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Bryan-Cranston-Trumbo
Bryan Cranston as Trumbo — who did write in a tub, while drinking alcohol and smoking …

Dear friends and readers,

I recommend not missing this film. Whatever the flaws, this is a strong film I wish everyone in the US would see. Alas, it’s a film for our Trump time.

To begin with, qua film it’s better than Truth (a story of the destruction of Mary Mapes’s career upon her attempting to expose Bush Jr’s lies about his military career), which never ceases to be presented in a hyped melodramatic fashion that prevents the viewer from having any sense of the real character of Mapes, though it does project the (today important) political message that news organizations have been hijacked and corrupted by political organizations and the profit motive. See “Why TV News must die:”: Bad tv news outlets cheer on horrendous candidates in sickly parodies of journalism, and those monstrous campaigns make money for the tv outlets.” It’s also dangerous for they promote bad people to office.

This is due largely to Cranston’s persuasive enactment of the man through a script that does trace his private as well as outward political and screenplay-writing life over a thirty-year period. Jordan Mintzer of Hollywood Reporter:

Cranston, who sheds the mimicry and pontificating of earlier scenes to turn Trumbo into a wry, self-deprecating and somewhat cheeky older man, even if he continued to stand up for what was right

Ty Burr of The Boston Globe:

Cranston’s performance is the motor that runs Trumbo, and that motor never idles, never flags in momentum or magnetism or idealistic scorn.

The pace of the film is also much slower than Truth, Trumbo boasts scenes longer than the usual of popular-style movies nowadays. Jay Roach was the director, probably appropriately the person to give credit to here is the writer, John McNamara. I say appropriately for an important phase of Trumbo’s career was his work was his writing for The Screen Writer where for years he was (rightly) scathing about the film industry’s bathetic scripts, crude commercialism, and significantly reactionary politics. The first subject is dear to my heart as anyone who reads my blog will know: I wrote a paper last spring on “The Importance of Screenplays” as a central instrument to making and understanding a fine film.

Trumbo also does not succumb to the mystery-suspense thriller plot-design increasingly ubiquitous to the extent it forms the spine of the recent Suffragette, a third political film for this season. (A fourth is Bridge of Spies, which apparently boasts a remarkable performance by Mark Rylance as the British spy working for Russians.)

Instead it harks back to the very 1940s style films Trumbo himself wrote: an “inspirational struggle of our Horatio Alger hero against the forces of darkness” (I quote from Bruce Biskind’s review in Cineaste). Incessant hard work, earnest caring about his fellow human beings, controlled courage when humiliated (in a powerful prison scene Trumbo is stripped naked and forced to display his private body parts to a heavily-armed guard on the other side of bars), over-worked in prison (and jeered at, insulted by an ironic black man who “hates” communists because they don’t “love this country” which has done so much for him), a strong talent which he manages to sell to D-film-makers carries our hero through to breaking the blacklist (we are told). And at the close of the film we get the final rousing speech, in this film moving delivered in a film clip of Trumbo himself in an interview he gave after it was revealed he had written Spartacus. The film harked back to 1930s and 40s films I’ve seen where Ronald Colman (Talk of the Town) and Gregory Peck (To Kill a Mockingbird) take this role and it can still be seen in the still watched Jimmy Stewart telling us It’s a Wonderful Life!.

Beyond Cranston’s performance (and the actors playing with him, especially Louis C.K. as Arlen Hird), the film interweaves the present film with documentary film from the 1950s through 70s. These are startlingly revealing and make the analogous points the film-makers surely meant: HUAC insists in these documents cuts on its right to invade the privacy of US citizens “to protect the nation” from “enemies;” the first amendment is laughed at. We see a young ever so plausible Ronald Reagan. We see John Wayne haranguing people. I went with a friend who said substitute the word “Muslim” for communist and we could be in 2015. We glimpse the murder of the Rosenbergs. Some of the actors are dressed successfully to look close to, and act like the original people. Towards the end of the film when Cranston is an aging Trumbo he looks like him. These give needed ballast to the central threads.

I say needed because there is a great deal here that is gratingly untrue or evaded. The impression is given Trumbo just about single-handedly undermined and destroyed the blacklist by writing so many money-making screeplays and at least two academy award winners. He did support himself by writing scripts that sold movies under a pseudonym and at least three of these were nominated or given prestigious awards, but the blacklist had begun to deteriorate slowly with the advent of TV. He did nothing single-handedly which I’ve a hunch he’d have been the first to say.

One thing Nora Gilbert’s Better Left Unsaid shows is that the production code as much as political censorship was responsible for the inanities of popular films until the middle 1950s, and films like those made by Kazan (On the Waterfront no matter how rightist and Streetcar Named Desire), as importantly, The Pawnbroker (1964) ended vigilant vigilance, preparing the way for a more adult presentation of political ideas. The full truth would have to take into account the effect of British and other European films of the 1980s (My Beautiful Laundrette); only recently have films like Trumbo become common once again. it is untrue that Edward G. Robinson named names; he testified three times and called himself “a dupe of the communists” but he never named anyone.

HeddaHopper
Helen Mirren as the vicious Hedda Hopper (she was)

Evaded also is Trumbo’s long career as a eloquent polemicist: he was himself targeted, a scapegoat on the basis of his own fierce hostility to the preponderance of terrible films in The Hollywood Spectator. He made enemies. Roach’s films shows Trumbo standing up for the rights of production crews to strike for higher wages. But Trumbo attacked the inflated incomes of the movie owners: he was a pre-2015 attacker of egregious inequality (see Tim Palmer, “Side of the Angels: Dalton Trumbo, the Hollywood Trade Press and the Blacklist,” Cinema Journal 14:4 (2005):57-74). I would be surprised the movie didn’t bring this out to make more analogies, but have read it’s based on Bruce Cook’s biography where fundamental research into other aspects of Trumbo’s career does not appear to have been done, or if so, used. There is no serious examination of the 1950: Trumbo’s great work is the tract, The Time of the Toad, comparable to Lilian Hellman’s Soundrel Time. The experiential emphasis of the film is on the trajectory of Trumbo’s admirable endurance of prison, years of incessant demeaning effort, ostracism, and (made into a comedy) final break-through when his apparently mindless bosses throw the persecutors out using a large heavy stick.

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Louis C.K. as Arlen Hird

Still as a political statement and viscerally moving story, Trumbo is as good as Suffragette, and like Suffragette better than most films I’ve seen all year — especially if you consider its theme. It shows the destruction of many lives; it reminds me of Kenneth Johnson’s Pitt’s Reign of Alarm and the Lost Generation of the 1970s in conveying how little it takes to rob someone of a decent place to live, to ruin someone’s private relationships, make sure they never fulfill their talents or are useful to society.

