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Bizarrerotesquerie
Bizarre Grotesquerie

Dear friends and readers,

Ironically, “Breakage,” the title for the 5th episode of Breaking Bad‘s Season 2 captures how the next 3 episodes of Season 2 functioned for me — as I gather it functions for many others who attribute their decision to stop watching to the multi-series’s high violence. Its surface cracked to reveal the emptiness of any serious thought in its highjinks, excitingly dissonant music and macho male-scary women scenes. Startlingly fun games with how many ways one can do “death” (this is an ex-head of a man) and hostile caricatures of obstacle characters were what was beneath the surface of these 3 episodes. I thought perhaps the complete real disregard for human life and dignity in them could be a distorted mirror of a society that permitted torture and now will not punish the perpetrators, but this is no Syriana.

The characteristics of this serial holding the episodes together become in these 7 episodes altogether (the second season thus far) those of the crime adventure story: central male characters trying to survive, but instead of saving the world they are trying to take it over as “their territory,” they master the tools and weapons they need; they are playful figures, Walter super-chemist, myths, farce, technology, many stereotypes. In such films women are usually either the loyal Godfather wife-daughter-sister types or women who cuckold understandably humiliated men.

ImposingHimself (2)
Walt as strained boss

ImposingHimself (1)
Under Walt’s direction, Jesse imposing himself on his crew of friends

Walt’s (Bryan Cranston) desperate naively bigoted wife, Skylar (Anna Gunn), is now moving towards sexual unfaithfulness by getting a job with an ex-boss she had a romance with. She reads a book when Walt tries to talk to her (recalling George Smiley’s wife — it’s a typical motif of male detective stories):

Skylar

I have asked myself why I find this mini-series’ alignment with junk enough to stop me watching while Downton Abbey‘s equal alignment with junk (in another genre) acceptable and decided it comes down to this: the thrust of this story is domination; the hero (Walt) is showing his ability to dominate others utterly; the women we are to respect want to dominate and interfere with the lives of the people they live with. I’ve seen so many readers like this sort of thing in a character and profess to dislike as heroes and heroines (Fanny Price anyone) who does not act this way. The premise is this is more than what is, it is admirable, to be expected, and when Walt can’t deal with it (say in his wife), and tries to escape he must be at fault. Maybe it’s overtness is the American way. such abrasiveness is inimical to me. Or this central premise puts me off. What I liked about Jesse (Aaron Paul) until Episode 7 was he eluded and evaded this way of being.

As some last comments (as I don’t mean to continue), I suggest to those who say they reject the mini-series on the score of its super-violence, it’s not. There are a lot less deaths in the 14 episodes I’ve sat through thus far than say a typical 2 hour gangster thriller. I count 8 dead, and only 2 killed by Walter White; Jessie has yet to kill anyone. It is true the deaths are done either realistically (2 people beat to death, one riddled by bullets) or in ways that approximate to bizarre jokes: Yo, Mr White, says Jessie, you made him into raspberry sauce. Done in by cracked crockery, someone’s head crushed by money-machine (har har), and the piece de resistance (Vince Gilligan congratulates himself in one of the features that no one on TV this season came up “to this”) a man’s head cut off and plastered to a turtle (whose arrogant nickname was turtle in Spanish). Gilligan laughs to think what fun the crew had and Dean Norris (plays Hank) remarked how “Apocalypse Now” followed: the turtle had a timed bomb which exploded and destroyed one man’s leg.

I suggest to those who disliked the series intensely by the end of season 2 that what is unpalatable is the series’ unpleasantness and its source: a mirroring of some common grating aspects of US cultural life: poverty everywhere — the streets outside the private house middle class block where the Whites, Jessie and Schraders live, the cheap malls, the fast food groceries: all epitomized in the reeking bad taste of “Peekaboo,” the 6th episode, a hostile caricature of the couple on meth drugs living amid filthy debris where the woman is imagined as a vile mother who doesn’t even bother to find Mr Rogers on TV for her unfed half-naked child. That last reference, that watching Mr Rogers is good for children, a surreptitious joke, like much else on the show, refers to a subset of linked shared experiences of US life. These include the huge authority given to the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) whose clowns spend much time showing off in front of one another, shaking down minor law-breakers — useless to do any good, unless you think bullying and putting poor, powerless and minority people in jail for a long time is good.

I’m not sure how accurate these melodramatic exaggerations are. In the feature the people making the film remain clueless about whatever ethical message their story has: they still go on about how the point is “the turkeys come home to roost,” that is, the bad acts of the increasingly bad Walter White are closing in on him as his lies are found out by people, forcing him to lie more. Bad man.

This refers to a scene where yet another of these respectable women (the supposed loyal wife-daughter types) of this series: Gretchen Schwartz (Jessica Hecht, rich Jewish woman) insists she has the right to demand our hero, Walter White, tell her all that he has been doing to pay for his cancer treatments since he used her name as part of his cover-up before his wife. She threatens him with the seething intrusion we’ve seen his wife, Skylar enact throughout.

Gretchen

Walt is sound when he tells her he owes her no such information as he’s done her no harm.

Women come in two types in this series: either the respectable who harangue and exploit the salaries of the men the live with, triumph over them with their own jobs, but who the men go to bed with — apparently gratefully:

Jessieappealing
Jessie appealing to his hard-nosed landlady, Jane Margolis (Kristen Ritter)

This type includes Jesse’s mother who (like his father, but she is the one we see) cannot or will not offer her son any acceptance and emotional support because he is not succeeding in prescribed middle class fashions as seen middle class magazines.

The other type of woman is the despicable, the prostitute who is easy prey for insults, the “skank” mother, recovering girlfriend addicts — weak people, weakness being what is scorned most.

