Yes, I am a man obsessed -- obsessed with circles!
United Smart People
Yes, I am a man obsessed -- obsessed with circles!
SEK went to the supermarket to pick up tuna fish for his elderly cat who now only eats food that also contains tuna. As tuna is on sale, he purchases twenty cans of it and is on the checkout line in front of POLITE DRUNK MAN.
POLITE DRUNK MAN: You don’t eat all them cans, now?
SEK: Wasn’t planning on it.
POLITE DRUNK MAN: TV say they full of Menicillin.
POLITE DRUNK MAN: Menicillin, bad for the children, real bad.
SEK: I promise not to share it with any kids.
POLITE DRUNK MAN: Menicillin’s terrible, make ‘em have miscarriages.
SEK: The kids?
POLITE DRUNK MAN: Ain’t even get a chance to be kids, they born miscarried, or with arms.
SEK: I’ll keep that in mind.
POLITE DRUNK MAN: Dead babies with arms, that’s what Menicillin do. Best watch out.
SEK: I will, promise.
SEK takes his car to TRUSTWORTHY LOCAL AUTO MAN in order to make sure it won’t explode and kill him when he makes a road trip next week.
TRUSTWORTHY LOCAL AUTO MAN: You just put a new battery in it?
SEK: That I did.
TRUSTWORTHY LOCAL AUTO MAN: Means your electrical is reset, our computer can’t do a lot of the tests.
SEK: So long as its fluids are replenished and it doesn’t have murder in its heart, I’m fine.
TRUSTWORTHY LOCAL AUTO MAN: So when do you need it by?
SEK: I have a meeting at 2 p.m.
TRUSTWORTHY LOCAL AUTO MAN: I don’t think I can have it done by 1:30.
SEK: No a problem, I work online. Just need to be back home and I live around the corner.
TRUSTWORTHY LOCAL AUTO MAN: What do you do?
SEK: I write online.
TRUSTWORTHY LOCAL AUTO MAN: People do that?
SEK: As long as they pay me to.
TRUSTWORTHY LOCAL AUTO MAN: I thought that was computers did that.
TRUSTWORTHY LOCAL AUTO MAN: They don’t have that shit programmed out yet? Our computer tells us what happened with a car, figure it was the same with what the President said and shit.
SEK: I don’t think they have a computer that can do that.
TRUSTWORTHY LOCAL AUTO MAN: Couldn’t be worse than what they’ve got.
Being that I’m the kind of person who has his own film school and what-not, I decided to read Esquire’s interview with the now-not-but-soon-to-be-again-retired Stephen Soderbergh. “Could be edifying,” I thought to myself — and it was, especially this passage:
A real litmus test for me is how people treat someone who is waiting on them. That’s a deal-breaker for me. If I were on the verge of getting into a serious relationship and I saw that person be mean to a waiter — I’m out. That’s a core problem. You’re being mean to someone who’s helping you. What is that? Everyone knows who the assholes are, and I avoid them.
Because it’s a funny story, but in the ’90s I actually waited on Steven Soderbergh quite a bit, and if that’s his litmus test, he didn’t pass it. Not even remotely.
Because as memory serves, when Soderbergh was a regular at the used bookstore/coffee shop I worked at, his treatment of me then would’ve been a deal-breaker for him now.
One particularly memorable conversation involved his then-obsession with Ambrose Bierce. I’d placed the special orders for the books myself, so I knew they’d just come in the week before Mr. Ambrose Bierce Expert saw me reading Mason & Dixon behind the counter. He proceeded to excitedly tell me, at length and with some volume, that I was wasting my time reading Thomas Pynchon, because Ambrose Bierce was where it’s really at.
He went on and on and on, enthralled by his own love of Bierce — which, after I became an Americanist and read him, I believe is totally justifiable. But the point is, Soderbergh wouldn’t just have failed his own criterion for the measure of humanity, he would have done so spectacularly.
Which, as a friend on Facebook noted, might be the point. He might have chosen his worst character trait as the defining characteristic of humanity because it’s something he had to overcome, and given the depth of charity to the underprivileged and unvoiced evident in his work, I’m tempted to believe that.
Because as much as I despised him as a patron when I had to deal with him, I can’t help but admire — however begrudgingly — what he’s done with himself in the years since, especially Che.
I know I’m defending the film against an idiot of an ideologue at that link, but even if I had to defend it against Roger Ebert himself, I’d do so with the same vehemence…
…despite how I feel about the man personally. He’s just that talented, damn it. There’s a real humanity to his late-period work, especially in the films that everyone hated because they dealt with unsavory subjects like prostitutes or viral pandemics or Che.
So on behalf of all the baristas and book-store employees he berated before he came to understand this truth as being self-evident, I’m just going to go ahead and forgive him.
What had, minutes earlier, been an audition for the role of “child” in a production of “family” has transformed into one for the role of “cog” in “drug enterprise.” The confusion created by placing these scenes back-to-back will resonate throughout the season, as Taystee must decide whether Vee is a caring mother figure or an exacting boss. Initially, at least, she seems to understand the difference—but as the episode progresses, the amount of emotional energy she invests in acquiring a job becomes increasingly excessive, making the stitching of these two scenes together seem increasingly meaningful.
My latest Internet Film School column at the AV Club is open for business! Sample:
The camera communicates a psychological state, but the logic C.K. follows here isn’t predicated on the uncertainty of dreams so much as the tedium of depression.
Everything is the same visually, in terms of the shot selection, but the situation is growing worse. Louie is increasingly a show about the mundane yet fraught experience of depression, and this mood is reflected in C.K.’s direction.
But only because the episode demanded it be. I don’t want to raise your expectations going forward too high, after all.
