February 29 – Reflections

02-29 Reflections postToday I present the final image for Film February, a landscape made with my favorite old film stock, Fujifilm Velvia.

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The Walking Dead – “Knots Untie”

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“Your world is about to get a lot bigger.”

These are the words of Jesus, the previous episode’s newest addition to “The Walking Dead.” And he isn’t joking. The world is about to expand for all of the Alexiandrians as news of other settlements is revealed. As the back-half of season six leaped forward in time, we’re also beginning to get the sense that the walkers are getting ready for a massive die-off. This is hinted at in the comic book series as well; most walkers were made during the initial wave at the beginning of the series, and a rotting body doesn’t last forever. Those who have carefully observed, each season has brought with it walkers in more and more advanced stages of decomposition. The walkers in season six are soft, sticky heaps of bone, showing evidence of butyric fermentation and advanced decay.

It can safely be assumed that walkers, while eminently dangerous, are becoming less of a threat. The more significant threat comes from other survivors, scrambling to organize, secure resources, and defend themselves. We already know how dangerous The Governor was, and we know what happened to the settlement at Terminus. The apocalypse appears to have polarized the survivors, splitting them into one of two distinct groups: weakened survivors (like the Alexandrians) and ruthless tyrants and bands of highwaymen (like the leadership at Woodbury, the cannibals at Terminus, and the raiders led by Negan). Rick and his group have managed to stay somewhere in-between these two extremes, and “The Walking Dead” is constantly examining the morale, and moral turpitude, of the group.

At the invitation of Jesus, Rick and his cohort embark to a community called “The Hilltop” with hopes of striking a trade agreement to solve their food shortage. With the threat of famine looming over them, they have little choice than to risk following their new acquaintance.

The roads aren’t swollen with walkers, but the group is wary that Jesus may be planning an ambush. Rick’s caution is understandable. In fact, the entire ‘Alexandria’ story arc of seasons five and six was intended to illustrate Rick’s developing instincts. We watched him become the capable alpha, a charge he is at first reluctant to assume over the coddled, frightened residents of Alexandria.

In “Knots Untie,” we see who Rick has really become. No longer wrestling with his morals, he is literally baptized in blood. It is perfectly natural for “The Walking Dead” to invite violence immediately upon the group’s arrival at a new sanctuary. The people of The Hilltop are cautious, weak survivors, not unlike how the people of Alexandria were. When one of The Hilltop’s scavengers attempts to assassinate their leader, Gregory, in exchange for the release of his brother (who has been kidnapped by Negan), it is Rick who swiftly intervenes. After knifing a hole into the man’s neck and a literal bloodbath – a spectacle of violence unfamiliar to the stunned villagers – Rick looks around, practically shrugging, and says, quite earnestly, “What?”

It’s a laugh-worthy moment, but a telling one, too. It explains exactly how Rick and his people view the world, from a firm black-and-white perspective: try to hurt me, I will kill you. Period.

The incident is off-putting to the people of The Hilltop; after all, Rick killed one of their people, even the man ultimately was a danger to the community. But this doesn’t prevent the two groups from coming to an agreement. Burdened with paying tribute to Negan in exchange for peace, The Hilltop has been existing under the thumbs of a tyrant. Rather than attempt to broker peace with the Negan and his gang, Rick accepts a kill mission. In fact, he is the chief architect of the kill mission.

“We’ve never had a problem with confrontation,” Rick says. And we know that’s true. The group has a base of operations, lethal skills, and an offer of protection for The Hilltop in exchange for foodstuffs. All-out war is on the horizon.

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The tension is building quickly. Abraham’s narrative begins to resurface – a thread that was dropped before the mid-season finale – and we’re reminded of his tenuous grasp with reality. Along with his irrational risk-taking while guiding the mega-herd away from Alexandria, we see him wearing that curious smile once again. As the bloodshed we expect from the season finale approaches, it wouldn’t be surprising to see our militant slugger marked for death.

We also see Maggie taking a leadership role, acting as the chief negotiator with the knife-wounded Gregory. She recognizes that The Hilltop’s leader, a lecherous coward of a man, has little leverage. She confronts him head-on, standing her ground, reminding us that despite being visibly pregnant, she is a force to be reckoned with.