What I think is noteworthy here is just about everyone who has written on and off-blog to say they couldn’t stand the show by the end of the second season have been women. Why other women can tolerate or don’t mind such misogyny I can’t explain — except maybe at some level they buy into these stereotypes of “the rights of women” and don’t on any level identify with those women who end up outcasts from endurable lives. I need a female character I can like, care about, at least empathize with and there is no woman in sight who is not at some level mean, asserting “boundaries” (how the series’ film-makers love to refer to this idea) or performing insincerely as central to their being.

Why did I suddenly see through the hype? (upon examination the wikipedia article is as heavy on obsessive hype as sites for Downton Abbey; is after all written by a single person. This series was at best a minor sociological event, nothing in comparison with say the 1995 Pride and Prejudice which profited from the prestige public TV still garners. HBO still doesn’t cut it.)

It may have been that the night after watching Episode 7, I re-watched the 1980s astonishingly rich and intelligent, My Beautiful Laundrette (scripted Hanif Kureishi, directed Stephen Frears, famously starring Daniel Day Lewis, Roshan Seth) with its suggestive and wide-ranging political and cultural critique (there is such a thing as class in this film; women are emerge as complex heart-felt characters too). The difference is drastic. My Beautiful Laundrette has some characters who are drug addicts too: they are not monsters.

But more (I agree with those who say) it’s simply that Breaking Bad in this middle of the second season begins radically to move away from its original theme — or I’ll call it here narrative arc. In the feature Cranston is still talking of Walt’s cancer, but it is providing but minor interludes of silent throwing up, or intermittent collapses, or a man getting his chemotherapy, none of which are motivating the plot-design. A person with cancer is sick and weak — can’t have that. I was not surprised to discover that by the end of this season Walt is told his cancer is in remission. These three episodes were psychologically strained. Hank is suddenly supposed to be having some kind of stress disorder to the point he vomits (instead of Walt) and nearly shoots Marie (Betsy Brandt) in his nervousness. Jesse’s affection for the unfed child is touching but the demands of the story line (he must not be found out, he must move on to adventures) require he abandon the child.

Leavingchid

It’s a shame, for from the point of view of filmic art it’s quality TV: the acting is good, the script still has much wit, though as Jesse’s character deteriorates into obeying Walt’s ideas and Jesse enacts the part of a bullying businessman (by lying to others who are easily deceived), his earlier sound grasp of what is going on dissolves away. The series began well — with a centrally visceral core — Everyman dying of cancer who cannot afford the useless treatments. His Sancho Panza Son who sees through his posturing but has no chance in a society of exclusive cliques (which he has not been helped to attach himself to somehow or other) to earn a decent income through ordinary week-long work. It has a single parallel pair of stories slowly evolving which offers opportunities for suggestive development and juxtapositions. It certainly does however unconsciously mirror US values, norms, common lives.

As a wild adventure story I concede this mini-series might have very well done episodes later on — and reading about the praise and prizes the fifth season is said to have garnered it became a internecine Godfather, complete with famous quip lines, e.g., Time listed Walter White’s “I am the one who knocks” line as one of the best television lines of 2011; or the critic’s comment that “Walter White is a bigger monster than anyone in Westeros [?].” There are few surprises to come — as a mainstream plot-driven formulaic genre matter that’s par for the course: as one was led to expect, in Season 3 Skylar is horrified when Walt tells her the truth about his business enterprises; in Season 4 we foresee and then in Season 5 Hank is murdered — he was remarkably dull not to catch on to Walt by this time.

Clueless
Promoted to where he doesn’t even understand the language (Spanish) partly because he’s clueless in acceptable ways

By Season 5 Walter’s family are helping the police; Walter has one last visit with them (natch) and then dies (bad men must die) and Jesse, freed by this death from his father-master-Frankenstein figure, ends up rightly feeling sick abhorrence at all that has happened and escapes.

In their suggestive Alternative Scriptwriting, Ken Dencyger and Jeff Rush suggest that recently thrillers and other kinds of action genres are using psychological character layers to appeal to audiences, and these bring with them visceral issues of viewers’ lives about identity, careers, family life. But for me it’s not enough to give characters details to allow the viewer to dream up a believable interior life — which is done for Walter White and Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad; the character has to go on an intelligible journey, with a consistent imagined foreground and felt background realistic and believable.

I feel I have given one of these popular male-oriented serial dramas a try. It is also tiresome & time-consuming to have only 3-4 episodes on a disk at a time, and feel I must write about what’s I’ve seen lest I forget by the time I rent another disk. (Netflix is too greedy.) It’s not worth it.

Still I will be sorry not to bond with Jesse any more. Here’s a still from the finale of the last season: he’d have done better to read Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky:

Breaking Bad Series Finale Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman 7

Ellen

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Tracy_Hepburn_Adams_Rib
She (Amanda Bonner, Katherine Hepburn) drives him (Adam Bonner, Spencer Tracy) to work (Adam’s Rib, directed by George Cukor, scripted Ruth Gordon)

Dear friends and readers,

This time I am half-a-century belated (Adam’s Rib was in moviehouses in 1949); or, if you date the time to have watched when an acknowledged understanding that there was something feminist about it to Jeanine Basinger’s A woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960 (published 1995), which on Women Writers through the Ages we read together (in 2008), I am a mere 10 or 5 years. It’s a flawed significant movie today because domestic violence, specially men beating women, is a prevailing problem in marriages. When a woman accuses a man of rape, she’s sullied, disbelieved, the man often being let off with impunity What’s more when a woman fights back, she is punished. We know today a woman in Florida is threatened with 60 years in prison for shooting at a wall to frighten a violently abusive man. She is black and the DA is getting back at her for refusing to plea bargain (go to jail for a mere 10 years): he is warning other people caught up in our increasingly utterly unjust criminal justice system: plea bargain or you’ll regret it.

