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Archive for the ‘gothic’ Category

FrankensteinMillercumberbatch
Jonny Lee Miller as the creature desperately trying to bring an exhausted Bernard Cumberbatch as Frankenstein back to life on the ice

Dear friends and readers,

Yes, I’ve just returned from watching the version of Nick Dear and Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein where Miller is the creature and Cumberbatch Frankenstein. The moviehouse had the version where Cumberbatch is the creature and Miller Frankenstein on Monday night. I didn’t know. Next year if my local HD theater repeats this duo, I’ll be sure and see Cumberbatch as the creature and Miller as Dr Frankenstein.

Not that I was at all disappointed: I have known since watching Miller in an episode of Prime Suspect (and in the difficult roles of Edmund Bertram in Patricia Rozema’s 1999 MP and Mr Knightley in Sandy Welch’s 2009 Emma) what a versatile, effective, deeply feeling compelling actor he is. In this intelligent adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel (and the novel is kept in mind throughout), the creature is far more central to the action and consciousness of the play than his creator. We see his birth from his point of view,

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Jonny Lee Miller as the monster being born

how he moves bewilder through a landscape of powerful machines and cruel people, to happening on the French family escaped from injustice and the kindness of the blind old scholar, De Lacey (Karl Johnson gets some comedy out of this role) to him, in succouring him, teaching him,

blindscholar

so (except for Frankenstein’s horrified rejection of his creature and abandonment of him) it is a long time before before Cumberbatch returns to the stage. And Frankenstein is the far less astonishing presence, even if central to the emotional action-reaction at play’s center

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Benedict Cumberbatch as Frankenstein pushing away from him what he has done

I’d just like to see how different would be the feel and meaning in the reversal; according to Michael Billington of The Guardian, considerable.

What Dear and Boyle did was pare down the novel to its doppelganger, and in their characters, their talk, their relationship all the themes of Mary Shelley are drawn out. Some of the matter is lost: the depiction of larger social injustice is not there and so the instinctive fears and savagery of human beings to one another is not outweighed; much of Frankenstein’s life and relationships: the depiction of education (critiqued), how Frankenstein began to try to recreate life partly in reaction to his mother’s death; his arrogance and lack of responsible behavior to others, the intense distrust of science. Frankenstein is someone not social (of course a no no), going off on his own. The emphasis of this twist is so 21st century. The role of Elizabeth is made to enact socialableness (a new word), responsibility, an attempt at kindness towards the creature, and that natural ways trump egoistic artifice. Naomi Harris is effective in the hard role in both versions (a side note, she played the black heroine to Cumberbatch’s white anti-hero in Small Island). ElizabethCreature

I suppose what is so compelling is the dialogue between the two, what’s said, but one is exhilarated even in a movie version by the staging, the use of machinery, the pivotal stage, the symbolic way each phase of the story is presented — matching the fantasy aspects of the story (for it is fantasy). I’ve been to the National Theater in London (with Jim) and seen a number of these creative productions: Aeschylus trilogy comes to mind, Henry IV part 2 (Michael Gambon as Falstaff), and at home on Bravo, the Yorkshire Mystery Plays. The material from Shelley is gothic, but the conventions here eschew anything like film noir or horror/slash movies. it’s really an intimate one-on-one play (not so different in this from say the Fly episode of Breaking Bad where we get a similar intense interaction for an hour between Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul as Mr White and Jesse respectively, with bodies entangled eventually too).

One of the best reviews is that of Paul Taylor of the Independent, only he is wrong to say the play ends so differently from the novel. Yes at the close of Shelley’s novel it seems the creature immolates himself on a pyre on a slab of ice, while Frankenstein expires in Walton’s ship but it seems to me this dying is not what is important: it is the the pursuit and the insight (emphasized by Shelley in her text) that the two creatures to live on are forever intertwined in their hatred and (due to Frankenstein) thwarted love.

He lives for my destruction. I live to lead him on

I haven’t any shots of Frankenstein pulling his sled after the creature (nor of Andrea Padurariu as the Female Creature Frankenstein is drawn to himself, but destroys), but I do of the creature’s desperation when he thinks Frankenstein may have died, and his loving attempt to bring Frankenstein back to life so they can up and move on again (see still at top). In this one the director had Michelangelo’s famous image of God and Adam in mind:

Michelangelgo

Ice is central to the gothic and among the additions to Shelley’s vision, is that of body snatchers: the uses of corpses, poor people’s remains is brought out in comic pragmaticism when in Scotland Dr Frankenstein pays two Scots peasants to bring him materials. I thought of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Body Snatcher.

Perhaps Dear congratulated himself too much on having given the creature back his voice, for Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 production of Frankenstein (screenplay Steph Lady, and Frank Darabout, producer Francis Ford Coppola) with Robert De Niro as the monster and Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth and a bride-monster of Frankenstein, had an equally articulate poignant presence for the monster. Dear and Boyle learned from Branagh and De Niro.

It was a production and is now a film which shows how transcendent and variable the gothic can be. The New York Times critic made fun of it — a paradoxical measure of its transcendence (the monster is alive and peeved!) It’s very effective in this film production – – where they do intersperse some stills from the 1931 Whale Frankenstein (with Boris Karloff), but for once I will concede that I was aware how much more charged it must be to have been in the theater. I don’t often feel this in the HD operas which are directed for film; this is a play taking advantage of all the techniques and stagings possible nowadays of a theater in the round and live stage.

It’s worth while to listen to Dear’s description of a many year project and the book as providing a contemporary creation myth:

Ellen

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Crying
Anna Gunn about to fall to her knees on the ground as Skyler crying after her baby is taken from her by Walt

if you cut them [man's laws] down … d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then … Yes I’d give the Devil the benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake — Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons

AndreaBrockwhocares
But see this pinned up photo of Andrea (Emily Rios), among the world’s targets: who cares what happens to her: anyone may and does shoot her in the head

Dear friends and readers,

I finished what I’m calling a first viewing of the extraordinary 42 hour Breaking Bad to the bitter end last night. Even to try to take it in would require several viewings. Each of the last shots of the principles epitomizes some final statement about what each has become and how they related to the story’s themes and action. In the last feature as well as a parody, “Alternate Ending,” Vince Gilligan offered his view of the two men’s last moments.

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The series’ last shot of Bryan Cranston as Walter White

White, he suggests, is “spiritually broken, his hopes for revenge pipe dreams; he’s too sick,” the last episode “an elegy, a bit of a goodbye — he goes out on his own terms, the cancer does not kill him, he is killed saving Jesse, there’s almost a perverse feeling of victory to it for me, at least.” Walt’s life up to the time he began to cook meths was a long mortification, failure as most in his society saw it, mocked by the bully brother-in-law, Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) in a video replayed briefly made during Holly’s baby shower. He tells Skyler he did it “for me. I liked it. And I was good at it. I was alive.” Look at that look of bliss on the man’s face as Walt enters the darkness from which we all come, for him the release of oblivion. His life as Walter White ended when he was told he had terminal inoperable cancer; now the love he depended upon is gone from his family, he has done for them what he could monetarily, and he now dies on his own terms, blithe to go.

I’m not as persuaded by Gilligan’s view of Jesse. He’d “like to think Jesse escapes,” that there is “some hope of a life ahead.” Look at that face whose every nerve is suffused with moral pain and despair:

JessePinkmanlastshot
Last shot of Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman

Jesse crashes in a junk car at full throttle through an iron fence from the last lair of murderous crooks with which he and Mr White have had to deal and Walt destroyed. Realistically, he’s nowhere to hide: Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) has vanished (“it’s over”) and with him his mechanisms for creating new identities for his clients. Jesse will end up seeking out his two feeble friends, Skinny Pete and Badger, and die on the streets if not jailed: he has been called “the moral compass” of the series;” it’s more true to say he has bneen its bleak victim, the one beat up continually, targeted again and again for killing, enslaved with chains, at the close yes knowing he made a killing choice to join Walter White and Jesse is no killer. Each time he shot or killed someone it was after an intense effort to force himself: only the strangulation of Todd (well deserved after Todd coolly shoots Andrea in the head) came naturally.

