Elvis Presley

BREAKING OUT: BREAKING BAD

10  1999-2013

mag-10Bad-t_CA0-jumbo

 

The period from 1999 to 2013 was a golden age for American television.  Without the shift in American TV programming that occurred in 1999 there would have been no Breaking Bad.  Walter White would still be a schoolteacher.  Well, who knows what happens to characters outside the heads of their creators.   

One night in 1981 I was heading towards downtown Atlanta.  On the way Wolfman Jack played early rock ‘n’ roll hits on the car radio.   The United States had fabulous music memories back then and needed them.  The television was awful.  Prior to the drive downtown I had sat on a motel bed and waited for someone who took longer to dress than me.   While I waited I checked the schedule for the TV on a Saturday night in hip Atlanta.  Fantasy Island began at 8pm.  Charley’s Angels followed at nine, and The Love Boat occupied what was left of the American mind.  Some viewers must have gone crazy watching what was pure and uninterrupted pap.  Elvis Presley found an alternative.  During his final days Elvis played Monty Python tapes and popped pills.  Unlike Elvis, not everyone had DVD players or corrupt doctors supplying an unlimited number of amphetamines.  That came later for the American working class.

maxresdefault

The revolution in American television was made possible by various factors but was always inevitable.  The programmes had to improve.  American TV was not all bad.  Sports programmes had viewer appeal, and the comedy sitcoms employed writers that could deliver slick one-liners.  There were some moments in its drama output but nothing that could be described as quality.  The Rockford Files had charm but was also simple escapism.  The pilot of The Night Stalker was a fine horror tale but the TV series soon became tired.  The rest of American TV was dire.  Dependent for their revenue on advertisers who wanted programmes that offended no one the main networks were conservative and risk averse.

HBO arrived in 1972 and carrying a different business model.  The cable channel collected subscriptions from viewers and delivered exclusive sporting events and a bigger selection of movies.  Almost a quarter of a century after it was launched someone at HBO realised that the subscriptions guaranteed revenue whether an individual programme attracted an audience or not.  The movies and sporting events also ensured some advertising income.   Besides being able to take chances HBO had other advantages.  Censorship on network American TV was restrictive.  As a pay-per-view network, HBO could insist on the rules that applied to the Hollywood movies its subscribers had paid to see.  HBO viewers saw naked women, heard the kind of expletives favoured by American Presidents and witnessed lots of violence.   Before 1997 the fashion had been for TV series with seasons of 22 episodes.  Reducing the number to thirteen required a smaller financial investment.   The technical teams had also become more adept.  Versatile cameras meant a more polished product could be achieved in the statutory eight days allowed for filming a series episode.   Neither did camera film have to be overexposed.  The lighting crews would never equal the best of Hollywood cinema but they understood shade and ambience, something that had been avoided in the previous decades.   Audiences wanted their TV programmes to look like movies, especially if they were paying for them.

SOPRANOS, THE (US TV SERIES)

After deciding to broadcast original material HBO was obliged to raise standards.  Without any recent precedent in American television for quality drama the network gave freedom to its writers.  Previously scriptwriters had been referred to as ‘schmucks with Underwoods’.   Vince Gilligan was the executive producer or showrunner of Breaking Bad.  Like other showrunners, Gilligan is a writer.  He had to operate within a budget decided by the AMC network but Gilligan could also ensure that the writing succeeded and what finished on the screen captured the cinematic potential of that writing.   Only a talented writer with experience of collaborative working can do that.

Aaron_Paul,_Vince_Gilligan_and_Bryan_Cranston_cropped.jpg

 

Although the non-subscription channels relied exclusively on advertising revenue they learned how to imitate HBO.  The Shield was a gritty crime drama from the FX network, a cop show that deterred most of the advertising agencies.  But the folks at FX were clever and realised that they only needed to appeal to a small percentage of advertising agencies.   The advertisements that interrupted The Shield belonged to a niche market and promoted products aimed at young and middle-aged men.

58f14919ae558bdb5ca0b482b9d28930

It all meant that male American heroes could now lose their temper.    There had to be a reason for those expletives.  If the heroes were more complex, they were mainly male.  Damages and Homeland arrived in the following century.  Both failed to maintain the standards of The Sopranos and The Wire but at least the main protagonists were women.

The Sopranos and The Wire have been described as modern equivalents of Balzac and Proust.   In Breaking Bad The Official Book the editor David Thomson refers to Chekhov.  The creative revolution did unleash talent but these are pointless comparisons between apples and oranges.  It is doubtful that Vince Gilligan is capable of anything as note perfect as The Seagull but even Chekhov would have flagged if he had needed to deliver 62 episodes of Breaking Bad.  All that can be said is that American TV showrunners create shows that take a long time to watch and the books of Balzac and Proust require heavy lifting

the_wire_omar 

Rather than settle for harmless fantasy the best writers in the golden age of American TV were intent on revealing a troubled way of life.  The best of the programmes from the golden age introduced Americans that were violent, sexually complicated, addicted to drugs and materialism, and living in loveless or oppressive families. The potential of these anxious Americans was also distorted by an unrecognised class system.    Excess, amorality and irresponsibility defined this decadent American empire.  But the weaknesses of modern America were explored mainly through character.  Walter White in Breaking Bad becomes a criminal in order to pay for his medical bills.  Nowhere in Breaking Bad is it suggested that perhaps America should have an alternative health system.  The Wire had a political agenda but it operated within the crime genre which meant that the message was lost on most of the audience.  Conservative MPs in Britain assumed that The Wire condemned the poor for their behaviour and supported Tory arguments for more extreme neoliberal policies.  Actor and old Etonian Dominic West was interviewed about working on The Wire.  West had no idea that the TV show was intended as left wing polemic.

