film criticism

BREAK OUT: BREAKING BAD

15 CHECK OFF, UNCLE WALT

 

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In The Official Guide To Breaking Bad, the film critic David Thomson claimed that the TV series had ‘in its blood the bittersweet resignation of Chekhov’.  He compared drug dealer Walter White to Uncle Vanya.  Both Vanya and Walt protest against their existence but are hampered by their limitations.  Vanya fails to experience the transcendental he desires, and the already punctured ego of Walt is vanquished.  David Thomson was being succinct.  He might have wanted to say more.  The phrase bittersweet resignation underestimates what Chekhov achieves in his plays, and Breaking Bad is populated with too many obsessive personalities for any critic to be tempted by the word resignation.  If the cliché has to be used, it should be saved for Scott Fitzgerald.  Breaking Bad is a marvellous creation but, no matter what the inspirational detail, any Jekyll and Hyde tale of a schoolteacher who becomes a drug making criminal is obliged to be extravagant rather than resigned.

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There will be fans of Breaking Bad that the plays of Chekhov will send to sleep.  Chekhov does not write soap operas.  He attempted what he regards as realism.  For Chekhov, fate not only exists but is consolidated by the compound interest provided by long determined personalities.  In soap operas the decisions of the characters determine future events.   A soap opera will have multiple story lines and intense and uneven relationships which can be unbalanced further by either betrayal, confrontation, disappointing failure, rivalry, romantic temptation or the desire for reprisal.  Soap opera characters respond to the events that their actions create and they become either heroes or villains.  As the drama proceeds, the audience witnesses often surprising aspects of the personalities of the heroes and villains.   Breaking Bad has several extreme examples.  Skyler, Jesse, Walt and Hank all act in a way that shapes the fate of the others, and their personalities adopt different personas as the world around them changes, a world which they have helped create.  In Chekhov what happens to the characters occurs because of who they are and not because of what they decide to do.  In the plays of Chekhov we watch families and their members drift towards their destiny.

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The famous four plays of Anton Chekhov are called The Seagull, The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya and The Three Sisters.  The best way to watch them is in a small theatre where the actors are not obliged to raise their voices and can talk in a natural way.    Chekhov wanted his characters to have the kind of routine and measured conversations that existed in reality.  The Russian playwright was one of the first to attempt this and, because he was successful, people have claimed he was a genius.   If his short story The Steppes is any indication, he might well have been.  But even the geniuses cannot have everything.  All drama requires exposition, and when the servants and aristocrats line up to appear in the opening scenes of a Chekhov play, the dialogue can creak.  His most ambitious drama is The Cherry Orchard which mixes a family tale with political and philosophical concerns.  The Cherry Orchard is exceptional and marvellous but it also needs a political idealist to explain the failures of the Russian aristocracy.   His dialogue may be instructional but at least the aristocrats ignore him.

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Neither Breaking Bad nor any of the plays by Chekhov can be described as light comedies.  No one falls in love and lives happily ever after.  Jesse in Breaking Bad is particularly unfortunate.  The two women he loves are both murdered which has to be regarded as grim.  The women in Chekhov just about survive but there is an awful lot of unrequited love left walking around those Russian estates.  Walt makes crystal meth that ruins the lives of thousands.  The aristocratic families are pampered by servants and require the exploitation of Russian peasantry.   Happiness through virtue is beyond the characters of Breaking Bad and Chekhov.  But both Breaking Bad and Chekhov have comic moments.   The writers on Breaking Bad have revealed that the most urgent demand from showrunner Vince Gilligan was always for more humour.  Chekhov described his plays as comedies.

In Breaking Bad what goes wrong depends often on characters not saying what we would expect from them.  Skyler, Marie, Hank, Jesse and Walt all have prolonged and silent sulks.  It not only adds tension to the relationships but allows the writers to avoid narrative difficulties.  Considering the nature of their day to day partnership, it is odd how little Walt explains behaviour that is often his response to threats from others.  This trickery is accepted by an audience because it feels in character.  We make allowances.  Chekhov has a different technique.  His characters talk and explore their problems but most of the time with the wrong person.  An aristocrat complains about his boring life to an oppressed servant.  Secrets are revealed to people who are rivals rather than confidants.  In its most extreme form one character talks to an inevitably indifferent bookcase.  The equivalent of this in Breaking Bad is Walt cursing to himself.  In the past British actors had a habit of downplaying the humour in Chekhov.  The Americans have had more success with communicating the comedy.   Vanya on 42nd Street is the notable example.

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The extent to which Vince Gilligan and his writers will have had regard to Chekhov is not known but the playwright would have been a subsidiary and perhaps compulsory subject in American film schools.  Breaking Bad may be a melodrama but it does have Chekhovian moments when its characters sit down, talk and confess to emotions and mistakes.  Chekhov would have approved of the family discussion around the ‘talking pillow’ in Breaking Bad.

