The Wounded Cowboy

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This is one of those old illustrations that sat, untouched, for years at a time. I’d eventually get around to it, do a little bit of work on it, get discouraged, and set it aside for another year. Just one of those projects that, at the very beginning I thought had some promise and I eventually lost my passion for.

But my passion for taking these orphaned, unfinished projects and finishing them? Definitely stronger.

Forcing myself back into this piece – inspired, as many of my illustrations are, by the cinema – I thought about the tradition of Western Films in American cinema, and how these themes have begun to resurface in movies like Logan, which intentionally and overtly borrowed from movies like Shane and The Cowboys. This piece, in fact, is a study from James Mangold’s 3:10 To Yuma – James Mangold also happens to be the same man who directed Logan.

This didn’t feel like work. It wasn’t a headache trying to finish it. I found a good flow and I’m glad to close the chapter. I hope you like it.

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Better Call Saul 3.02 – Witness

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Jimmy: Does that look straight to you?
Francesca: I think you’re a little crooked.
Jimmy: Yeah…a little crooked…

This is precisely the kind of nuanced conversation that Better Call Saul fans love. Of course we know that these two characters aren’t discussing the moral turpitude of the show’s ethically challenged protagonist – they’re discussing the paint job in the lobby of Jimmy’s new law practice. We’re all in on the joke, though, and the actors play it totally straight, which perfectly sells the moment.

The scene involves Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) meeting Francesca Liddy (Tina Parker) for the first time. A former Motor Vehicle Division employee, she’s looking to apply as a receptionist for the Law Offices of Wexler-McGill. This is yet another introduction of a Breaking Bad alum, a tertiary character embedded in the narrative for longtime fans to appreciate and for newcomers to meet for the first time.

That’s the subtle magic of Better Call Saul. Seeing Tuco Salemanca in season one was a great reveal, inciting audiences to question precisely how the floundering public defendant, Jimmy McGill, eventually manages to ingratiate himself among the prolific criminal empires we already know about from Breaking Bad. In season two we have the one-two punch of seeing ‘The Cousins’ as well as the drug kingpin himself, Hector Salemanca. Rumors of Walter White (Bryan Cranston) making a cameo – even just a simple glimpse of him walking through the background of a scene – have been circulating on social media for over a year, and the anticipation of Gus Fring’s (Giancarlo Esposito) return in season three has had fans wringing their fingers for months.

It’s a tricky narrative dance, introducing an ensemble of characters that audiences are already familiar with and whose ultimate fates are already known. Breaking Bad aficionados already know exactly what happens to Tuco, Hector, The Cousins, Gus, and many, many others. How does the show motivate interest when it’s already known what happens further down the line? The prequel game is a tricky one, but somehow it has been working for Vince Gilligan and Co, who have managed to keep audiences engaged.

The other interesting aspect of Better Call Saul in general, and season three in specific, is the minimalist approach to dialogue. Some people may find the pacing too slow, especially compared to Breaking Bad, with long sequences in which characters are thinking, plotting, planning, studying, or hunting. ‘No dialogue’ means one serious thing: you have to keep your eyes on the screen and you have to pay attention.

Visual story-telling has made a huge resurgence, both in television and film, and Better Call Saul has been expert in maintaining narrative intrigue with a minimal approach to dialogue – especially in a number of Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) scenes. This week’s scene in Los Pollos Hermanos when Jimmy is sitting in his booth, not a word is spoken. Jimmy sits, fumbles with his food, and waits for his mark to arrive. Then we watch Jimmy struggle to figure out how to get close to his mark, eavesdrop, and find a new seat close enough to keep the man in his sight-line. I’m reminded of the massive success of ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ and the fact that the entire film could have been silent (and there genuinely was very little dialogue) and audiences would have completely understood the universe that these characters inhabit. I’m also reminded of ‘No Country For Old Men,’ where entire scenes unfold in silence, motivating viewers to put themselves in the mind of the protagonist and guess at what he’s thinking and wondering the exact same things he must be wondering. It’s a brilliant device that rewards patience.