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The alternate ending has Cranston as Hal, a comic emasculated character with Lois, his formidable wife (Jane Kaczmarek, from a once TV popular series, the two of them starred in, 2006 Malcolm in the Middle) waking in the night, trembling from the “scariest” dream you can imagine: told he had cancer (!), he took to cooking meths, making bombs, killing people (!), alongside a “lost waif, a man child who looked like he was always wearing his older brother’s clothes and he would always say things like “b…” [he stops embarrassed and worried his wife won't approve], the b word he would use the b word a lot he would say (shouting) “yo B word” and “yah science b word …” In “Felina” we see Jesse when young lovingly carpentering a wooden box, his drawings of himself as a boy hero were recognized by Jane (Krysten Ritter), one of his two loves, as the work of a comically self-deprecating artist. Despised and rejected, with no Mr White to save him, Jesse zooms into the darkness too.

In this dream Hal tells Lois, as his actual wife (much TV self-reflexivity here) that he, Hal, was married to this “tall beautiful blonde woman” — Lois the wife semi-jeers, incredulous of course. When Skyler is last seen she is continually smoking, chain-smoking. She sits and smokes. She is terrorized twice in this season, both through her baby. After a terrific scene after Walt has produced another set of lies to account for his absence and where Hank could be, she sees a fancy knife in a knife set on the table we have seen many times. She grabs it and lunges at him, screaming, “leave us alone, just leave us alone.” Walt defends himself and they fall to the fall, rolling, tussling; he manages to wrench the knife back but not before she has slashed his hand. Horrified, Walt junior becomes hysterical as he watches this.

Flynnhorrified (2)

Flynnhorrified (1)

To this they have descended. Well he gets back; before she can rise and adjust herself, he has taken the baby in its carrier, run to his car and is driving off. She rushes out after them frantic, asking for her baby back, and falls on her knees to the ground as he drives away. A stunning moment. She begins at long last to cry. Walt does care for Holly and leaves her with the firemen, where we presume Skyler can pick her up safe and sound.

Again another moment in this last season, late at night, she hears a sound from the baby’s room and finds herself by the crib with three men who surround it. They are masked and the dangerous Todd is one of them. They say she has been talking to the police and if she tells about who Lydia is or anything she knows they will return — implication and kill this baby. She mouths obedience.

SkylerWhite
Last shot of Anna Gunn as the show’s princess Skyler White seeing how bad Walt looks

Anna Gunn interprets her character inadequately throughout. She says Skyler is a shell, nothing in her. But for her life is not pointless as yet: she has her children, but like Jesse, they make her intensely vulnerable to those who want to get at Walt or any of his associates. Unlike Jesse, once her court case is done, if she does not go to prison (and a plea bargain seems probable), she must (like Saul) move, and if not get a new identity, keep out of harm’s way. Her beauty is of no help for what she cares about — though perhaps it attracted Walter White in the first place, made him dump Gretchen Schwartz. The characters in the series invite these kinds of speculations: we learn enough about them suggestively over the slow-moving 6 year series. I imagine she will eventually stop the heavy smoking — though she will never be the complacent woman she once was. She will remember a world of terror that she joined in on (to the extent of telling Walt to have Jesse killed when Walt balks at this), that still exists but which she now wants no part of.

Lastshotofseries
The very last shot of the series: the men with big guns in the scientific lab (as Fortinbras has the last word in Hamlet)

There is a bleak inference to be garnered at this end: at each and every turn of their career, the two men came up against people who had become inured to murder by dint of murdering other people lest they be murdered or found out, bullied into confessions, and then tortured by penal servitude for decades to come. Each set of murderers were worse than the ones before: from Krazy-8 (seemingly sane) to Tuco Salamanca (who commits acts of wild crazed violence), replaced by the frighteningly homocidal Gus Esposito and his ruthless hitman, Mike Ermantraut, replaced in this last season by the vicious Nazi crew run by Jack Welker (Michael Bowen), with perhaps the scariest pair of them all, Todd Alquist (Jesse Plemons) and Lydia Rodart-Quayle (Laura Fraser). Hank tells Walt he is a dead man ten minutes ago when Walt is still so foolish as to try to bargain with Jack for Hank’s life based on reasoning:

Hankslastmoent
Near last shot of Dean Norris as Hank: to Walt “you were the smartest guy I ever knew, but you are too stupid to know it was over ten minutes ago.”

The mini-series presents law as providing a modicum of safety for those who do not break it: those administering (inflicting?) and obeying it do not fear one another and however personally awful, mean, demeaning of others, have a vested interest in not breaking it. So some control is exerted over people, some order set up (however morally cruel or wrong) whose rules most of the time can be depended upon — at least by white middle class people.

Marieleftalone
Marie (Betsy Brandt) left alone, widowed in her impeccable kitchen — having learned nothing, her lips tight as she spews out unfocused anger

At least you know where you are with the DEA, the medical establishment, the schools, family rituals. There are levels of barbarity such people most of the time do not stoop to. Not everyone is inside this net — those on drugs, alcoholics, non-whites, the poor, women who are driven to prostitution, for whom there is no pity, no understanding. The show does not include GLBT people who presumably are not inside the Net if they reveal themselves.

Disabled
Walt’s last view of Walter Junior (RJMitte) who he has tried to provide money for funneled through the Schwartzes

I would not want to be a disabled person, a child, someone who does not conform in the surface way the well-rewarded Schwartzes have.

A bad dream? Says Mr White to Hank (who soon after ends up buried in sand), if you do not know what this has been about (“who I am”), tread lightly:

Treadlightly (2)

Treadlightly (1)

The remark is not to limited to Heisenberg as Hyde but the whole complex of life we’ve experienced.

Have I mentioned how effective are the inconsequential shots of the series: as Walter White is taken away to hide in the granite state, a stray dog crosses the road

Straydog
Final shot of Oxymandias (13:6)

Ellen

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A Syllabus for a Class at the Oscher Lifelong Learning Institute at George Mason University

Exploring the Gothic

Day: 8 Tuesday afternoons, 2:15-3:40 pm, Sept 24th to Nov 11th
Tallwood, 4210 Roberts Road. Fairfax
Instructor: Ellen Moody

Description of Course:

This course explore varieties of gothic and its terrain which conform to recipe format. Take one labyrinthine or partly ruined dwelling, place inside murderous incestuous father or chained mother (preferably in a dungeon), heroes and heroines (as wanderers, nuns), stir in a tempest; have on hand blood, night-birds, and supernatural phenomena, with fore-, and back-stories set in the past. We’ll read short stories, three novellas and sample films. We’ll begin with ghosts and witches, move to vampires, werewolves, and end on socially critical mysteries and stories of the paranormal (e.g., possession). We cover terror, horror, male and female gothic. We’ll also view clips from two films considered the most powerful film gothics ever made and an Oscar winning short.

