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EmilyJesseBrokc
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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A glamorized photo image of a drawing of our two heroes — becoming a father-and-son pair in the second season

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve now begun the second season of Breaking Bad and will carry on as the series grips and fascinates me. I was able to view only the first four of the second season because I rent the DVDs from Netflix one disk at a time. Aesthetically it remarkably is still one continuous story with no sub-plot: this is not a multi-plot mini-series. We move back and forth between Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) but their story is one and intertwines.

The story line: Walter thinks he realizes he will need to make a great deal of money before he dies to provide for his wife, Skylar (Anna Gunn) and Walt Junior (RJMitte), the son disabled from cerebral palsy for the rest of their lives. Something like $737,000. He and Jesse must therefore carry on dealing with the homicidal sociopathic Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz). They witness Tudo brutally beat to death a man who works for him on a whim, and scare and offend one of his sidekicks.

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Tuco murders the sidekick and then kidnaps Walter and Jesse and takes them out to a desert where he threatens to murder them — not before Jesse realizes their danger, tries to persuade Walter to arm themselves, but Walter with his usual over-cleverness says they will make up a poison which will kill Tuco. In the desert place they cannot use this poison, and only by luck and momentary insult, manage to unnerve Tuco, grab a gun out of Tuco’s hand and shoot him sufficiently that he falls and they run off. Threaded in we see Hank (Dean Norris) has been pressuring his wife Marie (Betsy Brandt), Skylar’s sister to see a psychologist for her kleptomania which she will not acknowledge and we watch Skylar refuse to pick up the phone or see her sister. She has though snitched on Marie to Hank. She is utterly self-righteous in her moral stance.

Meanwhile Hank (Dean Norris), Walter’s brother-in-law, investigating Tuco manages to find Tuco’s lair in the desert, and comes upon Tuco just as Walter and Jesse are fleeing (it does not seem improbable as one watches as time moves slowly); Hank shoots to kill Tuco and succeeds.

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Here he is shooting; afterward telling of the incident he appears shaken: he is intensely sympathized with

To account for his absence, Walter strips himself naked and appears in a supermarket and is taken to a hospital where he pretends to have had many hours of amnesia. Jesse is to claim he spent the whole time with a local addict and building manager, Jane Margolis (Kristin Ritter): Hank somehow discovers the relationship between Jesse and Tuco and has both Jesse and Jane in for questioning. He grills them mercilessly; he is especially insulting to Jane who he treats as a despicable prostitute. She holds out against him. But Hank has contacted Jesse’s parents who go into Jesse’s house and find his meth laboratory and resolve to throw him out of the house; they will have nothing more to do with him. They present frozen faces to this son, telling him to put his life together; he is now homeless. He had given his huge van and much of his equipment to someone to sell, and his bike is stolen; he manages after filthying himself with vile fluids from an outside John, to wrest the van back and drive to Walter’s house as the only refuge he knows.

Walter has been having troubles of his own. He discovers that the doctors in the hospital have the authority to keep him there — like a prisoner — because they deem him “unsafe” (to whom it’s not clear). He thus has to tell in confidentiality a doctor something of the truth to get the man to release him. Perhaps this will be part of what makes Hank start to suspect him. The suspense is that Hank is coming closer to Walt as involved in the new meth people in the area all the time.

Winning an abilty to come home Walt finds Skylar will have nothing to do with him; will not talk to him unless he reveals to her what he has been doing during the many absences from home. She was set off by being told that he has a second cell phone she does not know about. He cannot tell her about how he has been making money as he suspects (knows very well) she will be shocked and may well turn him in. We have seen how judgmental and treacherous to Marie she is over Marie’s shoplifting. She behaves utterly obnoxiously to Walt now — a cold hard mean face, out for hours; he begs her to be humane to him, she will not. The son has changed his name to Flynn (a gesture), but she has throughout behaved in a semi-alienated askew way.

During the time Skylar is out, Walter becomes aware of Jesse’s presence and after insulting and berating Jesse, demanding Jesse leave with no more money, Walter relents, gives Jesse his share of the money, and then offers him breakfast. Unlike Skylar and Walt Junior, Jesse gratefully accepts the meal.

***************************

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Jane Margolis, browbeaten and exhausted by Hank — who is ultra-respectful of Skylar

What I think is of genuine interest here is the story’s meaning is the reverse of what the “creator” (Vince Gilligan) and some of the other film-makers (directors, actors themselves, cinematographers) claim it is. In the feature they stick to the idea this is a story about a man becoming a criminal, an antagonist, a bad guy.

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Anna Gunn as the self-satisfied rigid wife (harridan is the feel of this still)

Especially startling is the way they and Anna Gunn talk about the wife: they all talk of how she has “boundaries” and begin by saying she doesn’t “leave him” because she’s pregnant and has a disabled son. why should she leave him and so quickly at all? No one in this series has read E.M. Forster’s “Two Cheers to Democracy” where he declared if his loyalties were torn he hoped he would have the courage to chose his real friend over what he is told is his country’s interest or norms. I was appalled at how when early in the second season, he was suffering, her first reaction was he had no right to take his illness out on her. No one in this show seems to have heard the word “love” or understand what it might mean. She has no loyalty to Walter whatsoever; her intrusions would be bearable were they done in his interest but they are not; they are done because she asserts she has the right to direct his destiny and choices — as in the first season she pretended to take his wishes into account but really successfully demanded he do the chemotherapy for huge sums. Without a care who would pay or how. As if it didn’t matter. She refuses to admit she expects him to come up with the money. How angry she’d get if she were thrown out of her house for non-payment.

