along with their subversion of traditional genres. If you are not familiar with French New Wave Cinema, poor you, and poor Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Quentin Tarantino, Woody Allen, Joel and Ethan Coen, and all the rest whose films are the descendants of Levy, Truffaut, and Godard!
In one of his first reviews after joining the New York Times in 1969, the influential critic Vincent Canby, wrote that Model Shop “is really quite a bad movie, but also a sometimes interesting one. You aren’t likely to forget—immediately anyway—a movie in which someone speaks of the “Baroque geometry” of Los Angeles. I know that I won’t.” If that sounds a bit contradictory it’s because Model Shop is really not a bad movie. It captures the cultural quandary of the late 60’s: should we pursue our dreams right away “pay our dues”, perhaps accepting something less until the time is right? You see, society was changing in a big way in the ’60s with the older “establishment” generation not giving up the reigns and seats of power they built during the post World War II era of American prosperity. Now it’s 1969 and the world, both inside and outside of America, seems more chaotic than ever before. The current generation, brought up not knowing want and largely privileged is fraying: there are hippies, yippies, establishments types, revolutionary wanna-bees, etc. The Vietnam War and the draft beckon. Life seems so unpredictable and short, so why sell out?
The protagonist, George, is an idealist. He studied architecture in college and searches for the opportunity to create and surround himself with beauty in a world filled with destruction. Unfortunately, he lacks the maturity to harness his idealism into a workable plan. At the same time, his friends manage to find a way to work toward their dreams; one becomes part of a successful rock ‘n’ roll band (the real life LA band Spirit), while the others work at the local progressive newspaper. We learn as the film opens that George has quit his junior architect’s job because he “doesn’t want to spend his days designing gas stations”. Without any money for the rent and the payments on his shiny red MG sports car, he resorts to sponging off his beautiful blonde girlfriend and his employed friends.
As we follow George making the chow-rounds to raise $100 for the back payments on the car loan, Demy treats us to some very striking sights and sounds of 60’s Los Angeles. The urban sprawl and decadence is already underway yet from atop the surrounding hills, the lights of LA twinkle and beckon like piccolos evoking that “baroque geometry” George described. Demy captures both the sprawl and the splendor of LA in the soundtrack by juxtaposing classical and contemporary music, and in the cinematography by lushly saturating the colors. George lives in a small bungalow near the coast, literally next to an oil-pump and close to LA International where planes seem to takeoff and land every ten minutes. Levy does not suppress the grittiness of the pumps nor the jet noise and the cacophony is used to add tension to the scenes between George and his girlfriend.
George ultimately succeeds in wringing $100 from his successful musician buddy who even tells George he won’t have to pay it back. But along the chow-train, he meets Lola (Anouk Aimee) a stunning, older French woman to whom he is immediately attracted. Lola’s statuesque and angular beauty mirrors the classical architectural structures he hopes one day to create. Following her, he is led to the eponymous Model Shop which is not quite a peep-show and not quite a “massage” parlor. Customers pay to photograph models in various stages of undress and poses. George promptly blows a quarter of his money on a couple of sessions with Lola and the two strike up a tentative, initially uncomfortable relationship (apparently, this Lola is subtly connected to the same character from Demy’s earlier film Lola but I’ll save that for another article). George learns that Lola is just a stage name and that she working at the model shop so that she can earn enough money to return to Paris to be with her 14-year old son from a previous marriage. As one can imagine, the two characters embody the conflict of deferred gratification.
Interestingly, George’s idealism blinds him to Lola’s compromise; he cannot comprehend how she could work in what he considers to be such a demeaning job. As a result, he offers what remaining money he has to fund the gap between the price of a ticket to Paris and Lola’s savings, knowing that there is a real risk she will accept and that he will lose her. In George’s mind, the offer is an act of true love which Lola will recognize and reward by choosing to stay with him. Of course that is a fantasy. The very next morning, George finds that Lola has already left for Paris, his car is being repossessed, and his girlfriend, fed-up with his lack of ambition and disillusioned by his unfaithfulness, has left him. Oh, by the way, did I forget to tell you that he needed the MG to drive to San Francisco and report to the Selective Service office as he’s been called up by the the draft? When it rains it pours!
By the roll of the end credits, I can’t help but think of Don Draper watching and thinking, “Is this the future that awaits me?” George, living in denial of what it means to be true to ones ideals, refuses productive work, lives for the moment, and is insensitive to the people who love and respect him. In the end George loses it all. Don has several choices in front of him, any one of which will set the direction of the rest of his life. And that my friends is why Matt Weiner included Model Shop.