Tuesday, 14 October 2014

A Critic's Life: From John Ruskin to Breaking Bad

I've been reading of late some of the mixed reviews of the new Emma Thompson-scripted movie, Effie Gray, about the young wife of Victorian art critic John Ruskin (pictured right). The eponymous heroine abandoned her loveless, unconsummated marriage in favour of running off with dashing John Everett Millais, co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and most famous for his painting of Ophelia. Famously Ruskin was said to have been fatally turned off his young bride upon gazing at her pubic hair (there are lots of fans of the Hollywood out there who would sympathize) and is apparently depicted in Effie Gray as the stereotypical sexually-repressed, stiff (or rather, not so stiff) Victorian, a depiction repeated in the 2009 BBC series Desperate Romantics, with Tom Hollander playing Ruskin.

Clearly Emma Thompson was angling for a feminist vote of sympathy for poor old Effie Gray who soon settled down into tedious domestic harmony with Millais, producing eight children. Interestingly however, the film has had an unexpected reaction - the depiction of Ruskin has led to many voices calling for a re-appreciation of his genius.

I won't pretend for a minute to be any expert on Ruskin - I once did a brief skim through the volumes of his Modern Painters, at one time the cutting edge of art criticism, though now firmly belonging to the domain of mid 19th century history-of-art scholars. I've never read his Stones of Venice and am not sure I ever will. But even so, what's undoubted about Ruskin is how enormously influential he was throughout the nineteenth century, whether as the champion of Turner or the man who saved the incipient Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood from critical oblivion or indeed his extraordinary social vision, which inspired and anticipated many of the later achievements of the welfare state. A little bi-annual pilgrimage I like to make is to the Ruskin House at Coniston in the Lake District and I've happily sat through the documentary film of his life a few times.

Ruskin was clearly the critic's critic, a man who saw that the only worthwhile way to live your life is with a critical eye, constantly reassessing the value of things, whether he was appraising fine art or the society around him. He understood that while art is essential in a society so is the critical appreciation to that art and that one cannot fully operate without the other.

It's tempting sometimes not to over-think things and park one's critical faculties in neutral. I was attempting to watch the other week the classic Akira Kurosawa film Ikiru (1952). Having seen virtually all the Kurosawa films, somehow Ikiru had slipped through the net and I had kept meaning to watch it sometime. Many have proclaimed it a great classic, but when I started watching it, I simply couldn't get into it and paused it twenty minutes in. I tweeted at the time that it seemed so old as though it had been made in 1852 rather than 1952. A couple of weeks later I watched another half hour and paused it again. Sure, I'd get back to it sometime but truth to tell I'd really rather be watching the box sets of series two and three of Breaking Bad, which I have been consuming at a rate of an episode a night. The gripping tale of illicit crystal meth production in present day Albuquerque seemed a whole lot more engaging than a slow-moving story set in postwar, black-and-white Tokyo.

Imagine my surprise therefore when I happened to read online - this is very old news indeed but I am only just catching up - that the creator of Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan, had been inspired by the plot of Ikiru. In Kurosawa's film, a humble clerk is given a terminal diagnosis for stomach cancer and only then begins to break out of his humdrum existence. In Breaking Bad, Gilligan takes this idea and transforms it into the tale of a downtrodden chemistry teacher given a terminal diagnosis for lung cancer who begins criminal activities to pay for his medical bills and leave something behind for his family. Both film and series are acute satires on the societies in which they are set: in Kurosawa's case, he is satirizing the bureaucratic rigidity of Japanese society and the blind conformity of the employees; in Gilligan's case, it is the nation's lack of universal healthcare, the rapacity of its lawyers and businessmen, and the poor rewards of educators amongst many other things at which he levels his satirical vision.

How could I have not seen the connection, especially as I was watching both at the same time? Although I am well aware that Kurosawa was inspired by the Westerns of John Ford and that Kurosawa's films in turn inspired a slew of classic Westerns, somehow I had failed to see that there was a straight line between New Mexico and Tokyo.

Having taken a leaf out of Ruskin's book and turned back on my critical vision, Breaking Bad resonates in ever more fascinating lights. I can appreciate for example how in the virtuoso episode in series three The Fly - a two-hander set entirely in the meth lab and concerned with the capturing of a fly - we have a set-up inspired by Sartre's famous play Les Mouches (itself a reworking of Aeschylus' classic Oresteia) in which the fly becomes a potent symbol of the guilt felt by the protagonist Walt White. Would the real-life fly be killed before he made a full confession to his young accomplice? It was all brilliantly done.

Note to self: Keep your critical faculties switched on at all times, you never know when they might come in handy. As Ruskin taught us so well, from lady gardens to Renaissance buildings to pensions schemes, nothing is beneath the analytic scrutiny of a finely-tuned critical eye.

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