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ABF Friday:  Mimesis Edition!

At the end of last Sunday’s episode of Mad Men, as Don is looking at the Beatles tickets on his desk, Janet said, “I don’t think those tickets had the Beatles’ pictures on them in 1965.”

So, the next day, I gave her ... a ticket to the Beatles’ concert at Shea!  (Five dollars and sixty-five cents? That’s an outrage!  What do these Beatles think we are in America, a bunch of Rockefellers?*)

I love how Mad Men brings out the Mimesis Police in everyone.  I’m not immune—I foolishly objected, while watching the very first episode, that Reader’s Digest hadn’t weighed in on cigarettes and cancer until 1962.  I was right, except for the 1962 part.  After “The Suitcase,” I read someone in a comment thread assuring the world that 1965 was too early for Greek diners in New York City; after “The Beautiful Girls,” someone else appeared in a comment thread to complain that 1965 was too early for pizza delivery in New York City.  So clearly, there’s something about Mad Men that makes people desperately want to be wrong on the Internet.

It’s not surprising, really, since the show has so much invested in period mimesis.  But objecting to things like Greek diners or pizza delivery or Beatles pix on tix is like being off by a decade on Reader’s Digest.  If you’re going to be the Mimesis Police, you’ve got to do it right.  (As a typeface fanatic, i.e., someone who stays up late at night trying to decide whether the official font of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities should be Calibri or Tahoma, I especially appreciated that one.)

Janet and I have had this running argument for ... oh, at least 25 years now.  She will object to a double-high-five in Summer of Sam, saying that people didn’t double-high-five in 1977, and I will say that I lived in New York in 1977 (in fact, cut my Jackson-Browne-length hair down to something like its current configuration because the early word was that the killer was targeting brunette women with shoulder-length hair), and we damn well did double-high-five each other when the occasion demanded it.  Or she will point out that a woman did not go to church without a head covering of some kind in 1912 (see Titanic; also see famous modernist paintings that did not actually go down with the Titanic), and she will be right.  The one recent movie over which we had a good, substantial argument was No Country For Old Men.  It started with the motel sign advertising “Free HBO,” at which she poked me in the ribs.  “HBO started in 1972,” I hissed.  “It wasn’t free in cheap west Texas motels by 1980,” she hissed back.  It ended with our agreement about the ATM, which did indeed exist in 1980 but (iirc) was a far more limited thing than it is now—basically, you could only use your own bank’s machines.

Ah, I see that the Internet contains speculations on these critical questions as well.

So, folks, how do your mimesis police work?  What kind of gaffe totally ruins a movie/TV show for you? What kind of mistake doesn’t matter?  (Take for instance the references to the “69th Street Bridge” in Escape From New York: are you really going to complain about a mistake like that in a movie whose premise is that all of Manhattan has become a high-security prison ruled by Isaac Hayes, with Harry Dean Stanton ensconced in the New York Public Library?) And what kind of accurate, understated touch is worthy of a special Mimesis Award?  Special subheading: Medical Mimesis Police, charged with monitoring the accuracy of various representations of diseases and disorders.


Yes, yes, I know, $5.65 in 1965 is $39.11 today.  The point stands.

Posted by on 10/01 at 01:17 PM
  1. A Beautiful Mind—totally mischaracterizes schizophrenia, Nash Equilibrium, and most importantly, the real Nash.  Nobody writes on windows and no professors give colleagues pens as a tribute.  The book was a compelling biography – the movie was a fairy tale (but most people think it’s all true).  When it won best picture and best screenplay, I retched…

    Posted by  on  10/01  at  02:52 PM
  2. The first MM episodes, in 1959-60, featured IBM Selectric II machines on all the secretaries’ desks, which stuck out like so many soo-uh tumbs, as Joe Pesci might say.  As all good typewriter geeks know, the Selectric II’s squarish profile did not debut until circa Nixon-McGovern (or Fischer-Spassky, if I’m going full geek, which apparently I am) more than a decade later

    An outrage, I tell you!  (In Courier 12 pt, too!)

    Posted by  on  10/01  at  03:34 PM
  3. I usually avoid the mimesis police by only watching stories set in the early 1960s that were actually filmed in the early 1960s. I recently watched a couple episodes of Peter Gunn for the first time, and the period details put Mad Men to shame. Terrific costumes, and all the props looked brand new.

    Posted by  on  10/01  at  04:17 PM
  4. So, the next day, I gave her
    You were four at the time?

    As one who is the most guilty of calling out MadMen episodes, i shall refrain from using that series as evidence.  I am most irritated with film of a boat (generally sailing boats of periods) shot from another motor-powered boat that makes a wake (or splash) in the image.  It was bad enough in On Golden Pond, but when two separate wakes showed up in Master and the Commander it became “un événement horrible.” These are serious mistakes for me, that could so easily be avoided in editing, yet they persist. 

