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Archive for the ‘mini-series’ Category

BagsintheRiver1

BagsintheRiver2
“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:

Marie

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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

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

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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Walt

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Walt (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse (Aaron Paul) listening to one another

Dear friends and readers,

I did not write a separate blog on Season 3:5-7 as I thought the first two were poor, with Episode 7 returning to the strength of the series: in-depth psychology, slow movement in which not much happens outwardly until a final deadly encounter. These next three combine familial melodrama, medical film fiction, black comedy, and seething danger. The story line is detailed at wikipedia were all of the latter type.

What interests me is its use of stasis, where the viewer is invited to pay close attention so that the slightest story detail adds to the psychological pressures resulting from what’s going on. “I see you” (8) carries on the dramaturgy of what we’ve seen before, but its content, an hour long dramatization of a a family group waiting for news of the survival or death of a much-valued person in a hospital environment, is riveting as all the episodes dwelling on fatal sickness and modern medicine have been.

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A failed resuscitation

Betsy Brandt as Marie angry and terrified that Hank (Dean Norris), the central rock of her existence will die, and then that he’ll be crippled for life has particularly half-mad scenes — a fork in the cafeteria is filthy, constituting the ever-present iatropic dangers of the place. Why was his gun taken from him?If he had had his gun, all would have been well …

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Hank newly on his guard

Mike, the lawyer’s killer-helper (Jonathan Banks whose role has expanded greatly in the last few episodes) easily kills off one of the bizarre-cousin murderers with an injection. Skylar (Anna Gunn) now is willing to admit she knows all about Walt’s activities, who his phone calls are to (Jesse) and willing to use the oodles of money Walt has made to hire a super-expensive therapist outside the Medical Network to which Hank and Marie belong. It is assumed that the only way to get adequate care when you are seriously hit, any cure is to spend gross amounts on doctors who won’t take insurance and of course get away with this because they can and do cure you by really taking care of you instead of pretending to: this Network would provide physical therapy thrice a week in a month and for a short while.

“Kafkaesque” (9) was weaker as it again simply shows the deterioration or weakening of all the characters in conventionally moral ways, but it did have a memorable indeed inspired witty interchange. Jesse is telling the facilitator (Jere Burns) of his anti-drug-addiction group about what his work in a laundromat is like: Jesse elaborates from the “boss is a douchbag,” he never sees his “superboss,” “nobody knows what’s going on:”

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Jesse: It’s like rigid one day bleeds into the next, been working a lot … totally corporate … all kinds of red tape my boss is a dick, the owner superdick [I'm] not worthy whatever to meet him. I guess everybody’s scared of the dude. Place is filled with dead eyes …

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Group Leader: Sounds kind of kafaesque

Jesse: Yeah totally kafaesque majorly

Jesse has no idea what the word refers to, only that it’s famous, literary; perhaps it means making no sense. We do learn that Jesse is siphoning off Meths and with his friends selling it separately. They begin to use the word indiscriminately for what they are doing. Well, in a way the story has become Kafkaesque — minus Kafka’s political totalitarian context.

Again the third of the trio soars: “Fly” (10): It is in effect an inset 2 character play. Aaron Paul has before shown himself capable of the virtuoso outpouring of intense emotion and cogitation and does it several times in all three episodes; Cranston’s soliloquy in “Fly” is quieter but goes on as long and is as effective.

We watch two actors, Aaron Paul as Jesse and Byran Cranston as Walt in a basement room filled with technological equipment interact in terms of their now long relationship, memories and pressures right now. They have become the underpaid employees of the terrifyingly ruthless killer Gus (Giancarlo Esposito), all the more scary because of his mild exterior and how everyone outside the drug dealers turns to him as a benign philanthropist, ceaselessly polite.

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He is making hugely more than they and is a dangerous man; they work long hours cleaning and cooking, and the strain of all that has happened becomes too much.

As Marie focuses on a fork, so Walt takes umbrage at a fly as a contaminant and much of the action the hour is taken up as the two men try to kill the fly. Walt makes a home-made fly swatter; Jesse to please Walt buys a whole load of fly papers and sprays. What keeps us watching through is their relationship. Jesse begins to show concern for Walt as half-mad from lack of sleep, losing all perspective, and makes him sleep by loading a cup of coffee with sleeping pills. In turn, Walt shows real affection for Jesse: “come down from there, Jesse, you’ll hurt yourself”; tells of how he wish he had died when Skylar gave birth to her baby daughter, before his drug-dealing emerged; and half-drugged, holds on to a ladder while Jesse swats away, telling Jesse half-cryingly he is sorry that Jane died, very sorry.

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The lab is shot in sharp dark blue light at night, contrasting to the bright reds and oranges of the day outfits

We fear he will confess; while Jesse thinks it was nobody’s fault he accepts it, just, if with intense grief. All the while they are intermittently like clowns (as they were in earlier episodes).

It ends in the dawn when they have killed the fly finally, cooked the meths and Walt tells Jesse he is aware Jesse is embezzling (so to speak) meths and if Jesse is caught, he, Walt, cannot protect Jesse. Jesse says he needs no protection. Walt drives off, Jesse standing there. The inset piece is self-contained too.

Small moments: although Skylar shows herself more willing to cooperate with Walt, be a wife to him, her bullying instincts come to the fore in episode 8 when her boss-lover, Ted Benecke (Christopher Cousins) shows up at the door of her house, ostensibly looking to help her but actually asking for emotional support and comfort. He should have known better.

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The mini-series suggests men expect “good” women to be hard as nails (that’s what they respect)

When he persists in asking why her behavior is suddenly distant and hard, she bursts out, Will you force me to do this now? Not stupid, he retreats. So the characters are consistent within their narrative development.

Watching the “inside breaking bad” features and listening to the costume and light design people, I was aware of how much money was spent (Eaton says in her book she hasn’t got the budget of a Breaking Bad or Madman). There were shorts of Cranston and Paul and others taking questions. I was touched by Paul turning round to thank the audience for watching. He was himself not supposed to last beyond the first season and he is not a handsome male lead type so this role could mean much for his career.