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No breakdowns here. If you’re reading this you’ve seen the episode. Ehrmantraut is slowly unraveling details about the Salemanca Cartel’s rivalry with Gus Fring’s operation, even though he has yet to identify Gus Fring as a major player. He knows he’s being tracked, and he’s using his exceptional skill and patience to solve the problem. Chuck has successfully sabotaged his brother Jimmy, and Kimmy is going to be stuck in the middle of this colossal lie-laden disaster. How much does Fring actually know, and what are his plans? That’ll have to be left for later episodes, it seems.

At the end of the day, this writer has one humble prediction for the show: most of the characters who aren’t in Breaking Bad – Chuck McGill, Kim Wexler, Nacho Varga – aren’t going to escape Better Call Saul with their lives. Losing Chuck and Kim would be a logical conclusion to Jimmy’s unique Faustian tale. The obliteration of family and love, a corrupt and ugly dance with the devil, will lead to Jimmy’s metamorphosis into the morally bankrupt Saul Goodman we met in Breaking Bad.

I’d be willing to put money on it.

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Afterthoughts: there’s a fun little easter egg that seems to have gone under a lot of people’s radar.

The cigarette smoking driver that sped away from Los Pollos Hermanos in order to lure Mike onto a remote stretch of desert highway? That’s right, it’s Victor, Fring’s perpetually scowling henchman tasked with guarding Walter White and Jesse Pinkman in the underground lab. If this isn’t ringing a bell, just think “Gus Fring – Utility Knife.”

No dialogue means one thing: pay attention.

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Breaking Bad – Say My Name

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Many folks herald Breaking Bad as the greatest television show in the history of television. I wouldn’t go so far. It was successful in developing a narrative that rewarded its audience and grew along with its popularity. But if we’re going to be honest with ourselves, it’s a show that began slow. It certainly managed to enhance its narrative velocity throughout its five-season run, but there was an undeniable lull during the earliest episodes. Its biggest success rested in the show-runners – and creator Vince Gilligan – outlining how they wanted the story to end. The network had no opportunity to milk the show – keep it on life support while the numbers were good – until it fell into relative obscurity (think Dexter or True Blood).

Sure, we would all have gleefully sat through an additional three seasons of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman dodging bullets and escaping the guillotine, but a poorly-resolved narrative condemns a story to the realm of ‘the forgettable.’ We remember Breaking Bad because the story respected its audience. It was designed to be a complete story, not a money-maker – and that’s why it’s such a profoundly successful money-maker. The competition between ‘art’ and ‘commerce’ destroys most shows, most books, and a lot of popular art. Focus groups and ratings have a direct influence on the direction many of our stories go – seeking to please audiences rather than impact them.

Focus groups are as effective as the SAT’s in measuring success – which is to say, they don’t measure success. In many cases, they destroy it. Breaking Bad is one of the greatest examples of long-form story-telling specifically because it didn’t allow itself to be influenced by outside, disaffected parties. It took risks. It reminded audiences that creativity and ingenuity can allow a television show to achieve as much – if not more – than feature-length films. Breaking Bad inaugurated the wave of cinema-quality television we’re now experiencing.

And hindsight is 20/20. If we can be genuinely objective, Better Call Saul is better at the job of character development and story-telling than Breaking Bad ever was. Artists – and the writers in their ranks – evolve. In Saul, nothing is taken for granted in it’s production. Breaking Bad, the early years, has the tainted film of “this might not be picked up for another season” written all over it. Better Call Saul is infinitely more confident in it’s story-telling – in a way that audiences have never seen. Sure, it could be canceled at any time, but it’s obvious that the writers know precisely where they’re going with their characters. They have to be, because half of these characters already exist in the Breaking Bad series.

With the ultimate fate of the principle characters an already-known quantity, the writers of Better Call Saul have been working on – and achieving – a heightened level of story-telling, the likes of which we have never, in the history of books, movies, or television, ever seen. It’s pretty damn cool.

Keep your eyes open. Look at the quality. And please: Say. My. Name.

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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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