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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?”

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

Dubious

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

Illicitsex

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

Overcigars

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

Tiara

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

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

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

Clowns

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

CarJunkyard

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.

Jesse
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

Fromarehearsal
From a rehearsal of the final scene

Dear friends and readers,

As Izzy wrote, what is most remarkable in retrospect about today’s HD-broadcast of Massenet’s Werther starring the heart-stoppingly handsome, brilliant actor and powerful tenor (he can do light to Wagner opera), Jonas Kaufmann, is it brought home we were watching and listening to it alongside a global community.

Until the middle of Act II (after the single long intermission), the production had felt tepid. Izzy fell asleep. People yawned. No one applauded at any of the turns. As is too frequent with the Met since it instituted its HD transmissions, this was a new but utterly conventional pedestrian interpretation, designed not to offend, to please the eye. The first act all pastoral frozen-smiling gaiety, with Werther providing the only alienated note and not very convincingly against the stilted others. It was Werther seen through the eyes of Austen’s Love and Freindship: how foolish and self-indulgent can you get. If you don’t watch out, your ridiculousness will leave you dead in an over-turned carriage in the wet mud if not in jail for stealing your well-intentioned parent’s money.

Then we were in the second act, and a number of 18th century motifs were visually dramatized. There was Charlotte (Sophie Koch) in her nightgown and robe, reading her letters obsessively. At her writing desk. Pistols in a case. A couple of months after marriage, and she seemed devastated by her loss of this man who wrote these letters. What Sophie feared most is precisely what she cannot live without, the kind of passions she is intensely drawn to and in her deepest emotional life acts out.

Suddenly the door opens and there he is, she falls and he captures her in his arms:

act2Wether

and the music and their singing and acting swept me into the wretched grief of irreparable loss. I had never heard “Pourquoi me reveiller” (why wake me up, ever?) in context. He sang it so beautifully, his expression so unashamedly plangent, I thought of all the nights I have laid there wishing I would never wake up again.

Paris, production the whole number:

New York City, a shorter version:

But let us not be metaphysical or abstract or talk of philosophical interpretations of reality. What if your beloved died? the person who made life worth living. Mine has. And night after night I wish my heart would stop. I sleep in his spot in the bed because I cannot bear that he should not be there. Event after event has occurred which makes my existence a hardship punctuated by harassment. No one to understand, no one to empathize, no one to live within my experience with me. I wish I could want to be dead. With death all that I endure would stop. My problem is I don’t want to die. Why did he let that criminal doctor do what he pleased and then let death happen to him so rapidly?

I began to sob uncontrollably, it was beyond me.

It did not matter in the least that half Goethe’s novel had been omitted by Massenet: in the novel Werther despairs also because he has this godawful job at court, required to be an utter sycophant, he cannot stand the phony socially dysfunctional life (in any real sense) in salons. Everyone out for what he or she can get. In the original Charlotte has married coolly for money and status. He makes a mistake to come to Charlotte for comfort. Nor did it matter that I know in the novel when he arrives, she is indifferent; she, as Thackeray put it, carried on cutting bread and butter. This was not a novel about sex and death as the two production people (Richard Eyre and Rob Howell) told Gelb during the filmed interview even if Massenet’s music corresponded to wild wallowings of lyrical grace. It’s a critique of how society is organized of social life. When it moves into the last sequence of suicide, it’s about loss, grief, misery unending, unbearable, lonelines; that’s the text of the novel. In this opera most is omitted and what is there is changed and the close where Charlotte understands and loves back is an enactment of how one escapes through death if the beloved person is there with you to understand.

So Werther races out of the room and she to her bedroom behind a door. Her husband, Albert (David Bizic) comes in and reading one of these letters, Alberts jealousy prompts him to knock on her door and tell her to send Werther the pistols. She does, but directly afterward regrets it, and then at the back of the stage (much movie technique) we see his room, Charlotte puts on her robe and rushes off to stop Werther from killing himself:

Werther_1

We are then in this room as it takes over the screen. (It reminded me of the way Edward Ferrars’s room in the 1971 S&S was presented — with Robin Ellis as the brooding hero — Marianne is a Werther figure.) The pistols arrive. Werther first tries to shoot himself through the brain. Cannot. Then he tries his chest and does it. He falls and blood all over the place. She now bursts in, they begin to sing and I lost it again. He sung how happy he was to die, and I felt this. For me it would not be that as my beloved is now dead so I cannot die in his arms and not have these last moments. That made me cry all the more. I thought of oblivion as their voices soared.

