No fence

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Some context. In less than a week, I’ve seen three major awards-season movies with significant African-American roots: Ava DuVernay’s stunning documentary The 13th (nominated for Best Documentary); the adapted Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play and Denzel Washington vehicle Fences (nominated for Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actress and Adapted Screenplay); and Moonlight (nominated for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Score and Cinematography). By further coincidence, I also saw episode two of the History Channel’s 2016 remake of Roots, showing here for unfathomable reasons on BBC Four, and different from the 1977 original mainly in the more visceral depiction of its violence, which is a sign of the times.

But it’s Moonlight I want to talk about, as I believe it’s as close to a perfect film I’ve seen this year, and I think it’s going to be hard to beat. It’s behind a paywall but I’ve picked up via social media that Moonlight was trashed for effect by the just-passing-through film critic Camilla Long in the Sunday Times Culture section. The gist of her pasting seems to be that its story of a young black male coming of age in Miami has been made to appease a straight, white, guilt-ridden, middle-class audience. This is bullshit, and I speak as a straight, white, guilt-ridden, middle-class man. This charge devalues the fact that it is adapted from an unpublished stage play about a specific black experience by a black writer, Tarell Alvin McCraney, and directed by a black director, Barry Jenkins, and yet it is a film so universal it will appeal to any demographic. (She disparages the central character for lacking any defining characteristics beyond “sad” and “gay”. That we’re talking about a low-budget indie film whose central characteristics are being “sad” and “gay” but which has broken through to the mainstream feels like a massive breakthrough.)

Long’s misrepresentation also subtracts from the fact that the film’s cast is almost 100% black, a straightforward reflection of the milieu in which it’s set, and thereby not an “issue”. (No need for handy white racists to prop up the story of black kids dealing with prejudice that comes in many colours. Sadistic, whip-wielding, white plantation owners are not required on this particular voyage.) Moonlight is not a film about the African-American experience through which we are led by the colonial hand of a white interpreter. Nor is it a film that wrings its hands about the statistical odds stacked against a child born black in 21st century America. That Chiron, our protagonist, is born to a single parent who is herself an addict who turns tricks to feed her habit, and has to fend for himself on the streets and at school, is not the defining narrative. For Moonlight is a love story. It is also a “gay” love story.

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The love that dare not speak its name is, we intuit, even less verbose among black males in what we’ll call working-class neighbourhoods. You have to assume progress is being made every day in terms of sexual diversity as well as racial diversity, even in more “traditional” social groups, but the story of Chiron from school age to manhood is all about keeping a dark secret. (I’ll refrain from detailing the plot too much, as you’ll want to experience its revelations in the moment, without forewarning. There is one that’s simply devastating. You’ll know it when it comes.)

I had never heard of Barry Jenkins. He’s still pretty young, 37, but I never caught his first film, Medicine for Melancholy, in 2007. Moonlight nails him to the map. Sometimes it’s just timing. This is his time. Arriving, as it does, in an America of #BlackLivesMatter and reinvigorated prejudice of all kinds, Moonlight shines especially brightly and beautifully. (You can see from the stills that it’s a picture to behold – cinematographer James Laxton has also been working for years, but this is his calling card – but its often moonlit, often sun-bleached beauty is played for sincerity and irony, aesthetically. What I mean is: even its violence, or the result of its violence, has a certain artistry. But it never detracts.)

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We have to commend the cast. Only the better established actors, Mahershala Ali (a mainstay on House of Cards) and Naomie Harris (one of our best known BME exports, and it’s a crowded field), have been nominated for major awards. I suspect the sublime Ali – playing paternalistic but conflicted drug dealer Juan – might take Supporting Actor on Oscar night. But while both are strong, it’s the unknowns who pump the blood through the film. Let’s hear it for Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes, who cumulatively play Chiron; and for Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and Andre Holland (familiar to fans of The Knick), who give life to Chiron’s best friend Kevin. The casting is almost magical: the two acting trios look enough like each other to convince, but not enough like each other to distract. And each acts with the same relaxed, unforced poise. Kevin talks constantly, while Chiron keeps his own counsel (adult Kevin observes that he never says more than three words at a time). Both characters require care and attention to get right, and if the world was fair, all three could be nominated collectively for a single Oscar, or Bafta, or Globe.

