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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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); authenticity explained.  One essay on the decision to have the expensive chemotherapy is knowing about  the very bad chances aggressive treatment will work. Fun ones too: finding happiness in a black hat, the last man left standing, hurtling towards death. 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

But they are not critical in any larger reflective sense. Neither ever mentions how the series reflects American values and norms and conflicts; not a whiff about racism:  Gus and he doctor who fleeces the Whites over his stupendous chemotherapy are black and this is never mentioned; 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 political essay I’ve found thus far is an attack on those on the Net who are said to talk of Skylar with intense hatred — which enables the writers to say see how women hate women to have or seek power. They use 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. Their stories and characters 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 explained.

The Companion talks about Walt in a condeming 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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The wedding of Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton) and Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken)

Dear friends and readers,

While I was reading and writing about two books which significantly extend the two kinds of rape usually discussed under the umbrella terms of “simple” and “aggravated” (Georgiana’s The Sylph and Marta Hillers’ A Woman in Berlin), I found myself reading Preston Sturges’s shooting script for Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and then watched the 1944 movie directed & produced by the same man, which movie to my astonishment turned out to be a rape story of a particularly mean type: our heroine, Trudy, has been raped after she became unconscious from too much liquor (which the film laughingly refers to as odd or sour lemonade). We never find out which man did it; in the film the word rape is never used; there is acknowledgement the heroine has become pregnant, but for all the talk we hear about it, it might as well have been a virgin birth, with this “miracle” corresponding to the 1934 Miracle on 34th Street, and that to the asserted Christian belief their mother of God, Mary, had been a virgin.

This is the central event (also not dramatized) of Kleist’s once notorious The Marquise of O , adapted for a film by Eric Rohmer — during an assault on her country by invaders (as a virtuous woman she would of course never be drunk), the Marquise, a widow (so our sensibilities over her virginity are not aroused), is raped by a soldier unknown to her. When her pregnancy emerges, and her parents find out, they treat her cruelly and eject her from their home. She has one to return to so the question may turn on discovering who the man was.

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From Eric Rohmer’s film

We see how the solider comes forward, falls in love and is forgiven. The text 7 film, then, to some extent deal with the subject of rape, of assault on women during war. Like Clarissa, who is drugged (the rape is dramatized), the heroine is absolved automatically – this absolution by unconsciousness is typical of rapes in novels of the 18th century (more of them, alas, are of the commoner false accusation type).

But Trudy was not assaulted in war. She got drunk. Or did she? I was alerted to the existence of this 1940s hit (you can probably see it on Turner Classics) by Nora Gilbert’s Better Left Unsaid: Victorian Novels, the Hays Code, and the Benefits of Censorship whose subject is the effect of the Hays Code on movies from the 1930s to the 1950s and (to her) analogous severe censorship of Victorian Novels by Mudie’s Circulating Library and other engines of repression in the 19th century. I did not realize it was about rape until I watched it as, except for quoting a parenthetical punning remark by a contemporary critic, James Agee that “the Hays office has either been hypnotized into a liberality for which it should be thanked, or has been raped in its sleep,” Gilbert does not tell the reader the film’s core event that generates all the action is a rape.

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Trudy puzzled on her way back to Norval after her one night out

In my research on rapes in fiction and non-fiction I discovered how rarely rape is treated seriously, and how common stories of false accusations for rape (despite the reality that rape is common, and accusation for it uncommon as the woman is usually shamed, disbelieved and ends up punished for telling). Thus how hard it is to find writing about rape until the mid-20th century when it began to emerge in feminist sociological and psychological studies. I had not considered another obstacle: the story about rape where the word is never mentioned, the thing never discussed when all the while the events of the story show us a particularly contemptible form of rape must have occurred. How would one find Miracle of Morgan’s Creek when it’s listed merely as a screwball comedy, frothy, light exquisitely funny romance. It’s a rare work on rape in mainstream art before the mid-20th century.

As the film opens, our heroine, Trudy Kockenlocker, is readying herself by putting on the most glamorous and sexiest (not admitted to of course) of outfits , in order to attend a dance put on for the soldiers about to go off to war to fight. Her father, Officer Kockenlocker (now notice the name which includes “cock”, a “cock” who locks something in), played by Wm Demarest as a comic dense bully, refuses her permission without quite saying why. It’s somehow risky, dangerous. Trudy objects that it’s her duty to dance the night away with soldiers going off to war. Stills show her winning scuffles with her father:

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The physical reflection of how she manages repeatedly to manipulate most situations to do what she wants in reaction to events and norms.

