Archive for the ‘TV Shows’ Category

Austin Pendleton

February 26th, 2011 No comments

Was watching an interview/discussion with Austin Pendleton on Theater Talk. It is a wonderful interview with plenty of insight into acting, directing, and theater relationships. Pendleton was talking about his upcoming productions of both Three Sisters and Detroit. Detroit is on the cover of American Theatre, either this month or last month, including the full text of the play. With Three Sisters I can only think of the Wooster Group production and Willem Dafoe speaking in his wispy, mellow way.

Anyway, the other night I was watching Zoldessy choreograph the movements of the actors in the East Storefront. He kept having them move and the he’d stop and think about it for a bit and then he’d talk about it and then he’d have everyone go back and run through the movement again. Zoldessy must have spend :30 minutes or :40 minutes on a page-and-a-half of the play, and I could tell the actors were getting antsy and there were only 10 pages left in the play and the hour was getting late, etc.

It was at this moment that I remembered the interview with Pendleton. In that interview he recounted how Jerome Robbins, during a 1964 production of Fiddler on the Roof spent 6 hours staging and re-staging a scene that was all of 5 minutes on stage. Now, Robbins could get away with it because he had paid actors who were acting as their job. Nonetheless, Robbins was, according to Pendleton, very committed to telling the story, that is, making the reality of the characters and their relationships truthful and real. The 5 minute scene was the family preparing for the Sabbath, and Robbins felt that the scene showed relationships and established character and was important enough to examine and block again and again until it was just right.

Pendleton then talked about his first gig as a director and how he blocked out the whole play in his mind. And then, with some other play that he was directing he didn’t get the chance to do that and felt awful about it, and unprepared, but, to his chagrin, discovered an organic approach, what he referred to as “expressive blocking.” Pendleton felt that this kind of experimenting is important and characterized it as working with clay, but you’re working with actors. And once the actors are interacting you begin to see things.

Jarod and I were at Happy Dog the other day talking about how much Zoldessy is bringing out in the play that is not apparent in the text, and much of this has to do with this process.

Pendleton also attributed a heuristic to Kazan, I think, that when it comes to successfully staging a play that it’s 80% casting, and 18% the ground plan: a ground plan that is expressive of the story.

Pendleton also talked about approaches to directing actors, including spending a certain amount of time at the table discussing the scene. What’s the event in the scene that moves the story forward. How are things different at the end of this scene than they were at the outset. Very traditional in that respect.

What do you think; did Walt bring down that plane?

May 31st, 2009 No comments

So, I’m stepping aside my usual purpose here to consider the finale of Breaking Bad, of which I am a fan.


For weeks I’ve been watching the opening sequence of Breaking Bad which showed images of a burnt stuffed animal floating in the White family swimming pool and body bags being loaded into a vehicle.  My mind wriggled about trying to figure out what this meant for the finale and the White family, as well as his ambitious enterprise (which, admittedly, has seen setbacks come to his front door before: most notably Tuco).  But the finale here reached well beyond the expectations that I had and projected some interesting problems onto both Walt and the audience–some of which are valid and some not so much.

The finale winds up with Jane’s father, Donald, losing his concentration in the aftermath of her death (by a drug overdose–choking on her vomit) leading to a mid-air collision between two airplanes.  (Donald is an air-traffic controller.)  The debris falling from the planes explains the stuffed animal, body bags, etc.  My initial reaction was, not to be insensitive here, ‘so what?’  I mean, the implication is that Walter watched as Jane choked on vomit, he did nothing, so she died. Her death caused her father to go into a mental tailspin which leads to a mid-air collision killing lots of people including the most innocent and helpless members of our society: children.  I watched this and thought, “What’s this got to do with the show? What does this have to do with anything? This is not Walt’s fault.”  That is, it is not Walt’s fault that Donald could not do his job, keep his concentration, or know when to return two work, or when to admit he couldn’t focus, etc.  But then, I realized the writers were going for something much broader than this.  The writers are throwing a bit of Chaos theory at the audience–the whole “a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil and causes a tornado in Texas.” And the airplane is a harsh metaphor for the implications on society of what Walt is doing.  Throughout the show, for the most part, only the guilty have been getting hurt–if you make exception for the White family, Jesse’s family, and the one show (Peekaboo) where we see a little boy living in filth with his junky parents.  And these hurts are emotional, psychological, etc., which are discounted for the most part by American society anyway; i.e. the only thing that counts to practical Americans is a REAL hurt–one you can see; that is, violence.  For most of America, if you can’t see it, it ain’t real–and this is certainly the case with psychological or emotional problems.

