Monday, February 25, 2013

Meth Monday #20: Local Color

Hello Readers Mine and welcome again to Meth Monday!

Breaking Bad is high quality, ground-breaking television in many ways: cinematic filming style, subject matter, protagonists, and devotion to change just to name a few. Today, though, I'd like to talk about an aspect that is so central to the show that Breaking Bad just wouldn't be Breaking Bad without it: local color.

Basically, local color is the use of real-world locations as integral parts of a show, and in Breaking Bad that means New Mexico, and most particularly, the city of Albuquerque. Indeed, ABQ is so important to the show as to constitute another character in the ensemble, as are the desert spaces surrounding the city. The series is filmed entirely in Albuquerque and New Mexico, a choice which would normally be prohibitively expensive for TV, but which was made possible by a film incentive passed by the New Mexican state government which offers film and television producers a 25% refundable tax credit on their qualified expenses. The New Mexico Film Office even put together a very slick website to attract both producers and tourists to the state. In a 2011 interview with's Sam Adams Breaking Bad creator and showrunner Vince Gilligan made it clear that without that incentive, it would likely have been financially impossible to shoot the show in New Mexico:
"We are pretty close to the bone as it is, apparently as any TV show is. We take the money Sony Television and the AMC network give us to produce our show and we spend every last dollar of it—put every last dollar of it we presumably can on the screen and sometimes we run short and an incentive helps us to make the show and produce the show."
 For the viewer this translates into a level of realism that no amount of genius set construction or CGI could provide. On Breaking Bad, when the scene you are watching takes place outside of a place it is actually taking place outside and in a real place. The level of veracity the ability to shoot on location gives the show is tremendous, and helps to draw the audience even further into the storyline. In the real world, it has also enabled some good old American entrepreneurial capitalists to set up Breaking Bad tours in Albuquerque.

The show's use of local color has also led to the creation of one of the most impressive fan projects for a show that I have ever seen. Flickr user WallDruggie (aka Nancy) a resident of ABQ, has been tracking down the locations used in Breaking Bad since 2010, and photographing them for an ever-growing set of Breaking Bad Locations in Albuquerque on flickr which you can browse through for free. WallDruggie gives the physical location for each photograph, as well as the episode title it was used in and what happened there. It's really an astounding piece of work, and you should check it out.

Albuquerque will likely remain a central character as Breaking Bad hurtles to its conclusion this summer, with Walt, Jesse, Hank, Skyler, Marie, and everyone else moving through and within Duke City as things finally come to a head for them all. Fictions that lean on local color, that make their worlds real by means of the real world, can be powerful creations, and Breaking Bad  is one of the most profound examples of that power. Thanks, New Mexico!

Tune in next week, Readers Mine, for another "Meth Monday," and in the meantime, don't forget to head over to Dale's blog this week for a new "Walter White Wednesday", and for the latest in Breaking Bad news, reviews, and awards, as well as updates on our forthcoming book Wanna Cook? The Unofficial Companion Guide to Breaking Bad, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+. Until then, keep cookin'!

Friday, February 22, 2013

Solomon's Discs: Cross of Iron (1977)

Hello, Readers Mine!

Well, the grad. school tradition of DVD's over live TV continues, as does my self-directed study of war films. This week, I watched Cross of Iron, by the late, great Sam Peckinpah (aka, the guy Quentin Tarantino has been trying - and failing - to be for his entire career.)

James Coburn as Unteroffizer Feldwebel Rolf Steiner in Cross of Iron
Cross of Iron was Peckinpah's anti-penultimate film, and the only war film that he ever made. Peckinpah is best known for his work in the western genre with such classics as Ride the High Country (1962), The Wild Bunch (1969), and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), and for his sometimes hyper-realistic portrayals of violence. During filming for The Wild Bunch he famously rejected the Warner Brothers gunfire sound effects, which had remained unchanged since the 1930s, and demanded that new effects be recorded using each type of weapon which would appear in the in the film, thus bringing a level of realism to the screen that had never been seen before. Peckinpah's obsession with realism continued with Cross of Iron, which was largely filmed in Yugoslavia because the Yougoslav army had preserved a multitude of World War II era weapons, including Soviet T-34 tanks, specifically for use in films. The German and Soviet uniforms, weapons, vehicles and tanks are all period-accurate, something that was particularly rare at the time (for example, see Patton (1970), where Rommel's 1942 Afrika Korps is using M-47 and M-48 "Patton" tanks, which were not produced until 1951, and were, you know, American tanks).

