USA cinema

BREAK OUT: BREAKING BAD

9 FRENCH FRIES AND YELLOW RIBBONS

 

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Vince Gilligan has admitted that his pitch to studio executives for cash for Breaking Bad was, ‘Mr Chips becomes Scarface.’  Today finding someone who believes that Goodbye Mr Chips qualifies as a literary masterpiece and who regards James Hilton as a writer of exceptional merit is not easy.  The search is as difficult as locating Shangri La, the nirvana that the author imagined for The Lost Horizon, his other huge seller.   Goodbye Mr Chips is a class ridden and sentimental tale.  The book romanticises life in an English public school and overlooks an education system that disenfranchises the majority of the population.   Hilton wrote in a chatty style designed to offer emotional comfort to readers.   Although the overall themes of Goodbye Mr Chips have weight, the frequent observations and asides from Hilton are smug, albeit sometimes perceptive.  Goodbye Mr Chips describes the full working life of an adult, and despite the extra words the tale on paper is more slight than it should be.

Both Goodbye Mr Chips and The Lost Horizon require a transcendental love affair as a catalyst for the hero.  In Goodbye Mr Chips the marriage of his schoolteacher hero is described as ‘a triumphant success’.  This unequivocal intrusion into the imagination of the reader confirms the weakness of Hilton.   Modern readers may be sniffy about literary style but Goodbye Mr Chips and The Lost Horizon are remembered for a reason.  These two books, but none of the others written by Hilton, were iconic.  To utilise another favoured phrase of Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, James Hilton twice found the ‘lightning in the bottle’, something that made his stories resonate.

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To be able to speculate on what justifies not a life but an existence Breaking Bad needs Walt to have a dual identity or alternatives.   There are three Mr Chips, the shy man who exists before his marriage, the happy and confident chap who is married and the amiable and empathetic schoolteacher that exists after the death of his wife and new born child.  Rather than have gangsters on the prowl Hilton in Goodbye Mr Chips maintains English reserve and merely lets his schoolteacher fall in love and have a brief marriage.  Kathleen is an interesting character but after she dies the only steam that is left in the book is that which comes out of the kettle that boils the water for the afternoon teas that Chips takes with his pupils.  Somehow, though, the damned thing stays inside the head.

Ernest Raymond is not regarded as a literary giant  but he not only managed a great title and something special with We The Accused but also created Mr Olim a schoolteacher and volatile bully that terrorises his pupils.  Mr Olim is a superior book to Goodbye Mr Chips.  Before the book has ended the reader understands that Olim had no need to be popular.  Instead he was dedicated to education and was willing to use whatever means necessary to keep his pupils alert.

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A weakness of Goodbye Mr Chips is that it assumes that the popularity Chips achieves after his transformational marriage must confirm that he is now a superior human being.  It denies his previous valid existence.  Yet the book has poignant moments.  No one can read Goodbye Mr Chips without wondering about how to lead a life and what awaits at death.  This, of course, is where Vince Gilligan came in with his existential fancies.

Once Walt cooks some crystal meth his lower middle class humility and fatalism soon encounter Walt Whitman and ambitious transcendentalism.  The murderous monster comes later.  A major surprise for English viewers is the stoicism of husband and father Walt in the opening episodes of Breaking Bad.  Walt has what Goodbye Mr Chips presents as a British characteristic, reserve and self-effacement.  For the British the Americans were the people who arrived in Britain during the second world war.  They had chocolates, cigarettes, cash and nylons, and more persuasive words for English women.  It takes effort for the British to imagine Americans making sacrifices and being shy, quiet or lonely.  In establishing himself as a kingpin drug dealer Walt becomes vicious and nasty.  He is, though, always paying a price even if the cost amounts to nothing more than being anxious or stressed.  In Breaking Bad even bad alter ego Heisenberg, makes sacrifices.

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The movie Since You Went Away drips with sentiment but is accomplished.  It has to be  seen for the dance hall scene alone.  The black and white photography of Stanley Cortez has never been equalled.  In that movie the burdened hero is a woman whose husband is away at war.  She is obliged to hold her family together.  It did not need a world war, though, for the Americans to create stiff upper lips.   John Ford directed a trilogy of movies that is recognised as ‘the cavalry pictures’. She Wore A Yellow Ribbon was the second of the three.   John Wayne plays ageing hero Captain Nathan Brittles.  No one in the film is a schoolteacher but Brittles is an obvious mentor to the men and women around him.  They will  be his legacy.  Captain Nathan Brittles is approaching retirement, and although at the end of the film he helps to prevent a war with the Native Americans his final days are marked by two failures that are beyond his control.  Captain Brittles, like Mr Chips, has led an anonymous and lonely life.  He has been loyal to a bureaucracy obliged to neglect him.  If Brittles is not without self-respect, there will be little consolation for his final days.

