Sunday, June 21, 2015

Trust Me, You Have Never Read This Book

This is a review perhaps a century too late. And maybe that is appropriate. Sometimes a book has to wait an awfully long time to find its audience, even in unlikely places.

Perhaps it was an act of pity, or disbelief, which caused me to pick up a book from the castoff shelf at a store in Atlanta last week. These were the volumes that were left out on sidewalk shelves, selling for $1 - basically offered up for sacrifice to any lazy, literate thief. The faded red spine stated the title: “History of the States of Guernsey Telephone System,” by Alfred Rosling Bennett.

 The idea of the book seemed patently ridiculous. At first, I thought it was some prank, some highly esoteric bit of British humor. In case you don’t know, Guernsey is an island off the coast of Normandy that is not a part of the United Kingdom but a “possession of the Crown.” It occupies about 24½ square miles and lent its name to a world famous breed of cow. Victor Hugo lived there in exile and wrote “Les Miserables,” as well as a lesser-known novel of the island, “Toilers of the Sea.” After the fall of France in 1940, Guernsey was occupied by the Nazis until the German surrender, the island and its conquerors bypassed by the Allied invasion a year earlier.

I opened the book to find it really did have words inside. A slim 136 pages with an appendix. It wasn’t some joke volume bound with blank pages, like the gag “Everything Men Know About Women” one finds in knick-knack stores. “History” was published in 1926, and its yellowed, stained pages testified to the veracity of its age. I thought maybe it was an ironic title. Maybe this was some long-forgotten romance, about a boy, a girl, and the telephones of a tiny island in the English Channel. But no. This truly was a history, like those anniversary books written by someone’s industrious grandmother whenever a church celebrates its centennial, dutifully recording the names of Sunday School superintendents gathered to their fathers. I wondered how many years had gone by since this book had been last read, if it ever had been. And for some reason, I decided I would read it. 

Alfred Rosling Bennett, as I discovered, was an engineer, journalist, and pathfinder in the spread of the telegraph and telephone in the United Kingdom. He is more well-known for another book, “London and Londoners of the 1850s and 60s.” And he was absolutely instrumental in the development of the Guernsey Telephone System, as I was soon to discover.

I do not know whether Mr. Bennett was commissioned to write the island’s “telephonic” history or whether he took on the job himself. But I can assure you, he attacked it with the thoroughness, exactitude, and, yes, mirth, one would expect of a Victorian journalist/engineer.  This is evident as early as the introduction, when he records the judgment of an auditor that Guernsey has “the finest telephone system in the world.” A footnote at the bottom of the page quickly adds, as though panic-stricken at some barrister’s urging, “No claim to this effect is made.”

 As this narrative of 30 years spins out under his pen, Bennett’s tone veers from pioneer to proud parent, feeling no need to justify why one should want to read it. Consider this – when Bennett’s book was published, Guernsey had approximately 38,200 residents. One might expect a few of them to be curious about this book, but how many might actually buy it? And how many of those copies stood on shelves, their spines intact, taunting their purchasers? And why might someone on the other side of the planet, almost a century later in a world where phones are carried in pockets, want to read it?

There were skeptics when the idea of telephones on the island was first proposed, Bennett tells us. At a public meeting, he told the inhabitants that many cities, such as Glasgow, were seeking their own telephone systems. A skeptic in the crowd assured him that he had learned that very day that the Post Office had refused Glasgow a license. (The Post Office evidently being in charge of granting them at that time.) Bennett went to the trouble of telegraphing his contacts in Scotland to find this information erroneous. The speaker was later confronted, and stammered out apologies that he had been misinformed and had never meant to deceive. Still, there were persistent doubts. Some felt the system would only grow to perhaps 300 users at the most, and any estimate above that “would only expose the project to ridicule.”