The group is comfortable with violence. We know this. Combat with Negan and The Saviors is acceptable if it means forging lasting peace with The Hilltop. Establishing safe trade routes between farming communities is the next step toward long-term survival. But I think we all know that the group is underestimating how dangerous Negan really is.

Time will certainly tell.

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Better Call Saul 2.03 – Amarillo

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“I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. McGill.”

The third episode of season two, “Amarillo,” begins with Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) at his smarmiest, charm-inflicting self. Swaddled in pristine white cowboy gear, he positions himself on a street corner, looking beyond conspicuous. We already know he’s up to something – it’s just a question what, exactly, his scheme is. In this case, it’s sweet-talking the elderly – something he’s incredibly good at – in order to collect additional clients for his class-action suit. He accomplishes this by doing what he does best – twisting the rules to fit his own needs. From a plausibly deniable position, he breaks the bar association’s guidelines for client solicitation by ambushing a busload of retirement community residents.

Jimmy’s ploy is successful, and the annihilating glow of fresh new clients is enough for everybody in the conference room. That is, everybody except Chuck (Michael McKean), who knows what kind of a smooth operator his brother is. Naturally, Chuck throws a wrench in Jimmy’s machinations, forcing him to find new ways of securing clients.

Enter: local low-production commercials.

In an entertaining callback to Breaking Bad, we bear witness to a wonderful distillation of Jimmy’s core gifts: intelligence, creativity, intimate knowledge of his clients, and a knack for showmanship. It’s actually quite a treat to see how the future Mr. Saul Goodman cut his teeth in the advertising game. The commercials he makes may be grating, poorly edited, clichéd, even predictable – but Jimmy knows how predictable people can be, and he knows how to stack the deck in his favor. Knowing his production would never pass muster with his firm’s focus-group atmosphere, he does the next best thing: he goes rogue.

While wrestling with the decision as to whether or not he should run the ad without authorization, we get another subtle callback to Breaking Bad in the form of a music queue. Ominous digital drones creep into the scene, illustrating his internal struggle; this is highly reminiscent of the mood-setting tones in Breaking Bad. This isn’t an indication of moral ambiguity, but rather an indication of outright rebellion against the order of things. And we know there are going to be consequences.

Jimmy knows he’s taking a risk, just like Walter White (Bryan Cranston) knew he was taking risks. Naturally Jimmy bets on himself, and this is precisely what makes him such an appealing character. With so many forces against him – a complicated personal/professional relationship with Kim (Rhea Seehorn), a brotherly feud of biblical proportions, a fraudulent corporation, and a dangerously ambivalent attitude toward legal ethics – we want to bet on Jimmy, too. Everybody loves an underdog, even if we know that he is flat-out wrong.

When he struggles and succeeds, we smile along with him.

In a beautifully acted, wordless sequence, we watch Jimmy squirming in his office chair, staring at the silent telephone, wondering if his bet is going to pay off. He already knows his flagrant disregard of protocol can only be forgiven if the phones start ringing. Minutes pass. The scene drags out. Then the phone bank starts to fill, miraculously, and we exhale a sigh of relief. A shiny smile of self-satisfaction washes over his face.

And we smile along with him.

At the end of the episode, wreathed in calm domesticity, Jimmy and Kim snuggle on the couch to watch “Ice Station Zebra” and unwind from the day. “Anything blow up yet?” Jimmy asks, plopping onto the couch in front of the flickering television.

Not yet, but it’s safe to say something will soon.

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DiCaprio – Academy Award For Best Actor

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One can scarcely name a more deserving recipient of the Best Actor In A Leading Role award. Stretching all the way back to some of his earliest performances, like his 1993 role as mentally challenged Arnie Grape in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” DiCaprio has delivered some of the most consistently brilliant performances of any American actor. The 88th Academy Awards on Sunday night highlighted incredibly stiff competition, reminding us that 2015 was a remarkable year for cinema. After masterful performances in “Gangs of New York,” “The Departed,” “The Aviator,” “Inception,” “Catch Me If You Can,” and many others, Lenardo DiCaprio’s name was finally inside that envelope.