And it continues to be a bleak mirror of American life. I write about these episodes also because they trouble me in a directly personal way I want to be open about. In the series of scenes where Marie is told about the apparently minimal physical therapy her medical network offers Hank, there is a direct parallel to what Walt would have been offered to cure or slow down or palliate this cancer from an HMO. Marie and Hank are given choices within their network, but the essential treatment is the same. As a nurse she asserts Hank must have immediate therapy and several days a week for hours. To get real help she needs to “go outside,” and we again have this super-expensive doctor proposed and now Skylar offers Walt’s money.

My question is this: is this what many Americans believe? That if they pay huge sums to famous supposedly tremendously great doctors and care, they can recover or get over some crippling. It makes me think of how Jim would not come to the phone when an investment banker I knew (Trollope society man) proposed a name to us of a probably very expensive well-known doctor in Boston — outside our HMO. I wanted to go, to try at least the initial visit, but Jim would not hear of it. This Boston doctor was said to consider the operation Jim accepted from a doctor trained in the Mayo clinic (removing the esophagus) criminal. The Boston man might instead pour fantastic amounts of chemo and radiation at Jim. I have heard of people having adverse killing reactions to this sort of thing (raging leukemia, having to have limbs cut off), but also living. I am ever remorseful we did not do this at least try. It would have been costly to start with – I’ve no idea what chemo and radiation would cost out of pocket.

Do people in general believe this myth? Is it a myth? Another friend I have clearly does – and paid huge sums, subjected her beloved to a12 hour operation that almost killed but is said to have removed a super-early stage cancer. The “ordinary” doctors talked of watchful waiting because of his bad health and because it was dangerous and they could cut it out in a few months.

Is this sort of belief why it is so difficult to get people to join into communities of care in a socialized set up? But surely those who don’t want to belong to these are not better off belonging to nothing – which is the alternative to the Affordable Care Act and networked insurance, HMOs and the rest.

So I think would Jim be still here? Would his life have been prolonged? In the mini-series we are still told statistically Walt has two years to live — his cancer is now in remission but might come back.

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Hank and Marie’s clasped hands

Ellen

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Maggie Smith between scenes

Dear friends and readers,

I somehow suspect my phrase of praise for Rebecca Eaton and Patricia Mulcahy’s Making Masterpiece that it fulfills the once famous goals of Lord Reith or the BBC to “educate, inform, entertain” might make her uncomfortable: its connotations have become stuffy, elite, even dull; but in fact her book covering a history of PBS’s most famous and long-running Sunday night prime quality (the term now used) serial dramas from the era of the powerful and fine film adaptations, original dramatizations, and multi-episode serial dramas from just before the 1967 The Forsyte Saga up to the 2010-14 Downton Abbey does just that. We learn a lot about the commercial, financial, filming, roles different people play, the TV channels who air the shows, Eaton is unashamedly working for quality in her purchases and commissions and is surprisingly candid.

Along the way she gives satisfyingly step-by-step believable accounts of some well-known to lost forever cult and individual favorites (some never got beyond the arduous planning and early deals) and she lets drops phrases that characterize swiftly how this or that aspect of this complicated art is viewed by its practitioners: such as the eponymous book or novelist-memoirist’s vision is “the underlying material” for the films. While Eaton’s explanations for why the program has held on for so long (they are “family stories, sagas, about love, betrayal, money, infatuation, illness, family deception &c&c) are wholly unsubtle and could be said of poor programming, and she shows that she reflects the commonalty of viewers; nonetheless, now and again for this or that specific series, she also shows she understood very well a political vision, how it fit into a contemporary sociological moment. She lets us know how some of the corporate funding after the mid-1980s when it seemed all but Mobil and the oil companies acted on a new realization that corporations did not need to appear civic-minded or anything but ruthless, and that when their agents discoveed that Eaton would not re-shape a program to fit an ideology (standing firm, sometimes almost alone — she tells instances and names names) she was in continual danger of being fired.

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Rebecca Eaton with Russell Baker, the host for the show after Alistair Cooke retired — they are on the set for the introductions in the 1990s — note the fire in the hearth, comfortable easy-chair …. library look)

It is also an autobiography, a seeming Horatio Alger paradigm, écriture-femme style. It’s cyclical. She opens with a photo of her mother, Katherine Emery Eaton, who she presents as a successful serious actress and “glamorous movie star” who gave up her career to stay at home as a mother and wife: its in an old (built in 1800) house, her home for many years in Kennebunkport (labryinthine, spooky), which she cherishes, whose image and memories were part of her core impulse to work for and support Masterpiece Theater, but which she tells us on the first page no longer contain her parents, daughter or husband. She closes on her present apartment in Cambridge, Mass, a divorced woman whose daughter she reminds us was named after her grandmother and is now in theater and close to her. This private story of a husband who adjusted his career to bring up, be more at home with the one daughter (someone had to), and her distant relationship with that daughter until the girl grew up is woven in for about 2/3s of the way.

I say seeming because the story is also a justification, an explanation for why nowadays there are so fewer multi-episode (3 is become common) expensively produced carefully meditated productions from literary masterpieces. She is telling us how she did the best she could, how the recent spread of violent thrillers, cynical reactionary adaptations of contemporary novels (something in the vein of Breaking Bad, British style), seems at times to take over the time slot; her lot is fighting a continually uphill struggle where she lurches from acquiring, purchasing BBC and British productions, to producing them with the BBC and from the 1980s alonside or in competition with increasingly tough competition, in the UK, the ITV (Granada) channels, London Weekend, and in the US, cable, A&E, HBO, new technologies which allow viewers to curate and watch programs according to their own schedule (using DVDs, streaming, Netflix). It’s told in a peculiar way. A single person (named and the boss who wanted to get rid of our heroine) theatens a wasteland. Each curve ball or crisis is averted by the sudden unexpectedly widely popular good quality, subtle, intelligent adaptation. So the book reads like a series of rescues. She is not so much the rescuer as the person on the spot when circumstances come together so that a product (most often only a mini-series can provide the amount of ballast needed) is on offer which rescues them.