This is where the story of Arlen Hird comes in: the movie shows everyone continually smoking, and this man develops cancer. The disease goes into remission but he finds himself unable to produce shlock under a false name rapidly and the stress and misery of his existence (his wife leaves him) leads to an early death. You see how easily hatred and fear is whipped up among people. The film ends on the real Trumbo talking in an interview with a powerful statement that now he has gotten back his name.

If only it were as easy to get rid of those who can put people into prison for political beliefs and activities as John Goodman as Frank King manages:

It’s a condescending easy quip making fun to call it “a B-movie about an A-list screenwriter”. Like Suffragette because of the way it’s made it will reach a large audience and appeal to their sympathies, to what they admire, what they would like to believe is true, that an individual can “win against the system.” We need more of this kind of didacticism if that’s what it takes to teach or reach people. Peter DeBruge of Variety:

Trumbo may be clumsy and overly simplistic at times, but it’s still an important reminder of how democracy can fail (that is, when a fervent majority turns on those with different and potentially threatening values), and the strength of character it takes to fight the system

Earlier this year I strongly recommended Diane Johnson’s biography of Dashiell Hammett: A life and I reiterate that. Johnson demonstrates that in the immediate post WW2 period: very quickly persecutions began, quickly committees formed to “root” out communism (really FDRism), a number of laws passed which parallel Hitler’s early years (outlawing the communist party — freedom of speech means no outlawing parties).  Making the world safe for the fascism to bloom we’ve seen since; the McCarthy era was this brought to a high pitch of terror. He was eventually helplessly ill, destroyed by thugs, a poignant story.

Having watched the film I found myself taking down from my shelves Trumbo’s The Time of the Toad, subtitled (by the way) A Study of Inquisition in America and putting it on my TRB pile as necessary to recall and blog about in this world where Donald Trump is said to be a front-runner in Republican polls for the President of the US and has advocated shutting down or severe controls on who can use the Internet.

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Toad as in toadies

Ellen

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What happens to a dream deferred? … Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun? from Harlem, Langston Hughes

Dear friends and readers,

Last night I watched a YouTube of all of American Theater production of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun with Danny Glover and Estelle Rolle. It is long (2 hours and 50 minutes) and to do it I stayed up to 1:45 am, but it was well worth it, yes. I recommend to all who come to my blog to watch it sometime in the next couple of days (or soon) too and then read on:

Elaine Pigeon, a listserv friend, who I’ve also met at a JASNA conference, who alerted us on WomenWriters at Yahoo to the production, wrote concisely:

While it’s main premise is an African American’s family’s desire to realize the American Dream and own their own house, Hansberry’s play touches on many issues that resonate today: racism, gender conflict, the fragility of masculinity, money, class issues, slavery, Africa and colonialism and more.

For some excellent essays and exegeses and commentary (one by Hansberry herself), see commments. I was deeply moved. I have read it before (just once) and seen it once but no longer remember that production. Now done rightly it seemed to me the equivalent in strength of Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. At mid-century in the US there were a number of plays exploding the realities of American culture, the “American experience” as PBS glibly calls one of its (good) series. Williams’ plays shows us what sex is like, its premises; Miller shows how class and money work, and here Hansberry, race. What was omitted (and still is) are the imperialist militarist facist politics of the gov’t; at mid-century the gov’t was merely oligarchical, it’s gone well beyond that now. It may be that this level of life is hard to dramatize in a play where we are most affected by intimate human stories; at any rate, the only medium it’s been is film as in Gavras-Costos’s Z (so one can have a nation- and city-wide landscape as what the action is embedded in). I suspect too that the strong Jewish component of American arts (especially the theater for funding) prevented this even then, as Israel already existed (its gov’t has done all it can to stop any treaty with Iran these last few weeks). Why don’t we have plays like this any more beyond the patriot act declaring presentations of the realities of continual-war global politics treason?

I’m not discounting earlier plays, e.g., Lilian Hellman’s plays on lesbianism and the politics of war (Watch on the Rhine, The Children’s Hour), Sam Shephard’s True West exposing the results of the macho male hegemony, but in the 1970s the impetus turned to the new independent film industry and for a while there were remarkable films. Arthur Miller talked and wrote about the turn to psychological -fantasy angles as a strong retreat and I believe he’s right. He also said that films were killing live theater and there’s a truth to that.

I was most impressed by how many things in that play are still so. Yes black people can now some of them get decent jobs, but many have none at all. Ta Nehisi-Coats’s essay on how for over a century the way local economics are structured and allowed to be practiced prevents black people from having accumulation of money is relevant. $10,000 from the father’s insurance policy and irreplaceable. The bombing and desctruction of a black person’s home who dared to move into a white neighborhood.

The most disquieting aspect of the continual police murders of black people at the rare of a couple of week is that they continue. The police were taken aback when the first videos of what they do began to surface. There were riots as genuine knowledge this is happening daily spread and we’ve seen a couple of inditement –a couple! just a couple and do not know what has happened since. But yesterday it surfaced a black man’s face was destroy while he was murdered. The police are now shameless and determined to continue. Sandra Bland is not a turning point, just a low that happens. Two years ago a woman terrified of the police’s response to her running her car into one of these cement barriers in DC was gunned down and murdered and the police congratulated. (Disabled people are nearly equally at risk; homeless people.) The massacre of 9 black people while in church followed by a demonstration of the Klu Klux Klan re-asserting its right to murder black people (with its swastikas, flags, in sheets, with red crosses) is a paradigm of the behavior: murder of blacks (immigrants), riots when an individual encounter manages to be publicized, and then the power reasserts itself.

There would today be guns in play as there are not in this 1959 play. I’ll tell all that in the south east Bronx preferred weapons were bats, razors and knives. But it is harder to kill with these weapons. I bring up where I grew up (from age 4 or so to age 10 1/2) to say as I watched I bonded utterly and entered into the anguished feeling of these thwarted people. The self-inflicted berating, the loss of self-esteem, the turning on one another (especially that), the wild mistakes (because you don’t know the middle class rules nor how to protect yourself or at least try) was what I saw in my home growing up, and that of relatives and people living round us.

The qualified happy ending of the play to have its full bite shows why sometimes it’s not just irrelevant but necessary to know the autobiography. Hansberry’s family moved into a white neighborhood, and the white home owners association went to court to have them thrown out on the grounds the white man in the play cited: people have a “right” to form what communities they want. WIkipedia article writes: The restrictive covenant was ruled contestable, though not inherently invalid.” Today we have gated communities everywhere and the leaders of these associations set the grounds for who”s allowed in.