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Jesse homeless, broke, his bike is stolen from him

Jesse’s parents are a parallel. Not once throughout 11 episodes have they tried to see what their son is, backed him when he tried to get a real job (at a desk, wearing a suit, with respect), did not a thing to help him; and now they throw him out because they found a lab and walk away. They think only of their fear of the law and what others may think of them. Throughout the first and second season Jesse is the only person to undercut the values of the system his life story thus far shows us he is marginalized out of, forced to be a person doing absurd things for money if he remains legal. He is witty and actually talks to Walter, occasionally giving him good advice or comments which thus far Walter fails to take.

We have seen Walter charged outrageous sums for what he is told to his face are probably useless treatments for a fatal disease; these same doctors have the power to imprison him in a hospital if they decide his illness is a threat in some way to the way they want people to behave. He is driven to tell one person a truth to avoid immurement. In the US ordinary people are deprived of liberty for crimeless behavior.

It is troubling the way the disabled son is continually treated as semi-alienated, sarcastic, suddenly asserting power when he can. It’s a combination of stigmatizing and making him behave as badly by intuition as anyone around him.

Hank is the only person thus far to show any compassion for someone close to him: to Marie. She calls him indestructible. Is he (we are therefore to ask)? At the same time he is a ferocious bully who behaves to those he perceives as low in status as despicable animals, especially Jane (she is to bought off with a root beer).

I’ve been told and read that Breaking Bad is worth watching for its indictment of US values and life and it’s been asserted that the film-makers know this. If they do, they don’t understand what it is they are indicting.

Ellen

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Doctor

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Breaking Bad: Walt (Bryan Cranston) and Skylar (Anna Gunn) and their “dream” Dr Delcavoli (David House)

Dear friends and readers,

I finished the first season (Episode 7, “A No-Rough-Stuff-Type Deal”) and then watched the features where Vince Gilligan talks seriously about what he thinks this first season is about, and a good deal of what he said seemed to me accurate. Gillgan suggested the one character who is emerging as having a grasp on reality is Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul): he does not lose sight for a moment that Walt early on turned two men into “raspberry sauce,” that he and Walt are dealing with monstrous “scumbags”, that it takes huge sums of money and time and effort to get equipment to make meths, and if he had some alternative remunerative occupation he’d be better off: “count me out; I’m leaving town; I’m going to Oregon.” To this and other sudden abrasively funny retorts Walt either says nothing, or it’s not an obstacle, or (supposedly a key moment in the episode) that if Jesse agrees to go into a full-scale business, “this [will be] the first day” of Jesse’s life, exhorting him “Will it be a life of fear, of no no, of never believing in yourself?”

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Walt pouring while Jesse cries out “Chemistry yah Mr White yes science …” but is dubious about the moral benefit to himself

Dubious

Walt is of course (according to Gilligan) going bad; we watch him turn from a sympathetic into an “antagonistic” character. Just look at how sinister he begins to appear — with his bald head, his thinning body, the sunglasses, the increasingly rough man’s clothes. I noticed (Gilligan doesn’t say this) that a motif idea is attributed to Walt more often than his brother-in-law: that things feel good, are deeply pleasurable because they are illegal. Thrilling. Now while Walt listens to the principle talk of how the janitor will be fired and never get another job because looking for who stole the lab equipment exposed the janitor’s marijuana habit, Walt has surreptitious sex with Syklay under the school table by using his hands.

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He gets a real high from taking her out to the car and having sex on the backseat. Hank Schrader, the macho-cop brother-in-law (Dean Norris) repeats this idea when Hank shares illegal Cuban cigars (“Sometimes forbidden fruit tastes sweetest”), but he demurs when Walt wants him to say that there is a thin line between the illegal and legal: at one time meths Walt reminds Hank that meths were part of what was ordinarily prescribed to people. Hank immediately swings round to say some things are foul; “they came to their senses on that one” (when meths was declared illegal).

Overcigars

We are to see the hypocrisy here as we were in the earlier episodes to see the parallel between the brutal violence of the drug dealers and Hank’s to those he arrests. Hank does not murder people or beat them to insensibility, but he enjoys roughing them up bad and frightening and yes putting them in jail for a long time to come. What he does not know (not mentioned by Gilligan) is his own wife, Marie (Betsy Brandt) is a shop-lifter and gets great thrills herself by stealing super-expensive tiaras for not-as-yet born babies. Marie gives one to Skylar during a baby shower for Skylar’s coming child where Skylar is surrounded by as many extravagant and silly gifts as Gretchen and Elliot Schwartz (the super-successful couple who had access to health insurance which would have paid for Dr Delacavoli and his chemo treatments (($95,000 on the open market) had tossed at them at their house-warming party; all of which is filmed by an expensive video camera with an eye to ten years from now when said baby (called Esmeralda by Marie, but corrected to Holly by Skylar) will be an adolescent watching these people cavorting about.

