Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 2

Welcome the the second Walter White Wednesday!  I'll be posting specifically about various aspects of AMC's magnificent Breaking Bad on Wednesdays for the foreseeable future.  This particular post is also known as "Show Me the Money!"  as I take a look at a central question asked by the show - what makes a law-abiding citizen turn to crime?

You have to have some degree of sympathy for Walt – at least at the very beginning.  Here’s a man who’s done everything he’s supposed to do.  He’s gifted with an amazing brain for chemistry.  He’s with the same woman he’s been with for about twenty years and clearly still finds her to be quite a catch.  He’s got a teenage son who respects him and a new baby girl about to arrive.  He believes a man is supposed to provide for his family.  Yet his demanding job offers him little in financial rewards or prestige, so he works a second job at a car wash, where a jackass student lords it over him and Walt just has to suck it up instead of laying the little brat out on the pavement.

His solution is to turn to making crystal meth. 

Crazy?  Well, yes.  But as an old Glenn Frey song puts it, “It’s the lure of easy money/It’s got a very strong appeal.”

Yes, it’s true that Walt’s job is crap.  The glory of chemistry is lost in the teenage wasteland.  And the cherry on the sundae?  He’s been handed a death sentence called Lung Cancer.  (To add to the suckage, Walk doesn’t even smoke.)  Why leave his family destitute when, with a little smudging of moral lines, he could set them up to live comfortably after he’s gone to the Great Laboratory in the Sky?  That’s tempting.  But don’t be fooled by this plaintive cry.  Walt’s not doing this for his family – not really.

Walt wants what all gangbangers want.  Money, sure, but far more important and integral to Walt is something the Queen of Soul sang about around the time Walt was learning that fires need oxygen.  Walt wants R-E-S-P-E-C-T.  Just a little bit.  And if Walt is the fire, this desire for respect is his oxygen.

Walt’s a man who understands the mysteries of chemistry and he’s surrounded by people who couldn’t care less about those topics.  His quicksilver mind and blade-sharp abilities are not appreciated by the movers and shakers of polite society.  The only people who hail Walter White as a master artist are people who have a deep and abiding appreciation for crystallography, albeit of a very particular and felonious kind - meth users and dealers.  Instead of trash meth mixed from lye and match strike plates, Walt can make stuff so pure it tempts the angels.  Is it so wrong to take pride in your work?

That’s the crux of it.  Walt’s not veering off the straight and narrow to leave a nest egg behind for his family.  This plan is about him, pure and (mostly) simple.  Walt wants to be respected.  He wants to be seen as smart and sharp. Maybe even viewed as a little dangerous.   As someone you want to be friends with because crossing him is something that – woo, boy! – you just don’t want to do.

The problem with this is that it has nothing to say about how WALT views himself and everything to do with how he sees OTHERS viewing him.  For someone who prizes control so much, he’s cedes control to a whole heap of other people, for how they view him determines how Walt views himself.

And that's a train that will jump the tracks.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Knowledge Is Power - But Are We Ready For It?

This week, the film class got to see Forbidden Planet.  It's a fun one - and their first one in color.  (I trick them by moving back to B&W next week, but shhhhhh!)  I like so much in this movie - we're finally out among the stars instead of staying at home on Earth (and that's us in the flying saucer.  Maybe we got the design from the Roswell crash site).  We meet one of the most recognizable characters in science fiction - Robby the Robot - and we see Asimov's Laws of Robotics in action.  There are similarities to point out between this tale and Shakespeare's The Tempest, with Planet using Clarke's Law and advanced scientific knowledge substituting for Prospero's magics.  (Sites selling research papers love this one - I guess it seems hip.  See here.  And here.  Write your own stuff!)  And - oh, yes - "monsters from the Id!"  That never fails to get some good discussion going as we talk about what our own monsters from the Id might look and act like.

(Personally, I like this one best - a monster who knows what he wants and when he wants it.  NOW!!)

Key to Planet is the conflict posed by the existence of advanced knowledge.  Are we ready to handle the consequences of using that knowledge?  Who is charged with making that determination?  What gives them to right to decide for the rest of us?  And just how stable are those making these decision-makers to begin with?  Who, as Juvenal wondered, watches the Watchmen?

All good questions, especially in the post-WW2 world that had seen the destructive force of the atomic bomb and the sheer inhumanity of Nazi death camps and of experimentation sites such as Unit 731.  Genies are very difficult to put back into bottles, after all.  And maybe some knowledge needs to stay on a very high shelf from grasping hands.