Watch the podcast — which, and I’m not overstating it, may well be our best, or at least most entertaining, given that we were both in a state of hyper-informed quasi-delirium when we did it — below:
Audio available here.
It’s the only Game of Thrones recap worth reading even if you’ve already seen the episode.
About which — I’m still not entirely sure why people like to read recaps of shows they’ve already seen, but people clearly do.
I must be the outlier here.
SEK: The novel reads very much like the world it describes—utterly familiar, yet slightly off at all points. Was that your intent? (For example, on 59, you describe “Something like a body or a person,” which makes perfect sense, yet is incredibly disturbing. What is like a body or a person that’s not a body or a person?)
JV: I hike a lot in North Florida, and from a distance, things look like other things. A bat can metamorph into a bird when seen closer. A creature on a log becomes just a stubby branch. A seeming tree trunk is actually a bear. You think you are going north, but suddenly, through some daydream of lapse of attention, you get turned around.
These are, in a sense, reminders to us that the real world is stranger than we usually think. Imagine being able to spy on the processes going on around you while even walking down the sidewalk on your street—the plants employing photosynthesis and speaking to each other in chemical emissions, the ants with their pheromone trails, the fungi with their spores. Why, there’s still crowded and noisy cosmopolitan situation all around you, but you can’t experience any of it because your senses are these stunted, incomplete systems.
You’ve got eyes that can’t see the whole spectrum. A cat would laugh at your stupid sense of smell. Your sense of taste is pathetic compared to many creatures. Your sense of touch is put to shame by your average gecko. So the world is in a sense laughing at you anyway, or on some level ignoring you completely, and your sole contribution is the ability to tread too heavily on a dandelion and break its stem. So if we’re honest the world should feel slightly off at times. The world should at times reveal some glint or glimmer of greater processes ongoing. Something like a body or a person. Something like a shadow or a creature. Something like a sudden clue…
SEK: On page 111, you note that the pile of journals describing Area X will soon become Area X itself. This strikes me as a literal version of “contact narratives,” in which what an explorer writes about an area he discovers becomes how future generations understand it. (Describing cities of gold in the “New World” leading explorers to “discover” such cities, even though they only ever existed in print.) Are these books [in "the Southern Reach" trilogy] an exercise in, call it, “creative geography”? Re-shaping the world by describing it?
JV: I must admit my minor in college was Latin American history, and I’m sure there’s a sedimentary layer in the back of my brain that, in soaking all of that conflicted and difficult chronology, has peeked out through some of the observations in Annihilation. I guess I was also thinking of the journals from the prior expeditions as almost being like the bones of the explorers, in word form. This is where they washed up, their instruments useless, all logic revealed as merely construct to push them through the day.
And, yes, there is perhaps a parallel: explorers and exploiters who are culturally so different and from such a different landscape that the very land seems to reject them, even when they seem to have conquered it. I’m not particularly fond of missionaries or of conquerors or empires, all of which strike me as examples of dreaming poorly but, alas, doing so across a vast continuum of human endeavor, to the brutal detriment of all who push back with perhaps a more sustainable and humane vision of the world…
Read the entire interview here.
Child of a blood relative of SEK’s roommate, upon learning that SEK’s not a blood relative of his roommate:
CHILD: So, do you have a last name?
SEK: No, actually, I was born without one.
CHILD: God let you do that?
CHILD: Can you get him to take mine back? I want mine to be ‘Pouncing Cat.’
SEK: I’ll see what I can do.
You can read my full recap here, but just in case you want to know where I come down on the episode’s most controversial issue:
Speaking of still being alive, Jaime Lannister is, and he’s a man, and he has needs. In a reversal of the Jaime-is-becoming-a-better-human-being plot, here we have a sex-starved Jaime raping his sister over the body of their dead child — in other words, we have a return to the incestuous relations that make King’s Landing the city we love to hate.
As for whether it’s a rape, director Alex Graves told Alan Sepinwall that “it becomes consensual by the end, because anything for them ultimately results in a turn-on, especially a power struggle.” Which means, yes, it’s rape.
So, there’s that out of the way…
My podcast with Steven Attewell on the new episode of Game of Thrones is also available:
Audio available here.
The long eye-laser-less nightmare is over!
Since I don't actually read re-caps, I had to pretend I knew what kind of information they contain and the imagine the kind of attitude I would have toward it.
Meaning, yes, I probably just channeled my not-so-inner asshole and made a sarcastic mess of it. But that's why you love me!
Also available now is the Lawyers, Guns & Money podcast Steven Attewell and I did on the first episode.
This revelation would’ve blown my mind back in 1992, but as it stands, I’m just glad I got to totally nerd-out on a former president.
You’ll never guess who it is:
But of all the bloggers out there who aren’t me, he ranks high on the list of bloggers-likely-to-be-peppered-sprayed-by-a-troll.
NOTE: Since I am writing thousands of words a day, I think I'm going to start posting links to them here. I mean, this is my place, I can do what I want, right?
SEK'S NEIGHBOR: (standing beneath a tree, yelling into SEK's window) HEY, ARE THESE YOUR STICKS?
SEK: (under his breath) Don't say "they're probably the tree's," don't say "they're probably the tree's," don't say "they're probably the tree's."
SEK: (out his window) THEY'RE PROBABLY THE TREE'S!
SEK'S NEIGHBOR: SO THEY'RE NOT YOURS? I CAN THROW THEM AWAY?
SEK: YOU CAN DO WHAT YOU WANT WITH THEM!
SEK'S NEIGHBOR: SO I CAN THROW THEM AWAY?
SEK'S NEIGHBOR: BECAUSE I'M GOING TO THROW THEM AWAY!
