USA politics

BREAK OUT: BREAKING BAD

13 A CASTRO CAST-OFF

 

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It took Brian de Palma 28 weeks to film the second version of Scarface.  An episode of Breaking Bad had to be completed within an eight day shooting schedule.  Compare the movie to the more ambitious episodes of Breaking Bad, and it is Scarface that looks like something from budget conscious American television.  The second version of Scarface was made 51 years after the black and white original by director Howard Hawks and screenwriter Ben Hecht.  The revamp by Brian de Palma received a hostile critical response.  Many of its critics disapproved of the excessive violence and expletive laden language.  There is an almost direct route from the original Scarface to the more modern Breaking Bad that appeared 85 years later.  It is defined by the work of the exceptionally talented, the progress that is made through superior cinematic technology and the changes in the expectations of an audience.

At various points Breaking Bad pays homage to the remake of Scarface.  Actors are used that were present in the second version, including old favourite Mark Margolis as the reduced but still sinister Hector Salamanca.  Gilligan also borrows the odd image.   The two silent and remote assassins in Breaking Bad that search for Heisenberg resemble the pensive killers in the scene in the Babylon nightclub where the first serious attempt is made to assassinate gangster Tony Montana.

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Oliver Stone wrote the not always subtle script of the 1983 version of Scarface, note the name of the nightclub above.  His script retains the key plot elements created by Ben Hecht, and at the end of the de Palma film there is a dedication to both Howard Hawks and Ben Hecht.  This respect for the cinematic past is a feature of the work of Brian de Palma.  He is an Alfred  Hitchcock devotee.  Oliver Stone may have needed to be persuaded to honour the original ambitions of Hawks and Hecht.  Stone, though, left his polemical mark.  The left wing politics of Brian de Palma had informed his masterpiece Blow Out.  Together the two of them ensured we understood their lack of sympathy for modern America.  Neither were they bashful about their misanthropy.   Gangster and mentor Frank Lopez tells Tony Montana, ‘Don‘t underestimate the other guys greed’.  Human appetites distort the work ethic of capitalism and undermine the socialist alternatives.  Gangsters have always prevailed in human history, and in Scarface neither de Palma nor Stone promise relief.

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The film begins in 1980 when 125,000 Cubans left the socialist alternative of the Castro government to seek the promises of American capitalism.   Castro opened his jails and, in the words of the opening titles, added ‘the dregs of Cuban society’ to the emigrants welcomed by the USA.   Tony Montana is one of the dregs and he knows it.  But like Walter White, he has an exaggerated sense of entitlement.  Walt in season five of Breaking Bad admits that he wants more than money.  ‘I want to build an empire’ he says to a baffled Jesse who had previously assumed that the intention was to use any extra cash to facilitate a less stressful existence.  Tony Montana is different to Walt.  Money is there to be spent.  He is not a miser interested in the symbolism of wealth.  ‘I want what‘s coming to me, the world and everything that is in it.’  As he acquires money, Montana becomes addicted to excess but also scornful of how he is living.  Montana does not reject consumption.  What he realises is that money alone will never give him ‘the world’ that he craves.  That belongs to established wealth, people who are no better than him but have no worries about being burdened by criminal status and uncouth manners.  These people learn to network and can buy an education that, despite greed which is no better than that possessed by Tony Montana, enables them to feel and even be superior.   After causing an affray in a restaurant Montana shouts out at the rich diners.  ‘Take a look.  This is a bad boy.’  The rich look askance but they are, of course, looking at a reflection of themselves.

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Walter White is different from Tony Montana.  He is a homegrown American and he has the education and perhaps intellect denied the Cuban gangster.  The world, or at least the billions and status of Gretchen and Elliot that Walt forfeited, could have been his.  Tony Montana does not make political speeches but he is articulate enough to protest against a system that has always been loaded against the people who ‘know the street’.  Walt has nothing to hate but himself, which is why more fortunate onlookers should have some sympathy for his plight.

