Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 6

. . . in which we take a look at place.  (By the way - this is totally my co-author's area.  I'm cribbing some of his ideas - read the forthcoming Wanna Cook? book from ECW Press [publication in 2013] for a far more complete discussion.)

Every good story has a setting.  Sometimes the setting is incidental to the story - the events being told could happen just as easily in New York City or in fair Verona (West Side Story as opposed to Romeo & Juliet, for instance).  Other times the setting needs to be anonymous - Samuel Beckett famously sued the American Repertory Theatre over their plan to set his play Endgame in a particular place (namely, an abandoned New York City subway tunnel).  Beckett essentially said if he'd wanted it set there, he'd have written it that way.  (ART backed down and included an insert in the program that blasted the change.*)  And sometimes the setting is crucial to the story being told - just try moving Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire out of New Orleans.  It's simply not the same tale.

Breaking Bad falls onto the Streetcar side of things.  This is a show that intimately understands the importance of place. You can see from the opening shot of the pilot episode - that hard, bright blue desert sky with a pair of khaki pants inexplicably fluttering over the wide open landscape - place is going to matter here.

Think about what happens in the desert and the rules of town that fail to apply in that place.  (I can't help it - there's a strong parallel there to Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream - the rules of Athens are different from the rules of Forest.  Go, Gilligan!)  Think about what happens in the RV.  And, for heaven's sake, think of the transitions we see in the look, style, and even the feel of Jesse's house as it moves from being his aunt's house at the beginning of Season 1 to being his.  Now think about how the house reflects his fractured state of mind in the beginning of Season 4 to how it looks as he comes to his senses later in that season.  The setting reflects the character's mindset, including the changes the characters go through.  (Now with that in mind, go watch the Season 3 episode "Fly" again.  Woo, boy!)

One central message of Breaking Bad is that what we choose to do matters and those choices say a great deal about who we are under the skin.  Another message of the show is that where we choose to do these things also matters.

* I hate linking to Wikipedia, but I cannot find an online link to the production notebook which includes this story.  

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Memory & Manipulation

Up to this point in the film class, our “aliens in science fiction” movies have dealt with aliens who are big, ravenous and very, very scary.  This week, we go back to one of the ideas from Invasion – the alien threat looks just like us.  In the overlooked gem Impostor, Earth has been at war with the Centauris for years and we’re not doing so well.  The Centauris have discovered a way to infiltrate our society from within and you can never be sure who’s who.  Very sophisticated robots (who have definitely NOT been programmed in accordance with Asimov’s Laws of Robotic) have been placed in human society to bring us to our knees. 

At its core, Impostor asks one of the most central of questions - Just what does it mean to be human?  How can you tell?  Impostor is based on a Philip K. Dick story, a writer whose work has been the basis on many science fiction films, including Blade Runner and Total Recall.  As a writer, Dick returned obsessively to the role memory plays in making us, well – us.  If your memories are what set you apart and make you absolutely unique in the world, what happens when those are manipulated, folded, spindled, and mutilated?  Are you still you?  Were you ever?  Can you ever be again? 

Meanwhile, I did something I haven’t done in many a year this week and went to a midnight showing.  TheHunger Games was primarily filmed in western North Carolina where I live and my small town was prominently featured in the District 12 Reaping scene.   (Yeah, we apparently look like a depressed mining community.  Sad, really.  However, let me point out that the mining shacks in District 12 are NOT in my town!  They used an abandoned mill village for those shots.  Probably didn’t have to do much set dressing, more’s the pity.)  Anyway, the film (which I quite enjoyed) can be read as a cautionary tale about media manipulation.  Dick focused on screwing around with what’s already in someone’s head – Hunger Games messes around with history.  It’s been said that if you repeat a lie often enough, it takes on the shine of truth and Hunger Games makes that a major theme.  The Capitol uses the annual Games as a tool of oppression for the outlying, once-rebellious Districts and also uses them as a shiny distraction for the citizens of the Capitol.  After all, if you’re constantly being told to worry over superficial things such as fashion and hairstyles, you don’t have time left over to think and notice and demand change.  Reality in Hunger Games is definitely manufactured and it’s downright creepy to realize that, as part of the audience watching the film cheering for Katniss to survive, you’re also part of the Capitol watching and rooting for Katniss to win.  And if she doesn’t, well – there will be new Tributes next year.