The author also spends a great deal of the book dealing with a vicious cabal between the Post Office and the National Telephone Company to preserve their monopoly and deny the good citizens of Guernsey the telephone. This moves the book’s plot past dry columns of names and numbers and gives a sense of the island’s embattled destiny, as well as our engineer as both agent of change and historian.  The battle just to string wires and erect poles actually began without permission to proceed, he tells us, and ground to a halt while the legal niceties were settled months later. Then Bennett rewards his readers, carrying us back to those heady first moments when the port’s streets were “crossed and recrossed by numbers of bright red wires, attached to creamy-white insulators, all blinking and scintillating in the sun.” The age of wonders has arrived.
 
Ah, the loving care that our Mr. Bennett lavished on the unsuspecting audience! He recounts how in 1897 the telephone office took up temporary residence in a barnlike building between the Royal Court and the police station. While there, he entered his office once to find a table laid out for tea with a noncomformist pastor and 12 ladies engaged in a church committee meeting. They had been using the building for years, they explained, and couldn’t find new quarters. He gladly sat down to share a cup with them.

While working in the barn, he also made friends with a Russian who was conducting radio experiments in the police building’s basement. His attention to the sensibilities of his readership is evident, as he cannot let the mention of the Russian go without this explanation: 

“This Russian was of benevolent disposition – the word Bolshevik had not then been heard – for he gave a substantial sum to a family who had been burned out of their house in the Pollet, and on the occasion of a children’s party at Old Government House he lighted a Christmas tree with many variously-tinted little glow-lamps entirely at his own expense.” 

In between recounting the steady gains of the telephone system, which grew far beyond those 300 hoped-for lines, Bennett also introduces us to a universe of charming characters. There is the nameless operator who ran off with a woman to France, and the operator who mistakenly disconnected calls as soon as they were placed, as she was unfamiliar with the system. There is the woman who refused telephone service because keeping the lines open on Sunday might require a switchboard operator to break the Sabbath. The wire installation foreman who fled Guernsey after getting into a fistfight with an islander. The 107-year-old customer who received a phone, which she used until her long-tardy death nearly four years later. The child who mistook the telephone wires for the Equator she had only seen on maps. The French convict who escaped from the island prison –by climbing a telephone pole – and was caught later that day attempting to steal a boat. Caught by a telephone call, of course.

There are the friends of the author, such as Major-General F.B. Mainguy, R.E., Jurat., the patron of the telephone system, who insisted on its configuration and policies in order that no calls should ever be eavesdropped upon. We hear of other remarkable personages, but we only know them through a few anecdotes, such as the 150-year-old ghost of a murder victim who haunted the switch house and drove off an Irish family living there. Bennett gives us the fate of the Dorothy Watson, the ship that delivered the 448 telephone poles Guernsey required before sinking off the coast of Cornwall, its crew surviving. And he gives us the telephone council’s action of 1913, which installed a telephone at a lighthouse for fog-stymied vessels. Bennett tells us that, as of 1925, the phone had never been used, as “some more or less unreasonable objection exists to climbing a forty-two feet perpendicular ladder in a fog, from a tossing boat, in order to get to a telephone.”

And there is a world that sadly disappears as a new one emerges, built on the telephone poles and wires that begin to shoot up into the seaside sky. Some landowners see no need to cede even a few feet of their property for poles without compensation. A few neighborhood boys have to be told not to break the pole insulators with rocks as a summer prank, and they eventually acquiesce. The old guard of the telephone council slowly retires and dies, each death recorded with endearing anguish by the author. The coming of the Great War in 1914 requires guards for the switch houses, and assurances for soldiers once employed by the telephone service that they will still have their jobs should they survive the war. And there are the country men who, upon hearing the voice of a female operator on the line, instinctively stand and remove their hats when placing a call. “It is to be feared that a quarter of a century’s familiarity has rather rubbed that polish off,” Bennett tut-tuts, giving the epitaph for a vanished epoch.  

 Sadly, I never found the charming love story I suspected might be hiding in the pages. Maybe that awaits some writer in search of a piece of period literary fiction, or a screenwriter with Colin Firth in tow. The author’s engineering sensibility takes over at the climax, and he closes with columns of statistics and the results of an audit showing the financial rectitude of the Guernsey Telephone System. He is so enamored by its efficiency (9 ½ telephones for every 100 Guernseymen!) and its ultimate victory over the machinations of the Post Office that we lose the picture of our dear island and its customers. He frets presciently that the party line is an inefficient mode of communication, unaware that in another two decades the island will be dotted with swastikas.  