I end on the reality too that Hansberry as she became more active was surveyed, harassed, probably hounded by US agencies — as today BlackLivesMatter is. This has not been reported in mainstream media. Never is. She died at 35 (!) of pancreatic cancer. I agree with James Baldwin that this hounding and the strain of being alive in the US at the time helped bring on that cancer and her very early death.

Elaine also included a worthwhile YouTube telling of Hansberry’s life: remember as you listen to the words (the play tells people “we are just as complicated” as they — meaning white people) that the popular TV show about black people in the US was Amos ‘n Andy:

Ellen

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Nearclosure
With Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman standing aside, Bryan Cranston as Mr White advising Aaron Paul as Jesse to find a new identity — near closure

Dear friends and readers,

When I began watching and then writing about Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad I did not intend to write seriously about it, but gradually I came to see the it comprises an unusual set of quality TV films worth study and evaluative commentary. They mirror central deeply disquieting and central aspects of US life, the whole plot-design actuated by the cancer epidemic (from our ubiquitous “chemistry, yo Mr White!”) and the horrendous price of a pretense at effective chemical medicine:

Skylerpressuring
Anna Gunn as Skyer desperate and believing Walt could be saved, pressuring him into going for the out-of-range expensive chemotherapy and operation.

Skyler
At film’s end: she sits, chain-smokes, drinks coffee, listens to others in a corner of a trailer-home

As film art they are brilliant. The genre finally American gothic: the mini-series has the recipe except for the supernatural: the double self, death, labyrinthine haunted places, the past never goes away, even sexuality in the form of homo-eroticism unacknowledged, and at the end a house in ruin. Less known but common characteristics: exploration of science, doctors (as in Frankenstein). Kafkaesque, majorly says Jesse of his experiences.

So now, as I’ve done for the Palliser, Poldark and Downton Abbey mini-series, as well as many Jane Austen and Andrew Davies’ films, I offer a handy list in one place for people who are interested easily to reach my summaries and commentary. I’ll keep it to this blog (and not attempt to put it on a new website when I finally make it) as after all I discover I did not write as many here as for these previous series:

1) Cancer and Anatomies of Violence: Season 1:1-3

2) Cancer and Money: Season 1:4-6

3) Parallels distract common sense from seeing who is the villain here: Season 1:17

4) It’s the reverse of what’s claimed: Season 2:1-4

5) A Crime Adventure Story: Season 2:5-7 to Finale

6) A Crime Adventure Story (Cont’d): Season 2:8-10

7) American Gothic: Season 2:11-13

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Their first lab

8) Sensational Screenplay into a film: Season 3:1-4

9) Rather poorer stuff: Season 3:5-7

10) Stasis (includes Fly and Kafkaesque): Season 3:8-10

11) A Killing Way of Life: Season 3:11-13; 4:1-4

12) I change my mind about Skyler: Season 4:5-13 & Reprise 1:1-7

13) Walt and the Emmys: Season 5:1-8 & Reprise Season 2:5-13

14) The Dark Tragic End: Season 6:1-8

FromTheFly
From The Fly

I’ve two books to recommend, and transcripts of what was said in each episode. As I discover new essays or materials (reviews welcome) on-line that are good, I’ll add them here:

David R. Koepsell and Robert Arp’s collection of essays by themselves and others, Breaking Bad and Philosophy: Badder Living Through Chemistry

Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad by Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz

The Breaking Bad episodes scripts — simply the dialogue taken down (not the screenplay, not shooting scipts as they have no stage directions, no description of production design, no designation for shots)

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Bagofchemicals
One of the many landscapes and bags of chemicals from the series

Ellen

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Crying
Anna Gunn about to fall to her knees on the ground as Skyler crying after her baby is taken from her by Walt

if you cut them [man’s laws] down … d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then … Yes I’d give the Devil the benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake — Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons

AndreaBrockwhocares
But see this pinned up photo of Andrea (Emily Rios), among the world’s targets: who cares what happens to her: anyone may and does shoot her in the head

Dear friends and readers,

I finished what I’m calling a first viewing of the extraordinary 42 hour Breaking Bad to the bitter end last night. Even to try to take it in would require several viewings. Each of the last shots of the principles epitomizes some final statement about what each has become and how they related to the story’s themes and action. In the last feature as well as a parody, “Alternate Ending,” Vince Gilligan offered his view of the two men’s last moments.

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The series’ last shot of Bryan Cranston as Walter White

White, he suggests, is “spiritually broken, his hopes for revenge pipe dreams; he’s too sick,” the last episode “an elegy, a bit of a goodbye — he goes out on his own terms, the cancer does not kill him, he is killed saving Jesse, there’s almost a perverse feeling of victory to it for me, at least.” Walt’s life up to the time he began to cook meths was a long mortification, failure as most in his society saw it, mocked by the bully brother-in-law, Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) in a video replayed briefly made during Holly’s baby shower. He tells Skyler he did it “for me. I liked it. And I was good at it. I was alive.” Look at that look of bliss on the man’s face as Walt enters the darkness from which we all come, for him the release of oblivion. His life as Walter White ended when he was told he had terminal inoperable cancer; now the love he depended upon is gone from his family, he has done for them what he could monetarily, and he now dies on his own terms, blithe to go.

I’m not as persuaded by Gilligan’s view of Jesse. He’d “like to think Jesse escapes,” that there is “some hope of a life ahead.” Look at that face whose every nerve is suffused with moral pain and despair:

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Last shot of Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman

Jesse crashes in a junk car at full throttle through an iron fence from the last lair of murderous crooks with which he and Mr White have had to deal and Walt destroyed. Realistically, he’s nowhere to hide: Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) has vanished (“it’s over”) and with him his mechanisms for creating new identities for his clients. Jesse will end up seeking out his two feeble friends, Skinny Pete and Badger, and die on the streets if not jailed: he has been called “the moral compass” of the series;” it’s more true to say he has bneen its bleak victim, the one beat up continually, targeted again and again for killing, enslaved with chains, at the close yes knowing he made a killing choice to join Walter White and Jesse is no killer. Each time he shot or killed someone it was after an intense effort to force himself: only the strangulation of Todd (well deserved after Todd coolly shoots Andrea in the head) came naturally.

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The alternate ending has Cranston as Hal, a comic emasculated character with Lois, his formidable wife (Jane Kaczmarek, from a once TV popular series, the two of them starred in, 2006 Malcolm in the Middle) waking in the night, trembling from the “scariest” dream you can imagine: told he had cancer (!), he took to cooking meths, making bombs, killing people (!), alongside a “lost waif, a man child who looked like he was always wearing his older brother’s clothes and he would always say things like “b…” [he stops embarrassed and worried his wife won’t approve], the b word he would use the b word a lot he would say (shouting) “yo B word” and “yah science b word …” In “Felina” we see Jesse when young lovingly carpentering a wooden box, his drawings of himself as a boy hero were recognized by Jane (Krysten Ritter), one of his two loves, as the work of a comically self-deprecating artist. Despised and rejected, with no Mr White to save him, Jesse zooms into the darkness too.