Then silence. No more sound. The subtitles were there with the words telling the same tale, but the thrill was off. In a way like a silent film. My tears were still down my face as I read the words, but the spell was broken. In the movie-theater I was in, it took a full 3-4 minutes before anyone seemed to get up to go out to the lobby to complain. I heard towards the end of this silence voices from the screen very faint: Izzy was looking at her cell phone, showing me tweets by people complaining they had lost sound. We could not tell if they were in our theater or where they were. One was from a theater in NYC. She now says someone in the audience had a cell phone and was able to reach the sound through a radio station but it was out of sync — for we did hear ever so faintly the voices singing, the music. I lost patience and irritated got up and walked out to find someone to be told that someone was upstairs fixing it, and as she said that, the sound returned. But the opera was over and we were at the applause.

At first I thought it local and felt so angry at myself and others for not rushing out and demanding the sound be put back earlier, but as we walked out two managers were there explaining that the satellite feed had stopped sending sound. Anyone who had a stub for their ticket was welcome to return to the repeat playing of the film on the coming Wednesday night. For me it wasn’t worth it. I did feel the opera production did not come alive until the two central protagonists broke out against all rational embarrassed refusals to recognize someone can feel this way and act upon it. I will be away on Wednesday night anyway.

At home, with the Internet available, Izzy quickly ascertained that the interruption had occurred across the US. For her it was an experience proving to us we are indeed part of a community of listeners and watchers across hundreds and thousands of miles. For me I though of how I Capuletti e i Montecchi came live at the close as the two lovers wake and die together, how in Rusalka what’s worth listening to, is the final scene of the prince’s death in Rusalka’s arms and how she then dives deep into the lake never to come out again. I bought myself a ticket to see the Met La Boheme on April 5th so I may find some release again.

End

Do you know what I am? how I live? What it is to lose and keep losing.

Care-charmer Sleep, son of the sable Night,
Brother to Death, in silent darkness born,
Relieve my languish, and restore the light;
With dark forgetting of my care return.
And let the day be time enough to mourn
The shipwreck of my ill adventured youth:
Let waking eyes suffice to wail their scorn,
Without the torment of the night’s untruth.
Cease, dreams, the images of day-desires,
To model forth the passions of the morrow;
Never let rising Sun approve you liars
To add more grief to aggravate my sorrow:
Still let me sleep, embracing clouds in vain,
And never wake to feel the day’s disdain.
– Samuel Daniels

Ellen

Pete Seeger

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

AtaBar
Paulina Garcia as Gloria: typical moment in the film

Dear friends and readers,

This extraordinary film, which won no Oscars, screened only in three movie-houses in my area, and is now in only one, playing but twice a day. I saw it at one in the afternoon in an auditorium which had about 10 other middle-aged women, perhaps one man with a woman — and yet it is not just about the life of Gloria, a 58 year old woman working woman, divorced; but

GloriaCSmontage

that of Pedro, her 30 year old son, living with a baby son (ill during the film) whose wife has left them; of Ana, her nearly 30 year old daughter, pregnant by a Swedish man who about 3/4s the way through the film she leaves her life in Chile to join, as what she’s got to do as his job and life are there so if she wants him … Of Gabriel, Gloria’s ex-husband and Flavia, his wife, whom we see but briefly but enough to know the husband had some kind of breakdown more than 10 years ago when Gloria and he broke up, but for which she now forgives him:

GloriaHusband

but for which he seems unable to forgive himself, a breakdown which prevented him from being there for either of his children when they needed him; and most frequently of Rodolfo (Sergio Hernandez), the older man she picks up (or who picks her up) at one of these nightclubs she seems to go to nightly: they become friends

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and then lovers:

GloriabedwithRudolpho,

but the relationship flounders on his ties to a dependent wife and daughters (whom he supports financially and whose emotional demands he seems unable to resist) and his inability to enter into her family group and watch her relationships which exclude him. He disappears on her twice, the second time leaving her alone in a grand hotel, with hardly the wherewithal to get home, much less pay for the room and stay there. That night she becomes so drunk, she has sex with a stranger and wakes on a beach, without handbag or shoes. And yet she comes back to the hotel and asks questions about Rodolfo, phones her housekeeper-cleaning woman who comes with money to get her. Rodolfo lacks what Gloria displays greatly during the film: resilience.

