The “Mad Men” Season Finale, Part II: It’s the Light

June 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

What's Wrong with this Picture?/Courtesy AMC

What’s Wrong with this Picture?/Courtesy AMC

While it’s true that the variety of architectural styles found in Los Angeles allows “Mad Men,” set in and around New York, to be filmed here, there’s one thing that always gives it away: the light. Simply put, the light in Los Angeles is so different from the light found anywhere else in the world (with one exception; more on that later) that, like a brilliant supporting actor, it steals every scene.

The last scene of the season finale provides an excellent example. As Don Draper and his children approach his decrepit childhood home in Pennsylvania they throw long, sharply defined shadows on the street. Though it’s possible to throw shadows in the eastern United States in late fall or around the winter solstice, the 40 degree latitude in Pennsylvania would produce shorter shadows, while the weaker light would make them less defined.

Light is perhaps the greatest asset of the Southland, something that is constantly marveled at, studied, painted and written about. When people in LA talk about the climate, they are really talking about the quality of light, which at its fullest produces not only dramatic shadows but, depending on the time of year, no shadows at all. The best exploration of the light here, in my opinion, is contained in the 1998 New Yorker article, “L.A. Glows,” by Lawrence Weschler. In talking to visual artists, poets and scientists about LA’s light, Weschler discovers why the city looks the way it does. The astronomer Hal Zirin says it best:

…what happens here is that ocean-cooled air drifts in over the coastal plain and gets trapped beneath the warm desert air floating in over the mountains to the east. That’s the famous thermal inversion, and the opposite of the usual arrangement, where the warm surface air progressively cools as it rises. And the atmosphere below the inversion layer is incredibly stable….go out to the Santa Monica palisade and gaze out over the cool water. It’s completely clear and distinct, clean out to the horizon. The heat rising from the ground in most places…is in turn what makes stars shimmer and twinkle in the night sky….if you’re an astronomer you want your star–or for that matter, your sun–to be distortion-free: solid as a rock. And that’s what you get here. The stars don’t twinkle in L.A.

I had a dramatic experience of this phenomenon a few days ago, while looking down Fairfax Avenue. It was an exceptionally clear day that allowed me to see all the way to the ocean, some thirty miles south. But even more amazing than seeing blue in the distance was the fact that the furthest hills and houses were as sharply defined as those in the near distance. As I stared, the total clarity of the light threw me into what one of Weschler’s interviewees called “egoless bliss.”

But the true significance of the light in Los Angeles isn’t the mood it generates, or the peculiar suspension of time that makes Rip Van Winkles of us all. (To quote Orson Welles, “you sit down, you’re twenty-five, and when you get up, you’re sixty-two.”) It’s the reason the movie industry relocated to Los Angeles from the East Coast during the Silent Era: movies could be shot year-round with little or no artificial lighting. Roofless sets allowed interior scenes to be shot by natural light as well. By 1911, Los Angeles was the center of the movie industry, and has been ever since.

So when Don and the kids threw sharp shadows that were taller than they were, I laughed in recognition: they could only be in LA. But those who think there’s no place else on earth with LA’s light haven’t seen Morocco, the world’s only other coastal desert. Morocco’s identical thermal inversion creates the same light: strong, clear and unforgettable.

Additional Source:

“L.A. Glows,” by Lawrence Weschler. The New Yorker, February 23, 1998.

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