Sergio Leone

BREAK OUT: BREAKING BAD

4 TIGHTEN  YOUR BOLT

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The episode named Over from season two of Breaking Bad is not a crowd pleaser.  Those honours belong to the episodes that contain stunning set pieces.  Audiences like and expect circus tricks in their nightly TV, and there is no harm in that.  The episode of Over, though, concentrates on domestic drama and, whether intentional or not, it exists as an American imitation of Chekov.  Families in a Chekov drama are usually preparing for a celebration, commemoration or homecoming, a modest event that will unexpectedly redefine them.   In the episode Over a party is arranged by Skyler to celebrate how the body of Walt has responded to the treatment for his cancer.  In a Chekov play celebration and discomfort exist in oppressive disharmony.  Chekov relied on this device for a reason.  It exposed how his characters differed from what they presented to society.  The party arranged by Skyler is intended to please Walt but it only confirms his alienation from the life he has been living.

When Vince Gilligan pitched Breaking Bad to studio executives, he gave them the idea of a Mr Chips becoming Scarface.  The idea may have teased studio boss men but, because Walt has extreme alternative identities, it presented challenges for writers.  At some point Walter White would have to change and he would need his reasons.  A shortage of money was one option but this alone is inadequate and it does little to make Walt a complex character.  There are three instances when Walt decides to commit to manufacturing crystal meth.  The first of these occurs after Walt receives his initial cancer diagnosis and when he accompanies Hank on a drug bust.  The second follows the news that his cancer treatment has gone into exceptional remission.  The third happens when Walt relents and agrees to work again for major meth dealer Gustavo Fring.  Although Walt at this point insists he is ‘not a bad guy’ this third instance is the least difficult problem for the scriptwriters.  By then the plot has become complicated and the key characters are all capable of influence over the others.  They all have reasons.

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When Walt makes the initial or first commitment to manufacturing an illicit drug, the motivation for such a dramatic step is dubious.  The scriptwriters sidestep the problem.  They have Walt stare at an empty swimming pool and throw matches on to the surface of the water.  The TV audience watches troubled Walt think.  The viewers have to assume he has reasons and perhaps create some of their own.  The scriptwriters handing the problem over to the audience is a neat trick.  Let the viewers work it out instead of sitting there demanding explanations, one of the Breaking Bad writers must have said This trick, though, cannot be repeated or it cannot if a writer has any self-respect.  For the second instance, when Walt already has enough money to pay for his medical bills, more motivation is needed.  For that we have the the celebratory party, or Chekov style commemoration, and a sly scene at the end of the episode that is not really believable.  But, because the scene is so unusual a device, it is marked with defiant brilliance.

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To push Walt over to the dark side the scriptwriters lean on whatever is available.  TV critic Alan Sepinwall remarked that the episode of Over ‘wears its subtext on its sleeve.’  The phrase is smart and elegant but also post modern nonsense.  In Over we witness real engineering focussed not on subtext but characterisation and motivation.  And the bolts have to be tightened otherwise the series will come apart later.  It may be a coincidence but the engineering skill required by the scriptwriters is echoed by the mechanical efforts of Walt to fix his boiler and wood rot.  Walt will become a gangster, Skyler will indulge in adultery and Jesse will discover a moral centre.  Each of these three trajectories, which are rooted in the new beginnings identified in Over, will all have consequences for the other characters.

Rather than be sympathetic to a man suffering from cancer Skyler enters into a conspiracy with her son, in-laws and neighbours to organise a secret party.   The family of Walt consists of a decent but overbearing woman and a son who not only shares a secret with his mother but is too prone to use the easy option of Uncle Hank as a substitute father figure.  A claustrophobic party is made worse by the cloying speech of Skyler and the antics of Hank and Marie who tempt Walt Junior with empty headed selfies.   Skyler is not the Lady Macbeth that some Breaking Bad fans have assumed but, as she does with her impression of Marilyn Monroe in a subsequent episode, she can overreach herself.  All of this inspires Walt to feel resentful.

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Skyler also mentions to the guests the financial contribution of Gretchen and Elliot to the cost of the cancer treatment of Walt.  This is the ultimate insult to Walt.  His pride had insisted that he could not accept help from the super-rich couple and also obliged him to lie to Skyler.  When asked to give a speech, Walt refers to his cancer and the success of his treatment in the same way.  ‘Why me?’ asks Walt.  His incomprehension refers, to much more than the cancer and the treatment.  He is baffled by the life he is obliged to live.  What should be exaltation and relief is dry as dust bitterness inside his mouth.  Later, Walt provokes his son into drinking tequila.  Walt Junior vomits into the swimming pool.  The father is amused by his triumph.  He has no sympathy for a son who, because of the conspiracy with his mother, has been transformed into an enemy.