In this dream Hal tells Lois, as his actual wife (much TV self-reflexivity here) that he, Hal, was married to this “tall beautiful blonde woman” — Lois the wife semi-jeers, incredulous of course. When Skyler is last seen she is continually smoking, chain-smoking. She sits and smokes. She is terrorized twice in this season, both through her baby. After a terrific scene after Walt has produced another set of lies to account for his absence and where Hank could be, she sees a fancy knife in a knife set on the table we have seen many times. She grabs it and lunges at him, screaming, “leave us alone, just leave us alone.” Walt defends himself and they fall to the fall, rolling, tussling; he manages to wrench the knife back but not before she has slashed his hand. Horrified, Walt junior becomes hysterical as he watches this.

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Flynnhorrified (1)

To this they have descended. Well he gets back; before she can rise and adjust herself, he has taken the baby in its carrier, run to his car and is driving off. She rushes out after them frantic, asking for her baby back, and falls on her knees to the ground as he drives away. A stunning moment. She begins at long last to cry. Walt does care for Holly and leaves her with the firemen, where we presume Skyler can pick her up safe and sound.

Again another moment in this last season, late at night, she hears a sound from the baby’s room and finds herself by the crib with three men who surround it. They are masked and the dangerous Todd is one of them. They say she has been talking to the police and if she tells about who Lydia is or anything she knows they will return — implication and kill this baby. She mouths obedience.

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Last shot of Anna Gunn as the show’s princess Skyler White seeing how bad Walt looks

Anna Gunn interprets her character inadequately throughout. She says Skyler is a shell, nothing in her. But for her life is not pointless as yet: she has her children, but like Jesse, they make her intensely vulnerable to those who want to get at Walt or any of his associates. Unlike Jesse, once her court case is done, if she does not go to prison (and a plea bargain seems probable), she must (like Saul) move, and if not get a new identity, keep out of harm’s way. Her beauty is of no help for what she cares about — though perhaps it attracted Walter White in the first place, made him dump Gretchen Schwartz. The characters in the series invite these kinds of speculations: we learn enough about them suggestively over the slow-moving 6 year series. I imagine she will eventually stop the heavy smoking — though she will never be the complacent woman she once was. She will remember a world of terror that she joined in on (to the extent of telling Walt to have Jesse killed when Walt balks at this), that still exists but which she now wants no part of.

Lastshotofseries
The very last shot of the series: the men with big guns in the scientific lab (as Fortinbras has the last word in Hamlet)

There is a bleak inference to be garnered at this end: at each and every turn of their career, the two men came up against people who had become inured to murder by dint of murdering other people lest they be murdered or found out, bullied into confessions, and then tortured by penal servitude for decades to come. Each set of murderers were worse than the ones before: from Krazy-8 (seemingly sane) to Tuco Salamanca (who commits acts of wild crazed violence), replaced by the frighteningly homocidal Gus Esposito and his ruthless hitman, Mike Ermantraut, replaced in this last season by the vicious Nazi crew run by Jack Welker (Michael Bowen), with perhaps the scariest pair of them all, Todd Alquist (Jesse Plemons) and Lydia Rodart-Quayle (Laura Fraser). Hank tells Walt he is a dead man ten minutes ago when Walt is still so foolish as to try to bargain with Jack for Hank’s life based on reasoning:

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Near last shot of Dean Norris as Hank: to Walt “you were the smartest guy I ever knew, but you are too stupid to know it was over ten minutes ago.”

The mini-series presents law as providing a modicum of safety for those who do not break it: those administering (inflicting?) and obeying it do not fear one another and however personally awful, mean, demeaning of others, have a vested interest in not breaking it. So some control is exerted over people, some order set up (however morally cruel or wrong) whose rules most of the time can be depended upon — at least by white middle class people.

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Marie (Betsy Brandt) left alone, widowed in her impeccable kitchen — having learned nothing, her lips tight as she spews out unfocused anger

At least you know where you are with the DEA, the medical establishment, the schools, family rituals. There are levels of barbarity such people most of the time do not stoop to. Not everyone is inside this net — those on drugs, alcoholics, non-whites, the poor, women who are driven to prostitution, for whom there is no pity, no understanding. The show does not include GLBT people who presumably are not inside the Net if they reveal themselves.

Disabled
Walt’s last view of Walter Junior (RJMitte) who he has tried to provide money for funneled through the Schwartzes

I would not want to be a disabled person, a child, someone who does not conform in the surface way the well-rewarded Schwartzes have.

A bad dream? Says Mr White to Hank (who soon after ends up buried in sand), if you do not know what this has been about (“who I am”), tread lightly:

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Treadlightly (1)

The remark is not to limited to Heisenberg as Hyde but the whole complex of life we’ve experienced.

Have I mentioned how effective are the inconsequential shots of the series: as Walter White is taken away to hide in the granite state, a stray dog crosses the road

Straydog
Final shot of Oxymandias (13:6)

Ellen

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HankRemembering5
As Hank (Dean Norris) looks over Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and sees Gale Boetticler’s signature, suddenly he conjures up a half-forgotten memory-image of

Gotme
Walt (Bryan Cranston) looking insinuatingly, fiercely at him, teasing “You’ve got me” (with his hands comically up)

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose —Sung by Janis Joplin

Dear readers and friends,

I’d like to emphasize that I realized the one character I had not done an extended sketch of in my blogs on this remarkable mini-series was Walter White and had decided I would focus on my remarks on the fifth season by surveying the development of White’s character — before I knew that Bryan Cranston had won Emmys for portraying Walter White as the best actor in a TV drama series a remarkable number of 4 times (2008, 2009, 2010, and 2014). Oscars and Emmys are not just awarded to an actor for a great performance, but because the voting audience feels deeply compelled by the character, and by the story he is caught up in. Walter White, the shat-upon invisibly caged man, a few paychecks or gov’t action away from bankruptcy is today’s American male. When we survey the ordinariness of violent men of our society at home and abroad, we should remember Walter White — and his Javier, Hank Schrader (Dean Norris). If Walt seems an unlikely Jean Valjean (too upper middle, he gives no free bread away, not an underdog socially), let me allow Jesse to have that role as inflected by a modern take on that ultimate lost boy, Peter Pan. Skylar as Wendy? well, she did scold Peter frequently.

