Issue 067
April 4, 2022

Breaking Bad and Leicas

Catching up on American TV, thinking about tools

Oh, hello, Roden Newsletters Subscribers — It is I, Craig Mod, typer of this thing on a rainy Sunday afternoon, still in my pajamas like the laziest of men, sipping my second big cup of fancy coffee, marveling at the speed at which this year seems to be progressing.

I’m mainly in Book World these days — working on the Kissa by Kissa followup, a book about walking the Kii Peninsula. It can be a lonely place, Book World (and Kii, too). My main “output” these past few months has been to my Nightingalingale SPECIAL PROJECTS members-only newsletter. I’ve sent some sixty-seven issues (!) so far. It’s a book making / writing diary. In a recent issue I reflected a bit on reading / responding / sharpening one’s eyeballs, and redirecting those sharpened eyes back onto your own work:

I had never really “responded” to a text until the summer of 2016. I mean, I took a few writing classes at Penn, even a workshop-like fiction class, but I didn’t have enough self-awareness / sensibility when I was in university to understand what “real” work looked or felt like. It would take me ages to suss that out, didn’t fully grok refinement or rigor until my 30s. Extremely late bloomer on that front (or maybe not?). But in 2016 — after having failed to knock my novel into a publishable state on my own — I started looking for outside “training.” So I applied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop summer condensed program and the Tin House Workshop and got into both (via that unpublishable manuscript; not useless!). I read and wrote more responses to texts that summer than ever before. And learned to do so with a kindness / empathy that I found didn’t come naturally, but was critical (and accessible) once you entered the vulnerable context of The Workshop.

In a sour plot twist, that summer I hardly wrote anything. Maybe … 5,000 words? If that? I was all consumed with reading and responding. And it was great. I needed that. A summer of thinking about the mechanics of story, language. It’s amazing what you can compress into a few months of committed focus.

My current manuscript is in the hands of a few readers, which places me in vulnerable waiting mode, like sitting at the workshop table before class begins. Thankfully, I’ve been able to fill this space by reading the manuscripts of other friends, thinking about their stories, responding, and then coming back to my own book with fresh(er) eyes.

Oh, and watching TV.

a shack

Breaking Bad? Sure.

I finally watched Breaking Bad (note, uh: spoilers below). Well, sort of. Mostly. I was video chatting with a friend — a novelist turned screenwriter — and he was extolling the mastery of the Breaking Bad pilot. So — ugh, fine, OK — I figured I should finally plug into this piece of late-naught Americana. I grabbed the script, watched the pilot, and then kept going to see what they’d do and how they’d do it.

The premise is still hilariously, so specifically American it’s almost total parody of our contemporary condition: Man doesn’t have good health insurance, so he … turns to cooking meth?

The most impressive narrative trick the series pulls off is how well they seed the fundamental “brokenness” of Walter — because his lack of healthcare is obviated quickly by the offer from his ex-business partners. (Again, so “of” a specific weird culture: Your ultra-wealthy friends will “save” you from medical bankruptcy by fake hiring you. Our grandkids are going to have a circus looking back at us …) It’s one of the few plot points that’s never fully addressed — what transpired between Walter and Gray Matter. But that’s fine, it works! He’s splintered. He wants to be a “real” man. Provide for his “weak” family. He wants to slap the world on stage for all to see. It’s mostly a great ride. That said, I did find script flab. So my condition for “allowing” myself to plow through the series was I could fast-forward (10 second skip; an Apple TV remote tap) as much as I wanted for what I felt was “filler.” (!!!)