Breaking Bad avoids political polemic yet the series depends on the notion that the subsequent violent mayhem and generally bad behaviour from Walt could have been avoided if the USA had a half decent public health service.  This notion feels like a political statement and makes the show open to Marxist analysis.  For Marxists, Walt exists as an example of how capitalism, whatever the abundance it creates, will, because it insists on mandatory excess, ensure that poverty is never ending.  Walt and Skyler have an inadequate budget but this not untypical American family has two cars, a house with a swimming pool, clean clothes every day and a full refrigerator.  At the party Walt, Hank and Walter Junior drink from an excessively large bottle of tequila.  Sister-in-law Marie has to complement her blessings for the unborn child with an expensive and inappropriate diamond tiara.  That she is compelled to steal the tiara is another story but both sincere goodwill and personal valediction can only be confirmed for Marie through materialism and consumption.  Capitalism equates to affluence, or at least it does in the Western world, but because that affluence defines status we are all victims of poverty.  And that is before we think about alienation and spiritual deprivation.

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The performance of Bryan Cranston changes in the episode of Over.  His accent becomes more blue collar.  Cranston sounds as if he has stepped out of a Western movie.  The confrontation between Walt and  Hank at the side of the swimming pool resembles the showdown that exists in Westerns.  If Walt is to claim whatever he needs, authenticity, good faith, feeling alive or perhaps some excitement, he will have to assert his masculinity.  He needs to become the Western hero that is idolised in American culture.

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When Walt meets two low life drug dealers at the end of the episode, he observes a not too bright and far from wealthy would be entrepreneur buying drug equipment in the local supermarket.  Resenting the ignorance and arrogance of two people he regards or recognises as inferiors, Walt confronts the drug dealers.  After the alienation that he experienced at the party Walt understands that his needs and desires will no longer be satisfied with the rewards of being a schoolteacher or through living a suburban lifestyle.   Walt realises what his life has been lacking and what the really ambitious and fortunate not just pursue but take.  Walt wants what the real winners have always had.  This includes territory, power over others, status, economic freedom, hope and the ability to not be intimidated by anyone.  The bad guy has arrived, and so has the cowboy hero who confronts his brother-in-law and who feels that his son will have to drink tequila if he is to be a worthy successor.   No wonder Vince Gilligan told his cameraman that he wanted the series to look like a Sergio Leone movie.  The Marxist Italian filmmaker not only changed the look of the Western.  Leone was the man who insisted that the cowboy heroes had always been bad guys.

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Howard Jackson has had nine 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. 

 

 

 

 

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JACK THE RIPPER ‘THE DEMENTED GENIUS’

21 – FROM HELL, USA 2001

 

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This movie should be watched at midnight and in a dark room. Not because it is terrifying. From Hell is late night viewing for those whose brains need rest. And nothing soothes tired brain cells as much as the promise that the inexplicable will be wiped away by research and glib conclusions.  The myth of Jack The Ripper nags us like other mysteries. We cannot solve the puzzle of the unsolved murders but watching others make an attempt helps us to relax. Investigation promises order and progress, past chaos that can be wrapped neatly.

From Hell is based on a black and white graphic novel that recycled a familiar conspiracy theory about Jack The Ripper. The film has a different design. The colour photography in From Hell is good and has lots of reds and greens. It has a nostalgic feel and is a distance from the fake monochrome that is fashionable in colour movies today. Providing the TV is tuned properly, From Hell looks good in a dark room, and that is another reason for watching late at night. And the actors look fine as well.   Ian Holm is not as handsome as Johnny Depp or Heather Graham but he has great contact lenses, and they are used to splendid effect in two key scenes. The use of the contact lenses of Holm is inspired and it makes From Hell essential viewing.

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Johnny Depp is handsome and has trend appeal but he is a strange and fanciful choice for Inspector Abberline the policeman who was responsible for investigating the Ripper murders. In From Hell, Inspector Abberline is dreamy rather than methodical. Depp does whimsical somnambulism as well as anyone. It is tempting to say that Depp can play vacant dreamers in his sleep. The quiet voice and bemused expression have been around for so long someone should invent the word Deppy as an adjective for remote airheads. The Abberline creation in From Hell is neither like the real man nor the gruff creation in the original graphic novel. This Abberline takes opium and adds laudanum to his absinthe. The heart breaking Sergio Leone gangster movie Once Upon A Time In America began and ended in an opium den.   The same happens in From Hell.  Both heroes seek oblivion from a dreadful world and the pain of enduring the memory of lost opportunities.  A hostile society controlled by a small minority plus our inability to anticipate the future and the consequence of our decisions mean that most of us are obliged to waste our lives.  We have a sense of this at the end of From Hell but only if we remember Once Upon A Time In America.