Schedule:

September 23:   Origin, definition, history of genre, characteristics. I’ll show parts of DVD for The Haunting and The Woman in Black (if possible, otherwise substitute clip from “Afterward” from Shades of Darkness).
September 30:   Stevenson, “Markheim, ” Wharton’s “Afterward” and Mary Reilly
October 7:  Mary Reilly (possible clip) and F. Marion Crawford’s “For the Blood is the Life”
October 14:   Stoker, “The Judge’s House,” Conan Doyle, “Adventure of Abbey Grange;” Wharton’s “Kerfol”
October 21:   Vampire Tapestry (first 3 tales), LeFanu’s “Carmilla” and Oliphant’s “The Open Door”
October 28:   Vampire Tapestry (last 2 tales), Stevenson, “The Body Snatchers,” Wharton, “Mr Jones”
November 4 :  Dickens, “Signalman”'; M. R. James, “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedrale”; Bierce, “Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge”; A. M. Burrage’s “Smee.”
November 11:  The Haunting of Hill House

Texts:

Martin, Valerie. Mary Reilly. New York: Vintage, 1990. ISBN 978-0-375-72599-9. It’s available as a kindle, and there have been many editions: Doubleday 1990, Washington Square Press, 1994.
Charnas, Suzy McKee. The Vampire Tapestry. Albuquerque: Living Batch Press, 1980. It’s available as a Kindle and two newer edition: Orb Books, 2008; The Women’s Press, 1992.
Jackson, Shirley. The Haunting of Hill House. NY: Penguin 2006. ISBN978-0-14-303998-3

Online short stories:

R.L. Stevenson, “Markheim”  

http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/Mark.shtml

Edith Wharton, “Afterward”

http://classiclit.about.com/library/bl-etexts/ewharton/bl-ewhar-afterward.htm

F. Marion Crawford, “For the Blood is the Life” (scroll down)

http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0605421.txt

Bram Stoker’s “The Judge’s House”

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/10150/10150-h/10150-h.htm

Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of Abbey Grange”

http://sherlock-holmes.classic-literature.co.uk/the-adventure-of-the-abbey-grange/

Edith Wharton, “Kerfol”

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/24350/24350-h/24350-h.htm

R.L. Stevenson, “The Body Snatchers”

http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/body.htm

Edith Wharton, “Mr Jones”

http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks02/0200121.txt

Sheridan LeFanu, “Carmilla”

http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/carmilla.htm

Margaret Oliphant, “The Open Door”

http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/10052/pg10052.html

Charles Dickens, “The Signalman”

http://anilbalan.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/the-signalman.pdf

M. R. James, “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedrale”

https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/james/mr/more/chapter5.html

A.M. Burrage, “Smee”

http://anilbalan.files.wordpress.com/2011/09/smee-by-am-burrage-_-scary-for-kids.pdf

Ambrose Bierce, “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”

http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/

YouTube for Oscar Winning Short: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GuP5kUQro40

For further materials on the gothic, see my website under Ghosts and gothics, vampires and witches and l’ecriture-femme; under Austen Reveries, the category “Gothic.”

Ellen

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comingbackfromPool
Macauley (Mike) Connor (Jimmy Stewart) carrying the drunken Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn) back from mid-night time at pool, encountering her nearly divorced husband, CK Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) and soon-to-be-husband, George Kittredge (John Howard) (Philadelphia Story, 1940)

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Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer) bullying into bewildered madness the anxiety-ridden Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman) (Gaslight, 1944)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been watching, reading about, and contextualizing George Cukor films with other films by him, other films in the same genre over the past week and a half. I’ve read Gavin Lambert’s On Cukor: filled with remarkable stills, photos and interviews of Cukor. He was a brilliant film-maker, really an elegant controller of a camera, a man who could form an archetypal image or picture on film and build a story from this. I especially much enjoyed and laughed at, was moved by his screwball comedy-romance, Philadelphia Story,

firstlov
Tracy looking at Dexter’s handmade replica of the boat they had their first loving honeymoon on

and found his psychological gothic, Gaslight, which conforms to the Bluebeard female gothic type, as subtle and grippingly worrying until near its end as Robert Wise’s later heart-terrifying Haunting (1960). No technological gadgetry or overproduction, nothing wildly theatrical, no bodily taboos broken, yet Gaslight similarly gets to the attentive viewer where he or she lives — until its last 20 minutes or so.

gaslight-fog
Scenes in quiet greys of gaslight pull the viewer in, symbolic of this haze the husband surrounds the wife with.

I assume the storylines of both are familiar to my readers (if not, see Philadelphia Story; Gaslight). So let me cut to the chase, as with Preston Sturges’s Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, far from agreeing with the book I’m reviewing that the greatness of these films partly stems from the coping with the repressive Hays code, I felt the Hays Code only codified and strengthened some of the troubling aspects of the screwball comedy, and hopelessly enfeebled the conclusion of the gothic.

Philadelphia Story resembles Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (as well as the very early screwball comedy, The Awful Truth, also with Cary Grant, but this time the errant wife is Irene Dunne). Its crucial turning point is a scene of possible sexual intercourse off screen which (as in Miracle of Morgan’s Creek) our heroine cannot remember because she was too drunk; sometimes it’s insinuated she and Connor (your brash but literate newspaper man) had full sexual intercourse by poolside, but sometimes not and at the close Connor says there are rules and limits to what a man can do with reference to her drunken state (which is supposed to imply to have had full sexual intercourse would have been a rape, as it was in case of Betty Hutton as Trudy Kockenlocker).

In Miracle of Morgan’s Creek we never learn who the man was — the erasure of a specific identity robs the function of an imagined presence so we end up feeling most decent men would never rape a drunken woman (the indecency here is felt in the cowardly man not coming forward at all; he took advantage and fled). But even if we go with Stewart’s sincerely-uttered explanation, Tracy proceeds to apologize: she apologizes to both ex-husband and husband-about-to-be, to Connor, and to her father for giving him a hard time when he was merely having a long-time affair with a Broadway dancer-star. When the father comes home for the wedding (to which Tracy did not invite him), her mother does not seem to have minded either his continued adultery or absence enough to separate herself from him. All all Tracy’s fault: she is told off by Dexter especially for her coldness, for imagining herself a goddess (and thus above all others, she should do like them), for being a spinster (this is a low blow in the film). (Trudy also apologizes to Norval, her father, and whoever else is around.)

Philadelphia_Story
Tracy telling her mother Margaret (Mary Nash) and sister Dinah (Virginia Weidler) they will not have her father at the wedding

It didn’t help Philadelphia Story to obscure the central incident; it would have been more effective if we could have known for sure that sexual intercourse happened with the third man or not. I don’t see that making the woman character drunk both times added to my pleasure or promoted anything meaningful for women except that the films accepted women being drunk or not just they accepted men – there was no special angry prejudice against women such as I’ve observed too often. I have discovered that not all screwball or romantic comedies of the 1940s have a heroine apologize or go through a humiliation ritual. Arguably Barbara Stanwyk in The Lady Eve (Sturges) does not; at the close of The Awful Truth Irene Dunne does not apologize, but then Cary Grant is not asked to account for his week away which we know he lied about while Irene Dunne is.

The acting of the principals in The Philadelphia Story overcomes the worst thing about all these screwball comedies done under the Hays Code: a superficiality in the relationship between men and women. By having the characters people who were once married, that endows them with an automatic depth knowledge of one another but nothing we see in most of these gives them any depth of feeling. The lack of honest sexual feeling is central to this. Grant and Hepburn give the pair real emotion by having him insult her for not having enough feeling; Grant and Stewart use the class issues between them (he is supposed lower class, though it turns out of course he really is middle) and he is made an author she reads. But the others I’ve watched, and especially the more recent of the type, Love in the Afternoon (1957) with Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper never give any sense of feeling over his having a liaison and her love for him remains girlish, sentimental.