As I watched the first half of the fifth season of Breaking Bad in tandem with Season 2:1-13 (last week I watched the fourth season in tandem with the first to give myself perspective), I realized how cruel, harmful psychologically as well as practically, Walter White (Bryan Cranston) had become. How different he was from the Walter White of the second season, where with Jesse he stood without weapons in a junk yard and shuddered, revulsed before the psychopathic bully-distributor Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz) proceeding to beat to death his own body guard. In the first 8 episodes of the fifth season, now a mass murderer Walt hires a team to men to murder Mike’s team in prison after and commits a series of sickening manipulations of Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) to hide that he, Walt, engineered the near death by poisoning of Jesse’s near-adopted son, Brock (with Andrea, Emily Rios, Brock forms Jesse’s “instant family”). With Jesse, Walt stages a search for and finds (!) ricinn poison in a rhomba vaccuum cleaner. Walt then allows Jesse to weep with guilt over his near-murder of Walt (his “one friend”) when he thought it was Walt who poisoned Brock (it was).

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Jesse’s grief over all the deaths they’ve caused, with Walt’s comforting arms and hands on Jesse’s shoulders …” Walt will later need Jesse to believe that he, Walt, didn’t kill Mike, that Mike is still not dead ….

Worst of all by insinuating the danger of Jesse’s companionship with Andrea (to Andrea and Brock), Walt persuades Jesse to break off his relationship with Andrea. I was most struck by how when later Jesse mentions to Walt that he is no longer living with Andrea and Brock, Walt seems not to hear, and registers this new arrangement as unimportant. Walt deprived Jesse of a girl he was genuinely compatible with, who understood him (Jane) as perhaps Andrea cannot. He wants Jesse for himself (like a devil taking over someone) and become enraged when Jesse wants out of the business because he, Jesse, is now revulsed.

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Andrea (Emily Rios) coming in with her boy, Brock, bringing food for supper

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Andrea smiling an invitation at Walt in which Jesse joins in — they don’t have too many guests

What does Walt care for Jesse’s now profoundly lonely purposeless existence? He risks Jesse’s life by refusing to stop siphoning in meth from their great train robbery when Mike says to stop and Jesse miraculously (perils of Pauline here) escapes horrific death from a racing train by laying within the two tracks. In Season 2 he was led by Jesse who organized distribution. He deprives Jesse of the 5 million Jesse is owed to attempt to force Jesse to continue in this murdering-drug creation-selling business. With friends like these, who needs enemies as they say). He ceaselessly lies. Jesse realizes Mike must be dead since no one is coming after Walt’s team for murdering them, and Walt says Mike is not dead and he “needs Jesse to believe that.” Jesse says nothing but maybe he needs himself to believe that or not contradict it.

Walt’s come a long way. Tellingly as Walt genuinely becomes an evil man, Vince Gilligan in his commentary in the DVD features at long last concedes a nuanced development, a slow-moving justification over a period of intense pressure and need, and says more than once that Walt was “a badly damaged man” when we first saw Walt in the first season. That what he has slowly become is the result of shedding that bullied deeply frustrated existence once in the first season he was told he had inoperable cancer and statistically had probably no more than 2 years at most to live. That his manhood had been undermined badly and the twisted self coming out was intent on revenge and proving himself. Gilligan did not go so far as openly in his words to connect this to our society’s norms, inequalities, obsession with money, but we are invited to. The series in second season had also shown us how little choice of a self-respecting career Jesse has had, and how dismissed Walt is as a high school chemistry teacher. The fifth season shows the viewer how gutted is the 1st, 4th and 8th amendment: the gov’t agencies need not even get a grand jury indictment: they freeze all the assets of suspected people, thus bankrupting them and their families, break in for evidence without a warrant (unless the person asserts him or herself with a hired lawyer). The DEA and others agencies have easy access to surveillance. The medical treatment which is so expensive is also available as records for any agency to explore.

Re-watching the second season alongside the 5th, I noted how what might be called Walt’s second self, Heisenberg as Walt’s Mr Hyde, comes forth at moments where his pride as a male is especially seared. At the party Skylar throws for what seems to me Walt’s first improvement from the crushingly expensive chemotherapy treatments, when Hank basks in the admiration of over Walt’s son, Junior (RJMitte), drinking beer with him in this ever-so-masculine way, Walt suddenly tops this by insisting Junior really keep up with them, ending by making the boy puke in sickness. Spite without sufficient target continues to peer out of his eyes as he continues subject to the will of others. Another character he is reminiscent of in season 5 is Macbeth with his growing will to power and linking himself up with (he thinks as an equal) Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). No lie is beyond him now — and he’s good at using truth for his own purposes as when he tells the disquieted Marie (Betsy Brandt) that Skylar tried to kill herself out of guilt over Skylar’s affair with Ted Benecke (Christopher Cousins)

The comparison of 2nd and 5th brought out aspects of Jesse, Walt’s real son by now: when Jesse so swiftly sheds Andrea, we see he had learned early on not to take seriously enough emotional bonds. It’s significant how often Jesse is seen alone. In the feature to the 5th season Gilligan also begins to speak more openly of his conception of Jesse: he is the lost boy, and young man we do not know what to do with. When in the 2nd season Jesse’s parents throw him out of his aunt’s house, his motorbike is stolen from him, and he ends up covered in urine, he rescues himself through turning to the the skills Mr White alone is willing to teach him. We see inherent in him too a will to ruthless power, an enjoyment of building an empire over others, of bullying others. We see eventually that he draws a line at murder, especially identifying with young boys, and gentle people, that he suffers enormously from the hidden injuries of class, allowing White to take advantage of him. Syklar despises Jesse upon laying eyes upon him: he’s clearly not college material, not “suit” destined; he’s not someone she’d invite to her house. Marie would be more shocked at seeing Jesse at Skylar’s dinner table than any other thing she’s seen thus far. He learns to care for Mike, the mass killer, because Mike treats him with respect and does not manipulate him emotionally. Tells him the truth about “Walter” and advises him to get out of the business. “Take care of yourself, kid.” Aaron Paul has been nominated several times, and was touchingly openly ecstatic by his win — his character recognized.

Skylar: In season 2 he tried and failed to bugger Skylar after he succeeds in turning Hank off his and Jesse’s tracks. She is telling Walt that he is not to take out his anger and hurt on her:

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Anna Gunn as Skylar indignant with green cream on her face:

Now he smoothly takes over Skylar’s body from behind without (pun intended) a hitch.

