Saturday, January 21, 2012

Breaking Bad Season 1

Hello Readers Mine!

It's about time for another update on the Wanna Cook? The Unofficial Guide to Breaking Bad project, so, since I've finished an annotating re-watch of Season 1, I thought I'd ruminate on some of what struck me as I watched these first seven episodes again. So, for those of you who haven't seen Season 1, or even Seasons 2 - 4:


Cooking in the Scrub Desert
One thing I want to note at the get-go is that Breaking Bad is one of those rare shows where the cast and crew hit the ground running. There is no "Season 1 Slump" where everyone involved is still finding the groove. Breaking Bad starts where most shows hope to be by the end of Season 2, with fully developed characters, seamless casting, and an integrated production of the highest quality. This is a rare thing, Readers Mine, and well worth emphasizing!

To start with some of those production values, the camerawork in Breaking Bad readily comes to the fore, and with good reason. In the DVD commentaries for this season Dean Norris (who plays DEA agent Hank Schrader in the show) notes early on how "filmic" the production values on the series are. (I don't think it's inappropriate to refer to the camera-work as cinematography, though with the wonderful proliferation of Quality TV out there right now, we really need a new word for high-quality, carefully constructed, artistic camera-work on TV, the "art of making television" rather than movies. Televideography?) Breaking Bad is filmed like a movie, not as we are used to seeing TV shows, with limited camera angles and perspectives, but with a proliferation of viewpoints and shot-angles which become part of the narrative itself.

Time-lapse film-work leaps to mind here. Taking advantage of the dramatic scenery, wide-open spaces, and beautiful skies over the New Mexico desert, Gilligan and Co. do a brilliant, visually stunning job of incorporating the passage of time into their story. I'm thinking particularly of the shots of the RV, yellow smoke streaming from the roof-vents as Walt and Jesse (or Jesse and Badger!) cook, while around it, in sequences that are viewed in merely seconds, the sky changes, sun sets and rises, clouds stream by, the scrub and prairie grasses are blown about by the winds, and shadows flow, grow, ebb, and grow again as 24 or more hours of film (or more likely digital recordings) are run up to a high speed, turning the accomplishments of many hours into a moment. (My apologies to Shakespeare, but if you're gonna steal, steal from the masters!). Just beautiful stuff!

Perhaps the shot I most associate with Breaking Bad however, is the up-and-through-from-under angle. I'm sure there's a technical name for this shot, but I don't know it - yet. What I'm talking about are those wonderful angles where we get a bottom-up view of the action, usually seeing "through" a solid surface.: as Jesse tosses Emilio's body into the tub and splashes hydrofluoric acid over it while bemoaning his situation in a hilarious soliloquy, in the cold open of "...And the Bag's in the River," when we see this weird reddish stuff covering the screen, which is revealed to be the partially liquefied remains of Emilio as Walt swipes an arc through the mess, allowing us to look up at him on hands and knees in a filtered breath mask as he cleans up the sludge that was once a human being. You'll see this shot used judiciously again and again throughout the series, and it never fails to grab the attention.

Gilligan and Co. also do some really wonderful, subtle work with parallel shots in Season 1. Consider Walt waking up on the bathroom floor after the credits for "The Cat's in the Bag..." The scene opens with a view of Walt, eyes closed, his face pressed against a hard surface, and the shot angled vertically (the top of Walt's head at the top of the screen rather than to the side). He wakes, startled, rises up as we reorient to realize that he was laying on the floor after all, and wipes his mouth where he has drooled in his sleep. This same shot and waking sequence is repeated in the next episode "...And the Bag's in the River" when Walt regains consciousness in Jesse's basement after passing out during a coughing fit as he brings lunch to the chained Crazy 8. This parallelism is a brilliant connecting conjunction in Walt's life, showing us that no matter what's going on, what acts and situations Walt goes through, it's all being done/experienced by the same, all too human guy, who drools in his sleep.

Okay, I think I'll wrap this up now, though I had intended to go into some more stuff, particularly the early set up of Hank Schrader's character as the series' really good guy, the wonderful married-couple chemistry between Bryan Cranston (Walt) and Anna Gunn (Skylar), and what the hell a javelina is, but this post has gone on long enough I think. In any event, Season 1 is re-watched and many notes taken, so now it's on to Season 2, where things get even better!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Book O' the Fortnight: Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors

Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors
 by Jennifer K. Stuller
Regular readers will recognize the author of the current Book O' the Fortnight from previous mentions here in connection with Slayage and Geek Girl Con, and it is well known that she's one of my favorite people. I met Jennifer K. Stuller at Slayage 4 in St. Augustine, where she gave an incredible presentation on pop culture influences on Joss Whedon's works. At the same conference, we bought her book Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology, which she was kind enough to inscribe for Dale and me. I'm kind of ashamed to say that it took me until late last year to sit down and read it cover-to-cover. Don't get me wrong, her book wasn't sitting idle. I dipped into it regularly, reading a chapter here, skimming a section there, diving from index to mid-chapter to see what she had to say about a particular interest here and there, but I just hadn't settled in for the entire journey.