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She Wore A Yellow Ribbon is an elegiac essay about ageing, the fading of personal powers and how acquired knowledge and skills ultimately become redundant wisdom.   When Walt takes that final bullet for Jesse and grins, he may be smiling at his lucky escape from what lays ahead for the rest of us.   Not everyone will be convinced that She Wore A Yellow Ribbon was influenced by Goodbye Mr Chips but something from the Hilton novel or the MGM movie lodged in the mind of John Ford.  Six years after he completed She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Ford directed the much inferior The Long Gray Line.  This movie had Tyrone Power play an athletic instructor who spent thirty years at West Point.  The film is not an accomplished effort.  The poetry of She Wore A Yellow Ribbon is replaced by sentimentality.  For Vince Gilligan and John Ford the themes of Goodbye Mr Chips resonate more when some distance is maintained between their own ambitions and the intentions of James Hilton.

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Both Ford and Hilton used their work to capture what they thought were national virtues.  For Ford there was American self-reliance and strength.  The characters of Hilton are stoical, tolerant and have impeccable manners.  Both men may have romanticised their homelands but Ford needed his fantasised alternative Ireland to keep his demons at bay, and Hilton left for America to make money.  Hilton became an American citizen in 1948.  He was born in Leigh in Lancashire.  The ground of the local Rugby League team is called Hilton Park but that is a coincidence.

In Breaking Bad, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and Goodbye Mr Chips violence is important to all three stories.  The least violence is in the Western.  Captain Nathan Brittles has to prevent a war, and whilst the liberal attitude should be applauded there is still action that holds the movie together.  The writers on Breaking Bad are unabashed about adding corpses.  We lose count.  In Goodbye Mr Chips the only action occurs on a mountain when Chips attempts a rescue attempt.  In the movie Greer Garson does not need to be rescued.  In the book Chips breaks his ankle and Kathleen rescues her rescuer.  The main violence in Goodbye Mr Chips is elsewhere.  The boys take their knowledge of Greek and Latin to the first world war, and the story is punctuated by news of ex-pupils that have been lost in battle.   Chips may have English reserve.  Its military have no such inhibitions.  The clash between Chips and an Army officer is momentary but it hints that Hilton understood some of the weaknesses of British society.  Ford agonises about the hypocrisy of authority.  Gilligan and his writing team dig into the flaws of all their characters.  In that sense those in power are offered a form of excuse.  They are no worse nor better than the rest of us.

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The life of Mr Chips has been described as mediocre but this is incorrect.  There are occasions when his self-esteem suffers but Chips is an educated man working with the educated.  He meets an attractive woman half his age who loves him, and his career finishes well.  If his life is sad, it is because he forgets to chase the promise that might be in the sky.  There is an early scene where an anxious Chips fails to notice the giant air balloon that has excited the schoolboys.   That other existential hero Mary Poppins insisted that the kite in the sky had to be followed.  The lady could be relied on but, of course, she was unaware of what would happen to Walter White.

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

8 ABQ-NM-USA

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We all accumulate debts during a life, and, because none of us are self-sufficient, most of us can remember more than one debt that has helped us to survive.   I left one behind in Albuquerque to an attractive Mexican barmaid.  Thanks to an articulate lady of immense personal strength I was able to say goodbye to a hostile crowd in an Albuquerque bar and lose nothing but some of my dignity, a camera and the twenty-odd photographs I had taken around New Mexico.   Walter White is not the only male in Albuquerque who has felt the need for vengeance.  Walter raised the stakes.  I was almost as angry as Walt but left town while I still had two hands that could grip a steering wheel.  I drove out of New Mexico State and to Amarillo in Texas where I met a pest called George but that is another story.

The abbreviation ABQ for Albuquerque has been credited to the painter Georgia O’Keeffe.  The ABQ episode of Breaking Bad climaxes season two, and somewhere around the conclusion Jane suggests to Jesse that they visit a local gallery to look at a collection of paintings by O’Keeffe.  The painter was born in New York but she included in her portfolio a few New Mexico landscapes.  The ABQ episode is remembered for the plane crash that kills 167 passengers, the pink teddy bear that falls in the swimming pool of Walt and the moment when Walt does nothing to prevent the death of Jane.   The episode title honours the abbreviation favoured by Georgia O’Keefe.  In a show that specialised in cryptic pre-credit teasers 737 Down Over Albuquerque would have been not quite right for the Breaking Bad brand.  It may also have alerted too many viewers to the plane crash engineered by the real life drug dealer Pablo Escobar.

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Albuquerque was established in 1706.   Just over three hundred years later the town has a population of 552,000 people.  Even though Walter White is now dead the town still has its problems.   The gun death rate in New Mexico is 40% higher than the national average of the USA, and in case not everyone has noticed the States is not a best in class leader for minimising gun deaths.  Billy the Kid moved to New Mexico when he was fourteen years old.  Like Georgia O’Keeffe, he was born in New York City, and similar to many other famous men he lost his father when young.  And like me, he had some support from a Mexican woman although in his case it was more substantial, more serious and longer lasting.  She did not, though, prevent Billy the Kid from being killed by Pat Garrett seven years after he had arrived in New Mexico.