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Skylar discovers it’s a theft because she goes to the jewelry store to return the object (she can think of many more practical things she might need for the sum she’ll get) and is herself accused of shoplifting and escapes only by pretending to go into labor — the great sancrosanct act of childbirth.

The critique of American bourgeois life is of course unmistakable; and lest we think the series is soft on the illegal drugs the actors are trotted out to confirm it’s not. And the scenes are as redolent of middle American life as any in the previous six episodes. We see the bright cheerful real estate agent bringing the (naive) couples to see Jesse’s house and coo over the “possibilities” of his basement; the kitchen needs only to be extended. Aaron Paul again gets the funny lines as he tells Walt he sees people “only by appointment” (as his realtor does) and mocks her pretensions.

Also well done — and comical — are the scenes of Walt and Jesse stealing needed barrels of compounds from a plant with barbed wire about it and armed guards. They wear knitted clown hats and like some verison of Laurel and Hardy stumble across the screen with their ill-gotten chemical materials:

Clowns

Scary and powerful are the scenes where Walt and Jesse meet the psychopathic drug-distributor in the most appropriate of places: a junkyard, filled with junked cars. Jesse mocks this as a child’s idea of where to negotiate crimes. Why not a mall? But of course we are there for the symbolism.

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Does Gilligan not know his mini-series is about a man developing an inoperable cancer? does he not know the real villain of the piece is the super-expensive doctor who stands in for a medical establishment which can do nothing and has the nerve (because the whole society conspires to allow them to) to sit before clients complacently and correct them if they so much as suggest his “treatments” will for sure help or cure Walt; or deliver horrible treatments that as just likely can make them worse, and collect huge checks which the victim has politely to say must not be cashed “before next Monday please.” Among the extraordinary moments of this last episode occurs when Walt and Skylar visit the doctor (see stills at the opening of this blog) and the (idiot) wife (I have to say it) kittenishly tells the doctor how Walt is ever so “frisky” since getting “chemo.” I cringed. She wants this man’s approval. I wondered if the scene was unconsciously meant to rouse racism: the doctor is black, American black and that is not common because the viewer is put in the position of the helpless patients having to obey, not to question. Skylar tells of Walt’s supposed use of alternative medicine (it’s an alibi for him to go off and cook meths with Jesse) and the doctor says, well as long as it doesn’t interfere with the scientific treatments.

Does he not know he is sending up science? not just how it’s misused in the society (for prescribed drugs too) but useless for creating anything humanely good. All Jesse’s comical remarks about science are part of this thread.

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Watching desperate extractions from unlikely objects:

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As I watched the scenes with the doctors, technicians, receptionists taking the checks, trips to the bank, rolls of money clutched to the chest, I knew why the show doesn’t attack who it should. The AMA would get after them. The thorough anthology Quality TV, ed McCabe and Akass, includes essays explaining how most film makers for TV don’t even think of attacking anyone who is a big funder of the programming — those who do don’t get their films made or distributed. The film exists to present the commercial (ironically often pedaling psychological drugs which make huge sums). The whole corrupt system is normalized, as if the “way it is” is natural, not evil.

Why do I carry on watching it and blogging about it. While it displaces Walt’s real nightmare of cancer, useless scientific medicine, killing costs, with masculine clown antics of violence and shows the wife to be complicit (thus far helpless because without a real grasp of what her life has depended on — the luck of her birth position, and of his health and job), nevertheless its origin is the cancer epidemic about which nothing is being done (nothing fundamental, nothing preventative) — the hook of the show is when Walt is told he has inoperable cancer; each plot point is some happening that is screwed back into the cancer, whether his bald head, his thinness, his explosions of violence, as he grows more and more supposedly amoral. He is not accurate on the thin line between legality and illegality: what he is missing and the series never says is what is legal, self-righteous, complacently collecting checks, money from credit cards, extorted from drugged misery, is what’s seriously causatively criminal.

Ellen

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The writer and cast of Breaking Bad (HBO, 2008-13)

Dear friends and readers,

As I’m six years late for this Breaking Bad (a regional southern Virginia phrase meaning “raising hell” — male macho reveling?), having just watched the first three episodes of the first season a year after the fifth and final season of 16 episodes in 2014 brought this mini-series to an end; I see nothing wrong in photos of writer, cast, director, whoever is connected to the film as a frame for an opening blog on the first 3 of 7 episodes of the first season. Belated as this will be, as I proceed through the series my remarks may perhaps some interest as I am not going to go for awed wild screams of praise (such as I find everywhere on various sites).

I was absorbed by the opening three episodes; I recognize, appreciate, respond to quality TV when I see it: high production values, intelligently naturalistic script, verisimilitude and local accuracy in the small things (just like in costume drama), subtle intelligent acting, cinema like camera work, the latest things in film are there. As important, this series has become a sociological event: enormous numbers of people have watched and talked of it and praised it too. So it’s worth it to watch and try to think about the first and second season, and at least begin the third, which I may stop at, as (from the descriptions) the episodes become wildly physically as well as deeply emotionally violent. No need for recaps (see thorough retelling on wikipedia).

