Death of a Pale Man

The Death of a Pale Man
By Robert D. Schultz
2/4/2014

When word spread on Super Bowl Sunday that Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of the world’s most treasured and respected actors, died in his home with a needle in his arm, the predictable avalanche of sorrow, anger, disbelief and loss filled the forever empty void that is the world of gossip and social media. For a day or so, the vapidity of these things collided with something real, something momentous, something important that needed no ginning up. As with any Event, and Hoffman’s death instantly became just that, we all quickly settled on a hashtag to organize our collective thoughts (or #takes as it were) and soon thereafter we all quite uniformly agreed that we had lost a man who possessed an otherworldly ability that has indeed resonated with a great many of us. Of course the kooks who live in the alcove of the Internet where conspiracy theories abide blamed the Illuminati for committing a bloody sacrifice of one of its members who had fallen out of favor, and the moralists wagged their self-righteous fingers in our faces, callously admonishing a man in mortem about the consequences of his actions and the inherent egotism of his irresponsible final act. But that’s the price of doing business when you traffic in any sort of fame. Actors speak of the process. This was a process.

And it all felt so perfunctory, so rote, so soulless. Scripted in the most banal and macabre way. And it was. And it still is.

There is so much about a tragedy of this sort that maddens those of us who watched and admired a man with such spectacular talent from a distance. We think of the all of the great things he’ll never get to share with us. We vaguely attempt to form an emotional connection in our minds with the people who knew him and loved him; after all, we’ve all experienced some sort of loss and we know his children and his partner have to be feeling those awful things we have known in the past so intensely at this moment.

Then we realize how little we ever knew of the man, despite the hours and hours we spent watching him not just perform a company of odd but eminently intriguing characters, but embody them. With even a cursory reflection we find that he taught us a little about some people who live in this world that we’re only vaguely aware of(sometimes the very strange ones, frequently also the very sad ones too); and as trite as it sounds, through these people that he so expertly conjured he maybe even showed us a thing or two about ourselves. And it’s all so predictable. How to talk about the death of this pale man.

And that might be the part of this tragedy that weighs on me perhaps a little too much. That a man capable of the greatest gift an artist can possess, the ability to make the audience question, question herself, her surroundings, her place in universe, to make the audience at once in awe and afraid…that that man can be relegated to little more than a series of routine expositions about addiction and about the tired trope of the tortured artist, about what he meant in 140 characters or less; all of that is what makes Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death so achingly sad. Such is the insidiousness of his disease and his manner of exit. It takes everything with such uniform predictability. It’s all the same. Even for someone so spectacularly different.

Wolf of Wall Street Review

Wolf of Wall Street Review: Howling at the Goons
By Robert D. Schultz
1/31/3014

Ever since Martin Scorcese became so much more than an auteur, once defined by his place among is peers and where he fit in his age of filmmaking, he has become something of an icon himself, an artist relied upon to produce greatness. The little man with the thick eyebrows and the thicker glasses has frequently trafficked in degradation and violence with such honesty and ferocity, that these things became less of a calling card and more a part of his very identity as an artist. For the vast majority of the square community, us 9-to-5ers, the shnooks Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill sneeringly admits to becoming one of as Scorcese’s masterpiece Goodfellas concludes, we never come across Mafiosi, thugs, bookies, gangsters, pimps and criminals in our everyday lives, and we likely never will. It’s Scorcese who provides our only entre into that universe. That the hoodlums he depicts largely view his films with the same reverence as the rest of us is powerful evidence that the man has an otherworldly talent for telling a certain kind of story.

On paper, The Wolf of Wall Street is a return to that sweet spot for Scorcese. In the vein of Casino, Gangs of New York and Goodfellas, Wolf is a sprawling period piece about a specific time and place where vice and outright thievery weren’t only a way of life, they were virtues among their practitioners. What is different however is that the story’s protagonist, Jordan Belfort, doesn’t ply his brand of larceny with the blue-collar brutishness of most of Scorcese’s more inconic psychopaths (Pesci in Goodfellas and Casino, DeNiro in Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, Keitel in Mean Streets). When we meet Belfort, he’s not learning to become a villain, but rather, he’s a fully-formed receptacle of greed and avarice, hungry to latch onto any outfit that will hone and sharpen his desires in to weapons; all that he needs is for someone him the ropes of the game. Instead of .357 magnums, these characters wield IPOs. Sometimes roles are made for actors and vice versa, but in Wolf‘s perhaps best scene, Matthew McConaughey performs an exquisitely sociopathic tribal mantra that sends young Jordan on his way. Sure McConaughey is swallowed up by the impending stock market crash of ’87, but he is Jordan’s spirit animal, his lurking pulse, beating to only to take.

It’s an auspicious and fun beginning to a rather grim tale, but from there, Wolf is little more than a two and a half hour Ferrari ride through criminality so sexed up and debauched that it would make Caligula blush in his little boots. As Belfort takes over a pump-and-dump penny stock outfit called Stratton Oakmont in Long Island he uses a carefully crafted script to convince uneducated, elderly and perhaps greedy people to use their money to artificially inflate the values of stocks already cheaply held by Belfort and his accomplices, only to sell off the stock before its inevitable crash. The stories in the film are apparently so close to the real McCoy that many former Strattonites have since given their blessing as to their veracity.

It sounds like a lot of sinister fun and at times, it is. However, where Goodfellas succeeded in at least partially humanizing its protagonist and depicting the rise and the fall and the hubris and hamartia of Hill, Wolf is little more than a pale imitation. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still Marty and he still shoots his movie using the innovations that made him a legend. However, it’s far enough out of his strike zone to undermine the entire effort. The “needledrop” method of scoring the picture (think “Then He Kissed Me” in that Goodfellas scene where Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco enter the Cotton Club through the back door) is clunky and feels forced where ‘classics’ from the 90′s are used to set the mood. Where Scorcese masterfully used those fifties classics, Harry Nilsson and Rolling Stones masterpieces from Exile on Main Street in his previous films, he settles on songs like “Hip Hop Hooray” and an oddly placed “Everlong” by the Foo Fighters. Of course Marty was alive during the 90s, but his understanding of the era’s music pales in comparison to the vice grip of understanding he possesses regarding the music of the 50s, 60s and 70s.

The acting performances are fine enough, but as a viewer pulling for Marty to be Marty, there’s no shortage of subconscious convincing, hoping, going on that Wolf measures up. Jonah Hill plays a spot on smarmy, public masturbating sidekick, and DiCaprio, much to his credit clearly channeled some of his late 90s/ early 2000s pussy posse self to channel the worst parts of Belfort’s id. Never one to even take one movie to simply cash in, DiCaprio again has sought to go for Hollywood’s ultimate prize. He won’t get it for this, but his career choices are nothing short of admirable. The rest of the cast perform admirably for their diminutive hero behind the lens. But, I never shook the feeling that too much was missing for this film to justify it’s considerable hype, and no astronomical sum of f-words (506 to be exact) ever made me feel as if Belfort’s tale deserved such credible work from such incandescent talents.

The performances and the script and the clunkiness of the score ignore the central problem that lies within Wolf. The fundamental problem with The Wolf of Wall Street is not that it suffers from lack of performance or storytelling, rather it fails because of its very impression of itself. Self-awareness is the mortal enemy to great art, unless of course the art is critiquing that very thing. That’s not what’s happening here. In Wolf, it appears that Scorcese really enjoyed shooting these lush scenes of degradation and debauchery so much so that he just kept doing them, with a scant eye toward tempo or pace. More than a few times, I got the sense that Marty was living out his own fantasies or flashbacks of drug-induced depravity, reminding himself of all the fun he had on the powder and the pills in his day, more than truly exploring the runaway ids of these sociopathic financial crooks, exploration that was vital to sustain a 180 minute jaunt.

It’s hardly a spoiler to tell you that by the end, all of the greed and embezzlement and pain that these horrible people have wrought on themselves and the people unfortunate enough to be in their orbit leads to a great fall. Despite the awfulness of their crimes however, all that these people seem to lose is their temporary freedom as well as their ill-gotten fortunes and expensive things, but really, little else. Scorcese claims that he never judges his characters, and in many cases I believe that is true and to his credit for doing so. In Wolf however, its hard to take Marty seriously when he gratuitously inserts Belfort into a cameo where he, I shit you not, espouses the virtues of the newly reformed, amazing motivational speaker Jordan Belfort who is about to blow the audience’s mind with his instructions about how to sell stuff to dumb people.

It’s shameless and it’s unneeded and it obliterates any credibility that this glorified NSFW Panama City Spring Break Video of a movie had in the first place. This movie isn’t about transformation or evolution, Belfort arrives to the audience a scoundrel. It’s not about holding a mirror up to a corrupt industry. We never see the face or hear the story of even one victim in three hours. And it’s certainly not a cautionary tale. Even a cursory investigation into Belfort’s life, coupled with the obvious fact that he was fortunate enough to have Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorcese make his bitchin’ life in the fast lane into a movie, shows that this is not a man who was properly punished for all of the horrible things he did to other people. He almost certainly regrets none of it. In the end, Wolf is just a thing. And not a very good one at that.

Art doesn’t always need to stand for something. It doesn’t need to have some broad, sweeping commentary about society, or the human condition or our need to save the orcas at Sea World. But in order to be worthy of reflection, art needs to provoke, to inspire a depth of analysis or understanding. In this film, the characters are so detestable, and their story is frankly so uninteresting, that without a hint of judgment about their behavior (again, a judgment Marty has always been loath to make), it all seems pointless and after awhile, aggravating. The provocation lies exclusively in the depiction of degradation, a quality far too shallow for the depths that this director and these actors are capable of achieving.

If you submerge your audience a foot beneath the muck at the beginning of your movie, does it really matter if we’re 50 feet deep by the end?

Speaking the Language of Felina

Speaking the Language of “Felina”
October 30, 2013
By Robert Downs Schultz

By trade I’m a lawyer. I’m in the convincing business, and in large part, my professional success hinges on my ability to make people believe that my line of thinking is sound.

Yet I’ve always balked at applying whatever skills I may have honed as an intellectual combatant to hold sway over another person’s beliefs or perceptions about art. It’s one thing to argue the finer points of cases of res ipsa loquitor, it’s quite another to martial the powers of persuasion to prove that the Mona Lisa is smirking and not hiding a set of bad teeth, that she’s furtive because she’s been secretly shtupping one of Da Vinci’s apprentices standing right over his shoulder.

Our relationship with our art–the art that we need to decipher a world written hieroglyphics, to get a glimpse at who we are and who we’ve been, the art we need to help us peer inside our very own souls–it’s sacred. It doesn’t just feel undignified to attempt to change someone else’s mind about how they interpret or consume or viscerally experience their art, it feels entirely wrong.

I’m about to attempt to dive deep into the final episode of Breaking Bad, 75 minutes of what I consider to be the finest episode of the finest television show to ever grace the medium. My interpretation of Breaking Bad’s final act differs greatly from the accepted understanding of how and when Walter White finally reached his end. Reading this essay might very well feel like having a conversation about the beauty of the Pacific Northwest with someone claiming to have seen Sasquatch wandering the foothills of the Cascades.

I won’t try to convince you that I’m right about the way Breaking Bad ended, but I will defend by interpretation of the ending with evidence that I believe solves the show’s final riddle oh what happened to Walter White (and by extension, Jesse). It’s important to have an understanding of “Felina” that makes sense, but to me, the mind-blowing achievement that is “Felina” works because so nearly accomplishes the impossible: it satiates an audience willing to watch its content closely with the ending it desires. “Felina” achieves perfection something remarkable, it manages to confound and astonish even within the context of a show that never stopped pushing its boundaries. “Felina,” especially when watched in the context of the final eight episodes of Breaking Bad’s fifth season, and the final two episodes “Ozymandias” and “Granite State” in particular, will forever alter the way we think of the ending in serialized drama.