Mr. Bennett died just two years after the publication of this remarkable volume at the age of 78. I sense he had pride not only in bringing technology to Guernsey but in telling its story. And like every other author in the grip of a tale, he obviously felt it was worth telling, just as much as I, for some still mysterious reason, felt it worth reading.  

But no, that isn’t quite right. It was a story worth preserving between the covers of a book, and I can testify, a story that deserved a place on a shelf, and even might travel to corners of the world far from the author’s conception. That has always been the nature of stories – that they arrive in the hands of their audience and are, in some measure, powerless to shape how they are received. But I am curious, and even longing, to know what became of the generous inventive Russian and his colorful Christmas tree, and the woman who begged off the future, as personified by a wooden, bell-decorated box, to prevent the wrath of the Almighty.

The story of Guernsey, and her telephones is like every other - a story of human connectivity, of humanity in all its mundane glory, full of unremarked-upon remarkable lives - their enthusiasms , their annoying yet healthy skepticisms, their relentless perseverance.  



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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Pilgrims on the Road with the Walking Dead



It was during a visit to an antique store in Senoia, Ga. last year that I picked up a beaten, paperback copy of John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” At one time, this book occupied a place in English-speaking households second only to the King James Bible. The allegorical journey of Christian to the Celestial City was long used as a lesson to stand alongside Gospel truth as to the perils of living in a corrupt world, full of potential snares and pitfalls. 

It was somewhat appropriate I found a copy of the book there, as Senoia and its surrounding towns often serve as locations for AMC’s popular television series, “The Walking Dead.” Senoia was the town of Woodbury in the show’s third season, an apparent haven from a world overrun by flesh-eating zombies, where the living are ruled over by a dictatorial leader, The Governor. “The Walking Dead” follows a group of would-be pilgrims in that world, though instead of the goal of a city beyond suffering, our pilgrims are merely trying to stay alive amid suffering, holding on to a slim thread of faith that somewhere, there exists a safe place for them. 

Early in “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” Christian encounters a character, Worldly Wiseman, who tries to convince him how fraught with difficulty the trip to the Celestial City will be:

“Thou art like to meet with in the way which thou goest wearisomeness, painfulness, hunger, perils, nakedness, sword, lions, dragons, darkness, and in a word, death and what not?”

This is an apt description for “The Walking Dead,” which follows the journey of former King County Deputy Sheriff Rick Grimes, who awakes from a coma to find that most of the world has succumbed to a virus that causes death and has turned its victims into zombies. He immediately begins a quest to find his family, and from there, he moves with a group of like-minded survivors to find some safe place where they can rebuild their lives. 

Many times during the course of “The Walking Dead’s” five seasons, the show has found some ironic play from Christian iconography and theology. For example, when the Governor’s henchmen attack the prison fortress that Rick and the group use, they find an open Bible with a highlighted portion:

“And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.” (John 5:29)

Resurrection would be an easy fit, given Christianity’s themes of eternal life. But the show has also, like Bunyan’s classic, occasionally touched on deeper themes with a Christian resonance that stands out amid the corpses of the evil undead.  

The New Testament often refers to the present reality as one that is passing away, a transitory world of those who are dead in sin. The picture would sound familiar to Rick – oblivious, twilight figures, wandering aimlessly, lost, insensible, unaware that their lives are over. They are sentenced to either continue their journey with no destination, or worse, to infect others and condemn them to the same existence. A world with no hope, or one where hope survives precariously, subtlely, until revealed in the person of Jesus. 
 Take the season two premiere, “What Lies Ahead.” Rick and his family, along with the survivors, have just learned the hopelessness of their situation in a visit to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. Civilization has gone silent. The lone scientist left there committed suicide rather than live. The group heads south for Fort Benning. But while stuck amid the vacant cars of the Interstate leading out of Atlanta, they manage to lose Sophia, a little girl who wanders off to escape the zombies, or “walkers."