SEK: GO AHEAD!
SEK'S NEIGHBOR: IN THE TRASH!
SEK: GOOD JOB!
SEK'S NEIGHBOR: THANKS!
SEK: YOU'RE WELCOME!
SEK'S NEIGHBOR: GOOD TALK!
How do you think Twitter reacted to the recently released trailer of the Will Smith-produced Annie remake? Pretty much as you'd expect...
Given that I also write for The Onion, I feel I should point out that this article is not from The Onion. But if we were better people — did less of that awful sinning against the Lord and stuff — we could live in a world where it would be.
My new "Internet Film School" column is up. Sample:
Typically, romances rely on a small stable of predictable-but-effective techniques that convince the audience it’s witnessing the first, chemical blush of fresh love.
The most basic of these techniques is the two-shot, in which the director places both prospective lovers in the same frame. A series of two-shots, stacked one after the other, has a cumulative effect on the audience, which begins to expect to see these two characters together in every shot. After a while, shots that only contain one of the lovers will strike the audience as oddly empty, even if the sole lover in it is centrally framed in a way that would make it impossible for the other to be in the shot. By manipulating audience expectations in this way, the missing lover becomes an absent-presence in the film, something the audience wants to see. If the director only includes one lover in shots for an extended period of time, the audience will begin to feel that something is “wrong,” because the director is confounding the expectation he or she created. When the director relents and fulfills that expectation with a two-shot of the lovers reunited, the frame suddenly seems somehow more “correct” to the audience.
The problem Jonze faced in directing Her becomes obvious...
GUY AT SEK’S DOOR: Hey friend, it’s windy, ain’t it?
SEK: I guess.
GUY AT SEK’S DOOR: Mind if I park in your driveway?
SEK: A little. I might need to use it.
GUY AT SEK’S DOOR: Thanks, I’ll just be a while.
SEK: I didn’t say “Yes.”
GUY AT SEK’S DOOR: You want me to park in the street?
SEK: It’s not a heavily trafficked road.
GUY AT SEK’S DOOR: It’ll just be a while. I won’t block you in.
SEK: You will, in fact, be blocking me in. And what happens when my wife gets home?
GUY AT SEK’S DOOR: Can’t she park on the street?
The head SEK doesn’t have explodes.
While at The Raw Story retreat last weekend in San Francisco, my colleague Arturo Garcia and I had a long conversation about the show that went something like this...
SEK’S NEIGHBOR: I heard you talking on the phone about some “doctor” you think is all-powerful.
SEK’S NEIGHBOR: On your phone, you were telling someone about this “doctor” you found, could do all these — come back from the dead.
SEK: Wouldn’t surprise me.
SEK’S NEIGHBOR: Is his name “Jesus”?
SEK’S NEIGHBOR: What’s his name?
SEK: I don’t actually know.
SEK’S NEIGHBOR: Yet you said you’d trust him.
SEK: Sounds like me.
SEK’S NEIGHBOR: I can tell you his name.
SEK: No, really, it’s fine –
SEK’S NEIGHBOR: I know his name. He whispered it in my ear every night until –
SEK: No, really, you don’t understand –
SEK’S NEIGHBOR: His name is –
SEK: “SATAN,” I know, his name is “SATAN.”
SEK’S NEIGHBOR: “SATAN.”
SEK: I know.
SEK’S NEIGHBOR: As in, “THE SATAN.”
SEK: I’ve had this conversation before, quite a few times, in many a context.
SEK’S NEIGHBOR: “LUCIFER.”
SEK: Please, I know what you’re gonna –
SEK’S NEIGHBOR: “BEEZLE THE BUB.”
SEK: I think you mean “BEEZLE OF THE BUB.”
SEK’S NEIGHBOR: You would know better than me.
SEK: Because I’m a Jew?
SEK’S NEIGHBOR: And yet you live right next door.
I watched Man of Steel again yesterday, and all I can say is that on second-viewing, I'm impressed by Zak Synder's subtlety. He captured Superman's insectile origins quite superbly -- native Kryptonians fly aback demon dragonflies and travel the stars in space-beetles! -- and never once tried to compare this creation of two Jews writing at the advent of the Second World War to anything inappropriate:
I was also impressed by his integrity. During the hour-and-a-half-long climactic fight scene, Snyder could have gone for gore and showed the human toll of Superman's decision to move the fight from one heavily populated area to the next, but he never let you forget that the Real Victims™ are people too, my friends:
I mean, Zod was blinded by our Terran sun when he threw Superman into that 7-11's gas pumps. It was just an innocent bystander! Fortunately, Superman's here to avenge those pumps' deaths:
Zod will have none of it. "I'm stronger than you, a warrior bred," he tells the symbol of Truth, Justice and the Americans Who Matter, right before tossing him into one of our most sacred temples:
Now Superman's the one having none of it. "YOU CAN BREAK MY PANCAKES, BUT YOU CAN NEVER TAKE MY --
But before Superman can stop Zod from trolling the planet, a minion throws a U-Haul van that you can rent for $19.95 a day by calling 1-800-GO-U_HAUL at an army helicopter, so he can't worry about the broken pancakes, because he has a more important person to save:
JESUS CHRIST -- no pun intended -- are you an idiot? You already saved him. 7-11 is fine. What you mean he's still in danger?
I don't care how that shot's framed, Kal-El. She's about to literally shoot that man with eye-lasers. Where are your priorities?
THANK YOU DETECTIVE STABLER. Maybe we can grossly manipulate him into --
Did you just 9/11 Metropolis? WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU? Can't you save anything?
You've got to be fucking kidding me.
That's it, I'm done.