naked-civil-servant-1975-002-john-hurt-between-sailors

The American TV programmes that appeared after 1999 deserve praise but what had happened previously in British television cannot be ignored.  It has not helped that the Thatcher neoliberal hegemony contributed to the decline of the BBC as a creative force.  American TV from the golden age is accomplished but when compared to the best of British television it still feels timid.  Over 40 years ago The Naked Civil Servant had an unapologetic gay hero that protested against traditional gender identities.  In the 1960s, Cathy Come Home and the other films of Ken Loach exposed the uneven economic rewards of a lopsided British class system.  Boys From The Blackstuff had a thick eared sensibility but it remains a principled primal scream against Thatcherism and the nightmare that followed.   Armchair Theatre in the 1960s not only utilised great British theatrical talent that included Billie Whitelaw and Harold Pinter but also heralded the defiance of ordinary people, a resistance which would be echoed and amplified by the arrival of The Beatles.  The low budget Z Cars may appear modest today but as a paid up member of the new zeitgeist it rattled the British establishment and was condemned by the British Press.

MM_S7B_group_03_sm

Madmen was not the only American series to present real and complex adult characters.  British television at its best, though, matched polemic with entertainment in a way that is still beyond American television.  History and the moment are important.  British TV was at its best when there was left wing hope.  Leeds United was the story of a strike, and its black and white photography paid homage to Eisenstein.  Written by Colin Welland the programme was unequivocal agitprop but also hilarious.  Of course Leeds United benefited from a faith in the worth and humour of the Northern working class, a faith that has since been lost.  But even without left wing polemic British TV has had programmes that are incomparable.   Nothing on American TV is equal to the adaptation of the Charles Dickens short story The Signalman, not even the best episodes of The Twilight Zone.  And for those who want serious ambition there is Talking To Strangers written by John Hopkins, a six hour forensic and epic investigation into a family whose restrained discourse and polite British manners do nothing to prevent its four members becoming emotional cripples.

p069j8bn

 

Recent American TV has exposed how people behave in a decadent empire but the people making the programmes are also shaped by that decadence.  Witnessing the work of not to be missed talent has been intoxicating but the same creators have been too ready to approve of villainy and to relish rather than criticise excess squalor and opulence.  Modern American TV programmes have indulged licence and avoided digging beneath and beyond familiar genres to analyse the society that is making their admittedly interesting characters so miserable.   This may sound harsh but what was once an explosion of creativity soon became routine programming.  If no one should be surprised, we do have essential series like Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, The Wire and Madmen. 

Howard Jackson has had nine books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   His latest book Light Work, which is about Jack the Ripper, is available here.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

BLAST FROM THE PAST

WALT WHITMAN AND ELVIS

Walt Whitman Poet Literature

 

French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville wrote this in Democracy In America

There will be more wit than erudition, more imagination than profundity  … performance will bear marks of the untutored and rude vigour of thought, frequently of great variety and singular fecundity.

It sums up Elvis Golden Records Volume 1 quite well.  This is what Walt Whitman said in his poem Song Of Myself –

I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,

The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,

The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into a new tongue.

Whitman was determined to deny himself nothing, to embrace the whole world because he was, like all  human beings, ‘inevitable and limitless’. He was not necessarily the father of American ambition but he was adamant that it was different from what had gone before and that the possibilities and consequence could be enormous. Others who have written about Elvis have mentioned Walt Whitman and also Herman Melville. Comment, though, has been restricted to saying no more than Whitman, Melville and Presley are all American artists and democrats, as if the mere mention of an actual poet in an essay on Elvis requires discreet footsteps.

In Mystery Train – Images Of America In Rock And Roll Greil Marcus criticises Elvis for not giving an emphatic no to the tasteless elements of American culture.  Marcus quotes the novel Bartleby by Melville with its hero who ‘prefers not to’ and argues that all serious artists must say no to something.  But Marcus also uses Whitman to emphasise the importance of Elvis and so contradicts the Bartleby assertion.  Both Whitman and Elvis were determined to contain everything.  Whitman does say no but his no is different because he is saying no to saying no to anything.  He rejects the discriminators.  Our lives will not have the required grandeur unless we are sensitive to everything and welcome all into our sensibility.  He does not respect racial or cultural birth right in the way of blues and country music purists.  We are universal and share entitlement, the oppressed and the privileged.

1_J6r1Mv3oX3qbqp7iz0on8g

Although Whitman was white and from New Jersey, he claimed –

I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs.