I realize this will drive show purists insane, but — gahhhh, there are so many great books, movies, albums, lectures, YouTube channels in the world. I find it difficult to sit through anything that feels a few rewrites / cycles away from being truly excellent (What does this high and mighty “truly excellent” mean? Mainly that the characters are being “respected” by the script; which means that they don’t veer into pure caricature, have a fullness / truth to them; perhaps especially poignant in supporting roles and minor characters; reflect on how well-written and clearly loved / respected (by the writers) Bubs is from The Wire; I use characters like him as lodestones.). Instead of naming and shaming all the characters I skipped, let me name those I didn’t: Walter, obviously. His son (fantastic). Mike, Todd, Tuco, Lydia, Hector, Gus. This, to me, was the core of the show, this ragtag psycho crew. Jesse Plemons’ vibe was so well-executed (and heartening to see him here before all his film work (also, uhhhh, Bill Burr? (!!))). Scenes with these characters were never skipped. It’s worth calling out Saul as a character who completely, unexpectedly elevated the show to some higher, sanctified station of television. As soon as Bob Odenkirk strode onscreen everything changed — the amps in the rock arena suddenly grew an “11” on their dials. Saul is well written, but it’s Odenkirk’s performance and strange pathos that turns it magnetic.

In the end, I probably 10-second-skipped about 40% of the show (!!); I had subtitles on so I was basically “scanning the script” in those scenes to make sure I didn’t lose plot points. In a weird way, this method of watching felt subversive and horrible and unholy. In another way, it felt like a glorious vote. I wasn’t skipping capriciously; I gave everyone a fighting chance. It felt more like a recognition that network TV has a time slot to fill, and Vince Gilligan was dutifully filling it, sometimes with copper instead of gold.

My skipping tapered off towards the final seasons. I don’t know if I skipped more than a few minutes in Season 5. Which seemed to speak to Gilligan becoming more and more confident, honing his understanding the story he was trying to tell. It was exciting! — by watching in this compressed state, you could feel the writer / director owning years worth of material in “real time.” By the end I was nearly cheering out loud (for Gilligan!), and — for what it’s worth — I loved how the show landed: Jesse driving off scream-crying into the night, surely to soon commit suicide; Walt, reverting to chem dork, caressing a canister as he conks; a pile of dead Nazis; Saul escaping to the most horrible fate of all: Cinnabon manager.

All of that is a sort of rambling preamble to say: Better Call Saul feels like a miracle. It feels like Breaking Bad’s first three or four seasons were Gilligan’s warmup to excising all cruft from scripts. Saul is pure narrative, pure gold. And with no minor risks: Charles is not a character I could have imagined working. And yet! Michael McKean does it. And does it well.

The whole premise is stellar: Pull in the best of BB and flesh out their back stories. I love Mike’s lumpy face.

I’ve skipped none of this show. (I just finished Season 3; maybe I’ll start skipping?)

Having now shoveled all these moving images into my brain, the scene I keep going back to from Breaking Bad is: Season 1, Episode 6, Walt has just gotten the cash from Tuco by blowing the office up. He walks out. Sits in his car. Holds the cash. And gets high off the chemical rush of all that adrenaline — a full body (though we just have a tight closeup of his face in profile, we believe it tingling to the toes) flood. Cranston pulls off a look that says: We’re never going back to whatever we once were. And yet, the character — to the very end — never fully sheds a shy dorkiness. (Even (especially??) the pork pie hat he chooses to wear to look “tough” — it’s a perfect choice; the hat of ska aficionados; the hat no actual tough guy in 2008 would choose.) You never forget he was probably picked on as a kid. He never fully transforms into a total maniac, but he touches the wire again and again. Tries on that sliding door other-verse of another possible life. That’s what made Walt compelling (multidimensional, complex, flawed, sad, compromised from the start) as a character (to me, anyway). So: Bravo Breaking Bad (and double bravo, Saul), but also: I think about half of it can be skipped. (I always worry: Should I not share this opinion? Is it too harsh? I don’t mean it to be harsh — I’m just sharing the acrobatics my brain jumps through as it tries to parse out, and find value in, the infinite rush of art/media streaming through the air into our poor, befuddled faces.)

a kiln

On the compelling-videos front, I’ve been rewatching old Richard Feynmen interviews and lectures and he’s just a joy from start to finish. Here he is talking about fire. Mentors, archetypes, great teachers — these folks make the world go ’round.

I’m now 65% done with The Making of the Atomic Bomb (about which I wrote last month; it’s my 10-pages-before-bed book) and it’s thrill to see Feynmen enter the fray, thinking about that accent / energy of his down in Los Alamos.