If you read about Adam’s Rib in most places, you’ll read about the central or top couple, Hepburn and Spencer Tracy who are lawyers who make a great deal of money, Amanda and Adam Bonner. They are privileged upper class people in supposed conflict, and Jeanine Basinger dismisses the movie as after all just about a “feisty” upper class woman. The conflicts are transient and part of the couple’s subtext: they last as long as the case the two take on lasts: he takes the side of a husband and she a wife. So (child-like this) he is on the side of “men” and she of “women.” For a time what occurs in court and their on-screen always good-natured quarrels outside, result in separation and divorce proceedings, but these are halted as they are really too much in love, too alike, to much in harmony, to part. They do talk and listen to one another.

Adam's Rib (1949)

She wins the case and we are never told why; he is given a judgeship and again we are never told why. He closes the curtain stating he knows men and women are not the same (the supposed argument of the movie is whether men and women are the same, are “equal”): we can see they are about to have sex and the feel is on his terms whatever these are – though clearly loving and fully allowed.

We have an upper class couple whose relationship affirms the goodness of the institution of marriage which holds the two together by joint ownership, habits, apartments and memories, continually greased by money and upper class manners and wit. The value is a nuanced presentation rich with innuendo which could be watched numerous times without quite plumbing all that’s there.

It is also distanced. Filmically what is interesting about the film are all the intertitle cards and framing. As each phase of the movie passes we get an artificial framing again and a card moves away as if we are seeing a fairy story. so this happy story is filmically seen to be a fairy tale. At the close when the pair move to make love, he pulls the card over the screen. This distancing through also put us at a far away angle from the other couple.

Typicalframing (2)
The opening of the movie — and this proscenium returns repeatedly

Typicalframing (1)
A typical introduction to one of the Bonner sequences

What has been forgotten, what is equally, probably more important, is the lower-class couple, the “downstairs” pair who do not live downstairs, are not servants; rather the husband has a hard 9-to-5 job and she 3 children she is struggling to bring up. It’s the back- or sub-story (ignored in much of the writing about it) that is not trivial. They are not presented with intertitles or picturesque framings at the edge of the screen.

Stalking
Judy, overdressed, following the supercilious self-satisfied Tom reading the newspaper as the important person he is through a glass

When the movie opens, we do not begin with the Bonners but with Doris Attinger (July Holliday) nervously, anxiously, and oddly unaggressively, stalking her husband, Warren (Tom Ewell); she is clearly in distress, and follows him to and then breaks into an apartment where he is with an overdressed (absurdly glamorized) “mistress,” Jean Hagan as Beryl Caign (Beryl was a name given mistresses). Judy has a gun and tries to kill Tom (this is a movie where we never forget the actors inside the respected presences) and then Beryl. As the story unfolds we learn the man was physically abusive and continually sexually unfaithful, often allowing the wife no money to live on, continually insulting and jeering at her. She (fool) it seems meant to kill the mistress (she says) so she could have this lout back. Admittedly Holliday is dressed in the usual doll outfit I’ve seen her wear before (e.g., Born Yesterday) and her high voice used to make her absurd.

Doris-Judy has no job, no income, no resource beyond her dense lout of an unfeeling husband. The point is — to put it in the terms it would have been understood then, these are the real Ralph Kramdens (remember Jackie Gleason and Alice Meadows a few years later on TV). I do not mention the Kramdens coincidentally. Cukor and Gordon have quietly put before us a case of marital abuse but they have also caricatured them. Warren really is an egregious lout, shamelessly making fun of Doris as fat, useless, lazy, stupid; and she cries and weeps, seems not to understand simple statements, is more than slightly ridiculous if pathetic. He calls her fat, stupid, and silly — she is seen to be silly and stupid. She wants him back and we can’t understand why. She does get him back: when last seen they are being photographed as a lovey-dovey couple for the newspapers.

This matching or parallel — better contrasting couple’s relationship is meant to show that marriage as presently experienced by ordinary (not upper class people) often does not work because the norms offered the man and woman make for misery.

Interview
Holliday telling Hepburn about her marriage

There are more flaws than those I’ve pointed to. The argument that is said to describe what the case is about generalizes its content out of reach and erases the abuse. Ruth Gordon’s script makes the case into one where Hepburn seeks to win by proving women are equal to men. Hepburn takes the situation to show that the wife counts, and literally to argue that Doris has as much right to have an affair as Warren, and partly because she didn’t, the right to get back when he hurts her — even shoot to kill. Adam is quite right when he says this is an argument that won’t do.

Hepburn’s “case” depends on her bringing into court three career women who are presented as successful but sexless and desperate: the third does somersaults in a circus and performs them in court. How this relates to a husband’s violence to his wife, her need to defend herself, her home, her income and retaliate is unclear. Nowhere in the case, in the courtroom, in the Bonners’ discussions about the case is the abuse highlighted. To say this case is about the principle of equality and how men and women are the same is to avoid the particulars of the case and what it’s about.

Then there’s considerable slapstick. At one point Amanda seems about to take as her lover a man who is a singer, performer and their best friend; Adam chases her with a gun, but when it comes to shooting her, it turns out to be licorice and he eats it as candy. It’s a parody of the central Attinger gunning scene: what he was gunning Amanda down for was a suspected affair. This is still not allowed today – women in movies today do not have affairs with other men than their husband and remain admired heroines.

They also massage one another. These scenes were used for promotional shots and the trailer:

Adam's Rib (1949)

Trailer

She slaps him and he her. Now that I’ve had a massage (once, in a Korean spa) I realize it’s a sybarite process of luxury, and it made me very uncomfortable on behalf of the woman paid to come so close to my body and “work it over.” Probably the movie-makers wanted me to envy them. While watching I did not notice the Tracy and Hepburn calling one another these “coy” names of Pinky and Pinkie. Good thing: it would have grated on me as upper class “fey” relaxation.