This week’s episode of The Walking Dead, “Internment,” may well have been the strongest in what’s shaping up to be the strongest season to date. It was directed by David Boyd, one of the most talented men you’ve never heard of. He’s been the director of photography on such visually uninspiring fare as Firefly and Deadwood, so it should be no surprise that the composition and shot selection in “Internment” was barely this side of breathtaking.
What do I mean?
For one, Boyd’s use of close-ups in this episode weren’t used to cheaply intensify scenes whose dialogue lacked emotional impact. Unlike, say, the opening credit sequence of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, which closes in to bring the pain and reassure you that the police always have your best interest at heart, the close-ups in “Internment” function as the necessary conclusions to terrible arguments.
Consider, for example, this close-up of Rick’s gun:
It’s the culmination of the should-he-or-shouldn’t-he-pick-up-arms subplot, but instead of having Rick say something about it, Boyd just places Rick’s gun in-frame and lets it speak for itself. Note, though, that the gun’s slightly off-center, a screen-position people have been trained by Hollywood to hate.
The audience, then, is primed for something to happen — and conventionally, that “something” would be that the camera shifts to the left and “properly” frames the gun, dead-center, since it’s the most important element in the shot.
Boyd knows that’s the expectation — he knows that his audience craves symmetry in its compositions — but instead of conceding to audience expectations, he recapitulates the should-he-or-shouldn’t-he argument:
When Rick’s pea-bearing hand enters the frame, Boyd racks the focus, shifting the emphasis from the arms he just took up to the green thumbs he put them down for. In a single shot, then, Boyd’s reminded the audience of the Big Decision Rick had to make, but he did so without having to use dialogue as a crutch, as the show so often has. What could have been a tossed off transition between scenes in which characters indulge in unnecessary expository monologues is, instead, a seemingly tossed-off reminder of past soul-searching.
Remember SEK's NEIGHBOR? The one who thought SEK belonged to a gang because of his backward hat? Well, this morning SEK decided it was about time to start watching The Sopranos, and so when he was driving home from the grocery store and saw his NEIGHBOR, SEK thought it'd be a great idea to slow his car to a crawl and give NEIGHBOR a good eye-fucking. The fake neighborhood "police" started driving around until, finally, MR. POLICEMAN -- with NEIGHBOR in tow -- knocked on SEK's door.
MR. POLICEMAN: Have you been threatening this man?
SEK: What? No.
MR. POLICEMAN: Is that your car?
MR. POLICEMAN: He says a man in a hat was threatening him this morning.
SEK: (points to hair) I'm not wearing a hat.
NEIGHBOR: It's you! You have a hat!
SEK: I'm sure I do somewhere. What's this about, officer?
MR. POLICEMAN: Have you been speeding recently?
SEK: I've been in Houston, my sister just had a baby. Wanna see a picture?
NEIGHBOR: He has a hat!
MR. POLICEMAN: So you haven't been speeding?
SEK: I haven't even been here.
NEIGHBOR: Ask him about his hat?
SEK: Do you need a hat, sir?
NEIGHBOR: I want to see your hat!
SEK: Officer, should I get him a hat?
MR. POLICEMAN: I don't think that'll be necessary. Sorry to have bothered you, sir.
NEIGHBOR looks at SEK. SEK waits until the officer turns around, then eye-fucks NEIGHBOR again.
NEIGHBOR: ASK HIM ABOUT HIS HAT!
MR. POLICEMAN: (to NEIGHBOR) We're done here.
NOT REALLY AN UPDATE: For the record, what I thought was going to happen turned out to be funnier. What's the point of living life as if it were performance art if it refuses to perform? Sigh:
The fake neighborhood "police" just drove by, and I can't help but wonder what they're looking for: "Suspect is an off-white late-model academic, so use extreme caution, he may have an ethnicity. Repeat: he may have an ethnicity."
(And after they bust in and shoot me, they'll be all like, "It's terrible, sir, it's terrible. The books! THEY"RE EVERYWHERE. On the floor, there're little ones on the table, looks like he broke their spines. OH THE HUMANITIES!")
Last week’s episode of The Walking Dead, “Isolation,” focused on who was with whom and the tightness of the quarters they shared, i.e. how isolated every single person in this episode wasn’t. The title of this week’s episode, “Indifference,” is equally ironic, because the entire episode is about inappropriately caring too much — whether it be Rick caring about Carol enough to banish her, or Daryl caring more about Bob the Alcoholic than he should’ve.
But that’s not what I want to discuss this week. Not because it’s insignificant, as it clearly isn’t, but because in visual terms, this episode is much more about what people do than who they are or what they feel. The episode announces as much in the opening shots:
The jump-cut from the medium shot of Rick bandaging his hand to the close-up of his hand while he’s bandaging it is Brock’s way of gesticulating wildly at this episode’s theme, which I’ll call “The Terrible Things We’ve Done With Our Hands.”
Before you object that every episode of The Walking Dead features many hand-oriented shots, since characters are constantly thwacking walkers through the head, let me assure you that I already know that. Brock’s shot selection in “Indifference” isn’t different in kind from other episodes, but in degree. Consider the second sequence with Rick before the introduction rolls…
You can be sure I’m going to tell my newly minted niece, Arya Rose, the correct answer to that question.
For the record: I had nothing to do with the fact that my niece’s name is “Arya Rose.”
Nothing at all.
The fact that my firstborn will now have to be named “Stark Tyler” is a complete coincidence.