***

“Just get me home.” Walt’s frozen white breath barely reaches audibility. The once angry lines that so fiercely betrayed the villainous visage of Heisenberg are long gone. His monochromatic goatee has long-since been overrun with patches of grey, his beard now stretching down his neck and all over his face, obscuring the wasting that has ravaged Walter and left him so much a shell of his former self that his finger can no longer support the weight of a wedding ring. He sits in that Volvo absent of any more ingenious maneuvers, incapable of outrunning what awaits just beyond the security of his car doors.

Then Walt closes his eyes and from behind we see him ever so slightly slouch in his seat.
He’s about to die. He’s about to die very, very soon.

Moments later his eyes will be open again, with that familiar glint, his body pregnant with the verve that once stirred him to act with abandon. The red and blue police lights piercing through the snow will become ever-present, the men closing in will get their man at last. They’ll find Walt (or the great once-Heisenberg to them) dead or dying in that that Volvo, perhaps gut shot, or maybe just simply expired.

“Felina” doubtlessly ends with Walt’s death, but the cops won’t get to him before the synapses in his brain, running haywire as they fire out their final contemplations, afford Walt one more perfectly constructed gambol back through the land of enchantment, where his scores need settling.

One of the stranger critiques of this theory of “Felina” is how ‘un-Breaking Bad’ a dream sequence ending would be when considered in the context of the show’s other 61 episodes. While Vince Gilligan and his cohorts never trafficked in realism, one of the quintessential traits of Breaking Bad was its ability to continually confound and surprise its viewership. No more compelling evidence need be offered than the rollercoaster ride that was Season 5b.

Despite possessing a rabid-to-the-point-of-fanatical fan-base obsessed with every nuance and Easter Egg thrown their way, we never saw any of it coming. The showdown in the garage with Hank, the faux confessional DVD, Jesse’s catatonic to manic psychic shift, the tableside guac, it left us all with mouths agape every week. So a final episode told from the perspective of a hallucinating, dying Walter White, the bulk of which takes place only within our dying protagonist’s wishful, feverish mind, would be the last thing anyone would expect.

And it’s exactly what happened.

Regardless of the staunch resistance that has been shown to this interpretation of “Felina,” Gilligan offers no shortage of clues that Walter White’s journey indeed ends inside that Volvo. Unpacking everything leading up to that undeniably provident deus ex machina in the form of those car keys from-the-heavens (see sun visor) doesn’t suggest a man primed to go on one last score-settling sprint across the country. Rather, that first scene, especially when considered in conjunction with the desperate final scenes of “Granite State,” shows Walt come full-circle–far more the helpless cancer-stricken chemistry teacher than the death-dealing criminal impresario of blue methamphetamine Heisenberg.

Let’s compile what we know about Walt’s situation. It’s night-time, he’s been on the run from the New Hampshire state police on foot for at least a matter of hours. While the quality of law enforcement in the world of Breaking Bad has always been less than superlative, we know the fuzz are nonetheless very hot on his trail. Judging by the police response of that simple phone call placed in that strange empty bar where the only working TV toggles between Charlie Rose and a certain 1998 NCAA hockey game between Wisconsin and Denver (a game legendary for the improbable comeback achieved by Wisconsin), in the words of Hank, “the cavalry is coming.”

We don’t know where in New Hampshire Walt is, but we know it’s a place remote enough for America’s most famous and wanted fugitive to successfully hide out for a period of months (at least long enough to grow a whole head of hair). At most, where he finds himself at the beginning of “Felina” is only a day’s walk from his secluded cabin hideout, so it’s unlikely that Walt was able to stroll into Nashua or another one of New Hampshire’s bustling metropolises and simply disappear. He’s in the sticks, the local police, and by the end of the day the feds too, are hot on his tail.

For the Walt apologists or those who simply wish to believe the events of “Felina” are something more than a figment of Walt’s spiraling imagination, citing the long odds of success is hardly compelling evidence of impending doom. This is a man who evaded law enforcement for two years, death at the hands of myriad gangsters and psychopaths, and who also somehow managed to perfectly hurl an extra large pizza out of its box and onto his roof on his first try. To many, making the 2,000 plus mile journey out of a totally surrounded New Hampshire town to Albuquerque in the same stolen Volvo is a feat so simple in its complexity that Gilligan need not show us its particularities.

If that’s true however, then why linger so long in the front seat of that car. Gilligan has never wasted a frame of Breaking Bad’s screen time. Indeed, like Walt, Gilligan’s time is running preciously short. Each word, each breath, has to count.

So, by all means, watch those breaths.

As Walt fumbles around, shivering and frantic, he comes across that Marty Robbins cassette of the song “El Paso,” the one about Feleena, the one told from the perspective from an already dead narrator. A curious musical selection.

Walt then finds the screwdriver and tries in vain to jumpstart the car. Those blue and red lights that appeared soon after Walt found refuge in the car return as the utility of the screwdriver shifts from car-starting tool to potential weapon. Those lights that once flickered in the background now engulf his back window. A white light, possibly from that of a flashlight or a spotlight shines inside the car. The cops are so close you can even hear the sound of their radio signals. The law isn’t just happening by. They aren’t idly patrolling a road where Walt has managed to find his ride out of town. There will be no waiting them out.

No, they’re right outside his door.

That’s when Walt, the man of science, the man who has rejected help and salvation at every turn, prays to something to just get him home. For Walt, the end has never been so close. Sure the cancer was always there, but it never presented an imminent threat. And every time Walt had a gun pointed at his head, he always felt more than capable of outsmarting the man with his finger on the trigger.

But not this time.

Not now.

There’s only one way home and Walt know it. So he closes his eyes.

***

To believe that Walt somehow makes it out of that Volvo alive is to believe the rest of the events of “Felina” as they were presented, an undertaking that Bad’s creators have masterfully achieved. However, when broken down one at a time, the final “days” of Walter White are comprised of nothing more than the best-case-scenario dying dreams of a man who has had months alone in a cabin to contemplate his failings and what he might do to make them right, if only he had the chance. Once he imagines those keys falling into his lap, regardless of credulity, the finale exclusively breaks good, something that I would contend is even more un-Breaking Bad-like than a fever-dream conclusion to the show. Once those keys fall, those red and blue lights disappear, his grip on those keys and strong and confident, and he’s off.

When Walt places that phone call at the abandoned gas station in Canoncito, New Mexico, quite literally a ghost town, he has cooked up a plan whose precision exceeds even the best of what Mr. White’s imagination has heretofore managed to concoct. Walt’s world, even the one he created as Heisenberg, is limited in its scope. We know the people important to Walt, and by extension the people closely affiliated with Heisenberg, and their numbers are limited. It stands to reason that in the months Walt has been on the lam, law enforcement has cast something of a watchful eye over Walt’s narrow scope of connections, so it’s more than a little convenient that Walt so effortlessly tracks down Gretchen and Elliot, two people who could very generously be viewed as his rivals with ease (especially in consideration of their very public excoriation of their former colleague).

Of course, the jet-setting couple isn’t off in Prague or New York when Walt needs to get to them, they are conveniently returning within that very evening to their new mansion overlooking the Sangre de Christo Mountains. Gaining access to their house is a cinch for Walt who also spots a framed picture of himself with his former colleagues, evidently taken in much happier times. I suppose in the midst of their anti-Walt media blitz that included a $28 million donation to combat meth addiction and an appearance on Charlie Rose, scrubbing Walt’s image from their rather sparsely populated picture shelf of memories was something they just never got around to.

The success of his gambit is two-fold. He gets to finally launder the money intended for Junior and Holly and for good measure throw a mighty good scare into the yuppified ‘beautiful people’ who sewed those early seeds of resentment within Walt. He threatens them with swift and randomly timed deaths at the hands of two of Western America’s best hitmen, a fear that will doubtlessly stay with Gretchen and Elliot long after they’ve successfully done Walt’s bidding. It’s important to remember that for Walt to have any money at all assumes that he was able to double back to the cabin in New Hampshire teeming with law enforcement to scoop up the remaining barrel full of his $9.7 million.

If they only knew that Walt’s professional killers merely comprised two Albuquerque’s biggest losers, Badger (or was it Beaver…Walt never seemed to be able to remember), and Skinny Pete. It’s an unlikely reach in the first place that Walt would have thought to remember a method for tracking down two hangers-on like Badger and Skinny Pete, but to make this plan a success, the two would have had to agree to accompany Heisenberg, a wanted fugitive whom they had many reasons to fear, into the mountains of New Mexico, alone, and without payment, at ;east temporarily. Their present, but fungible grasp of morality of making two middle-aged members of the square community fear that they would be sniped in their own homes, is alleviated by those ‘fat stacks’ Skinny Pete was so fond of in that episode where Jesse spends Walt’s RV money at the strip club.

To Walt, these two, along with the deceased Combo, were always essentially the same person, drug-addled losers who Jesse hung out with. This scene perfectly aligns with this perception. They say essentially the same thing and offer only one piece of useful information, that Jesse is still cooking the blue. To the disbelievers of this theory of Walt’s end, this is evidence that Walt couldn’t have been dreaming, because he only learns of Jesse’s situation from Badger and Skinny Pete.
But he doesn’t.

Indeed, Walter asks where the blue meth is coming from, and Badger and Skinny Pete erroneously tell Walt they fully it was Walt who was back in the saddle, producing the blue. The fact that it is Jesse who is cooking the blue meth is not information that they possess, nor is it information they pass along to Walter. The correct assumption that it must be Jesse who is cooking come from Walt’s deductive reasoning. Nothing else.

Walt knows that Jesse may not be dead. He knows that the Nazis intended to take him hostage and that he never actually saw them kill Jesse. Walt knows the blue meth is on the street. We also know that Walt has assiduously followed local Albuquerque news, but we explicitly know about the presence of blue on the street from that Charlie Rose interview. Badger and Skinny Pete tell Walt nothing. His interaction with them merely provides the channel for the reasoning about Jesse’s likely fate that he has already figured out in his head.

One thing that Walter hasn’t figured out, one thing that he would likely have no access to, is the particular set of awful circumstances which has befallen poor, enslaved Jesse. In a nod to the idyllic dream state that comprises most of “Felina,” Gilligan gives us a glimpse into Jesse’s idea of heaven in the midst of his ongoing personal hell. As a clean-shaven, fulfilled-looking Jesse tends to the completion of a wooden box in a warmly lit carpenter’s studio, Gilligan is about to show us the conclusion to Jesse’s story as well.

As an admitted Tarantino fan (Pinkman and White were homages to the chromatic-themed names of the mobsters in Reservoir Dogs), Gilligan employs a bit of that non-linear storytelling as he briefly jumps out of Walt’s dream and into Jesse’s, right before he quite literally yanks the audience back to reality via that sinister steel chain attached to the ceiling. This is the only moment of “Felina” that takes place out of that Volvo. As Walt fever dreams his ending in his surrounded Volvo, Jesse’s dream only temporarily provides respite from his fate, which has been sealed as a meth-making slave, all-too-close in circumstance and appearance to that of Zed’s gimp in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.

Throughout much of Season 5b, it was unclear exactly who would provide Walt’s foil. Hank and Marie initially held the mantle, but the fading influence of the Heisenberg persona on Walt made that inter-family rivalry fleeting at best. Walt never meant Hank any harm, even if Hank didn’t exactly share Walt’s familial allegiance. And Jesse never proved himself formidable enough to ever fully capture the breadth of Walt/Heisenberg’s wrath. Jesse was every bit the dog Walt and Saul described him to be. Sure he and Hank managed to play on Walt’s greed to lure him to the To’hajilee, but by that point in the story, Walt was every bit responsible for his capture than any bit of clever gamesmanship employed by Hank’s crew.