Of course a woman is at the center of this film; it is from her angle we see all these people and I suppose that is what is thought unacceptable. I mentioned in praising Cate Blanchett’s role in Blue Jasmine how rare it is to see older women roles in films where the woman is still sexualized, still wants sex and a good time, a boyfriend; here how others react to her is presented unflinchingly. I enjoyed the hard truth of her earned moments — she is given gravitas. As opposed to the half-frenetic and half-delusioned women Sally Hawkins plays, and the weeping, lying one Cate Blanchett inhabits in Blue Jasmine, Paulina Garcia respects herself, lives on and within herself.

I’ve read the word “joyful” applied to Gloria, and some of the trailers and promotional shots want to suggest this is the keynote of this film. It’s to get the nuance all wrong. Contemplate this shot near the end of the film: after driving to Rodolfo’s house, throwing his bag at him, and shooting his house with a paint gun (an over-the-top rare improbable moment in the film), Gloria returns to the hair-dresser, then home to put on new make-up, again another cocktail-style dress and back to one of the many noisy nightclubs we see her in throughout the film, get into the center of the dance floor and do it again:

PaulinaGarciaondancefloor

I see a sort of Christ-like thrusting out of arms in this final image. She is sacrificing herself to the altar of life. Gloria tries to have a good time and sometimes does, is seen laughing, eating, talking, but more often she sits wherever she is enduring life, and sometimes bleakly, drinking and smoking on. She wears glasses throughout the film, a sign of her acceptance of herself as she is:

gloria

The ending of the film tells us life is going to go on and she not give up on it but no more. It reminded me of the films of Pedro Almodóvar (e.g., Volver), only his are perhaps better than this one by Sebastian Lelio.

I’d like to call it the portrait of an older woman’s life, for, as I say, it has enough in it to show that: she and her son, and her grandchild, her ex-husband and his wife, with her daughter – quietly moving scenes, many of them. She is there ar night with her son’s baby. Her daughter will not let her mother grieve openly at the airport when they are to part for perhaps years, so Gloria parks her car separately, comes back hiddenly and alone watches her daughter’s plane leave. We see her sleeping, at work, dealing with a landlord. Only it’s not quite since so much of the film time shows her in a noisy nightclub, drinking and smoking — and going after or being sought for sex. I take this to be the result of two men making the film (the writer Gonzalo Mazzo) is male too. Gloria is not a woman who seeks time alone ever (no solitude for her), who ever reads anything, has any political opinions. Men never wanted to give women the right to vote and they don’t like bluestockings. This is (sorry to say) a man’s take on a woman’s life, however full and sympathetic.

Some reviews have castigated, Rodolpho, but we are to feel for him too; he’s an older man with ties he cannot get himself to escape: as Gloria comes from an upper class Chilean culture clearly so he comes from his narrower lower middle military one. She has no great triumph in getting rid of him as she’s back to square one – the nightclub scene. What impressed me was no matter how many men she meets and dances with and has sex with (one long night) no one stays. No one wants her for real. She’s too old — she’s trying, we see her try to make herself over at the end, but to see that as somehow leading somewhere is to miss the point.

One way to understand what a film means is to look for what repeats itself. This film includes is a tiny starved cat who keeps invading Gloria’s apartment. Every time she comes home, there it is and it’s crying, wailing. She keeps throwing it out. It cries outside her door. On the last time Rodolpho deserts, she allows the poor thing to stay in, and begins to feed it and cuddle and have it in her bed. I felt the cat stood for her and everyone else we see. Unfortunately, the poor cat is owned by a young man who lives upstairs. He is a man who is abusing his girlfriend or partner who lives upstairs from him; Gloria often hears him cursing and hitting a woman. She does not call the police but his mother because she can’t sleep. He tries to get into her apartment one night and leaves behind by mistake a packet of marijuana. She has hitherto refused pot but now we see her smoking alone — I take these to be nadir moments in the film.

nadir

Alas, he’s the owner of the poor kitty and takes it back. I assume in the following week Gloria will find it starving in her apartment again. Back to square one.