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You might argue that no film is perfect. You might be right. But back to context. I saw Fences the day before I saw Moonlight, and without wishing to judge Fences too harshly (it, too, contains a performance worthy of accolade: Viola Davis), it feels almost pantomimic next to Moonlight’s grace and subtlety. Denzel Washington, directing himself, simply puts the camera down and points it at a Pulitzer-winning play. It’s not cinematic; it’s theatrical, and didactic. Jenkins never moves his camera without meaning, or subtext. Sure, its tracking shots could be dismissed as showing off, but the opening one, detailing Juan’s routine, checking up on a corner boy, asking about his mother, is surrounded by the camera, which spins around not for technical effect, but to reveal the wide open space of the dealer’s world: flat, bleached out, salt-flecked, while expressing the practical truth that a dealer needs to be able to see at 360 degrees. When a gaggle of schoolkids races past him suddenly, we feel his surprise; we didn’t see them coming either. (Jenkins cuts here to the boys, chasing through wasteland, and it’s only then that we see that it’s a pursuit, and a homophobic one. I cannot wait to see this opening sequence again.)

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Moonlight is a serious film, but not without humour, or hope, and certainly not one without tender mercies. It’s an acting and directing masterclass that’s all the things Camilla Long seems to think it isn’t: necessary, important, urgent, relevant. It’s also warm and sensual and streaked with tears.

Some fences are built to keep people out, some fences are built to keep people in, but Moonlight contains no clunky fence metaphors.

Ready, steady, cook

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Let’s write about Breaking Bad. When I gathered up the best telly of 2012 for my roundup, a couple of people asked why I had omitted Breaking Bad? Good question. Well, this is why: I didn’t really watch Breaking Bad in 2012. Although we do have history.

I’d already devoured Seasons One and Two on DVD, having missed the first, when it premiered here on FX, because – admire my honesty here – the trailers didn’t grab me. Those astonishing images of Walter White in his underpants, in the New Mexico dessert, wielding a gun, and the pitch about him being a chemistry teacher? I didn’t think this was my kind of programme. Drugs? Pants? An actor I did not know. (Never watched Malcolm in the Middle.) It seemed too … wacky for me. So I gave it a miss.

I was encouraged to rectify this fatal error by other people, probably on this very blog. So, if I recall correctly, when FX re-ran Season One (hey, they’d paid for it), I caught up at Episode 2 and was hooked pretty much instantly. I bought the box set, so I could watch from the beginning, and I did, right the way through. This was a show so good, you could watch it again immediately. Then Channel Five did the right thing, and picked it up for Season Two, but self-defeatingly hid it late at night on imprint FiveUSA and ran it over consecutive nights. I taped and watched it all, feeling all of a sudden like I was in on a secret. (No spoilers, but Two is the one with the pink teddy bear, an indicator of the show’s swaggering, overarching confidence.)

Season Two is everything Season One was, and more. (I’m assuming you’ve seen it. If you haven’t seen it, stop reading this and go and see it. Seasons 1-4 are now boxed.) And after that, UK television stopped showing Breaking Bad, a case of criminal negligence that has yet to be rectified. As it hits its fifth and final season in the US, it is a long-running, award-winning, lauded drama series of which only 20 episodes have ever been broadcast in this country. A cable insider me told that it was just too expensive for a niche channel to buy, considering the tiny audiences it drew here on FX and Five. (Even the hype that now trails it has had no appreciable effect on the numbers for Seasons 1-2 re-runs.) There is a suggestion that AMC have priced it out of the market.