The title of tonight's episode of AMC's The Walking Dead couldn't have been more misleading: "Isolation" is an episode about the utter lack of isolation in the confined settings of a prison-cum-anti-zombie outpost. Even those moments in the episode in which characters were ostensibly isolated -- as when Herschel tells Carl that "It's peaceful out here" when they're "alone" in the woods collecting elderberries -- were undermined by:
Or, even more obviously, when Daryl, Michonne, Tyrese and that-other-guy-from-The Wire were driving along an empty road and heard voices on the radio, indicating that they weren't isolated, and then ran into this lot:
Those are the more prevalent examples of the episode's visuals defying its title, because they're both keyed in on plot points: Herschel appreciates being alone when he isn't, and Daryl et al accidentally run into one of the most populous zombie hordes on the show to date after hearing a faint voice on the radio. But I'm more interested in how the visuals themselves undermined the idea that this episode was, thematically, about "isolation," and you can see hints of it in that first image of Carl and Herschel above.
If you look at it, there are three planes within the frame: in the foreground, you have Herschel; in the mid-ground, you have Carl; and in the background, you have the walker. All of the planes are occupied in a way that, conventionally, makes a frame feel "crowded." If a director -- in this case, Daniel Sackheim -- uses a shot in which three people occupy all three planes in an episode once, you might not notice it. But in this episode, Sackheim consistently stacks the frame, almost from the opening shot of the episode...
SEK was driving to the Winn-Dixie, about a block away from his house, when a man ran into the street waving his arms wildly. SEK pulled over, thinking the man’d just chopped off some vital extremity with his lawnmower or something.
SEK: You need help?
MAN: Hey, you don’t live around here, do you?
SEK: I — are you all right?
MAN: I don’t know you.
SEK: I live just around the corner (SEK said, pointing to his domicile).
MAN: Your music was really loud.
SEK: I’m deaf, so sometimes it gets a little loud. Sorry about that, I’ll try to –
MAN: What’s with your hat? Is that a gang thing?
SEK: It’s a lazy thing. Didn’t feel like combing my hair this morning. I’ve gotta get back home soon, get to work, you know?
And SEK drove off. On the way home, this Zimmermaning neighbor waved at SEK as he drove by.
A few weeks after the finale of Lost, Chad Post attempted to defend it by claiming that its nonsense was the stuff of art. “What’s interesting,” he argued, “is how these six seasons functioned as … a great work of art [that] leaves things open to interpretation, poses questions that go unanswered, creates patterns that are maybe meaningful.” I’m not interested in discussing the merits of the Lost finale – whether all of the “survivors” Oceanic 815 were dead the entire time or some of them were only dead most of time doesn’t matter, as they’re both the narrative equivalent of convincing a child you’ve stolen its nose: it only works because kid’s not equipped to know it doesn’t.
Defenders of the Lost finale, of course, have no such excuse and are instead forced, like Post, to recapitulate aesthetic theories they half-remember from high school – in this case, the quasi-New Critical theory that elevates the interpreter over the work of art. It’s the critic, after all, not the artist, who benefits from “leav[ing] things open to interpretation.”
The New Critic was an archeologist of ambiguity, teasing from every contradiction he encountered a paean to the antebellum South. They valued ambiguity as an aesthetic virtue because poems and novels that possessed it could be made to be about anything, which freed them to make statements like, when it came to great works of art, “all tend[ed] to support a Southern way of life against what may be called the American or prevailing way.” And they did so by being ambiguous, which allowed the New Critics to say, without irony, that great works of art celebrated “the culture of the soil” in the South. This, dear reader, is the brand of literary and aesthetic theory you were likely taught in high school, and by its druthers, Breaking Bad‘s not even a work of art, much less a great one.*
In fact, by this standard, it’s quite possibly the least artful narrative in the history of American television, and because of this, it’s the first show that deserves the label “naturalist.” The naturalist novels of the early 20th Century were tendentious in the most base sense of the word: any tendency that appears in characters’ personality early in a book will, by its end, have metastasized into impulses so vast and deep you wonder why they even tried to repress them.
For example, in the first chapter of McTeague (1899), Frank Norris compares his titular character to a single-minded “draught horse, immensely strong, stupid, docile, obedient,” whose one “dream [was] to have projecting from the corner window [of his "Dental Parlors"] a huge gilded tooth, a molar with enormous prongs, something gorgeous and attractive.”
There’s your premise: McTeague is dumb and stubborn, especially in the service of his vanity. In the next chapter, when he tries to extract a tooth from the mouth of a patient he’s fallen in love with, it’s no surprise that “as she lay there, unconscious and helpless, very pretty [and] absolutely without defense … the animal in [McTeague] stirred and woke; the evil instincts that in him were so close to the surface leaped to life, shouting and clamoring.”
“No, by God! No, by God!” he shouts, then adds “No, by God! No, by God!” He tries not to sexually assault her, but fails, “kiss[ing] her, grossly, full on the mouth.” Moreover, his failure revealed that “the brute was there [and] from now on he would feel its presence continually; would feel it tugging at its chain, watching its opportunity.” When the woman, named Trina, wakes from the procedure, he proposes to her with the same stupid vehemence with which he tried not to assault her:
“Will you? Will you?” said McTeague. “Say, Miss Trina, will you?”
“What is it? What do you mean?” she cried, confusedly, her words muffled beneath the rubber.
“Will you?” repeated McTeague.
“No, no,” she cried, terrified. Then, as she exclaimed, “Oh, I am sick,” was suddenly taken with a fit of vomiting.
One of the most prominent features of naturalist prose, as you can see, is stupid, ineffective repetition in the face of adversity. McTeague can shout “No, by God!” as many times as he’d like, but he still assaults her, and no matter how many times Trina says “No, no” in response to his “Will you?” the only way this ends well for either of them is if she vomits all over his office. Given such favorable initial conditions, would it surprise you to learn that after she wins the lottery, he beats her to death? Or that the novel ends with him handcuffed to the dead body of his best friend, who he also beat to death, in Death Valley?