According to Eaton, Masterpiece theater as “the home for classy drama” (Alistair Cookie’s phrase)

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began when the first The Forsyte Saga developed a visible passionate following (fanbases made themselves felt before the Internet too), and attracted a man from Mobil, Herbert Schmertz (who loved dramas set before the 20th century); at the time Mobil was competing with other oil corporations in the 1970s who thought that they need to be seen as civic-minded (no more). The result: a stream of progressive superb mini-series from the 70s,enough of which were as avidly watched (Poldark, The Pallisers) until well into the later 1980s (The Jewel in the Crown). Eaton does not say this explicitly, but the re-creation of Poldark in terms similar to the 1970s is a bid to create a new and bring along the old fanbase for the Winston Graham historical novels (due Spring 2015); so too the filmically innovative Death Comes to Pemberley just before it (fall 2014) is a carefully calibrated appeal to the changed expanded Jane Austen audience

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A new Demelza who looks like some of the 1960s illustrations from the Bodley Head Poldark edition — Eleanor Tomlinson is also the new Georgiana, sister of

A genuinely tried Darcy and Elizabeth:

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The film does interesting things with Darcy, makes his character more understandable, Elizabeth’s more mature, and as to film: voice-over entangling with shot-reverse shot, scene juxtaposition

The later 1980s, the Thatcher years were the first set back with destructive re-organizations and competitive contracts of packaged dramas at British TV; an occasional return to the old model using new film techniques taken from commercial theater (the 1991 Clarissa) did not seem to help, until the new “savior” appeared: Middlemarch and the art of Andrew Davies.

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I still find it painful to watch the failure of Lydgate (Douglas Hodge) unaware how another’s supposed weak view of the world, Rosamund’s (Treveyn McDowell) can wreck dreams no one else can appreciate

I am aware that there are sheaf of essays on the filmic Middlemarch, that it was admired and is still loved — its exquisite historical feel, a breathe of wide humanity, great acting, relevance (the failed career of Lydgate). Eaton recounts losses: how could she have been so stupid as to let go of Davies’s Pride and Prejudice to A&E. It was then she did bow to corporate pressure: a one-time quickie Poldark denuded of all politics will stand for one resulting flop.

But amid these “dark days” she did not forget her job — she attempted to bring into Masterpiece adaptations of good American books. Maybe that was what was needed. If American producers and funders could not begin to understand a British Cornish regional novel, this they might get. She had successes but there are more sad stories, of fine projects that never got off the ground amid a protracted process: The Glass Menagerie with Meryl Streep didn’t happen. She wanted to call her dream The American Collection. Those who helped included Paul Newman’s wife, Joanne Woodward, and they did Our Town for which Paul Newman earned an Emmy. About the size of what she could achieve was Mark and Livy, the story of Mark Twain and his wife. It seems that Anglophilia is the fuel of Masterpiece and Americans don’t value their own great books. At one point she was told “not to be ridiculous.”

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Catherine (Felicity Jones) and Henry Tilner (J.J.Feilds) approach Northanger Abbey

Then another fortuitious rescue occurred. Most people seem unaware that the evolving Jane Austen canon came to the rescue again. Since they were done on the cheap, each only 108 minutes at most (depending on where you watched them, it could be as little as 83 minutes) the 2007-8 Mansfield Park (not noticed for Wadey’s take in which the men are ritually humiliated instead of the women), Persuasion (daringly shown to be the trauma of loss it is), and Northanger Abbey (a delightful Davies product) have not been paid serious attention to by film studies people. But these one-shot Austen films were, according to Eaton, central in reviving film adaptations of classic books subtly and originally done again. The three were great draws. By that time she had gotten the rights to Davies’ 1995 P&P so they were accompanied by this P&P and Davies 1996 Emma. She is a great friend of Davies. The next year ahe was able to execute produce Davies’s Sense and Sensibility (with Anne Pivcevic, a long time associate of his), and Gwyneth Hughes’s Miss Austen Regrets. And she used her technique of purchase and cooperative funding to make a 4 part mini-series once again: the Australian Lost in Austen, better liked than people have been willing to admit.

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Michael Grambon, Judi Dench and Lisa Dillon as Mr Holbrook, Matty Jenkyns, and Mary Smith

I was surprised by her then singling out Cranford Chronicles, to which she also attributes the resurgence of whatever is left of the older Masterpiece theater film adaptation and serious domestic drama impulse. The chapter on Cranford Chronicles is the richest of the book. We go from first idea and objections: whoever heard of Elizabeth Gaskell, much less Lady Ludlow? (Cranford was dropped as a school text in the US at the beginning of the 20th century.) Constant trips, lunches, deals sealed with a famous actress on board (Judi Dench), then unsealed, then lost from view, then picked up again, the whole process of acquiring screenplay writer, of writing with her, the sets, how dissatisfied people are with the first rushes, and how they try again and finally have a winner.

When at the close of the book she talks of Downton Abbey trying to explain its draw she identifies what I’ll call a communitarian ideal (she’d never use that phrase) — it’s this sense of loving socially conscientious community where most of the characters in Downton are well-meaning or basically good, with the exception of over-the-top monsters (Vera Bates) or one violent rapist who we know would do it again, no one is ejected, everyone treated with dignity and concern. Well this is the great appeal of Cranford Chronicles too — and Heidi Thomas does one better by allying the stories with progressive ideals. Eaton though singles Cranford out because not just its wide audience (after all Davies had trumped with a new Little Dorrit, Bleak House, a deeply moving Dr Zhivago rivaling and rewriting Pasternak’s novel against David Lean’s reading) but because she does see how it speaks to our times, fairy tale fashion. It must be admitted in this book she spends little time worrying whether a given mini-series reflects its era or particular author — perhaps she leaves that to screenplay writer, producer and director. I note the same film-makers recur for movies made from the same author (e.g. Louis Marks for Dickens). For her warm-hearted Cranford led to warm-hearted Downton.

