VIDEO ESSAY: Gliding Over All: The Cinematography of BREAKING BAD, Season 3

VIDEO ESSAY: Gliding Over All: The Cinematography of BREAKING BAD, Season 3

Dave Bunting Jr.’s video essay on Season 3 of Breaking Bad opens with time-lapse landscapes, which are de rigueur establishing shots in TV these days. Here, though, they are uniquely awe-inspiring, in part for their exotic nature (most of us watching the show spend our lives in urban and suburban environments nowhere near mesas, plateaus, or even cacti), and in part for how they seem to breathe life into everything—from churning clouds, to rocks whose shapely silhouettes (even in their stillness) manage to suggest personalities, to cityscapes that pop colorfully to life as darkness descends upon them. Vince Gilligan & Co.’s ground-breaking TV series is filmed so as to be as suggestive—as potentially rich with meaning—as possible.

Breaking Bad’s extended shots also fuck with our sense of scale: The vehicles popping in and out of the gas station move with the speed and directness of hummingbirds or bees. Wendy the meth whore flits into and out of the frame like a fly. Contrast this with the extreme close-up of the actual fly that opens Season 3, Episode 10 (“Fly”), a close-up held long enough to give that creature the weight and ominous presence of a significant carrier of meaning. We expect flies to carry disease, of course, not meaning. But in Breaking Bad the two have been flattened together, a la William Burroughs’ statement that language = virus.

Season 3, Episode 1 (“No Mas”) starts with a frame filled with what feel like toxic-colored clouds, then a pan down to reveal a Mexican landscape, moon-like or possibly even post-apocalyptic in its apparent desolation. Things only get weirder—more “foreign”—as we begin to see first one older man, then several men and women of various ages crawling on their elbows and knees through the dusty streets of a remote village. The crawlers are soon joined by two men (revealed later to be “the cousins”) who wear similar deep mauve shirts, gray suits and cowboy boots with silver skull tips. Both men are bald and sport a hint of facial hair—a goatee or maybe (the bottom) half of a goatee.

This dialog-less opening unfolds for a full four minutes—an eternity in television time—as the cousins crawl their way to a shack filled with burning candles and other religious and pseudo-religious detritus, leaving an offering of money and lighting a candle of their own before silently praying to Santa Muerte, the Saint of Death. One of them tacks the object of their prayers to the wall: A crudely rendered but recognizable portrait of Walter White in hat, shades and moustache (the upper half of the full goatee he’ll sport this season). As the plot plays out, the cousins cross the U.S.-Mexico border in order to find and axe-murder Walter, whom they deem responsible for the death of one of their relatives, but are redirected by Gus and wind up seriously injuring Walter’s brother-in-law Hank.

Everything in Season 3 seems to pivot on acts of communication—on the successful or unsuccessful transference of meaning—right up to the final two minutes of episode 13 (“Full Measure”), when Gale’s cell phone begins buzzing frantically on a haphazard pile of CDs. It’s Mike, calling to warn Gale, who can’t hear it over Zhang Fan’s 1938 shidaiqu hit “Flying over the Court.” Because Gale misses Mike’s warning, he opens the front door, allowing Jesse to shoot him in the head before the screen goes black and the season-end credits roll.

It’s probably no accident that Season 3 begins and ends with these plot-propelling examples of foreign exotica. After all, the disease that sets all of Breaking Bad’s story into motion—lung cancer—is the result of exposure to foreign substance (in Walter’s case, most likely radon or asbestos, since he was never a smoker). And it is, in fact, “the foreign”—a fly—that sets Walter off on the most philosophical monologue of the series.

In Episode 10, after becoming deeply concerned when the meth yield isn’t, in his own words, “adding up,” Walter becomes first distracted by and finally obsessed with a fly that somehow gets into the sterile environment of the lab, threatening to contaminate his 99+% pure blue meth. After many hours and countless unsuccessful attempts (including the introduction of what Walter calls “positive pressure”) to kill the allusive insect, Walter reveals to Jesse that, on the night of Jane’s death, he had randomly met her father in a bar.