The motivating cause is quietly intensely significant as the cancer epidemic (and all the horrors in pain and humiliation that cancer brings) is known everywhere even if the news media stalwartly will not bring it out in the discussably open. Equally misery-producing are the extravagantly exploitative charges people are pressured to pay for medicine; and while in the last year it seems there will be a respite through the Affordable Care Act, the medical establishment, drug industry, corporate industrialism (protecting its right to pollute the environment if their huge profits call for it) are going to keep costs as high as they can. So Walter White (Bryan Cranston) in his forties is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and has not sufficient insurance to pay for treatments, much less leave his family, which includes Walter Jr (R.J. Mitte)a son with cerebral palsy, Walter Jr, and Scyler (Anna Gunn) a pregnant wife with any assets to getting on in a hard world with.

A many year under-appreciated chemistry high school teacher, White decides to make money by making and selling drugs (meth is the going abbreviation).

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As can be seen in this early shot of him after an initial disaster has landed him in the desert, he is a Casper Milquetoast type who quickly finds himself in over his head in trying to cope with Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), an ignorant, coarse, ruthless self-destructive, stupid ex-student of his become drug addict and seller himself and the drug dealers to whom they mean to sell their product. Jesse fails to understand that chemistry knowledge tells truths about products and a plastic container of the type White wanted Jesse to buy could have been used to dissolve a corpse while his home bathtub dissolves along with said corpse, its flesh, blood, waters.

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Scyler has refused to (paraphrasing Walter) “get off his ass,” and her talk has led her nosy sister, Marie Schrader (Betsy Brandt) to think Scyler’s son is smoking marijuana; when Scyler sees her hitherto mild-mannered husband whose idea of a joy happiness seems to be a surprise birthday party given him by his family, has not come home for several nights in a row, she jumps to the conclusion he is smoking marijuana. She enlists her brutal brother-in-law, cop, DEA, Hank Schrader (Dean Norris). She immediately (no shriving time allowed) threatens to leave Walter.

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As the worrying wife

Meanwhile out of fear and casting aside his better impulses to save an articulate sympathetic sensible sounding drug-seller, White strangles a second drug dealer. After he disposes of the body far more efficiently than Jesse did, he returns home to tell his now suspicious wife that he has lung cancer and what he is going to do about it.

End of half of season 1.

Why is the reader not asking, is this not perverse? The last thing the action swings around is Walt’s cancer; the only person he tells is the man he strangles whose calm sensible mind immediately sees the connection between this dread disease, money and meths. We have but the briefest scene of diagnosis — an in ambulance which takes Walt form his part-time second job in a garage where he fell suddenly to the hospital, from which Walt goes home as quickly (spending as little) as he possibly can.

This film is enacting (as its title suggests) the inward and outward violence of US life as continually acted out by aggressive and desperate males. It’s not (as yet) Quentin Tarintino stuff, but the violence of real life. The violence is of the implicit bullying sort, and also close to the surface, it’s easy to bring it to the fore and make people act on it; a kind of continual abrasive atmosphere exists. Just that menace from men of a certain kind all the time and not far from the surface. Women in the US too. Yes it is obviously an implicit inditement of US society: we see how little teachers are valued, how little they are paid. Mr White is devoting his life to a subject he loves and knows a lot about, and the irony is for the first time he is turning it to account — cooking meths ever so expertly.

The violence is sexual — our Casper Milquetoast is not just a virile male from the get-go (pregnant wife) the first episode ended with him buggering his pregnant wife and her enjoying it. Take it from me, it hurts backwards, a lot. Her birthday present to him is to lay beside him in bed, he at rest, doing nothing, while she jerks him off under the covers (while browsing the internet). The voice-over commentary on the DVD of the first season is mostly frivolous, but here and there are some revealing features: the men all laugh at the actresses’s acquiescence in the sexy enacted on the screen. As I remarked, the wife’s snitching and pressure tactics makes the point that wives are a pain in the butt; her wrong guesses show her naive ideas about what drugs people take.

The series is racist — perhaps consciously so. Walter White is Mr White, the white man. Jesse Pinkman, he’s pink, the flesh-colored crayon in a child’s crayon box in the 1950s. The drug dealers are of course dark-skinned, eyed, Spanish speaking. The racism never goes away. The series takes place in New Mexico; across the border are these Mexicans who are animal-like. All are struggling for power and the whites have the big advantage.

It’s continually funny at times too. House of Cards has humor too, but it’s witty, sardonic lines, ironical speeches. Breaking Bad is more in the mode of the action coming near to be clown like — a weird black optimistic even sort of humor — as the two men work hard to haul a dissolving body through a broken ceiling, or they stumble and fall over the filth they create. Aaron Paul is especially hilarious – the character is so unself-consciously ludicrous with his gestures of pride, his self-esteem, his complacency as he smokes pipes of meth. The humor built up and Episode 3, the most murderous, was the funniest.