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Some people would worry about the number of people being shot down on the modern streets of Albuquerque but the local police force has a reputation for nihilistic stubbornness and corruption.  20% of the population of Albuquerque lives below the poverty line and while that lasts there will be a good crystal meth market for wannabe Walter Whites to exploit.  People who have left Albuquerque to live elsewhere say that the people who remain in the city are distinguished by a lack of ambition.  Albuquerque is isolated.  The nearest city is a four hour drive away.   The mountains and the dry desert air provide consolation but the isolation means that in the commercial and social life of Albuquerque the stakes are not so high for its citizens.  The difference between the affluent and the very rich is not as great in Albuquerque as it is in some American cities.  This can be relaxing for the adults of Albuquerque or at least those who are living above the poverty line.   For the pesky teenagers of affluent parents, though, it suggests dullness.  This may be why the young are tempted to use narcotics and contribute to the widespread drug problem.   As did Walt, the children of the poor have their own and very different reasons.  Few dispute that the family is important to the citizens of Albuquerque.

Over the concrete dwellings there is a cable car that gives good aerial views.  The Sandia Peak Tramway travels 2.7 miles and takes the less athletic into the mountains and as high as the 10,378 foot Sandia Peak.   There are various mountain trails.  La Luz Trail is an eight mile hike and arduous.  If the mountains around Albuquerque are impressive, the strong winds can be a nuisance.  The air, though, is fresh and warm.  In a couple of episodes Walt wanders on to sandy slopes in between rocky mesas but mostly the mountains in Breaking Bad redefine a distant horizon.

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Apart from the scenic blessings there are man-made sights.   While still a small scale meth manufacturer Walt sets up a meeting with his street level distributors.  They discuss plans in the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History.  The setting implies criminal escalation and apocalyptic consequences.  Elsewhere the old town of Albuquerque is fey and contrived but after sacrificing a half decent camera I can think of worse places in the city to relax and have a beer.  It may have been my experience of the old town that made me less alert in the rest of Albuquerque.

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The most popular destination in the city is the home of Walter White.  Breaking Bad Tours have boosted the economy of Albuquerque.  Not all but some of the tourists like to imitate Walter White and throw giant pizzas on to the roof of the suburban house.  The cliché is that Albuquerque is a key character in the Breaking Bad TV series.   The location is important but comparing the town to a character is sloppy thinking and an exaggeration.  The original idea was to have somewhere in California where Walter White could pursue his exploits and make his family suffer.   This did not happen.  Albuquerque was probably chosen as a location for Breaking Bad for financial reasons.  Los Angeles was not suitable for a TV show that had some Western themes and suggested a hero tempted to reclaim undomesticated masculinity.   Filming in a small Californian town would have been almost as expensive as Los Angeles.  Albuquerque was a cheaper option.  If financial restrictions affected decisions as to what additional sourced music could be added to the soundtrack then the choice of the film location would be important.

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Albuquerque does, though, add ambience to the episodes and it provides a fitting context for the adventures of Walt.  The city has blue skies that are often clear, and when they are not they have bright white clouds.  Outside of town and below the blue skies there is a wide expanse of desert and tall mountainous vistas.  Add the occasional filter to the camera lens and this emptiness dazzles the eyes of the Breaking Bad audience and torments frustrated Walt.  The landscape exists as a permanent and relentless alternative to the restrictions of domesticity.   There is a moment in the episode 4 Days Out when Walt and Jesse stop after a day of hard work, take a breath and stare at the desert sunset.  The obvious filter on the lens is disconcerting and had to be used for practical reasons.  Yet the tint does not prevent the shot from being memorable and important.  The two crystal meth makers may be tired but standing on tired bones and in the middle of the desert they are able to respect and admire an uncompromising and spectacular landscape.  A silent paternal environment acknowledges their efforts.

It is to their credit that the writers of Breaking Bad are never tempted to incorporate the tourist spots of Albuquerque as visual ornaments.  Away from the mountains we see a lot of utilitarian concrete.  If Walt, his partners, enemies and rivals make the way into the desert, it is because they need isolation and to do something they should not.  The tourist attractions of Albuquerque are avoided.  When he is behaving himself, Walt is restricted to dull suburbia.  The houses used in Breaking Bad are authentic which is why we should feel sorry for the poor sod who has to scrape the pizzas off his roof after the tourists have disappeared.   But the suburban locations used in Breaking Bad can be found in the outskirts of any city in the USA, Europe and even the more affluent neighbourhoods in South America.

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Throughout the five seasons the Whites and the neighbours show little inclination to socialise beyond their own homes and swimming pools.  The scene where Walt over a beer meets the father of Jane is memorable for various reasons.  It is also a rare example of a character in Breaking Bad visiting an Albuquerque bar or restaurant.   No wonder Walter White looks so uncomfortable when he has to visit Gustavo Fring in the fast food diner Los Pollos Hermanos and talk business.  The real alternatives to modern Albuquerque suburbia for a would be Western hero are not modern bars and restaurants but empty places like the open desert landscape where Walt and Jesse take their recreational vehicle to first make meth.  Over a hundred years before a young Billy the Kid rode through this New Mexico landscape.  He needed to escape his enemies but also those who were doing their best to establish the ubiquitous concrete suburbia that followed.

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.