Because McTeague is a naturalist novel, it shouldn’t. The key phrase buried in the previous paragraph is “initial conditions,” because when you’re in the presence of a naturalist narrative, they’re all that matter.
By now, I’m sure it’s obvious how this relates to Breaking Bad: in a real sense, the second through fifth seasons mark the inevitable, inexorable consequences of what happens when someone with Walter White’s character flaws is put in the situation he’s put in. Like his forbear McTeague, he’s incapable of developing as a character: he can only more robustly embody the worst aspects of his fully-formed personality.
This is why, in naturalist novels and Breaking Bad, repetition is so significant: it’s only when provided with a reminder of where the narrative started that we’re able to recognize how much the central character hasn’t changed. Every time we see another visual echo from episodes past – and in the fifth season, they come fast and frequently – we’re reminded of how committed Walter is to his vision of himself as a heroic figure struggling against a universe determined to wrong him. Consider this shot from “Bit by a Dead Bee,” the third episode of the second season:
Walter is in his hospital bed after the shoot-out with Tuco in the desert, which happened after he had been missing for three days and, of course, which almost got his brother-in-law Hank killed. He’s also claiming that the cancer treatment ate the memory of the walkabout it sent him on. The difference between the man he is – one who’s capable of devising a cover story for his meth-related absence that involves playing cancer for sympathy – and the one he imagines himself to be: the one in the boat, about to leave his family alone, possibly defenseless, while he heroically sets out into the great unknown. The next time he sees that image, he’s in a motel room surrounded by white supremacists planning the coordinated execution of the remainder of Gus’s crew. The director of “Gliding Over All,” Michelle MacLaren, moves our eyes around the scene before settling on a convoluted long shot:
MacLaren is fond of shots in which you’re forced to follow eyelines around the frame in order to make sense of the scene, and like that banquet in the “Second Sons” episode of Game of Thrones, it’s only after you’ve done the work of following everyone’s eyes around the room that you realize that the most important element in the frame isn’t actually in the frame. Once you follow an eyeline to an uninteresting terminus, you move on to the next character, so if you start analyzing the frame from the center and track on action, you’ll move to Kenny stretching and follow his eyes (red) to the floor, then Frankie shuffles in place, so you look at him and follow his eyes (blue) to the table, but since that seems unpromising, Todd catches your attention when he shifts his weight, then you follow his eyes (green) to the bed, which means that McClaren’s direction has compelled you to move your eyes around the screen until you reach the area of the bed at which Todd’s staring, which is puts them right next to Walter, who has remained stock-still throughout. She didn’t need him to move or even speak to draw your attention to Walter, she’s done so by other means. Once she has you where she wants you, she has you follow his eyeline (yellow) to its terminus, which is off-frame.
Following eyelines to their rainbow’s end is a function of film that doesn’t necessarily pique our curiosity, but when we come to the end of our journey around the frame and the most significant character in it is staring at something off it, we desperately want to know what he’s looking at.** McClaren knows that we’ll be less interested in the frame when we find out what he’s staring at, so beginning with that long shot (14:43), she cuts to a medium close-up on Jack (15:06), a close-up on Kenny (15:10), a medium shot on Todd (15:13), an extreme close-up on Jack (15:17) that racks to a medium shot on Frankie (15:20) before reversing to the initial medium on Jack (15:23), then back to the initial medium close-up on Jack (15:24) before jumping to a clean medium on Frankie (15:28), then to a more extreme close-up on Jack taking a drag (15:29), then she moves back to the close-up on Kenny (15:31), then back to Jack (15:35), back to Kenny (15:39), and back to Jack (15:41) until finally returning to Walter (15:50), who is of course still staring at something off-frame. McClaren’s refused to provide us with the information we desire for more than a minute at this point, but it wasn’t a typical minute.
According to the Cinemetics database, the average shot length (ASL) in “Gliding Over All” is 5.8 seconds, but as you can see from above, after that initial 23-second-long shot of Jack, the scene has an ASL of 3.8 seconds.*** Lest you think I’m using the kind of “homer math” that leads sports reporters to write about how their team’s ace has the best in ERA in the league if you throw away the four starts in which he got rocked: I’m sequestering this bit of the scene and treating its ASL in isolation because we watch scenes sequentially and in context.
The shift in the pacing of editing created the impression that something really exciting was happening, but “four guys in a motel room talking about doing something exciting” actually qualifies as exciting; the other alternative is that the shot-frequency accelerated because McClaren was building up to something exciting, like the revelation of what Walter is staring at. The editing could be doubling down on the anticipation created by that intial long shot: as frustrating as it is to watch shot after shot fly by without learning what’s on that wall, the editing’s at least affirming our initial interest in it.
Or was, until she cut to the close-up of Walter staring at the painting (15:50), and because it’s a close-up of someone staring at something off-frame, you assume that the next shot will be an eyeline match, but no, MacLaren cuts back to Jack, who’s explaining to Walter how murdering ten people is “doable,” but murdering them within a two minute time-frame isn’t. In a typical shot/reverse shot situation, especially when it’s in the conversational mode as this one is, you expect the eyelines to meet at corresponding locations in successive frames. If Walter’s head is on the right side of the frame, and it is, you expect Jack to be looking to the left side of the frame in the reverse, and he does:
The sequence is off-putting because Walter’s violating cinematic convention in a way that makes us, as social animals, uncomfortable. On some fundamental level, the refusal to make eye contact is an affront to a person’s humanity, so even though Jack’s a white supremacist with a penchant for ultra-violence, we feel a little sorry for him. He is, after all, being ignored in favor of we-don’t-even-know-yet, but at least it’s something significant. MacLaren wouldn’t have put all this effort into stoking our interest in something of no consequence, but that doesn’t mean we’re thrilled when she cuts out to the initial long shot in which whatever-it-is remains off-frame, or when she cuts to an odd reverse on Walter, who asks “Where do you suppose these come from?”
