Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 32

Way back in March, I wrote about silence in Breaking Bad. From there, the work grew a bit and I'll be presenting on some of the ways nonverbal communication is used in the show at the upcoming (I leave in a couple of hours) Popular Culture/American Culture Associations in the South conference. It's a juicy topic and I have limited time, so I really can only touch on a few highlights, including the Heisenberg hat and Hector Salamanca's "bell of doom." I'm really looking forward to this - it's always a lively conference and I come home flush with new ideas.

I'm also fortunate to be presenting on a themed panel - sometimes the panels are a little random and it's always nice to be part of a session that has a clear through-line. Seriously - check this out:

First, David Lavery, one of the howitzer-sized big guns of television studies, presents on "Vince Gilligan, Breaking Bad, and Television Creativity."  That's followed by Jeffrey D. Frame presenting on "Walt’s Wake: Chemical Disincorporation and the Break Down of Breaking Bad’s Secondary Characters." My beloved co-author, Ensley F. Guffey, will present on "Buying the House: Place in Breaking Bad" and then I wrap things up with "Pregnant Pauses: The Uses of Nonverbal Communication in Breaking Bad."

This is on Friday morning, so here's hoping the conference attendees are properly caffeinated!

Among the items in my luggage this year are a stack of flyers I'll be using to hawk JOSS IN JUNE!, which is a one-day conference devoted to exploring the work of Joss Whedon that I'm co-convening at my school in (you guessed it) June.  Interested? C'mon, you know you are!  After all, The Avengers was just released for home viewing yesterday!  The deadline for proposals is January 1, so you have plenty of time.  Of course, you can always just attend and not present, if that's what floats your boat.  Check out the link, and then contact me for details.

Now let me go pack!

By the way, the amazing artwork at the top of this post is by artist Martin Woutisseth.  You can learn more about him and his work by visiting

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Play Ball!

In baseball, the relationship and trust between a catcher and a pitcher is not to be underestimated.*  Sure, the pitcher gets most of the glory, but without a good catcher crouched at the plate calling the pitches, you got nothing.  Trouble with the Curve doesn't concern itself with that, but that's about the only relationship that isn't given quality screen time in this movie.  At its heart, Curve is about change and resistance.  Do we take a chance and trust our guts and and hearts, or do we cover ourselves up with gruffness and BlackBerry messages and hope to God that we never have to be honest about anything that really matters?  One's easy and the other's worthwhile.  But the choice isn't easy.

The film features four strong characters - Gus (Clint Eastwood), an aging baseball scout with failing eyesight; Mickey (Amy Adams), his nearly estranged daughter who's on the fast track to become partner at a high-powered law firm; Johnny (Justin Timberlake), a pitcher Gus signed to the big leagues but who blew out his arm and is trying to figure out his next move; and Pete (John Goodman), who's head of scouting for the Atlanta Braves and therefore, Gus' boss.  Seeing these four onscreen is a pure delight.

It's good that these characters are drawn with such detail and nuance, because the rest of the Curve is populated with characters taken straight from the Stock Character Warehouse, which is my major complaint.  Curve is a fairy-tale baseball movie in which the good are rewarded and the jerks get their well-deserved comeuppance and I'll admit I took great satisfaction is seeing the worthy elevated and the windbags deflated.  Yeah, yeah - we both know life doesn't really work that way (not often, at any rate), but it's still great fun to see.  And watching Justin Timberlake clog in some dive of a bar was nearly worth the price of admission.  And it seems to be true that Clint Eastwood pictures need to feature either a gun, a horse, or both.  (Note: this one has no guns.)

Clint Eastwood has had a career that makes strong men faint.  He's lasted longer in a business that is constantly scanning the horizon for the next big thing than just about anyone and he's done it with grace and style.  Look - Clint's career predates my entire life by more than a decade - his first credited appearance was as "Jonesey" in Francis in the Navy in the mid 1950s.  (That same year, he was "Jennings" in something called Revenge of the Creature proving that we all gotta start somewhere, I suppose.) He's given us the Man with No Name, he's been Dirty Harry, and ohmyheaven, he reclaimed the Western in 1992 with Unforgiven.  He knows jazz and gave us the wonderful Charlie Parker biopic Bird.  He's a talent to be reckoned with.  In Curve, he seems to be enjoying his status of Elder Curmudgeon of Hollywood and this is a worthy movie.  As Johnny reminds us, to get to that magic .300 batting average which denotes Big League talent, you have to be willing to strike out 7 out of 10 times.  Johnny's talking about far more than baseball and that's a lesson that Gus hasn't learned and therefore was one he couldn't pass on to his daughter.