The group’s search takes them to the vacant Southern Baptist Church of Holy Light (Welcome Bikers! its sign proclaims). Inside, they find walkers which are quickly dispatched. The sanctuary is dominated by a life-sized crucifix, with the writhing figure of the suffering Jesus – not the sort of thing you would usually find in a rural Baptist church. “J.C.,” says Daryl Dixon, the bowman who is the show’s badboy, to the suffering Savior. “You takin’ requests?” 

The moment in the church sees Sophia’s mother, Carol, pray fervently for her missing daughter, and hint that she may have allowed her late abusive husband Ed to have abused the girl. “Don’t let this be my punishment,” she begs in whispers. 

But Rick gives a longer, angrier prayer when alone, talking directly to the figure on the Cross:

“I don’t know if you’re looking at me with what? Sadness? Scorn? Pity? Love? Maybe it’s just indifference. (takes hat off) Guess you already know I’m not much of a believer. I guess I just chose to put my faith elsewhere. My family mostly. My friends. My job. Thing is – we – I could use a little something to help us keep going. Some kind of acknowledgement. Something to indicate I’m doing the right thing. You don’t know how hard that is to know. (pauses) Well, maybe you do. Hey, look, I don’t need all the answers. Just a little nudge, a sign! Any sign will do.” 

As he leaves the sanctuary, his friend Shane asks, “Got what you needed?” “Guess I’ll find out,” Rick replies.  Only a few minutes later, Rick will watch his son Carl track a deer, only to fall from a gunshot. This leads the group to Herschel, a man who can operate on Carl, and who owns the farm where the group will briefly find some peace. 

 Herschel is the show’s most overtly Christian character, and his subtle attempt a few episodes later in “Cherokee Rose” to witness to Rick gives us this exchange as the two men look out over the farm:  


Herschel: Rick, take a moment. Come look. That’s something isn’t it? It’s good to pause for an occasional reminder.
Rick: Of what?
H: Whatever comes to mind. For me, it’s often God. No thoughts on that?
R: Last time I asked God for a favor and stopped to admire a view, my son got shot. I try not to mix it up with the Almighty anymore. It’s best we stay out of each other’s way.
H: Lori told me your story, how you were shot, the coma, yet you came out of it somehow. You don’t feel God’s hand in yours?
R: At that moment, no. I did not.
H. In all the chaos, you found your wife and boy, then he was shot, and he survived. That tells you nothing?
R: It tells me God’s got a strange sense of humor. 

Indeed. Rick’s prayer, in some ways, was answered. The group found security, new members, a brief sense of rest, and Rick received a very hard-won affirmation of his leadership instincts. It also tells us that, in this life, as in their lives, any lessons, or signs, occasionally come at a terrible price. We get what we ask for, but we are forever changed. The Almighty has His own purposes. 

Herschel, we learn, at first does not believe the process that transforms men into zombies is irreversible. It is only later that he learns the hard truth, when his farm is in flames and he too has to take to the road. Yet he does not lose his faith, despite his statement that he thought Jesus” had something else in mind” when He spoke of the resurrection of the dead. He goes on to serve as the group’s conscience in the seasons that follow.  

 The group made a second trip to a church in the second show of the fifth season, “Strangers,” after rescuing a minister, Father Gabriel, from a pack of walkers in the forest. Rick is a different character by now. He has tried to abdicate his role as the group’s leader, and found it thrust back on him. He has had to kill without remorse, and he no longer finds he can fully trust anyone. From their first meeting, he feels Father Gabriel is hiding something about himself.  