The ending of a film matters (no matter how much David Lean famously downplays that). People who want to trivialize, scoff at and use Thelma and Louise as yet another warning lesson for women, use the ending in suicide — for that’s what it is practically speaking. See what happens to women like that. (Thelma and Louise is another movie where one heroine’s experience of rape and the attempted rape of the other is hardly mentioned.) At any rate by the end of Philadelphia Story, Katherine Hepburn as Tracy is parroting all that Cary Grant as Dexter says and is now his obedient grateful wife (Taming of the Shew anyone?). Dexter monitors Tracy’s activities throughout. The relationship between the two is not much different than that between Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn in Cukor’s 1950s Adam’s Rib.

monitoring

There are some continuities between Philadelphia Story and very recent films worth noticing: the lawyer type in all three movies (Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, The Awful Truth, and The Philadelphia Story) resembles Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad; an unscrupulous shyster who we don’t fear because when push comes to shove he’s a coward (not favorable at all). This is probably the way most Americans accept the way lawyers are shown in mass media. It’s utterly inadequate, if it was not tragic (as lawyers are so important) it’s pathetic. Tracy’s uncle ( we are supposed to laugh and find this funny) enjoys pinching Hepburn’s behind – the way the uncle did in Bridget Jones’s Diary. Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Philadelphia Story have a wry younger sister who speaks a few home truths; again her role reminds me of the vestigial Margaret in Austen’s S&S

It’s said that Cukor made women’s films, he was a woman director in disguise. He once made a film which had no men actors in it, The Women, and I remember it as excellent — feminist and yet with a fashion show because for women looks matter in our world. He himself disliked this label and said it was not true. I’d like to agree with him, and say while he had a number of strong-women actresses play ove and over again in his films, the strongest effectively subversive and comic presence across all the screwball comedies is Cary Grant. He could deliver a line that undercut whatever piety was going, lightly, suggestively, effectively.

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Anthony John, the aging actor (Ronald Colman) and his mistress, Pat Kroll whom he kills (Shelley Winters) (A Double Life, 1947): also a film where the central character seems half-insane

Gaslight is much less a studio product. It’s is based on a play; its script is literate and fine the way Philadelphia story is. But unlike Philadelphia Story until near the end when the Hays code kicks in, it does not fit into preconceived genres in the way most of Cukor films finally do — from Little Women to Lost Horizon, the ending must be uplifting, optimistic, providential. The Double Life, a film noir re-make in modern terms of Othello featuring Ronald Colman which comes closest to Gaslight in its unnerving feel suffers very badly by its redemptive ending. (All these I’ve watched before and rewatched these past couple of weeks.) Cukor could not be the auteur in his films for most of his life: later films, especially when aspects of the story reflected Cukor’s own internal story of himself, say A Star is Born, escaped this stifling.

For Gaslight is not a horror (monster) movie, it’s not a thriller either. Cukor was evolving the modern film gothic (seen best in ghost stories turned into films): psychologically disquieting and suspenseful. Cukor manages to make you fear for the wife who is being closed in, driven, quietly slowly bullied into continual isolation and humiliation, and persuaded she is mad. The sets, the lighting, the quiet dialogues, the use of servants to thwart Paula are all discreetly done, repetitive, crowded. She is crowded out.

Gaslightsetting

A young Angela Lansbury as a sexy hostile London cockney maid sides with the master and frustrates the old-world courtesy of Paula. The film does capture what a man in charge of a woman can do to her — cultures where the woman is under the control of someone.

The film’s power is then choked off. In no time at all, Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotton) who knew the Paula’s aunt and somehow works for Scotland yard (though he has an American accent) is able to track Anton in Anton’s nightly treks up to his own attic to terrify his wife, to reach the wife while Anton is in said attic, convince her, and then easily capture, tie up and take Anton away. Ingrid Bergman as Paula gets to torment Boyer as Anton for a few moments, and holds a knife to his head, but her jeering is lame and her act tame.

gaslightknife

And as the film closes the neighborly like lady (Dame May Whitty) who comforted Ingrid on the train and while she enjoys reading about bloodthirsty people, believes all is fine with the world and police can and so solve everything, is seen coming to visit Ingrid again. Cukor’s little joke?

bloodthirsty-bessieheerful

In talking of Gaslight, Cukor said that its style came out of its story, a near murder “in a Victorian house.” He meant to make it “claustrophobic” and stir up emotion. He again says he followed the Van Druten script and tried to erase himself. If he had been allowed to take the logic of the story of a woman made a hostage to its conclusion, how great the film would have been.

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I honestly would prefer to like, to revel in these early much-praised films, but I find they grate. I watched as much as I could stand of My Man Godfrey (1936 version). I can see why William Powell stood out: he is a genuinely sardonic presence as a hobo turned into a butler for the amusement of a super-rich family who are presented (naively) as simply frivolous and naive, idle, doing nothing (including not much harm if you don’t ask how the expensive parties with their luxuriously dressed guests got there). I find I can’t take watching the supposedly elegantly mannered somewhat effete matinee idol type men and fat-cat salacious but somehow bullied older men by their fat stupid wives, with the heroines looking adoringly at the hero: I hadn’t realized how much Jean Arthur does just that, much to my surprise — from my favorite 1942 Talk of the Town to Frank Capra’s 1939 Mr Smith Goes to Washington which fits the type except for Jimmy Stewart’s agonized face now and again).

Cukor claimed that what irreparably weakened The Double Life was Colman lacked a sense of the demonic. I find the older films only reach this when they are made in Europe and left to be expressionistic of trauma and cynicism. The Hays Code clamped down on these but nowadays American films often flounder still when it comes to the gothic and are crassly melodramatic, over-produced with much bodily horror (e.g., Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). Ironically (or perhaps in character) the US films which have been able to project the darker prevailing ironies and metaphysics of American culture are the gangster to modern melodramatic crime films, from James Cagney’s psychopathic killer in White Heat (unforgettable, his bullying of Virginia Mayo, and his blowing himself upk, “Top of the World, ma”) to last year’s Breaking Bad. Cukor does not seem to have made this kind of film at all. From On Cukor he seems to have been too sensitive (and oddly) too self-effacing a man.

He is said not to be identified or remembered enough because he did not develop a single style you could trace throughout his films. He couldn’t — he had too many constraints. He also wanted to contain a lot, so I chose this photo as capturing that ideal.

cukor (in 1945)

Ellen

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“Bag’s in the River” (1:3): Walt (Bryan Cranston) returns home to Skylar (Anna Gunn) after being out all night disposing of what’s left of two bodies put in a bag, thrown in a river

Dear friends and readers,

Having gotten for myself two books filled with detailed analyses, commentaries, summaries, lists of bullet points of and from Breaking Bad: David R. Koepsell and Robert Arp’s collection of essays by themselves and others, Breaking Bad and Philosophy: Badder Living Through Chemistry (it takes the mini-series through Seasons 1-4), and Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad by Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz (Seasons 1-5, complete series), I was prompted to re-watch the episodes of the first season (all 7) alternatively with what I had left of Season 4 (5-13, or 8 episodes). The new perspectives provided by the books and the early phase of the series (with its ironic foreshadowings only seen on a re-watch from the perspective of at least 3 seasons later) has made me change my mind about Skylar as well as come to a better understanding of this famed HBO macho soap opera.

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“Face Off” (5:13): Skylar asks, “Was this you?” and by way of reply, Walt replies: “I won”

I had thought of Skylar as a woman who was basically indifferent to her husband as an individual apart from her, non-loving or without real respect for him, an unethical bully (she withholds sex from him to pressure him into buying super-expensive chemotherapy treatments) who deserts to save herself when cornered (in Season 1 she rejects her sister, Marie [Betsy Brandt], is jeeringly spiteful (her boasted-of affair with Ted Benecke [Christopher Cousins]), but even if it is possible to extend this list of qualities I find alienating, I was wrong to sum her up as hateful, enacting, as the actress who plays Jesse Pinkman’s mother seems to, so much relational wrong to those around her. Rather she is a figure of pathos, pathetic in the older meaning of the world.

