Finding the right stories for winter, when getting to the theater proves difficult

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Anna Gunn (left) as Skyler White on Breaking Bad
  • Anna Gunn (left) as Skyler White on Breaking Bad
Moviegoing isn't just an activity, but a state of mind—the desire to be lifted up into the work, regardless of whether one views it as art or entertainment. Yet the forbidding winter we're currently experiencing in Chicago isn't really conducive to this mind-set. In a season of chronic snowstorms and below-zero temperatures, the most attractive pleasures are the ones you burrow into, as if preparing to hibernate with them—model-building, complicated recipes (preferably involving heavy, roasted meats and/or gravy), and the long-form narratives found in fat novels and box sets of TV series. I remember once reading an interview with Paul Westerberg where the journalist noted that both Westerberg and Prince had recorded albums where they'd played all the instruments themselves. Westerberg said something to the effect that when you grow up in Minnesota, you get used to spending lots of time indoors, tinkering on things alone. A winter like this makes Minnesotans of us all.

A few recent releases have offered hibernation experiences away from home: Blue Is the Warmest Color, At Berkeley (which screens again at the Film Center on Wednesday), and Generation War (currently playing at the Music Box). Most of them, however, have been just too short. To compensate for the lack of epics in theaters, I've been immersed in Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks and the last two seasons of Breaking Bad (which I started a few months ago; I shared some thoughts about that here). The chief pleasure of both is that the narrative isn't just long, but dense. The epic form allows for digressions in which secondary characters assume the complexity we associate with protagonists—it also allows for detailed accounts of seemingly minor incidents in the main characters' lives. In both kinds of episodes, the focus shifts from thematic development or the relaying of incidents—it feels as though a miniature world is being constructed around us.

The more detailed the world, the more autonomous it seems. We begin to regard characters as complex individuals, not simply products of the author's (or authors') imagination. One benefit that a TV show like Breaking Bad has over a feature-length narrative is that the characters and settings are developed over time by numerous individuals—the show's creator, the supervising producers, the numerous writers, and, most importantly, the actors (who, by virtue of growing into their roles over several years, get to fuse the characters' personalities with their own). Thus a character like Skyler White comes to act on so many contradictory impulses that she inspires a multitude of responses. Some viewers regard her sympathetically, while many others consider her the show's most Machiavellian character. I haven't finished the series, so I'm not taking sides just yet—my point is that the show provides enough material to justify both readings.

This complexity makes the long-form narrative an ideal vehicle for pondering ethical dilemmas (incidentally, this is also an activity one typically entertains indoors and alone). It becomes more challenging to pronounce judgment on a crisis when we understand the complexity of each player and the milieu they inhabit. This is why I've had such trouble determining my response to one of the most emotional passages in Buddenbrooks—Antonie's decision to divorce her second husband, which she knows will bring shame upon herself and her family. On the one hand, Herr Permaneder is a lazy boor who has brought Tony into a life she deems below her. On the other, Permaneder hasn't acted out of malice (Mann's descriptions suggest a deeply flawed, if ultimately inoffensive person) and, in the early 1860s, a once-divorced woman of the upper-middle-class couldn't expect to do better in a second husband.

It's possible that Tony submitted knowing it would end this way—it seems a part of her has never forgiven her family for forcing her into her first marriage when she was too young to know better. (That terror makes up an earlier bravura episode, in which Mann details how the forces of family, church, and gossip combine to break the 19-year-old Tony's will.) Had the independent-minded Tony Buddenbrook been born a generation or two later, she might have excelled in any path she chose. Instead, she's had to submit to a chafing, chauvinistic order for her entire life. One could understand why she'd rather live under a misery of her own choosing, rather than make the best of an unfair system. But does that mean she's justified in her actions?

It takes an especially observant and equanimous storyteller to arrive at such questions in a feature-length format. Krzysztof Kieslowski was one of them (is it coincidental that he made his greatest work, The Decalogue, for Polish TV?); in Like Father, Like Son (which begins a Chicago run at the Music Box on Friday), Hirokazu Kore-eda proves himself to be another. Like Father is an ideal release for winter: it's not just enveloping, it's warm too!

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.

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