Only when the murderous jailhouse Nazis began doing what jailhouse murderous Nazis are wont to do, did Walt finally have a target on which to affix his gaze. It was a first for Walt really. His enemy heretofore had been of the unpersonified variety. Seething resentment was both his fire and his foe, not even Gus Fring or Tuco held sway over Walt’s need to succeed than did his burning desire to be somebody. The one who knocked.

But in his dream, these horrible personality flaws aren’t his enemies, they are his self-realized flaws, the ones that had consumed Walt from the moment he decided life had given him a raw deal and that he would do something about it. So it’s Lydia who gets the ricin treatment in his dream. Her highly routinized method of doing business in that same coffee shop, coupled with Walt’s knowledge of Todd’s position within the hierarchy of the meth distribution game made for another bit of reasonable deduction that fit dually within reality and Walt’s dream state alike.

Still able to slip deftly in and out of public places, Walt managed not only to throw a surprise third-wheel on Todd and Lydia’s bizarre, psychotic brand of puppy-love (at least on Todd’s end) as they sat there, but he had obviously spent enough time in the coffee shop to doctor Lydia’s beloved Stevia before their arrival. Yet another instance of the breaking good that defines “Felina’s” final scenes.

And notwithstanding the specifics of Walt’s seeming invisibility with respect to law enforcement and a public doubtlessly aware of his image, by the time Walt manages to appear like an apparition inside Skylar’s modest, first floor apartment, Breaking Bad has taken us a long way temporally since the last time the Whites shared a room. The usual space between episodes last mere days, hours, sometimes even seconds. Regardless of the time passage, that room Walt and Skylar last shared was their living room at 308 Negra Arroyo Lane, the site of that vicious knife fight that ended when a terrified Skylar watch helplessly as Walt kidnapped her baby Holly and drove away. That was the last time Walt and Skylar laid eyes on each other.

They shared another conversation, highlighted by that guttural Heisenbergian rant intended to exonerate Skylar of her involvement as Walt’s money launderer, but their last physical interaction was violent and terrifying, leaving Junior, Skylar and Holly alike as permanent victims of his physical domestic rage.

Those few months away must have done wonders to salve the psychic wounds of a knife-fight punctuated by daughter kidnapping, because Skylar not only doesn’t appear completely terrified by Walt’s presence, she feels compelled to hear him out one last time and, because why not, to give him a chance to say a personal goodbye to the daughter with whom he absconded only to later leave in a fire truck.

For those still unconvinced, perhaps the successful hiding-in-plain-sight tales of Whitey Bulger provide some sort of basis for how Walt could have managed to elude capture to this point in the story. The keys from heaven, the proximity of the red and blue police light and sounds from the police walkie-talkies, all may not offer enough hard evidence that Walt really did have his Scarface ending.

For those die-hards no amount of parsing of that final scene will likely do. That the Nazis immediately searched Walt’s person but not his trunk, that they told him where to park only to eschew those instructions when he purposefully disobeyed them for no apparent reason, that the recoil of a machine gun as powerful as an M60 is more than likely potent enough to render Walt’s trunk-o-death gadget useless after the first few rounds, that Jack was so offended at the mere suggestion that he was in league with Jesse Pinkman to the point of needing prove his allegiances to Walt-a man sure shot in the head within the coming minutes-thereby giving him the opening he needed to grasp that red licker of vengeance, that none of these things happened despite reason dictating that any one of them should have, thereby nullifying Walt’s perfect ending, likely means no amount evidence will prove the validity of the Walt-died-in-the-Volvo ending to such die-hards.

***

The natural reflex when a phenomenon like Breaking Bad comes along, punctuated by an achievement as confounding, perplexing, and to some, as frustrating as “Felina,” is to compare it to works of art that resemble its contemporaries. The final episodes of The Wire, The Sopranos, Lost, and even Seinfeld have been cited by some in an effort to contextualize and, unfortunately also to rank “Felina” among the ‘best series finales.’ Regardless of their final moments, individually, these shows changed the medium of television. They approached serial storytelling as never before; they tantalized audiences with a quality not present elsewhere on the medium.

In every single instance, these shows also ended with finales regarded by a vast majority of critics and fans alike as failures in varying degrees. Breaking Bad’s final chapter has not been immune to such criticism. The culmination has been described as too neat, too uncomplicated. It has been criticized for lionizing Walt, for never meting out the punishment on Walter White that he so richly deserved. Even the ending that I believe befell Walter White, one far different from the one where Walt plays hero as Jesse’s human shield, could be argued as being light on retribution.

What has become so apparent in the wake of these finales is that any ending, regardless of the level of fan service tended to or ignored, can never truly serve to satiate its audience. What we love about these shows is their ability to keep us guessing, to keep us wanting more. The anticipation of what will happen next to characters we have come to know, love, despise and everything in between becomes part of their identities. It’s the only thing that keeps our own predictable lives interesting, the knowledge that despite the hum-drum, despite the everyday 9-5 pace, anything really could happen at any moment. We aren’t disappointed in endings as they happen, we are disappointed that they happen at all.

Why Breaking Bad is different and why it is especially genius in how it went about constructing its ending, is the sheer multitude of endings it offered. There is enough in “Felina” for those odd #TeamWalt enthusiasts to cheer. For those yearning for payback, Walt died, and right up until he suffered his death, he spent months alone in a cabin, suffering from cancer, ponying up $10,000 to a criminal for the privilege of playing poker with him for an hour, hardly an exit replete with dignity or glory. Depending on your interpretation, Jesse was either freed or left continuing to pay for his crimes (including murder and the major contribution to the degradation of the Southwestern United States) in Nazi hell. If indeed you believe Walt was able to take that New Hampshire Volvo back to the cabin where his money sat and deliver it to a frightened Walt-during-the-good-times-memory-savoring Gretchen and Elliot, then you believe Walt found a way to care for his family’s financial needs, free and clear of that money’s associated guilt.

Me? I’ve found my ending to Breaking Bad, and weeks later I’m still thinking about it. It’s what great art demands of us. It’s why I feel privileged to have been invited along for the ride. Just don’t expect a Felina like that ever again.

***

A little bit of an Epilogue–

In the weeks since my dissection of the real nature of Walter White’s final inner-cranial fugue, svengali Vince Gilligan felt compelled enough to address the hypothesis of the true nature of “Felina” similar to the one described above. Norm MacDonald and Emily Nussbaum touched on a theory similar to mine (even though Norm since backed away) and the result was a gathering storm of momentum around the plausibility of such an ending. Rather than address any particular aspect of the dream theory, Gilligan claimed in blanket-fashion that Walter couldn’t have been dreaming those perfect final Feilna moments because if it were a dream, the accuracy of the details he imagined couldn’t have been known by Walter, thereby supposedly totally nullifying it as a possible outcome.

Sure.

A true artist is loathe to explain the meaning of her work, so it comes as something of a shock that Gilligan even chose to address the matter in the first place. That his answer attempts to thoroughly slam the door shut on any conclusion existing in the orbit of “Walt imagined those perfect final scenes” strikes me as wholly suspicious in and of itself (to say nothing of the fact that the very crux of his supposition-that Walter White couldn’t have dreamed such an accurate dream (even assuming that his dream is actually accurate)-is false).

What we know of Walt’s final days in that cabin is that he spent his time thinking incessantly about his family (or at least what was left of it) and what had become of the myth of Heisenberg. Whether his dream is accurate about the particulars of the mansion that Grey Matter built is known to the viewer every bit as much as it is known to the freezing, snowbound Walter White–which is to say not at all. Sure Gretchen and Elliot lived in that incredible post-modern expanse while Skylar chain-smoked in that sad one room be-pillared apartment; and why wouldn’t Todd meet Lydia where Walter always had. Walt’s guess is as good as ours, and in “Felina,” Walt’s guessing is all there is. Keep in mind, that this guessing originates from a brilliant mind simultaneously combining extensive personal experience of the people and places relevant to Walt’s story with a highly-attuned ability to deductively reason a plausible outcome desirable to his dying brain, even as it fires off its last bursts of coherence.

It has also been said that Jesse’s fantasy interlude in that idyllic carpenter’s studio in the sky is not something Walt could have ever known about since Jesse shared that ultra-personal nugget at a 12-step meeting and not to Walt personally (as if such a confession would be implausible considering the length at which those two conversed and the propensity for Lord Pinkman to, shall we say, ramble during their marathon cooks). However, my contention all along has been that Jesse’s dream and that subsequent snatch back to reality were both entirely real within the context of where they took place in the story. We didn’t see Jesse’s dream within Walt’s dream. Rather the momentary shot of Jesse’s dream really takes place in that dungeon in New Mexico, interrupted by the stark reality of the ongoing horror of Jesse’s situation.

That brief moment in Jesse’s imagination is not Walt’s dream, it is Jesse’s, as is the reality that he isn’t getting out of that warerhouse– and fittingly, in a way neither is Walt. We never see it, but it’s hard to imagine a fate for Jesse that stretches beyond the confines of that Nazi compound. As for Walt, his mind chooses to let his conscious thought end in the same place, next to the machines and chemicals that he thought would bring him salvation.

Remember, Vince Gilligan told you that it wasn’t a dream, that these things happened in the story. Accept that spoonfeeding at your own peril.

“Never trust the teller. Trust the tale.” –D.H. Lawrence.

FIN

It’s All About the Weight, Yo: A Character Study of Jesse Pinkman

It’s All About the Weight, Yo
7/19/2013
By Robert Downs Schultz

It appeared that Jesse Pinkman was never long for the world of Walter White. From the very moment Walter laid eyes on him, stumbling in his underwear out of a second-story window of a house that his DEA agent brother-in-law Hank had just begun to raid, Jesse was a mark. Originally intended to provide merely a conduit for Walt to gain entry into the seedy underworld of methamphetamine production and distribution, the character of Jesse was to be the first in a long line of bodies accumulated as a consequence of the ruthless ascent of Heisenberg. It speaks volumes to the emotional load borne by Jesse Pinkman that it’s essentially unthinkable to imagine Breaking Bad without him.

He’s been called the conscience of the show, the moral center, the heart. They’re all rather artless tropes that too neatly pigeonhole a character deceptively broad in his scope. Jesse isn’t the cowardly lion, dopily bumbling alongside the merciless mastermind Walt, providing comic relief and burnout charm to contrast the darkness all around. Despite his apparently dead-end lot in life and the total lack of book smarts and formal schooling of his compatriot Walt, Jesse’s ingenuity belies his baggy sweatpants and skull cap exterior.

The truth is, within Jesse lies all of the vanity and avarice that have so thoroughly consumed Walt. Like Walt, Jesse wants respect. Jesse is not an honest person. He too is a liar, a thief, a con man, and a murderer. He is irresponsible, selfish, and too lazy to forge any honest way for himself in this world. He conspires to sell meth to addicts in a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. It feels good to watch Jesse stick it to his parents and buy the home out from under them that they would no longer let Jesse inside of, but they rightly mourned the condition of their son and felt protective of Jesse’s corruptible younger brother that he still held sway over. Jesse has in many ways failed himself and the people who love him. A life of crime is his only means of ever becoming anything other than the loser the world sees him as. It’s a pitiable state.

And he feels every bit of it.