I'm glad I finally did!

Stuller self-identifies as a pop culture historian, and Ink-Stained Amazons  shows the truth of that claim. Her research and methodology are impeccable, and she presents her findings in a narrative that is both fascinating and fun, using a wide ranging, multi-disciplinary approach that sets her work firmly within the changing historical context of the past century or so. More, her writing is immediately accessible, and thoroughly enjoyable. She begins by briefly outlining her focus, being female characters in popular culture which meet at least two of four criteria: 1.) a narrative that "borrows from, or resonates with, classical themes and/or elements of world mythology," 2.) has "an element of the fantastic," 3.) "a uniquely identifiable skill or power," 4.) and "a mission or purpose that benefits the greater good." These criteria set, she then gives the reader an excellent historical overview of female superheroes from William M. Marston's Wonder Woman to Dark Angel's Max Guevara, covering kick-ass female heroes in comic books, comic strips, books, movies, and TV along the way. Importantly, Stuller places the development of these figures within the larger socio-cultural context of (particularly) American culture and the emergence, growth, and change of the feminist movement.

Stuller is also unflinching in her analysis of the successes and failures of both the larger culture and the feminist movement's various "waves." She maintains an admirably clear and unbiased historical lens throughout (which trust me, Readers Mine, is an incredibly difficult thing to do when writing about a subject  that one is passionate about!). From classic historical narrative, Stuller moves in the second section of her book to the mythological and cultural underpinnings and story-structures of female superheroes, combining history, feminist criticism, Jungian archetypes, Campbellian comparative mythology, and fan-love into a powerful in-depth analysis of the successes an failings of specific characters and narratives, from The Avengers to Modesty Blaise, to Xena the Warrior Princess, Charlie's Angels, Buffy the Vampire Slayer,  Birds of Prey, Wonder Woman, and Dark Angel to name just a few. She examines the strange lack of female to female mentoring, positive maternal figures, and realistic female relationships in popular culture, as well as pointing out where such stories have appeared.

With some of the problems and potentialities of fdemale superhero narratives outlines, Stuller concludes with a look at the women who are creating the modern crop of female superheroes. From actors like Nichelle Nichols, Whoopi Goldberg, Lucy Lawless, Lynda Carter, Sarah Michelle Gellar, among others, all of who take their positions as potential role models very seriously, to writer/blogger/activists like Mary Borsellino, Gail Simone, Trina Robbins, and Angela Robinson, who are on the front lines of creating today's female superheros and working against old tropes and entrenched male-centric storytelling, Stuller gives the reader an inside look on the still growing, still evolving history of the female superhero who today is more and more often being brought to life by women.

Stuller's final chapter asks the question "Where do we go from here?" Which she answers with an unflinching "foreward!" In spite of failures, in spite of resistance, in spite of steps forward being accompanied by steps back, the next step is to continue, that each of us, whatever sex, whatever gender, may find in these modern myths the stories that inspire us, and that, in Jennifer K. Stuller's own words, enable us to  find "heroes to relate to, and ways to live heroically."

It is a remarkable, fun, moving and inspiring book, one that I'm glad is on my shelf, and who's author I am so very proud to call a friend. Go buy it.

Monday, January 9, 2012

To Work! The Breaking Bad Re-Watch Begins!

Well, Readers Mine, the hard work on Wanna Cook? The Unofficial Guide to Breaking Bad begins tonight in the form of an episode-by-episode rewatch with pen and pad in hand to take notes which will (hopefully) evolve into pieces of the book. I’ve made my notes on tonight’s episode, and thought I’d share some quick thoughts about it here as an update. So…


 Episode 1.01 – “The Cat’s in the Bag…”

Which is best summed up by Walt’s half-whispered “Oh shit,” when Crazy 8 wakes up in the back of the RV.

This episode is notable for the first appearance of several recurring shots and places in the series. The camera shot up “through” the bottom of the tub as Jesse tries to get rid of Emilio’s body is just a lovely camera angle, and we’ll be seeing this one fairly regularly throughout the series, to the point where it becomes something of a trademark piece of camera-work for the show. I love the ceiling-down shot of the flipping quarter above a blurred-out Walt and Jesse as well. Gilligan and Co. quickly became masters of using beautifully filmed, unusual camera angles to underscore important moments in the show.