    I am also perturbed by script supervision errors, all to common on television, but showing up more often now in feature films.  It is bad enough when a coffee cup magically is turned the other way during a two-shot conversation, but when whole swaths of stuff (cars parked on streets change, and change direction) get left in, i get infuriated.  Nearly every film crew these days use a video back up for the script supervisor, so why don’t they actually use it?

    Posted by  on  10/01  at  04:32 PM
  5. Gee, didn’t Weiner address the Selectric problem?

    Posted by Michael  on  10/01  at  05:01 PM
  6. My subspecialty is Medical Mimesis Police, Preemie Corps. Not many shows that feature a baby in an isolette in the NICU get it right.

    Geographic manglings are also sore thumbs for me. In The Fugitive, Kimble is on the El right by my old office, and then he skedaddles off the train and is in the Hilton in a trice. That’s, like, a mile from there! With a zillion congested downtown intersections to cross on the way!

    Oh, and the parking. In “While You Were Sleeping,” Bill Pullman can park a TRUCK in front of Sandra Bullock’s Chicago apartment in the EVENING, in a cute neighborhood? I don’t think so. He’d be lucky to find space for a Smart Car, and he’d probably need to circle the block a few times, swearing.

    Posted by Orange  on  10/01  at  05:17 PM
  7. Yes, yes, I know, $5.65 in 1965 is $39.11 today.

    The Federal minimum wage was $1.25 in ‘65.  That
    $5.65 represented a great deal of money to us, even though gas was 20¢ a gallon and a new car cost $2000.  Yet, even in today’s dollars, the $39.11 rate is a significant discount for a major touring band.  The Beatles charged $4.50 to $6.50 at the Hollywood Bowl that same year.  If i wanted to go see Tom Petty tonight at the same venue, i would have to pay ticket prices of $45 (the seats at the top of the bowl with only binocular visibility) to $300 for the box seats.  Fillmore shows in the 60s were $2 and $3 most nights.

    Posted by  on  10/01  at  05:24 PM
  8. Then there are the borderline cases.  In “Dead Poets Society,” which was set in 1959, someone is shown grooving to a 45 of Wanda Jackson’s “Let’s Have a Party.” This was recorded in 1958, but did not hit the Billboard pop chart until 1960.  Plus, although the movie was supposedly set in Vermont, the 45, as I recall, did not have a big hole in the center, but rather looked like one of them funny-lookin’ British 45s.  So, I was sure it was an anachronism, but then I thought, “was there a British release predating the American release, and somehow one of the characters in the movie got ahold of a copy?” (It doesn’t help that the ever-trustworthy Wikipedia lists it as a 1959 release, even though its catalog number is clearly in line with all of Capitol’s other August 1960 records.)

    Posted by  on  10/01  at  05:46 PM
  9. One of the best acknowledgments of “we-don’t-give-a-damn” anachronism (in this case, of stuff still around when it shouldn’t be, rather than before its time) was on How I Met Your Mother, when one of Robin’s friends asked why her Robin Sparkles teen pop videos, which had to have been shot in the 90s, looked like the 80s.  Robin the Canadian replied, “The 80s didn’t get to Canada until the 90s.” HIMYM deserves some kind of award for that.

    Posted by Dr. Virago  on  10/01  at  06:23 PM
  10. I have an unused ticket to the 1965 show at Shea (I went in 1965 and 1966). The Beatles’ picture was definitely on both tickets.

    If you actually have an unused ticket in decent condition, it’s worth a couple of thousand bucks. grin

    Posted by  on  10/01  at  09:01 PM
  11. Maybe scientists are different, but it drives me nuts when the scientists on The Big Bang Theory refer to their colleagues as Dr. So-and-So.

    Posted by  on  10/01  at  09:46 PM
  12. When I was a kid one of my fave movies was MacKenna’s Gold, a “star-studded” Western with Omar Sharif as the bad guy, a Mexican no less.  The goof is kind of a spoiler, so I won’t reveal it—just check it out, it’s a lot of fun.  And the goof is the best part.  Except maybe for Telly Savalas.

    Posted by Dave Maier  on  10/02  at  12:49 AM
  13. This isn’t a period question, but one of the pleasures of _Machete_ is its deliberate anti-verisimilitude.  It’s all about style.  And so you have to watch it differently.

    Posted by  on  10/02  at  03:54 AM
  14. AB actors portraying disabled characters (so far just political correctness, not mimesis, stick with me) but using bullshit push-grandma-through-the-airport canvas-backed wheelchairs, instead of a decent and realistic manual or power chair.

    Posted by  on  10/02  at  07:39 AM
  15. I hate it when movies show kids supposedly in the 1950s or early 1960s (when I was growing up) playing cops or war and using two hands on their handguns, cocking their elbows going around corners then straightening them. That came much, much later with cop shows.