Her book is meant to function today, 2014 and that too is why two chapters on Downton Abbey are devoted heavily to Downton Abbey, its lead-in, production, aftermath. She talks about why she thinks the program became a sociological event, and now an adjective: it appeared at the right time that year (before the new Upstairs/Downstairs which she says was found to be too dark, too pessimimistic, to much a mirror of our era); the house matters (as did Castle Howard for Brideshead). I’ve just written a paper on Andrew Davies’s Trollope adaptations as part of an anthology on British serial drama and found it distorting to see its purview (it too begins with The Forstye Saga and ends on DA) skewed by too many references to this program. The book is typical; I’ve seen this over-emphasis repeatedly. After all filmically it’s utterly conventional; if it is liberal in its attitudes towards sexuality and the human topics it will broach, it keeps the old decorum up. Its political outlook is one which looks upon the French Revolution as unfortunate, providing only an amelioration; now if only the Granthams had lived in France during the famine. They’d have provided jobs and meals. Nowhere does Fellowes show us that such a house was a power-house, a linch-pin in repressive controlling economic and political arrangements from the which local magistrates and MPs emerged to conscript soldiers and sailors. Everyone who knows anything about country houses knows this.

She does explain why the fuss. The outrageous ratings — it easily beat out Breaking Bad and Madman the first year in the Emmy prize race. It’s a selling card when you want to pitch a new fine series. And to give credit where credit it is, it is high quality; the characters are (as Eaton would no doubt tell us) compelling, psychologically complex; no expense is spared, the actors superb. It is great soap opera and as a woman defending women’s art, I too cry it up (with all the reservations above) as using brilliantly what this individual form in structure can do. She describes the series as a community — that’s soap opera. Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) rescues Mr Carson’s Jim Carter) old time colleague form the music hall from the local workhouse is a single anecdote, but it gathers all its strength by how its embedded in four seasons of memories about these characters. She does not mention that one of its strengths is it is not limited by a nineteenth-century text censored by Mudie’s Library. We can see how a rape plays out.

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Did Lady Rosamund (Samantha Bond) have a baby out of wedlock and give it up before she married Painswick — soap opera communities license us to look beyond what we can see and hear, to a past to be unearthed

How does an executive producer spend her days. Ceaseless socializing, phone calls, pitches, deciding. She does tell much of this throughout the book and in the chapter on Cranford, but she characterizes her job in another chapter again. She’s in on the film editing, how long the film can be, how its final scene plays. Along the way we learn of how she finally found some stable funding. She garnered as a well-heeled contributor Viking Cruises because a survey she did showed a surprising percentage of people who take cruises to Europe also watch Masterpiece Theater loyally. So she pitched this customer favorite to the running the cruises. She created Masterpiece Trust where wealthy people contribute and get to be named and also introduce the program. Perhaps the unashamed commercials for Ralph Lauren clothes (all expensive artifice) might jar more than the old more discreet pitches for oil and gas companies (but we should remember when we shudder at the anorexic women that they are not encouraging others to drop bombs to ensure Lauren’s profit). One of my books on women’s films has a whole section on how even costume dramas — those set say in the 18th century at any rate and after influence women’s wear. In the 1970s many of the costumes were Laura Ashley like creations — somewhere half between the 18th century and elegant clothes in the 1970s. I note that a certain kind of shawl is now popular since it became omnipresent in the costume dramas of the 2000s Obviously the Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and other stars influenced people — remember Annie Hall, the Annie Hall style … This has long been known and at the close of films nowadays you will see little icons for fashion designers and makers of clothes who the costume designer worked with. So Eaton asked herself who has their product been an advertiser for …

A smaller strand of the book is her relationship with the people who do Mystery! and how and when decisions were made to bring Mystery! material over to Masterpiece. Sometimes it seems as if Masterpiece gets the best of Mystery! they took Prime Suspect (Helen Mirren), and now the new Sherlock (Bernard Cumberbatch). Sometimes a book that one might expect to be on Masterpiece turns up on Mystery!. We are not told why all the time.

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With Diana Rigg on the set of The Heat of the Day (Elizabeth Bowen’s masterpiece on a Mystery! set — but then she was hostess for Mystery! for a while)

The book ends on what she called “the Downton effect” and returns to her personal motivation, satisfactions, and present. It does sound a bit lonely in that apartment. She likes to think of this program she’s served for so many years as she does her life, intertwined memories. The book has flaws; it does not begin to tell all. A full history would be a couple of thick volumes. What has made her the success she is, her rough-and-ready way of seeing things broadly, as some common denominator of intelligent person might, her upbeatness still don’t get too much in the way of sufficient candor. She describes behavior on the sets as no love-fest, and in the various stories of programs that never made it it’s often someone’s ego or a demand for a higher salary that got in the way. She says spontaneous group scenes for photographs are rare. The book never drips; it moves on and has a hardness. It’s apparent she’s not retiring yet. She won me over at any rate. The originating impulse was to do all her mother had not been able to do — she sets up the black-and-white photo near her bed on its last page.

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She gives credit to where it’s due: Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins’s conception of having downstairs get more than equal time to upstairs after watching The Forsyte Saga.

Ellen

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Sebastian (Anthony Andrews in his greatest role, how I loved and bonded with him) and Charles (Jeremy Irons) at the hospital in Morocco Their first early love like mine and Jim’s

Dear friends and readers,

Although I’ve written about this stunningly daring and powerful mini-series before (Mesmerized, still on Brideshead), I feel I should say something of it here as this blog as turned into one mostly about movies and the books these derive from. How can I not write of one of the greatest of film adaptations here too.