It’s important to see how Breaking Bad relates to British quality TV products too. It’s politics are as reactionary in that it has no acknowledgement there is such a thing as political thought or ideas in life. House of Cards and Downton Abbey both realize the stories are taking place in a larger political context. The difference is Breaking Bad simply has no outer political world, no perspective. The Brits give us reactionary Toryism (Fellowes) or desperation and pessimism from a humane standpoint but just as paralyzing (Andrew Davies in this case); the Americans give us nothing, a vaccuum. In Downton Abbey we are in a fantasy land of benign aristocracy (how they never were), in House of Cards we sidle along the corridors of high power.

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Dean Norris as Hank Schrader, White’s brother-in-law, cop (from a later season)

Breaking Bad — there are only the brutal police, more violent and with more impunity than anyone else. We are with the lower middle class and desperate working people who are policed. No NAFTA, no congress, no political or civic or human rights. We have to remember that the reason for the show is the advertisement; the program is filler in whose ideology is not allowed to be different from the ideology of the advertisement. No one is allowed any ideals to help them out of their mess at all; yes the family should hang together — literally as well a figuratively.

I am told the mini-series pulls you in as it goes, you become involved in the characters and the story takes telling, intriguing turns. Does it do more than the crude exposure of the monetary and sexual terms of the suffering (for they do suffer) male hegemony. Well I will try the next disk from Netflix, another 4 episodes to see.

Ellen

P.S. Among the good books to read on quality TV: Quality TV, edd. Janet McCabe and Kim Akass, subtitled: contemporary american television and beyond. It has an excellent essay by Sarah Cardwell in it.

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Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov: husband & wife, he died suddenly, age 28, of a heart attack during a practice workshop

Dear friends and readers,

I find irony in my reading, finding some shared thought, and now passing part of the night by writing about Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking, which like, the apparently naive My Sergei: A Love Story tells of the sudden death of the author’s beloved husband. Some of the intense distress, exasperation and justified anger I have experienced the last two weeks derives from my husband’s death not having happened with the same single night or moment suddenness as Didion’s husband, John Gregory Dunne, and Gordeeva’s husband, Sergei. We’ve experienced 3 and 1/2 months of partial truths told us sufficiently to lead our natural desire to clutch at anything to escape malignant esophageal cancer, no matter how horrendous — like an operation to remove someone’s esophagus and re-arrange his digestive tract and other nearby organs which in itself has nothing whatever to do with what causes, spreads, contains, stops the cancer. And equally 3 and 1/2 months of many medical people’s carefully calibrated behavior controlled fundamentally by each person’s desire to protect & advantage his or her career/job while pretending some other motive paramount. From my vantage point today I almost (not quite) feel as I never thought I would before: as the blow was (as one begins to see as one reads) foreseeable, to fall, the four people (husbands & wives) were lucky to have it fall this way.

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Didion, Dunne & their adopted daughter, Quintana (ca. 1970s)

Didion’s considered thesis throughout, and Gordeeva’s natural perspective (just at the outset of her book) is “life changes fast, Life changed in the instant.” This is the refrain of Didion’s book sudden instant transformation of everything upon the death of a beloved partner. As she well knows however (this is in the book) her thesis is thin. She tells of how for a year previously her husband had insights and hinted to her he felt he was at risk of death at any time — and that at least a year before he’d had a bad heart attack and was now living by using an implanted pace-maker. So (like say Causabon in Middlemarch or “young” Jolyon in To Let of the Forstye Saga) she did know he was in danger – or ought to have taken seriously a doctor’s outright warning.

Didion’s book is initially, and every time she recurs to the shock of the scene of Dunne’s sudden keeling over during dinner, powerful. Her book is recursive. She has two further traumatic sudden near deaths incidents to retell. Twice in the book her daughter comes near death: it escaped everyone that a viral infection of a few days before Xmas, because not x-rayed in the hospital the night Quintana came (as it ought to have been) was a serious flu which then (as Dunne said) morphed into an episode of pneumonia that came near killing Quintana too. Quintana later collapses on an airport tarmac as she is being triumphantly coming home; a paralyzing seizure nearly carries Quintana off. It’s one of those real shocks often talked of (“in comparison” to what we usually watch on TV), including the death before your own of your own child.

After the initial power of the husband’s death, there is this falling off as if Didion’s casting about for what to say next and repeats herself, and I feel there is too obvious a sense of this is another occasion for making a book. It picks up roaring as she moves back to her daughter’s two encounters.

Speed of transformation through illness is important, even if common. We do not go about expecting a hammer to come down on our heads. ON one level, my husband Jim seems to have been transformed from recovering slowly from a drastic operation and and then recurrence of cancer diagnosis (liver, “the worst” someone said) inside a week — to man seemingly near death, weak, frail, fatally ill; then I could say it’s been only 3 months since the initial diagnosis, but I know that before that last autumn he had stopped going to the gym gradually and I saw was somehow not himself, not physically well, suddenly looking older. We had no clue to run to the doctor to check with — though he did go for his legs and other things but the problem was not where he was feeling. Engineering term: the point of origin is often not the same as the place of manifestation; one’s bottom body is tired (manifestation) because a cancer is growing in one’s throat (origin, cause).

