Breaking Bad in Stromboli

Breaking Bad in StromboliI walked down to meet Susan on Hawthorne late afternoon but arrived early and when I passed Nick’s and noticed baseball on the screen I ducked in to wait at the bar for a text asking my whereabouts. I ordered a glass of milk and a coffee chaser and the bartender asked me if this was my first visit to Nick’s. The game was in the 8th inning, a 3 to 3 tie, the Dodgers against the Cubs out spring training in sunny Arizona. A group of young folk occupied the north end of the bar, but I alone watched the game. The tables were all empty. The balls were breaking late, bad, away. The Cubs scored in the bottom of the 8th on a sacrifice fly to take the lead 4 to 3, and the Dodgers in the top of the 9th could not break away. My first taste this year of spring training TV was bad for a Dodger fan. I like the Cubs, too, and hope they do better than last year’s cellar close. Edging the Dodgers 4 to 3 yesterday marked the Cubs first win in seven games this spring training season. It’s still early, but the Cubs are off to a bad start. Cub fans are a forgiving bunch. Dodger fans live in baseball paradise at Elysian Park. But baseball and paradise broke bad some time ago, came the summers of our discontent, baseball breaking away.

One of modern baseball’s design problems, as McLuhan explained, is that it’s a poor fit for television. Baseball is not pixel friendly. McLuhan saw how vaudeville moved to radio and radio to television, where there will never be enough channels, the need for distraction being what it is, even though all channels do the same thing and distract in the same way. But he did not foresee vaudeville being rekindled by Lady Gaga and Madonna in the Super Bowl arena where the camera is now a drone following the collective unconscious eye of the audience. Meantime, the living room remains the electronic middle class mosh pit. The form of television is its art; the channel hardly matters.

Yet some said that “Breaking Bad” was television finally or finely elevated to art. The art of the installment, the fix, waiting for the next episode, the episodic adventure induced by Walter who like Fagin in Dickens’s “Oliver Twist” lives and thrives in a world of children. Is breaking bad an occupational hazard of teaching resulting from classroom isolation from the real world? Or “Breaking Bad” might have been titled “Death of a Teacher,” Walter White the Willy Loman who lives on TV fantasy to avoid the existential question imposed by being crushed beneath the wheels of contemporary financial, job, metaphysical, and medical malaise. We interrupt this post to bring you a full disclosure: I never saw a single “Breaking Bad” episode when the series was running. I did read a few reviews. I recently watched the first three episodes, borrowed from the library. I was thinking I might try to see the whole thing through, to its conclusion, and angle a post off it. But I don’t want to watch any more “Breaking Bad” episodes. Predicament may harden the romantic heart in all of us.

For one thing, the premise of “Breaking Bad” seems algorithmic. A high school Chemistry teacher with experience and talent gets an existential kick in the butt when he discovers he has terminal cancer. He sees an opportunity in the two years he has left to make some quick money as a meth chef and improbably takes to a life of violent drug associated street crime. Various critical reviews suggest something philosophical going on. His street name is Heisenberg, and it’s probably true that nowhere in contemporary life are things more uncertain than out on the street, certainly not in the living room, watching television. So the existential predicament is the close proximity to death, not to be confused with the close proximity of television. But everyone dies and knows they will; why wait any time at all to break bad and kill the TV? Most people break indifferent. No life is longer than the one spent in moiling drudgery.

Then I watched Roberto Rossellini’s “Stromboli” (1950). Essentially, Ingrid Bergman’s Karin’s existential predicament is similar to Walter White’s, though even more absurd, because she’s saved but ironically condemned to live in a place and with a man she believes she’s entirely unsuited for, which comes with the surprise of the epiphany. The island of Stromboli is a Mediterranean volcano. Life is harsh. Karin was expecting something a bit more pleasant, romantic, colorful. Life on Stromboli is inescapable sun or impervious shadow. The people on Stromboli live under the constant threat of volcanic eruption. Their values are kept immutable by the impossibility of change. Unlike the Mario by the end of “Il Postino,” Karin can’t see any beauty on her island or in the fishing life. It doesn’t take her long to realize she must break bad. But Karin breaks bad differently from Walter. She frantically climbs the volcano that Walter pedantically runs from.