Trouble with the Curve isn't as funny as Bull Durham or as touching as Field of Dreams, but it's a nice addition to the collection of baseball movies that remind viewers of just why America chose the devilishly-hard task of hitting a round ball with a round bat as our national game. 

*One of the best songs ever about this is Eddie From Ohio's "Catchers Drummers Anchormen" - check out the lyrics by clicking on the title.  And if you don't catch the song's reference to "with a wave of his arms/He kept it fair," check out this link.  Ah, baseball - you break my heart and make it soar at the same time.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 31

One of the standout elements of Breaking Bad is the show's use of humor.  I maintain that without the lightness added by funny moments, Breaking Bad would simply collapse under the weight of its own shock, horror, and despair.  Certainly disposing of a person you've killed by dissolving them into human sludge isn't funny.

But add a couple of guys hosing human goo off each other in kiddie pools and you've got comedy gold!

"We never covered this in chemistry class, Mr. White."
OK, that isn't quite true.  Often the humor in Breaking Bad is darkdarkdark.  Even so, it still provides leavening for the pumpernickel-dark narrative bread that makes up so much of Walter White's downward spiral.

One of the lighter elements would be Saul Goodman.  Saul is pretty much the walking definition of "shyster," although he's also a really good attorney who zealously advocates for his clients.  (Incidentally, the problem is not that his clients are drug dealers, sleazeballs, and other skating-the-edge types, but that Saul actively helps them advance their schemes and plots.) But Saul's appearance on screen lets loyal viewers know that we're in for a few light moments.  He dresses like he's auditioning for Guys & Dolls, his office is a cartoon, his dialogue is laced with funny bits ("Hey, whoa! You're a Chatty Cathy today!" to Skyler when she's beginning to talk too much on an unsecured phone line), and he doesn't hesitate to put his own interests first, as when he insists Walt and Jesse put $5 in his pocket before he talks, so everything's covered by attorney-client privilege, despite the fact that the two have clumsily kidnapped him and are threatening him with grievous bodily harm.

Gilligan & Company know a fundamental truth - we can only handle so much darkness before the giggles begin to well up inside us.  Knowing that is one reason we can not only accompany Walt on his journey into damnation, but cheerfully pack a picnic for the trip.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Screen Dreams

Martin Scorsese making silents
As a movie fan, I'm sometimes surprised at how tricky it can be to make a movie about, well - movies.  Maybe it's the fear of too many "in jokes" that the crowd won't get, or maybe it's the fact that Hollywood often seems to have the attention span of a hyperactive gnat, but this is a genre of movies that seems to be pretty thin.  Mind you, often movies in this category are transcendent.  Altman's The Player is worth renting just for the opening shot (listen for the reference to Welles' Touch of Evil then go rent that) and I'll watch Singin' in the Rain just for O'Connor's "Make 'Em Laugh" sequence.

So why'd it take me the better part of a year to see Scorsese's Hugo? I have no answer, aside from the fact that the film was only at my local theater for a week, if that, when it was in big-screen release.  Ah, Hugo.  This was simply a lovely film. It helps if you have an appreciation for what it might have been like for the early pioneers of film, but even if you think silents are dull and boring (I disagree with you there, by the way), Hugo is a film to love.  Parts of the story are based on true events - which in and of itself is a sad thing.  We so often demand simple stories that immerse us in spectacle, but keep actual emotional content safely at arm's length.  Imagine, just for a moment, that you have never, ever seen a movie.  You've never seen images flicker and move on a screen in a darkened theater.  Then this technology comes along and suddenly, people are making stories that move.  For the price of a ticket, you can go to the bottom of the sea or to the moon (remember, it would be another seventy years before we actually knew what the moon looked like from human experience).