“The universe is random,” Walter says. “It’s not inevitable. It’s simple chaos. It’s subatomic particles in an endless collision. That’s what science teaches us. But 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?”

What Walter fails to confess is that he was at least in part responsible for Jane’s death—which is, of course, why he’s now agonizing over it—that, and the randomness of running into her father the same night. The universe, Walter says, is trying to tell him something—but, what? And what does it mean, what horrific truth is revealed, if and when things, finally, “add up”?

Gary Sullivan’s poetry and comics have been widely published and anthologized, in everything from Poetry Magazine and The Wall Street Journal to The Norton Anthology of Postmodern Poetry (2nd Edition, forthcoming). Everyone Has a Mouth, a
selection of his translations of poetry by the Austrian schizophrenic
Ernst Herbeck, was recently published by Ugly Duckling Presse. He lives
in Astoria, Queens, where he maintains, a music blog devoted to treasures found in immigrant-run bodegas in New York City.

VIDEO ESSAY: Gliding Over All: The Cinematography of Breaking Bad, Season 4

VIDEO ESSAY: Gliding Over All: The Cinematography of Breaking Bad, Season 4

Hollywood can keep its 3D, its CGI and whatever Dolby Surround version they’re up to now. For a contemporary cinematic experience as visceral and visually arresting as Breaking Bad, audiences must look abroad, to Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void, or further, to films coming out of Thailand, Japan, and South Korea. As Dave Bunting and Derek Hill point out in their video essay and commentary on season 5.1, Vince Gilligan’s series puts U.S. cinema to shame, not just in terms of story, but in its execution: The direction, the dialogue, the acting, and—as is evident from the video essay above—the cinematography are, quite simply, of a higher order of intelligence. An intelligence that is extremely, at times obsessively, self-aware.

Regarding the cinematography: We all agree that Michael Slovis has as many visual tricks up his sleeve as Penn & Teller and that his palette is as rich and saturated as that of Henri Matisse. And few will argue with the assertion that the series’ visuals feel not like excess or icing, but integrally connected with the psychological states of the characters. But for me, the kick is about how the kind of semantic moves being made in episode after episode—in the cinematography, as in everything else—effortlessly reverberate meaning out in a number of directions all at once. Slovis is not just emphasizing mere character states. By constantly, at times relentlessly, making the audience aware of the camerawork—does a camera on the end of a shovel really underscore anyone’s character state?—he’s giving us clues to a whole layer of meta-meaning. Like the incendiary and morally conscious German playwright Bertolt Brecht (who shares initials with Breaking Bad), Slovis works to absorb and entertain us, even as he pushes us an arm’s length away.

Breaking Bad is a well-crafted, hyper-visceral Brechtian tragicomedy about the slow but sure descent into amorality of high school chemistry teacher-turned meth cook Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and the lives and relationships that are forever spavined, torn asunder or vanquished in his wake. Metaphorically speaking, it’s a relentless commentary on capitalism and capitalism’s life-blood, addiction.

But there are other, more poetic, at times troubling layers. Consider Walter White’s relationship with his product. Like the late Steve Jobs, White sees himself not simply as an entrepreneur, but as an innovator, an artist. His exquisitely cool blue meth (has anything so toxic ever looked quite so delicious?) is, laugh if you will, artisanal. He even has worshipful followers, most notably his temporary lab partner Gale Boetticher (David Costabile). White, in fact, is an artist, or at least has the temperament of one when he’s cooking. He is, to meth, what Breaking Bad’s creative team is to television.

That last connection is not something that I pulled out of my hat, but a connection the creators have made again and again, the longer this show has run. In the fourth episode of season four (“Bullet Points,” by writer Moira Walley-Beckett and director Colin Bucksey), they practically hand the connection to you in the most meta-rich installment to date. At the precise midpoint of this 44:30-long episode, White’s brother-in-law, Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), shares Gale’s lab notebook with White, pausing to mull over the dedication: “TO W.W. MY STAR, MY PERFECT SILENCE.” Tension develops as we understand that “W.W.” refers to Walter White, who deflects suspicion by telling Schrader that it refers instead to Walt Whitman, whose poem “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer” is quoted several pages earlier.