 Estates and private agricultural land ensure that the families in the plays of Chekhov are isolated and self-contained.  It also keeps a stage production manageable.  In Breaking Bad the characters have cars and mix with people outside the family but the Whites and Schraders also function together as a self-contained unit.  Their houses may be surrounded by suburbia but in the rare instances we see a neighbour it occurs when the family is in crisis.  Hank at the end of an argument with Marie notes the small child playing near his house.  Walt says hello to the elderly neighbour next door but after he is exposed as a drug criminal and his relationship with his family has been destroyed.

 

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Chekhov made the famous remark about a smoking gun that is quoted on training courses for dramatists.  He claimed that if a gun appeared in the first act then before the end of the play it had to be used, otherwise the audience would wonder what was the point of the gun.  Vince Gilligan and his writers follow this maxim slavishly.  Chekhov was either disillusioned with the theory when he wrote The Cherry Orchard or Russian humour is a lot more subtle than is realised.  In that play a servant puts a gun in his mouth and contemplates suicide.  The servant has second thoughts.  The gun does not reappear in the play.   The Cherry Orchard was the last play written by Chekhov.  He had problems with his health that led to an early death.  The abandoned unused gun might have been a final sly wink to the audience.

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Manufacturing crystal meth is an essential activity for Walt.  It helps him to ‘feel alive’ and acquire what he regards as deserved status.  For landowner Madame Lyubov Andrievna Ranevskaya the cherry orchard has similar importance.  It is in the orchard where she felt alive and had not yet experienced the abuse of disappointing husbands.  Both Walt and Madame Ranevskaya are unable to be pragmatic and they continue towards conclusions that could have been avoided. They feel entitled to be defiant against obvious fates.  Because of his superior education, Walt has contempt for policemen and gangsters.  Madame Ranevskaya underestimates the accomplishments of liberated serfs and the impact of a changing Russia.

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Almost every key character in Breaking Bad is a provocateur and they shape the melodrama.  These are the people who produce the perverse coincidences and surprises.  The provocateurs in the plays of Chekhov have more modest ambitions and are not as many in number.  They expose the circumstances of the people around them and their nature but not much more than that.  Three sisters become restless when a handsome soldier arrives, the visit of a scientist and his beautiful wife make Uncle Vanya realise that he has wasted his life, an immoral writer exposes the pretensions of a talentless actress, and a political idealist nags at the illusions of a bankrupt aristocratic family.  The comic touch of Chekhov is apparent because the plays finish with people in the main settling down to what they did before.  This does not happen at the end of Breaking Bad.  Walt and Hank are both dead.  Skyler and Marie will have to live without their husbands.   Jesse, though, does have an ending that would have suited Chekhov.  He may drive free into the horizon at the end of Breaking Bad but he is unchanged from the person the audience met in season one.  He has no plans, remains under-qualified and has limited appeal for employers.  The wealth that he once had is no longer at his disposal, which in a way is a happy ending.  Jesse was a drug maker whose activities wrecked lives.  He also killed a few people.  But if he had not survived, we would have forgotten the elements that insisted that Breaking Bad was as much a comedy as a thriller.

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.

 

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BREAK OUT: BREAKING BAD

14 A NO SLIP-UP TYPE DEAL

 

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Sometimes intentions play a part.  In the TV and movie business, success is nowhere near as frequent as failure.   Not all artistic ambition is free of cynicism.  Producers and people who have to pay for the films to be made will understand both the strength of the lowest common denominator and the appeal of the familiar.  Showrunner Vince Gilligan made Breaking Bad to please an audience but he expected them to like the same movies and TV programmes as him.  Season five may suffer from meth maker Walt becoming too dark a character but throughout the 62 episodes of Breaking Bad the capability of the TV audience is never underestimated by the writers.   If Vince Gilligan knows how people respond to teasers, comedy, cliff-hangers and surprises, he also trusts the fans will have patience and curiosity.  This assumption or attitude by Gilligan was important to the success of Breaking Bad but it did not stand alone.  There are plenty of reasons why Breaking Bad was a no slip-up type deal.

American TV is more than a business.  It is an industry.  Not all of its products will be inspired but those who work in it will live and breathe creativity.   Skills are honed and sharpened.  Writers do not need to work on a classic programme to develop their skills.  Trying to make a piece of pap somehow pass muster will be just as demanding for a writer as working on the fresh and original.   Many TV script writers have experience of operating in both comedy and drama.  Not all will be adept in both formats but that experience plus the repetitive discipline of a long working week refines technique.

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American TV writers may be obliged to waste too much of their lives on melodrama and violent soap operas but they understand good dialogue.  They have to learn the basic tricks.  These include having a character say nothing and stare into space meaningfully when the only alternative is cliché.  At some point in a TV episode the plot or what will happen next has to be explained to viewers.  Providing something else for the attention of the audience while this is happening is essential.  The writers of Breaking Bad understood these tricks or skills and a lot more.  And when there was a need for an emotional and heated argument they also had the know-how and actors to attempt overlapping dialogue.  If this does not appear too difficult then watch some recent British dramas and try to endure the lumpen phrases.  The lauded attempts of Jed Mercurio exist as examples of how not to do it.   Happy Valley by gifted Sally Wainwright was the exception.