I fear we live in a cynical age which is often marked by being too cool to care - we've seen it all and done most of it and really, who cares?  Hugo makes you consider what it's like to care. Imagine going broke to the point of selling your life's work which is then melted down for scrap.  Imagine being an abandoned child trying desperately to stay hidden.  Then imagine finding refuge in a dim movie house.  Imagine being able to show that to your first friend.

The secret is the human ability to connect.  Movies have the power to do many things - and help us form many connections - and Scorsese knows this.  With Hugo, he created a beautifully crafted Valentine to the power of movies and to those who know the secret of this power, whether they are makers of movies or watchers of them.

Terry Pratchett captured this same sense of marvel in his Discworld novel Moving Pictures.  You know those primitive tribes who refuse to be photographed because of their fear that doing so might capture their soul?  Well, what if there's some sort of magic in making movies - and that magic wants to come into our world?  I've been a Pratchett fan since I was urged to read The Truth about seven years ago.  Pratchett writes great, complex fantasy novels that take place in a world that isn't nearly as nasty as Martin's Game of Thrones world (don't yell at me; I've read four of them, but I'm taking a break.  The random violence and misogyny got to me, even though I'm pretty sure it's there to make a point).  The Discworld is for people who enjoy sharp satire and clever writing - if that's you, go check out his work.  He has a new novel that's just come out - Dickens-based, from the title.  Not Discworld, but Pratchett's always worth a read.

Just as Georges Melies' silent films are worth a look.  From 1904 - The Mermaid

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 30

Well, well, well - for the first time since high summer, I don't have a new Breaking Bad episode to recap and speculate upon. I can deal with that - "Gliding Over All" left me with plenty to chew on - but I will admit to wishing that it wasn't going to be the better part of an ENTIRE YEAR before I learn how Walt goes from serenely watching his children play around the backyard pool to buying a heavy machine gun in the men's room of a Denny's on his birthday.

Damn you, Gilligan! (An oath I'm sure Skipper wanted to scream to the skies from time to time on that island, by the way.)

So what's going on in the meantime? Wanna Cook? The Unofficial Companion Guide to Breaking Bad continues to take shape. The first three seasons are drafted and my co-author and I are taking a short break to prepare papers for presentation at the annual Popular/American Culture Association in the South conference, which is due to be held in Nashville, TN at the end of September.  Ensley F. Guffey will be presenting on how Breaking Bad uses space and place (think of the transformations the house we first see Jesse living in goes through to become Jesse's house as Jesse himself transforms) and I'll be presenting on how the show uses nonverbal communication (think dingdingdingding along with creepy-crawly  Cousins, among other examples). It'll take us until the conference to put these ideas down on paper and prepare our clips, so Season Four won't really get rolling into draft form until early October.

I have to say, I think you're going to be pleased with the final book. Wanna Cook? was always planned to be far more than a recap or episode summary guide. The book is full of notes about ongoing themes in Breaking Bad, camera shots, episode titles, and lots of extras about everything from Pablo Escobar and money laundering to Ted's heated floor and Walt Whitman.

We both plan on continuing our weekly posts about Breaking Bad - you can find "Meth Monday" over at Ensley's site and I hope you'll keep coming back here for "Walter White Wednesday." There's plenty for us to talk about!

Throughout the run of Breaking Bad, fans of the show have put together some amazing fan-work centered around the show - here's a link to a re-imagining of the opening credits that I think is well worth a look! Maybe this will help tide you over until we get our answers about Walt, Hank, Jesse, and the rest!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Lost Luggage & Found Ideas

Many an engineer or physicist has dreamed of stumbling across a perfect re-creation of the the contents of Nikola Tesla's lab as it appeared before the fire that destroyed half a lifetime's work. For religion students, it's the idea of finding the mysterious "Q Document." For lit students, the dream involves taking the top off a dusty box in some dim library to find a copy of Shakespeare's Love's Labours Won.