Interestingly enough, despite the almost continual skirmishes, attacks, counterattacks, shelling, etc that occurs throughout the film, the story has very little to do with the war, and is instead an examination of class. Sargent Rolf Steiner (James Coburn) is a soldier's soldier, the quintessential and mythologized NCO who survives whatever gets thrown at him, keeps his platoon alive, and is only fully alive when he's at war. His nemesis is Captain Stransky (Maximilian Schell), a member of the Prussian officer-aristocracy, who has transferred from a cushy, safe post in southern France to the Russian Front in late 1943, where the Red Army was steadily throwing the Wehrmacht out of the Taman Peninsula. Stransky wants to win the Iron Cross, a medal for bravery highly prized by the Prussian aristocracy, but seen as so just so much metal by fighting men like Steiner and his regimental commander, Colonel Brant (who, in the finest tradition of WWII films, is played by the very British James Mason). Despite his overweening pride in his ancestry, Stransky turns out to be a miserable failure as a line officer, and so blackmails his homosexual adjutant into signing a false statement qualifying him for the Iron Cross, and also puts Steiner's name on the necessary forms. Steiner, proletarian to his core but well educated, and possessing a command of poetry and philosophy, refuses to corroborate Steiner's story.

In the mist of almost daily death and danger, Stransky plays out his petty game, because he cannot face his family if he returns form the war without the Iron Cross. Stransky believes that after the war things will go back to the way they have always been, with the aristocracy at the top of the socio-political heap and everyone else below. Steiner knows that the war has blasted all of that apart for good, and his opinion of the upper class both within and without the army is summed up in the line "I hate all officers." Cross of Iron is an astonishing film, and as with all of Peckinpah's work, asks probing questions about the nature of manhood and masculinity. Steiner, the hard-working, hard-fighting proletarian is full of all of the many virtues, from bravery to strength to sexual prowess to manly love for the men under his care. Steiner is cold, manipulative, self-centered, and obsessed with appearances above all. Peckinpah gives the viewer a powerful, if broadly drawn psychodrama, and reveals the class structure not just of the Wehrmacht  but of all armies, particularly during World War II, when the separation and distinction between officers and enlisted men was rigidly maintained even by the American "citizen-soldier" Army. Coburn delivers an incredible performance as Steiner, and is one of the Great Sergeants of war films, right up there with Lee Marvin, John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and Audie Murphy.

Cross of Iron was sited by Tarantino as his inspiration for The Inglourious Basterds (2009), and although the film did porly upon its release in 1977, Cross of Iron's reputation has been on the rise for the past decade or so. The film's portrayal of combat is highly realistic, especially for the time, with battle scenes that are desperate, confused, frantic, and bloody. It's not for everyone, but for anyone interested in the war film genre, Cross of Iron is a must see.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Meth Monday #19: "Say My Name" by Shimon Lerner

Hello, Readers Mine, and welcome to another installment of "Meth Monday." This week I'm excited to hand the keyboard off to Solomon Mao's first ever guest poster, Mr. Shimon Lerner. Beyond his addiction to Breaking Bad, Mr. Lerner is also a long time  fan of Joss Whedon, and he arraigned and hosted the live-tweet of Chosen, Part II for The Great Buffy Rewatch of 2011. Mr. Lerner is currently completing his Ph.D. in Applied Physics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. An observant Orthodox Jew who never neglects to read his daily page of the Talmud, Mr. Learner and his wife live in Jersualem where they bravely attempt to play Watchers to their own little Scooby Gang of four children. Shimon tells me that his passion for science matches that of Walter White, but that the comparison between the two ends there. For which we should all be very thankful. 

Say My Name
Shimon Lerner

I wanted to contribute some quick thoughts on a relatively small (perhaps even inconsequential) detail, which serves to demonstrate some of the sheer brilliance of the writing team behind Breaking Bad.

When Walter White chooses a nickname for his evil alter-ego, his instinctive, (on the spot?) choice, is the name of the famous German physicist Werner 'Heisenberg': 

This seemingly arbitrary choice goes on to take on a life of its own as the revered, perplexing, even fear inspiring 'Heisenberg'.
I want to discuss here why indeed this choice of name is no coincidence as it operates on multiple levels.

In my analysis here I shall deal with how it works on (at least) four different levels.

 * I'm not even touching Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle which can be both properly and improperly twisted in so many different ways it can be practically tied to almost anything.