Her second theme is her magical thinking: once her husband dies, she plays games with her mind. After his death, she asks him for advice and pretends he’s there. She stays away from places which will evoke deep emotional reactions; or if she goes, she plays games in her mind to avoid thinking about that. She can tell us the next morning magical thinking relieved from having to be realistic. Myself I think the term is capable of wider application. Because a hospice person is in the house, you might feel your relative or beloved is safer. He or she isn’t, statistically. We think magically when we rely on rituals. My grandmother tied onions to my feet when I was 3 and came down with a high fever; she was drawing the evil spirits out of the foot. I had a hard time removing the apnea monitor off my younger daughter because I had begun to believe it was saving her. If we do X, Y will surely occur. Make a rain dance, and it will rain. Pray for X, and you may get it (prayers are magical thinking). Human beings attempting to control the natural world.

Yet we do this faced with imminent or present death. But she does not adequately explore kinds of magical thinking (nor the dangers of atavistic behavior they bring), though she shows her wisdom in she defending those people who in need use magical thinking.

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Joan, John, and Quintana at home

Other superficialities: She’s not deep about anything beyond these moments. Beyond no real truth-telling about troubles in her life, she presents hers as a life of utter privilege upper class American (she can commandeer a plane and helicopter to take her daughter across the US from California to NY), all the right schools are gone to by all three people (husband, wife, daughter). In the middle of the book she does not want to talk frankly about her family and its realities so she is without matter since she has no criticism to make of attitudes or the medical establishment either.

It reminds of Carolyn Heilbrun’s autobiographical essay in not being willing really to tell and like Heilbrun Didion presents her life as simply happy; Didion tells more but not enough so there’s nothing gripping. We hear of the dinners she goes to (with famous names dropped). She never questions the values that support her privileges; apparently she lived very conventionally inside a small circle of wealthy family and semi- and famous friends. Hints of darker interpretations here and there of their privileged lives, of antagonisms within her relationship with Dunne, especially from her husband’s remembered words, are left on the surface of the narrative. This problem did not arise in the earlier masterpieces (e.g., Salvador) since she was not personally involved.

Life-writing is demanding in ways many writers won’t submit to. They’re afraid – maybe rightly – of the public.

But then her strengths: her style is as marvelous as I remembered it (in Salvador). She never forgets the literal meaning of her words and so has quiet ironic fun with the language medical personnel use. At Xmas she is told Quintana “may not leave the table.” Of course she must leave the table; what she may not do is be taken off it alive. She makes quiet fun of the stilted euphemistic jargon language, the sticking to a high enough level of generality so nothing is acknowledged. Since contained in her words are a thoughtful critique of this language one can’t fault it, but looking at it tonight from my perspective I’d say she can do this since she did not suffer directly from it beyond the “mere” having useful information withheld, nothing explained. Neither she nor her husband were dependent on the medical community as except afterwards (and then he was dead).

It’s not many people who can write of their intimate thoughts while grieving. In the later parts of the books she talks of how she tried to compensate and cope; she speaks of her memories that were good and she helped me sitting there here in my workroom last night to try to relive happy memories. I mentioned some to my husband much later at night (3 am when we were in the front room) who was sitting across from me in his now usual half-stupor and bewildered, unconscious, hallucinating (from all the drugs he’s given for this and that) and he appeared to understand what I was saying. He smiled and corrected a song I said I liked from the 1970s which came to me at that moment as about us:

Only he attributed it to the The Who.

A Year of Magical Thinking is mostly a superb book, deeply felt in many ways, but what makes it is the feeling that what she tells of the traumatic incidents (three) in the book are literally authentic, true, how it happened and her usual bag tricks of style from her interest in literal and playful words (and names), in ironies, and ability to write windingly graceful involved kinds of sentences that are yet readable.

*******************

I did not know until I finished and looked at some reviews that Didion’s Quintana whose near-death experiences (two of them, frantic emergencies coming “out of the blue”) provide some ballast for her book — she can include the girl’s childhood through memory flashbacks too – her daughter died in a third seemingly bizarre episode before The Year of Magical Thinking was published. She would not change her book, but instead wrote about the daughter’s calamitous fatal experience of pancreatitis in her next book. I can’t help wondering if there are not aspects of her daughter’s situation that led to 2 times getting to the hospital nearly too late (the 3rd, in the book) is more than the result of errors and infections/blood clots caused by hospital people not doing or doing their job, in this case too cautiously.

So Blue Nights is about her loss of the daughter, an adopted only child. I’ve bought a copy for $3.45 despite several vows to buy no more books now that I’m not going to have someone with me to shoulder the burden of so many or read and use them together in a universal of our own making. I’ll get to it after Ekaterina Gordeva’s My Sergei, co- or ghost-written by E.M. Swift.