In the long view of four years, we can see that nothing she ever did made the slightest change in the ultimate fate of herself and the characters she holds dear. From about half-way through Season 4 the naivete we see in Season 1 (as when she threatens to expose Pinkman [Aaron Paul] for smoking pot to her “brother-in-law, a DEA man!” [Dean Norris]), her belief in some controlling morality in people, some rules somewhere which she can trust to as long as she seems to be moral herself and obey the law, and most of all her essential powerlessness leads to a set of behaviors and stances parallel to those we see in the first and second season. She thinks she can give Benecke money to pay his taxes and he will pay them (thus protecting her as his bookkeeper from scrutiny by the IRS); she believes buying and operating a car wash will control the money situation she finds herself in (she and Walt have far more than they can account for). Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), the shyster lawyer is not simply laughing at her; he realizes her instincts as formed by her society make for decisions against her interests (such as, back to Season 1, her childlike worship of the oncologist). 

Most of all, she has not all along begun to understand what other human beings (Giancarlo Esposito as Gus is not alone in his monstrousness) are capable of, including Walt — who in the fourth season wins over Gus by poisoning Jesse’s beloved semi-adopted son, Brock and persuading Jesse it was Gus who did this, thus winning Jesse back to work with him (not hard as Jesse does know how much frightening evil Gus and his henchmen can do) and tell him where is Gus’s weak point as Jesse has come close to Gus several times, and then lived in close proximity to Gus and Mike (Jonathan Banks, Gus’s hired thug-killer): Jesse finally thinks of Hector Salamanca, the nearly paralyzed dying Hispanic man who early in Gus’s career humiliated Gus and murdered a close associate and who all these years later Gus enjoys tormenting by telling of how he kills now this male relative and now that.

Skylar erects what Anna Gunn kept calling “all her boundaries” to shut this world and Hank’s and Marie’s out. In Season 1 when amid the teachers she hears the janitor blamed for stolen equipment to make meths, she nods in agreement and allows herself to be diverted by Walt. Walt might worry whether she’ll realize it’s his lab. He need not have. She does not put that kind of two-and-two together. (Nor does Hank. They trust their friends to be what they seem.)  In Season 3, she learned she might need to protect her family against its protector: Walt, who has told her, he is the danger. In Season 4, Benecke turns out to be a petty cheat; baby in carrier, she goes to a central point in a four state area to see where she can flee and finds there is no where she belongs, can exist but where she has found herself at 40. All she has are Walt, Walt Jr, Holly, Marie and Hank.  She returns home. Skylar does not seeth, but she writhes to no avail. I pity and feel for her.

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An early still of Jesse as he walks into his parents’ dining room to set the table

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Jesse’s parents want to know from the valued son whether he is getting out of his teacher what success requires

A second watch showed me how angry Jesse is — else how does he get involved? A rage and a fury. Why else does he continually spit out his words in slightly broken half fury? Rejected by parents, who prefer the hypocritical cold son, ambitious, a liar. He is offered this shit-ass job disguised as a bird selling junk on the street.  We see immediately how clever he is, how quickly perceptive his judgments, but he is utterly uneducated: all school is for is to get a job wearing a suit. As he hardens, he keeps his heart partly because he has been so hurt. He has artistic ability Jane appreciates, and she reads his yearning to be a hero through the cartoons he draws.  But hero in the US is defined by Mike (Jonathan Banks) and Gus — and Hank (Dean Norris). Jane (Krysten Ritter) did begin to offer him another vision (the trip to Georgia O’Keefe paintings is part of this), but she was sickened by her culture too, desperate to escape its pressures and demands that she be guarded, cool. A kind of Hansel and Gretel with heroin as the witch. You see this kind of thing only by re-watching. Many people learn to lie low: I suspect that will be the final lesson of Jesse’s career with Walt.

Hank emerges more interestingly too — once you know how he emerges later as the half-lamed man, a sleuth. To this Sam Spade has come down. He begins as a coarse, crude, loud-mouth condescending macho type, so sure of himself, mocking his brother-in-law as not manly, but his pity for his shoplifting wife and feeling for the disabled nephew, Walt Jr (RJ Mitte) shows he has camaradarie impulses. Fatherly, kindly to those he does not “other.”  Maybe only he or his type of person could love and support the dense yet intuitively alert Marie.  Murdering people point-blank even when they are trying to kill him (in the Second Season) leaves him emotionally shattered (as it will Jesse in the third Season).

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In the pillow interrogation where Skylar wants all of them to help her force Walt to go for treatment, after Marie breaks ranks to say chemotherapy is miserable and maybe Walt should spend his last months differently, Hank says Walt should do what he wants …

At the baby shower, though, once he spots the expensive diamond and ivory baby tiara Marie has supposedly bought for the coming baby, he needs a stronger drink to endure staying there and pretending all is fine in his house. And in the first season there are many ironies surrounding his talk, showing how little he gets about the meth trade when he thinks he understands so much.

I missed the mood or kind of gothic this story is: horror is one word for it, as all sorts of body taboos are sliced off: from the opening blood, the color red, from raspberry to bright scarlet, to blue and venal streams across the TV screen’s firmament. Ghastly comedy in season 1, ghastly terror in season 4: in one of the features for Episodes 4:11-13, Vince Gilligan explains how the crew spent months talking about how they could make Gus’s death adequate to the evil of his life and then planning and executing the bomb scene and destruction of half Gus’s face (face off) and part of his body. The moment is all the more electric as at first we startled to see him escape apparently unscathed, and fix his tie: a key to his character is he is a black man determined to enact an upper class, super-polite ceremonial lifestyle, the benevolent philanthropist the powerful in his society turn to. But the nurses running over shudder, cover their faces, and we get a barely watchable (I kept averting my eyes) series of close-ups, which I reproduce only one of:

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The series does not rely on these horrible shocking moments; they are part of sequences of agonized high anxiety (to allude to Mel Brooks, appropriately parodic) which punctuate story arcs and character development. Intriguing suggestive life-histories are given most of the tertiary characters whose names we learn; we can fill out their pasts. The strength of the series is character exploration in scenes of virtuoso acting, but I hadn’t noticed how much change the characters seem to undergo at the same time as in their beginning (Season 1) is their end (Season 4 foreshadows what is to be). So while the mood of Season 1 replicates at moments that of the Three Stooges (which Jesse watches on TV), or clowns; the two chief males form the love-hate, teacher-pupil, chemist-assistant team they keep up throughout several permutations, with Jesse sometimes taking the lead, doing what Walt can’t, seeing what Walt doesn’t, by its end Walt does show an insidious delight in enacting all that is forbidden, anticipating his later manipulative ruthlessness while Jesse remains on just this side of decency. Walt contemplates suicide in Season 4, diverted by suddenly seeing seeds on he side of the pool he can use to poison Brock

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but Jesse feels emotional hurt from betrayed ties (in Season 1, his family, later Jane, and now Andrea [Emily Rios] and Brock) that he will not cast aside. In season 4 Walt refuses to work unless Jesse is with him, Jesse refuses to cooperate in the business of meth at all if Gus has Walt killed.

The last two thirds of season 4 (for episodes 1-4 see A Killing Way of Life) are highly theatrical stagings of suspense. I couldn’t stop watching them — got caught up in the intensity of it all and began to long to see Gus as a figure of ultimate evil done away with. By the end I was shaking from the whole experience, with its final twists and turns moving from engineering the near death of a child to persuading an old man to blow himself up suicidally in order to take Gus out too. There is a weird parodic feel here — because in a soap opera you have just these twists and turns. I haven’t got so caught up in anything since watching Lagaan a few years ago where I so rooted for the Indians against the Brits — only here more so. I had wanted to watch some earlier episodes but could not get myself to stop until I saw Gus die. And it was horrific — the make up of him as this ghastly skeleton. When Walt returns to the Meth lab and manages to kill the murderous bullying bodyguard who has handcuffed Jesse to a pipe (Jesse is often in the role of the vulnerable Pauline heroine), and they set fire to, destoying the lab, it is like destroying the vampire’s lair. It was where they were enslaved and watched by a surveillance camera. Here action adventure high violence was meaningful.