COMING SOON:  Next week, the film class goes back one year from Planet to see what was going on at home while the United Planets Cruiser C-57D was far, far away.  Things were tense.  America was in the deep freeze of a Cold War with the Soviets and neighbors spied on neighbors for any hint of un-American behavior.  Can't let those Reds get a toehold or soon everything that we know and hold dear will be stripped away!  One key to safety was to conform.  Twilight Zone would do some very interesting things with this theme in 1960's "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" (which uses a few props from Planet), but first the aliens came to the small California town of Santa Mira.  Get ready for Invasion of the Body Snatchers!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Walter White Wednesday

Here it is, 2/22, and I've been saying I'd start a weekly Breaking Bad post that was to be known as "Walter White Wednesday."  I'm sure there's some significance to the fact that this first post is being launched on Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the season of Lent, but I'll leave that for others to analyze.

What does it mean to “break bad”?  The phrase has been around for a while - see the link for details.

Breaking Bad’s Walter White begins the series as a nearly comic Sad Sack character.  He’s doing the best he can to support his family, which consists of a wife who is unexpectedly pregnant and a teenage son who uses crutches due to cerebral palsy.  Walter had dreams of glory which have been dashed on the shoals of life and, while he has a plaque thanking him for his contributions on work that led to the Nobel Prize in chemistry (which was actually given to someone else), he’s making ends meet by teaching high school chemistry to bored teens in Albuquerque.  Well, he’s making ends almost meet – he works a second job at a car wash.  We know this guy.  Often, we are this guy.

Then Walt gets some devastating news, which turns him into a man with little to lose and a fierce determination to make sure his family is taken care of.  Here’s where some people open up to their circle of family and friends.  Pickle jars are placed on counters and fish fry dinners spring into being to help out.  But Walt’s a rugged individualist – a type that we Americans like to think “tamed the West” by self-reliance; the whole “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” trope.  So Walt comes up with his own nifty plan to make a lot of money quickly. 

By the way, this myth about the bootstraps is just that – a myth.  You know who tried to travel through the hostile West without help?  No, and neither do I because snakebite, heatstroke, blizzards, and/or dysentery turned them into bleached bones before they got to Utah.  And so it is with Walt – his plan is one that will propel him into darkness, lies, and crushing violence.

It has been argued (by my co-author, Ensley F. Guffey, as a matter of fact) that Breaking Bad can be viewed as a televisual illustration of criminologist Lonnie Athens’ theory of violentization, a theory which holds in part that violent criminals become that way not due to poverty or some sort of genetic “bad seed,” but rather due to a process over time, what Joyce Carol Oates refers to in this link as “a kind of apprenticeship into brutality in which the budding criminal is complicit.” 

The complicity is key – Walt may feel that his actions are driven by a desperate desire to do good, to provide for his family (which is something Walt keenly feels he is supposed to do), but very quickly it becomes evident that he has other desires driving his actions.  Chief among these are the twin desires to achieve respect and to be in control.  Breaking Bad shows us a man who thinks he’s doing the wrong thing for the right reason; that desperate times call for desperate measures.   In reality, Walt’s not being driven; he’s firmly sitting behind the wheel.

Choices.  Consequences.  Ownership of both.  Walt is as blind to this as if he’d had his eyes punched out and his failure to see will both corrode his soul and lay waste to the very life he thinks he’s trying to save.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Ambition Versus Good Sense

This week, the online film class is watching Bride of Frankenstein and exploring the trope of the "mad scientist playing God."  I just flat out love this movie.  Directed by James Whale, the film has much to adore and it's a wonderful film to explore questions of narrative structure.  After all, you'd expect a movie with the word "bride" in the title to be all about the girl.  But no, the incomparable hissing-like-a-swan Elsa Lanchester is actually only visible onscreen for a few minutes, which raises the question of whose movie is this?  Whose story is being told?  (After all, there's another "bride" in the movie!)  As I've said before, these are important questions to ask - and how you answer these questions will radically change your analysis of what's important in the film.  It's a short one, so watch it more than once.  (Spoiler tip - the Bride also plays Mary Shelley at the beginning of the film.  What's the significance of that?  What similarities are there in how Bryon and Shelley treat Mary and how Victor and Pretorius treat the Bride?  These are things that make you go "hmmmm.")  The film also examines a question that often comes up with scientific advances - just because we CAN do something, SHOULD we do it?  Does ambition trump good sense?  Technology crashes into morality, both in Bride and in Breaking Bad.  The Manhattan Project, genetic manipulation, extending life through artificial means - all of these scientific advances also have a moral element.  We can learn much from the approaches taken in Bride to these issues.