It’s a brilliant moment on several levels, in part because of the almost sick symmetry of it (you’ve basically got four Ws pivoting on the dead center midpoint of the episode), in part for the gently aggressive camera, which cuts from the notebook to White’s face, seemingly looming over the viewer, half in a subtle but clearly bluish shadow, half too dark to fully see.

Whitman and his poetry figure significantly in this television series, though no single poem is fully quoted—consider how differently Mad Men handled another American poet, Frank O’Hara, whose poem “Mayakovsky” Don Draper read the whole fourth section of, just before the closing credits of the first episode of Season 2. There, O’Hara briefly took center stage, though his poem had little to do with the whole series, other than to help underscore the emptiness of Draper’s soul.

In Breaking Bad, Whitman’s poem gets only a passing reference, but Whitman is integral to the mix, and not just because Schrader will finally, in the last episode of the first half of Season 5, make the connection between White and the blue meth via a copy of Leaves of Grass in the Whites’ bathroom. That episode, not coincidentally, shares its title, “Gliding Over All,” with another Whitman poem from Leaves of Grass, which ends “Death, many deaths I’ll sing.”

There is a reason Breaking Bad’s creative team has Walter White graduating from a moustache to a goatee, and it’s not just because cartoon images of Satan often have him sporting one. It’s because Vince Gilligan, the show’s creator, wears one. (What is a W, visually, if not a double V?) I don’t mean to suggest that White is a stand-in for Gilligan, but that a connection is being made, however subtle, however subconsciously. Is it merely coincidence that every main character charged with the oversight, production, and/or distribution of meth has a first or last name that begins with either a G (Gale and Gus, played by Giancarlo Esposito) or some residue of V? Even Gus’s right hand man, Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), whose initials spell “ME” and whose first name initial, M, is an inverted W, fits into this odd semantic play. The only person whose name does not prominently feature a G or a V (nesting in the form of a W or M), is Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), the closest thing to an “innocent” in the whole crew, and a character that Gilligan has said was originally slated to be killed off by the close of season one.

This isn't to conspiratorially imply that this was necessarily planned, or that we’re meant to parse this all out. I’m simply saying that, in the creative process, there are many things that just “feel right” when one hits on them—and that intelligent creators tend to include those things in their work. I’m also saying that there is a poetic quality to the way meaning is accrued and resonates throughout the series, much of which was planned, and some of which simply fell into place as the creators cooked.

The character Walter White's poetic linking to the creative process couldn’t be made more clear than it is in Episode 4.4. After an opening scene involving a shootout that causes the liquid ingredients for meth to be spewed out all over a delivery truck’s floor, White’s wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), is seen in bed, jotting down notes, trying to fall asleep, then sitting back up to jot down some more notes. She looks as if she is suddenly inspired. Poetically, subconsciously, we connect the image of the blue liquid pouring out of the plastic tubs to the creative juices now flowing through Skyler as she begins to construct an elaborate fiction about her meth-cooking husband being a gambling addict. The amount of research she has done on this, we see a few minutes later, appears to be extensive and no doubt resembles the research Gilligan and team did on meth and its production and distribution.

Another freaky bit of semantic symmetry: While prepping Walter on his story, Skyler makes a big deal about whether or not he’s going to “split the 8s”—which means one thing in the immediate context of blackjack, but consider it poetically: Splitting an 8 would result in two 4s, and here we are in Season 4, Episode 4, with a running time of exactly 44 and-a-half minutes from opening scene to blackout prior to credits.