    Posted by  on  10/02  at  10:24 AM
  16. Sorry, I misread the question (the MacKenna’s Gold goof is not a period issue).  Here’s one though.  I really hate when characters on shows like Star Trek, which is supposed to happen in the future, listen only to music which is familiar and/or accessible to us, and never something completely out there (to our ears), which even the pop music of 2350 will undoubtedly be.

    Or actually another thing they could do would be to have them listen to “classics” which we don’t (yet) recognize as great.  If they’re talking about classical music they always (on Star Trek again anyway) say “Bach, Beethoven, and T’Pronk of Vulcan [or whoever].” But maybe by that time they will think that the greatest composers of our era were strangely unappreciated by us, like Spohr and Hummel and Louis Durey.  But I guess that’s asking a bit much of the writers.

    Posted by Dave Maier  on  10/02  at  06:02 PM
  17. Maybe scientists are different, but it drives me nuts when the scientists on The Big Bang Theory refer to their colleagues as Dr. So-and-So.

    Some of us do so in a jocular, deliberately over-formal way.  And in the life sciences we also sometimes use it defensively, because we’ve been involved in (vain) attempts to teach biochemistry / pharmacology / etc to medical students who will be awarded their M.D.’s regardless.  Why should they get all the decent tables at restaurants?

    Or actually another thing they could do would be to have them listen to “classics” which we don’t (yet) recognize as great.

    Well, Futurama took care of this one by referring to “Baby Got Back” as classical music.

    Posted by  on  10/02  at  08:09 PM
  18. I hate it when the writers of a show cast a particular character as a “type fanatic”, and then they have him write an entire blogpost in a generically condensed Verdana. Especially if the show takes place in the early 21st century. By that time the technology was such that there should have been no need for cramped descenders, structurally unstable emphasis, or apostrophes that could’ve doubled as diacriticals.

    And really? “J”? I get it, the character is supposed to be a humanist and all, but could he at least get off the fence when it comes to the serif?

    Posted by  on  10/03  at  12:15 AM
  19. I freely admit it’s sad, but the anachronistic Cheerios box at the beginning of Superman II always bugged me.

    Posted by  on  10/03  at  03:41 PM
  20. A smidge tangential, but I am quite upset about Mr. Draper’s swimming form. He moves through the water a bit too smoothly, with a bit too-refined a technique, and breathes on alternate sides every third stroke. This is not the Australian Crawl of a dick poor Depression Era bastard son of a harlot from West Podunk, Illinoise and East Anthracite, Pennsylvania.

    Posted by  on  10/03  at  08:37 PM
  21. Matt Wie/einer’s no Mike Leigh (Topsy-Turvy), although I haven’t found too many 155-year-olds to contradict his depiction of Victorian England.

    Posted by  on  10/03  at  10:41 PM
  22. It was time to get off the Mad Men bus in the first season where there was a scene set in a fancy restaurant in NYC, and a waiter was grinding pepper onto the salads with one of those giant waiters-only pepper-grinders that restaurants didn’t start using until the Nixon administration when it became morally acceptable for diners to steal any left on the table.

    Did people really say “handgun” in the ‘50’s? I never heard that word until the ‘70’s and thought it was invented by a sociologist worried that people might mistake a pistol for a gun operated with the feet.

    Posted by  on  10/03  at  10:53 PM
  23. B’hommad: Did people really say “handgun” in the ‘50’s?

    Doubtful, but what are you referring to here?

    Posted by Nell  on  10/04  at  12:33 AM
  24. didn’t Weiner address the Selectric problem?

    Maybe, but if so, he’s wrong: they didn’t use ‘61 Selectrics (round); they used ‘72 Selectric IIs (square).

    Even as big a geek as I wouldn’t have minded a one-year anachronism.  But a whole decade-plus?

    Posted by  on  10/04  at  11:32 AM
  25. ... and I see that Mr. Weiner’s confusion is chronicled here:

    Weiner admits that alert fans have picked up on this anachronism and have commented on it, but ... [h]e seems unaware ... that his cast is equipped with 1970s-era Selectric IIs.

    Posted by  on  10/04  at  11:43 AM
  26. I hate those large-as-my living-room opulently furnished professors’ offices with oak bookcases in all movies and tv episodes that feature those.

    Posted by Jonathan Mayhew  on  10/04  at  11:53 AM
  27. In “Public Enemies,” Johnny Depp, as Dillinger, creeps the police department where his capture is being planned. It’s July 1934, and the cops are listening to a Cubs/Yankees game. Drove me nuts.

    Posted by  on  10/04  at  05:53 PM
  28. When I saw the title of this, I thought it was going to be about the Penn State hockey team. Welcome to Division I. Enjoy Yost.