The group itself has changed. The members who have traveled the farthest have seen the worst of humanity. The zombie apocalypse has warped most of the survivors the group encounters. Like the Governor, those who live have to do terrible things to survive. Rick, before accepting anyone into the group, asks three questions: How many walkers have you killed? How many people have you killed? Why did you kill them? The way the questions are phrased shows there is no way anyone could survive and not have made despicable moral choices. One character, later referencing a painting found in the ruins of the High Museum, likens those choices to the one made by Simon Peter in denying Jesus: He betrayed the best part of himself because he merely wanted to survive. 
 Just prior to meeting Father Gabriel, the group has survived a group of secret cannibals populating the town of Terminus, a town that advertises itself as a sanctuary for all. Those who stray in end up being eaten by the living. Like Christian in “Pilgrim’s Progress,” who avoids the Slough of Despond and Vanity Fair, the group is still together, still alive, and still somehow clinging to hope, but very different people than they were in the old world. They leave Terminus in flames.  


Father Gabriel’s secret is slowly revealed. On the wooden exterior of his church are claw marks and the words, “You’ll burn for this.” The priest is evasive when talking about himself, or how he has managed to survive. When members of the group disappear, Rick demands the Father’s secrets, believing him to be a threat, or working with someone following them. Instead, Father Gabriel’s secret is that he is alone, and has been since the fall of humanity. 

“I always lock the doors at night. They starting coming, my congregation. When Atlanta was bombed, they were looking for a safe place. It was so early. The doors were still locked. You see, it was my choice. They were so many of them. Screaming at me. The dead came for them. Women. Children. Entire families calling my name, as they were torn apart. Begging me for mercy! Begging me for mercy! Damning me to hell. I heard it all. The Lord sent you here to finally punish me. I’m damned. I was damned before.”


A church with its doors locked as people come to beg for sanctuary, just as the corruption of the world devours them. Jesus warned about this in the Sermon on the Mount, telling His followers to let their light shine, and not keep it hidden.  If there is a Christian message in Father’s Gabriel’s confession, it is that those who believe are many times content with their own security in salvation and shut the doors of the church through their actions, rather than flinging them open to welcome in those who might also escape death in sin.  

But despite what the group in “The Walking Dead” survives, there still remains a persistent note of hope in their story. The audience mistrusts this – after all, it has been proven illusory so many times, as with the false promises of Eugene, the man posing as a scientist in Season 5. In Father Gabriel’s church, there are several “Easter eggs” – Biblical references on the wall that reference death and resurrection. But one of the group sees a needlepoint verse of a different kind:

“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9)

Jesus told his disciples to take heart because He had overcome the world. Perhaps the survivors of “The Walking Dead” will, like the fictional Christian pilgrim of 400 years earlier, eventually find a shining home at the end of their stony, bloody, heart-rending path. 
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Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Hamlet Project: 'The Bad Sleep Well' (1960) Toshiro Mifune



I was reluctant to include Akira Kurosawa’s tale of bureaucratic corruption as part of the Hamlet Project, but a few things won me over. For starters, it is one of Kurosawa’s least-appreciated films, often overshadowed by his period costume epics. Secondly, it features an awesome, restrained performance by Toshiro Mifune. And lastly, this movie has perhaps the greatest title you could ask for. Those who work evil do not even feel the pangs of conscience, while justice seems not only resting, but dead. 

“The Bad Sleep Well” is often included in a list of Kurosawa’s free adaptations of Shakespeare set in Japan. But as Kaori Ashizu states, critics often force the film into the Hamlet association despite the fact that its plot construction and characters render the Hamlet story as if all the familiar ingredients have been thrown into a blender. By comparing the story of corporate greed to the protracted revenge of Denmark’s late monarch, viewers miss a darkly funny, intricate film noir with touches of the detective thriller. But this, in itself, is much like the original source material, which is itself an adaptation. 

We know that Shakespeare used two sources for the Hamlet story. One involved the story of a prince whose father is murdered by his successor. The son must feign madness to stay alive so that he will eventually avenge his father’s murder and take the throne. But Shakespeare, in rendering the play, removed the threat of death to Hamlet at the beginning of the play. Claudius does not seem threatened by his brooding step-son and nephew. Because of this, Hamlet’s reasons for later feigning madness are more complicated and his overall motivation more ambiguous. 