When an exasperated Walter tells Skyler that he doesn’t need to know what he’s doing, as he’s in recovery and shouldn’t be called upon to talk extensively about his gambling system, Skyler brings out what appears to be a script, or what she describes as “bullet points.” For the next 10 minutes or so, the couple goes over the points—which include scripted dialog, blocking and suggestions for physical gestures—like actors familiarizing themselves with a script. The cinematography during this scene is practically invisible: the viewer simply has the sense of being there in the room with the couple. At one point, Skyler says something that could have been lifted right out of a development meeting for Breaking Bad: “We need this story to be solid, sympathetic and most of all completely believable.”

Armed with their story of Walter as successful gambler, the White family, with Walter, Jr. (R.J. Mitte) in tow, visits Hank and Marie (Betsy Brandt) Schrader. Early in the evening, Hank pulls out a DVD to show Walter and Walter, Jr.: It’s Gale, singing Peter Schilling’s English-language version of “Major Tom” in a Thai karaoke lounge. Though brief, there’s a ridiculous amount of semantic information packed in to this scene: Not only do we see, via the horrified reaction shot of Walter, the levels of remorse and fear he has in the wake of his having ordered Jesse to kill Gale, but the circumstances of Schilling’s song mesh nicely into the general meaning-universe of the show.

The relationship of Peter Schilling and “Major Tom” to David Bowie and Space Oddity foreshadows the later revelation of Gale’s homage to his creative superior, Walter. Further, its interstellar theme resonates with the Whitman poem Gale references as part of his homage. But, creepily, ghostly resonances of meaning go beyond even than that. Originally recorded in German (it made #1 on both the German and Austrian charts), “Major Tom” was rerecorded in English, where it went on to chart in Canada, Australia, the U.K., and the U.S. The Thai subtitles beneath Gale’s rendition hearken back to the song’s English status as translation. And, whether or not they were aware of it, Breaking Bad’s creators would certainly appreciate the original German version’s running time: 4:33. Not just because it slant-rhymes with the episode’s 44:30 running time, but because it shares an exact running time with the most notorious American composition of the late 20th century: John Cage’s 4’33”, which could easily be described as a kind of answer song, in its interrogation of silence, to Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer” and that poem’s last line, “Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.”

Is Breaking Bad, like Leaves of Grass, the great epic poem of our time? If not, it’s the closest thing television has ever given us.

Dave Bunting 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.

Gary Sullivan’s poetry and comics have been widely published and anthologized, in everything from Poetry Magazine and The Wall Street Journal to The Norton Anthology of Postmodern Poetry (2nd Edition, forthcoming). Everyone Has a Mouth, a selection of his translations of poetry by the Austrian schizophrenic Ernst Herbeck, was recently published by Ugly Duckling Presse. He lives in Astoria, Queens, where he maintains, a music blog devoted to treasures found in immigrant-run bodegas in New York City.

Ten Bollywood Memories I’ll Take With Me To My Grave

Ten Bollywood Memories I’ll Take With Me To My Grave


If you’re like most Americans, your first exposure to Bollywood cinema was almost assuredly via the opening scene of Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World. Though your recall of this early 21st century indie flick now consists of little more than a murky haze of kvetching Buscemi and eyeball-rolling Johansson, I’ll bet you five bucks ($5 U.S.) that there is one thing on which your memory is crystal clear: the scene of Enid (Thora Birch) smoking and cavorting around in an oversized reddish-orange graduation robe while watching some of the most crazy-ass, head-shaky dancing every captured on celluloid, courtesy of her bedroom TV. Male or female, straight, L, G, B, or T, you’ve harbored a massive, gut-sinking crush on Enid ever since. Yes?


I have no doubt that you thought you had the hots for Enid. But if we can be honest with each other for a second here? It was never really the raven-haired chunky glasses–wearing social outcast you were lusting after; it was the extremely groovy blindfolded slick-haired and bee-hived line dancers, the John Waters moustache–wielding singer hiccupping “Jaan Pehechan Ho” into the old-timey chrome microphone, the rollickin’ baritone gee-tahr licks, the black-and-white checkerboard dance floor—the whole gestalt. You, my sick friend, have been harboring a massive, decade-long woody for Hindi popular cinema.