People as things.  It’s a common theme in science fiction, dating at least back to Metropolis in which the underclass are used to maintain the Great Machines that supply the energy keep the ruling class contented and oblivious.  In Impostor, people are used as templates for the Other to create perfect weapons.  In Hunger Games, teenagers are chosen at random to fight to the death for the entertainment of the well-off few.  They are polished, trotted out for potential sponsors to look over, and put in front of countless TV cameras.  In Bride, the mad scientist had the decency to hide his monstrous manipulations from the public.  In Hunger Games, we’re funding the lab equipment.

It’s probably the scariest theme we’ve explored all semester.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 5

Shhhh!  The silent edition.

Usually, television and film are all about the “tell” and not so much about the “show.”  Showing  without explanation requires the audience to focus on the scene and (heaven forbid!) figure things out independently.  Gilligan and company understand that - it's one of the many elements that make Breaking Bad a show you have to watch as opposed to one that you simply turn on while you putter about the house. 

This week, I want to talk about not talking.  Our everyday lives tend to be noisy, filled with street noise, the buzz of copier machines, the “ding!” to alert us that a tweet or e-mail has arrived, ringtones, and of course human conversation.  However, studies show that the amount of emotional content we pick up nonverbally (through expression, tone of voice, posture, etc.) to be as high as 90%.  If you’ve ever been involved in some minor escapade or another and been caught (say, by your mom or a teacher), you probably had a moment of thinking, “Uh-oh.  It’s that look.”  You’re in trouble and you can probably calculate fairly closely just how much trouble you’re in.  That is the essence of nonverbal communication. 

Just three examples to illustrate.  I’ll try to stay spoiler-free, but know the first two come from Season 3 and the last one is from the first episode of Season 4.  If you haven’t watched to that point, just stop now, okay?

SKYLER from the very end of Season 3, Episode 3 (“I.F.T.”).  Skyler has taken a desperate road in her effort to get Walt to leave the house.  Walt is in fine fettle, trusting that his efforts to manipulate the situation are causing things to break his way – she cares too much about the family to cause a scene in front of their son and his friend, whom Walt has cannily invited to stay for dinner.  (“Look honey, I made pot roast instead of meth!”)  Just watch her as Walt prattles on.  There’s a monologue of frustration, disgust, and revenge in her face here, which gives her line that much more power when she delivers it.  And now it's time for salad!

THE COUSINS from pretty much any episode in the first half of Season 3.  Both are trained and ruthless killers and neither of them talk much.  In fact, it’s Episode 6 (“Sunset”) before we hear a word from either of them.  Silence can make a scene heavy with meaning and the meaning is often threatening or menacing.  Think of seeing people meet each other at an airport – the ones who are happy squeal, stretch out their arms, and dash towards each other.  The ones who just glumly stare at each other – well, that car is going to host a different conversation on the way home.  From the cold open of the first episode of Season 3 (“No Mas” [which was directed by Bryan Cranston who plays Walter White]), something very, very creepy is going on here – and we don’t need dialogue to tell us that.

GUS from Season 4, Episode 1 (“Box Cutter”).  To be fair, I could’ve picked nearly any scene with Gus.  I find the casting of Giancarlo Esposito in this role to be downright inspired – he can do so much by staying so very, very still.  Gus is a very dangerous man wearing a very pleasant face and that fools many people who interact with him.  (I doubt his Los Pollos managers think of him as a particularly harsh boss, although he is very meticulous about how he wants even minor tasks done, for example.)  To borrow an old phrase, he’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  And at the end of this episode, he doesn’t have to say a word to get his point across.  Also note the difference in Walt and Jesse’s reactions to what Gus does – it says a lot about the changing relationship between all three characters.

There's much more - Hector Salamanca's "bell of doom" comes to mind, which communicates so much without words - but it's a start!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 4

. . . which is also known as “Better Call Saul!”

Saul Goodman (played by Bob Odenkirk) is the slimiest example of the bottom-feeding creature known as a "shyster worm."  As Jesse so eloquently puts it, Goodman (who is definitely NOT a “good man,” heck, it’s not even his real name) is a criminal lawyer.  Emphasis on the first word in the term.  His ethics are suspect, his marketing tactics distasteful, and his office is tacky. 