Kurosawa does this one better. The setting is the corporate construction world of post-war Japan. Our Hamlet character – Mifune’s Nishi – is not the son of the corporate head but the son-in-law of a vice president. It is as if Hamlet has already married Ophelia and his revenge is on Polonious for carrying out Claudius’ orders. It becomes clear that Nishi’s father-in-law, the evil Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori) often converses over the phone with someone who is more powerful, and perhaps, more evil. 

And where Hamlet casually casts Ophelia aside in the course of his revenge, Nishi draws closer to his new wife, Yoshiko (Kyoko Kagawa). He wants revenge against her father, but his unintended love for her makes it harder for him to carry his plot through to its conclusion, and is eventually its undoing.
The basic plot – Nishi is actually the illegitimate son of Furuya, a functionary employee who jumped to his death from the seventh floor of the office building because of his involvement in government kickbacks. In fact, Nishi is a borrowed identity for a man known as Itakuru. All of his actions are meant to avenge that system that encouraged his father’s self-destruction. 

Kurosawa said his inspiration for the film was several stories of government and business corruption that usually ended, not in convictions at the end of investigations, but in suicides. Minor employees killed themselves rather than implicate their corporate bosses, leaving the instigators alive and unpunished. He wondered what would happen if someone took an investigation beyond that point of disintegration. But Nishi isn’t a detective or a prosecutor – he is avenging his father’s suicide out of an oppressive sense of guilt. The day before Furuya’s suicide, he tried to make peace with his son.
But Furuya does not revisit his son from the spiritual world – he leaves him a legacy of illicit cash, which Nishi uses to fund an elaborate revenge. 

Kurosawa biographer Stuart Galbraith IV says Nishi is like Hamlet in that he pretends to be something he’s not. But where “Hamlet feigned madness only to teeter on the border of genuine insanity, Nishi becomes so ‘bad’ himself that to get to get to the bad men, he veers toward becoming one of them.” Complicating it further is Nishi’s genuine love of Yoshiko. But their love seems a sterile kind, barely romantic. He cannot feel love when he is, as one character says, tangling with a “a terrifying system that will never yield.”  

But it takes more than half of the movie before any of the revenge backstory is revealed. Instead, when we first see Mifune as Nishi, we see a quiet, restrained, almost invisible man who will work as his father-in-law’s secretary.  “Hamlet” begins in the aftermath of a wedding – “The Bad Sleep Well” begins at a wedding. But instead of it being that of Claudius and Gertrude, it is the film’s Hamlet and Ophelia. Yoshiko is lame, inspiring sympathy. But an audience coming to the film cold does not see a brooding Nishi – instead, they see the rigid, suffocating, banal formality of a corporate wedding, with the “truth” revealed by the wagging tongues of a group of journalists.  The only hint of something wrong comes with the surprise entrance of a wedding cake in the shape of the corporate headquarters, with a rose decorating the window where Furuya jumped. 

The reaction to the cake is much like Claudius’ to the performance of “The Mousetrap.” But there are no smiling villains in this story. The only truly smiling character is the ruthless Nishi, who later torments his corporate targets with single-minded gusto, much like Hamlet is often portrayed after he unmasks his uncle with the help of the actors. But again Nishi is not out to avenge murder – because a murder has not been committed. His focus is the system embodied largely by Iwabuchi, but also by Moriyama, Shirai and Wada. The only way he can hope to destroy it is by hiding in plain sight within the company and Iwabuchi’s family. When Nishi fakes Wada’s (Kamatari Fujiwara) suicide, he then uses Wada as a kind of “Hamlet’s ghost” to drive the corporate criminals to admit their guilt. Iwabuchi’s son Tatsuo (Tatsuya Mihashi) serves as both Laertes and Horatio. Gertrude is absent, which probably accounts for Nishi’s early single-mindedness. 

It is two settings that reveal Nishi. The moment he steps from silence is when he prevents Wada from committing suicide by throwing himself into a volcano. His figure emerging from the volcanic gas, Nishi announces the true nature of his mission before setting the revenge in motion. The hero emerges from volcanic vents, ancient gateways to the Underworld, to announce his war against dark forces. The second setting is the ruins of the munitions factory, bombed and abandoned. Is this a link to the old Japan, before the corruption of the modern corporate era, or a reminder of where unrestrained ambition will take power? Nishi certainly broods there, like Hamlet, among bruised concrete and twisted metal.  