Not that I can blame you. I’ve had a boner for Bollywood since the early 90s, when friends dragged me along to see Khuda Gawah, a nearly three-and-a-half hour epic starring Amitabh Bachchan and Sri Devi as star-crossed lovers from warring Afghan tribes, the first five minutes of which slapped my face so hard my jaw has remained partially agape ever since. In the years that followed, I somehow managed to see somewhere between 500 to 1,000 of these all-singing, all-dancing hyper-melodramas from the Subcontinent. Not that every one of them was a, uh, jewel in the crown, or whatever. But let’s just say that, when I finally retire, supine, exhausted, into the pillowy luxury of my final death bed, I’ll be comforted with an array of lurid, supersaturated cinematic memories to help ease the fear and pain.

Here are 10 scenes that will definitely be among them.

1. Filmi: Jal Bin Macchli, Nritya Bin Bijili (1971)
Sangeet: “Jal Bin Macchli”

Legendary director V. Shantaram got his start in the late 1920s as a serious innovator, pioneering the use of the trolly shot and telephoto lens in what was otherwise a relatively static, live theater–informed field. Praised early in his career for a series of well-shot socially conscious melodramas, Shantaram’s world—and that of Bollywood itself—dramatically somersaulted with the introduction of affordable color film in the 1950s. From that point on, like an eight-year-old exhorting his parents to watch him tumble across the grass, Shantaram pandered shamelessly to his audience. This scene, from one of the last films in the great director’s oeuvre, features Sandhya, Shantaram’s real-life wife, performing an avant-garde interpretation of a fish out of water (or “jal bin macchli” in Hindi) that, while not as overblown and spectacular as dance scenes later in the film (Sandhya does a whole number on crutches after her evil rival breaks her leg), is utterly mind-blowing, despite its relative restraint.

2. Filmi: Disco Dancer (1982)
Sangeet: “I Am a Disco Dancer”

Babbar Subhash’s melodrama of hyper-ambitious rival dancers may have been half a decade late to the international disco party, but Disco Dancer has gone on to become a bona fide Bollywood b-movie classic. This scene is so jam-packed with eye-popping bits—a line of guys wielding guitars like machine-guns, a purple-clad girl knock-knock-knockin’ on a bald guy’s head, superstar Mithun Chakraborty’s space-age silver suit and WTF wing-tipped headband—it’s impossible for the human brain to process them all in one viewing.

3. Filmi:  Awaara (1951)
Sangeet: “Tere Bina Aag Yeh Chandni” and “Ghar Aaya Mera Pardesi”

Raj “The Showman” Kapoor is one of Hindi cinema’s best-loved directors, and this scene—a dream sequence that took several months to shoot—is probably his most famous. Featuring superlush music from superduo Shankar-Jaikishan (surely their finest hour) and an ethereal Nargis (with whom Kapoor was understandably smitten), it offers sublime beauty and surreal kitsch in equal measure. The tumbling statues toward the end of the scene are nothing short of breathtaking.

4. Filmi: Amar Akbar Anthony (1977)
Sangeet: “My Name Is Anthony Gonsalves”

“You see, the whole country of the system is juxtaposition by the haemoglobin in the atmosphere because you are a sophisticated rhetorician intoxicated by the exuberance of your own verbosity!” Where do you go after a line like that? Well, if you are Bollywood’s biggest (and literally tallest) star, Amitabh Bachchan, it will most likely involve wearing a top hat and coat while doing a back-flip out of a giant Easter egg. Known for his hilarious, twisty plots, Monmohan Desai outdid himself in this fast-paced comedy of errors about three brothers who, separated at birth, go on to follow the three major religions of India (Hinduism, Amar; Islam, Akbar; Catholicism, Anthony).