Late last week and most of this I fell once more under the spell of Jeremy Irons’s haunting voice-over and the yearning swelling-out music of Brideshead Revisited. It transcends the twisted self-destructiveness of its Catholic agenda (embodied in Claire Bloom’s Lady Marchmain’s rigorous cruelties) or (better put) the film-makers use the Catholic theme as part of a projection of feelings, thoughts, experiences, beauty in the world against contemporary meaningless, one of the escapes because the way the house once was when it was taken care it no longer is — although it carries on used in in new ways. In our contemporary technologically efficient militarized world it’s a barracks (or as in Downton a hospital for those physically maimed and dying). It is about death, many deaths, what is terribly destructive, how joy, hope, resolve, belief dies.

The center Jim said was “contra mundum.” Against the worldishness of world captured wildly parodically in Rex Mottram (Charles Keating playing as inimitably as everyone else). Rex is the only person we see turn the house into what it was meant to be earlier: a power house, not a place for selfless employment of others (as Downton Abbey has it), but a place to control, repress, shape, get what the owners want out of life. Meanwhile the ubiquitous hard-working Wilcox (Roger Milner) keeps the place running (a curious thing I noticed there are hardly any woman servants). Celia (Jane Ascher) is awful because she is the perfect wife for a Rex; that’s how she lives, performances which others respond to — Charles’s father pretends to think how happy his son is with Celia; John Gielgud plays the part brilliantly; he uses pretense to keep others away. (Jim read Gielgud’s letters.) Sebastian cannot enter into what’s called life: he loathes all the choices put before him; Julia, Rex discovers, is no good at it (“Rex doesn’t see the point of me”); Bridey (Simon Jones) is so rich and self-involved he never recognizes it; Cordelia (Phoebe Nicholls) is a plain version of Julia. Nanny Hawkins (Mona Washbourne) is all child-like retreat, but then that’s no life either. Charles opts for painting pictures that are utterly un-modern; he loathes modern schools of painting as so much bosh. He is hired because his pictures flatter and he does not need that much money anyway, having clearly been born to unearned income. He can play the game, just enough. Anton (Nikolas Grace) is no better at the manipulations and performances of life that achieve admiration and place (he ends up in bars taken advantage of) and his denigration of Charles’s paintings is jealousy, as Charles puts it, so much abuse. Boy Mulcaster (Jeremy Sinden) is a simply a boor, crashes through ignorantly.

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Anton abusing Charles

The greatness and power of the film is not verbal though or even its explicit themes: it resides in its wholistic ability through words, pictures, music, the actors face and gestures and way of being to convey the emotional pain of existence like nothing I’ve ever seen before or since. And the reasons for this emotional pain. The loneliness and puzzle of someone with a depth of feeling and not knowing what to do with it, finding it twisted, not understanding how these performances can be life — not realizing that what he or she desires or seeks reciprocation for — sheer joy and play in existence together — is not at all what the average person wants. At moments in Vanya on 2nd Street Wallace Shawm as Uncle Vanya comes up to this kind of deep ache of despair, but one character does not an overwhelming experience make.

And the truth is this is one of the central or informing characteristics of the best mini-series costume dramas — to convey this pain — those weak in it remain weak; those without the necessary words cannot soar. (Downton Abbye falls down here — the characters’ anguish is just not held long and allowed to evolve. Except when it’s from a death, we don’t begin to see where the grief comes from. We do in Gosford Park, because Altman was there.) The heights of Brideshead Revisited are its electrifying nadirs as well as visions — the great virtuoso pieces, Andrews as Sebastian catastrophically drunk, Diana Quick as Julia devouring herself, eating herself up over her exploitation (of her, by her) and betrayal, Phoebe Nicholls as Cordelia about Sebastian, Lawrence Olivier as Lord Marchmain dying of a long word, his great soliloquy about the land and the building — and Irons looking on all the while. An electric current seems to run through the movie and into my body and through my veins until I stretch out and twist as the music plays on.

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The house is photographed mostly quietly — this corridor moment is typical — though there are the sudden zoom shots and angles

How Jim and I loved it that first year it played, trumpets heralding 1981 — Monday nights, we’d sit with our suppers in the living room to see it together. It was not a Masterpiece Theatre production, but something from Granada TV playing on PBS. He liked Waugh, and said BR was an unusual book for Waugh — openly autobiographical in the sense that Waugh became a convert to Catholicism and had trouble re-marrying because of this. Waugh was probably bisexual and here showed it openly. Most of his books were guarded and saturninely satiric at their best, bitter. And during that year Jim bought Waugh’s novels, Vile Bodies and A Handful of Dust, The Loved One, Scoop, novels from The Sword of Honor, Men at Arms, all of which he read, then a very fat diary, which he read quite through too. I read Vile Bodies, of which I remember nothing but that I read it, A Handful of Dust, whose famous excruciating close of a hero forever condemned to read Dickens aloud to a mad hermit stays in the mind; The Loved One, a hilarious send-up of absurdly overdone American funerals, all California pious hypocrisy: I was naive enough to think when I read it no one could ever use the term “loved ones” again. Jim thought Scoop bitterly satirical on journalists, brilliant.

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Ryder cramming because unlike the Flytes he feels he must have some sort of degree

My DVD set does not have a feature (none was done at the time) but a recent pamphlet. You learn the original screenplay by John Mortimer was for a 6 hour mini-series. There were delays and a young director named Charles Sturridge was taken on, and over course of a long-time filming the shooting script grew. What Sturridge did was defy the tabooes against voice-over and he went thorough Brideshead Revisited itself and with unerring rightness chose just those plangent melancholy words from Rider’s narration that captured the book’s core melancholy, omitting all that was “dead” in comparison and knitted it together the over-voice narration of Irons. Twenty weeks for filming. The result was an 11 episode mini-series with the first episode 2 hours and the last an hour and a half. I skim-read the book this week once again and thinking about the description of Mortimer’s original script I realize why the movie is credited to Sturridge

They filmed in Castle Howard (a central presence, chief character in the film), in Venice, and some islands in the Mediterranean.