Nishi’s revenge softens, ever so slightly, which ultimately signals his downfall. What happens? Nishi carries Shirai (Akira Nishimura) to the seventh floor office window and threatens to throw him out, with Wada watching. The bug-eyed flunky confesses his role, and Wada forgives him. This sends Nishi into a fury, as both crooked men beg for forgiveness when threatened with ruin and death. “Who gave you the right to forgive him?” Nishi demands, with all the gorgeously righteous anger Mifune can muster. “They tamed my father and you with scraps from their table and offered you up as scapegoats, yet you can't hate them. This is the only message scum like them understand. Even now they sleep soundly, grins on their faces. I won't stand for it! I can never hate them enough!" Later on, he will echo this in a quieter setting, deciding that his hate is insufficient to take them all down. He will be right.

Nishi isn’t Hamlet, because Kurosawa doesn’t allow him to be. His death occurs off-screen, and his murderers (for now they have killed him and not relied on a convenient and dutiful suicide) go unpunished. Hamlet was allowed a moment of resolution and clarity before facing Laertes’ poison blade, and turning it on Claudius. Nishi’s vengeance goes unsatisfied, his borrowed name as obscure as that of his late father, and the rest, regrettably, is silence.   

Next up: Richard Burton
Previous posts: The Play's the Thing... 


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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Breaking Bad: "Fly"



Half-way through the series “Breaking Bad,” our story finds its way back to its core – the relationship between its two principal characters. Not for the first time or the last, Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) are literally in a pit. They are in Gus Fring’s (Giancarlo Esposito) hi-tech meth lab, cooking product in what Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) will later say is a perfect set up. But even now, Walter is uneasy and unsatisfied, because, no matter how much money he makes, he is not in control. His vanity will not let him rest. This angst manifests itself in an unexpected way due to the appearance of …a fly.

As the episode begins, Walt is worried at first about missing product, with the hint that Jesse may be slipping some of their blue meth for himself. But that isn’t Walt’s only worry, as he is afraid the product is becoming contaminated.  Why? Because there is a fly in the lab.

Jessie worries that Walt’s been up to long, or that he’s been using the meth. He also worries that Walt’s cancer has gone to his head. “We make poison for people who don't care," argues Jesse, who works furtively to keep their current batch of meth that is halfway through the cook process on track. Walt orders Jesse to cease all cooking activities until the fly is caught, and smacks him with the swatter when Jesse continues anyway. The fly contamination must be eradicated, an exasperated Walt claims. "This fly is a major problem for us: It will ruin our batch, and we need to destroy it and every trace of it so we can cook. Failing that, we're dead. There's no more room for error, not with these people."

One is reminded, in a ridiculous way, of Ahab’s obsession with Moby Dick. The whale is a living, multi-ton accusation that rises from the ocean to taunt the whaler with all of his failures. A lab for a scientist means control – not only of conditions, but variables, quality, and even outcomes. But this fly is a threat to that – small, mobile, and unpredictable. It represent uncleanliness, failure, disaster. And what is the fly? Guilt? Obsession?  Conscience? Sin? God?

Remember the very first scene of the show? Walter White, air mask on, stripped to his shorts, driving an RV down a desert highway with sirens blaring, barely three weeks into his criminal enterprise? He runs out of the RV clutching a gun and a video camera, and begins talking through what he thinks is a last statement to his family: 

“This is not an admission of guilt….there are going to be some…things… that you’ll come to learn about me in the next few days. I just want you to know that no matter how it may look, I only have you in my heart….Goodbye.” Then he walks up the roadway, and points the gun at the road ahead, ready to do whatever he has to.

This Walt, like the one in the lab, the one who has and will murder without hesitation, was always there. Such as when he gave his life savings to Jesse to buy an RV for their mobile meth lab, his only explanation being, “I am awake.” Awake to evil, in a weird negation of Paul’s call in Ephesians to “awaken sleeper” to Christ?
 