Maybe not quite in that league, but certainly close by, would be running across the contents of a suitcase carried by Ernest Hemingway's first wife, Hadley, in 1922. Going to visit her husband in Switzerland for the holidays, Hadley thoughtfully packed every single thing he had written up to that point, including the carbon copies. She left the train to get a bottle of water and when she returned, the suitcase was gone.  Gone.  Every word he had written about his World War 1 experiences, his first novel, well over a dozen short stories - all gone, never to surface again.* Hemingway sometimes shrugged off the loss, claiming that the work was juvenile and not at all good, but sometimes he also claimed this was the main reason he divorced Hadley. (Actually, the truth is that he divorced Hadley because he was Hemingway, but no matter.)

The Words runs with this idea.  In fact, Hemingway's landmark novel of the "Lost Generation" of the 1920s, The Sun Also Rises is featured prominently in several shots, no doubt as a nod to the suitcase story. In The Words, a hack writer comes across a manuscript tucked into an old attache case his wife buys him in Paris on their honeymoon. He claims the novel as his own work and fame and glory come his way. As does the actual author of the work in question.

Only that's not really the story. The actual story is told by the now Old Man (no sea was apparent, but I suspect another Hemingway nod there) about his experiences in Paris at the end of World War 2 and the family he tried to build there and the wife who lost - you guessed it - the manuscript he'd been working on. Lost on a train.

Only that's not really the story. The actual story is told by the author of a book about the Old Man and his life and the manuscript that was lost and recovered by the young writer's wife, who then lies to everyone and publishes it.

Only that's not really the story. The actual story is told in between all of these paths and hinges on what we what, Life or Fiction, and how one word changes everything.

Actually, that might not really be the story, either, but by then I couldn't tell.  The Words is a film that desperately wants to be Serious Cinema, and it's not bad cinema, but it topples under its own weight and cleverness at some point.  You have strong actors here (I found Jeremy Irons to be especially captivating as the Old Man), but the plot is twisted to the point that you expect to meet yourself coming the other way.  In and of itself, that's not a bad thing, but I'm not convinced it was truly worth the journey.  The Words says some important things about theft of ideas, why that's a bad, yet tempting, thing, and the cost of honesty in righting a wrong action, but as it works through its layers to the center truth it wants to convey, it's easy to lose interest.

* OK, it's a slight exaggeration.  One story was out with an editor and another was buried in a drawer.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 29

Voyage of the Soul
. . . in which we learn of the dangers of poetry.  NOTE: This post refers to the events in the Season 5 "mini-finale" ("Gliding Over All") so  if you haven't seen that, please stop here! Proceed, but you've been warned and I'll tolerate no whining about spoilage.

Walt Whitman spent forty-plus years of his life writing, revising, and re-writing his magnum opus, Leaves of Grass, which first appeared in Breaking Bad with Gale Boetticher's quoting of "I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" back in Season 3. Gale gave a copy of the book to Walt with a lovely inscription, remember?

Walt should be more careful with his books.

"Gliding Over All," the title of this week's episode, comes from a poem contained within the book.  It's short, so I'll quote it here.

Gliding o'er all, through all,
Through Nature, Time, and Space,
As a ship on the waters advancing.
The voyage of the soul -- not life alone,
Death, many deaths I'll sing.

I've often marveled at Gilligan & Company's ability to pull what looked like random threads together, but wow.  Seriously, WOW! That painting of a man rowing away from his family on the shore that we first saw in Walt's shrink's office back in Season 2 shows back up here in a cheap motel room, battered and stained much the way I imagine Walt's soul to be. Also in this meeting with Todd's tattooed and apparently Aryan Brotherhood-connected uncle, death -- many deaths -- are planned and later executed with astonishing precision. Walt's empire expands into Europe, Skyler shows him just how much money he's made (still not more than Gray Matter generates, but apparently, it'll do) and Walt has a change of heart. The family is reunited and a cozy poolside cookout commences - Walt glides serenely over all.

My co-author has already cleverly commented on the images and motifs that have previously appeared in Breaking Bad that reappear in this episode, so I'll simply direct you over to his post about that. Do those images indicate that the past - in the form of Walt's cancer - has returned? Believe it or not, I think the answer is not that important - Walt doesn't get a free pass on this one. He's done terrible things and done them willingly and that price must be paid. His doom approaches as a ship on the water - then again, maybe he's obliviously rowing out to meet it.