** These four levels may (or may not), correspond with the four levels of reading literature (as described among others by Dante): literal, allegorical, moral and mythic. Whether or not precise, this categorization will nonetheless be loosely applied here for convenience purposes.

1) Literal – I'm using this category not for the literal meaning of the word but for its phonetic purpose and properties. While 'Walter' is quite close to 'Werner' the half that Walt actually chooses is quite the opposite. As opposed to a bland, non-distinct, vanilla 'white', Heisenberg has a very German, 'Isengard'-like, menacing sound to it.

2) Allegorical – The second level refers to the immediately obvious association:  Science. Heisenberg is of course the famous Nobel Prize winning physicist, one of the pioneers in the development of Quantum Mechanics. This is indeed an apt choice for Walter White the chemist, as the principles behind modern chemistry are rooted in Quantum Mechanics.

3) Moral – This level relates to the strong thematic connection between the stories of Walter White and Werner Heisenberg. The central theme in both cases is "Moral Ambiguity". The great enigma regarding Werner Heisenberg's life involves his work for the Nazis during WWII in their attempts to develop an Atomic bomb. (If you're interested in Werner Heisenberg's activities for the Nazis, I recommend Heisenberg and the Nazi Atomic Bomb Project by Paul Lawrence Rose) Was he working out of loyalty to the German nation? Was he just trying to protect his family? Or was he delicately trying to sabotage the German efforts from the inside?
Was he doing the wrong thing for the right reasons? Or maybe, the wrong thing for the wrong reasons? Perhaps a weak case can even be made, that he was doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. The parallel to Walt (including the post fact self justification) is painfully apt.

4) Mythic – The final level is a meta – level which actually beautifully connects with the previous three. The common denominator linking the Morally Ambiguous – German - Scientist is the scientific work he was doing on the German BOMB.
You're a time bomb tick-tick-ticking" are Mike's hauntingly precise, words to Walter:

In fact in that very first scene (above) after choosing the name Heisenberg, his first action is to immediately detonate a bomb. Whether or not he wanted to, whether or not he was successful, whether or not he was doing the right thing, 'Heisenberg' and 'the Bomb' are intimately interconnected.

I don’t presume that all of these inferences were conscious choices on the part of the writers. Nevertheless, this stands as a prime example of the painstaking attention to detail, that so pervades almost every aspect of the show.

So, if you ever need to show someone in just one word, how brilliant this show really is, just "Say his Name".

Monday, February 4, 2013

Meth Monday #18: "Box Cutter" (4.01)

Hello Readers Mine, and welcome to another edition of Meth Monday. This week I'll be looking at the opening episode of Season 4, "Box Cutter," where Gus delivers a very pointed message to Walt and Jesse.

As I was working on the guide to this episode for Wanna Cook? The Unofficial Companion Guide to Breaking Bad yesterday, I realized that what strikes me most about the entire thing, and that still has the power to send shivers down my spine, is Giancarlo Esposito's incredible stillness and silence as Gus goes about slaughtering Victor. From the moment he enters the lab where Mike and Victor have Walt and Jesse under guard, Gus says nothing. He finds Gale's box cutter (which we saw int he cold open before the credits and then calmly, meticulously changes his clothes for one of the orange hazmat suits Jesse and Walt cook in.

Walt, of course, is babbling on with increasing desperation, justifying his actions, up to and including telling Gus that he would shoot Gale again in similar circumstances, and utterly ignoring the fact that he didn't shoot Gale to begin with. Gus says nothing, Mike is looking progressively nervous, Jesse seems to still be stunned by his actions at the end of Season 3, and Victor is playing cock-of-the-walk, following Walt's recipe for the cook without any difficulty, proving that Walt may not be as vital a part of Gus' kingdom as he thinks he is.

And then all hell breaks loose. Without flinching, without any real emotional expression at all, calmly, matter of factly, and above all silently and perfectly controlled, Gus cuts Victor's throat. More than that, he holds him up and pulls back his head to that his blood will splatter Walt and Jesse, and so that they can see what he is doing - what he is willing to do. Victor was a long time, highly valued, trusted member of Gus's organization. But he screwed up and let himself be seen at the scene of Gale's murder, and thereby has possibly left a trail straight back to Gus. That can't be allowed. So, despite Victor's position, Gus' trust in him, Mike's reliance in him, and even Victor's ability to duplicate Walt's cook, Gus kills him.