Skylar’s obdurate obnoxiousness is now newly contextualized as fear for her children. Another aspect of her character that emerges is her stupidity. She really does not seem to understand she and her children are safe from Walt, if not from his enemies. He has invested his ego and identity in himself as her protector-husband and cannot bear to lose her as an object. At one point in Season 2 Walt says “I am not Vito Corleone;” in Season 5 his behavior reminds me of Al Pacino’s towards Diane Keaton as Corleone’s wife in Godfather II. When he grows angry at her for succeeding in removing “my” children from my house to Hank and Marie’s, he loses a central part of this masculine myth he is now successfully enacting. Skylar now recognizes what she held to as family certainties as so much cant and Marie’s nattering drives her into frantic “shut up, shut up, shut up Maries.”

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Having won an Emmy for best supporting actress, Gunn may feel vindicated now.

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Hank is as hard and suspicious in interrogating someone (here Mike) as ever, but more controlled, more thoughtful

Last but never least (if Hank has anything to say about this), the development of Hank by the fifth season is a study in the American macho male very sympathetically seen. by the 5th season He no longer is simply the dense insulting bully of the 2nd season, who enjoys grilling and cowing those street people he can drag into his office (as he did Jesse in the second season): he enacted a parallel to Tuco when he beat Jesse senseless, landing Jesse in hospital; his rage not much different from Gus’s only he uses fists, not a knife. In Season 2 we see him enact his first physical revulsion to his own shooting down of the psychopathic killer Tuco; upon discovering the inscription in Gale Boetticher’s present of Leaves of Grass to Walt, seeing the same handwriting, recognizing “the other W.W.” a phrase he saw in the papers found in Gale’s apartment when he also saw Gus’s fingerprints, he realizes that Walt is the powerful drug manufacturer, agent, and murderer, he has been seeking these past months. He sways, the ground beneath him seems to move. He has been humanized over the several seasons by having him come near to death: we’ve seen his courage in bringing back his leg power. He is too much forgiven, and the immediate murderous rage he projects in the first episode of the sixth or finale season (I’ve watched) it shows the shallowness of his emotional attachments; how quickly they may be changed. His sudden use of the word “monster” and definition of Walt as a “monster” also serves the programs’ refusal explicitly to recognize in Walter everyman and how much he has been driven to do what he does. Hank’s is a black and white world, and he enacts the ferocity of our egregiously inhumane punitive justice system.

If we are not going to be shown the two men readjusting their understanding of one another in terms of their years together, an intriguing question we can ask of Walt and Hank’s long relationship is, Did Walt want to be found out? So careful as he has been all along: in season 2 when he pretends to amnesia, he remembers a cardboard box of money with a gun he had left in a bedroom, and manages to escape the hospital, race home in a car, hide it behind the kitchen sink, and take himself back. He devises elaborate schemes to destroy evidence. At some level is this the final confrontation he wanted, with the man who so casually mocked him for years?

It has been said again and again that what makes readers love novels is when the characters in them are beloved, respected, taken into our imagined selves as we go through life and perform compensatory functions. The slow development of the single parallel story line (Walter and Jesse no matter if sometimes they are circling one another at a distance) and the brilliance of the many intimate scenes are central to the series also winning for the best TV drama series twice. In this fifth season I found myself intensely shaken by action-adventure episodes well done, e.g., the train episode; the remarkable prologues continued to make their effect. To their credit the film-makers defy the nonsense about spoilers in this and the next season. The opening of this season shows us Walt as drawn, pale, thin, looking ill, with a full head of hair again, and beard; he seems to be living alone in New Hampshire (far from Albuquerque) and buys himself a machine gun and rounds and rounds of ammunition. A worn fugitive getting a meal at Denny’s is at least one aspect or phase of his coming future.

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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A failed resuscitation

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

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Hank newly on his guard

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

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

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

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Group Leader: Sounds kind of kafaesque

Jesse: Yeah totally kafaesque majorly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hank and Marie’s clasped hands

Ellen

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

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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The police state we live in glimpsed — as senseless

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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John (John Alderton) and Annie (Julie Walters) — looking out over Yorkshire

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Chris (Helen Mirren) as January

Dear friends and readers,

I decided to re-watch the 2003 film, Calendar Girls because I discovered the screenplay by Juliette Towhidi (and Tim Firth, apparently secondarily), scriptwriter of Death Comes to Pemberley (out of P.D. James’s mystery-novel-sequel of the same name, to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice) was adapted by Tim Firth to become a stage-play, Calendar Girls, and remembered I had liked the movie so much I had been prompted to buy the DVD well before the time when I became intensely interested in movies as an art. It was only much later that I began to buy many DVDs of films adapted from favorite authors of great and older books for British TV stations. I’d just been studying several Jane Austen movies, and have been very impressed by the film adaptation by Towhidi and her whole team (director, producers, actors, cinematographers), and convinced of the centrality of the screenplay to its gothic romance success. So I wanted to watch a movie where she had written the screenplay.

Try to imagine my surprise and emotions when I realized the emotional center, and instigating cause oF Calendar Girls is another cancer story. I was ashamed to think I had been, as the movie intended me to be, led to marginalize, even forget the story’s origin and powerful source, for all it stared at me in the face. Chris (Helen Mirren) justifies her plan to raise a large sum of money by posing naked with 11 other middle-aged women friends to provide 12 photos (one of the group) for a Womens’ Institute Calendar thus:

FRANKLY if it meant we’d get — (she gestures a ‘tiny amount’) — THAT-T much closer to killing off this shitty, cheating, sly, conniving, silent bloody disease that cancer is then God, I tell y’, I would run round Skipton market smeared in plum jam with a knitted tea cosy on my head singing Jerusalem (Firth’s stageplay, Act 2, sc 1, p 46)

Their aim is to purchase a new and large and genuinely comfortable sofa for “the relatives’ room” in Knapeley General Hospital, the room where she and her best friend, Annie (Julie Walters) had spent (in Julie’s sudden concise words) “some of the most terrible moments of her life” while Julie’s beloved husband, John (John Alderton, a character based on a real man who died of leukemia, John Baker) was enduring the misery and pain of the shows of force the medical establishment inflicts on cancer victims. Julie’s husband of 28 years in the film story is a man who loves and makes gardens flourish; his favorite is the sunflower, and as he and Julie sat in their car overlooking Yorkshire shortly before his agony and death, he explained why:

I don’t think there’s anything on this planet that more trumpets life than the sunflower. For me, that’s because of the reason behind its name. Not because — Not because it ‘looks like’ the sun. Because it follows the sun. During the course of the day, the head tracks the journey of the sun across the sky [Helen Mirren’s arm and hand curve an arc across the space she is standing in as she retells this]. A satellite dish for sunshine. Sow these seeds on the hill and you’ll see … that wherever light is, no matter how weak, these flowers will find it. Which is such an admirable thing (Beat) And such a lesson in life (firth, Act 1, sc 4, pp 24-25)

