Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Breaking Bad: "Gliding Over All," said the fly to the money pile. (This being another one of those visual rhetoric posts.) I've had a week to digest the mid-season finale of Breaking Bad, "Gliding All Over," and for the first time in weeks I'm not going to talk about kitchen tables. The episode's title, "Gliding Over All," references Walt Whitman: 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. How is that relevant to the episode? Not in the way people online are discussing it. For one, I keep seeing it referred to as an ordinary "poem," when in fact it appears, untitled, on the title page of Passage to India. And the interpretations I've read of its relation to the episode all focus on the "many deaths" because of Walter's increasing comfort with lethal force. But take a quick look at the actual poem that bit above introduces: Singing my days, Singing the great achievements of the present, Singing the strong, light works of engineers, Our modern wonders, (the antique ponderous Seven outvied,) In the Old World, the east, the Suez canal, The New by its mighty railroad spann’d, The seas inlaid with eloquent, gentle wires[.] "Passage to India" celebrates the connectedness of the world. These canals and transcontinental railroads and undersea telegraph cables have made it visible and tangible the connections between distant peoples. O voyagers, O scientists and inventors, [then] shall be justified, All these hearts, as of fretted children, shall be sooth’d, All affection shall be fully responded to—the secret shall be told; All these separations and gaps shall be taken up, and hook’d and link’d together The voyagers and scientists and inventors create the conditions necessary to acquire a new kind of knowledge: one whose "secret ... separations and gaps" will be "hook'd and link'd together." In short: titling the episode "Gliding Over All" doesn't allude to the untitled poem's "many deaths" but to the process of acquiring an interconnected vision of the world through technology that Whitman outlines in "Passage to India." Given that Walter White and his contempories aren't in the midst of a world-shrinking communicative revolution, it stands to reason that they'll come into knowledge of how secrets are "hook'd and link'd together" differently. Director Michelle MacLaren lets Walter have the first shot: MacLaren opens with an extreme close-up on a fly. The shallow focus blurs the background to the extent that the only thing the audience can see is the fly. Because we want the shot to be meaningful, we begin to study the wings and shadows of this centrally positioned and obviously important fly. We try to connect this fly to some structure of meaning. Is this an allusion to "the contamination" that deviled Walter in "The Fly" and the extreme actions he and Jesse took to "clean" the lab? The camera lingers on the fly for seven seconds—long enough for these questions to arise but not long enough for them to...
Breaking Bad: "Gliding Over All" the invisible lines and immaterial connections (This being another one of those visual rhetoric posts.) In the previous post, I claimed that the titular reference to Whitman's "Passage to India" suggests that the central concerns of "Gliding Over All" were related to connectedness. I outlined the way in which the camerawork allows the audience to peer into Walter's mind and observe him connecting the fly to Mike's body by the power of intently staring. In retrospect I realize my claim is based on a manner of reading a visual text that's not intuitive, and that I only do it because I've trained myself to. The full version of this argument can be found here, but for now a single image from it should suffice: That yellow arrow obviously isn't painted on "The Calling of Saint Matthew." (I can personally attest to that.) I put it there to describe the eyeline match between the man at the table and Jesus. When we look at his eyes, we see that he's looking at something and follow his line-of-sight. Is that line-of-sight in the painting? I would argue that it's an invisible element that exists in the painting. Our eyes aren't inventing that line-of-sight, they're merely following it. The practical effect of this argument is that I see invisible lines all over my television. When a character stares at something I see the line shoot from his or her eyes and follow its trajectory. The longer the character the stares, the greater the intensity of the line, and the more thoughtful the act of staring seems to become. The classic example of this are the scenes in Antonioni's Blowup in which Thomas uses his photographs to recreate the geography of the park in his apartment. Here's the fence on the back wall: Here's Thomas staring at the unidentified man on the right wall: What happens next? Thomas follows the unidentified man's eyes to the photographs of the fence on the back wall. Staring at the unidentified man led Thomas to follow the invisible lines shooting from his eyes which in turn compelled him to further "blow up" the image of the fence. In this sense Thomas is a figure of the audience: we share his desire to know what the man is staring at. This is an elaborate way of making a simple point: I see invisible lines and you do too. (You just didn't know you did.) The particular significance of those lines for "Gliding Over All" is that—as in Blowup—they function as tangible evidence of otherwise intangible thought processes. The staring is the physical equivalent of the technology Whitman celebrates in "Passage to India": it is the canal through which ships can pass, the train tracks upon which locomatives can traverse, the underground cables through which messages can travel. It's an invisible medium with the potential to be made meaningful because of what can move through it. In this episode it seems as if director MacLaren is intent on making Whitman's point in as many ways as...

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