Stepping off my pedestal now… As far as the show goes, I have mixed feelings about this statement by the writers (if that is indeed their point).  First, it has to be hard for a show like Breaking Bad which is, in some ways, glorifying the drug trade and drug manufacture.  I will not get into an analysis of portrayals here, as I can’t speak well enough to such things: i.e. how law-enforcement is portrayed, how drug dealing is portrayed, etc.  But it seems real enough to me, and in no way desirable.  But you just know some executive somewhere at AMC has an itch, and he or she is saying, “But isn’t this putting drugs in a good light?”  So, perhaps there is pressure to demonstrate broader consequences–and exploding two planes and having a child’s toy drop is pretty damn dramatic.  As well, who can forget the statement by Flynn (Walter Jr.) to the press?  That one hurt.  The irony there was crushing, of course, as it was intended to be.  As well, there is Skyler taking off. So, I think we’re seeing a direction that this thing will go.  We’re seeing the macro and micro environments shattering all around Walt.  While I’m on directions, of course, it was no accident that Ted was there by Skyler’s side when the baby was born.  I digressed there, but the point is, I understand that there is probably some pressure to make the message less drug-glorious and more community-harming.  But this should not spin too far away from what is fundamental: we all have choices.  I don’t want to get into a discussion about personal responsibility or libertarianism or existentialism or whatever on a grand scale, but will consider it mundanely with these characters.

Did Walt kill Jane? No.  Jane kill self. Jane stupid that way.  (Sorry, couldn’t resist the Tarzan shot.)  Jane made the choice that killed her when she a) could have walked out the door as Jesse had asked; or b) go back to get high with Jesse (which is what she did).  As soon as Jane made that choice, she was dead.  At some point a person has to accept responsibility for her life and do what is right.  And I don’t mean morally right, or whatever, but right for that person’s life–make a choice that moves her forward and not one that regresses.  Donald did everything that he could as a parent barring putting Jane in a cage.  That kind of oversight is possible, but not practical for too many reasons.  I have a daughter who is nearly four, and it kills me to contemplate that she would end up doing something like what Jane did or that she would ever devalue a life which I hold as greater in value than anything I have achieved personally or will ever achieve.  But even I know that a painful day will come when I have to let my daughter make choices for herself, and worse yet, I know some of them will be painful choices.  I cannot think that Donald could have done more than showing up every morning to go with her to meetings and to give her a place to live and to support her as much as he could.  In the end, Jane had to make a choice for herself.  That choice should have been to give tough love and not do what Jesse was doing; not choose to be co-dependent and get high with him.  That choice was her death warrant.  Walt was there to see the climax, but her death is not on his hands.

That being said, however, Walt is guilty of an immoral choice.  As far as I’m concerned, Walt had a moral responsibility to act to save Jane.  Call it religious, call it moral, call it ethical, call it basic human decency, call it whatever you want: Walt failed at that moment.  It is morally worse because he made a conscious choice to withhold help because it was to his advantage to do so.  This makes his choice very morally corrupt and possibly evil.  If this were a video game like Neverwinter Nights, Walt’s alignment would have suffered some negative shifting there.  The broader question, of course, is does everything that Walt is doing constitute evil or moral failing on this level?  That is, is the manufacture of drugs a moral failure with repercussions on one’s soul–an act that makes one an evil or wrong for society?  What about cigarettes?  I don’t mean to cloud the issue, but it’s a fair question.  Cigarette companies intentionally manipulated the levels of nicotine to make their product more desirable–more necessary: more addictive.  And they knew that a majority of people who used their product would die from cancer, heart failure, or suffer emphysema, heart disease, throat or lip cancer, etc.  Here we are seeing the ultimate corruption of Walt’s soul.  He has moved from that “decent guy” that Flynn/Walter Jr. names; the guy who “always does the right thing,” to the guy who does not: who lies to his wife and people closest to him, who advocates killing the junkies who robbed a dealer, who lets a young woman choke to death.  The tragedy is the reason Walt did what he did: to save his family.  Of course, now he is destroying it utterly–and, ironically (comically for the writers, no doubt) improving in physical health.  He is becoming a “hollow man.”  However, Walt is also becoming empowered.  He is defining himself and overcoming obstacles on his own terms and NOT DYING.  There is something to be admired in this, too.  I don’t want to side-step a difficult question.  In terms of drug use, like Jane, people make choices. 

Is Walt selling an immoral product?  Most products, in and of themselves, are not moral or immoral.  How moral or immoral is a Bud Light? How moral or immoral is a can of paint?  What if it has lead in it? I think a product is immoral if the effects of its use are broadly damaging, the product has little redeeming value to society, and the fact of its damaging effects are known at the time of production.  I would say the sale of “nicotine-enhanced” cigarettes is immoral–but not the sale of tobacco, in general.  I would say Pacific Gas and Electric dumping chromium VI into the ground water was immoral and evil–when the knowledge was there and it was intentionally covered-up.  The original purpose for using it was not evil–to stop corrosion in tanks.  Is Meth immoral? Take a look at Faces of Meth and tell me: or take a look at this video on YouTube. Based on the definition I offered above, I would say Meth most definitely is immoral.

Is Walt forcing people to use it?  No.  Is that an excuse?  I would say not really; but the reality remains: someone will make it, someone will use it, someone will pay for it.  The fault may lie at every step in the process, but no one is alone in guilt.  The person who uses drugs is just as morally implicated in their own outcome as the dealer and producer.  One cannot point to a willing junky and say, “this person is a victim.”  There may be instances in which an addict is not complicit in his or her predicament; but I’d wager those instances are rare in the broad scheme of things.

I’ll have to think about this question more.  The writers, I think, hit a tough note in that last show; one that will wrestle in me for a while.  What do you think: did Walt bring down that plane? Or is that plane Walt’s life?

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