Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Colors of "Breaking Bad"

"Breaking Bad" is the scuzzy little suburban black comedy with lame commercials that bugged the hell out of you last summer if you couldn't wait to watch "Mad Men" online. The last time I spent so much time watching AMC, it was the late 90s, there were barely any commercials, and practically everything was a three-hour western. "Breaking Bad" looked like a one-note premise with a talented actor seeking career rehab - "Malcolm in the Middle" Dad does cable drug dramedy, a slightly higher-brow version of Bob Saget talking nonstop over fucking and shitting and doing all the above in empty eye sockets in "The Aristocrats."

Jesus, though, was I wrong. "Breaking Bad" is good TV. I'm not quite done with the first season, but one thing that pops out at me is just how clever and classically stylish the show's cinematography is. Although "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" are very different shows, they share a certain formal aesthetic (kind of like how Showtime series feature lots of flashy wide-angle shots, or how all the colors on the USA network look bright neon.)

Take, as an example, a wordless little pre-cred scene from the BB's fifth episode. The show's second banana, Jesse, has just come out of an unsuccessful job interview - he thought he was applying for a sales job, but actually they wanted him to work sidewalk marketing as one of those way-too-joy-juiced sign-spinners. He walks out, and runs into an old friend and fellow drug aficionado, currently working as a sign-spinner. They share a quick smoke in an alleyway. The friend asks Jesse for some crystal meth. Jesse says he doesn't cook anymore. The friend says he could help Jesse out, if he's looking for a partner. The friend walks off, leaving Jesse behind. Watch what happens:

Jesse is left behind to ponder the possibility of getting back into the criminal trade. His shirt is dark red, and the tie he holds in his hands is yellow - bright colors, which are matched in the strange graffiti on the wall behind him. Note all of the parallel lines up and down - the gate on the left, Jesse's slightly tilted stance, the blue lines and the red totem. Those lines are criss-crossed by perpendicular lines that run across the building.

There's a quick cut to the interior of Jesse's car - the sound of the door opening actually begins milliseconds before the cut. Note the red dice on the side of the car, poking out of the total jet black of the car interior, just like Jesse's shirt pokes out of his black suit. (I should note that it's a bit surreal seeing Jesse so well put together - up to this point, he's favored baggy clothes and weed beanies.)

The camera lowers just a little bit as he enters the car (it's hard to capture this subtle movement in still frames, but if you watch the dice, you can get a rough idea.)

Something catches his eye.

We cut to his POV - it's his friend, the stoner sign-spinner. Note the sharp red of the sign (the arrow says "This Way To Savings.") Note, also, the preponderance of parallel lines - besides all the light posts and street signs, you have several buildings and the sidewalk all going towards an offscreen vanishing point. "Breaking Bad" is set in New Mexico, and one of the most unsettling things about the show is how the desert landscape seems to show through even in city scenes like this - it's something in the angle, how you can see both the ground and the sky, which gives everything a slightly more trapped feeling.

We're back to Jesse in the car, and yet a third red element is introduced: he's been circling jobs on the classified page. The red-pen circle completes a visual triangle - the red dice on the left, Jesse's red shirt, the red ink.

Now, the showstopper - the shot which, to me, lifts this whole sequence into something totally unexpected, something Hitchcockian. We've established the two separate plains of action - Jesse in the car, his friend out on the street. Now, we get those two planes unified. We're still looking at Jesse, but we're also looking with Jesse at his friend, and looking with him at the Classified page.
In classical filmspeak, the right side of the screen is positive and the left side is negative. Roughly speaking, on the right side of the screen lie all of Jesse's various possibilities. Does he try another shitty job, at a company so awful as to actually purchase Classified ads? Does he work with his failout friend on the creation of lucrative illegal drugs? Or does he bite the bullet and become a sign-spinner?
This shot is so clever, but it takes a second to notice some of its charm - like how there's a big red arrow strongly recommending that Jesse keep at the job search. The fact that so much of this shot is in darkness, right in the middle of a sunny New Mexico day, speaks volumes about the noirish nature of BB.

Now, watch what happens:

Jesse, exhausted just by thinking about everything, leans back against his seat, and again the camera just barely moves following him - it's almost like the camera is breathing with him, sighing with him, we're in so close. He looks offscreen, takes a breath, and then makes a hasty move forward, upsetting the red dice as he slams the paper down on his dashboard (notice how the string holding them form two straight lines suddenly jostled back and forth across the screen.) The camera leaves Jesse behind and moves down to the newspaper - the bright red taunting him, and us.

We cut from the disorder of the previous shot to the most straight-ahead shot in the whole sequence - literally poised on the x-y axis of a building, staring directly out of a car window from a clearly non-human POV.

So what's going on here, with all the red and the visual geometry? Earlier on I mentioned how the show can create a trapped feeling, but I don't think the show's metaphor is as simple as saying, "These characters are trapped by their existence." That's the sort of easy answer that results in a work like "American Beauty" or the newspaper plotline in season 5 of "The Wire." I'm not so sure that the Red is meant to stand for anything in particular, but the show's color palette is so marvelously subtle, yet striking - it pulls you in like a luscious hidden melodrama. The more you watch "Breaking Bad," the more everything seems to build up. This is a work of sustained fascination and genius. At its best, in a scene likes this, it feels like something Orson Welles would have done, if he'd been born one decade later into the TV age instead of making his name in radio.


Tyler Shaw said...

I just read this after a couple of weeks of thinking about the significance of the characters' names. Mr. White, Jesse Pinkman, Saul Goodman, etc. I have no idea what it all means but I feel that color has a tremendous influence over how viewers experience this show. This series has so much more going for it than the obvious.

Dylan Conlin said...

At this moment, I happen to be watching Breaking Bad on Netflix and your theory led me to the following ominous epiphanies:

1) Netflix is red all over...
2) Netflix has a lot of parallel lines...like everywhere...

Using your theory as inspiration, I conclude that I'm imprisoned in Netflix's noir, cheap world of second-rate entertainment, wasted hours, and lonely nights.

I'm also considering the idea that Breaking Bad's cinematographers chose to distribute their program through Netflix because they wanted Netflix's claustrophobic, Euclidean design to complement this scene, this 5 minute Hitchcockian masterwork.