How wonderful is that “these”? We’re finally going to learn what Walter’s been staring at, but even the dialogue is militating against our interest, providing us with the pronoun when all we want to see is the antecedent. MacLaren holds on Walter for one last agonizing beat before finally reversing to this image of the painting (16:09):
This reverse shot seems more conversational than the last – again, in a way that insults Jack’s essential humanity, or whatever passes for it among white supremacists – only now the conversation isn’t between Walter and any of the actual human beings sharing that motel room with him, it’s with himself.****
“I’ve seen this one before,” he informs the very people he just insulted. It’s not that he’s wrong – it is the same painting he saw after he ended up in the hospital, and the timing here is crucial. In “Bit by a Dead Bee,” his outlandish plan had just been successfully completed, so when he looked at the husband heroically rowing out to sea, nobly sacrificing himself for the family he’s left behind, he sympathetically identified with a man who shared his current plight, who had made a decision and was following through with it for the sake of those he loved. But in “Gliding Over All,” he sees the same painting before one of his outlandish plans has come to fruition, so now when he sympathizes with the husband heroically rowing out to sea, nobly sacrificing himself for the family he’s left behind, he identifies with him because they share a common fate, as both have to decide whether to continue with their foolishness or return to shore.*****
Astute readers may have noticed that I just wrote the same sentence with different words. That’s because I did. The only “development” Walter’s underwent from the first time he saw that painting to now is that he’s more fanatically committed to the image of himself as the hero sacrificing himself for his family. Every sacrifice he makes on his family’s behalf only makes him more of the same same kind of hero he’s always imagined himself to be.
The presence of this painting – as well as the other visual echoes, most obviously Walter’s birthday bacon – reminds us that it’s only been eleven months since the moment he first saw it, in November 2009, to the moment he sees it in “Gliding Over All,” in October 2010. Naturalist novels also focused on the rapidity with which can descend in the absence of a social safety net. McTeague’s life unravels astonishingly quickly once he loses his job: four months later he and Trina are living in squalor; a month after that, she moves into an elementary school; two months later, he murders her; two months after that, he’s chained to the body of a dead man in the middle of Death Valley. Because of the kind of person he is, this is how McTeague’s life had to end. Aaron Paul’s appearance in Saturday Night Live demonstrates just how much Breaking Bad shares this naturalist concern.
I could go on: the short stories and novels of Jack London were about the opportunities to be had in the wilderness, and the dangers associated with them. In his most famous story, “To Build a Fire,” there is a moment in the fourth paragraph when the nameless protagonist could have, and should have, turned back. Once he makes the decision not to, his fate is sealed, it just takes another 40,000 words to reach it. If there’s an art to enjoying a man struggle in vain against his inevitable doom, it’s been lost to us – or had been, until Breaking Bad, which demonstrated that there is an audience for naturalist narratives, bleak and unremitting though they may be. Moreover, the opening scene of the finale, “Felina,” almost seems like a combination of “To Build a Fire” and another famous naturalist story, Ambrose Bierce’s “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” I’m not saying I believe that Walter dreamed he took his revenge in the moments before he froze to death, but it’s not entirely implausible, especially if the series is considered in the light I’ve presented it here. (Norm MacDonald, of all people, has my back on this.)
The question remains, then, whether Breaking Bad qualifies as “art.” Literary naturalism’s reputation has faded since the 1930s because, in part, critics consider it more akin to an experiment than literature. Literature requires its characters to develop, to become “round,” as they used to say — whereas naturalists were like scientists who would rather take a personality type and stick it in fifteen different environments so they could observe its behavior. When you consider the conversations that followed George R.R. Martin’s comment about Walter being a bigger monster than anyone in Game of Thrones, you can see where that temptation comes from, and how powerful it is, three-thousand comments deep in discussions about whether White would’ve been more like Tywin Lanister or Roose Bolton.
So is Breaking Bad art? Of course it is. The absurd amount of detail included above isn’t meant to overwhelm, merely to acknowledge the level of artistry that went into demonstrating that Walter hasn’t grown. I would take it one step further and say that even if you don’t believe naturalist narratives can be considered “art,” Breaking Bad would still be art, because as much as critics focus on the show’s content, what separates it from most television is the manner in which it’s presented. Even if the plot itself were terrible, the manner in which it’s shot would elevate it to the status of art.
*The main reason New Criticism was adopted as a model was that, unlike the modes of historicism that preceded it, it was infinitely scalable. After the GI Bill was passed, even college and university faculty were worried that their students lacked the educational background required to write the kind of research papers they’d previously assigned, but anyone could be a New Critic: all you had to do was look at a poem and point out what didn’t make sense, because that’s what it a work of art. Within half a decade, the bug of student ignorance became a feature.
**If you were paying close attention when the scene opened, you would’ve noticed, since she opens with a medium shot of the painting, then pulling back and sweeping to the right. Like many scenes in Breaking Bad, this one is sequenced backwards, providing us with information before we can understand – or if you’ve seen “Bit by a Dead Bee” recently, remember – the significance of it.
***For the record: 4 seconds, 3 seconds, 4 seconds, 3 seconds, 3 seconds, 1 second, 4 seconds, 1 second, 2 seconds, 3 seconds, 4 seconds, 4 seconds, 2 seconds, 4 seconds, 4 seconds, 2 seconds, and finally 9 seconds.
