December 30th, 2009

breaking bad

Heart of Darkness

Over Christmas I read Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. It's only about 100 pages long, and I really recommend it to anyone. It's well known as the inspiration for Apocalypse Now, though it's simpler and more direct than the film. It's set in the brutal regime set up by King Leopold in the Belgian Congo in the 19th century, which was the most exploitative of all European colonial powers. Here's some wikipedia for a quick summary of the situation.
The Congo Free State was a corporate state privately controlled by Leopold II, King of the Belgians through a dummy non-governmental organization, the Association Internationale Africaine. Leopold was the sole shareholder and chairman, exploiting the state for rubber, copper and other minerals in the upper Lualaba River basin. The state included the entire area of the present Democratic Republic of the Congo and existed from 1885 to 1908, when it was annexed by the government of Belgium. Immensely profitable, the Congo Free State eventually earned infamy due to the brutal mistreatment of the local peoples and plunder of natural resources.

The Libertarian capitalist model of property as a relationship between an individual and material goods, unmediated by wider social obligation, can only exist at a frontier. The Congo was the most brutal expression of capitalism.
Villages who failed to meet the rubber collection quotas were required to pay the remaining amount in cut hands, where each hand would prove a kill. Sometimes the hands were collected by the soldiers of the Force Publique, sometimes by the villages themselves. There were even small wars where villages attacked neighbouring villages to gather hands, since their rubber quotas were too unrealistic to fill.
Along with Mark Twain, Booker T Robinson, and Bertrand Russell, Conrad set up the Congo Reform Movement to try to bring the regime to an end. This was eventually successful.

I wasn't going to write so much about the political context, but I got carried away.
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breaking bad

Breaking Bad

I am taking today off - no car, the weather is shit, and my daughter needs constant cups of tea and sausage sandwiches to support her homework marathon. So please forgive the excessive posting.

I have been watching Breaking Bad Season 2 for the past two weeks - it's on every night on Five US from midnight to 1am. Two episodes to go.

I was talking about the new type of quality TV show which has come into full form in the last decade or so. Breaking Bad is not as deep and complex as The Wire, or as beautifully written as Deadwood, or as numinous as Mad Men. These are my trilogy of genius television.

I think Breaking Bad falls into a second tier, somewhat below these. But like Firefly it just for some reason appeals to me very strongly. Unlike The Wire/ Deadwood/ Mad men, it is tightly focused around just two characters - Walter White, a chemistry teacher, and Jesse Pinkman his ex-student. There is a small constellation of secondary characters, in particular Walt's wife Skyler. In this narrower focus, and its overall premise of a man with a false life, it resembles Dexter. To my mind it is a better show than Dexter - not to disrespect Dexter, but I think Breaking Bad is more tragic and moving. However, for fans, here is Abigail's excellent review of Dexter season 4 (which I haven't seen).

Breaking Bad is not more realistic than Dexter, but it is more 'naturalistic'. Dexter operates within the stylistic parameters of mainstream cop shows, subverting them, which is a perfectly legitimate approach. BB breaks from mainstream style by not explaining in words what is happening, leaving it for you to understand the point when someone realises they are being lied to, the point later on when they decide they don't care, and so on. Much of it is ambiguous in meaning. This makes it difficult to quote dialogue, because the framing is as important as the script.

However, both shows are non-realistic because like old fashioned comedy the characters transgress but are ultimately protected by the writer from completely degrading themselves. They kill, but there are worse things than killing, which approach but never completely engulf them.

The scope of Breaking Bad is the the development and testing of a very small range of characters. I'll do one more Breaking Bad post, about the two main characters, after I have seen the season finale.