***

The “odd couple” aspect of Walt and Jesse’s relationship is apropos for numerous reasons, not the least of which is the opposite way at which they approached life at the time of their re-acquaintance. Walt became intimately aware at the offerings of a straight life, cobbling together a living at the local high school and working at the carwash on the weekends, while Jesse pursued the life of a drug dealer. It’s no small irony that a student memorable to Walt for his incompetence in high school chemistry became something of a low-level chemist himself, concocting that pathetic feculence that Jesse branded “chili-p.”

Despite their surface-level differences, at the beginning Walt and Jesse struggle with the same moral qualms that present themselves as the price of doing business in the meth underworld. Neither one of them wants to murder Krazy-8, but it’s an inarguable fact that if they don’t kill him, their bodies will be the next ones to be disposed of unceremoniously. This is the point where Walt and Jesse forever diverge. Walt has a taste for all things criminal including the feeling he gets from murder. The deaths directly and indirectly caused by Walter White never faze him in an appreciable way; instead they put the wind in his sail. Walt never looks back; he never pauses to reflect.

Jesse is different.

Jesse’s decision to make it as a meth dealer has no shortage of fallout. Because of his affiliation with Walt, the people in Jesse’s orbit are helplessly pulled into the danger that he has invited into his life. After he is kicked out of his deceased aunt’s house for running a meth lab, he befriends his new landlord’s daughter Jane, she of a former drug habit that landed her in rehab and almost destroyed her relationship with her father. It’s a predictably sad domino effect of grief when Jesse’s comrade Combo is offed for dealing meth on the wrong side of town. The death of his friend haunts Jesse, which in turn leads him deeper into drug addiction, creating the perfect environment for Jane to relapse.

Getting pinched is one thing. When Badger foolishly sold meth to the undercover cop on the sidewalk bench, it could be chalked up to his own stupidity and the risk inherent in selling drugs. But Combo isn’t coming back. He sold the drugs Jesse made in the spot where he was instructed to sell them. Combo was only there because of Jesse, and now Combo is dead. The downward spiral eventually consumes Jane when she is allowed to overdose by the on-looking Walt. Too stupefied to glean Walt’s presence, Jesse is helpless to save her by the time he achieves consciousness the next morning.

There are parallel storms steaming through Albuquerque. Walt’s is the larger, more formidable one, wantonly causing mayhem at his pleasure and growing in size and scope in proportion to his fledgling empire. Jesse’s storm is smaller and of the more regretful sort. The body count in his corner isn’t as high, but it’s much more personal. The people Jesse is indirectly responsible for killing are people he cared for and even loved. Without them, he seeks to anesthetize himself until he can join them.

Aside from the occasional scotch, Walt never partakes in anything that might alter his reality. Reality seems to suit him just fine (and all the more as the violence and his stature grows) while Jesse prefers to fade away in a drug den in the worst part of town ever conceived on television. It’s an act that drips of selfish motivation, but when Walt rescues Jesse from the fate that certainly awaits him in the drug den against the advice of seen-it-all hitman Mike Ehrmantrout, the depth of Jesse’s pain is revealed. He knows he might as well have stuck the plunger in Jane’s arm himself. She may have been the more experienced heroin user, but he was her lighted path back to the dark world of addiction.

Walt wants Jesse to live, but only because he’s the only person he can implicitly trust. Walt puts Jesse in rehab not to get him healthy and readjusted to properly re-enter society. No, Walt just wants Jesse well enough to get back in the game. Grief-stricken Jesse is useless to Walt and by extension useless to the pitiless Gus Fring. When Jesse gets out, Walt has a whole new place for him to sink.

***

Gale was originally Jesse’s replacement. He had the formal training, the personal stability, and the temperament to carry out the daily task of cooking two hundred plus pounds of blue methamphetamine at a time. Of all the characters to whom Breaking Bad has introduced its audience, Gale occupied his place in the meth underworld with the least baggage. He was a gentle, middle-aged chemist whose reasoned libertarian beliefs justified his entre into large-scale meth manufacturing. He valued the brilliance of Walter’s formula as explicitly as he did a nice cup of tea enjoyed in the company of some background Italian opera.

But Gale is Gus’ guy and outside of Walt’s purview. He wants Jesse’s classical approach to meth making as opposed to Gale’s jazz. It’s all a ruse of course. Walt wants Jesse there to provide him a level of comfort and a buffer for when push comes to shove. Fresh out of rehab and of clear mind that he not only caused the death of Jane, but also the deaths of everyone on-board the 737s that crashed as a result of Jane’s father’s grief, Jesse has a clearer sense of right and wrong. He retains the same debilitating self-loathing for the wrongs for which he is responsible, but he now seems keen to actually do something about them.

Becoming romantically involved with Jesse is an inherently dangerous proposition, but Andrea doesn’t know that. She shares Jesse’s weakness for meth, but provides a comforting rebound from the horrific ending of his last relationship. When Jesse finds out that Andrea’s eleven-year-old brother Tomas (the young boy who killed his friend Combo) was murdered by two street-level drug dealers, Jesse chooses to act.

It speaks to the level of the grief that Jesse still feels that he brazenly attempts to murder the bad guys who killed Tomas. The beatings he suffered at the hands of Tuco and Hank came without much of a fight. It isn’t that Jesse is a wimp; he merely operates with the requisite level of fear that any reasonable person might exhibit when exposed to such brutality. But here he is. Standing in the spot not far from where his friend Combo and Andrea’s little brother were murdered, brandishing a gun, ready to kill or be killed.

Of course it doesn’t happen. Walt gives them the full-on 60 mph Pontiac Aztek treatment just as they are about to lay waste to Jesse. Jesse doesn’t know it, but Walt has a larger purpose in store for him. He’s more than willing to take over the role of avenger if it means keeping Jesse alive to eliminate the man tapped to now replace Walt: Gale Boetticher.

In the frantic last moments of Gale’s life, Jesse finally joins Walt in that deepest and darkest place in the amoral world. Up until this point, Jesse and Walt are killers of a very particular sort. Sure they’ve had to work as a team to eliminate some seriously bad dudes that wanted them dead here and there. But Gale is no such person. He’s an innocent. At no point, past, present or future, has Gale Boetticher ever been a threat to Jesse and/or Walt. It’s no matter though. Gale has to die, and Jesse has to do the killing.

The fallout from Jesse’s first foray into cold-blooded murder is predictable. He is not equipped with the tools or the psychopathic personality to inure himself from the anguish that accompanies shooting a man in the face at close range. Jesse can’t be pragmatic about it, he can’t bargain away his emotions to the point where he can reconcile that what he did had the tangible effect of keeping Walt, and by extension himself, alive. All that Jesse sees is the horror of the moment. The helpless look in kindly Gale’s eyes.

So if Walt won’t let Jesse go to a crackhouse to die, easier to bring the crackhouse home. Jesse doesn’t have the heart or the fortitude to kill himself, so the death-by-cop routine that he enlists by stealing from Gus has a reasonable chance of getting the job done. After indirectly killing Combo, Jane and whole planes-full of people, Jesse tried the passive route to achieve permanent respite from what he has wrought on the world. While stealing from Gus Fring is not a sure thing the way shooting yourself is, he has every reason to think that his death is a likely outcome.

The grief that weighs on Jesse is so immense that it almost hurts to see Gus choose the unconventional route of hugging Jesse even closer instead of pushing him off a cliff. Much like Walt, Gus sees utility in Jesse. A person with nothing to lose can be a valuable tool in a world chalk-full of men willing to dole out death, and Jesse is nothing if not a tool for the whims and uses of the puppet masters that pull his strings.

***

Jesse has a weakness for children. The tenderness with which he speaks to his high-achieving little brother and the vengeance that he seeks for the murdered Tomas indicate a sensitivity to the plight of the children in his world. Unfortunately, his world contains Walter White.

Replete with the knowledge that Jesse has a soft spot for Andrea and children alike, it stands to reason that Andrea’s child, Brock, would make for a fine target to bring Jesse back into Walt’s fold. After Walt and Jesse’s brutal season four falling out, Walter can see tangible evidence that his empire is disappearing before his eyes. The shelving of their original plan to poison Gus with ricin provided Walt with the perfect backdrop to once-again make Jesse do exactly what he wanted, to murder.

As Brock falls ill from the apparent effects of ricin, Jesse once again switches into vengeance-mode. Jesse can abide many things, but the attempted murder of Brock is too much. Even as Jesse reasons that it couldn’t have been Gus who was responsible as the real culprit of the poisoning, since it was the Lily of the Valley plant (the same one sitting in Walt’s backyard), he is too emotional to unwind his vow to murder Gus.

Jesse knows he’s the bad guy. He knows he cannot properly repent for all of his sins; he can’t undo the awful things that have already been done. Some of the people he loves are alive, some are dead. He can scour his apartment for the tiny pill of ricin all he wants, but he knows deep down that there is no going back, no guarding the innocents. As the fifth season steamed toward it’s midpoint break, the cracked shell that is Jesse is shattered all over again.

As Jesse, Walt and bright-eyed new guy Todd prep the area adjacent to the train trestle where they plan to pull off a breathtaking train-heist, Todd asks Jesse how they plan to pull off such a daring robbery. It’s Jesse’s ingenious plan, so Walt gives him the honor of explaining how they plan on replacing 1000 gallons of methylamine with 900.2 gallons of water in only a few short minutes.

With a wry smile, Jesse says, “It’s uh, it’s all about the weight, yo.”

And it is.

It’s a weight that will crush Jesse yet again. Moments after their adrenaline pumping success, Todd pulls out his gun and shoots the boy on the dirtbike, who had been watching them all along, to death.

Breaking Bad has always been a tale about many things, not the least of which is the journey of self-discovery that Walt and Jesse are on. They both want respect from a world that gives them none. Jesse doesn’t want to be a murderer or a thief or a drug-addict or someone responsible for the death of a child. But he is all those things. It’s the price of his sad journey. It’s the weight he must bear.

*Originally published as a feature piece on www.popmatters.com

Secondary Exposure

SECONDARY EXPOSURE
By Robert D. Schultz

 

The dust on Lawrence K. Madison’s apartment window had begun to sag into ‘U’ shaped rows.  It had only been three days since an apparent homegrown terrorist detonated a low-tech car bomb in front of the drug store a block from Lawrence’s second-floor apartment.  Through the fire escape Lawrence could see the commotion and the blue and red lights that recently became a semi-permanent part of his view.  So far, only four people had been reported killed in the blast, not including the suicide bomber.  No one wanted to count him.  He was from Oman, a country that most people had likely never heard of before that day, but who were now bent on altogether flattening.  Lawrence didn’t really care except for his personal desire to sound completely up-to-date about the major world news happening within eyeshot of his bedroom.  Appearing ignorant gave Lawrence tremendous anxiety.  The reflection in his window betrayed what looked to Lawrence like some sort of disorganized crèche; people crying and praying in observance of the cloudy hole, at once somber and hysterical, still swirling about amidst the commotion of the new fear.

When the first tragedy happened Lawrence was at work, listening to the drone of French horn and timpani at his computer, billing his time by going through stacks of medical records of asbestotic mill workers whose monetary rewards he and his law firm were seeking to nullify.  He noticed a fuss around the TV in the break room outside of his windowless office.  He saw women with their hands covering their mouths, men staring vacantly in disbelief.  As long as he had his headphones on, he could plausibly deny the courtesy of getting up to find out what the histrionics were about.  Even so, before long Lawrence was frantically alerted to the bombing by his teary-eyed secretary[1] and forced to stand among the weeping throng transfixed beneath the flat screen.

“Hey Lawrence, don’t you live right by the Washington Rd. stop?”

Oliver Standish was another 30-something attorney and he was the only one who seemed to know where Lawrence lived.  Lawrence didn’t really like him and frankly found him quite annoying, but since Oliver never ventured over to the toxic torts wing of the office, they had relatively limited contact.  They ran into each other on the subway once and Oliver sidled his way off at Lawrence’s stop.  Oliver followed him to the bar where Lawrence had been hoping to drink alone.   It was a painful evening and it caused Lawrence to be hyper-vigilant about spotting Oliver’s shock of red hair anywhere in the city and to thusly avoid it no matter the circumstance.

Notwithstanding Lawrence’s feelings toward him, the rumor around the office persisted that Oliver was a rather unusual little creep.  Every morning, Oliver took his coffee cup into the bathroom stall at 9:00 a.m. sharp, which was generally earlier than when most of his colleagues arrived at the office.  During his time at the firm as a summer associate, the other “summers” spread a nasty little story that in lieu of milk, Oliver used his solitude in the bathroom stall to ejaculate into his coffee cup and daintily sip on the unpleasant concoction throughout the rest of the morning.  Only Oliver and one other attorney from that class continued on with the firm past that summer, but that particular story lingered and other more sinister gossip was traded whenever he left the room.   Lawrence would chuckle at these stories for their creativity and marvel at their viciousness, but he never joined in their construction.

“Yeah.  I use that store.”

Immediately gasps and consolation flowed out of everyone in the break room.  Details were still sketchy and it wasn’t clear how many people had been killed, but the women in the office comforted Lawrence as if he had just told them that indeed his entire family was in there and it should have been him and oh heavenly father what was he going to do now?  The men offered him knowing glances and bowed heads.  When Lawrence went home for the day police still weren’t letting anyone within a two block radius of the explosion.   He spent the night in a Red Cross tent for displaced residents and went to work the next day in the same clothes.

But all of that already happened a few days ago.  Now an exasperating cloud of light-brown airborne particulates settled on anything imprudent enough to wade through the neighborhood of the bombing. The blast cloud executed its inexorable march into Lawrence’s apartment and inevitably covered his clothes not wrapped in plastic.  He was resigned to the heightened dry cleaning expense.

Lawrence usually employed a moderate pace while walking, but he recently slowed to a wandering slog.  Everyone in the office would understand if it took him a little longer to get to work.  The tan powder that enveloped him only served as proof of the hell that he was supposed to be enduring.

In the aftermath of the terror, the Washington Rd. subway stop was noticeably less congested.  The morning rush hour usually forced Lawrence to spend his ride standing and holding onto the awkwardly lukewarm metal poles due to congestion.  On this day however, he had his pick of seats and like a king chose a maroon one tucked away at the back of the car.  He felt spoiled by the providence of his situation.

Of the 22 stops that separated his home from his office, the routine of the crowded masses on the subway cars was utterly unsmooth and unpredictable.  Lawrence tried to observe a pattern regarding the type and volume of people who got on at each stop and he was constantly attempting to employ a system that would place him in the least crowded and least annoying car, but to no avail.  He resigned himself to the randomness of the city metro transit system and stomached the 37-minute journey as best as he could.

Four stops from Lawrence’s final destination, a hobbled elderly woman stepped onto the train with both hands clutching something close to her body.  She began feebly moving about the empty car, shuffling steadily so as to avoid that singular catastrophe that confronts the elderly: falling.  Lawrence took little notice of her at first, due partly to her sorry condition, but mostly because of the presence of an almost countless array of empty seats that she would surely occupy, away from him.  His anxiety grew as she shuffled closer to his little area.  On a normal day when posed with a similar fortunate circumstance, Lawrence would have deftly chosen the aisle seat and plugged in his headphones so as to make it as difficult and uncomfortable as possible for another rider to sit down next to him.  He had dropped his guard on this day however, and as his luck would have it, he found himself shifting in his seat to move away from this elderly woman sitting too close to him, who was now very clearly holding a yellowish ferret.

“Hello,” she said.

“Hi.”  Lawrence stared straight ahead at his reflection in the subway glass and began grinding his teeth.

“I hope you don’t mind that I sat next you.  I try to make it look like I am with someone when I ride the subway. ”

Lawrence briefly looked down at her.  She too was staring straight ahead, clutching her rodent.

“I’m sorry, but is that a ferret?”  Aside from the utter weirdness of any situation, Lawrence was usually disciplined enough not to make conversation with strangers.  Not today.

“Oh yes, she is.”  The woman had on oversized cheap drug store sunglasses and a puffy brown winter coat despite the mild temperatures outside and in.  The ferret was so small that it almost disappeared into the heft of her jacket.

“She’s ten years old today.” Lawrence watched her rub the ferret’s head with the back of her wrinkled, arthritic hand.  Her swollen knuckles hardly grazed the tips of the ferret’s hair, making it stand up.  The little creature closed its eyes and arched its back and nuzzled even deeper into its makeshift bed.  He had seen rats in the subway before, but never at the volition of another human being.

“That seems old for a ferret,” Lawrence said.  In his head, he questioned himself for continuing to speak to her.

The old woman cooed.

“Oh it is.  They don’t get to be much past seven or eight.  She’s a very old girl, like me.”

Lawrence was always conscious of personal space, his and others’, and he never let his arms or legs cross the invisible threshold between the imaginary places that he and his fellow strangers implicitly owned.  The ferret’s head burrowed inside Lawrence’s sleeve as she spoke and he constrained a shout, pushing the animal away.  By now his unease had given way to seething contempt.  His warm neck reddened and pulsed against his collar.

“I’m sorry, but I have to ask, why did you bring your rat onto the fucking subway?”

The old woman kept staring at her friend’s tiny eyes.

“Oh she’s quite sick dear.  She won’t be around much longer.  She always loved to ride the subway.  I thought I’d take her for one last ride around town.  She sleeps most of the day anyway.  She doesn’t usually fuss.  She likes most people.”

The old woman looked at Lawrence and smiled.  Just then, the train lurched forward as it neared the next stop at Buchanan Blvd.  The old woman used the forward momentum of the train to help her stand.  She began to amble away toward the other end of the car.

Lawrence felt the throbbing subside.

“Well, have a nice a day,” he said.  The train stayed empty except for the two of them for the rest of his ride.  When Lawrence exited he saw the old woman’s figure in the window, sitting on the opposite side of the car, saying something to her dying little friend.  The train was theirs now.

The walk from the midtown subway station to Lawrence’s office building wasn’t long, but it too was fraught with pitfalls and assholes and potholes and bums.  Like the subway, Lawrence was helpless at finding the quickest and least aggravating route to the office.  He trialed different sides of the street, different times of day, different demeanors he would take on, and he tried all of these things at different times of the year and in different colored clothing.  He found no correlation.  The arbitrary tempo of the city would passively subsume his traverse to work into its rhythms and not his own, and that would be that.

He normally found his way to his elevator bank leading to the 37th floor within eight minutes of leaving the train.  The Levin Tower was affectionately known as the Pool Building, named for the large rectangular reflective pool once located on the lobby floor.  Kiosks selling phones, umbrellas, and slices of pizza now occupied the space where the shimmering water once greeted its tired passersby.  Only the 18-inch ledge once outlining the pool remained.  The Pool Building lobby was the penultimate stop in Lawrence’s gauntlet of minor irritations.

In the 1950’s, there was a magnificent explosion of white-collar workers occupying the suddenly antiquated buildings in cities all over America.  The sudden influx made for an interminable queue at the elevators, once constructed for a maximum 6-10 person load.  A huge problem befell the building owners who needed to transport more and more people at all levels of their buildings at a faster rate. The most obvious and costly solution was to dynamite the interior of these old, regal buildings and fabricate wider and more numerous elevator shafts at enormous expense.  That was the plan.  In the meantime, a young engineer working for a building manager in New York City proposed installing mirrors in between the elevator banks to give the impatient businessmen something to look at while they contemplated their anger.  Let them see each other.  Let them see themselves.

Within weeks, complaints about the once unconscionable wait at the elevators dropped to a hush.  It was a miracle.  Mirrors instead of dynamite.  The old and decaying Pool Building still employed this method of coping with impatient riders.  They were still mesmerized by what they saw.

Lawrence was a professional in many respects, none more so than in his ability to avoid other men.  Children were receptive to his aloof brusqueness and usually stayed away, peering at him through the edges of their eyes, arms outstretched to someone familiar or something firm mounted.  Men responded to something more visceral about him.  Maybe it was his shoulders.  He held them high and lurched his head forward.  Lawrence never worried about male strangers starting a conversation with him.  Silly women could be a problem.  On this day however, he glided through the Pool unmolested despite seeing a handful of familiar faces.  He had the elevator all to himself for the 480 feet trip to the 37th floor.

When he arrived there were two doors into the office.  The far doors, clear and emblazoned with the firm’s name led to the front desk, might have seemed to be populated with the most potential annoyances to the layman.  Not so.  The near door was devilishly innocuous.  It sat right outside of the elevators, inviting easy entrance.  Lawrence’s office was not far from the near doors.

Lawrence hadn’t taken the near doors in 7 years.  The far doors, even when swarmed with people, were always populated by the clients, walk-ins, and unknowns who likely wouldn’t bother him.  Once beyond the front desk he traversed an unintimidating cluster of new or summer associates or paralegals who wouldn’t dare speak to a soon-to-be middle aged associate at a medium-sized law-firm in a medium-sized city in the United-States-of-America.

Lawrence took the near doors today because he heard a woman’s scream.  He was never one to seek out tragedy, but he since was the recent survivor of a terrorist attack, he felt possessive of a certain expertise that others surely lacked.

“Oh my God.  Lawrence, don’t go out there!” his ‘secretary’ Iris said to him, panting.  Lawrence wondered if she might have been exhaling enough spit or tears or some other fluid onto him to blot out the hazy dust caked on the outside of his once-decent suit.

“What happened?” he asked.

His ‘secretary’ touched his shoulder.

“Oh Lawrence, just don’t go in the bathroom.  Promise me you won’t.”

Lawrence dutifully promised he would abide and reassured Iris and the others that he had seen enough death in the last few days to last him a lifetime.  He then walked around the outside of the office through the copy room and exited back to the empty hallway outside the men’s room.

Then he went inside.

The bathroom door squeaked against the floor like it always did.  The smell of Lysol pervaded the room and he looked at a row of slightly creaked stall doors, but for one.  The stall door that he fixated upon was locked from the inside, but the partitions on either side were flimsy.  Lawrence pulled the door away from the rickety plastic wall and eased the latch free.  He felt an uncomfortable lump beneath his shoe that he could only assume was a wad of wet discarded toilet paper.  As he tried to kick it loose, Lawrence noticed the yellow paisley pattern of a Brooks Brothers tie, split in two.

Oliver was a slight man.  Around the office, they all used to joke that he dressed like the guy from that weird 80’s band who wore an oversized coat.  They could never place it and Lawrence never satisfied them with the right answer.  He liked the Talking Heads.  Oliver almost always wore his suit coat no matter the season.  Lawrence remembered he left it at the bar that one night.

Oliver mitigated the initial failure of the tie to hold his weight by employing the arms of his suit coat.  The long torso of the jacket was twisted maniacally and tied in a knot around a thin pipe running along the 37th floor roof, tightly wrapping around the young man’s neck and then making a taught circle that could support his entire lifeless body.
Aside from the dangling person, Lawrence noticed that Oliver’s coffee cup sat perched above the plastic toilet paper dispenser, full and so black that it looked white with the clear reflection of the fluorescent light above.  Oliver left no note.  He apparently called no one.  He stared straight ahead in the stall through half-closed eyes.  He prepared the site not at all.  Only the small red coffee cup accompanied Oliver Standish that morning.

Lawrence felt obligated to unsuspend Oliver.  The pressure around his neck had begun to burst the blood vessels in his face, turning his visage an unnatural shade of dark blue peppered with red.  He tried to untie the arms of the coat still strangling Oliver’s neck, but he could not decipher the origin of the knot.  It seemed to be wrapped in and around itself in a continuous loop, starting and ending nowhere.  Lawrence could only find midpoints.

Next, he gently moved behind Oliver and stood next to his body now weighted on the toilet seat.  He reached for the pipes above, but only in vain.  Oliver was considerably taller than Lawrence.  He attempted to jostle Oliver’s jacket now covered in dust from the pipes, but it barely moved.

Those very pipes in the building were old and in that instant Lawrence wondered if perhaps he had exposed the two of them to asbestos.  Over the past decade, Lawrence had become something of an expert in the world of toxic torts, which was legalese in that region of the country for asbestos civil litigation.  He could describe the nuances of the serpentine white asbestos and the amphibole brown and blue.  The blue was the worst.  Crocidolite, they called it.

Cheap, abundant and naturally occurring all over the Earth, asbestos once provided the perfect industrial solution to overheating pipes and valves and gaskets.  In buildings and warships, oilrigs and cigarettes and car brakes– in the first half of the 20th century–if it got hot, it likely had a coating of asbestos.  It was a wondrous little material.  It kept furnaces burning continuously and hot water pipes flowing uncompromised.  Best of all, it came cheap.

Asbestos has really only one negative characteristic: it’s absolutely lethal.  Prolonged or even short-term acute exposure can result in a particularly agonizing and slow death.

As far back as the first century, the Romans noted that slaves who were exposed to asbestos developed horrible coughs and sickness that resulted in death.  The United States government became aware of the dangers of asbestos as early as the 1930’s and the business world soon acquired the same knowledge.  Nevertheless, due to its superior utility asbestos remained ubiquitous in all kinds of construction and industrial products until the 1970’s.  The owners of the World Trade Center faced $1 billion in asbestos abatement in 2001.  They stood to lose even more in impending litigation.  History provided a convenient bailout.

To Lawrence, the insidiousness of the light grey powder had less to do with the ravages that it could inflict on the human body and more to do with something called the latency period.  After a certain level of exposure is achieved, the lungs essentially become ticking time bombs.  Cancer and the particularly nasty mesothelioma almost never quickly accompany the threshold level of exposure.  Instead, a macabre decades-long dance occurs between the once healthy lung cells and these infinitesimally small asbestos crystals.  For some, the crystals stay put and never make much of a bother.  In many, they savage the space where they resided for so long without warning and without cure.   Even the wives of the mill workers who once brought a layer of asbestos dust home with them were dying decades later from the simple task of laundering their infected clothing.

Lawrence handled hundreds of these asbestos exposure cases.  He saw some grey powder collect on the surface of Oliver’s coffee.  He wondered if it was just dust or if the Pool Building had been surreptitiously surrounding them all this time with the very poison he knew so intimately.  Lawrence wondered about his own latency.  He wondered about what was inside.

Instead of heading back among the moping horde collecting in the break room, Lawrence turned left out of the stalls and walked toward the freight elevators, urgently pumping his legs.  He concentrated on the forward movement of his knees and his breathing and he counted his steps.  He had to leave Oliver as he found him.

As the narrow elevator plummeted, Lawrence felt the slight sense of floating and steadied himself on the tepid handrails.  The world began to spin to the right.  He furiously refocused his eyes after each gathering of disorienting seconds.  The doors of the elevator opened and Lawrence put his head down and led with his shoulder through the Pool Building’s bustling bottom floor.  As he closed in on the revolving doors his ankle brushed the corner of the reflecting pool’s edge and he tumbled to the ground.  Sweat now dripped from his forehead and he could think of only one place of refuge.  He staggered out the door and made the hard right turn into Mohammad’s Store: Convenience.

Mohammad’s somehow managed to stay financially afloat despite a concerted effort among the city’s would-be patrons to avoid the store for obvious safety and cultural reasons.  Business halved after 9/11 and recovered only slightly in the years since.  It would surely halve again.  The suicide bomber’s name was Mohammad something.  Lawrence liked it inside there.  The cramped, stale bodega-style shop was invitingly warm in the winter and refreshingly cool in the summer time.  Regardless of the store’s temperature, Mohammad could always be found perspiring profusely behind a cracked wall of Plexiglas and flanked by rows of cigarettes, rolls of lottery tickets and a yellowing cash register.

Mohammad knew Lawrence by sight.

“Hello Sir.  How are you today?”

Lawrence leaned forward on the counter and pushed the front of his face against the window that separated them.  The thud of his forehead against the smudged Plexiglas startled Mohammed.

“Sir, I can get you something.”  Mohammad set down his sweat rag and ducked beneath the small door adjacent to his encapsulated little office of failing commerce.  Mohammad stood beneath Lawrence, studying his face for clues, for anything.

“What is wrong, Sir?”

Lawrence held himself up in front of the counter, palpitating uneven and choppy breaths.

“I don’t know,” Lawrence said.

“Will I call you the ambulance?”

“No, please.  No ambulance.  I’m just going to look around.”

Lawrence kept his balance all the way to the back of the store.  He grabbed a club soda and a sleeve of crackers.  He paused.  By now, Mohammad was back behind the counter patiently waiting for a newly-arrived bum to count out the change needed to buy two small bottles of cheap whiskey.  Lawrence stood in line and met eyes with Mohammad, who smiled back at him.  His eyes continued to the left of Mohammad to yesterday’s newspaper, still sitting out next to the gum and candy.  He read a small headline in the bottom left corner of the paper.
GIRL, 3, FOUND DEAD IN TRASH

Lawrence’s eyes shot back to Mohammad who was engaged in recounting the pennies and nickels strewn about the counter.  He looked feverishly around the cluttered room.  He felt himself gasping for air and he turned his body away from the men before him.  Like rows of dominoes knocked down by a child in her basement, the tears cascaded from his face.  Lawrence felt his stomach contract and his esophagus hurl itself north.  He felt that whatever was leaving him would stay in Mohammad’s.  He bent over and convulsed once, then twice, and again.  Nothing came out.  In that moment Lawrence had wished he’d known how the coldness used to feel.

Mohammad set about scurrying back to Lawrence’s side.  “Hold one moment.  Sir, can you please?  Please.  Please come sit down.”  He was shouting now.

Lawrence turned back to the newspaper.

He looked for a picture of the little girl; but she, like Lawrence, wasn’t there anymore.

 



[1] she wasn’t exactly his secretary, maybe 1/4th his–he shared her time with three other middling associates

Arrested Development Is Back…But I am Still Thirsty

Arrested Development Is Back…But I Am Still Thirsty
By Robert D. Schultz
May 28, 2013

 

It has taken a few days, but I have now entered into the acceptance phase of my grief over the fourth season of Arrested Development.  There is so much wrong with the new straight-to-Netflix fifteen episodes that it’s hard to remember how this seemed like such a good idea only a week ago (and for years prior).  In the run up to the all-at-once release of the episodes on May 26 at 0300 EST, there was much debate about how to watch the episodes.  Should viewers watch them in order, out of order, all at once, one a time with some breaks in the middle, etc.?  I presently find myself asking a different question: should these episodes even be viewed at all?  The existential question as to whether this season should have ever been attempted is important, but first let’s gets to why the new season is such a disaster.

For one, the feel of the show is completely different from its former self.  Jason Bateman’s Michael Bluth was always the lead in the first three seasons and for good reason.  He was the dependable good guy who, despite his justified inclination to leave his selfish family behind, always subverted his own happiness for the good of the comically self-absorbed people he felt obligated to protect.  Michael tied the bizarre strands of the show together and provided the audience a reliable source through which to experience the funny, but awful things that the people he loved did to each other and to him.

Now, Michael is simply one ninth of a cast that essentially gets equal time.  Furthermore, his character is almost altogether unrecognizable, and not in a way that shows evolution or character growth in the time away.  Michael is now just as self-absorbed and jerky as the rest of his family.  He’s no longer a good guy of any sorts, just another one of many all-too-indistinguishable scoundrels.  As a viewer, this has the feeling of leaving you untethered and without a rooting interest anymore.  Sure his son, Michael Cera’s George Michael, is still kind of a good guy, but his character has neither the gravitas nor the storyline to provide the ballast that Michael once did.

It’s a problem that was likely predictable all along, had the show’s rabid fan base not been so overly eager to see something new.  Each episode has a “star,” a focus on whom all the action centers.  Michael has two such episodes, where he should have fifteen.  The rest of the characters have at least one and at most two starring turns as well.  The tangible effect fractures the Bluth family characters in such a way as to make them mere bystanders in one another’s stories when not in the center of the plot.  In essence, the massaging of the script around the busy lives of the now more-famous-in-real-life cast was a very Hollywood solution to a show that once rebelled against Hollywood conventions.

The result is a show that heavily relies on the goodwill of its past for laughs where few exist on their own merit.  Ron Howard’s narration felt more like a crutch necessary to hold together an uninteresting plot than the funny aside that it originated as.  Seth Rogen and Kristen Wiig fall flat as younger versions of Bluth parents George and Lucille.  The episodes wind and meander and sort of claim to fit together by the end of number fifteen, although what that resolution actually brings about is nebulous.  It’s Arrested Development without a net in the sense that the episodes can be as short or as long as writer and creator Mitch Hurwitz wants them to be, yet it’s inherently constrained by the inability to use the characters as much or as little as they ought to be used due to their unavailability.

What was always subversive and exciting about Arrested Development was its ability to be so offbeat, so irreverent, and so clever within the confines of a 22-minute block of network TV.  It colored almost exclusively outside the lines while appearing to exist entirely within them.  These episodes are too long and they come off as bloated instead of convention flouting.  Not one is shorter than 30 minutes and some are as long as 38 minutes.  Nothing would have been more subversive than sticking to the 22-minute format for absolutely no reason.  Constraints are terrible things right up until the moment when you can’t fill the entire space provided to you.  When Arrested Development was at its best, its episodes brimmed with so much laughter, so much weirdness that second and even third viewings often revealed subtleties that were far more hilarious than the obvious payoffs.  Callbacks and inside jokes bonded viewers to the series and rewarded them with far more humor available on any other sitcom.  Now, the callbacks too often are the payoff and they come on with the subtlety of a G.O.B. magic act.

But maybe this was a no-win gambit from the start.  When discussing the fourth season I found myself lamenting the absence of certain callbacks and questioning the use of others.  No hot cops, but more “blue myself” jokes?  Where was the chicken dance?  Why am I like every other nerdy fanboy questioning the creative decisions of the very people who delivered such a great show out of thin air a decade ago?  Once fans of the show have overcome their denial that the fourth season was actually any good, I imagine similar grievances in various forms gaining traction.

It’s all just quibbling of course.  The show isn’t suddenly not very good because the writers ignored some obvious plot lines or low-hanging comic fruit.  The existential question regarding whether the fourth season should have ever been made is inevitable in the wake of this wanting feeling viewers are bound to have.  Even if it doesn’t measure up to what Hurwitz and his company of misfits accomplished a decade ago, isn’t it better to watch new Arrested Development episodes than any of the other sitcoms on TV?  Isn’t it at least nice to have something instead of nothing?   The answer to both questions is “No.”

Fans of Arrested Development have never, are not, and never will be viewers of Two and a Half Men and shows of its ilk, so to compare the two is folly.  It’s hardly an even-or comparison on its face since the format of the fourth season is so far removed from present-day network sitcoms, but Arrested Development never purported to exist in the same world as those kinds of shows in the first place.  The only comparison that matters is whether these fifteen episodes measure up to the lofty groundwork laid by the 53 ones prior.

It was always a high standard, perhaps impossibly high, but it was a standard that the new season never even approached.  Reunions (and that is what this season really is at its essence) are always disappointing.  High school wasn’t that great for anybody, but it’s nice to think about being young and full of dreams.  Invariably, the actual confrontation of those memories in the flesh is always less than satisfying and usually sad.  If these people look so old, what the hell do I really look like?  The tendency of the human mind to idealize, to forget the bad and remember the good, and then remember the good as being even better, is what galvanized fans of Arrested Development far more than the show ever did when it was actually on the air.

Whether fans of the show felt aggrieved or not, Arrested Development came to an end of sorts at the conclusion of Season three.  Even though it didn’t matter, secrets were revealed about what had been going on inside the sick world of the Bluths all along.  It was funny and it fit within the broader narrative of the show’s constant struggles to circumvent censors and dumb studio execs to stay on the air.  It felt like an ending and, it ended.

***

I never watched Freaks and Geeks when it originally aired.  I never had to put up with the fits and starts and eventual dumping of its unaired content like trash all at once on some non-descript night and time by NBC.  In subsequent years I read about it and heard people speak of it fondly, disbelieving how a good show full of so much talent both in front of and behind the camera couldn’t stay on the air for more than one season.  I finally watched its only 18 episode season and loved it for what it was, an 18-hour story that could have kept going, but didn’t.  The characters had far more life to live, more high school to experience, more awkward, sad and sweet stories that would have formed the people they would become as adults.  As a story however, Freaks and Geeks is perfect.  Like Arrested Development, its content mirrored its existence.  These are shows about being unloved and adrift in the world.  They aren’t meant to last very long and they exist(ed) perfectly in their abbreviation.

It’s hard to admit, but the fourth season of Arrested Development ruined this aesthetic.  It’s now imperfect.  It forever exists in two parts–Before Netflix and After Netflix–and it is unlikely many viewers will ever prefer the latter or even believe that its content exists in the same universe as the first three seasons.  There will probably be a movie and perhaps that will redeem this half-revived project, but I doubt it.  Someone drew a mustache on the Mona Lisa.

 

 

Louis C.K.: The Medium is the Hilarious Message

Louis C.K.’s Oh My God: A Review
By Robert D. Schultz
4/29/2013

 

By now you’ve probably heard Thomas Friedman (or some other talking head/columnist/blowhard) espouse the virtues of the “flattened” world.  If you’re unfamiliar with this theory, it’s something you probably know implicitly if you’re alive and at least partially attuned to how humans live in 2013.  The theory goes something like this: access to the Internet has rapidly opened the global marketplace to people from nations that traditionally were unable to compete with the “first-world” because of a lack of infrastructure, technology, education, etc.  The flattened world is really just a euphemism for a leveled competitive landscape.

It’s hardly a revelation that the Internet has changed the way humans work, live, and consume, although you’d never know it by listening to the hushed tones that Friedman employs when restating his theory ad infinitum to any camera with a red light on.  The far more stimulating chore is observing the strange, unintended consequences that our sudden reliance on the Internet has caused.  More specifically, since the methods of discovery of new information are so varied and limitless, how do we as a culture decide on the simple things that used to be accepted as given, the things that were once decided for us by a few studio heads and newspaper editors?  And in the particular case of comedy, how do we decide who is funny?  Or what is funny?

Verifiable empirical data lacks, but it sure seems like there are more comedians vying for our attention than ever before. The traditional superhighways to comedic success were once confined to the five-minute segments at the end of the Tonight Show or David Letterman and a few HBO comedy specials.  Now it’s much different.  TV has gotten bigger.  Programming is at once more varied and more ambitious than in the past.  The well-worn model that read something like this: perform stand-up for a period of years — get discovered — get on the Tonight Show or HBO — ink a TV deal — or in the case of a very lucky few get into the movies, is not the only path anymore.

While the traditional road to success still exists, stand-up comics or just plain-old funny people with a dream can now jump into that path midstream and work backwards or forwards as their talents or desires dictate.  Ricky Gervais wrote a pilot, made The Office (among other high quality television shows), made a few movies, and only then attempted to hone a stand-up act.  Premium channels, Comedy Central, and of course (wait for it) the Internet have given comedians easier access to audiences (even if the stand-up comedy venues of yesteryear continue to struggle).  These expanded mediums have also afforded comics to experiment with the very delivery of their product to the consumer as they would the actual content of their act.  No one has been at the tip of the spear of this experimentation more than Louis C.K.

In 2009, C.K. produced, directed, starred in and paid for Hilarious, his very own one-hour special that he then sold to Epix and Comedy Central without any outside backing.  In 2010, he attempted an even more audacious gamble by selling Live at the Beacon Theatre directly to consumers (or fans, if you like) for the flat fee of five dollars, eschewing a deal with a television channel altogether.  The results were at once profitable and surprising as C.K. employed an honor system of sorts to extract payment of any kind[1].  Other comics have since replicated this model.

Of course this is only part of the story of Louis C.K.’s success.  He has written for Conan O’Brien and Chris Rock.  He’s had two television shows, the short-lived Lucky Louie which lasted one season on HBO, and his current successful FX show simply entitled Louie, widely regarded as the funniest and most innovative show on television.  It’s also the cheapest– a concession Louis made to FX suits in return for complete control over the content of the show.  His experiments on television and on the Internet have been nothing short of game-changing triumphs.  When I thought about all of this, I was left with the incongruous but unshakeable conclusion that Louis C.K. is hands down, the current undisputed king of comedy.

The notion that such a title even exists in 2013 and that Louis C.K. is it runs counter to the flattened world model, cluttered with competition and fractured among consumer groups.  Like just about every other form of media, comedy has been siloed and cordoned off among comedians, comediennes, insult comics, clean comics, blue collar comics, black comics, white comics, urban comics, old-school comics, you name it.  If you fit into one of those categories, you also probably fit into one or two more and that’s simply what you are and there’s probably a nice little audience waiting there for you every so often when you swing through town on a small tour and maybe you’ll get a show on Comedy Central or a bit part in a move but you almost definitely won’t get a network TV deal because they don’t give those out anymore.  It’s a potentially nice little career, if you’re really good and lucky enough.  On the surface, the Balkanization of comedy that seems to have flattened (there’s that G-d damned word again) the playing field has really made for a set of smaller streets and avenues where the highways used to be.  Now, the ceiling is much lower, but the room fits more people.

If there is a present day everyman, Louis C.K. certainly looks the part.  Balding, doughy, and affable might describe his look and demeanor if you want to be nice.  His voice isn’t very threatening and his subject matter, at least on paper, is of the digestible-to-the-masses variety (marriage, divorce, kids, driving, growing old, getting fat).  But don’t get it twisted, Louis C.K. is a dark motherfucker.  Even when he talks about things that he thinks are implicitly fantastic, i.e. divorce, he does so in the context of the miserable thing that preceded, i.e. marriage.  I won’t ruin his closing bit regarding his opposing views of our most societally accepted axioms, but suffice to say that even wounded American soldiers don’t escape his act unscathed.

There is no distinguishing feature of Oh My God that makes it the most important comedy special of the year, except for all of it.  It’s a fully-realized opus to feeling lonely in a crowded world.  It’s at once grotesque, achingly funny, melancholy, with a scintilla of hope sprinkled in every so often.  Above all, it’s honest.  As disturbed and bizarre as some of C.K.’s thoughts may be, this is a man who has waged a long and bloody war with his superego and he doesn’t attempt to hide the wounds.  He’s a man who has done all of the introspection and contemplation that quality therapy requires and absolutely none of the work to get better.

Or maybe he has.  From all accounts Louis is a good father and an outrageously successful citizen by our most accepted metric (viz money).  He’s accepted his own mortality perhaps as well as any 45 year-old man, which is to say he’s aware of it and remains grateful for the small beauties that life on earth offers.  He thinks awful things, knows they’re awful, is certain you will agree that they are awful, knows why they’re awful, and knows you’ll think they’re funny because you think them too, a fact that could make his act all the more disturbing for his audience but for his willingness to gleefully accept ownership of the origin of his sick premises.  It’s comedy as catharsis.  It’s a realization of hatreds and petty grievances that irrationally make us mad, tire us out, and make us old before our time.  It’s life in a confusing, intimidating, huge world that is itself, an unimportant fleck of dust in the universe.  We come to Louis en masse because he has become an expert at this purgation.  You don’t even have to pay for the privilege, although, hey man it’s only five bucks.  Don’t be such a cheap bastard.

It has been said that the medium is the message.  If that’s true then it is relevant two-fold to C.K.  It is not only the forward-looking method of distributing his funny, sardonic massage that has thrust Louis C.K. to the very pinnacle of comedy.  It is also something very basic about the vessel that is Louis C.K.  He is the medium.  His nature, his delivery, his subject matter, it’s all a Trojan Horse to make the delivery of some really depressing truths about life more palatable.  He has made it as easy as humanly possible to access.  Oh My God is full of anxiety and sadness and fear, feelings we’re better acquainted with than we once were.  Louis takes solace where he can, biting into bacon, satiating his prurient interests, looking around for a second on a beautiful planet, pouring whiskey all over his naked body because he can.

Through it all there is a sense of incredulity, that he can’t believe any of it, probably least of which being his perch as the best comedian in the world.



[1] The downloadable file was easily tradable, a fact that C.K. acknowledged on his website.

Anthony Bourdain: Known Unknowns

Anthony Bourdain: Known Unknowns
By Robert D. Schultz
4/22/2013

 

“There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.  There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know.  But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.” –Donald Rumsfeld

In advance of the second episode of Anthony Bourdain’s new show Parts Unknown, I took a peek ahead at where everyone’s favorite (or least favorite if you’re Rachael Ray) chef-at-large would be exploring on his latest venture.  I was at once surprised and nonplussed about Los Angeles’ Koreatown as a destination so early in the show’s inaugural season.  A three square-mile area located in the heart of America’s most vapid and overexposed city is hardly an exotic locale far beyond the imagination of us average folk.  If L.A. is a part of the world that is evenly slightly foreign to an American viewer, maybe it’s the viewer’s conscious choice.  We all think we know L.A simply because of our common status as slavish viewers of screens big and small.  It’s almost impossible to be American and not be a consumer of L.A.  This would be a known known or hardly a part unknown.

But crowded among a stacked Sunday TV lineup, I found myself sitting down to watch Parts Unknown ahead of its stiff competition on the DVR queue.  To me, Bourdain has a lot to prove.  Aside from that truly pitiable lark (at least I hope it was a lark) into primetime network programming (see, The Taste…actually don’t see The Taste), Bourdain has recently strayed from the estimable principles that once made his irascible brand so appealing.  Bourdain has always been a throwback of sorts, an old-school chef with a rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic.  He even had a crash and burn history of drug addiction, despair and eventual redemption to add to his bona fides.  He purportedly abhorred product placement and shilling for the man right up until he started doing it himself.

But if Lou Reed and Iggy Pop can sell out, then I suppose a fellow derelict-cum-neo-celebrity such as Bourdain never stood a chance in the face of capitalism’s hollow seductions.  If you’ve watched every episode of Bourdain’s prior show, the mostly awesome No Reservations, then the episodes where he conspicuously pays for his meals with a Chase Blue Card are every bit as jarring as a spelunking adventure deep into a guano-caked Jamaican cave.  Early on in his TV misadventures, Emeril Lagasse served as a convenient whipping boy for all that was wrong with the celebrity chef TV-genre.  Chefs who no longer frequented the kitchen amounted to little more than empty poseurs worthy of his most opprobrious scorn.  In 2013, it’s safe to say that Bourdain’s best perspective of the kitchen comes solely from his seat at the table.  Lagasse is now more a peer that Bourdain can commiserate with than a target.  He’s no longer the everyman, a known unknown of sorts.

