This video essay is a co-production of Press Play and RogerEbert.com.
What is it about the desert?
Put more simply, what is it about the desert that simplifies
human conflicts, desires, and fears as represented in film and literature?
Think of Kobo Abe’s Woman
in the Dunes, Paul Bowles’ The
Sheltering Sky, Sam Shepard’s True
West. Terrence Malick’s Badlands. Sergio Leone‘s Once Upon a TIme in the West.
Or, more relevantly to this discussion, Breaking Bad.
Put more specifically, what is it about the desert that, in
early episodes of this show, threatens to topple the narrative with the
sparseness of its scenery, with shots so dry you can practically taste the
It’s the emptiness.
The sense that there is nothing but the air between a
character and his problems, and that air is so thin it might as well not be
The sense that a man, when faced with a problem, be it the
legality of his enterprise, death, the ineptitude of other humans, or all
three, might flail in the desert air, and find nothing giving resistance,
moving him forward.
The tedium of all of it. The difficulty.
But, at the same time, the profound importance of it.
There is also the way conversation sounds in the desert: the
way each sentence falls into silence, like a coin falling into a dry well.
We don’t hear the clink of the coin at the bottom of the
well, because it doesn’t have a bottom. Not on this show.
Another thing about the desert, particularly the New Mexico
desert, is that it dehydrates you. It sucks everything out of you. You come to
it with a set of complications, a set of morals, a set of daily worries, and
you find, in almost no time, that they’re all gone, lost in the cold night wind.
All that’s left is you, and the matter that brought you
Another thing about the desert is that it’s where we all
started. (Depending on who you ask.)
Not in the desert, literally—but in the semblance of desert.
Nothing except, of course, that 800-pound elephant,
shimmering in the heat in front of you.
You can either stay where you are, and hope, until the sun
goes down, that the elephant goes away.
Or you can do something. And walk towards it.
And that moment, right there, that first step, is where your
You think, If I can
just kill that elephant, all my problems will go away. I can leave. I can step
over its corpse, and head back to what I was doing before this.
you think you’re walking out, but in reality, you’re just
walking farther in.–Max Winter
For a terrific essay by Nick Schager on the cinematography of Breaking Bad’s inaugural season, go here:
To watch the video essay on Season 2, along with an interview with director of photography Michael Slovis, go here:
To watch the entire series on Press Play, go here:
Dave Bunting, Jr. is the co-owner (with his sister and fellow Press Play contributor, Sarah D. Bunting) of King Killer Studios, a popular music rehearsal and performance space in Gowanus, Brooklyn. He plays guitar and sings in his band, The Stink,
and dabbles in photography, video editing, french press coffee, and
real estate. Dave lives in Brooklyn with his wife, son, and sister.
Max Winter is the Editor-in-Chief of Press Play.
One thought on “VIDEO ESSAY: Gliding Over All: The Cinematography of BREAKING BAD, Season 1”
Great work–love the Boards of Canada song as backdrop.
The thing about the desert is that it runs all colors down to the near-no-color of beige. We all know how Gilligan obsessively designs the clothing, lighting and the way his key lights are in sync with whatever is happening in the shot. Obsessively, as important as the plot and characters; color IS a character.
You're right–"If I can just kill that elephant, all my problems will go away. I can leave. I can step over its corpse, and head back to what I was doing before this" and the desert will such the moisture not only from the corpse but from any morality. It's an alternate beige world of nothingness where things just…go away.
Brilliantly, Gilligan, as seasons go by, makes Walt more and more beige himself in what he wears and now, as Skyler joins in the 'confession', as she joins the metaphorical desert, at the nightmare meeting with Hank and Marie, well, look at that: the evil cloud of horror that entraps anyone that deals with Walt by his own view, his worm hole of horror, has claimed Skyler who wears beige and gray, the same muted desert colors Walt is wearing in different combination.
Because of that, I don't see much hope for Skyler.
But I digress! When you ask "what is it about the desert that simplifies human conflicts, desires, and fears" the answer is, I think, that its nothingness is usually rejected by morally situated people and only appeals to people like, say, Burroughs in the Interzone's desert and the escape from his wife's murder its nothingness seems to provide, or the downward sleigh ride Walt is getting off on playing.