And –

I celebrate myself and sing myself

And what I assume you shall assume

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

In the inclusive world of Whitman there is no patent on virtue and talent.  It demands to be shared and copied.  The vibrancy of contradictions is more important than identity.

Do I contradict myself

Very well then I contradict myself.

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

If he draws a line, it is not with the benefit of taste and intelligence but a resistance to corruption –

Welcome is every organ and attribute of me, and of any man hearty and clean,

Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile, and none shall be less familiar than the rest.

If we all have the same ambition to embrace the world, we will not be identical because there is so much that is diverse; Whitman describes himself as the arbiter of the diverse.  But our potential to welcome all and experience it with the weight of memory means that every human being is sacred and that means we are all both individual and universal.

whitman_360x450

Elvis needed to embrace not only the American continent but also his personal complexity.  Of course, the tilt towards universality taken by Elvis may have been a consequence of the greed of Parker who wanted Elvis to appeal to as many suckers as possible.  The purpose of Parker is, though, less important than the performer who is required to play.

‘I am large, I contain multitudes.’

And Elvis did.  And this by Whitman, written in the middle of the 19th Century, anticipates Elvis and rock and roll.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,

I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

Elvis has been accused of naïve narcissism and it was in his nature but Whitman would recognise the trait as a virtue, especially if personal delight is extended to others.

I sing the body electric,

The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them

should_walt_whitman_be_cancelled_1050x700

Moby Dick is the novel that can be compared to Song Of Myself.   Both stress the variety, detail and transcendental grace of ordinary life, and the failure of Ahab is that he confuses ambition, which is good, with obsession, which is bad.  True ambition, that is non-judgemental ambition, will seek everything.  Obsession is obliged to exclude others and to dismiss nature and material that has worth.  The warning against the false glory of obsession or singular ambition has a tragic consequence in Moby Dick but the warnings also exist in the poetry of Whitman.  All writers need sales but this judgement is particularly harsh –

Let him who is without my poems be assassinated.

He is not, of course, criticising a failure to buy his book but an unwillingness to embrace his writing into a comprehensive sense of self and the material other.  If his ambition embraces the stranger then the stranger has to embrace him.  We have to engage.

Stranger if you are passing meet me and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me?

And why should I not speak to you?

To the European ear, this quote may not mean much but its simple description of the responsibility for strangers to speak captures American optimism. When Elvis visited a French nightclub he posed for photographs with strippers and whores. He spoke to those who would speak to him. For all his faults he did the same with the fans, he would pose with the glamorous and the ugly, the slender and the obese. This does not make him a wonderful human being, merely an American.

7fb820f8020f5813a64a8f8b62f3b4b9

 

The desire by Whitman for grandeur can easily be mistaken for gluttony.  Whitman avoided it by travelling the country and staying poor.  Elvis made the mistake of retreating to Graceland and indulging his wealth.  His rich democratic instinct, which was initially rooted in Whitman type appetite, was soon scarred by fear and excess comfort.  And American appetite, like its ambition, is different. The poetry of Whitman exalts the common man but faith in human beings untarnished by hierarchy is not unique to America.  To convince the reader that he was serious about how he could embrace the world and acknowledge the ordinary, the poems of Whitman often contained long lists.  The amplitude of the continent defines Americans as blessed. Pablo Neruda in his poem Oda Al Hombre Sencillo also stresses the importance of the common man but Neruda also insists on old world restraint –

Ves tú qué simple soy,

Qué simple eres,

No se trata

de nada complicado

Roughly translated this means – you see that I am simple, that you are simple, one should not try for anything complicated.

lead_720_405

Both Whitman and Neruda imagine a state of grace for the common man but Whitman imagines it as momentary and random.  Neruda insists, though, that mutuality, and not just indiscriminate universality, is important.   The mutuality of Neruda requires the curiosity of Whitman but also a sense that dignity demands restraint as well as experience.

Ando, nado, navego

Hasta encontrarte,

 y entonces te pregunto

como te llamas,

calle y numero,

 para que tu recibas

mis cartas,

para que yo te diga

quien soy y cuanto gano,

donde vivo,

y como era mi padre.

The recognition of inevitably muted existence by Neruda challenges the universality of Whitman which is rooted in appetite.  Translated it means – I walk, swim and search until I find you and then I will ask you your name, street and number, so that you receive my letters, so that I tell you who I am and what I earn, where I live and who is my father.

This is not man in a new vast continent. What is best shared is our simplicity not our magnificence.  Only this will endure.  Magnificence dies in the second act.  But Elvis had talent, he was the well-made man that Whitman promised.

journal-article-elvis-presley-bodhi-tree-book-list-1-2

But you a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than before known

Arouse! for you must justify me.

When Elvis was interviewed on board USS Randall he was asked what book was he reading. Elvis said Leaves Of Gold.   The poems of Whitman are contained in Leaves Of Grass. Unfortunately, Elvis picked the wrong book.  But the title is close.  Elvis was nearly there.  His initial promise that he could contain multitudes and stay healthy and clean was ultimately denied.  Whitman is still waiting to be justified.

Howard Jackson is suffering from influenza.  He will return to Bitten: Breaking Bad when he has recovered.

Howard Jackson has had eight books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.