A friend suggested to me the movie is ultimately about how far a woman can go to challenge her husband, only so far. I know that’s what Basinger says most of the movies where Hollywood spoke to women end up doing or being about. I admit I don’t see that in this one. Mainly because Hepburn didn’t. The couple’s temporary estrangement is engendered by the two of them. She didn’t have an affair. She did not defy any rules — she worked within the system, took the silly idea of men and women being the same as the principle she’d argue for and remained in an adoring respectful posture to Tracy throughout — that’s why the word “feisty:” a feisty woman is one who merely makes a lot of noise but does not mean any serious rebellion.

On-line there are also absurd statements about the film being about civil rights (what?). Or, who wears the pants in the family? he does, and he gets to close the curtain at the end. So what? What matters in the film is class. What the movie is is a telling muddle. The Attingers are miserable as much and more from their daily lower middle lives as from gender provocation and sexual exploitation. We are deflected from seeing this by fantasy elaboration of the results in candylike wrapping. The licorice gun is apt.

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withgun

The movie makes the lower class man despicable, a clown and also at moments the wife. It shows but does not bring out into the discussably open that the upper classness of the privileged couple makes them happy: her high education, womanly (yet not oversexed) clothes, wit, job flatters his self-respect and his equal education, intelligence, manly bearing (and job) flatters her sense of her place in the world as his wife. Its best moments are fleeting glimpses of film noir (through Holliday’s presence).

AdamsRib3

By contrast Hepburn is just so wholesome. I admit the movie could be worth re-watching for the intriguing vignettes, dialogues, moments between Hepburn and Tracy.

Morningimage
A breakfast-morning image

They did make a number of movies together and it might be rewarding to watch these in a row (see comments). Ruth Gordon is someone whose name recurs as a script writer in the 1940s and it could be interesting to see some of her other scripts — her co-writer in this one was her husband, Garson Kanin. George Cukor is known for trying to bring women as interesting characters before the public in movies, for his originality — and nowadays gayness and it could be interesting to compare this one to his other movies.

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.

Waltjessecornered (Custom)

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.

Hank.jpg
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.

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

verymean
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.

Demandings
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.

Homelessbikestolen
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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Saajan Fernandes (Irran Khan) and Lla (Nimrat Kaur) in The Lunchbox (2013)

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Marion (Dame Janet Suzmann) and Solomon (Khayalethu Anthony) in Solomon and Marion (2014)

Dear friends and readers,

This weekend I managed to see and want to recommend two poignant (and at moments comic) dramatized stories from abroad about an unexpected or unlikely couple finding meaning and solace in one another. This seems to be almost a theme of this year: it’s the core of Philomena too. They are both parables about contemporary lonely and politically shattered lives in large cities and small country towns.

The first is easier to reach as it is a film, directed and written by Ritesh Batra, and still in theaters and where Izzy and I went had a reasonably large audience in the auditorium. As she wrote, it is probably wise to read about dabbawalas at wikipedia first — though it is not necessary as the opening sequence takes you on a journey of the lunchbox in question from the house of LLa, the housewife who put the hot delicious food in its containers, through the streets, trains, carts, and to the office and desk of Saajan, the managerial clerk who is lucky enough wrongly to receive it. The film is as much a study of the lives of modern Indians living in over-crowded Mumbai (Bombay), individually isolated, lonely, and with little chance of doing anything personally fulfilling.

Since I’ve been reading about the supposed universal paradigm underlying most screenplays in cinema, it felt beautifully ironic to find myself watching a film which does not fit into this, mostly because it’s not western in origin, and its patterning is a much modified descendent of the popular 2 and 1/2 hour extravaganza of music, dance, and story Bollywood is famous for. I’ve no doubt that Syd Field and others would still say that in the first ten minutes of the film we are introduced to the main characters (the two principals), and the dramatic premise and situation of the film: they are lonely, without any friend.

Saajan is an office worker, a widower, spending long days in a impersonal overcrowded place, traveling amid crowds to and fro, and then sitting with his books; Lla is a housewife whose husband is unfaithful and she is stuck at home with only an aged woman (auntie) who is taking care of a dying husband above stair to talk to. The carefully prepared lunch Lla is making is intended to appeal to her husband but arrives at the wrong place, she realizes this, and she and Saajan begin to correspond, so private writing selves emerge. The central phase does show the two characters’ needs and obstacles put in the way: how are they to find out one another’s names, and meet and become fully realized friends — perhaps lovers? There are plot points which take the movie in other directions: an orphaned young man, Shaikh (Nawwasudden Siddiqui) is to replace Saajan who is retiring, and slowly wins over the older man to the point Saajan begins to share this lunch with Shaikh and Shaikh offers Saajan another outlet and distraction (as they slowly become friends during their temporary relationship). Finally Saajan and Lla arrange to meet face-to-face, a meeting to which LLa comes and where she waits fruitlessly for hours and hours; Saajan does finally get himself to come (late), but he does not have the courage to show himself as he feels he is so much older than she and will not be attractive to her. The acting by Khan is as usual superb — the man is pitch perfect in gesture, face, body language – and Kaur and Siddiqui more mutely implicitly appealing.