Randomly: This snare drum solo by Alexej Gerassimez is wonderful.

Cormac McCarthy responds to high school students.

some sacks

Cameras — Hardware vs. Software

On the photography front, Kyle Chayka recently wrote about iPhone cameras perhaps getting “too smart.” It is — truly — astounding to have watched iPhones progress as they have. The bigger shock — to me — in this last decade, though, hasn’t been the tiny sensor / lens pairs of smartphones producing better and better images, but rather the general stagnation of “big” camera companies not innovating on their own software stack. But then I thought a bit more about what I truly want from a camera as a tool, and maybe it is mostly a hardware thing.

Photography is (probably?) the most technological/scientific of the all the “classic” arts (that is: pre- generative, programatic, AI, ML, et cetera, based art). It’s pretty new (barely 200 years old; painting: 45,000+ years old). It’s always been a hardware game. Better chemicals, better lenses, better surfaces. It started off big — large format as a norm, pinholes projecting onto entire chemical-slathered walls. Shrank over time (remember disc cameras?), eventually seemed to settle around 35mm being the best balance of portability and quality. Video is mixed up in there too — but, until digital, worked off many of the same tech underpinnings.

Enter the smartphone: Tiny sensor, tiny lens. You’re fighting physics. In “normal” photography, if you need more resolution, just get a bigger camera, up the surface area of your film. Can’t do this (to the same degree) on a smartphone. Hence the investment in software. It’s the only way to wrest from suboptimal data, more-optimal data. I’m intensely curious to see how far software can enhance this data. Perhaps you’ve noticed — the camera bumps on phones are getting bigger and bigger. Even just for a single lens (let’s ignore the multi-lens arrays), the sucker has to be 2-3x larger (in volume) than whatever the iPhone 5 had a decade back. The images are getting better in part because of that: more surface area, more complex, better resolving lenses. Marry that with better algorithms, multiple exposures, and you start to see why — under certain circumstances (good light being a big one) — these little miracle machines in our pockets are able to take such outstanding images.

Now think about “normal” digital cameras. Take Leicas, for example. The M9 is ten years old. An M9 could handily take a “higher quality” (resolution, dimensionality, et cetera) photo than an iPhone 5 could produce — certainly when you took into account fast lenses shot wide open. Certainly if you printed the thing out at A4 or larger. (Of course, an M9 with a 35mm Summilux cost the equivalent of about ten iPhones.)

The M10 is already five years old (released Jan 2017). Big upgrade from the M9 — more dynamic range (11.7 to 13.2), higher resolution sensor (18mp to 24mp). I’ve been shooting with an M10 since the summer after it launched and I rarely ever, even today, feel like I need “more.” As I work on this new book of mine, most all the photos are M10 photos. I can usually correct any exposure errors, even pretty egregious ones. The dynamic range is wide enough to recover all sorts of crazy data in highlights and shadows. I crop fairly indiscriminately and don’t really feel a resolution pinch.

The M11 came out a few months ago, boasts a 15 stop dynamic range and a meaty 60mp sensor. What this means in practical terms: You can take a photo in even more challenging light, and not lose any detail. And you can also crop a photo in half and still have oodles of pixels.

These changes aren’t compelling enough to get me to upgrade (of course, I’d take an M11 and gladly use it were I given one!). After having taken tens of thousands of photos with the M10, 13.2 stops has never been a limitation. And the resolution — even printing at A3 sizes at “museum quality” — also hasn’t been an issue.

An example of pulling / pushing dynamic range:

some kilns before / after
Above: Photo as captured by the camera; Below: After adjusting levels

There are limits to usefulness of these advancements. For example, more dynamic range isn’t always better. Images can begin to feel like HDR (High Dynamic Range) photographs. Think: Interior shots on real estate websites. Somewhat unnatural. It’s rarely a coveted look.

Still — options are great. And what these hardware improvements bring to the table are more options. You can crank those shadows, you can obliterate those highlights, you can crop into some weird unexpected detail like a madman and print it on a billboard. Way more than you could with an M9. Certainly more than an iPhone 5.