We also see the first incarnation of Jesse’s house, still decorated and furnished in the style of his aunt. As the series progresses, the house will become another character on the show, evolving right along with Jesse and serving as a vehicle for the external manifestations of his mental and emotional states. Jesse will always try to come home to this place, no matter what.

As far as the storyline goes, things are beginning to get deeper and deeper for Walt in this episode, as Crazy 8’s survival moves him well beyond the realm of justifiable homicide in self-defense into considerations of pre-meditated murder. Jesse too is in over his head with a dead body, a guy chained up in his basement, and Skylar showing up to lecture him for something he hasn’t done on top of everything else!

It is here that Breaking Bad brilliantly reveals its intrinsic humor – twisted though it may be. Jesse’s various struggles with Emilio’s corpse are some of the finest moments of pitch-black comedy in the history of television, and I admit to laughing out loud several times: as Jesse “tries on” the plastic bin while in the hardware superstore to see if a body will fit in it; during his entire monologue as he’s dousing the body with hydrofluoric acid (“Yeah, and how’s about I send over my psycho-bitch wife to break your balls and threaten you? God, that’d be hilarious.”); and of course, the wonderful moment when the grisly, acid-washed body-goo drops from the ceiling and all over Jesse’s hall-floor below. The expressions on Jesse and Walt’s faces are priceless! Somehow I doubt the Three Stooges being on in the background is at all coincidental, and what a perfect way to underscore the fact that these two guys are completely out of their depth and therefore doomed to screw things up. The humor is what makes the show bearable, especially in later episodes and seasons. Without it, it would just be too dark to stand.

Okay, so we’re off and running. Stay tuned for further updates as we progress through the show, and though I can’t promise to post about every episode as we go, I do promise to keep Solomon Mao’s updated regularly, and you can find me on the interwebs by name on Google+, and as @EnsleyFGuffey on Twitter. Be sure and look for Dale there too as @KDaleKoontz, and follow our updates at #WannaCook.

Until next time – be well.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Breaking Bad Book Deal!!

Well, Readers Mine, we've been keeping it under wraps until we had actually signed the contract, but as of 3 January. K. Dale Koontz and I are officially writing Wanna Cook? The Unofficial Guide to Breaking Bad for ECW Press!

I've been a fan of the show since I first saw a pair of khaki's floating down out of a pure blue New Mexico desert sky in the cold open of the pilot episode. To be fair, I was watching said episode on DVD at the urging of the one and only David Lavery, but from then on I was hooked, and the show has -- incredibly -- just gotten better and better. The list of awards Breaking Bad has garnered would take up more space than you'd want to read here, but as an example consider that Bryan Cranston, who plays one of the central characters, Walter White, will be up for his fourth consecutive Emmy for his work on Breaking Bad, and if he wins, it will be the first four-peat in TV history.

The show is truly amazing. Cinematic, brutal, compelling, beautifully written, filmed, and acted, I have absolutely no hesitation in saying that it is, beyond a doubt, the finest show on TV. So you can see why I wanted to write about it. As part of this diabolical scheme, I hooked K. Dale Koontz on the Breaking Bad pipe with Season Four last year, and when the opportunity came to put in a book proposal, we got together and started cooking. Not-so-long-as-you-might-think-story-short, the book will be on the shelves in either early or mid-2013, depending on how AMC decides to air the final 16 episodes of the series.

Therefore, you can expect to be seeing a lot of material on Breaking Bad here in future. As a means of helping us keep our deadlines (as well as an exercise in "New Media Marketing"), Dale and I will be posting regular updates on the book's progress. You can find and follow me on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey, as well as on Facebook, and Google+ as Ensley F. Guffey. In addition, of course, I'll be posting updates here at Solomon Mao's, both in main posts and in a new sidebar section to the right called "Wanna Cook? Updates" (I am nothing if not original.) You can also follow along over on Dale's blog and you can follow her on Twitter @KDaleKoontz. We'll be posting under the hashtags #wannacook and #breakingbad.

The first major deadline for the book is June 15, when we have to turn in a draft covering the first 4 seasons, and then we'll be rewriting that section as Season Five is airing, after which we bust our butts to get the final section covering S5 in. We'll be breaking things down into smaller chunks with self-imposed deadlines as we go, and I'l be sure to keep Solomon Mao's updated, one way or another. So wish us luck and go ahead and stash $20 somewhere, because you know you'll want to buy the book!