Here and there images evoked the real world of America inside its border and out. At one point in a desert Mike throws Walt on the ground to kneel before Gus with a black bag over his head; he has been badly beaten up: it is the image of torture we see done to Arab prisoners by US interrogators. 

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Gus is saying if Walt interferes with Gus’s killing Hank, “I will kill your wife, I will kill your son, I will kill your infant daughter” — this is precisely what Frankenstein’s monster does to Frankenstein’s family after Frankenstein destroys the bride the monster had asked for

There are memorable slow quiet moments. After Walt miscalculates and allows his hot-blooded temper to get the better of him because he finds Jesse is lying to him, and has seen Gus up close but not tried to administer a powerful poison (ricin) and rushes to Jesse’s house to accuse him, and they have this brutal fierce fight where Jesse gets the better of the older man, Walt collapses in his flat. It has been Walter Jr’s birthday and Walt missed it. Skylar had insisted on returning the super-expensive glamorous speed car Walt had bought for his son, what Walt Jr really wanted, and gotten him the sensible relatively inexpensive compact hybrid, and little as Walt Jr is thrilled, he drives it to his father’s flat to be congratulated. Walt is in a shattered confused state, and breaks down in front of Walt Jr, weeping: “I made a mistake.”

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The son physically helps the father to bed, much moved by his father’s reality with him. He hears his father address him as “Jesse” and say “I’m sorry.” He sleeps on the couch not far from his father. That morning, Walt awakes and tries to erase the image he had left; he attempts dignity, tells his son that his grandfather died of Huntington’s disease; we see him coughing — a foreshadowing of death to come.  

Mike and Jesse also manage their unarticulated moments of mutual shared danger, mutual help and respect — and Jesse is distraught when he must leave the internally bleeding and shot-up Mike behind in Mexico: he will die unless someone gives him blood, staunches the bleeding, tends to his wound; the minimal sophisticatedly-equipped hospital staff paid by Gus are just ignoring Mike to save Gus. They tell Jesse it’s Gus who pays them.

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There is peculiar comedy mixed with anguish: Jesse hugging Andrea and bothering the hospital staff with his attempts to wait with Andrea and her mother inside the operation when as not-family the insurance company decrees he should not be there (so they say). Each time Jesse has to say that Brock was poisoned to someone, he breaks down: here he’s telling Walt in the hospital waiting room.

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Hank pressures Walt to take him to Hermanos to see the fried chicken operation Gus runs as Hank’s study of evidence from the murdered Gale Boetticher’s (Dale Costabile) flat leads Hank to suspect Gus is the linchpin leader of a meth gang. Walt is terrified at the coming consequences. As they drive up and Hank instructs Walt to set up a bug on Gus’s car, Walt sees Mike drive up and sit alongside them. Mike winks.

What I enjoyed most was to see parallels in Season 1, similar scenes. I had not noticed the Prologues were already used in atemporally symbolic ways. We see a very young Walt explaining a chemical formula to his then girlfriend, a very young Gretchen, later Schwartz (Jessica Hecht) who married the man who made a fortune from Walt’s discovery. The punning titles for the episodes, many ironic, begin immediately. Also to see Marie and Skylar in characteristic alike sister formations: sometimes talking in the kitchen, sometimes hugging, and then again Marie refusing to admit she shoplifts:

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A No Rough-Stuff Type Deal (Season 1:7): Skylar tries to stare the truth out of Marie

I wonder what they will think up for a fifth season. They have killed off a number of major characters. Will they have more of the same yet worse: yet more diabolical people in the Meth trade; I read that Jesse will become enslaved to Todd, a new Meth associate. I hope the next season brings genuine new content and insight as Downton Abbey manages to each year. I suspect this must be done by working further on the fates and personalities of the closely-knit central characters. I know that Hank will die — something foreshadowed in the second season when Marie declared him indestructible.

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End Times: (Season 4:12): Hank suggesting his need to have Walt drive him to the laundry (where the Meth lab is a dungeon below)

 I hope Jesse will end up with Andrea but somehow doubt it.

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Saul Goodman delivering weekly money to Andrea until Goodman persuades Jesse to go in himself

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The two books:

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Marie towards bitter end: facing death

Breaking Bad and Philosophy reminds me of an undergraduate text I had for a Philosophy course. Heidegger is applied; superman theory (the will to power — an insightful one about the psychological trajectory Walt follows); authenticity is explained.  One essay on the decision to have the expensive chemotherapy is knowing about the very bad chances aggressive treatment has and comes near to saying, don’t fall for it. Fun ones too: finding happiness in a black hat, the last man left standing; hurtling towards death picks up how dark this mini-series really is. There’s a long essay in the Unofficial Companion about the uses of houses, what kinds and space in the series which in its limits really explains what symbolism is intended. Even if an official connection is denied, the Companion could not have been done without the cooperation and input from the film-makers. Just the right quotations are cited as central to each episodes; tidbits of information and connections set up; photographs of the actors, some of shooting during rehearsal; background information on content in the show or about the production design.

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Walt’s hat when first put on — it looks dark blue, not quite black as yet

The Companion, however, is not critical in any larger reflective sense; Breaking Bad and Philosophy only gingerly and then in the most general terms mentions how the series reflects American values and norms and conflicts (still the essays do bring up materialism, violence, mindless ambition). Neither book talks of racism:  Gus and the doctor who fleeces the Whites over his stupendous chemotherapy are black and this is never mentioned in the mini-series; that most of the lesser crooks we meet are hispanic is never mentioned. These things probably work to deny racism in the US. The only overt political essays I’ve found thus far is are attacks on those on the Net who are said to talk of Skylar with intense hatred — which enables the writers in both volumes to say see how women hate women to have or seek power, so the essays function as misogyny sine why women blame other women is not gone into beyond implying women want other women to submit. The Companion especially uses Foucault’s logic of scandal and badness the way the film-makers do in the feature: simply parrot without further context how evil it is to sell meths, how destructive the drug. Stories and characters in both volumes are authorized by assumed feelings of moralized indignation; scandal fosters what it is supposed to suppress (and this series could foster violence and apparently reinforces misogyny among some viewers), and its existence is never (or barely) explained.

The Companion talks about Walt in a condemning moralistic way from the first chapter on — the writers never once take into account, what was the man to do: just die or go into terrific debt?  Was he to let Emilio and Crazy 8 kill him and Jesse? They say in passing how we root for Walt, describe the acts or episodes ably, but not a word of larger justifying explanation. In that sense the Philosophical book, jejeune as it sometimes is, is better; one cannot have socialism, but existential is the acceptable justifier — or Foucault. Still however unexplained or wrongly framed, BB does reflect US life more than any TV program I’ve seen. 

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A rare comfortable happy moment: Andrea, Brock, Jesse at a diner

‘Let’s not bicker and argue over who killed who’ — Monty Python and the Holy Grail

The question is what we really want out of life, for ourselves, what we think is real… [has] to do with our social panic, with our fear of losing status. One cannot afford to lose status on this peculiar ladder, for the prevailing notion of American life seems to involve a kind of rung-by-rung ascension to some hideously desirable state — James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name

Dear friends and readers,

I finally bought the whole of the series on DVD so I could move back and forth between episodes while watching (as one turns pages back and forth when reading a book) and can cover more than 3-4 episodes or a disk at a time. After Jesse and Walter’s long night in their lab (Fly), two emotional explosions lead to horrifying killing sprees, sadistic and remorseful murders.