“The Revenant” is a unique film in a lot of ways, but what’s most interesting is how common – even boring – the story really is. Based on historical figures, the narrative travels down a well-worn path. The principal character is betrayed, overcomes great obstacles, and exacts his revenge – nothing too terribly complicated. It’s something in the movement of the camera, of the locations, of the orchestra, the cello being treated almost percussively – hinting at the danger, solitude, and sadness of the film – that leaves the viewer feeling awakened, disturbed, saved. The transcendental tale and panoramic vistas remind us of how beautiful and dangerous this world is.

There is something spiritual about “The Revenant,” about watching Hugh Glass, mortally wounded, crossing the snow-capped mountains. He is a single-minded character with only one motive: bring his son’s murderer to justice. Once he has accomplished this goal – as we already knew he would – we watch him stare onward for a moment. We cannot tell if there is satisfaction in his vengeance, if he has found peace. It is this ambiguity that stays with us after exiting the theater. We aren’t told how we’re supposed to feel about the movie. We’re left to think about it and come to our own conclusion.

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu likewise earned his statue for best director. He respects his audience. He challenges his audience, but does so without pulling punches or treating us cavalierly. He’s a leader who doesn’t take the audience on an amusement park ride; we don’t fasten our belts and wait for it to eventually end. He takes us on a hike, on a rafting expedition; we have to use our own muscles to get through it to the other end.

We live in a golden age of film and television and “The Revenant” is a noble addition.

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February 28 – Checkerboard Café

02-28 Checkerboard post

I’ve never dined at The Checkerboard Café, but I always liked the sign. Billed on its website as “Tucson’s Friendliest Diner,” I suppose I will make this my first destination upon my return. Of course, the home page possesses a few typos, including listing at as “Located a Grand and Oracle Road,” when I’m pretty sure they meant Grant Avenue, I supposed I’ll give ’em a pass. Seeing as how the website also lists its copyright as 2012, I suppose I’d have to dig a little deeper just to confirm that it’s even still there.

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February 27 – Bridge Over The Wash

02-27 River Wash postThe Rillito River no longer runs twelve months a year, although it is credited with Tucson’s early growth. During a brief period of time, I lived along the wash and rode my bike along the hiking path whenever I could. During the monsoon season, the stretch of the river wash near my apartment would erupt with the sound of chirping frogs, and sometimes at night I would hear packs of coyotes howling.

Beneath the Swan Road bridge, I made several studies of the steel beams. It’s a simplistic composition, but I always thought it looked interesting through the viewfinder of my Fujica Half vintage camera. This is one of the many pictures I made during that time.

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Better Call Saul – Jimmy’s Painting

S'all Good post

We’re only two episodes into the second season, but we can already feel how close Jimmy McGill is to leaping off the ledge. Episode two, “Cobbler,” also shows the seed of discord being sown in his relationship with Kim. Until this point, they have leaned on one another and loved one another. With Jimmy falsifying evidence to knock the police off the trail of a fumbling drug dealer, a line has been crossed.

But I want to rewind for a moment to the end of episode one. The painting in Jimmy’s office, a not too terribly subtle image of an anthropomorphic figure tumbling backward, is an obvious representation of Jimmy McGill standing on the precipice of moral ambiguity. It also pays homage to his con artist days when he was “Slippin’ Jimmy,” taking dives on ice and banking from frivolous liability lawsuits.

The image above is a quick digital sketch I made from screen shots from the show; I couldn’t find any clear representations online to link to. The image above isn’t for sale because it’s just a replica I made of somebody else’s artwork.

The painting, titled “Geometric Abductions,” is actually made by a twenty-six year old local Santa Fe artist named Miles Toland. He is currently directing the artist residency program and gallery at Vaayu Vision Collective in Goa, India, which is where you might scope out the impressive mural.

Geometric Abductions

His art merges naturalistic human forms with transcendental designs, often incorporating elements of sacred geometry. In “Geometric Abductions,” the tumbling human form is subsumed by geometric patterns – these overlapping circles are known in transcendental literature as the “flower of life.”

This image is perfect for Jimmy McGill’s law office. In the same office is also an image of a vacant boxcar, hinting at the symbolism of standing at a crossroads. Show creator Vince Gilligan is relentlessly detail-oriented. The color palette, costume design, even books on bookshelves in the background – these details have been meticulously thought out, weaving a rich tapestry of character and back-story. Even though most of these details escape us while we’re watching, it’s this intense interest in authenticity that made “Breaking Bad” such a success, and why “Better Call Saul” has captured our imaginations.