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Ekaterina was left with a small daughter by Sergei: Daria

Ellen

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Geographies of the Book

Dear friends and readers,

During the all too short time (about a day’s length) I was able to be at the Sharp conference this year, held at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, I enjoyed myself and heard some engaging informative papers — and gave one myself. Although I was able to attend the conference only briefly (as my husband was still recovering from an operation), I would still like to remember and share the gist of what I heard and experienced (as I did two years ago) and what I wish I could have been there for.

I arrived on Saturday, July 20th, around 2:00 pm, in time to attend two panels and in the evening go to a scrumptious banquet (at which there were Philadelphia mummers) and walk around the campus.

No surprise when I decided on “studies in the long 18th century” (e-7, 3-4:30 pm) and “the circulation of 19th and early 20th century genres of medical knowledge” (f-1, 5-6:00 pm). I’m originally an 18th century literary scholar, and for more than 20 years I regularly taught Advanced Composition in Natural Science and Technologies where I devoted a third of the course’s reading to texts on medical science as it’s really practiced in the US today.

Studies in the long 18th century covered shaping French and Polish georgraphical contexts. Elizabeth della Zazzera suggested how the different locations in which literary periodical production occurred Restoration Paris can teach us what were the social worlds and different political agendas of these locations — and how the periodicals in question reflected this. There were many geographic centers in Restoration Paris, some had students, others the rich, clubs here, and booksellers in commercial areas. Ms Zazzera studied and explicated imaginative geographies too. Lorraine Piroux argued Diderot’s Natural Son should be reprinted as it was in the first edition with its preface, 3 conversations, and 2 dramatic narratives as part of a contextualized text. Diderot was trying to establish a new kind of bourgeois authentic drama. A play should be played as if it were life, not art. He was writing experimentally and offering a novelistic contextualization for his play. These texts are today printed separately, divided into different genres.

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Partitioned Poland — 1795-1918

Teresa Swieckowska described the difficult position of Polish authors in the 18th and 19th century — and compared the situations in Germany and England. Poland had been cut up into different terrorities dominated by other national courts and companies; and copyright (a system of privilege with a contradictory evolution) was not an effective except as it aroused interest in a work’s author(s). Most Polish writers of this era were aristocrats, for there was no money to be made. Literary books were not profitable and not respected. Commodification in Poland starts in the later 19th century.

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Medical College of Virginia also a library

The papers on how medical knowledge reached physicians and patients too showed how entangled were social, gender, and racial politics in deciding who could get information, what was available, and how presented. Brenton Stewart’s paper was on 19th century southern medical an surgical journals. He described and discussed specific medical colleges and hospitals (some meant just for “negroes”) & how the dynamics of local power politics shaped knowledge. To disseminate and share medical information across the south physicians and surgeons turned to highly politicized medical journals whose findings included examinations of medicine and surgery forced on slaves. (Afterwards I asked and was told that The slaves were named as well as their “owners”).

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Early health magazine published by the AMA

Catherine Arnott Smith told of the early invention, spread and codification of the Layman’s Medical Journal (a kind of consumer health magazine) by women. She began by saying libraries were places where people could find information, but medical journals were written for other physicians; the earlier policy of associations like the AMA was to withhold information from patients (in order to control and make profits from them). She described the lives & roles of Addie and Julia Riddle who became physicians; of Jessie Leonard who censored movies; hygiene was their goddess; of later titles (Journal of Preventive Medicine, 1910), of political complications, like a Race Betterment League (contraception seems to lead back to eugenics, and women (Martha [?] Stearns Fitts Jones; Lady Cook; Virginia Woodhull) whose class and political positions (especially on the question of prohibition) made it difficult for them to work together. Both scholars studied ads and diaries.

Sunday I went to the session I was giving a paper at, “imaginary geographies iii” (g-3, 8:30-10:00 am), and Ian Gregory’s plenary lecture on using GIS to map and analyze geographical information within texts (10:30-noon).

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Winnie-the-Pooh world mapped

Elizabeth Frengel gave a charming paper on the ideas about, illustrations and lives of Walter Crane and Ernest Shepard. She began with the history of end-papers (where from the later 19th century maps are often found), told of Crane’s writing on the importance of harmonizing text and illustration, and how described Shephard’s maps and illustrations realized the imaginary worlds of Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh and Graham’s Wind in the Willows.

I gave my own paper, Mapping Trollope: Geographies of Power where I argued Trollope’s visualized maps are central means by which he organizes and expresses the social, political and psychological relationships of his characters and themes, that they names places important to him personally; & that through his Irish maps he aimed to put Ireland into his English readers’ imagined consciousness. I show also how his use of maps changed in the later stages of his career to become minutely studied and sceptical geographies of power and take the reader well outside the corridors of power to show that what happens in ordinary places matters too.

The session concluded with Iain Stevenson on the life and “achievements” of a remarkably nervy entrepreneurial crook (soldier, husband of rich wives, Ponzi-scheme initiator), Gregor MacGregor who (among other things) was able to set up and enact crazed schemes of emigration (see my review of The Acadian Diaspora by Christopher Hodson) by exploiting the delusional dreams of independence and wealth among the ignorant abysmally poor and lower middle class. Gregor invented and produced imaginary money as well as countries and Prof Stevenson brought along some original specimens of his Poyais notes.