But unlike smartphones, in Leica-land, most of this optionality is happening because of hardware. Sure, the “Maestro” “engine” is getting better, but really it’s that sensor, that glass. 35mm is actually quite small (in resolution-terms) in the world of art photography. This is why Leica still finds value in ever-refining their lenses. The APO (“apochromat”) 50mm Summicron — which costs a dentist-loving $9,095.00 USD — through the miracles of maniacal German glass purification and fancy math, somehow resolves to ever more surgical precision. What this means is that even though the surface area of our 35mm “film” (sensor) is the same, the design of the APO lens keeps those incoming photons “happier,” less distorted, more “pure,” when compared to, say the lowly $4,495.00 USD 50mm Summilux. So if you look reeeaaaallly closely — it’s a more technically “accurate” image (color, distortion, et cetera). (Again: Diminishing returns, and sometimes (often?) you aren’t looking for perfection.) The point being: The companies that can’t do software (i.e., haven’t actively reared a culture of software, which is extremely different than hardware), do hardware, and do it crazily.

Walking through all this, here is where I land for my “ideal” camera for the kind of books and images I’m looking to produce:

  • A singular tool (it doesn’t shoot video, doesn’t browse the web, et cetera)
  • Operates quickly, instantly — zero “boot” / shutter lag
  • Light (easily portable) but well-made, waterproof, can be smacked against rocks
  • Has a single-charge life in the thousands of photographs
  • Captures as much data in as neutral a way as possible

Leicas fulfill (partially or fully) a lot of these qualities. I like that software isn’t Leica’s main focus. On a thirty-day walk I’ll never touch the screen / tap a button on my M10 — I just flick it on/off, change aperture, release the shutter. I like that Leica makes lenses I’ll never be able to justify buying, simply because it signals a kind of commitment to hardware fanaticism. The company is getting slightly more softwarey (the M11 now continuously reads the sensor, whereas before the sensor was only exposed to light and read on shutter release), but they’re still nowhere near the iPhone universe, and these changes are mostly in service to that final point: Capturing as much data in as neutral a way as possible.

Because this is how I think of my camera: Quiet, a deliberate extension of the eye with a neutral gaze, allowing me to quickly define all aspects of exposure, satisfying to hold and use. A “true” tool that readily bends to the will of the artist/artisan/craftsperson.

In this sense, an iPhone and a Leica are incomparable. An iPhone’s default is to know what you want. It’s a good default for its billions of users. Defaults are important, and I understand the difficulties, sometimes, in defining them. So the overprocessing that Chayka brings up has never irked me. Overprocessing is precisely the role of the smartphone camera. I’m at peace with most of what my iPhone sensor captures and rarely want more control.

As for the “normal” digital camera makers, they all have a trick up their sleeve — because they have the physics advantage implicit with hardware (large sensor, good glass), they can offload the software aspect of photography to the computer. Meaning: they can let Adobe Lightroom perform the transforms and exposure corrections, simply by dint of having captured so much “pure” and “neutral” information.

This works for me. It’s strange to feel “satisfied” with a piece of technology but here we are. I love my dorky Leica. I only wish it was more rain-friendly. Of course, I also think physical books are the apotheosis of a certain kind idea collimation. So take these thoughts with a properly pinched nib of Maldon.

old house

I’m excited to get this next book to everyone. Hoping to have a better sense of schedule / timing in a month or two. Some unknown unknowns, I’m sure, yet to rear their heads.

Twenty-four hours after I started writing this thing, it’s still raining — cats and dogs, fat drops smacking the second floor windows of this cafe I ran off to. Had to get out of the studio. From my perch I watch the tiny Enoden train trundle by. An old man is reading a book. Other folks are working. The coffee here is undrinkable, but I brought my own, ordered theirs in a mug, dumped it out in the toilet, covertly filled the mug with some incredible Java. I’m worried the aroma will give me away — it smells like an earthy fruit orchard in Elysium. But no one seems to notice.