December 12th, 2009

breaking bad

Where the wild things are

I was writing a couple of weeks ago about the Peter Ackroyd book Albion, about common threads of English writing. I'm still reading it actually, it continues to be very good. The common thread he identifies is hard to define, but something to do with seductive danger coming into the home farm, as talking animals and ghosts and mutations of the body, about dissolution of the normal into something no longer normal. I was then thinking about the recent American TV shows that I have loved so much this decade. I asked myself - do they confirm to that model? If so, does that mean it is a universal model of good art?

I think there is another model underlying these American TV shows (they were The Wire, Mad Men, Firefly, Deadwood and Breaking Bad). That model is that you must go out - out away from the home farm - you will lose touch with the unthinking behaviours of your home - and then you will find a true ground of authenticity. In the darker versions, you are then cut off for ever from what you were. I guess, being glib, this is a model of the frontier of the mind or soul.

So - having sort of framed this idea - I was wondering can I project it backwards from the noughties onto a tradition within American TV, and art more generally? At first I was thinking - well, the X Files and Star Trek, for example, have a very different feel from Deadwood. But then I thought: 'The Truth is Out There' - that sums up the model I was thinking of, in five words: out there, you find the ground of being. 'Where no man has gone before'? Northern Exposure? Fits the model exactly. Wizard of Oz, yes - though unusually she manages to come home. Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn...

There are other threads in US TV, even the very best TV, which do not fit this model. Cop shows in general do not fit it, apart from The Wire, perhaps the Shield. The West Wing I think does not - but correct me if I am wrong. Twin Peaks - is that an exception? There are great American literary writers who do not write to this model. And of course, as in Britain, there is a powerful philistinism which resists the model. In England - you shall not let the wild thing into the home. In America - you shall not loosen even one rule of conformity. Because, what is out there.

PS it is complicated because of the strong mutual sharing of ideas and people around the world. Ravenous for example fits the English model not the American - but it was directed by an English woman, shot in Hungary, stars an Australian and a Scottish man.
breaking bad

A Serious Man

A Serious Man is a film by the Coen brothers, just released in the UK. The Coens are clearly massively talented, but a bit variable. This one is very much like The Man Who Wasn't There from almost ten years ago. Like that film it is very low-key, but I suspect it will stick with me, like that film did.

It's the story of a middle aged Jewish physics professor in Minnesota in 1967. He faces various crises and challenges that are very important to him, but not earth-shaking in the scheme of things, such as his wife deciding to leave him for a ghastly overbearing git, and a student trying to bribe him. The pace of the story is quite gentle, the scenes are slow, there's a lot of space for thinking. It was incredibly vivid, like a vivid dream. It was almost disorienting when the film finished and I was not actually in 1967.

The film is about uncertainty. Every time we see him in a lecture, he's delivering the same topic - Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, Schroedinger's cat. The events of his life strike him, as they strike us watching the film, as rather bizarre and coincidental. It's as if they have a meaning, but he can't figure out what it is. In one scene that made me laugh out loud, he draws a series of equations and we pull out to see an infeasibly massive board, covered in numbers and symbols, and he concludes the lecture - 'and thus proving that we don't know anything'.

The only reasonably good advice anyone gives him in this film in the context of uncertainty is 'be nice to other people - it can't hurt'. Jefferson Airplane's 'You need somebody to love' features heavily. Having said that, there is a marked absence of love or even niceness. Almost everyone in it is pretty horrible, and uncaring, though perhaps towards the end they start to try to be a bit nicer to each other. The aesthetic is also very oppressive.

I thought that Anton Chigurh in the Coen's No Country for Old Men was like a black hole in space-time. That is, anyone who perceived him, was killed before they could pass on any information about him. The exception was the old woman who said to him 'We do not give out information' - when she said that he spared her. This film I think has a similar theme, but this time we are inside the black box. We are like the cat, and we don't find out what happened to it.