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Hospital – emergency entrance

3:11-13: An outline of just the mad violence with cross-fire guns and cars: Jesse (Aaron Paul) carries on going to his rehabilitation group and still showing a moral nature capable of love, becomes lover-companion to Andrea Cantillo (Emily Rios), a young Spanish recovering addict whom he meets there, an important element of which is Jesse’s love for yet another potentially lost little boy, Brock. Through also involving himself with her ten-year old brother who Jesse sees on a bike on the corner where Jesse’s friend, Combo (Rodney Rush), was murdered Jesse works out that Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) ordered that killing done by the boy hired by two thugs; driven by guilt and remorse Jesse enlists his (frightened) prostitute lover-friend to help him poison the two thugs who hired the boy, is thwarted, coerced into promising Gus he will forgive and forget. Then double-crossed and driven half-mad when the ten-year old boy is murdered, Jesse attempts simply to shoot the two men face-to-face even if it means they kill him (he is asking for this); Walter White (Bryan Cranston) intercepts Jesse, kills the men himself and tells Jesse “run.”

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Gus ordering death like so much pizza

4:1-4: An outline of just the slow grind of distressed and sadistic murder and justified paranoia: White realizes that Gus regards both him and Jesse as grating liabilities and means to replace White after he finishes training Gale Boetticher (David Costabile) who colludes with this plan, and then murder White and Jesse. When Mike (Jonathan Banks) shows up to murder White, White succeeds in persuading Mike to believe he, White, will turn Jesse over to him, in return for life; instead on the phone, White shouts Gale’s address to Jesse, which is understood as an order to kill Gale. Under duress and half-hysterical with reluctance, Jesse does just that — shoots the terrified, suddenly fawning Gale in the face. Mike is too powerful a man for Jesse and White and manages to catch them in the lab, to which Gus arrives, now seething and to show his power and punish a bodyguard for getting above his station (starting to cook meths), Gus slits the bodyguard’s throat, allowing the blood to spurt out all over himself, and slowly run down this man’s body. As Gus knows, no one cares for this nobody (perhaps an illegal immigrant, so no papers), and his corpse is the second to be put into a vat and corroded into non-existence. The terror and senselessness of this is reinforced by a camera set up in their lab to watch and tape them 24/7 (or when they are in the lab).

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Walter White (Bryan Cranston) writhing from 24/7 surveillance

Bob Dixon argues that the continual killing seen in boys’ action-adventure stories in the US and UK seriously teaches children to accept killing as a way of sustaining an imperialist, capitalist, militaristic order. There it is glorified, made Christian, wrapped in a flag. In Breaking Bad it’s a nervous distraught horror. The power of the DEA. The killing way of life seen in cancer cancer everywhere.

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Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) mourning from despair

Jesse is breaking down; after giving Andrea a packet of money, he closes himself off from her and Brock (won’t see them) lest he bring death upon them and because he cannot stand to give himself any warmth, any reward, and turns his apartment into a night-and-day drug-infested high decibel noise party. A nadir of despair. Even his two friend, Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) and Badger (Matt Jones) shy away from him at least to go home and feed a cat, water a flower. Jesse is careless, throwing his money at people (one man attempts to steal it), and as it would take very little to discover his connection to a drug trade in meths, he is last seen driven away by Mike. He puts up no fight. All of his conduct since the triple death of his beloved Jane (who would have destroyed him and herself with heroin), Andrea’s son (whom he identified with as a brother-father figure too), and the seeming innocent Gale is suicidal.

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Skylar surveying her accounts and books which she uses to decide how much to offer for a car wash

Walter’s parallel story is not told in the same melancholic vein. Skylar’s (Anna Gunn)’s persistent and finally fraudulent take-over of a car wash (which she seems to hate because her husband was once an insulted underling there) is an ironic comedy framed by both Walter’s indifference to the money-laundering procedures and Saul Goodman’s (Bob Odenkirk) exasperated anti-feminism: Yoko Ono over here, why can’t we do a nail salon, why must it be this car-wash.

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Goodman not letting the phone too near

She is the laundress controller (laundering money through a car wash) and Goodman squirms as she exposes his feebleness and transparent hypocrisies. She is so efficient she writes out the lies (a script to memorize whose words embarrass Walter) that Walter is to tell Hank about his gambling; they go to gambling anonymous; she teaches him to play cards. Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) is persuaded to come home through a bet Marie (Betsy Brandt) forces on him: if she can masturbate him into an orgasm and coming under the hospital covers, he is ready to leave. Hank hates leaving because he hates his crippled state, and once home he is insulting, callous and overtly scornful of Marie in turns. Marie resorts to a kind of comedy of house-hunt, pretending to be different upper class women with their story-book ideal husbands and families looking to buy and of course renovate already magazine-like obscenely appointed houses — all the while she steals small items and (alas) is caught, to be released through Hank’s influence with a police man on the scene.

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Marie looking the role of the middle class youth-fully dressed woman

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Marie Caught

Jesse’s world seems more lower middle to working class, having links to street people, Hispanics, addicts, the permanently under- and despicably employed. The White and Schrader worlds are a quietly grimacing exposure of American getting and spending for its own sake. Hank watches junk TV, eats junk food while Marie sleeps with a soft mask over her eyes for beauty and rest.

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Hank at rest — he is given Gale’s Lab Notes by the policeman who rescued Marie from jail

Here it’s a question of money — huge dollops of money for cancer, for Hank’s physical therapy (which we see him painfully painfully enduring). The games over house-fixing, house-buying, the occasional parties (given up just now), the business deals (which Skylar now comically does her proud book-keeping and hard-nosed negotations for), police bullies who can do you a favor — and yes status. Skylar and Walter are not bored.

I have come to realize that the series’ realistic up-close violence, nihilism in the streets, twisted family lives (the Pinkman family; Jane and her father; Mike’s daughter and granddaughter from whom he keeps away except to provide money; the unmarried Andrea), rehabilitation centers where people learn to blame themselves by rote; impoverished culture in the malls, streets; living on the edge middle-class protagonists — are us, serious funhouse and grave mirrors.

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In one dream-like prologue we see Mike murdering people inside a truck; he has lost a piece of his outer ear

It is daring and exhilarating in its use of film techniques, tropes, colors, juxtapositions; scripts are not neglected (witty and epitomizing). Through the third and fourth season I noticed the prologues especially. They are not summaries of what happened earlier; nor are they forecasts; nor reinforcements of character traits. Sometimes we are thrown back in time to see Jesse and Jane when they spent a day at a museum looking at Georgia O’Keefe paintings; or Walt and Skylar when young and looking at the house they now own (or pay mortgage payments on); they can be bizarrely expressive: a fly is studied, the two brutal cousins are seen crawling in the sand to some burning destiny, Mike’s face is electrically outlined (he is a brutal yet seeming sane man); the products produced to cover up the meths are played games with; a clowning moment or a poignant one that is fitted into what we saw previously as if we had skipped a chapter and are invited now to come back and read it after all. Inventive, clever.

I’ve bought myself cheap studies of the series: an unofficial companion (where it is written emphatically on the cover that the film-makers do not endorse anything said about the series, suggesting to me they know that the simplistic moralising they do in their features misleads) and close-reading about its philosophical (no less) implications. If anyone doubts the US order is a killing way of life, read about the slaughters in Gaza (where we supply the money and weapons) and in any state you want the latest mall massacre (where we have forbidden gun control).