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Driving up that first day — Sebastian driving

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Charles as Innocent: his first word in response: “Golly”

My darling (Jim) never made it to Venice: he loved Antony Hecht’s Venetian Vespers: we read it aloud to one another at another time, the 1980s in Alexandria gotten from a used bookshop, of which there were once many.

The music is by Geoffrey Burgon. Jim would have said the following YouTube is kitsch, but it has the evocative music in minor key and has as drawings centrally beloved (Sebastian especially) and savagely ironic (like the poor turtle with jewels sewn into its back) moments:

The film editor was Anthony Ham. Costume design Jane Robinson. I did notice that Diana Quick and a few of her more conservative yet spectacular outfits, her body type, the clothes’ style resemble Michelle Dockery and hers.

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With Julia while Rex reigns in Brideshead, it is contra mundum still

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If I bonded with Sebastian then (and Stephane Audran as Cara when she shook her head saying no she didn’t want this place), I do with Ryder now:

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A final shot of Ryder as he looks up at the house one last time

What I too have left are memories, and I must grow strong by possessing the past within me and staying true to it … never will I come alive as I was during the decades with him, though I do believe he didn’t change me much. Deeper and deeper. Perhaps it’s not healthy for me to watch this mini-series, but rising from it I am aware that wherever I go I take Jim with me. If I were to go to New York City everywhere I went would be memories of even blissful times; if I go to England, his ghost will be in my mind wherever I go: if it’s where we were I’ll remember, if it’s where we didn’t get to as a couple, I’ll mourn his having missed it. He is with me, in me, all around me in my mind. One need not self-destruct because he no longer exists — all he left exists around me, and I remember him and us, what we were.

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The very first and last shots of the house in the film ….

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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Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) appealing to Walter White (Bryan Cranston) to get into the car to talk

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Marie Schrader (Betsy Brandt) listening to Hank (Dean Norris) making excuses for why he must go to El Paso

Dear friends and readers,

I doubt you’ll be surprised to learn I’m carrying on with this. First I might as well ‘fess up. I’ve a personal investment: Aaron Paul playing Jesse Pinkman at some of his most hard-core guarded moments reminds me of Jim when I first met him — at the time kicked out of university, sleeping on a chair at a club he had belonged to the first year he was in university, coming to my door, waiting for me to come out of a bookstore, always there on time, helping me cook, shop, or occasionally even more recently, nearly 50 years later, talking to someone come to our door now who had irritated him, showing that person the door. And my heart has quite warmed to Betsy Brandt playing Marie: she shows real concern for Hank, real need for him, loyalty to him — and people she’s known all her life. She is loyal to Skylar (Anna Gunn) though Sylar tried to cut Marie off utterly when she discovered Marie’s sickness. Marie is genuinely upset to see Hank endanger himself because he must look like he wants a promotion (in fact he does). So there are two characters for me to like, to worry for.

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Not that I don’t feel for Walt — I do as he attempts at first to divest himself of his business making meths now that the bills are paid, the cancer seems in remission, and he has enough to leave his family if he should predecease them after all, and even more so when he discovers that everyone around him is pressuring him either to exercise his gifts again (to make them huge sums of money) or rejecting him savagely mostly on grounds that he cannot pull off the hypocrisy they enact (from the principle of his school to of course the moral horror, his wife, Skylar [Anna Gunn], who was allowed or asked to gain weight so she looks squarer, narrower-eyed, more tasteless than she had in previous episodes.

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But what really held me through the four hours this time was the artistry of this mini-series. My reward for having gone this far was at long last there was voice-over commentary over an episode where the people weren’t yuking it up and saying nothing (as had the previous voice-overs) but intelligently discussing the mise-en-scene, shots, coloration, music, acting decisions. This was for Las Mas, the first episode of the season where Cranston had been the director (as well as acting star). The cinematographer used a yellow filter over his camera for all the scenes in Mexico, a palette of brown-orange. Cranston acknowledged the series’s unusual commitment to nuanced acting between two actors over a scene that can take well over 10 minutes. No music in the background. They seriously discussed why they juxtaposed a scene with another, the characters’ personalities, an attempt at visual pictures — so the two psychopathic killers as they walk away from a truck they blew up (with people in it) have behind them gorgeous orange-yellow-red colors and flames and the whole screen yellowish. Other moments are similarly worked at for color, disposition, symbolisms.

I find the secret to the way the series holds me is are these long-drawn out conversations, altercations, or discussions, where it seems nothing important is happening and then suddenly two or three sharp biting scenes and we are involved with someone justified angry. As to the larger story-line, the near foreground horrifies and absorbs us. As opposed to most mini-series there is no sub-plot, no patterned parallel and ironic other stories, just one story. And in a given episode not much happens. I mentioned this is an action-adventure story if you consider the piece from the movie genre point of view; it’s crime or sensational fiction if you consider it as a filmed novel. Instead of a detective, the criminal is at the center and he is a victim, so we have reverses within reverses. We are asked to identify with the man driven to act criminally through society’s mechanisms (huge prices for staving off death from an environment produced cancer), who when he attempts to stop, finds himself unable to reintegrate, irritated by the hypocrisies all around him. After the crash in the gym he alone will not repeat the obvious false pieties that everyone will never forget, never be the same again and the microphone is taken from him. The detective figure or DEA agent (Hank) is (again unusual) imperceptive except when he gets an obvious clue and then is unable to put two and two together so he has forgotten Jesse Pinkman’s trailer as he stares at the camera shot of this trailer in black-and-white.