And yet, I find myself liking the guy.*

A little disclosure is called for at this point.  I’m a lawyer, duly admitted to practice in both the state and Federal courts of my home state.  My dues are current, I regularly attend my continuing legal education sessions, and I’m clean as a whistle with the State Bar.  I know – and can quote chapter and verse from the relevant Rules of Professional Conduct to support my contention – that Saul is a sleazebag who is in violation of several important sections of the rules governing lawyer behavior.  But he’s such a good example of how not to be a good example that I’ve decided to take today's post to talk about him.

Lawyers are the butt of a lot of jokes - a few of them are even funny.  But the sad truth of the matter is that everyone hates lawyers until they need one.  Then the bottom feeder/ambulance chaser is suddenly transformed into the stalwart defender of the Constitution - and I've seen that happen over a simple speeding ticket!  Walter has much bigger issues to deal with and thus, viewers are introduced to Saul, who has a very (shall we say) flexible attitude toward the New Mexico Rules of Professional Conduct.

Professional responsibility is such a big deal in the legal profession that I had to pass two Bar exams before I was eligible to be sworn in to practice law.  One was a dreadful two-day affair that tested me on my knowledge of everything from secured transactions under the Uniform Commercial Code to estate law and civil procedure while the other focused entirely on my state’s Rules of Professional Conduct.  Trust me, the lawyer-client privilege is real and very nearly limitless.  There are a few boundaries and Saul skips gleefully over several of them, including taking an active part in an ongoing criminal enterprise.

But he does protect his clients’ money.  Funny thing, that.  The State Bar has the ability to punish misconduct by attorneys through admonishment, reprimand, censure, suspension and (most harsh) disbarment.  (Aside:  Being disbarred is an extremely serious punishment, since many lawyers really aren’t equipped to do much else other than practice law.  Seriously.)  At any rate, the single act of misconduct that is most likely to result in disbarment is misuse of client funds.  Don’t mess with client cash – ever.  (If you do - be prepared to pick up stakes and move to another jurisdiction and cross your thieving fingers that they'll take you.)  And on that point, Saul acts appropriately.  He takes his share off the top, but stores everything else safely for later pickup by his clients.  Saul is sharp, knows how to poke holes in a weak case (and the job of a defense attorney is to make the prosecutor do his job, which is to meet the burden of proof), and provides a zealous defense for his clients, which is another of the professional responsibilities of an attorney.

By the way, you can thank the Southwest United States for Saul’s goofy ads.  The 1977 case of Bates v. State Bar of Arizona (433 U.S. 350) was the landmark case which approved lawyer advertising.  Prior to then, it was thought that advertising by attorneys was vulgar and would “tarnish the dignified public image of the profession.”  (Really, I can’t make this stuff up.)  While I am all in favor of letting people know that they have the right to representation, I think a Pandora’s Box may have been opened with Bates.  I submit Saul Goodman's “Fatty Fat Fat” as Exhibit A.

*SPOILER ALERT – I try to keep these posts "spoiler free," so skip this if you haven't gotten to Season 3 yet.  If you have, read on.  I find myself especially liking Saul early in Season 3 when he buys the house viewers have come to think of as Jesse’s for our favorite currently-clean tweaker – and at a discount, no less!  Saul knows the law and he knows how to use it to his clients’ advantage and – like it or not – that’s what lawyers get paid to know.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Life On Other Planets

Of course, a film class designed around science fiction is going to have to deal with the idea of life on other planets.  Up until this week, we had only flirted with it - in Forbidden Planet, we're off Earth, but the alien race is long gone (although their advanced technology has been left behind) and in Invasion the aliens come to us, but we only see their "pods."  That changed with this week's assignment.

This week, the class explored Ridley Scott's game-changer Alien and this next week the class sees the sequel Aliens (done by James Cameron).  What comparisons I'm looking forward to reading!  The two movies have sparked any number of film geek debates regarding which is "better" and the answer changes depending on how you set up your parameters for "better."