Nonetheless, the review in the New Yorker was harsh and declared the film meandered and went nowhere, was a muddle,”a slight undeveloped anecdote.” Another reviewer sounded surprised that the movie is attracting audiences. These are signs that indeed this film has a counter-prevailing structure, one that is partly cyclical for the arrival and departure of the lunchbox occurs over and over as do these notes, the housewife’s day, the worker’s evenings before the TV, the young man’s training. There are moments that music breaks out showing the origins of the this other structure; on the other hand, it felt like an epistolary novel dramatized; the notes could have been emails were this set in New York City. It used the still reprehended over-voice repeatedly:

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I will say that the lack of the paradigm working forcefully and a forward thrust of action in the film extends to a lack of resolution and puzzle and disappointment at the end for both Izzy and I. It was not that we were insistent on the couple getting together and retiring elsewhere — in the film a longed-for idealized place for retirement, Bhutan, but we couldn’t understand what what is literally happening at the film’s very end. Near the film’s close she sends Saajan the lunchbox with empty containers in it, so hurt is she that he did not come to the rendez-vous; he answers explaining that he was there but unable to show himself to her, but it seems to take her time to decide to come to his office to see him and in the interim he retires and when she shows Shaikh informs her wrongly Saajan has gone to Bhutan. She hurries home and within a day or so, prepares a suitcase and her one daughter’s things, and takes the immense step of leaving the husband and traveling to Bhutan. In fact Saajan has gone to a cheaper place he had originally intended to go, Nashik, found it worse than where he was living, more desolating and returned to his apartment. He seems to look for her but does not go to her house (as he does not know where it is) and is last seen on a train but not one going outside of India but rather within the city.

The wikipedia article informed me that he was going in search of Lla, implying that he would discover she had left for Bhutan and follow her. If the feel of the film was that we were seeing how tragically easy it is for chance and human irresolution to get in the way of happiness, then I would not complain. Instead it simply lacked clarity and I was left sad and (as Izzy said) longing for them to become a couple. Perhaps though its inconsequent ending made it yet truer to our lives today.

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You will have to find the play by Lara Foot (she was also the director of this production) done in another theater. It was the last of many places performed at the Kennedy Center over the last 21 days: a “World Stages” festival where plays and acting companies from around the world were brought together, as many as three or four done a day, some as dramatic readings and some with panels to discuss the performance afterward. There were exhibits from London, Paris, and South Africa, of life-size puppets and human figures in what looked like carousels: these were recognizable figures from plays, operas, the arts. Drawings of costumes from costume designers.

It made me sad to go there today as this was just the sort of event Jim would have loved to go to: he would have bought tickets for at least several of the plays, we would have attended readings and perhaps even panels (though he was not as keen on this kind of thing, finding the talk all too often silly, or coming from a conventionally moralistic point of view. I had bought myself two tickets, the other for a play from Iceland, a romance taking place during the financial crisis of 2008 (the couple in the banner above were in that play), now overcome by decent social governmental measures, and I had forgotten to go. A Freudian oversight? I had underlined a dramatic reading of a story from the horrifying seige on Fallujah inflicted on its people by barbaric US military acts: I did remember that but it was so cold that day and without the car it is a trek for me to get to the Kennedy Center because of waiting for a bus that comes once an hour. I had bought my two tickets during the time when my license was still un-suspended and had fully expected to be able to drive to the Metro and then take the train.

Today and yesterday Izzy and I did have this positive thing occur: we learned that we can order a much cheaper Uber cab, a small taxi like vehicle and it cost me just $6 to be taken to the station, and for the two of us just $8 each way to and from Shirlington. When we would go with Jim, he’d take the car all the way to the Center and pay $20 to park, go early and eat at the Terrace theater (a much overpriced meal); parking at Shirlington is hellish to find and it costs at least $15 so I now feel I am free to call for the Uber cab — when I can get the app on the iphone to work.

But to Foot’s play. Janet Suzman plays Miss Marion, an aging white African woman, a widow living on an isolated farm to whom comes Khayalethu Anthony, or Solomon a young black African man sent by his grandmother, once a housekeeper for Miss Marion and now worried she is in need of help and company. Their interactions are interwoven with her soliloquies given the excuse that she is writing letters to her married daughter, Annie, living in Australia. It was 90 minutes of intensities with no intermission. It opens with a fearful nightmare sequence.

Solomon and Marion

What emerges is she had a son who was brutally murdered by a gang of bullying thugs when he was in his teens; after that she and her husband separated. Solomon was there at the murder as a witness and he has come because he wants to tell her a message her son sent to her, and confess that he was a coward, fearful of coming forward as a witness lest he be murdered and his sisters and mother and aunt raped and murdered. Her daughter is angry because her mother will not come to Australia to live with her, but Marion cannot leave the only home she has known and all the things in it that stand for her memories.

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The play had some weaknesses: the language was sometimes clichéd and the actual story played out before us didn’t altogether make sense. The ending where the two principals are reconciled as they sit in front of a TV together and plan to get an extension cord so they can plug it is was touching but too added on. It was strongest in its images — almost like a film. Suzman in the dark leaning over her stove, sitting in a chair, a blanket over her legs. The two eating together; he doing things for her, like painting the wall. He wears the son’s shirt by mistake — or not mistake as the shirt fits so well.

Janet Suzman

Jim and I had seen Suzman twice: once in London and here at the Kennedy Center in a production of Coriolanus where she played another mother, Volumnia. Her strong performance stirred within me a shared heartache and loss and yes courage. In the program notes I read that not only ago during a rehearsal in South Africa of Hamlet, with Janet Suzman as director, an actor, Brett Goldin was murdered too. She has been brave enough to speak out against some actors who pander to the theory that someone other than Shakespeare (usual candidate a dissolute nobleman, the Earl of Oxford) wrote Shakespeare’s plays.For I have tried to enact some courage — how else could I still be here? I found myself looking about and wondering (as I sometimes do) where Jim has gone, where he can be, as he was here only it seems a few short months ago, so strong, a healthy 64 year old man. He was literally devoured by a malevolent disease which has reached epidemic proportions and not only is no one doing anything preventive or fundamental to stop this killing and death in howling pain, while he died he was heartlessly fleeced and coldly barely tolerated as a treatment opportunity to make money on. Marion’s boy was killed by an over gang of thugs, my beautiful man by a silent stealthy one. How many people in the audience around me sitting there most of them with a companion had lost friends and lovers and children to cancer. It’s kept invisible.

As I got out of the bus about a block away from my house (I was lucky and as I came out of the train, I just caught the bus on time), it began to snow, sleet, ice and rain on me. I wished so intensely he were walking beside me and alive to feel the blessing of these freezing waters.

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

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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).

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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:

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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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Pete Seeger on stage 1960

Dear Friends and readers,

I just watched a 90 minute American Masters program about the life and singing of Pete Seeger, an extraordinary hero. If only more people were as brave and good as he was, what a better world this would be. I put this link here in the hope others will watch it too:

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/pete-seeger/full-film-pete-seeger-the-power-of-song/2864/

One of Seeger’s choices to pay attention to: he refused to do a commercial selling cigarettes with the Weavers. The other three were willing in order to be paid the big sum. He saw correctly this was agreeing to sell cancer, and would change the meaning of their folk group ever after. A small but important gesture. However, not powerful beyond himself since so many would sell themselves. The program is well worth watching for understanding the success of the political hounding of this man and how what could have been a progresive politically galvanizing change in the US through folk music was thwarted: Seeger was centrally responsible for the folk revival in the 1960s, but it could in the 50s (when he was part of the Weavers) and more recently been a force for political change but has not. We see the role the FBI has played in the US since the 1940s.

For more songs, testimony, and life history of Seeger see my blog Pete Seeger has died.

Ellen

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A familiar scene and experience in the US today

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve gone on watching Breaking Bad, why? because it’s about cancer, about the cancer epidemic among us. Walter White (Bryan Cranston) has lung cancer when he never smoked a day in his life. Half way through this set, he and Jessie (Aaron Paul) are outside the camper they cook in and it takes one look at Walt’s chest for Jessie to recognize the telltale signs of radiation since Jessie’s aunt had a similar treatment and died within 7 months not long ago. Seconds more and Jessie knows why his ex-teacher is cooking meths: he needs money to pay for treatments and he wants to leave his family with some money to live on.

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This is not just generally relevant to me; it’s personally relevant, and my guess is this personal connection is common — even when not acknowledged.

I was struck how all three episodes (4-6) may be watched as a genuinely single slow-moving continuous story. Downton Abbey and many serial dramas do not work that way: each week you really have a separate episode worked out and finished by the end of the hour, sometimes with a character or set of characters who appear in it and are never seen again — or only brought back many episodes or seasons later. In this mini-series you are screwed in by the cancer and money center and its violence in reaction continuously, with the underlying thrill is the action and words show the amorality — the unacknowledged amorality of American life, and not just for the ceaselessly competitive or self-guardedly self-preening males, but the women around them who have not managed to achieve sexual respectability and are treated cruelly in a casual way, e.g., the cop’s scornful derision and threatening of a prostitute who offers herself to Jessie for buggering (a favorite motif I’m beginning to see) in one of the first three parts. It provides an uncanny exhilaration for what happens is Mr White gets back as when he blows up a super-fancy expensive car of a man who he has watched from afar all episode long enact all the “winning” traits of the US male life — demanding higher money on a cell phone, breaking in a line, parking his car in a place Walt was about to drive into, showing off ceaselessly. I just wish there was a real portrait of a real complex woman alongside him getting back, perhaps less obviously, less violently (as women do get back much less obviously and violently — there are studies to show this) too.

I’ve been told the moral of the series – the great recognition at its close is Walt, the central character sees that he has not been behaving the way he has for his family but because he enjoys power and violence. Well there needs no ghost come from hell to tell us that surely this was nonsense. Does anyone believe it? Men want to be promoted to get to the top and buy himself fancy expensive houses, have libraries, pools — like Walt’s friend who made good in business based on Walt’s knowledge of chemistry to start with. He turns down a (slightly fantastic, unreal) offer of a job by a friend, Elliot Schwartz (Adam Godley) with fabulous health insurance to pay egregious sums out of pride or (another moral is claimed here) so he can take control of his life by paying for his treatments himself even if through law-breaking selling of addictive drugs. Was there no other story the writers could think of to demonstrate this supposed moral breakthrough into strength? I did feel it was improbable and perhaps the offer was made part of the plot so that Walt could keep both Skylar and his brother-in-law off the scent: had they not assumed he was getting the money from Schwartz they’d begin to wonder where it was coming from? Anyway he didn’t want the treatments and is coerced into these by Skylar’s (Anna Duke) refusing to stay in bed with him and be affectionate and compliant sexually until he agrees?

Underlying these episodes is the same idea I find in Andrew Davies’s adaptations of classic and recent novels and that of many another successful male film-maker: they present men torn to bits by the demands for masculinity defined as super-paid job and ruling people which they just can’t meet except through excruciating effort. It’s also demanded they have a sexually compelling compliant woman — that hasn’t quite surfaced as yet, though we are made to guess that Gretchen (Jessica Hecht), the good businessman’s wife with long luxurious dark hair, and a soft look and a rounded belly (her dress and the way she was directed to hold her hands accents this) was once Walt’s mistress:

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Gretchen trying to persuade Walt to take the treatment and not think about their relationship

but it’s early days in the series. Or maybe it will taken another common American ploy to keep women in the discardable margins. As yet Walt wouldn’t dream of discarding Skylar.

So I found the second 3 episodes of the first season gripping: they focused on Walt White as a man who has to deal with how his family responds to the news he has lung cancer, especially his wife, Skylar; on how much a supposedly “dream” expert doctor and his treatments that Marie Shrader (Betsy Brandt) his sister-in-law has access to cost ($5,000 in advance for consultation, $90,000 for the series of chemotherapy when there is no insurance company to pay a pre-set fee) and how he is pressured to take these horrible treatments and accept the offer by Elliot Schwartz of health insurance; and on how in a parallel thread Jessie Pinkman (Aaron Paul), Walt’s sidekick ex-student seller of drugs in a parallel thread attempts to break out of his sordid occupation, obtain a respectable job as a salesman in a suit and is (in effect) insulted with an offer of dressing up as a street clown to lure people into an office, and ends up making and selling meths for lack of any other occupation he can live with.

In our case it was me who (like Skylar) tried to get Jim to try for one of these super-expensive people I was told about by an investment-banker friend. We would have had to pay out of pocket, paid to go stay in Boston to get the consultation, but I don’t know if I would have gone through with it if it meant bankruptcy — which clearly Skylar is willing to do. Unlike Walt who succumbs to her moral bullying, Jim wouldn’t hear of going to such a person — it was so inconvenient. And so he died. I can’t stand Skylar with her self-righteous talking pillow but I know I also resent her because she could pull off what I couldn’t.

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Now I know we should have gone on a vacation trip to England but I didn’t realize how hopeless it all was and when Skylar turns round several times from some pamphlet or book she’s reading to say to Walt, see “how hopeful this is,” I want to shake her and wish I could feel for her, but I cannot identify or bond with her self-satisfaction, lack of understanding that she has what she does out of luck and genes (born white, into the middle class). I was appalled by her intrusive insistence demanding behavior to Walt, her trying to manipulate by threats, by her talking pillow and demand her sister and brother-in-law pressure Walt to take treatments (when they agree if he doesn’t want to use his last two years taking chemo it’s understandable). She’s such a fool to fall for the “dream doctor.” $5000 for consultation and $90,000 for treatment is an exaggeration yet I wanted Jim to try and was fleeced (for much much less but still in the hundreds) when I went outside the HMO once for a second opinion.

What violence there is is spectacular but is only resorted to by these men when driven by frantic need, intense grating soreness at not being appreciated and/or having to watch a total shit of a person going about living what is seen by others as an admirable life — at the close of episode 4 Walt sets a well-suited bully’s fancy car to blow up (as I explained above); during episodes 5 & 6 after failing to get the decent job, Jessie returns home to watch his baby brother exemplify a pious academically-inclined male student’s life, be blamed for smoking pot (which is this brother’s) and when driven by Walt to go to another powerful murderous distributor be beaten up so badly he ends up in an intensive care unit in a hospital (for which Jessie has no insurance); at the close of 6, White returns to this same lair with a bag of crystals that look like meths but are explosives and manages to blow up said lair and obtain a promise of high sums of money in return for his excellent product. Tellingly it ends on Walt cuddling wads of money his face grim and exhilarated as he wins what his society will not admit to having driven him to.

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Breaking Bad, Part 6: closing shots

The ironies are visual as well as narrative and psychological. In other mini-series the far shot of enchanting landscape does not have at their center a camper for cooking drugs in which violence, murder, and people dressed in suits that make them look like astronauts do their dangerous pungent thing:

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Chemistry is at the heart of every aspect of the story; that’s why it begins with the periodic table and uses its lettering as paratexts. Its suspenseful: Walt’s brother-in-law, the wrestler-looking cop, Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) engineers an investigation which quickly discovers the equipment used for the “new drug-maker” in town comes from Walt’s lab in the high school, and while Hank arrests the hispanic cleaning man (Walt does show some guilt at this), Hank looks at Walt quizzically. It’s not easy to hide an operation which takes time (Walt is suddenly gone from the home for long afternoons), lots of human connections and produces money to spend. Walt’s profits are hidden by the doctor who is fleecing him — another sort of robber, only allowed, legal.

No one in this story has the slightest political opinion or sense of larger perspective to their lives. Not one character has opened or read a book; they flip through magazines in doctor’s offices. Not one book in their house: the elegant library of what looked like 19th century books in Schwartz’s house looks like a stage set. No one is ever in there to read; it’s there to be seen. Vacant minds who never discuss anything beyond narrow gossip. I was watching a Whit Stillman film yesterday where the characters discuss topics beyond themselves, cultural worlds, wonder about their aspirations and it seems natural. It does happen even in the US; I’ve seen and heard people do it at dinner. That this is left out altogether, so completely should be noticed.

So these episodes seemed to me consciously critical, but as is so common in popular entertainment, there are odd lacunae which in my case keep the film alien. There is as yet no woman for me to bond or identify with. It’s not that feminism has made no inroads (though it hasn’t) but that the types of women named as are only those men think of as what they have to cope with for real in life — entrapping, demanding. This is a central way in which it differs from Downton Abbey where there are several women for me to identify with and they have far more subtle characteristics of all sorts. It makes DA as a film for women even if not scripted by a woman. The one character I like so far is Jessie — how he tries to make contact with his parents, his brother and even Walt (“yeah, man, touch base”) and have hopes he could yet chose a girlfriend I could identify with. He shows some feeling for others, reminds me of Tom Bransom a bit in his awareness that this is a hard world to cope with people in and how their hierarchies work.

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Ellen

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Friends and readers,

Since I write so often about films here, it would be curmudgeonly not to admit I kept track of what was happening at the Oscars — as I did the Golden Globes, and other awards this year. The one popular movie award where my taste coincided with that of the voting majority of the academy is for Cate Blanchett’s performance in Blue Jasmine:

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Here’s a shot of her in the press room at the 19th annual Critics’ Choice Awards — a better moment on film than any of those of her conventionally fashionable garb at the splash events:

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I regret that from among those nominated (I would have made very different choices), Sally Hawkins was not similarly recognized nor the screenplay writer and director, Bob Nelson and Alexander Payne, for Nebraska, nor Jeremy Scahill for his important book and film Dirty Wars.