The combination of a strong mythic use of color and a reverse crime story made me think of Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, which we are reading on Trollope19thCStudies (@ Yahoo) together. The primitive violence there also addresses timely issues — and some universal, still with us, like people vanishing, people gone missing either through death or themselves seeking some escape. The moral center of the tale is ambiguous with vulnerable characters finding themselves up against utter intransigence in other people’s cruelty, greed, egoism, and the structure of the society which excludes them almost (it seems) at the drop of a hat. A kind of epitomizing moment occurs in the four episodes when Walt is pulled over by a cop on the road, and growing angry at the cop’s refusal to bend and listen to why his windshield is partly, he acts out rage, and in response the cop carelessly pepper-sprays his face close-up. That’s law and order. And Walt is expected to apologize for the officer in order not to be charged and put in jail.

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The police state we live in glimpsed — as senseless

As to any ethical new inference: again Jesse is treated with cold indifference by his parents, consciences long ago buried. He is sent to a rehabilitation center where he meets other suffering people and hears stories of their guilt and remorse; when he returns and tries to reach out to Walter White, he finds one, White will not agree to accept that they are “bad” people, somehow different from others in this badness (and White is right there) nor will he show any lasting kindness.

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The teacher-guide at rehabilitation’s great lesson is how bad he is — he ran over his daughter with his car when he was drugged one night

Just as White is leaving the high school (having been given a leave, i.e., fired for non-conformist behavior which culminates in his self-destructive approaching the principal sexually), Jesse drives up with a proposition to start up their manufacturing again. At first White tries to be a friend (he calls Jesse “son”), but when he realizes that Jesse has manufactured the meths on his own, White becomes livid with fury as he did when his friend made huge sums running a business based on knowledge the friend gained from White’s chemistry successes. He is soon calling Jesse names and behaving towards him like Jesse’s parents. Jesse had really been looking for something to do; he is given no useful function in this society, and after grieving over the death of Jane, listening to her voice on one of these taped phone rejections (“call back if …”), and being cut off (as a machine disconnected the phone upon non-payment of a bill) he returns to the meth lab, faute de mieux. This is the one place he felt some belonging, a rare success, though one he despises himself for doing.

And Skylar turns out to be a person who lives by lies too: she will not allow her lawyer to expose Walt as a drug manufacturer lest it upset the son. In a sudden contradictory exaggeration she worries lest Walt Junior (RJMitte) have a bad view of his father — hilarious this as she is throwing the man out, treating him like she would a dog. So she’s a pious hypocritical contradictory liar too. In these four episodes her strongest trait is spite: she uses her boss, Ted, in effect takes him to bed with her so that she can humiliate Walt by telling him “I fucked Ted.” Not once in about 24 episodes has she ever used the word “love” towards or to Walt; never has she recognized that she drove him to take the super-expensive treatments which she had no right to do. Now she jeers and leers over him. What mythic type does she embody? I can think only of one of the female moral monsters in Dickens self-presented as super-virtuous.

The title I think now refers to us all. Breaking Bad — we all break out from time to time. We see the tough punishment meted out for overt kinds of breaking bad and grow to recognize those breaking bad moments hidden by hypocrisy (false use of language) or silence (golden).

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Marie hearing Hank’s jokes about how indestructible he is, is no longer amused — the attentive reader-viewer will realize by this point that Hank (our lame detective) will eventually be “eliminated”

Ellen

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First season, 2nd episode: Bates (Brendan Coyle) accosts Thomas (Rob James-Collier)

Dear friends and readers,

I’m now well into Season 4 on this fifth journey of mine through Downton Abbey and have begun to notice a parallel: repeatedly both John Bates and Thomas Barrow are photographed as looking on at others. One or the other of them, sometimes both (separately) are seen on a threshold, from a space across the way, leaning against a wall. Bates’s face looking at Anna with such benign appreciation comes most strongly when he is watching her from afar, doing some act of fairness, dancing, or just sewing.

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Bates watching Anna doing the Scottish reel at Christmas

Thomas’s face is endlessly guarded as he watches others flirt, moves to snitch on someone (once in a great while rightly, like the bigoted Nanny West [Di Botcher] in Season 4), and especially when we see him yearning for a moment and twice he crosses an invisible barrier to reach out to another man, and then (in both cases, the Duke of Crowborough [Charlie Cox] and Jimmy Kent [Ed Speleers]), rejected. After he has been openly found out in the second case, and is about to be fired, we have striking scenes, e.g., of him watching Mr Bates looking at the bare cottage he and Anna are fixing up for themselves, of him downright crying in a corner:

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Unlike Bates, there is no mainstream other whom Thomas can latch on to, who suits Thomas, and who is an insider. His alliance with Miss Obrien (Siobhan Finneran) is with a pretend insider, which is therefore easily broken (as she has nothing to gain from him). People may not remember that it is Bates who goes out of his way to rescue Thomas from the spiteful and cruel revenge taken on him by Miss Obrien who, when Thomas (foolishly from a prudential standpoint, but as ever jealous of anyone’s gaining some foothold in the family that could possibly threaten him), far from helping Alfred Nugent (Matt Milner) her nephew, brought in to be a footman, lays traps for him.

Let’s look at that incident once more: helped along by the affection Thomas cannot resist showing Jimmy as he helps Jimmy learn to wind clocks and do other Downton chores, Miss Obrien has slowly aroused Jimmy Kent’s suspicions of Thomas’s sexuality, and planted hope in Thomas that Jimmy does like him, and one night, lonely, Thomas braves Jimmy’s room to be thrown out by Jimmy, horrified, filled with repugnance, just as alas, Alfred is entering to ask something. (The men seem to have their own rooms while the maids share rooms.) Thomas is exposed and called “foul” by Mr Carson (Jim Carter), an epithet he does openly repudiate — job or no job. Then when Mr Carson, unexpectedly offers at least to give Thomas a good character, Miss Obrien has no trouble rousing the fears of both footman, that their reputation and livelihood will be threatened if they don’t make sure that they are not suspected of homosexual leaning: they must act revolted, Jimmy must demand that Thomas leave without a character (or he’ll tell the police); Alfred must be made to enact disgust. In the earlier incident where the Duke to have had a liaison with a maid and she had his letters, there would be no case for blackmail. Sin or not, crossing class lines or not, heterosexuals are allowed, homosexuals not.