Life is more to be endured than enjoyed said Sam Johnson. The film is not glum, though Gloria is hurt

gloriahurt

sometimes afraid (she worries about the man upstairs and complains to the landlord too — to no avail), she smiles again, somewhat steadily if narrowly, warily, is not unhinged, but open to yet more experience:

gloriasmiling

She sings in her car. How I envied her the liberty of that car. In its occasional inconsequence the film called to mind Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said (also about an older woman getting involved with men). She passes by political demonstrations, but appears to look askance at the demonstrators and reporters:

Gloriawatchingdemonstrations

Garcia should have won more than the Silver Bear for Best Actress.

Ellen

chemotherapy2 (2)

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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.

Cornered (2)

Cornered (1)

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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Part6EndCloseup (1)
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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landcape2 (1)

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.

Bagofchemicals

Ellen

Friends and readers,

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

Blue-Jasmine

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

cate-blanchett

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

Ellen

Trio
Vladimir Ogorevich (Sergey Semishkur), son of Prince Igor (Ildar Abradzakov), Yaroslavna (Oksana Dyke), mother of one, wife of the other, at center

Dear friends and readers,

Geoffrey O’Brien writes inspiringly accurately of this year’s (rehearsals began in June 2013) new HD-opera production of Alexander Borodin’s large fragments towards an opera, now titled Prince Igor, and arranged coherently in a new way to provide a contemporary as well as essentialist Russian meaning:

At the dramatic center of one [realm, or first act] is the captive Igor; in the other the bereft Yaroslavna. The music they sing, each in solitude, is insistently about loneliness and separation. The music they sing together after they are reunited in the last act cannot compare to the mournful power of what they sing alone.
    Yaroslavna is as strong a character as Igor, but like his it is a strength measured by the frankeness with which each confesses to being at a loss, overwhelmed, grief-striken. Yaroslavna’s long lament performed at the beginning of the 2nd act — ‘Terrifying nightmares torment my sleep, I often dream my beloved is beside me … Yet he fades away further and further’ — makes audible the strong, sustained sorrow that seems to lie at the root of the opera (NYRB, March 10, 2014, “A great Prince Igor“.

prince igorYaroslavna

I was deeply moved by Oksana Dyke’s singing and enactment of the role of Igor’s wife. Abandoned as her husband goes off to glorious war (ironies are strong here), she is to take care of the life of everyone at court and in the countryside. In her interview with Eric Owens, Dyke bubbled over delightfully with talk in Russian, and within the opera she was Sarah Siddons come back, somewhat subdued. Her face was serene with beauty, and she sang what I feel daily. I bonded with her, and felt that for other people she (and other characters) might evoke the experience of other of life’s traumas and dream joys. She was terrific, her voice lovely, surely she will someday be a diva.

Polovtisiandancers

I was also irresistibly impressed (as was everyone around me) by the stage filled with 12000 individually made poppies (allusions to the carnage of WW1 through staging and set and words of the free translation), through which danced and writhed a full complement of Rites of Spring-like wild yet controlled young men and women. (See plot-summary, wikipedia.) The battle Igor proposed at the opening of the opera is over and huge movie black-and-white images of men’s faces suffering terrible takes over the stage after Igor is announced captive. One of the faces is Igor himself and he dreams of friends and family members taken captive and made into slaves. He hears the “hit tunes” of the opera (as Owens phrased) allure all the more for their familiarity, e.g., (“Take my hand, I’m a stranger in paradise”). There was a familiar refrain I can’t describe but that kept coming back throughout the opera and when it started up, like a rabbit my ears perked up attention was held.

Izzy (Russian Roulette) made the important point that the re-arrangement did have the effect of making the wife central, keeping the hero off-stage and leaving a lot unexplained. Dyke was the central presence of the opera. Its mid-section becomes her fending off Prince Galitsky (Mikhail Petrenko) a rake and rapist and trying to save women from trafficking (see below for photo). The opera becomes woman-centered. Not that that’s a bad thing …

Slightly disappointingly (but causing me no surprise) as I stood on-line during the first intermission to get a coffee to drink with my hard-boiled eggs (my lunch), I found myself among three young woman who seemed educated. Not one connected the poppies on stage with the symbol of the poppy of WW1. They had no idea there’d been one (so they said). When I spoke of millions dead in WW1 they looked blanker.