The glue that has always held together Bourdain’s contradictory, perhaps hypocritical persona is the undeniable fact that he makes eminently watchable and fascinating TV.  This episode of Parts Unknown is indeed Bourdain at his best.  Using the sad historical footnote of Koreatown’s role as the silent victim in the 1992 L.A. riots as background, Bourdain tells a captivating, singular tale of what it means to be Korean-American in L.A.  With the help of his always-present “fixers,” in this millionaire Facebook artist David Choe and Food Truck impresario Roy Choi, Koreatown is the essence of a part unknown.  Burdain pulls back the layers of a world of strange food and art, low-riders and corporal punishment, a world of outmoded and sometimes harsh values held close by a community earnest and hard-working people living in the middle of L.A., right alongside the Mexican, Bangladeshi, El Salvadorian, and Chinese immigrants similarly forging an existence.

If it’s Bourdain’s snark that made him famous, then it is certainly his bravery to keep exploring and his respect for the people he visits that keeps him so.  Always inquisitive of his subjects and mindful that as well-traveled and learned as he has become, Bourdain is almost always a fish out of water in his travels, always one rude comment away from being the ugly American.  But he never is.  Nowhere was this more evident in his show than during a trip to Sizzler with David Choe (an interesting character who himself may require his own television show).  Bourdain might have a hard time conjuring an institution that so flagrantly eschews everything that he holds sacred about food and the experience of dining.  After an awkward moment or two, Bourdain elicits a rather poignant story from Choe about why trips to the Sizzler in Koreatown were so important to him and the memories the place held for him.  Unsurprisingly, it has little to do with the food.  With Bourdain, it usually never is.

It remains to be seen where Bourdain will take his new show.  Perhaps the bulk of this show will explore the places on the globe that scream adventure, the unknown unknowns.  He has already shown an ability to uncover the strange and unfamiliar where it might not seem to exist on the surface.  The conclusions of No Reservations and Parts Unknown in its stead usually contain a narrated paragraph or two at the end where Bourdain offers a synopsis of his journey, sometimes accompanied by some introspection about how his preconceived notions about a place have been forever changed.  His purpose as I see it, if there is one, is to initiate a similar metamorphosis in the viewer–to show just enough of a place to make it a little more interesting, a little less scary.  It’s the height of what the medium can accomplish.  It’s only the second episode, but if that’s the show, I’ll be along for the ride.

 

House of Cards Review

House of Cards Review
By Robert D. Schultz
3/7/2012

“The world of 7:30 on Tuesday nights, that’s dead. A stake has been driven through its heart, its head has been cut off, and its mouth has been stuffed with garlic. The captive audience is gone. If you give people this opportunity to mainline all in one day, there’s reason to believe they will do it” –David Fincher

Can a television show make it without being on TV?

While House of Cards is not the first attempt by Netflix to circumvent the well-worn structure of the weekly television serial (Lilyhammer anyone?  Steven Van Zandt?  Silvio Dante in Norway?  Doesn’t ring a bell?), it is certainly getting all the credit for doing so.  The entire first season was released on February 1, 2013, eschewing the appointment viewing model, the only model TV has ever known.  Ostensibly, the premier and the finale all happened at once.  If you didn’t know, you better ask somebody.  Or don’t, who knows, they might spoil the ending.

In recent years, television shows that require a commitment from the viewer beginning at Season 1, episode 1, have managed to grow their audiences by catching viewers up on past seasons via OnDemand, Netflix, Hulu, and DVD sales.  “Mainlining,” (a term sometimes associated with IV heroin use) describes a behavior that many television viewers would likely only sheepishly admit to being guilty of; that is, watching an entire season in a day or a weekend.  It is a behavior the creators of House of Cards are hoping has become commonplace enough to inspire viewers to support that sort of viewing as the only method of consumption.

This mainlining of television shows has likely been responsible for giving new life to shows that might have otherwise died a quick and painful death.  In the past, a little-known television show of high quality might only pique a viewer’s interest enough to check it out only after it has been cancelled and “stuffed with garlic” (shows such as My So-Called Life, Freaks and Geeks come to mind).  By then of course, it’s already too late –notwithstanding the amazing return of Arrested Development ten years after (RIP Alvin Lee).

There are two obstacles to the House of Cards model as I see them.  If a show is released all at once, doesn’t the spoiler potential shoot through the roof?  Let’s say a show like House of Cards really catches on and its last season has some crazy Sopranos-like ending.  The shut-ins who can watch an entire season the day it comes out are more likely to ruin the surprise, no?  The second issue as it pertains to the avalanche-in-your-lap-method is the effect on pacing.  How important could a “midseason” plot twist really be if the next episode is merely a click away?  How important is the episode as medium in the first place if the show is really just being viewed as a thirteen-hour movie?  Why even bother with opening and closing credits?

All of these existential questions are irrelevant however unless the programming is actually intriguing enough for the viewer to watch in the first place.

So is House of Cards good enough to turn the whole system on its head?

Well…it isn’t not the game-changer.

House of Cards is good.  Good enough anyway.

The show takes place in a fictional present day Washington D.C. where show protagonist Frank Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey), a Democratic House Majority Whip from South Carolina (they still make Democrats in South Carolina?) recently scorned in his bid to become the President-elect’s new Secretary of State, seeks retribution for higher-ups who conspired to keep him in Congress.  Spacey’s Underwood fancies himself a master manipulator, the smartest guy in the room sneering at the bumbling idiots who he has to put up with to satiate his hunger for power.  Underwood frequently revels in offering violent imagery when describing his intentions.  He claims that he usually doesn’t speak much at his weekly lunch appointment with the Speaker of the House because he’s dreaming of cooking their lightly salted faces in a pan.  OK, then.

The fourth-wall breaking narration frequently provided by Spacey’s Underwood actually kind of works, mostly because he treats you the viewer with slightly more respect than he does the rest of the peons he must deal with.  However, despite all of his conniving and out-sized intelligence, he is caught unawares when he is passed over for an appointment to his most coveted post.  It is a little hard to reconcile how masterfully he predicts the outcome of his ploys to subvert his colleagues when the entire basis of his anger is borne out of his own inability to see a coup ending with his head on a plate coming.

Underwood’s wife, played by the Lady Macbethian Robin Wright, serves as his closest and shrewdest ally.  She cares about her husband’s career almost as obsessively as he does and seems to like him in the traditional sense-at least enough not to continue an extra-marital affair with some radnom creepy photographer guy.  Their union is tempered by their shared white-hot passion to avenge the pols who have wronged the Congressman at any cost.

And avenge they do.

The rest of the cast, filled out by ambitious young reported Zoe Barnes (played by Kate Mara), party-boy rep from Philadelphia Peter Russo (played by Corey Stoll), and Underwood’s chief of staff David Stamper (played by Michael Kelly), is also quite serviceable and in Kelly’s case, verging on great.

It’s not Mad Men.  It’s not Breaking Bad.  It’s certainly not The Wire.  If anything, it’s a more palatable (and more believable) Boss.  What House of Cards definitely is however, is a show that is good enough to test a novel way of consuming new, quality material normally bound by the confines of TV.  The tempo is brisk, the acting is just fine (oh, except for the on-again off-again Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil Southern Savannah-style drawl that our protagonist inexplicably drops without warning), and the writing keeps the show moving enough to make you look at the clock and wonder if you should press play next episode as the credits roll.  Which is sort of the point, no?

It’s just not great.

 

The Never Ending Story

The Never-Ending Story
By Robert D. Schultz
2/25/2013

After two full years of the spending cuts vs. tax increase do-si-do between Democrats and Republicans, and more specifically House Republican leadership and President Obama, both sides appear ready to finally hold and hands and leap into the economic abyss. “The Sequester,” which sounds like the name of a USA movie about a jury holed up in a motel being stalked by a serial killer, will take effect on March 1st and both sides appear fresh out of new ideas of how to push back another deadline, forego anther self-created disaster. With it, the Sequester brings a number of onerous, haphazard spending cuts that
will almost assuredly stall the ‘The Great Tepid Recovery’ of the past half-decade.

In theory, the Sequester should have forced the two sides to work out an agreement. The choice of March 1st, 2013 was not made as arbitrarily as the cuts contained within the bill. Ostensibly, Fiscal Apocalypse I: The First Debt Ceiling Fiasco, was resolved in a way that set up the 2012 election as a winner-take-all proposition to finally solve this mired debate. In theory, if the President won, the spending cuts would be largely replaced with revenue increases; if Mitt Romney and the Republicans won (just go with the hypothetical), the spending cuts would have likely been amended to include far more social programs (bye-bye Medicare/Medicaid, sayonara Social Security, and Planned Parenthood would have been drowned in Grover Noqruist’s bathtub) and far fewer, if any, cuts to national defense.

The subsequent faux-armageddons (what, you already forgot about The Fiscal Cliff?) awarded a small but meaningful victory to the President, who hadn’t even yet begun his recently won second term.  Apparently, that manufactured crisis took all the wind out of the sails of the power of The Sequester.  Still smarting from their acquiescence to Democratic demands to finally raise taxes on the very highest of earners, Republicans seem no longer willing to even entertain the idea of even more increases.  Conversely, emboldened Democrats (rightly) believe that a balanced approach to deficit reduction is
the will of the people, as reflected by a sneakily overwhelming victory in November. However, those very same Democrats have (wrongly) remained unwilling to name the spending cuts they would be willing to live with. Of course Republicans haven’t named any specific cuts either. Shockingly, the President saw none of this coming.

In short, it’s a game of chicken being played by chickens. No one wants to blink; no wants to swerve out of the way of the other onrushing car; no one wants put down the gun loaded with a single bullet –and not out of bravery. The politicians who are poised to take a bat to our glued-together recovery are the worst kinds of cowards. They have not only put party before country, they have put themselves before their party. The Tea-Party faction, safely gerrymandered into decade-long cover from a challenge from anywhere except from the very far right have never wanted to govern. The (one-time) moderate Republicans like Boehner and McCain have been schooled in the art of brinksmanship by their bomb-throwing compatriots and they seem to have taken to their methods with aplomb. Senate Democrats are only too keen to be fooled time and again by their friends on the other side, who hide their intentions about as well as Dr. Drew treats his patients on Celebrity Rehab. Meet the new Boss Harry Reid, same as the old boss. Not you.

This leaves the President of the United States to save us from our lawmakers, and his track record is not especially good. Perhaps President Obama’s naiveté with respect to negotiating with Republicans could have been forgiven the first time around. He obviously misunderstood the hatred his enemies had for him and for his agenda to a lesser extent (part of that agenda contained Republican ideas- The Dream Act, anyone? Class, anyone? Bueller?). He has no such excuse in his second term. He has already made the mistake of not solving the problem of The Sequester in conjunction with his deal to raise taxes in January. Further sullying our chances for meaningful economic progress, Obama merely pushed the next debt ceiling battle back six months in return for his modest 3% tax increase for those earning over 500 grand. It’s as if the President has a full house, and instead of cashing in, he is content to change the rules in order to give Republicans infinite chances to draw another card with which to beat him.

Perhaps it’s even too much to ask the President to overcome the ineptitude of an entire body of Congress composed of 535 incompetent, selfish, obstinate, avaricious, angry people. Perhaps Americans deserve the results produced by such a body that they elected. However, President Obama fancies himself a historic figure, and to be sure he already has become one. In order to earn his place in history beyond the racial implications of his success as politician, he must guide the country through and around the mess created by our Congress.

Maybe someone should ask him if he’s fired, ready to go, etc.