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The only woman that Tony Montana loves is his sister.  He talks about her in the same way Walt insists upon his love for his family.  Tony wants his sister Gina to be virtuous and provide him with moments of moral sanctuary.  Gina, though, wants to have fun.  Cynical Elvira is anything but an innocent retreat,  Montana kills Frank Lopez and takes mistress Elvira away from the dead gangster but it is only because she is a symbol of progress, something else to consume and display.  When Elvira and Tony talk about their physical relationship neither mentions romance nor even affection.

The name Elvira is Spanish and means truth.  Elvira is no moral exemplar.  She is a snob and, like Tony, addicted to consumption.  Yet Elvira is capable of speaking truth to power.  In an odd way Elvira is like Jesse.  They both switch allegiances between gangsters.  Elvira and Jesse have youth and beauty but they need to lean on those that they imagine have superior strength and advantages.   Elvira is played by Michelle Pfeiffer, an actress that neither lead actor Al Pacino nor director de Palma wanted for the part.   Sigourney Weaver was an earlier preference for the role.  Either would have been fine.  Pfeiffer and Weaver are both capable of looking down the length of their elegant noses.   No one, though, played the part of the contemptuous moll better than Gloria Grahame in The Big Heat.  In that film Grahame has her face scarred with boiling coffee.  In the expensive restaurant where Tony is behaving like an authentic bad boy, Elvira stands up and leaves the dinner table.  She walks away from the excess consumption of Tony Montana and any prospects of boiling coffee being thrown into her face.

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When they meet, mentor Frank Lopez regards Tony Montana as a peasant.  Walt has similar contempt when Jesse and him begin making meth.  His feelings towards Jesse become more complicated. There are odd moments of sympathy from Walt but they do not prevent him from failing to accept Jesse as a human being that has the potential to be nurtured and developed.   Jesse to Walt is no more than a functional link in the meth making plans and ambitions of Heisenberg.  Frank Lopez is equally condescending.  He imagines that he will be able to exploit the peasant will and hunger of Montana.

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Anyone who listens to the 62 episodes of the Breaking Bad Insider Podcast will not only hear the normal and perhaps forgivable Hollywood gush but will also notice that the word ‘cool’ is used often.   Breaking Bad was conceived as an exploration of untypical characters in dramatic, criminal and violent situations.  Detail is also important, and Gilligan and his team worked hard to achieve special moments.   In the podcast discussions they refer to these instances as ‘cool’.  De Palma would have probably used the word poetical.  This difference in approach may amount to nothing more than different generations using alternative language but for all the mastery and triumphs of  Breaking Bad it lacks the poetic grandeur of Scarface.  Montana screaming defiance at his assassins while they pump bullets into his body is an extravagant but unforgettable and poignant moment.  Poetic grandeur and excess, though, are easily confused.  De Palma adds to Scarface an aesthetic that obliges its audience to distinguish between modern excess and poetry.  But, despite the emphasis on style by Stone and de Palma, there is also added realism.  Pacino looks and sounds like a real street hardened gangster in a way that other actors do not.  Frank Lopez has crooked cop Mel Bernstein on the payroll.  A weakness in Breaking Bad is that all the employees of the New Mexico DEA appear to be honest.  Crooked millionaire Gus Fring would have had at least one agent on his payroll. Harris Yulin plays Mel Bernstein the cop that reports to Lopez.  His taciturnity and contempt anticipate Mike Ehrmantraut the doleful hitman employed by Gus Fring.

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De Palma and Stone deny any redemption for Tony Montana.  The final scene reveals that it is not just the weak but the strong that a competitive materialist society wastes.  But Montana is nowhere near as evil as the cultured Bolivian gangster Alejandro Sosa and his powerful establishment friends.  Sosa demands that Montana kills an enemy.  When the target is joined by his family in his car, Montana realises that he cannot kill children.  This compares to Walt who poisons Brock with the toxic plant Lily of the Valley.  The ploy to have Walter White kill an innocent child feels like a deliberate reference by Vince Gilligan to Scarface.   At the end of season four the writing team of Breaking Bad had decided that Walt needed to be a monster.  There might have been a way home from the moon for American astronauts fifty years ago but after he saw the Lily of the Valley plant near his swimming pool there was no way back for chemistry teacher Walter White.  When he needs to, it is amazing what Walt happens to find in his back garden

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

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.