    Posted by  on  10/04  at  05:54 PM
  29. What about the profanity in Deadwood? Milch claimed that the language was researched but there is much evidence that while many of the obscenities used by the characters did exist in the 1870s, they weren’t used in the ways the characters use them (the f word as an adjective—with ing—didn’t exist until WWI, for example).

    Posted by  on  10/04  at  11:30 PM
  30. Hollywood movies (and TV) never get the period details right even when something is set in the present, so it’s very exciting when they actually do get it right. I didn’t expect much from “Milk,” but the period versimilitude of San Francisco in the 1970s was amazing, from the look of the homemade fonts on the protest signage to the foggy, grungy look of the San Francisco in that period. They blew it at the end, with Milk dying looking at a huge poster of “Tosca” on the front of the San Francisco Opera House, because 1) the San Francisco Opera never puts up huge signage, and 2) the supervisors’ rabbit warren of offices in those days was on the other side of City Hall. Otherwise, the evocation of time through props and costume and hair/makeup was perfect, and sent me into a deep time wormhole.

    Posted by sfmike  on  10/05  at  12:05 AM
  31. What bothers me most about *Mad Men* is the existence of romantic love.  Everyone knows that romantic love was not socially constructed until February 12, 1964.

    Posted by  on  10/06  at  03:06 AM
  32. Speaking of “Tosca,” I was bugged by Quantum of Solace, in which Bond (James Bond) is running around an opera house during a performance of same, and the scene cuts directly from the end of Act I ("Va, Tosca!") to the end of Act II, without giving us any reason to believe that half an hour (plus intermission if any) has occurred, what with bad guys chasing Bond and all.

    Posted by Dave Maier  on  10/06  at  03:53 PM
  33. As a font-dabbler, I enjoyed the post and the comments. A belated response: When asked the question, “Should we employ Calibri or Tahoma as our official font?” the sensible answer is “no.”

    Posted by  on  10/06  at  10:44 PM
  34. One of my standouts was an episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent where an old Lutheran church in New York had previously had a baptismal “pool.”

    Lutherans are not dunkers; Lutherans are heathen baby-sprinklers.

    Posted by  on  10/07  at  12:50 AM

  35. Matt Wie/einer’s no Mike Leigh (Topsy-Turvy), although I haven’t found too many 155-year-olds to contradict his depiction of Victorian England.

    Posted by norbizness on 10/03 at 10:41 PM

    Actually, even though it was a superb movie, there was an anachronism in Topsy-Turvy:

    they talk about going to “Oslo” - but geography geeks know that at the time, the place was still called “Christiania”.

    Posted by  on  10/10  at  10:28 PM
  36. my main beef with historical mimesis is similar to that I have with present-day mimesis--the presentation of a sanitized upper-middle class world as normal. So unless they are specifically going for the grit, every late 50s teenager (and family) have late-model cars and lives in a nice photogenic house in a leafy neighborhood. No one’s in the two-bedroom brick ranch with a rusty 1953 Plymouth in the carport unless they’re the “greaser” or somesuch (city landscapes in things like NYC period pieces seem to do better--but the distribution of car model years still tend to be *way* off). Have these folks actually been to or seen pictures of one of the Levittowns? I sometimes think this effect (aided by some of the sitcoms depictions at the time) has added to the current insane view of many of the relative prosperity of the ‘50s/60s compared to today (not to dispute that there were a number of more positive things such as jobs, a growing economy and cheaper relative access to higher education).

    Posted by  on  10/13  at  05:13 AM
  37. When I post a big block of whiny text several weeks after the post I don’t capitalize it to increase its verisimilitude.

    Posted by  on  10/13  at  07:36 AM
  38. Uh, noises in outer space? Dickie Greenleaf’s record collection? Sadly, I too was most bothered by the anachronisms in No Country: didn’t realize that unease had become a cliché.

    Oh, and there’s the line in Sweeney Todd about whether the politician is “going to run.” Don’t politicians in the UK stand for office rather than running for it? A perfectionist like Sondheim shoulda known better.

    Posted by  on  10/14  at  06:17 PM
  39. I have to say I have never spotted any of these. I usually just sit back and enjoy the show.  But now that you mention it I hope looking for these types of flaws doesn’t enter my mind every time. You are a great writer. I was laughing reading this post. Phonts? Really? I had to laugh.

    Posted by Tampa DUI Lawyer  on  12/23  at  12:49 PM
  40. Lets just enjoy it.

    Posted by Sexo  on  06/30  at  04:42 PM
  41. Thanks for the marvelous posting ! I enjoyed the post and the comments.I will make sure to bookmark your blog and will often come back later in life.

    What bothers me most about *Mad Men* is the existence of romantic love.  Everyone knows that romantic love was not socially constructed

    Posted by refrigerator repair in orange county ca  on  08/04  at  12:21 PM





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