****Before you wonder why I’m not just calling that an eyeline match, because it’s also one of those, keep in mind that not only has Walter been staring at it with a faraway look in his eyes for almost two-and-a-half minutes, he now appears to be asking it a question. Also, in a move seemingly designed to frustrate my former students, check out the examples the Yale Film Analysis site chooses for “eyeline match” and “shot/reverse shot.
*****The boat seems closer to shore than ship, after all, which only adds to the nobility of the man rowing it out to sea, because it’d be so much easier to just turn around.
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Revision 23 / Serial number 8940726
You are standing in an open field in west of a white apartment complex, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here.
The door is locked. There is evidently no key.
> kick door
I don’t understand that.
> chicago jackboot thug kick
I don’t understand that.
> black panther power
You don’t understand that.
> power of greyskull
Fine. By the Power of Greyskull you open the door. You are in the kitchen of the white townhouse. A table seems to have been used recently for the preparation of food. A passage leads to the west, and a dark staircase can be seen leading upward. To the east is a small window which is open. On the table is a computer open to Healthcare.gov.
> what is dot gov
Healtcare.gov is a website on the Internet that you can use to find affordable health care.
> what internet
This is going to be a problem.
> WHAT INTERNET
A series of tubes. Information goes through them. You will like it.
You look out the window but see nothing of interest. You return to the computer and look at Healthcare.gov.
> no dont
Yes, you do.
> no, dont
Yes, you do. You choose the state you want to have health insurance coverage in and hit return.
> then what
> then what
> SO THEN WHAT
> what in fuck is that
That is an image file. Computers have them now.
> naked ladies
I don’t understand.
> want see naked ladies
Really? You discovered the Internet two minutes ago and all you want to see is naked ladies?
> NAKED LADIES
> saw that
You are waiting for the opportunity to acquire good healthcare coverage at a reasonable price.
> am wait for naked ladies
As soon as you have finished signing up for healthcare coverage you can see some naked ladies.
Let me check:
> what about now
Let me check:
> LADIES NAKED NOW
What if you got eaten by a grue? What would happen to you?
> kill computer
You do not want to kill the computer.
> kill internet
You cannot kill the Internet.
> kill kill kill
You really want to kill something?
> KILL KILL KILL
Fine. You have a head cold.
You have a head cold. This morning it migrated to your lungs. You are coughing an awful lot.
> i am
You are. You seem to have acquired a nasty case of bronchitis.
> go doctor
You do not have a doctor. You cannot afford one. Your cough is getting worse.
> fix it
You cannot afford to fix it. You are on the floor covered in specks of blood. You are drowning in your own fluids.
There is a computer on the table. This could have been prevented.
> save me
> save me
> save me
...can be found at RogerEbert.com. It looks something like this:
The fifth season of "Breaking Bad" is an exercise in aggressive nostalgia. "Ozymandias," lauded by many as one of the strongest hours in television history ten minutes in, is especially committed to reminding the audience how different the world these characters inhabit is. It opens with a flashback that doubles as a classic "process" shot, an extreme close-up a cook flask.
But this is no ordinary flashback. This flashback is holding the narrative hostage. The audience knows that twenty months in the future, on this exact same plot of New Mexican desert, Hank Schrader and Steve Gomez are slowly staining the sand red, while Walter White and Jesse Pinkman are bound, locked and helpless in the backseats of the DEA agent's vehicles. Something shattering is about to happen...
I just read this awesome new article about Breaking Bad that said things like this:
The tone being set here is riddled first with uncertainty (“Where are we?”), then with pointlessness (“Who are these skaters?”), and potential hazard (“Why so fast?”), before finally answering the question the opening shot asked (“Why are we wherever ‘here’ is?”). Once Cranston moves to the crane shot of Walter White’s backyard, we’re able to place ourselves spatially and temporally.
We recognize the once meth-blue pool in which Pink Bear and Skyler White floated; we notice the absence of the Lily of the valley Walter used to poison Brock Cantillo; and we know that the second half of season five begins where the first half did: one year in the future, closer to Walter’s 52nd birthday than his 50th.
You should read its life-affirming affirmations of life, speaking of which:
So there I am, a professional nerd watching World War Z with an executive chef, and I giggle when Brad Pitt decides that at the end of the world, the place he needs to be is Cardiff, Wales. Because of course it is. When the world’s ending and the best option isn’t available, you seek out Torchwood.
“What sort of book nonsense are you laughing about now,” my roommate asked.
“Too arcane to explain,” I replied, and that was that.
So Pitt stumbled up and passed out on the gates of the World Health Organization’s Cardiff outpost, which is fine, as the entire world ain’t out to please me meta-textually.
Or so I thought, before Pitt opened his eyes and the camera flipped to his first-person perspective as he awoke from his short coma:
I made a noise like my mind had been blown because it had. Because that’s Peter Capaldi.
At the end of the world.
So apparently the best option was available, except he’s not playing the Doctor. He’s credited as … “W.H.O. Doctor.”
For the record, principle photography on World War Z began in early 2011, more than a year and a half before Matt Smith announced he’d be leaving Doctor Who, which means the only way all this could’ve been thrown together would be if someone had a …
After spraining my entire back yesterday, I woke up in a mood this morning. So when I was assaulted on Facebook by a series of positive messages about how I should be optimistic about everything, and because I’m an asshole, I wrote:
Just so you know, every time you post one of those “inspirational” or “optimistic” quotations on Facebook, in my head I append “So jump off that building, you’re the goddamn Batman” to the end of it.
But this should totally be a thing. Like so:
If you don’t know how to edit things on the Internet, well, all the better. The people who double-rainbow-with-wolf-and-moon these things don’t either. What have you got?
So thank you laura: