You Must Remember This

You Must Remember This

Wednesday, 20 November 2013


Tony Soprano (Nick)

“Dysfunction this, and dysfunction that, and dysfunction vaffancul!”

Vince Gilligan once said, "Without Tony Soprano, there would be no Walter White." I would now like to go one further in asserting that, “Walter White is no Tony Soprano.” 

First off, I would be a fool to deny the cultural predominance of everything Breaking Bad and more specifically Walter White; or Heisenberg as the case may be. Even a rudimentary glance at this year’s Halloween costume roster – the yellow boiler suits, the goatees, the black trim hats - should provide some testament to just how impactful Walt’s meth-fuelled rise-and-fall has been on our collective cultural consciousness. However, his wide appeal is something of a double-edged sword; here’s why…

Gilligan rarely challenged the audience’s relationship with White in the same way that David Chase did with Tony Soprano; and Walt’s cult-stardom status is something of a testament to this. While there are many disturbing and brilliantly macabre moments that marked Walt’s descent into the criminal (and ethical) underworld, none of them truly endangered his iconic appeal as a man aggressively compensating for a life characterized by emasculation in a disenfranchised America. 

This is partly due to the fact that the majority of Walt’s manoeuvring climaxed with moments that were quite unabashedly cool – explosive wheelchairs, automated turret guns, “it’s not meth” – consequently there was always something inherently fantastical and darkly comic about Walt’s exploits that prevented us from really contemplating the more traumatic implications of his actions. By contrast, The Sopranos made a habit of terrorizing its audience’s affection for Tony in the interest of bringing us a truly dynamic and challenging protagonist.

This uneasy, quasi-sadistic tendency was first brought into sharp relief in the award-winning episode “College”, the fifth episode in the first season of The Sopranos. The challenging precedent set in this episodes unflinching depiction of Tony’s more psychotic tendencies – a lengthy on-screen kill involving Tony strangling a former snitch while spitting a torrent of abuse into his ear - became a hallmark of the series throughout its six-season run. Time and time again audiences bore witness to events that completely undermined their ability to root for a man that occupied the lion’s share of the show’s running time. 

One moment that was particularly defining in its portrayal of Tony’s more vicious and sadistic tendencies came in the closing moments of the Mike Figgis-helmed episode “Cold Cuts” during which Tony goads his sister out of a new-found inner serenity with jeers about her absent son Harpo – “I wonder what’s French-Canadian for I grew up without a mother?” – an episode that concludes with the perfectly fitting melancholic lamentations of The Kinks’ “I’m Not Like Everybody Else.” So why did audiences keep watching? What kept them hooked on a story centring on a man that was fundamentally a hypocritical sociopath? Put simply, the therapy. 

It’s by way of Tony’s therapy sessions, played out within the warm confines of Dr Melphi’s autumn-shaded office, that we are able to observe fleeting moments of humanity and existential reflection; a humanity masterfully suggested by the subtle inflictions of Gandolfini’s bar-setting performance. By positioning the audience at a vantage point overlooking the seemingly separate spheres of Tony’s life, Chase was able to build a character complete with an incredible array of contradictions, motivations, insecurities, ambitions and doubts. 

While some may confuse this catalogue of psychological inflictions for “window-dressing”, it’s the details - his blind spot affection for animals, his nostalgia for simpler times ("whatever happened to Gary Cooper?"), his enduring befuddlement as to the ever-shifting cultural landscape of modern America– that serve to provide viewers with an emotional anchor; an anchor fated to brave the tumultuous storms that rage through Tony’s life as New Jersey’s mob-boss.  Additionally, his seeming inability to entirely overcome the inner demons that plague him – his mother for one and his rage for another – is not a testament to the show’s lack of “change” – as some critics may suggest - but rather a symptom of its entirely realistic, albeit cynical, depiction of human nature. Which brings me back to Walt…

Breaking Bad moves at such break-neck speed there is rarely any time left for much in the way of character development; in short, the range of Walt’s afflictions and personality traits are entirely tied up in his oft-cited arc. Consequently, the shows in-built need to transform its protagonist ironically serves to constrain and limit his depth - from "Mr Chips to Scarface" but not much else. Genuinely layered and complex characters command a wider array of motivations, fears and desires. They are not, as Robert may argue, built on a singular premise, however ambitious or grand. Unlike Walt, Tony cannot be summed up in a log line. His motivations are neither obvious nor immediately relatable and to truly understand him demands a keen eye for the plethora of insights that distinguish the true superiority of his portrayal above the many antiheroes he has since inspired. 

It is by virtue of these insights that audiences have been rewarded with a figure so multifaceted he easily ascends to a plane where the lines between fiction and reality are masterfully blurred; rarely has a character been so easily confused for a real human being. Meanwhile, there is a thematic simplicity to Walter that makes him a deeply appealing - and entirely iconic - character, but limits him from ascending to the heights that were so supremely conquered by Tony so many years ago.

Walter White (Rob) 

"If you're committed enough, you can make any story work..."
Walter White is the greatest character ever to appear on television. You can keep your Don Drapers, your Vic Mackeys, and yes, your Tony Sopranos. As much as I love all three of them - and believe me, I devoured The Shield - none of them can hold a candle (or perhaps some sort of welding torch) to Walt's brilliance, both conceptually and as a character. 

More so than Mad Men, The Shield or The Sopranos, arguably the three strongest single-protagonist dramas ever made, Breaking Bad is nothing without Walter White. While I'm sure that statement will be used against me in some future essay on Breaking Bad's supposed limitations, I would argue that the show's greatest strength is in its almost monolithic focus on its protagonist. Jesse may mope, Skyler may wind people up, Flynn may eat breakfast, but Breaking Bad is never better than when it puts Bryan Cranston centre stage. 

Both he and James Gandolfini share an unfortunate bond in that they were both beaten to Emmys by less deserving contenders (James Spader in Boston Legal and, more recently, Jeff Daniels in The Newsroom) who served as mouthpieces for liberal talking points, and, on some level, it's easy to understand why. Both Walt and Tony are fundamentally right-wing figures who embody certain truths about the free market. While Tony cuts a tragic figure as a born-and-bred gangster, the tragedy of Walt is one he shares with most of us: he could have been more. 

Walt may be easy to define in broad strokes - he's gifted, emasculated, dissatisfied with his lot in life, his unassuming countenance masking an overburdened ego. His strength as a character is in his arc. It's possible to argue against arcs as limiting, inartistic, blah, blah, blah, but the truth is that every great dramatic character has one. The Sopranos' own Big Pussy may be dismissive ("You know who had an arc? Noah."), but would we remember Hamlet, King Lear, Oedipus, Michael Corleone were it not for the fact that they change. 

As I've said before on this blog, Breaking Bad is all about the change. Show-runner Vince Gilligan set out with the purpose of, as Nick mentions above, turning Scarface into Mr. Chips, but he achieved so much more than that. If The Sopranos is a Bush-era parable of the American dream, as I believe it is, then Walter White is an anti-hero for the recession. In an age of people who spent their lives doing the right things, saving and providing for their families, only to see it all swept away, Walt is the perfect embodiment of their rage and frustration. 

Over the course of five seasons, we watch as this kindly, soft-spoken individual is slowly transformed, episode-by-episode, is transformed into a vengeful god. Pragmatism gives way to pride, supposed good intentions to darkest deeds. At its heart, Breaking Bad is a Greek tragedy, containing all the hubris and hamartia of anything by Sophocles or Aristotle. It is a story of self-actualization and self-destruction, of coming into oneself at any cost. Tony Soprano, comparatively, comes across as a still-life, but brushstrokes are no substitute for dynamism.

None of this would work, however, without Bryan Cranston's intense, exceptional performance. It's acting that almost exhausts superlatives. Every instant Cranston is on screen is exhausting: you can almost see the mind at work behind every flicker on his increasingly lined face. It's a subtle and haunting character study, from the moment of the broken plate in S01E03 to Walt's mounting hysteria at the end of Season Four's "Crawl Space" (if you've seen either, you'll know exactly what I mean). As the divide between tender father and ruthless drug manufacturer is slowly eaten away by the same acid eating into Walt's soul, Cranston brings us along every step of the way. 

There's a case to be made for the slower, more accumulative approach to character taken by The Sopranos, the small touches, the taste in music, the preferred beverage, but a list of facts does not make up a life and the propensity to document a character's every bowel movement does not make for compelling TV. These stiller waters may run deep, but they're in no danger of sweeping you away. With Tony it's possible to retain objective distance; Walt smashes down the barriers between himself and the viewer with a sledgehammer.

An amazing triumph of Breaking Bad is that we never lose that personal connection with Walt: we cannot help it because, in many ways, he is us, or at least the person we might become. We are complicit in his crimes, too often we condone them, up to and including the poisoning of a child. At the end of the day, Tony Soprano is just a gangster, however complex; there's no precedent for Walt. It’s one thing to watch a proclaimed Mafia Captain bump off a snitch then go home to his family; it’s another to watch a fundamentally decent human gradually become a monster. 

Breaking Bad is not about a man with cancer or the flaws inherent in the capitalist system, though it encompasses both those things: it's about a man bowed by life who, in the words of Travis Bickle, "stood up" and the consequences of it. The standing up just happened to involve hundreds of pounds of prime blue meth, a multitude of deaths (innocent or otherwise), and one of the best and most entertaining TV shows ever to be made, one from which it becomes harder and harder to look away from the darker and more devastating it gets.  

Breaking Bad is simply the more striking and ambitious show and Walter White is testament to that.

Coming next: supporting cast...

Friday, 15 November 2013


It’s been 27 days since I officially went on hiatus. I think that’s long enough. Here's a double review: The Counselor and Saving Mr. Banks. 


From its opening moments, The Counselor is an unusual beast. Cheetahs stalk wild hares on the savannah, not of Africa but Mexico; a flamboyant, eccentrically rich couple picnic nearby in the company of some luxury motors. Sometime soon Michael Fassbender’s nameless eponym will be buying a diamond from Bruno Ganz’s merchant, who pontificates on the beauty of the stone lying in its flaws. A pure diamond, he says, would seem to be comprised of air. The Counselor, however, manages to be both flawed and ultimately insubstantial. 

Cormac McCarthy’s script hides its hollowness behind philosophizing, behind its sparse literariness (he may have written the novel No Country For Old Men, but the adaptation was notably penned by the Coen Brothers). Fassbender is nicely understated in the lead role and shares impressive chemistry with Penelope Cruz as his sexy Catholic fiancé – a scene with them hidden, writhing, beneath the covers, carrying on a breathy conversation, is well-conceived, if a touch too explicit dialogue-wise. 

The film’s fundamental disconnect is summed up in an already-notorious scene where Cameron Diaz’s Malkina mounts the bonnet of a yellow 2013 Ferrari California HS and proceeds to grind on it, panty-less, till orgasm, an act her boyfriend (Javier Bardem) appropriately describes as “too gynecological to be sexy”. Similarly, The Counselor is too gynecological to be insightful. Combine this with the cartel violence, familiar touches like bodies in barrels, and it feels an attempted cross between Breaking Bad and Shame. It even features – SPOILER – a somewhat wasted cameo by the usually great Dean Norris

Ridley Scott shoots the New Mexico brilliantly - dusty, rocky, scrubby, in shades of brown and yellow - but there’s no one to really connect with. Bardem’s vivid, wild-haired, wide-eyed, nut-brown drug dealer Reiner (one of the aforementioned eccentric rich couple) is arresting, but ultimately listless. The autoerotically-inclined Malkina, too trashy to be attractive, is an ingenious apparently all-knowing provocateur. With her cheetah print tattoo and her cool, pouty monologuing, she provides the clearest insight into the film’s nihilistic central theme of greed and survival. Like the film as a whole, though, it's a case of  “all fur coat and no knickers”. 

Despite all this, and its plot hinging on a neatly lamp-shaded coincidence, the film manages to occasionally be both textured and complex. It’s at its best when at its tensest and most technical, like with the rigging of a metal-wire trap across a roadway or the gruesome reminder that a bolito is not, in fact, a type of necktie (well, it is, of sorts). There’s a memorable shootout across a road, gunmen firing desperately across the flat surface from shallow ditches at either side, but, again, no characters to really root for.

Instead of Tommy Lee Jones’ rumpled, deeply human Sheriff a la No Country, The Counselor gives us Brad Pitt’s mysterious, knowing-yet-ultimately-hapless middleman. There’s enough wit to mostly cover the lack of substance (McCarthy, after all, does have a Pulitzer to his name), but being stylish and well-lit cannot compensate for the film's thematic and textual murkiness. Overall, The Counselor is an intriguing failure for the talent involved. It feels more like a more pretentious take on the middlebrow thrillers of Tony Scott (RIP) than a classic Ridley Scott outing; that being said, it’s still a darn sight better than Prometheus

The Counselor gets 5/10.


Try to think of an occasion on which you've seen the celebrated Mr. Walt Disney portrayed in film. Simply put, you can’t: the Disney corporation has fiercely guarded the image of their founder, almost as fiercely as their iconic mascot. It’s only now, some 47 years after his death, that the creator of the beloved Mickey Mouse makes his first appearance in fiction. Who better then to capture his twinkly geniality than another cinematic legend, Tom Hanks?

Saving Mr. Banks, though, is not the story of Disney and the birth of his dream factory, but of P.L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins, and Disney’s attempt to solicit from her the movie rights. Miss Travers – as she insists on being known – is played by none other than Emma Thompson, a British national treasure perhaps best known for her Oscar-nominated performance in Remains of the Day. Travers herself, however, is more reminiscent of Anthony Hopkins’ character in that same film: prim, fastidious, and nursing a secret wound. 


Saving Mr. Banks focuses on a trip Travers made to California in 1961, brought there that Walt Disney might try his charm in person. Frequent flashbacks to Travers’ childhood in rural Australia serve to illuminate her attachment to her creation, especially as she relates to the figure of Travers’ roguishly charming but put-upon alcoholic father (Colin Farrell). If this sounds like a dark, complex topic for a Disney movie, it is, of course, never less than family friendly in its treatment

Of course, the film has a lot of fun in its evocation of the classic movie. Thompson’s Travis is wonderfully snippy in her dismissal of Mary Poppins as “careering towards a happy ending like a kamikaze” and hectoring the film’s lyricists, Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak) for making up a word (prompting Schwartzman to quickly hide the sheet music to “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”. However cynical you may be, Saving Mr. Banks’ nostalgia factor is irresistible. 


Which is not to say there are no depths. Saving Mr. Banks revolves around Travers’ journey towards letting go of the past, such as in the fraught association between her own father, Travers Goff, and the figure of Mr. Banks. As she exasperatedly remarks to Walt, Mary Poppins isn’t there to save the children at all, though the film dares to suggest that Disney’s attempt to adapt the book may just save her, if only by finally forcing her to confront these issues.

If never quite fascinating as a study of a deeply unhappy woman – Travers’ problems are too lightly and broadly sketched for that – Saving Mr. Banks nevertheless succeeds in bringing to life Disney’s creator. Hanks’ Walt is loquacious and expansive; if a little caricaturist, wandering the streets of Disneyland with his pre-signed autographs. However, Hanks also lends him an indefinable authority: silence falls when he enters a room, not merely out of respect to but because of his presence. 

Paul Giamatti appears as Travers’ L.A. chauffeur, Ralph, whose buoyant nature belies his own troubles, while Ruth Wilson shows the true cost of Travers’ father’s recklessness as her tormented mother, Margaret. The West Wing’s Bradley Whitford is largely wasted as strenuously well-mannered screenwriter, Don DaGradi, but it’s a small enough complaint in a film that otherwise gets so much mileage out of Travers’ biographical jaunt across the pond.

Saving Mr. Banks is heartening and humane, one of the most genuinely feel-good films I can remember seeing in a longtime. It may provide little insight into the figure at its head, but that is, perhaps, to be expected. Thompson and Travers may well pick up Oscar nods for their performances, and deservedly so. In any case, after five years of the likes of Alice in Wonderland and Oz the Great and Powerful, Disney is back on live-action form. If this is what it takes for Disney to make good drama, maybe they should stick to self-nostalgia.

Saving Mr. Banks gets 8.0/10.