The point is that Gus is willing to do anything, sacrifice anyone to achieve his goals and protect his business. Without saying a single word, Gus demonstrates to Walt and Jesse both that they are only momentarily useful, and that he will not hesitate to do to them what he has just done to Victor. Indeed, he'll probably do it even more easily - after all, Walt and Jesse are many things, but they're not anywhere near the trusted employee Victor was. Then, silently, carefully, meticulously, Gus removes the hazmat suit, washes his face and glasses, and very carefully put his shirt, tie, and coat back on. Walt, Jesse, and Mike are too damn stunned to move, and, finally, as he is about to leave, Gus pauses on the catwalk above the three men below and says the only line he has in the entire episode: "Well? Get back to work."

Brilliant. Terrifying. And more menacing than any amount of red-faced screaming of threats could ever be. Gus silence is terrible, and his will is a palpable force in the room. Just an astonishingly good sequence, and made even more so by the fact that it takes place over 28 minutes into the episode, when the viewer is already squirming in anticipation of what's gonna happen to Walt and Jesse.

God I love this show!

Friday, February 1, 2013

Solomon's Discs: Sherlock

Hello, Readers Mine, I hope this finds all of you hale and hearty.

For some time now I've been hearing good things about the BBC TV series Sherlock, a modern day revisioning of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's great consulting detective. So a couple of months ago I put the first disc of Season 1 (or Series 1 as the Brits term such things) on my Netflix queue, and it showed up in the mail last week. I should probably disclose that, while not a Holmes fanatic, I do tend to take out one of my three copies of The Complete Sherlock Holmes every few years and read it cover to cover. I have always been able to find something new to delight me in every reading, and as I grow older more and more is revealed in the text. So, not a fanatic, but definitely familiar, and maybe even well versed in things Holmesian. To this point I have generally held a low opinion of the various attempts throughout the years to revamp Holmes, with the huge exception of the Basil Rathbone films, even the ones set during World War II, because Rathbone was the only actor who really got Sherlock Holmes right, and he got him so right that the character transcended any flubs with the mythology. Rathbone is the only one who's ever been able to pull that off.

Until now.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson.
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes, and Martin Freeman as Watson, and created by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, Sherlock gets it right - at last! The cast and crew manage to bring Sherlock Holmes firmly and fully into the 21st century while maintaining the heart and soul of Doyle's characters and the atmosphere of his stories. In part, this is done by the reliance on local color, and the city of London is quickly revealed to be the third major character. It is Cumberbatch and Freeman, though who must carry the weight of the show, and they make it look effortless.

Cumberbatch's tall, gangling frame and long, hollow-cheeked face instantly recall the deceptively ascetic-looking Holmes of Doyle's stories, and Cumberbatch's ability to be absolutely still while expressing furious mental activity with minuscule movements of his eyes and facial muscles is matched only by his absolutely frenetic physicality when Holmes leaps into action after his period of cogitation. His Holmes is brilliant, arrogant, abrasive, and and self-proclaimed "high-functioning sociopath." He is also a terribly lonely man, who is both astonished and delighted to find, at last, a faithful friend.

Freeman (who also landed the role of Bilbo Baggins in 2012's The Hobbit) may well be the first time Dr. Watson has ever been done properly (I disliked Nigel Bruce's Watson just as much as I adored Rathbone's Holmes). A Afghan War vet, and British Army doctor who is discharged after being wounded in the field, this is the Watson from Doyle's stories: steady, an excellent physician with nerves of steel, a deep reservoir of courage, friendship, and loyalty to Holmes, while never sacrificing his own self-concept. This Watson accepts Holmes for what he is and delights in his friend's abilities and in accompanying him on his adventures, no matter how ridiculous they might seem on the face of it. Occasionally irritable, Freeman's Watson is never jealous.

The friendship between the two men is quintessentially British, acknowledged not by hugs or discussions of feelings, but a very restrained warmth and wit as the two men go about their daily routine. The cast and crew  keep the the Holmes mythology intact, including the sometimes dark humor of Doyle's stories, but also manage to update  things a bit and even to comment on the body of literary criticism determined to see a homosexual relationship between the two men, as in the first episode where, much to Watson's frustration, person after person assume the two are lovers - though everyone is also very supportive of that possibility. 

Long story short, I've added the rest of the available discs to my queue, and can't wait to catch up on the series and to DVR Season 3 in March on BBC America. This is the Golden Age of television, Readers Mine, and I'm willing to put Sherlock right on up there with the shows that are making that gold. You should watch it.