A Tiny Bit of Good
The week of October 8th, 2018, is a big one for Christian Zilko. And America as a whole, but mostly Christian Zilko.
This week, pop culture aficionados find ourselves being treated to a new movie from Damien Chazelle and a new TV series from Matthew Weiner. I have no doubt that First Man and The Romanoffs will both be awesome, by virtue of the talent involved. But for me, they’ve provided an opportunity to reflect on the two pieces of art that have most influenced my writing style: La La Land and Mad Men.
Flashback to my freshman year of art school. The story that landed me there is not unique. I was a high school theatre nerd who decided he didn’t want the fun to end. I decided to get a BFA in theatre, because I thought I could spend my life putting on plays that put smiles on people’s faces. But when I made it in Boston, I found that high-end theatre academia was nothing like the Broadway and high school plays I had learned to love. On the first day of school, the head of the theatre department gave a speech declaring that “entertainment is the enemy of art.” All good theatre had to be esoteric and political. Challenging audiences was all that mattered. Every class I took seemed to focus on drawing attention to the worst aspects of our world, rather than telling fun stories that help people forget their woes.
Long story short, I was not loving it. I wanted to make escapist entertainment. I wanted to dazzle people, make them laugh and gasp, provide respites from their problems. But such an artistic sentiment is not remotely “cool” in any theatre BFA program. Professors and other students refused to consider my point of view, and I was miserable. That was the closest I came to abandoning my quest for a career in entertainment. If the only way to make good art was to be dark and confusing and pessimistic, maybe I’d be better off as a lawyer.
Then came La La Land. I ended up seeing Damien Chazelle’s film seven times in the theatre, and countless times since. I was mesmerized. Here was a movie that had serious ideas about dreams, sacrifice, and the internal questions we all face. What constitutes true happiness? Is it more fun to pursue dreams than to achieve them? Is professional fulfillment worth personal sacrifice? And yet, all of these complicated thoughts were wrapped up in a colorful display of spectacle. The film had fun music, charismatic leads, mind-blowing dancing, and everything else that my theatre professors hated. It was like the Apple computer of movies: a high quality product that was good enough for the most discriminating but approachable for the masses. I was enthralled.
After La La Land, my passion for writing returned, and I never looked back. Except to the 60s, when I watched Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men.
Everyone and his cousin knows that Mad Men is a work of singular brilliance, so I won’t waste your time with my analysis. But with regards to my personal life, the Mad Men finale was the end of a journey that La La Land started.
I won’t spoil anything, but what moved me the most about the show was not any brilliant story arc or writing technique. It was the passion and compassion that Don Draper put into making simple TV commercials, episode after episode. He approached an ad for a Kodak projector with as much artistry as my professors put into a production of Hamlet. One of the theses that I took away from the show is that “ad men” are artists, and that a Coca Cola ad can do as much good for the world as a great movie.
Mad Men confirmed my suspicions that commercial endeavors (no pun intended) have real value. That there is no shame in targeting the widest possible audience, rather than a niche group of MFA candidates. There is nothing wrong with appealing to people’s better angels, and drawing their attention to the good in the world. Making work that is easy to understand is not the mortal sin I was taught that it was.
Which leads me to where I am today. I’m still finishing my theatre degree, but I have no interest in edgy, non-profit theatre that aims to provoke and upset people. I want to make entertainment, and I don’t apologize for that sentiment. La La Land and Mad Men provided me with a blueprint to make approachable, meaningful work. I may not be curing cancer, but these films serve as a reminder that entertainment can go a long way towards brightening people’s lives. And when I’m first in line to see First Man on Thursday, I’ll be thinking about how lucky I am to have realized that when I did.