The larger interest which makes me write about it is that Fellowes is putting before us the same argument that E.M. Forster makes in his Maurice and Henry James through Kate’s father in Wings of the Dove and Simon Raven explictly, powerfully, angrily in his masterpiece first novel, Fielding Grey, that the misery of a life of a gay man is that what is natural ordinary looked upon with kindness, help, admiration on the part of heterosexuals — love, companionship — is a source of blackmail, petty sometimes, harsh often, for homosexuals. A heterosexual can betray a girl, even rape her (this is in Raven) and get away with it (and were it not for Bates, Mr Green would have in the case of Anna [Joanne Froggart]); the ugliest of conduct is not attacked as such, is overlooked; a homosexual man in love is at risk every moment. They live as outsiders.

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And this is the center of a key scene which wins Bates to help Thomas though Bates knows full well and lets Thomas know that Thomas has been Bates’s enemy, been spiteful and tried to get Bates fired (by planted clues suggesting Bates a thief when it was Thomas who had been pilfering wine so steadily 2 sets of boxes were missing at an inventory). Bates and Anna have been painting and making their old run-down cottage (in bad shape, not much of a gift if you compare it to the DA) and Bates is standing outside in satisfaction. Out of the dark Thomas comes up and starts to talk of how much he envies Mr Bates despite all that has happened to Bates in his (long prison sentences now twice, the Boer War, crippling) and (implicitly) what might yet occur (over the death of Bates’s first wife). This because everyone is happy for Bates, admires him and Anna for their nest together, do things to help them while (as we know) Carson uses cruel words like “foul” for Thomas’s feelings. It’s in the next juxtaposed scene that Thomas is seen crying by a corner by Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) in her frequent usual role as reconciler, who takes Thomas into her room, and discovers what is happening.

Thomas lives behind a wall is the feel he conveys to Bates, an invisible prison where he is continually at risk if he steps forth.

It’s this that makes Bates identify sufficiently with Thomas — as an outsider, forever at risk, in a society that can just thrown them out. In a remarkable series of moves (that he has to do several shows the generosity of it), Bates talks to Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) who expressed sympathy for Thomas and a desire to see him on the yearly cricket team so bad that it seems Grantham is willing to keep Thomas on in a made-up job if only for that talent), then to Mrs Hughes who tells Bates the instigator was Miss Obrien, and finally to Thomas himself, telling Thomas it was Miss Obrien. Is there nothing Thomas knows that could be used here?

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Bates’s POV as he asks Thomas to think if he knows anything as a handle for Bates to help him

And of course Thomas knows it was Miss Obrien’s putting a bar of soap near Lady Grantham’s (Elizabeth McGovern) tub that brought on her early miscarriage, thus forever cutting off the hope of a direct male heir.

Mr Bates invites Miss Obrien to the cottage and whispers the word (soap …) in her ear, we see Miss Obrien now desperately convincing Jimmy he’s done enough. Jimmy has been subject to the reprobation of the whole staff including Ivy (Cara Theobold), with whom he flirts:

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the worst sin is to try to take someone’s references and character. They will not find another job. So Jimmy (something of a mannequin dummy here) acts.

Thomas’s danger is not yet over. Alfred is also not the smartest brain in the house and he has been made to feel how “sinful” is Thomas (Miss Obrien’s grating reinforcements reinforced this) and has himself called the police. They arrive but luckily Lord Grantham is the first approached, just as he is telling Jimmy how generous it will be of Jimmy to accept Thomas’s continuing presence on the staff and that Jimmy will now be “first” footman (not much gain there for real) — Thomas is all this while playing cricket superlatively – Lord Grantham is told of the police presence and hurries over. The police tell him Alfred Nugent has revealed he was approached by a Mr Barrow. The power of the chief or bright hero of the series is shown: decisively pressured by Grantham, in a few minutes (screen time less than a minute) Alfred is there before the police, saying it was a misunderstanding, and Grantham is (in effect) punishing Alfred by offering the helpful explanation that Alfred was a bit squiffy. Drunk. Alfred takes the rap.

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The chief police officer looks at Grantham and says he gets it. They know all this is concocted but there is nothing to be done and they walk off.

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Thomas playing well, clapping enthusiastically — unobtrusively

As I have argued, we are given sufficient evidence to convict Bates of the murder of his wife and then to see that there is a strong probability he pushed Mr Green (Nigel Harman) into a bus (as the pattern of his going to London for the day and when he returns, the person has lost his or her life) and yet like Bates enormously, grant him a hero’s place in our hearts, because continually throughout the series not only is Bates himself a victim (crippled, tripped, trapped, as a disabled person at first stigmatized) but he is generous to other outsiders, e.g. Ethel. He stands aside when the others are interrogating Gwen (Rose Leslie) over her typewriter. In this blog I am concerned to bring out that there is a strong positive argument on behalf of homosexuals in the series despite its being presented in such a way that allows for the prejudices of a still bigoted audience. That Thomas is no angel would be approved of by James Baldwin: there was nothing that grated more on Baldwin than protest novels which made society’s victims into saints. They are not because they must in order to survive be collusive.

I noticed that the ends of the first and this third year conclude with some magnanimous deed of Grantham, his opening up in new ways, with Bates just behind him, engineering it (using his abilities to forge, sniff out how a criminal-cardsharp will operate, and pickpocket) — and that is what happens at the close of the fourth season too. In the third season, with a little help from Lord Grantham’s status, it’s his fellow outsider whom Mr Bates saves.

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Brendan Coyle discussing his role in the feature to the third season: it’s not over-speaking to say that in this hour-long summary of 2 seasons amid fluff, Coyle contributes the more serious reflections on the dilemmas of the character he plays (See Bates as dark hero, alter ego for Fellowes)

Ellen

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