5. Filmi: Mr. India (1987)
Sangeet: “Hawa Hawaii”

Speaking of inspired nonsense, you’ll note the lack of English subtitles during the first minute-and-a-half of this deliriously un-PC scene featuring Sridevi and her blackface-sporting entourage. That’s because the former Tamil child star turned 1980s Bollywood sweetheart is belting out streams of pure, delicious Zaum. Nothing in the annals of WTF Japan has anything on this number. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the film—Shekhar Kapur’s breakout hit, and the most successful Indian film of the 80s—is about an evil plot by the island-dwelling villain Mogambo to destroy India that is thwarted by a bracelet that renders its wearer invisible.

6. Filmi: Inteqaam (1969)
Sangeet: “Aa Jane Jaan”

And speaking of blackface and WTF moments—and Bollywood has, alas,  hands down the most of any regional cinema—here’s the ubiquitous uber-vamp Helen at her absolutely most salacious as she pulls out all the stops to tease and inflame her caged, “kazoomiya!”-belting victim—“savage desires” metaphor, anyone? Yes, I feel guilty and unclean every time I watch it. Which, perhaps not uncoincidentally, is about as often as I do my laundry.

7. Filmi: Caravan (1971)
Sangeet: “Piya Tu Ab To Aaja”

More on Helen: Born in Burma just before the Japanese invasion, the half-Burmese, half-Anglo-Indian child escaped the country now known as Myanmar on her mother’s back in the 1940s, growing up in Bombay, where she would go on to become Hindi cinema’s single most ubiquitous character actor slash dancer. Being an immigrant of mixed ethnicity, Helen got the vampy bit-part roles few if any native actresses of her stature would touch, playing everything from Chinese and Japanese to American and British characters. In Caravan, she played a Spanish woman named Monica, who, drunk and panting, exhorts her equally panting, bullfighter boyfriend. In a moment of raw, hot-blooded, unslaked desire, she also dry-humps the underside of a children’s playground slide.

8. Filmi: Kath Putli (1957)
Sangeet: “Hai Tu Hi Gaya Mohe Bhool”

Kamala Laxman, a.k.a. Kumari Kamala, is one of the most celebrated Indian dancers of all time. While her best filmed performances were in Tamil and Telugu films (search her name on YouTube), she did make a few stunning appearances in Hindi film, most notably this insanely exuberant six minutes’ worth of south Indian dance–inspired leaps, pirouettes, hand-gestures and facial expressions rarely seen in Bollywood. And, OMG! Those eyebrows!

9. Filmi: Janwar (1965)
Sangeet: “Dekho Ab To”

How did I get this far without reppin’ my main man, Shammi Kapoor? Here we have the single most insane dance scene of his entire career. While a quartet of mop-top guitarists in full early Beatles regalia belt out a Hindi bastardization of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” the Shamster spazzes out like Elvis Presley simultaneously channeling Jerry Lewis and Jerry Lee Lewis. Words cannot describe how ferociously good watching this makes me feel.

10. Filmi: Mughal-e-Azam (1960)
Sangeet: “Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya"

Color came late to Bollywood; this epic, which was filmed over the course of a decade, was shot mostly in black and white, though two reels, including this scene, were shot in color. And what color! If the hyper-saturated glowing jewels everywhere don’t dazzle you, check your pulse. Or focus in on Madhubala, who gave the performance of her brief but brilliant career in this film, where she played Anarkali, the court dancer who scandalously steals the Emperor Akbar’s son Salim’s heart. I love especially how, some five-and-a-half minutes into this scene, Akbar’s eyes grow redder and redder in anger as he watches images of Anarkali multiply to near-infinity in the palace mirrors until, unable to take it anymore, he throws out his arms, putting a halt to the shameless nautch girl’s performance.

Gary Sullivan’s poetry and comics have been widely published and anthologized, in everything from Poetry Magazine and The Wall Street Journal to The Norton Anthology of Postmodern Poetry (2nd Edition, forthcoming). Everyone Has a Mouth, a selection of his translations of poetry by the Austrian schizophrenic Ernst Herbeck, was recently published by Ugly Duckling Presse. He lives in Astoria, Queens, where he maintains, a music blog devoted to treasures found in immigrant-run bodegas in New York City.