Hank knows. Now he's just got to prove it.
For me, this episode ties things together and puts Walt, who's become increasingly desperate, despicable, and damned, squarely in the gunsights of the one man who will patiently put it all together - Hank Schrader. This happened because, for all Walt crows about being smart, about being The Man Whose Name Must Be Said, he's sloppy.  He keeps trophies and loses his temper. Hank can follow the money or the bodies, but either way, there's a trail.

I think with the final shot of "Gliding Over All," we went from "Will Walt get caught?" to "Who's the weakest link?" So who will be Hank's guide on the trail? If Skyler's put in a box, will she turn Walt in to save the family? That woman has every intention of keeping her children. Heaven knows that Lydia's not wound all that tightly and she'll do about anything to stay with her daughter. (See the theme?) Then again, has Jesse been bought off by two duffles stuffed full of cash? After all, he was careful to check to see who was at the door, then he made a detour to the coffee table to make sure he went to the door with a gun stashed at the small of his back. And if he ever finds out about Jane . . . 

So that's our mid-finale, with no new episodes for nearly a year.  (I know - a YEAR!) But both I and the tall and talented Ensley F. Guffey will continue to be here for you, updating you on the progress of Wanna Cook? as well as including other tidbits on the dark world of Walter White.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Don't Brake for Yard Sales

Let's dress up like demon hunters!
The Possession follows a family whose lives are torn apart by a yard sale item. No, it's not a documentary.  It's a nice set up - while helping their newly-divorced dad shop for household goods for his still-smells-like-fresh-paint house, the youngest daughter's eye is caught by a box about the size of a silver chest, with strange carvings on the top and no discernible way to open it. Sure, kiddo, you can have it.  Lesson the First: don't buy anything you can't read.  Buy the kid the hat and what the heck, throw in the gloves.  But not the box.

The Possession is trying hard to be a scary movie with a religious twist, a la The Exorcist.  Now, I must confess that I'm not a horror fan, not really, but this one's okay by me.  The Possession is one of those movies that would rather make you jump than gross you out. It takes the approach that little girls acting weird are scarier than boogeymen and in this, I think the filmmakers are right.  Outside forces - the maniacal axe-murderer breaking down your door, for example - are certainly scary, but we know what to do about those.  4Ss and a B - shoot, stab, slash, shove, or burn.  One of those will probably do the trick. But when the terror is inside, when it's the familiar, especially the innocent, who's the Big Bad, well, a different system must be found to deal with the threat/problem.  After all, that's not J. Random Killer, that's Missy.
Nothing to see here, everything's fine.
There's a lot here to like - solid performances throughout (although by casting Jeffrey Dean Morgan, I kept wanting the Winchester boys from Supernatrual to show up with rock salt) and a few genuine jumps, at least for me.  Mind you, The Possession doesn't do all that much that's new - you've seen most of this before.  Two kids dealing with parents' still-raw divorce?  Check.  Dad who overindulges kids to be Fun Parent while Mom has to be the disciplinarian?  Check.  Ambitious, hard-working dad who misses important things in girls' lives?  Check.  Nice kid who becomes highly creepy after coming into contact with cursed object?  Check.  New boyfriend who cuts and runs when things get weird, proving that Mom and Dad ought to work this out for the kids?  Check.  Scary shadowy things in the corners of rooms and down people's throats?  Check.  People who are just too stupid to put their back against a wall so creepy things can't sneak up on them?  Check.  And so on.

That said, the film works a different vein of terror in that it's not a Catholic exorcism but a Jewish one.  The box was made to contain a dybbuk, a frightening supernatural creature out of Jewish folklore.  But the exorcism itself you've seen before - demons don't want to give up hosts very easily and they get extremely irked at anyone who tries to evict them.

By the way, the film is based on a story that ran in the Los Angeles Times back in 2004 called "A Jinx in a Box."  Read the story and you'll understand that when films use language like "based on actual events," they don't necessarily mean "based MUCH" on actual events.