It's undeniable that Scott changed the landscape with Alien.  You've got a crew of money-grubbing roughnecks who are working on a ship named after a Joseph Conrad novel when things go to hell without a handbasket.  In 1979, Ellen Ripely was something that just hadn't been seen - a woman who was perfectly at home making command decisions even when that involved shooting things.  The best part of this was that Ripley's gender wasn't seen an an issue - she was capable at doing her job and she stayed cool under pressure.  The fact that she was female wasn't part of the equation.  (Even now, we could do with a few more Ripleys and a few less damsels in distress, but that's my opinion.)  Gender is a big deal in both films - it's not coincidence that the computer system in Alien is called "Mother."

But in Aliens, Cameron goes from a horror/science fiction hybrid to an action/science fiction hybrid and Ripley isn't the Lone Survivor (a staple of horror films).  Instead, she becomes Action Mama Bear.  The stakes are higher, the crew are now trained soldiers (a group which includes some tougher-than-nails women), the monsters are ickier, and the Company cares not a bit.  So. Much. To. Discuss!  I can't wait to see what the class does with the two films - both are strong, strong movies on their own, but comparing them takes both films to a different level.  Plus, it's the only time we see both the starting point and a sequel, so there's that element to discuss.

NOTE:  The franchise is still going strong, with Scott taking up the reins again for Prometheus, which has a June 2012 release date.  The film is said to "share DNA strands with Alien.  Different reports call it a "prequel" or a "reboot" of the franchise.  The trailer certainly harkens back to Alien.  See what you think.

Alien Trailer (1979)

Prometheus Trailer (2012)

Meanwhile, I also checked out John Carter, which is based on the first of a series of novels written by Edgar Rice Burroughs of Tarzan fame.   The film has an amazing cast, by the way - seems that quite a few folks wanted to get on board with this one.  I enjoyed the movie as what it is - a Disneyfied romance of Brave Earther and Valiant Princess.  Really, John Carter is a nice, goofy, predictable popcorn movie, and I don't mean that as a slam. The problem is this - so many people have ripped off Burroughs in the century since he wrote the Barsoom novels that it's hard to watch this and remember that he mined the vein first.  Instead, the elements come across as "hey, I've seen that somewhere before."  You have - Burroughs got there first on the page, but others beat him to the screen, so this film seems like a re-hash.

Servings from the cliche buffet include:  Carter is an ex-Confederate.  Trying to forge a life beyond the war which took his wife and innocent child, he has run off to the Wild West to seek his fortune.  The Apaches and the colonel of the local fort ("Fort Grant," by the way) have other ideas.  In addition to the Civil War and Wild West bits, there are some steampunk elements (especially in the design of the flying ships of Mars). On Mars, there are plenty of people who look mostly like us (just some exotic tattooing).  And there are four-armed, really alien-looking folks, too.  Language barriers  are taken care of with a sip from the Well of Plot Convenience.  There's an adorable and faithful "space dog" that will save Carter's bacon a time or two.  The flawlessly beautiful Princess of Mars (from a city named - I kid you not - Helium) is portrayed as smart and capable (good), but she must be rescued THREE SEPARATE TIMES from falling to her Certain Doom by Carter literally swooping in to save her.  There's a fight to the death in a space arena with Vicious Space Critters and the bringing together of traditional enemies by Carter's force of personality to defeat the great evil so the world can live in harmony.

Ellen Ripley would have handled things differently, I feel sure, but the movie is a cotton-candy-light romp.  Go enjoy.


Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 3

. . . which isn't about Walter.

One of the many glories of Breaking Bad, which no less a pop culture critic than Stephen King named the best show on TV in 2011, is that it's not a one-trick pony.  Mind you, the Walt/Jess dynamic is one heck of a trick in and of itself, but showrunner Vince Gilligan takes us far beyond that.  Breaking Bad contains very well-crafted, three-dimensional characters in supporting, secondary, and even tertiary roles and that, much like a man wearing an octopus for a hat, is something you just don't see every day.

So let's talk about Hank.

Hank Schrader (played by Dean Norris) is married to Marie.  Marie is Skyler White's sister, making Hank and Marie in-laws of Walter, so there's a family connection there.  The other connection Hank has with Walter is one Hank doesn't know about yet - Hank's the DEA agent in charge of Albuquerque's methamphetamine interdiction unit, so he's chasing ABQ's new kingpin of blue.  This can only lead to complications.