Less excusably they also looked surprised to hear that the production had turned a medieval epic, probably glorifying war, into an anti-war parable. Eric Owens had just described the source as a medieval heroic epic and said more than once that the fragments were newly cobbled together: these had been made into a pageant, but now they were a strongly dramatic story with lots of confrontations. Do some opera-goers not listen to what is said by the host or hostess? As the opera opens, Igor rushes a plethora of young men off to war after 1815 and they begin to straggle back in 1821, filled with war horror stories.

OPening
Nazi or WW2 like uniforms

I did wonder what planet they lived on when lastly I asked how they liked hearing “Stranger in Paradise.” The chorus master (a man in his 70s) at the Met on stage this time knew the 1950s movie and reference, but not these women. Maybe they had never heard of this movie, were too young, and didn’t recognize the music? more likely they just didn’t want to give away anything of their thoughts (people are like this) or were partly having me on. So I fell silent but then they began to talk to me. About what I no longer remember.

IgorEnding

At any rate Tcheniakov and Noseda’s re-interpretation of the epic poem was lost on them. If so, I sincerely hope it was not lost on the many other people in the auditorium: this opera production is intended to speak to our political situation today, e.g., to the endless colonialist wars. Igor’s captor, Khan Konchak (Stefan Kocan) berates him, as Igor sings of all the losses Igor’s war has caused, and the limited role Konchar will give Igor.

Captor

The ending is a depiction of a people utterly debased and shattered, trying to put their lives back together. The song was heroic but when it ended Abdrazakov as Igor broke away from everyone worshipping him to begin to rebuild a house with some doors, and others taking his cue took bricks and began to re-build too. The implicit idea is the war was wrong, the defeat a lesson, and now it’s time to rebuild destroyed places and lives.

Set
This far shot show us Igor’s son, Vladimir and Konchakovna, at times a sheer dream and at others a woman the young man had loved

This newly conceived opera is also meant to be and is complexly psychologically acute. Tcherniakov used big screen movie images of say a face out of which a hallucination (like the dancers in the field of poppies) can emerge, the garb of the Nazis and suggestive costumes, intertitles, the chorus dressed to look like illustrations in 19th century novels of impoverished looking desperate people dressed in Russian style of the later 19th century. Abdrazakov sang movingly among the poppies especially — again it was a familiar tune, but now in context I saw how sad it was, about how people feel about life’s losses. I enjoyed this opera enormously because it reinforced the way I feel often and made such feelings valid.

Tcheniakov told Gelb during the filmed interview that he transformed the source into (he hoped) a sort of 19th century novel in the spirit of Tolstoy. In one archetypal scene, the soul of Prince Igor is fought over, by a male pacificist, who oddly is sternly dressed as a soldier (Duke of Wellington) but have no fear, he hardly ever stirs before noon. Prince Galitsky (Mikhail Petrenko, a base baritone), rival to his brother, is a Lovelace-like rake who seeks to enslave the female population of the village while Igor is gone:

Igorbrotherhusbandsrival

In the poppy fields we first see the female dream erotic figure of the piece, Konshakovna (Anita Rachvelishvili) in white slip with a huge wig of curly black hair down to her waist. Jungian.

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

This is the first of the four operas we chose to go to this year that came up to the standard of great effective opera Jim loved to go see and hear. The text had been transformed into modern art: the staging was interdependent with movie techniques continually and vice-versa. Both a product of 19th century psychological novelistic art; at the same time the source is a nationalist memory of history — in fact it seems Igor won most battles, only the one that was written about was a defeat.

Principles
The principals in the poppy field, Igor singing a famous beautiful piece of music I’ve heard many times before

I imagined Jim with us enjoying it, coming home to read more about the text and careers of the artists, and talking away about it, making the odd ironic joke as we ate our spaghetti together. How busy were those poppy fields. How they broke up into 16 separate pieces to be hauled off stage at night. Had Jim been there we would not have been walking home in the cold up the hill, but seated comfortably in his Jaguar with him. I felt so sad as next season was announced and images from those planned as HD-versions shown on the screen. He would have loved to have seen the new Cav and Pag. Although he saw and heard none of this season, he did read about it, and at moments in the summer he and I even had hope he might live to go to a few.

He can know nothing of these, he’s missing out.

Ellen

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