Chris takes this as directive to make the calendar from John’s spoken analogy of his sense of Julie’s beauty with that of this flower:

Flowers of Yorkshire are like the women of Yorkshire. Every stage of their growth has its own beauty. (PAUSE FOR BREATH) but the last phase is always the most glorious … [then gently undercutting the emotion] Then very quickly they all go to seed (Howtidi’s script, Act 1, 29A)

Ruth Wilson (Penelope Wilton as ever the comedienne), one of the women who consents to be so photographed quips

With respect, I didn’t hear him say the phrase, ‘whip y’r bras off’ (Howtidi, Act 1, 47)

In fairness to myself, I was able to ignore the death of John, his pain and his and his wife’s quiet despair, Annie’s loss and continuing grief– which is expressed more directly and plagently near the end of the film than anywhere else — she would rather have one more hour of life for John than all the money and publicity they have gathered for this “cause” — because this film like most stories of cancer persist in keeping the actual cancer experience to the margins. John’s cancer gets very little play in the movie, on screen now and again briefly, it’s presented as part of another ennobling, enrichening experience which has resulted from this cancer (Breaking Bad breaks from this pattern by making Walter White’s heroic actions criminal and murderous): the making of the calendar and the money it accrues and interest it stirs. The structure of this film, is life-affirming, with the calendar also as meaningful publicity stunt: it appeals to the lower impulses of people yet produces money for a center for studying leukemia as well as the needed sopha. Its mood idealizes Yorkshire by presenting it as green meadows in the sun, which was puzzling even in 2003 as I’ve lived in the West Riding and know it has many impoverished cities and its characteristics landscape is brown, dark moors. The presentation of the characters when it comes to the experience of cancer itself is all silent strength and tact — a ploy which has the effect of assigning responsibility to the patient and the “relatives”.

In short the movie conforms to what studies claim most people who have not had cancer want to be told. Do they want to be told this? Judy C. Segal in her “Cancer Experience and Its Narration: An Accidental Study,” Literature and Medicine, 30:2 (2012):292-318) throws some doubt on this formula; at least in her study, people who have had cancer, their friends and relatives and those who participated in the study seemed to prefer some modicum of truth, though most accepted constraints on the speakable. At the time (as i recall) it was said or I read somewhere that two real-cancer epidemic news-stories were cited as possibly motivating Firth, but as he adapted the movie into a play I am not sure if these news-stories were connected to the movie or later play. The play moved from a local Chichester Festival (2008) to London, the Noel Coward Theater, with a starry cast (including Patricia Hodge as Annie, Sian Phillips as Jessie, Lynda Bellingham as Chris): two sudden spike-ups in the number of cancers in an area of Scotland where some corporations had been polluting the environment and in an area of northern England (whence the use of Yorkshire). Unfortunately if this is so, neither of these important realities are cited anywhere in the stageplay; the screenplay is a copy intended for someone who gets to judge whether it deserves an award as a screenplay and has no annotation beyond the play.

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To take the movie on the grounds it presents itself, I still enjoyed it — at least the first half to two-thirds, because — I admit this — it was done as a fable about a group of women friends who keep each other company through life, supporting one another in crises with real warmth, kindness, tact and humor. It’s feminocentric as we used to say in the 1990s (when feminism was still part of university literary talk). Women-centered. The emphasis is on festive release: these older women usually trussed up in respectable (not sexy at all) clothes revel in their bodies’s beauty

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Ruth (during the course of the story she abjures her abject acceptance of her husband’s bullying indifference and sexual infidelity)

as they are photographed doing the usual respectable middle-aged ladies things, as sewing, baking, gardening, playing piano, and sketching, painting

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Cora (Linda Bassett who in the course of the stage play reveals she was pressured successfully by her parents to break up her marriage with her African husband and became a single mother supporting herself and her daughter by running a shop)

and as Lawrence (John Glenister when young), the hospital aid who is discovered to be yearning to be a photographer (he couldn’t manage art school, it’s implied, because it’s too phony), elicits from each smiles of of pleasure and a sense of power:

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Jessie (Annette Crosbie, who we discover taught for decades and had Lawrence as her pupil, is now married to an aging feeble husband, played comically salaciously by Graham Crowden)

The acting was done with comic bravura and panache. Each woman takes a month and the roll call corresponds to the intertitles we see punctuating the film as the seasons go by (January, February) and the photographing of the same landscape it seems in winter, spring, summer, fall, and winter again … It also had refrains and repeating scenes of the women’s togetherness so filled with good feeling, strength.

My first impulse was to think the British way of dealing with and if we must erase the realities of a cancer tragedy while trying to tell of it so much more civilized: only one person we know dies in the film, John; hundreds of letters are written to Annie, some of which read aloud appear to be by people who have lost a beloved person to cancer, so there are some more deaths. But no one is turned into raspberry sauce, no one beaten horrifically, violated, no open crime (I think of Breaking Bad) — unless you consider it a crime not to do anything for real about cancer and pretend you know what you are doing when you don’t (this film does not want to arouse any sense of irony so we never do see any doctors). Obviously the response is communal, the people work as a group (again as opposed to Breaking Bad where it seems to be a war of individuals filled with distrust most of whom get through life by lying). It does suggest the audience for this film are part of a far sounder society.

But before I went on to rest easy with Johnson’s “The measure of a society is found in how they treat their weakest and most helpless citizens” (and who more eligible for that than the cancer sufferer), I remembered the real Leeds and Yorkshire I had lived in — not a pastoral village set in sparkling meadows with churches grand halls, and bought myself both the stage-play and shooting script. You can buy the latter because specially typed copies were prepared for the Golden Globe ceremonies (mine is signed by Towhidi and Firth; others are said to be signed by some of the stars).

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A comparison with the screenplay showed me why the movie once the calendar is achieved and the women become ephemeral celebrities (the movie anticipated the present cult of celebrity), becomes weak and feels like it’s lost more than its cancer story-line; seems slightly aimless. Why go to Hollywood and show us them on the Jay Leno show? in the movie’s it’s so we can see them in an extravagantly luxurious hotel? so he can make tasteless jokes? that’s all that happens before a sudden return to seriousness at the film’s close.

The second half of Tim Firth’s play remains women-centered, presents a real dramatization of what ambition among such women leads to, and more thoroughly the uncomfortableness of celebrity. It’s as if Firth brought out what was merely suggested or kept in the margins of the movie to reveal some of the central women have had a hard time in life and came to live in Yorkshire because they were pushed into it and have made the best of what is sometimes a hard bargain. This comes out as under the pressure of celebrity, of each of the woman having to change her life for a time (travel, leave those dependent on them in crucial ways), and the women themselves arguing as they become jealous of one another or ashamed and irritated by the way they are treated by those exploiting them. I’ve mentioned how Cora’s parents broke up her relationship with her husband. The film does not give enough time to develop this: all we see is the single older mother, Cora, 55 now, with her light-skinned African-English daughter. She does say she fears her daughter will run away but does not elaborate why.