At the beginning of 2012, I found myself in a sort of sado-masochistic relationship with what might well have been my favourite programme, had I been able to legally view it. It had, by then, gone overground in terms of column inches, overtaking The Wire and Mad Men in chatterati approval ratings, and yet, not even shown on an obscure cable network in the UK. In the States, where it has a home, the aforementioned AMC, it had reached Season Four. I hadn’t even seen Three. In May last year, it finally became available on Region 1 DVD and I leaped at it. But, weirdly, for me, I found it difficult to get back into, knowing that we would always be one season behind.

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Well, in the gaping maw between Christmas and New Year, we rescued Season Three from cupboardly exile, and started again; we saw 2013 in with it, pretty much. With unusually large periods of free viewing time, we were able to watch it as nature intended: back-to-back, binge-style. (Each episode is around 47 minutes long; a commercial “hour”, and they cram a lot in.) We did Three in a couple of days’ flat, ordered Four, and then watched that in two sittings. Gripped. Transfixed. Hooked. In constant awe at how the writers and directors keep up the pace and the intrigue. Although many directors pass through, BB has a distinct house style. Shot on 35mm, and characterised by the blinding oranges and yellows of a boiling New Mexico skyline, you know you’re watching Breaking Bad if a POV camera angle puts you at the bottom of industrial vat when chemicals are decanted into it.

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Often, an episode will begin with an extreme close-up, almost abstract, from which clues may be gleaned, but only 47 minutes later will you fully understand the significance of this elliptical, impressionistic flash-forward. (In many ways, the whole of Season Two plays this trick. There’s also a clue in the titles of four episodes of Two that, taken together, hint at the story arc’s conclusion.)

I would seem odd to go too much into the plot, but it all kicks off with mild-mannered Albuquerque chemistry teacher and family man Mr White (Bryan Cranston) learning that he has terminal lung cancer and opting to cook a batch of pure crystal meth in order to take care of his family – wife Skyler (Anna Gunn), teenage son Walt Jr (RJ Mitte), and as-yet unborn baby Holly – financially. He hooks up with ex-student Jesse (Aaron Paul), a known amateur meth cook and dealer – as well as a user – and the mismatched pair attempt to pull off the scheme without alerting Walt’s family, or the authorities, emblemised by his gung-ho DEA brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris), a stand-up guy who becomes their unwitting nemesis, as well as being close family. Here’s my thinking:

If creator Vince Gilligan, alumnus of The X-Files, had successfully pitched his genius idea as a film, this story would have played out, to some kind of conclusion from which everybody learned lessons, in around two hours. That’s just over two episodes. I’m sure it could have been done, but how much better, culturally speaking, that he pitched it as a serial drama, and was able to make seven episodes. (It would have been nine if not for the writers’ strike.) It did not conclude. We were left wanting more of Walt and Jesse and Skyler and Hank. So, Gilligan and his writing team upped the ante. They turned Season Two, with its full 13 episodes, into an epic, in which, well … some very interesting things happen, and Jesse, in particular, goes on an emotional journey. (There’s no better word for it.)

Since then, so much has happened, and yet, Gilligan has kept the whole story local. We’ve been across the border to Mexico, and Hank’s been to El Paso, but for 46 episodes, we’ve never strayed too far from the White household, Jesse’s aunt’s home, the school, the hospital, a fried chicken joint of massive significance and other local landmarks. Just as a soap invites us into a fictional ecosystem, so does Breaking Bad. Minor characters – Jesse’s meth-head pals, Bogdan the owner of the car wash, Skyler’s boss Ted – hove in and out of the foreground. Seedy but well-connected local lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), gun-for-hire and fixer Mike Ehrmantrout (Jonathan Banks), and kingpin Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) have all graduated from guest-starring roles to main cast. As such, BB moves in natural, organic, concentric waves. Because of the deadly nature of the game, we never know who’s going to be killed next. It’s certainly always feasible that it might be Walt or Jesse. You never know.