She gets her obedient (emasculated) boyfriend, Norval Jones to pretend he spent a long night watching movies with her while she goes off to said dance. We see her dancing with many different escorts and drinking oodles of lemonade. The joke is made more than once that this is some sour lemonade and strange, and she looks drunker and drunker and at one point she passes out. The Hays Code said one must never get drunk in a movie. We do at one point she someone dancing with her who has dark hair, and looks sort of determined, and she falls — partly a stupor, but perhaps partly hit.

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We have the impression her brain case has taken a blow

Who he was we never learn, nor his name, nor how this initiating event developed. She was supposed to be back at the theater at 1:30 am, but she turns up at 8 am — it’s dawn in the film. Norval has waited all night first looking out for her anxiously, and then asleep on a bench.

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But as Trudy and Norval drive home, she begins to remember where she’s been and half-recalls a marriage: on her finger is a curtain ring. 3 months later we see a doctor tell her she is pregnant without using that word.

The rest of the movie presents the coniption fits Trudy and Norval go through to provide her with a husband (him, using the ludicrous name Trudy thinks up — it has many syllables and x’s), and to hide her shame. Gilbert argues that the Hays censorship made for great art: certainly no one would tell the story of such a rape in the way it’s told if there had been no Hays code administered in the way it was. You could get a movie to pass by handing in the script for approval. It passes because in the words of the script she has not been raped; she was married and therefore cannot have been raped. Tease this out and we could imagine a scene of marital rape (yet this level of seriousness is not allowed by everything we can point to in the film).

Norval tries to shield Trudy by marrying her — after his first retreat from her is over. At no point doe she accuse her of anything, at no point object he does not want to be the legal father of another man’s baby (though he looks uncomfortable). Their marriage is found bigamous (in a ceremony in which two women moon over how many children the couple will eventually have) and crimes of all sorts are hurled on him and before you know it he’s in jail. The film indirectly satirizes patriotism, the venerable saintly-warrior hero, shows the punitive spirit of American life even then, but the rapist is never called to account, we never see the baby, nor is it discussed how Norval is going to take over as father.

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The Justice of the Peace is impounding the groom after the wedding ceremony for disobeying the law because he used Trudy’s previous husband’s name — or, a moment’s thought would tell the viewer it’s the bride who has committed bigamy

Under the Hays Code one was not allowed to show pregnant women, especially unmarried ones so during the time Trudy is huge we see her from the back sitting in a chair.

Gilbert can “get away” with citing the brilliance of Miracle because she doesn’t deal with the rape herself. Nothing is brought out into the discussably open either for those shocked silently and never bring it up and those who are aware of some serous themes here but cannot discuss them because the treatment in the films avoids the central thing it’s about — all that is brought out is Trudy’s desperate shame and how she must marry to avoid that. On one level it feels absurd to bring this screwfall comedy (rightly designated) with all its vacuities in characterization, slapstick, implicitly and explicitly misogynistic remarks (in passing as a matter of course about women) up as a story of the rape — comparing it to massacre rape, marital rape and selling, aggravated assault. But it does fall into the first traumatic category of simple rape between two people not strangers. Trudy’s desperate shame is made a joke of while it is laid before us. Frantic efforts to appear to conform do not question conformism. From what I’ve read critics have been generally divided into a group which admires the sleight-of-hand:

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek carved out its own unique niche in the annals of screen comedy by so cleverly couching its shocking material in broad slapstick and fast-paced character comedy. The film rarely allows itself the delirious abandon of so-many classic comedies, but Sturges is purposeful in this respect. We’re meant to be as anxiously involved as the characters are in their dilemmas.

Or, like me, they have been grated upon by the indifference to the core content and use of laughter: Siegfried Kracauer’s “Preston Sturges, or Laughter Betrayed,” Films in Review, 1:1 (1950):43-47