I admit I don’t love the Breaking Bad characters the way I love the Downton Abbey ones (or the Poldark ones or some of Jane Austen’s). Jesse and Marie have become my favorites: the best continuing element in the series is the characterization of Jesse: his story, a young man rejected by his parents, seeking some meaning in a better job, his ability to love, to form relationships with others who value him, his conscience, his slow descent into despair, all wonderfully acted by Paul. Little details: like after Jane’s death and his first bout of rehabilitation, he sits all he livelong day listening to her voice message, only after the death of the 10 year old does he start drugs up again and these filthy orgies in his house. Marie’s human feeling and vulnerability would be a match if she were given more screen time, more background history; we need to know more about her, but the series is relentlessly masculinist in its focus. But there is a hardness about the stance towards them that ought to be alienating if the viewer who watches had a heart. It’s comic and appropriate how Syklar’s character is consistent when she operates outside the law as when she operates within it; her coldness may stand for the attitude of mind of the culture she likes to think she is a success in (she’s been lucky), with Hank as the series’s unexamined “good” guy (thus with all his cleverness a dupe). Gus might stand in for world and US leadership if we were to allegorize this show, with Mike as Hank’s opposing parallel (Gus placates and Mike thus far does not kill cops).

When tonight I began watching the first season of DA again and tears came to my eyes as the characters appeared once again and I noticed yet more details I hadn’t before, I know Vince Gilligan and his crew are wanting what I require: a continuing humanity. Compare this program with another coming out of the cancer epidemic with Calendar Girls; and you can see what is is to have a heart and not have one.

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Skylar teaching Walter a gambling game

Ellen

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Steven Mackintosh as Robert Audley plays a kind of Valmont to Neve McIntosh as a kind of Madame de Merteuil-Lady Audley (remember John Malkovitch and Glenn Close in Les Liaisons Dangereuses)

Dear friends and readers,

Not a pellucid or particularly pleasant header but it does capture what I’d like to make a brief note of. For the last few weeks on Trollope19thCStudies we’ve been reading Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s riveting Lady Audley’s Secret and two nights ago I watched the superlative film adaptation with the same title, theatrically directed by Bestan Morris Evans, with an intelligent subtle script by Douglas Hounam, featuring Steven Mackintosh and Neve McIntosh and a host of excellent actors; a couple of months ago we read Sheridan LeFanu’s Victorian gothic, The Wyvern Mystery, and I watched a film of the same type, enrichening, adapted by Alex Pillai (ditector) and David Pirie (writer) with same title, one which changed the original in order to comment on it, make it more consistent, hide some tabooed material, this time featuring Iain Glenn, Naomi Watts, Derek Jacobi and a host of ….

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Naomi Watts as Alice rescuing her son with the help of a crippled servant — the obligatory fired field/house nearby (the hero really is killed half-way through Wyvern Mystery, film and book)

and inbetween The Making of a Lady, a gothicization of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Making of the Marchioness (no stills sorry; I watched as a preview on-line; we will be reading it next month on this listserv together). Films all high in atmosphere, all scarred characters behaving amorally and getting away with it. None of these gothic films or books are numinous though (Wyvern Mystery recalls mad woman in attic as mad woman in asylum, chained, from Jane Eyre overtly), none makes much use of the supernatural except as psychological projection; they are the gothic turned semi-realistic and sheerly psychological. Much is therefore lost.

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Escape Artist: David Tennant as the now widowed grieving Will Burton with his semi-orphaned targeted son, Jamie (Gus Barry)

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Something Frankenstein-like or vampiric about the monster killer, Liam Foyle (Toby Kebbell) — the wife is even in the tub before she becomes a corpse

And tonight I just watched the first of the two-episode, The Escape Artist, featuring David Tennant, and it dwelt on gruesome details of the bloodied corpses a sadistic monster killer inflicted on the person we are to suppose while yet alive. We wach Tennant as a defense attorney get this murderer off on a technicality, indifferent to whether he did the crime; when Tennant does not shake the murderer’s hand, said murderer goes after Tennant’s wife. makes a bloody murder of her corpse and then silently, hulkingly threatens his son. Tennant as Burton learns saying this is my job, seeking promotion, competition, is not a criteria for deciding whether to do something. A few motifs reminded me of Breaking Bad— he listens to a phone tape of his dead wife’s voice as Jesse Pinkman listened to a phone tape of his dead girlfriend’s voice.

It seems to me these gothics and the contemporary mystery-crime thrillers fit into Julian Symons’s thesis about crime or mystery or detective fiction, in his history of the genre, Bloody Murder, viz., the detective novel which first emerged in the mid-19th century (with Edgar Allen Poe one of its earliest practitioners), and which upholds the establishment, with Edgar Allen Poe and Wilkie Collins as among its earliest practitioners; has morphed into the crime novel, radical, rebellious, meant to undermine and expose some aspect of the establishment, whose earliest instance is William Godwin’s Caleb Williams; Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret would be another. The effect of detective fiction is finally to reassure, the effect of the crime novel unsettling, and when done seriously & well (e.g., Helen Mirren’s Prime Suspect), unnerving, disquieting.

Some books slide from one type into another: P. D. James’s non-fiction, The Maul and the Pear-tree. I first noticed how genuinely anxiety-producing this new form of the genre had become when I read Susan Hill’s The Various Haunts of Men. That what was to happen in The Escape Artist for all its high-quality filmic techniques, acting, coloration, was predicted by Caroline before it happened, suggests the run-of-the-mill titillation this one was offering. I’ve not watched the new House of Cards as yet, but know the 1990s one was a cynical political thriller in the same style, with serious political commentary (by Andrew Davies of course).

Symons calls all these sensation fiction — gothic fits into this rubric too. What draws me to this kind of shorn gothic and/or sensational book are the subtle asides about people’s psychological make-up, the truthful hard & pessimistic perceptions about life, the objections to basic assumptions and norms we find in daily life, and the allegorizing comments the narrator makes about the characters and natural world giving the book depths the dialogue doesn’t manage. Also the descriptions of the place and intensity of inward conflict and neurotic emotionalisms. I suppose they are our form of Jacobean theater. What they lack is a political perspective; they consistently deny ther is any kind of social motive in people’s conduct — or show people refusing to act in accordance with a social conscience.

At the same time, there is in the last quarter century apparently little interest (or it’s not funded for dissemination) in discovering how a given historical novel — or political one, has woven into it accurate depictions of say liberal or progressive or hopeful movements, and the people who led them. I’ve just discovered that in the 7th through 12th novel of Winston Graham’s Poldark series, one of the threaded stories, about Bowood house which Clowance Poldark is invited to come stay at, and eventually marries into, governed by the Marquis of Lansdowne, was a place in the very late 18th into very early 19th century where genuine reforms not enacted until much later in the 19th century were worked out, plotted for, written and talked about, and at least brought into Parliament for consideration until the 1790s deeply repressive era drove it underground. Another powerful great book of this better type is Thomas Flanagan’s The Year of the French set in Ireland in 1798, the time of the uprising when France invaded (Wolfe Tone anyone?)

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Engraving of Bowood House from later 19th century (central block demolished, only the short tower & wing on the left remain)

I’m slowly following a MOOC course put online by the University of Sheffield this summer, The Literature of the Country House, which traces uses of, the real lives led in, evolutions in civility, entertainment, as well as achievements in architecture and literature, amid admitted to fierce struggles by tenants and servants alike against exploitation and enclosure, and the privileged lives of super-wealthy powerfully connected aristocrats — these realities (treated to some extent in the older Poldark novels) are no longer the stuff of movies or novels. Downton Abbey justifies the 1% and its favored servants. A reality of the country house as a power-place and repressive instrument is ignored — with a few honorable exceptions (Saul Dibbs’ and Amanda Foreman’s The Duchess featuring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes, the recent and Amma Asante and Misay Sagan’s Belle featuring Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Tom Wilkinson), when the historically progressive material is there, it’s distorted out of recognition or cut from the film adaptation.

I note also that there is much much less adaptation of great 18th and 19th century fiction on good TV, much less serious probing into, depiction of social political and metaphysical issues. You must pick up what you can, glean from the exaggerations what frightens and troubles viewers and readers.

Ellen

P.S. See later this week’s Brideshead Revisited: contra mundum.

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