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I love the writing, in that I love the planning, and the storytelling. But I also love the dialogue. Whether or not it’s true to the way people in Albuquerque speak, I don’t know, but the white kids speak like black kids, just like anywhere else, even though the most significant ethnic group is surely Latino. You get a lot of Spanish subtitles, especially when you go deep into the Mexican drug cartel. But even these family-oriented gangsters feel fresh after so many of the Italian-American variety. I read an article that gave BB a kicking for being racist. What? Because its white characters are essentially good, and its Mexican/Latino characters are bad? Simply not true. Gus, a Chilean, is wise and fair and, within the boundaries of the criminal class, principled. Jesse and his white pals are losers, and idiots, by and large. I won’t go on.

Breaking Bad is not a show to knock down. Its cast is gloriously multi-ethnic, and it’s clear that casting choices are made on merit, not on star power. Aside from Cranston, and Gunn (who was in Deadwood), and to a degree Odenkirk (who’s well known in the US for stints on SNL and other comedy formats – he’s also a writer), it does not deal in stars, even for cameos. When Steven Bauer crops up in Season Four as a patriarchal drug lord, it’ll take you a few goes before you identify him as Pacino’s pal in Scarface. I read that Jesse was supposed to be killed at the end of Season One, but as soon as Gilligan saw the chemistry – ha! – between he and Cranston, they decided to keep him in. In this sense, it does operate like a soap.

Something I’ve noticed while watching Three and Four is the regularity with which characters are given monologues, stories to tell, at length. A writer’s dream. Whether it’s Jesse at an AA meeting, describing a box he made in woodwork, or Mike warning Walt about “half measures” with a tale from his days as a beat cop dealing with a domestic disturbance, or even the unnamed Group Leader revealing around a campfire how he killed someone, the writers love to suit up and cook pure anecdote. (This is terrific for the actors, too – indeed, Jonathan Banks really brought his character alive in that scene in Season Three.) It must be such a great show to act in. And all those award nominations! Cranston and Paul seem to be the most eagerly recognised by their peers, but we must remove hats too in honour of Banks, Gunn, Norris, Mitte, Odenkirk (way to give depth to an initially clownish figure), Esposito, and Betsy Brandt (Hank’s kleptomaniac wife, who gets her best season in Four). I fear they may all struggle to get better roles in the future.

I’ve not even bothered to argue whether or not it’s a comedy or a drama: it’s a drama. There are moments of comedy – black comedy, at least – even farce, but these never detract from the gravity of the situation. And people die. They die horribly.

There’s a scene in Season Four – no details – where a character breaks into an office by throwing a brick through the glass door, but the bottom panel of the glass door, via which he enters. There is pure physical comedy in the way he effects this, but the situation is life-or-death, so there’s no time to laugh. You just appreciate it, and file it away. Because you’ll be watching it again. (That’s why I do not resent paying for Breaking Bad.)

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So, here’s where we’re at. Unless you live in America, or have Netflix, or don’t care about piracy, you’re playing a waiting game. The first batch of Season Five have aired on AMC, with the second batch to air this summer? That means we won’t get the DVDs until the end of 2013. Thanks, UK broadcasters, for being stingy. Thanks, AMC, for hiking up the price. Thanks, UK viewers for failing to watch it when it did air, thus enabling UK broadcasters to wave their calculators rather than make a qualitative decision. Mind you, some things are so good, they’re worth the wait.

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It’s all sex and drugs and buns this week on Telly Addict (three things apart from telly, of course, that you can be addicted to). Nigella returns to BBC2 in the Italian-themed Nigellissima; Keith Allen returns to C4 with Drugs Live, except he doesn’t really, he’s just one of 25 volunteers taking drugs, but not live, in actual current affairs’ latest attempt to outdo Brass Eye; and over at the Great British Bake Off, two bakers will stop rising in a double-knockout. But which two? And will either of my two favourites remain? (There are no Bake Off spoilers here, by the way, so if you have “taped” Week 7, you may tune in with confidence. Having said that, it’s bloody Friday! Watch the programme!)