Or remember when Walt and Jesse had a drug dealer trapped in the basement, unsure what to do with him? Walter prepared a benefits/liabilities list of what the consequences of murder might be. One of his listed arguments against was “Judeo/Christian principles.” So Walter pays some kind of homage to these, at least for appearances’ sake, or for his own self-image. But he eventually kills the dealer, when he feels his own life is in jeopardy. Walt doesn’t seem to believe in the metaphysical, saying about the existence of the soul that “it’s all chemistry.” He will not admit guilt, but he knows he’s guilty, as he admits in the episode “Gliding Over All”: “If you believe that there is a hell…I don’t know if you’re into that… we’re already pretty much going there. I’m not going to lie down until I get there.” There is no hope of salvation.

“Behold, I stand at the door and knock,” Jesus says in Revelation, an often-quoted moment of Christ’s love and benevolence in this darkest of books. Is Walt quoting his own version of this during his most remembered speech on the show?

“Who are you talking to right now? Who is it you think you see? Do you know how much I make a year? I mean, even if I told you, you wouldn’t believe it. Do you know what would happen if I suddenly decided to stop going into work? A business big enough that it could be listed on the Nasdaq goes belly up. Disappears. It ceases to exist without me. No. You clearly don’t know who you are talking to. So let me clue you in. I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger. A guy opens his door and he gets shot and you think of me? No. I am the one who knocks!”

But we stray from the fly, who keeps taunting Walt and Jesse within the Superlab. Walt grows weary of the chase, and Jesse contrives to put him to sleep by spiking his coffee. It is only as Mr. White sinks into unconsciousness that we finally see within Walt, who says there’s “no end in sight.” But he isn’t speaking of the search for the fly, but of his own predicament. We realize that for some time, he has been wondering what the perfect moment for his death from cancer would have been. He realizes he has lived too long, and now, he has condemned himself so that when he dies, his family will not feel grief as much as relief. He has already put his wife through too much. He soon pinpoints that perfect moment as the night that Jesse’s girlfriend Jane died, when Walt gave Jesse his percentage of the profits.

Later that evening, Walt went to a bar, and found himself sitting next to Jane’s father. This confluence of events will eventually lead to Jane’s death (which Walt will restrain himself from preventing) and an air disaster in which hundreds will perish.

“The universe is random. It’s not inevitable. It’s simple chaos. It’s subatomic particles in endless, endless collision. That’s what science teaches us. What is this saying? What is it telling us when on the very night that this man’s daughter dies, it’s me who’s having a drink with him? How can that be random?... That was the moment. That night. I should have never have left home. Never gone to your house. Maybe things would have…I was at home watching TV. Some nature program about elephants. And Skyler and Holly were in the other room. I could hear them on the baby monitor. She was singing a lullaby. If I’d just lived right up to that moment and not one second more. That would have been perfect.“

Later on, when he is in police custody, Jesse will describe Walter White as “the devil.” “He’s smarter than you. He’s luckier than you,”  he says. But if Walt’s drugged incredulity at the happenstance of life comes back to us, we see him as human, frail, lost.

We often see Jesse that way, that he is often more human than Walt, as the older man slides further and further into the abyss of Heisenburg’s uncertain certainty. When the fly reappears, it is Jesse who carelessly puts two cabinets in place and perches a ladder on top of them, wailing away at the fly. He is rising further in the air, but leaving safety behind, risking, getting closer to the possibility of success but finding it just beyond his reach, with danger rising. Walt, sinking further, comes accidentally close to confessing his complicity in Jane’s death – he will save that for later with devastating effect. But he at last understands what his missing of that perfect moment means.  

Walt: Jesse, no.
Jesse: I’m so close.
Walt: Let it go. We need to cook.
Jesse: What about the contamination?
Walt: It’s all contaminated.  

William Blake’s poem, “The Fly,” begins with a fly brushing past his hand. The poet thinks on the similarities between himself and this simplest and most common creation, both products from the same hand, like the tiger and the lamb:

If thought is life
And strength and breath,
And the want
Of thought is death,

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die. 



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