It was a well-attended session, and there was much stimulating talk for the half hour of time we had. As I wrote, people thanked me for the packet of maps — I gave out old-fashioned good xeroxes of maps from Trollope’s novels instead of doing a power-point presentation. During the discussion on my own paper I raised a note of doubt: Trollope’s maps are not accurate portrayals of the real worlds of Victorian England: for a start, they omit the prevalence of the abysmally poor, the huge industrial complexes (which here and there in his novels he does describe, like St Diddulph’s in He Knew He Was Right, an imagined version of London East End docklands), and thus erase and mislead modern readers and can function as propaganda. I quoted Orwell: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” People defended the escapist aspect of these imagined worlds. Many more were interested in the history and development of end-papers (which Ms Frenkel had gone over in some detail), and maps for children’s books and mysteries in general. One woman had given a paper earlier in the conference about the practice by one company of putting maps (automatically it seems) on the back covers of published mysteries.

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Posy Simmons map of Cranford for the book that accompanied the TV mini-series adaptation of Gaskell’s short stories — just the sort of end-paper map people were discussing

Ian Gregory showed the conference how analytical and pictorial mapping of the frequency of specific words in paired (Wordsworth and Grey’s written tours of the lake district) or comparative texts (19th century official reports of the incidence of diseases like cholera and small pox in cities in England) can enable a researcher respectively to grasp unexpected emphases and large trends, and suggested the understanding gained this way can be added to close and/or deconstructive readings of texts. He made a lively wry talk out of philosophical, somber and abstract material.

It was then noon and as I had a 1:30 pm train to catch to return home to Washington, it was time for this Cinderella to leave imagined maps and return to her hotel and modern pumpkin coach (a cab) and head back for the 30th Street train station. What I wish I could have heard: more discussion on how maps are exercises in imposing power. I would have gone to session a-2 about maps and reading habits of soldiers and poets of WW1 (especially the paper on Edward Thomas reading Shakespeare); a-8 about why imaginary geography matters to book history; b-6, “books down under”, Australian convict memoirs, radical publishing and schoolgirl books (the Australian session probably included a paper on Ethel Handel Richardson); c-5 which had a paper on Chaucer’s portrait; d-4, the survival of WW2 concentration camp publications and letter culture; d-5, erotics of family books like Jane Eyre’s German daughters in the US (“emigrating books”). But fancy had had to be reined in.

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Wind in the Willows illustration by Shepard

Ellen

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Simon Keenleyside as Prospero

Dear friends and readers,

Lest it be thought I’ve gone over-the-top in my praise of so many of these Met Operas transmitted by HB, my reaction to the first act of Ades’s and Oakes’s Tempest was it’s so still, and “there’s nothing doing.” I didn’t like the (to me) screetch-y high notes of Ariel, nor the lack of long melodic arias. The costumes were trying too hard. Keenleyside with his skin tattoos, feathers on his head, was still not US Indian-like; Ariel in pink fluff with ludicrously heavy-make-up – all green eyes; the lovers far too well-fed and smooth, he like something out of When Knighthood was in Flower, she like some fairy tale maiden in the Blue Fairy Book. Robert LePage’s re-building of aspects of La Scala on stage could have made for a disconnect, it added nothing.

What took time to emerge was the focus on an ethical-psychological relationship between Caliban and Prospero: when Prospero loses Ariel, he’s left without consolatory dreams. Ares really gave us an adaptation, serious interpretation of Shakespeare’s play (Enchanted Island was more Dryden/Davenant).


Audrey Luna as Ariel

The play-story does not depart from any of the hinge points of Shakespeare’s; Meredith Oakes’s script brought over to operatic music Shakespeare’s austere visionary core with its intimations of dream aspiration and realities of brute animal creatures and vicious envious evil (Caliban and the Milanese apart from Ferdinand). The young lovers were appropriately innocent for their short beautiful songs and their and all the music was like Debussy (Pelleas et Melisande) — ever there quietly beautiful. After a while the set also turn of the century, with its conceit the people are in an opera house grew tiresome. Yes there was a computer island, soft sea, and we began to see the slow emergence of Prospero’s character as regretful, remorseful, bitter yet in act willing to forgive began. That’s part of the play’s naturalistic miracles.

The last part or act was so moving to me. Keenleyside showed how well he can act: I identified with him as the older person having to give over, to let go, and I liked the presentation of Caliban as an aspect of the solitary Prospero. None of the really powerful lines were omitted, and Prospero’s response to Miranda’s “O brave new world,” was plangently disillusioned.


Alan Oates as Caliban

I’d like to see it again so I could enter into Act 1 from the perspective of what is to come.

As to the interviews, Deborah Voight can carry these off. To some extent she asks real questions about singing technique. You could see in Ades’s eyes a moment’s oh I wish I didn’t have to do this hype but he managed and gave eloquent interviews where he spoke more simply and directly about writing and putting on the opera and his relationships with the singers. He said that he saw himself as their support.

Some reviews: this review particularly insightful and with good photos and stills. See New York Times review. Another review.

Ellen

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