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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Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) and David (Will Forte), father and son

Dear friends and readers,

Like a couple of the reviews I’ve read, I’m in danger of over-praising this one (see, e.g., Ann Hornaday for the Washington Post).

So allow me to begin with what’s in bad taste about it: we are invited to laugh at these working class people whose place and circumstances deprives them of any chance for any beauty, comfort or good art; an interesting well-paid job, stimulating conversation, come to that decent information and in the audience I was in the guffaws were particularly loud during some of the condescending Diane Arbus like scenes with clown characters — as in see these mindless male jerks watch equally stupid TV:

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David Denby of the New Yorker has it right:

We seem to have entered dim-bulb territory …These people have no pretensions, no power. What is there to make fun of? … If this is his idea of affection I wouldn’t want to see him working on characters that he disdains …some of it has a heartless Diane Arbus feel—David’s identical rotund cousins spend their days sitting on a couch, obsessed with cars and nothing else …

What happens is despite the crass caricature, the film gradually gathers up a gravitas as serious as any Ibsen-Miller play: slowly and as it was inadvertently the life-story of this granite like old man, Bruce Dern as Woody Grant (the painting American Gothic alluded to) emerges, one of bad decisions, financial losses, wrong choices for a partner, all irretrievable, a childhood impoverished with sibling deaths around him, a cursing disappointed angry aging wife who despises him:

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Woody stands (or sits) firm before us (and his son) refusing to be questioned. The stern soul who will not be pitied, will not let down his guard.

Will Forte as David, his son seems a diminished version of him: as the movie opens a salesman in an electronics store with a miserable small apartment; his unkempt over-weight badly dressed girlfriend stops by and he is quietly pleading with her to stay, give the relationship another chance, but she says, What for? He has no answer, no marriage proposal, no plans. When his father persists in trying to walk to Lincoln Nebraska to redeem his million dollars from an obviously bogus chain mail letter, David decides a time away will do them both good.
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David looking at the past through pages of an old journal with Peg Naby (Angela McEwan) a woman journalist of some sensitivity who Woody had passed over for a wife

David’s is the compassionate heart of the trip, patiently kind to his father (finding the old man’s lost denture amid rubble), courteous, controlled, at the close of the movie buying his father a dream prize for some self-esteem over those who have scorned them after all. Forte’s best moment is when he turns around after some thought and punches in the face Stacey Keach as Ed Pegram, the needling bar-man who had attempted to bully wrench Woody down for thousands Ed said he was owed, and now jeers at the pair of poor sacks with their imbecile letter.

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Ed Pegram (Stacey Keach)

Surely the choice of bleak black-and-white and continual focus on the impoverished depression like streets with their couple of bars, super-cheap malls and stores, acres of bare land dotted with abandoned or aging house – is to bring home to us the impoverishment of most of the US, the 47% any one?

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Sometimes I thought Alexander Payne (director) and Will Nelson (script writer) rather overdid it — the way Kitchen Sink movies from the UK in the 1950s really pushed the broken-down remnants of furniture, unworking toilets, soiled kitchens at the viewer (as in Poor Cow — a movie was really named that), as for example when the family, now with the David’s brother who has managed to become an anchor man in a abysmal news show, explore the father’s childhood home. But each wreck recalls a tragedy to the old man’s mind as the bleak dialogue suggests: for example, the pieces of a crib the brother who died at age 2.

Perhaps there’s an allusion to Bogdanovich’s black-and-white Last Picture Show. This movie films the places that demonstrate the truth of Occupy Wall Street’s accusation of what more than 1% of the US is doing to the rest (more like 10%).

I could identify with some of the simple triumphs and pleasures here and there: as when the old man gets his truck and is allowed to drive down the street past those who had dismissed or jeered. Family scenes of eating when there’s a gathering of this clan probably touched chords in others. The one thing that pompts true (not hypocritical-pious) sentiments and scenes going among the characters is money: almost everyone at some point (but Woody’s two sons and wife) succumbs to believing in Woody’s million and attempt to wrest some of what the person suddenly says he owes him or her. It often emerges they owe him far more, that he was the easy target of demands.

His wife, Kate’s exasperation, is fully understandable:

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Life for Kate Grant (June Squibb) one long grating experience — her performance pitch perfect she sometimes stole the scene

Some of the laughter later in the film was justified too: like when the two sons try to steal back what they think was a compressor wrongly taken from Woody when he owned a garage and discover it belongs a two rare decent couple in a reasonable looking house on the plains. They return it and the family is caught by the couple coming home. So the sons hide in the barn while Kate takes over the wheel and drives away, leaving the two young men to run frantically after her after the couple turns away to walk back to their house.

A movie for our desperate time: so many semi-realistic comic movies I’ve seen over the past few years are about people making money by trying to become cleaners, or doing any menial work they can find as part of a comic world.

In the semi-art cinema I saw the film in — with a friend — it was screened in the small auditorium set aside for films which get small audiences, but as in a few cases I’ve seen where the film was wrongly thought to be not one with an audience (Alfred Nobbs, Ladies in Lavender [there all summer], Jane Austen Book Club [all women, chairs brought in to accommodate everyone]), this one was pulling in enough people to make the place crowded.

It is also a movie about aging, how it feels, the humiliations and indignities (there are sequences of Woody in hospital), boredom (Kate especially bored), how impatient with life one gets when one has seen it all (one feels) and is asked to pretend to believe in and respect yet another fakery. The audience knew something of what release had come for, many of the people watching were older people.

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Discussing what they are going to eat: they’ve learned to live side-by-side

Ellen

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