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Cora and her daughter in the film — looking out an inner window in their shop

Celia (Celia Imrie) whom we see trailing around a golf-course behind her husband and has only one explicit association: she has the biggest breasts of the women and so, comically, when she rearranges the cakes with cherries on the tops in front of her to hide her breasts, ends up making her nipples all the more emphatic. In the play we learn she has no children, and is neglected by her financially successful husband who is bored by her, and she can get his company only by trailing around after him. There are worse fates, but she’d have rather lived in London and gone to plays. Ruth’s husband is downright abusive; if she has children, we don’t see any in either film or play;she appears to live for the husband. So when she breaks away and asserts herself it is gratifying. It in both film and play done by her confronting the other woman and Eddie (George Costigan has the thankless role in the film) cast aside as a nothing.

The strongest clash in the stage-play is fierce and between Marie (Geraldine James) who is the head of the WI Institute of Knapeley and said to be ambitious (in the shooting script directions) and Chris. Marie is presented in the movie as an unacknowledged snob, a sucker-up to upper class women higher in the organization altogether too full of themselves, a priggish hypocrite, who visits Annie with a false expression of grief — one of the best lines in both film and play occurs when Marie says she knows what Annie is going through, and Annie echoes the cliched falsifying words — anyone who has been a widow will feel the knife Annie’s words would like to act as.

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Annie answering Marie as Marie tries to shame her out of going on with the calendar

In the movie, Chris is not seriously ambitious; she cries a lot because her schemes (presented as games) end up disasters supposedly. We are not allowed to see how she regards her life as a wife and helpmeet to a just managing flower business a failure.

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It’s a funny send-up of a contest when Chris buys a Victoria sponge from Marks & Spencers instead of making it herself

In the movie the clash is soon over; Marie gives in because she knows what she presents as fun is boring. In the stageplay Marie and Christ are both presented as drivingly ambitious, and have bitter arguments where they strip one another’s motives and bare open frustrated feelings. The center remains the women and we see under the guise of togetherness, the women undermine one another and do what they can to gain whatever power is on offer.

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Marie leading the meeting

It’s not “breaking bad” (they are not wildly fantastically destructive) but this WI is not a simple picnic and gay fair.

The movie develops a sub-story about the family life of Chris as disrupted and her desperate attempt to get away from her family for a time. Chris’s son is one obstacle in the way of her going to Hollywood to bask in her achievement. Her son is embarrrassed by the calendar which is also partly inspired by her finding a soft-core porn magazine of her son’s under his bed — this is not seriously critiqued at all; it’s the son’s friend who is obsessed by girls’ breasts and this is made a joke out of. Reading the screenplay brings out how Towhidi meant to parody western culture’s obsession with women’s breasts, and at the same time embarrassment if a woman is frankly showing them off, especially when older. Chris’s boy grows upset by teasing in school, is picked up by the police smoking what looks like pot but isn’t, and not doing his homework. More seriously, her long-time husband, Rod (Ciarhan Hinds)’s business is suffering: “flower power,” apparently left-over from the sixties; she neglects him and it, but this is dropped when he is there as the faithful boyfriend sitting by the hedge when she comes home and tells her how proud he is of her. While he did give a newsman a story about how Chris doesn’t have the time to have sex with him any more this is shuffled off, forgotten, as he asserts nothing hurt, all is well. Scenes omitted from the film and in the screenplay are were of them having satisfying sex — that might have supported the first part of the film (on sex) but they were cut.

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A touching scene of the couple where the man is dying of cancer and the couple where he’s not eating the cake bought from Marks and Spencer after the fair is done

The critique of ambition and cost of celebrity theme of the play is muted in the film, except at the very end when Annie (Julie Walters) runs out of a humiliating studio scene where the directors is expecting these women to strip for a laundry and wash-on-the-line with them behind it (har har) commercial because “that’s what you do, isn’t it?” The women leave Hollywood the next morning, and the film ends with warmth on their return to the WI in the great hall. the movie has several repeating motifs or refrains — as if it were itself a song — one if the women’s singing to Cora’s piano playing each time they meet, Blake’s partly radical and angry and uplifting lines from his “Preface to Milton” beginning “And did those feet in ancient time/Walk upon England’s pleasant pastures seen?” The film celebrates the survival of the group; the play shows more of more of the forces against the group and each of the women as individuals.

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Neither of these popular award-winning films (Breaking Bad or Calendar Girls) usefully dramatizes the situation of the cancer patient. A cornucopia of applied technologies and huge money are played with in both. The prism of illness now and again sheds light on the human condition, but the only film which has dared to focus on the cancer, the patient, that I’ve seen is Wit. Death in this movie Calendar Girls provides an excuse for moving speeches, communal self-help and a festive seasonal calendar; in the movie script there is a real dramatization of of Annie’s loss of John and the acute suffering widowhood entails; in the play Tim Firth shifts the emphasis onto showing us painful aspects of women’s lives, their thwarted ambition.

At the close of the play we have three single older women: Annie, now widowed, Cora and Ruth, divorced and separated (to be accurate it’s not clear what happened between Cora and the black father of her daughter); a frustrated lonely woman in Celia who trails after her husband on Yorkshire golf courses; a frustrated ambitious women in Marie, who provides a parallel for Chris who manages at the same time to carry on as a kind of pied piper: she leads them in another of the film’s repeating motifs of hope and energy: we see them as a group high on sunny hill doing Chris’s made-up t’ai chi exercises as a kind of communal dance. They move slowly to some moving ordered music and the message is acceptance of what is by being together in rhythm, life’s rhythms.

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The group

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Chris at the center

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Ruth on the side

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Annie

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The group again

How common it is for women-centered films to present a group of women who are close friends, supporting one another. Alas, another myth. In societies around the world the family comes first and women’s relationships must bend to fit these groups’ demands first. Moments on hills together do not come with regularity. What can I say about Towhidi from this movie and Death Comes to Pemberley: she prefers women-centered materials, and has a strong tendency to make the women strong and idealize their relationships as ultimately supportive (even between Elizabeth and Lydia Bennet).

Since I met Jim in Yorkshire, lived with him there over two years, and we visited, even once planned to return, of course the movie has a personal resonance for me too. I’ve been to Skipton.

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):

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leavingchid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking Bad Series Finale Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman 7

Ellen

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