But, whatever the drafting skills, only interesting characters utter convincing dialogue, and only capable actors can make those characters believable.  Breaking Bad had both.  I knew a schoolteacher that was convicted for selling drugs.  He never made the big time like Walt but he went a step further.  He sold drugs to the pupils in his class.  His alternative career was a surprise to everyone but, like Walt, by then he had problems.  The notion of a chemistry teacher making meth is both wild and believable.  Unfortunately him having a brother-in-law in the DEA does stretch credibility.  But as Chekov understood, nothing helps character development in a drama as much as having them all in the same family.

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Breaking Bad has inspired debate about whether Walt really is a bad guy and as to who are the heroes or villains.  The truth is that there are no heroes.  Breaking Bad has rounded characters that have strengths and weaknesses.   In their lives they have good or bad moments.  Skyler is not an evil woman or even a bad wife to Walter.  But with a glass of the hard stuff in her hand and after a tiring day she was willing to recommend the murder of Jesse.  This weaker moment by Skyler was almost endearing.

Not all the characters created by the scriptwriting team of Breaking Bad are convincing but even the ones that raise doubts manage to entertain.  Thanks to actor Jonathan Banks, the man of few words Mike is popular with viewers, even if his character evokes over-familiar Western heroes.  Lavell Crawford plays Huell Babineaux, sidekick to lawyer Saul Goodman.  Lavell may make a living as a stand-up comic but the notion that the slow moving and slow thinking Huell is even capable of earning a salary is dubious.  Gilligan and his casting director are bright.  Using stand-up comics for certain characters encourages the audience to indulge the wilder creations.   Saul Goodman is a tenth rate lawyer with a first class brain.  This contradiction is never resolved within Breaking Bad but actor and comedian Bob Odenkirk adds to the fun.  We indulge the nonsense.  The series Better Caul Saul attempts to explain how someone with the expertise of Goodman is not just a failure but crass.  Its creation may have been an act of remorse by the writers.

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Complex characters make demands on actors, and if mistakes were made in casting Breaking Bad, most of us will have missed them.  What helps is the dedication of Gilligan and his casting director to only picking actors that will define the characters intended by the writers.  There appear to have been no commercial considerations in the selection process.  The emphasis is on personality rather than charisma.  If Breaking Bad has a hero it is Hank.  Dean Norris who plays Hank is not too tall, has a huge beer gut, is bald and, well, not handsome.   Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul won awards for a reason.  They own their roles.  Actors are noted for being narcissistic but from the moment Bryan Cranson appears in his white underpants it is clear that whatever the actors will take from working on Breaking Bad it will not be physical flattery.  Aaron Paul the actor that plays Jesse has been described as ‘a pretty boy’ but not because of what happens in the make-up department.  The stills from Breaking Bad that are taken from the final episode confirm the intensity of the performance of Aaron Paul.

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Moments before Walt appears in his underpants there is the famous opening shot where a pair of trousers fly into the air.   The shot is confident, different and seductive.  Vince Gilligan is blessed with the ability to have original ideas and concepts but also to add satisfying details.  In that first episode most of us are surprised to see Walt make a confession.   We are used to flashbacks but not from a man in his underpants filming himself on his mobile phone.  Bold concepts reinforced by surprising ideas that themselves are rooted in other concepts means hard work for writers.  This is why the democratic contribution from the nine person writing team was important.  Solid concepts and imaginative supportive detail mean that padding has no place to exist.  Once that happens there is space for the material and performances to breathe.

A key element of Breaking Bad is something called foreshadowing.  The opening teasers are sometimes used for this effect.  The floating pink teddy bear is the famous example.  Foreshadowing also occurs in individual scenes.  Ricin as a poison is first mentioned in season two but it is only used to murder someone near the end of season five.  A filmed confession appears in the very first episode and another in season five.  Examples of foreshadowing in Breaking Bad occur throughout the series.

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Someone has to capture on film both the work of the actors and whatever else has been described by the writers.  In an eight day shooting schedule corners have to be cut.  Interior scenes present fewer problems for the cameraman and technicians.  In simple scenes nothing more than a filter on the lens can add atmosphere.  But all interior scenes will either require a set to be built or a location, such as the house of Walt and Skyler, to be managed.   Filming exterior shots and locations is more complicated but moody urban streets or expansive landscapes provide visual opportunities which are rarely ignored by the cameraman.   The mystery of Breaking Bad is not why Walt became a meth maker but how a small production team manages within eight days to produce a TV episode that looks and sounds like a Hollywood movie.

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All TV series operate as projects, entities that need to be managed with recognised managerial skills.   Contributors have to be valued and encouraged.  Walter White was smart but he struggled in this area.  Only psychopathic Gus Fring attempted to nurture and develop Jesse.   Listen to Gilligan talk about his work on Breaking Bad, and it becomes obvious that he understands the importance of recognition and support.  Gilligan is nowhere near as selective as Gus Fring.  It may be tedious for outsiders to listen to ‘the boss’ referring to anyone who worked on Breaking Bad as wonderful.   It is, though, a managerial skill.  The technical term is the art of positive management.  Gilligan practises it, and no doubt it influenced others on the project.  Keep the positive messages flowing and everyone involved in the project becomes important.  Without that the deal really would have had slip-ups.

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.