Jack The Ripper was an outsider and an avenger with an appetite. His territory was the often overlooked wreckage of 19th Century urban London. In 1888 there were 1400 known prostitutes and 80 brothels amongst the 78,000 residents of Whitechapel. 1400 underestimates the extent of prostitution because other women would alternate selling their bodies with work that could not provide a regular income.  In From Hell the Ripper murderer is connected to the Royal Family. This explanation of the mystery has been rubbished by the experts but it makes a good tale. The myth would have persisted anyway but identifying Ripper as a gentleman gives it added resonance. The clash between the rich and the poor was more violent than some remember, and the actions of the Ripper remind us how capricious fate and unequal struggles can wreck lives and drain meaning from existence.

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From Hell opens with a quote from Jack The Ripper. The quote is repeated near the end of the film.  Jack claims that he has given birth to the 20th Century.  This is a good line, and there are not many in From Hell, but the line is not a consequence of serious thought. Slavery and selling opium to the Chinese were more important to the subsequent 20th Century than Jack The Ripper. Instead, he was the first serial killer to wander across the modern world and he remains unknown. We will always be interested.  The Ripper has metaphorical significance but it is restricted to his desire to turn over the stones that hid Victorian poverty from the sight of the affluent. This desire to lift stones and expose aberration and violence has remained, and the rest is history. Jack The Ripper appeared forty years after Edgar Allan Poe published The Murders In The Rue Morgue. Our never ending fascination with what may be under the stones may have always existed but Jack The Ripper and Edgar Allan Poe insisted we should also be baffled. George Bernard Shaw had a point when he described the mysterious slayer as a ‘demented genius’.

From Hell was directed by the Hughes Brothers. Their last film was The Book Of Eli and that, like all their films, received mixed reviews. They are African Americans and for most of their lives they were raised by a single, resolute and feminist mother. The Hughes Brothers listened to her and are sensitive to the exploitation of women.   The five female victims in From Hell are united through friendship and their pimps. More emphasis is given to the victims than is normal in Jack The Ripper fiction and this is a virtue. We still await the tale from a working class perspective rather than patrician outsiders but the lives of the poor are given more attention in From Hell.

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From Hell may look good on a large TV screen in the dark but the ears do suffer. Robbie Coltrane plays Sergeant Peter Godley the assistant to Abberline. He has a superior vocabulary but he is not eloquent.   Robbie Coltrane in From Hell is a walking one-man exposition model. His questions and clarification carry the plot. The tale is complex, especially when a conspiracy theory is added, but mistakes are made in the dialogue that could have been avoided. At times it feels like Depp and Coltrane are in a competition to deliver dreadful lines.  ‘They tell me you’re the best young surgeon in London,’ says Abberline.  This should win prizes but at a murder scene Coltrane chips in with, ‘Yes. This is Annie Chapman. Dark Annie they call her.’

And there are more. Robbie Coltrane began his career as a comedian, and that suggests that the film might be tongue in cheek. And, with a name like Godley, the Detective Sergeant is entitled to be a know all. But both the script and the graphic novel lack humour and irony.   No one in the film looks amused. The film may be stylish but we sense that the actors feel they are working in a dry project.

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Although graphic the murders do not shock or disturb. The victims are predestined to be slaughtered, and history, and a conspiracy that was prepared earlier, keep us at a safe distance. The most disturbing moments in the film take place in a lunatic asylum. These capture the heartlessness of the powerful and perhaps us all. Dickens alerted us to the redundancy of utilitarianism, and From Hell recognises and continues his protest. The visible wounds from the lobotomies set the teeth on edge.

The film has other worthwhile moments. The shot of how the South Bank of the Thames might have looked before it became the home of the Royal Festival Hall and the National Theatre suggests a different time and imagination.  Liz Moscrop is great and authentic as Queen Victoria and a pleasant alternative to the wild invention of Judie Dench in Mrs Brown.   The revelation that ‘the human heart is notoriously difficult to burn’ is an interesting thought and it fits this film. Twisted desires have a long history. The transformation of a respectable member of the establishment to the crazed assassin requires no more than acting skill and different contact lenses.  It is subtle and forces the audience to stare and think.

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Inevitably the film reminds us of the enduring tragedy of the British class system. These reminders are not always subtle. Rich whiskered buffoons make crass remarks about people they regard as social inferiors. The hierarchy is obvious, and its aristocrats do not have to state their prejudices for the audience to realise that the rich and poor will be obliged to make glib assumptions about people they never meet. Perhaps that is why the myth of Jack The Ripper continues to interest. The tale is kept alive by the curiosity of people condemned to misunderstand not just history and the events but their neighbours and themselves. Insanity is present both in the original story and in From Hell. Because of a class divided Britain, insanity is as terrifying for the British as it is for anyone. We are all remote from what feels like the majority, our superiors and inferiors. This distance prevents trust in others and ourselves. We are not surprised that the one man who knows the truth about his neighbours and what they do seeks oblivion in an opium den.  And if the indulgence of a psychopath helped launch 20th Century capitalism, what the hell.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books. His latest book Choke Bay is available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.