We continue with our exploration of classics next week, when Forbidden Planet is served up for your viewing enjoyment.  Color!  Flying saucers!  Robots!  A lost civilization!  And a lot of Freud with more than a dash of Shakespeare.  All with Leslie Nielsen at the center - long, long before he became famous as a comic actor, thanks to Airplane! and the Naked Gun franchise.

Breaking Bad fans and followers -please check back here this Wednesday for the first installment of "Walter White Wednesday" as I begin laying out some of the big themes and little gems from Breaking Bad.  I thought it was especially nice to start that segment on 2/22 and the fact that it's Ash Wednesday when the season of penance begins just tickles me.  This week, I'll take a look at what it means to "break bad" and why Walter White is susceptible to going off into the deep end of the moral pool.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Swing and a Miss!

I like to start my film classes with a not-quiz called "20 Terms to Get You Started."  This list includes technical terms such as "fade" and "jump cut," but also includes the wonderful phrase "Sturgeon's Law."  Theodore Sturgeon is credited with promulgating the idea that "90% of everything is trash."*  As I explain to my class, this is the reason we only study the remaining 10%.  This being said, you sometimes can't steer clear of the shoals presented by the 90%.

This weekend, for example, my Wanna Cook? co-author and I excitedly attended an area production of Joss Whedon's Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog.  This is a show that came to life on the Internet as a direct result of the writer's strike of 2007 - 2008.  It's a hilarious, oddly touching science fiction/superhero musical - and that's a completely inadequate description.  We were thrilled to be able to see it translated into a live performance.  Sadly, we wound up doing something we never do - we left at the intermission.

Seriously - this was a blue plate special of awful, which I why I won't include the name of the production company or location in this post, as I'm sure they're all nice people.  We got an inkling that things were not as they should be when the venue kept us outside in the cold because the sound check wasn't complete.  Then the director (who was walking around with a welded wire horse's head strapped to his cranium making me think that some unholy melding of Bad Horse and Equus had taken place) announced that four (count 'em - FOUR)  roles were being played by understudies.  Then the projection tech didn't work, which had Spinal Tap moments of unintended comedy.  And the final strike - the performers had been so badly miked that I suspected sabotage from the Fox network.  Listen, I'm a kind critic.  I know how much work goes into putting on a show, but I was in total agreement with my co-author when he said, "The way I look at it, I paid $10 to get in and $10 to get out.  I don't begrudge a cent of it."

We then went to see The Descendants, a film which is getting heavy Oscar buzz.  After seeing it, I have no idea why.  It's not that it was an awful movie; it wasn't.  It just wasn't particularly good, either.  The film is getting extremely positive reviews, but I trust my taste.  Alexander Payne, who directed here, also was at the helm of Sideways, which deals with some similar character types, and I'll admit to liking it more, although it also isn't among my "must haves."  Maybe it was just an off night - happens.

COMING SOON:  The film class tackles the "mad scientist" trope in James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein.  Also - coming in about two weeks (on 2/22), I start adding "Walter White Wednesdays" on this blog to comment on and question the goings-on in Breaking Bad.  Get your popcorn and join me!

*Actually, Sturgeon used a word that is a bit more colorful than "trash," but you get the idea.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Time to Start!

While the class has been going for nearly two weeks now, so far it's all been about orientation "stuff" that is essential to the student's success in the class, but isn't nearly as much fun as actually watching and dissecting the films!  But there's a lot to be said for a strong beginning, and I think it's a solid approach to give students time to get their online ducks in a row.

That's done now - or will be by Monday, when the first viewing assignment goes up.  We're starting with the classic German Expressionism film Metropolis, which is also really the beginning of big screen science fiction.  I've given them several links to supplement their viewing - I always think it's a good idea to have some background on the film, the filmmaker, and the time period in which the film was made.  After all, science fiction is often about a view of the future and it's interesting to note how that changes.  You didn't see atomic monster movies before WW2 showed us what the unleashed atom could do and looking at the tech on the old Star Trek seems quaint in the 21st century.  Their first paper is a simple response to the film - not totally undirected, of course.  I want the students to start looking critically at film, not just see it as background entertainment.

I'll post the material on Monday and we'll see how things go from there.  I have high hopes.  Metropolis may be an "old movie" (it was released in 1927, so it's not only black and white, it's a silent film - which for most of my students is a whole new ballgame), but many of my students in the past have discovered that the story is quite compelling.

In the meantime, my co-author in the Wanna Cook? project and I were talking about animals in space.  Who knows why - these things just sort of happen.  Did you know that cats have experienced zero gravity?  It must have driven them nigh-crazy to not be able to land on their feet.  Odd, to say the least.  But not nearly as strange as this:

Onward to Metropolis!