Note: No commas were mistreated in the writing of this post.

Poetry, Politics, and the Mail; or, Fishing Without a License

Why does anyone want to be a poet, and what events of chance make it possible? “It’s more original being a postman,” Pablo advises Mario.

There’s something wrong with Mario. He’s a fisherman allergic to boats and the sea. So he takes a public servant job; he becomes a postman. But not just any postman. He’s the personal postman to Pablo Neruda at the time of the Chilean statesman-poet’s exile.

Mario comes to poetry by accident, inspired not by poetic works but by desire for the women he hopes to attract and impress by simply being a poet. This is not so unusual; men do all sorts of silly things for the same reason, and Mario has seen that most of Pablo’s letters are from women and concludes they are amorous admirers of the poet.

“It began as a mistake,” Bukowski’s Chinaski explains of his becoming a postman in the first line of Post Office, his novel about his experiences working postal jobs in the waning of post-WWII Los Angeles. Chinaski begins enthusiastically, thinking, like Mario, there might be women in his future.

“This is the job for me, oh yes yes yes,” chirps Chinaski. Except that things don’t work out as expected. Just like Mario, Chinaski “didn’t even have a uniform, just a cap,” perhaps the first sign Chinaski would reject postal grace. He comes and goes in a kind of anti-route, and one imagines him chucking the letters, bills, and adverts and delivering instead poems like fish lures to casually selected homes.

Indeed, “poets can do a lot of damage to people,” the politician Di Cosimo cautions Mario. Yes, and it’s no accident. The local politicians have been promising water for the island residents with every new election, only to renege once elected. The poet promises water, too.

“Mail, over any length of time,” poet Charles Olson said in his The Post Office: A Memoir of His Father, “will tell secrets a neighbor could not guess. Nor do I mean the reading of postcards or the ‘lamping’ of letters. Nor what a man hears over coffee. Or that a man’s mail does not always come to his house, or a woman’s either. It lies more in the manner in which people look for, ask for, receive their mail. And talk about it.” We begin to see where Olson got his penchant for writing poetry. The postal bosses disliked Olson’s father for his strong work ethic and his union activity, and they tormented him until the route inspector finished him off, and he dies like a dead letter his son spends a lifetime searching for.

Of the three, the only one who gets free is Chinaski, who wakes up alive to write a novel.

The brick that’s pulled from Mario’s wall and explains his fall is his ability to read, unusual on the dry island, and explains the accident that follows: his winning poem prized by the communists who invite him to read at the political rally that erupts into a riot where he’s trampled and killed, a poet of the people, his paper dissipated under panicked feet, for every poem is a fish caught without a license.

Plato, Pablo, and the Poetics of Health Care

Plato considered poets dangerous and banned them from his Republic, and Il Postino (1994) illustrates his point, yet also shows that we are all poets, all who use language – to love and berate, to tackle and persuade, to testify and exhort. The movie, from the book Burning Patience, by Antonio Skarmeta, a fiction set on an island of Pablo Neruda’s temporary exile, is about the democracy of language, how metaphor permeates our lives, and the consequences inherent in desiring more than our own voices can bear, even through poetry. 

Is contemporary poetry outside the margins of popular US culture? Maybe, but the creation of metaphor is still the heart of language and language the heart of culture. In the film, this is ironically dramatized by Aunt Rosa. During her hilarious visit to Pablo to complain of his contributing to the poetic delinquency of Beatrice, she lets loose with an invective that ably employs a fishnet of metaphors to describe Pablo’s bad influence on Mario and Mario’s hypnotizing effect on her niece. The blame falls on the poet for stirring the emotions of the tainted republic of the island. 

Poetry sleeps around, moving through Plato’s five regimes. Democracy gives way to tyranny; Plato should have banned lobbyists – then maybe the Republic, though awash in a bath of poetry, might at least have a decent health care system, not to mention an adequate water supply.