I admit to laughing and laughing at some of the sequences of wild highjinks all the characters go through, the satire on lawyers (very funny lines – reminding me Saul Goodman of Breaking Bad is a traditional caricature of a lawyer in comic movies), the press, solemn pious parents. Asked about the film, Sturges voiced as his one regret (and the ostensible moral) that he was not allowed to have a clergyman deliver a sermon on how giving soldiers all they want as a gift was overdoing it. Hypocrisy prevented him from including his moralistic message against too much alcohol and sex on the night the young men were going off to war, risking their lives — today we might say to kill and/or be killed. The one target of the movie we can take seriously is the Hays Code itself. The verbal jokes which skim round what would be stark sexual content, the drinking of lemonade, how the characters say “phooey!”. Along the way various sacred cows are burlesqued. The wedding of Trudy and Norval with the two witnesses swooning and photographed so that they are seen as central as the couple. Trudy has a younger sister, Emmy (Diana Lynn) given wry realistic remarks (reminding me a bit of Margaret Dashwood in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility). For the record the Code was a heavily Catholic-influenced set of rules the movie industry agreed to abide by in order to fend off worse censorship; it began in 1930, was at its strictest between 1933 or so and the 1950s; its power was over when TV emerged as such tough competition the cinema felt it had to offer something TV did not, and the great movie pointed to as the first to ignore the Code, and become a respected hit was Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker (featuring Rod Steiger), where in lieu of an emasculated bumbling male we are given a painfully honest portrait of a seething disappointed man.

I much prefer Miracle of Morgan’s Creek to the coy prurient upper-class overrated The Lady Eve (also a Sturges product) which I’ve discovered is overrated ridiculously — both are odd masculinist movies with the male gaze on the femme fatale, one comic (Trudy), the other insinuating, orgiastic (Barbara Stanwyck is the heroine of The Lady Eve): a cartoon opening likens Eve to a smirking serpent who could easily fit in a Bugs Bunny carton.

I wonder how many other films from this era drill down to sexual aggression, topics like sexual distrust, promiscuity, sexual suspicion, male and female aggression, violence (?) are exposed in these 1940s films in such a way as to preclude discussions of the matters brought forward. All directed and produced by men, with some rare one having women screenwriters. Think of It Happened one Night, Bringing Up Baby, Rebecca (they need not be screwball comedy), His Girl Friday, the later comedies of remarriage (Adam’s Rib). Jeanine Basinger in her A woman’s View, How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-60 deals with some of this but her accent is on the social world, and she rightly never mentions Miracle of Morgan Creek nor Preston Sturges. He is paradoxically not really interested in women or what happens to them — as was Kleist and Rohmer, and the first text to deal with rape seriously, Richardson’s Clarissa, with its 1991 film adaptation by David Nokes. In Clarissa it’s the raped woman who goes to jail, not the man:

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Trudy (Betty Hutton) is a doll-like figure, breathing softly huskily at the at times poignant Norval (Eddie Bracken — could the name come from an 18th century tragedy?), Norval timidly swooning over her. Sturges apparently thinks women are all powerful, has characters say they cover up for and prefer men who hurt them (this is a sly reference to why we cannot find out anything about the man who impregnated Trudy). The blustering father takes endless pratfalls.

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Towards the end Officer Kockenlocker trussed up with ropes, asking his daughters to wham him over the head harder so it will look like Norval escaped from jail, not that he let Norval go

Trudy is never kicked out by her father; he and the younger sister go into hiding with Trudy during the time of her pregnancy and we see a tenderly loving scene between the father and Trudy on a Christmas eve. Can we discern a private world in Miracle of Morgan Creek? I think not. Kockenlocker’s words are so generalized. Norval makes an attempt to find the rapist (this word never used) but is clueless. Had they found him, would they have reacted like Mr Bates in Downton Abbey (an accidental death engineered for the guilty man)? A delayed shock for me was at how laughter can be betrayed by destroying its possible constructive power. Yet the intriguing nature of the film — the double meanings of words, gestures, how one thing is asserted and another true — has prophetic power. A happy ending is brought about because Trudy gives birth to sextets — 6 children at once. All are so astonished at this, and of course joyous (as after all aren’t children in the marriage the point), newspapers reporters, politicians and the like come for photo opportunities, and Norval is pardoned. The script begins with this scene and the movie is conceived as one long flashback though its present tense feel soon makes us forget that:

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Would anyone today dare to make fun of multiple children women inflict on themselves through “the miracles” of modern medicine? Why do women do these things to themselves? Why do men collude?

Ellen

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

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

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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Hospital – emergency entrance

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

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Gus ordering death like so much pizza

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

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

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

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Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) mourning from despair

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

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

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

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Goodman not letting the phone too near

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

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

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Marie Caught

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Skylar teaching Walter a gambling game

Ellen

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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.

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Walt as strained boss

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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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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.

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The opening of the movie — and this proscenium returns repeatedly

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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.

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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.

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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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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).

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jesse homeless, broke, his bike is stolen from him

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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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.

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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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