In lesser hands, Hank would be drawn either as a buffoon along the lines of Barney Fife, unable to track down what's right under his nose or as a bald Joe Don Baker as Buford Pusser, complete with axe handle and swagger.  Gilligan doesn't take either of those easy roads, instead giving viewers a far more complex and human character.

Hank - let's face it - can be a jerk.  He's brash, loud, politically incorrect (but at least an equally opportunity insulter), and often someone who causes a certain degree of eye-rolling and deep sighing.  But he's also really, really good at what he does, which is to catch the bad guys without hurting the few remaining innocents in his world.  This is made clear in the first episode of the show.  A bust has been set up (for a house we're going to become familiar with) and everyone is just waiting for the signal from Hank to swoop in.  Hank's rarin' to go, but he carefully and deliberately holds off on giving the order until a school bus has passed by.  This tells us two things - one, that Hank has paid attention to the house long enough to establish the route of the bus and know just when it passes through the neighborhood.   This tells us that Hank is methodical and willing to wait in order to get things right.  And two, he won't compromise the safety of innocents to make his bust.  Getting the bad guys matters - quite a lot, in fact - but he's not going to have to explain third graders as collateral damage.

So when Heisenberg appears in ABQ with his pure-as-prairie-light meth, Hank takes his time.  Everyone makes mistakes.  Everyone.  It's just a matter of time.  This is a fact that should scare Walt spitless, but Walt's tunnel vision has crippled his ability to see what's closing in from the sides.

But Hank is more than Super Cop.  Viewers learn that Hank is human, with all the sometimes messy human connections that most of us have.  He loves his wife (and Marie's got some qualities that strain that affection; I'll get into those in another post), is a surrogate father-figure to his teenage nephew, and he cares about Walt and Skyler.  He home-brews beer in his garage and he likes his life.  And he is not immune to anxiety and injury, although he tries mighty hard to bluff his way past all that bunk.  Hank feels deep bonds of loyalty to the men and women who work with him and to his family - Walt's actions have completely betrayed all of that and, by doing so, placed Hank and others in grave danger from serious Bad Guys (see, they're so bad, I have to capitalize!).

Hank will find this out - some things are inevitable and Walt makes some slips.  Hank's loyalty to his home life has kept him from asking too many questions (after all, this is his chemistry teaching brother-in-law, not some meth-making genius.  Only it is), but Hank's tenacity can't be distracted forever.  And when he does start running down those questions, loyalty to the two halves of his life (work and home) are going to be in direct conflict.  Which side will win out?  I'm betting on "work," but the window is still open for last-minute wagers.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

They're Here!

This week, the film class took on the last of the "classics" on the syllabus.  (Also the last of the B&W films!)  A film that can be read as an indictment of the Red Scare and/or the dark shadow of the American dream, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a fascinating film to watch with a little background of the 1950s.  Often, when people think of the America of the 1950s, they think of an idyllic time captured in Leave It to Beaver and The Andy Griffith Show, conveniently forgetting that those television shows were not documentaries.  Life in the 1950s was as messy and complicated as any other time and America was wrestling with itself.  Conformity was prized and people chafed against that.  Racism was rampant, tranquilizers were prescribed at an alarming rate, states tried to regulate the content of comic books, and the consumer culture was booming.  At the same time, we were engaged in a messy not-quite-war in Korea and there was a growing fear that Communists were trying to take us over from within.  Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers tapped into the common fear that our society was being undermined by secret agents who looked just like us, but didn't feel emotions like us.

Set in the fictional California town of “Santa Mira” (which has been used in several other film projects), Invasion holds up well all these years later.  (It should – it’s been remade at least three times in the decades since it was first released.)  Who can you trust?  How do you know?  In a world in which even sleep is deadly, these questions become crucial to answer.  Invasion isn’t gory-scary, but it still packs a psychological punch that may leave viewers as restless as many Americans felt in the 1950s.

COMING SOON:  We leave our study of classics behind and dive into a brave new world of genre mixing with Ridley Scott’s Alien.  While more violent and gory than anything we’ve seen up to now, Alien is justly renowned for its mastery of what you THINK you saw.  Cramped spaces, an entirely new sort of female character and a horror that is truly horrible – Alien has it all!