Selfies and Borges

jcham979 and the video literacy of Breaking Bad

SPOILER ALERT: If you’re one of those people who are just starting to watch Breaking Bad now, don’t read this entry, and don’t watch the video embedded below! You’ll hate me.

Though at this point in time, if you’re just starting in on the show, avoiding spoilers is sort of like trying to avoid learning who won the 2008 presidential election.


Like millions of others I am freaking out over the end of Breaking Bad tonight. But I’m a belated fan; I only got into it very late in the game. And the weird thing is, what piqued my interest wasn’t the show itself, but an absolutely fascinating Youtube clip: The jcham979 video “Breaking Bad Finale Theory — A Case For Walt Poisoning Brock”.

This was a video that appeared in the fourth season, when everyone was arguing about who and what, precisely, was making Brock sick. In his/her/its video (the identity of jcham979 has never been made public, near as I can tell), Jcham979 assembled a six-minute-long video argument arguing that Walt had poisoned the boy. It’s worth rewatching again, now, because not only was jcham979 obviously correct, but the method was such a great example of modern talmudic video-parsing via Tivo and Youtube. At a pivotal moment at the 3:30 point, jcham979 seals the argument that “Walt did it” by throwing down a spectacular frame-by-frame analysis of Jesse being patted down. The whole video below is worth watching, but check out that 3:30 moment specifically:

The extra-meta-fun part of this video is that it neartly presages Jesse’s own epiphany earlier this season, when, while looking for his cigarettes, he has a Proustian flashback to precisely this moment — with the same “aha”.

I so heavily dug jcham979’s video that I put it in my book (which you can buy! right now! here!), in a chapter where I discuss how people are developing new literacies in media like video, photography, and even data. We’re in the very early stages of video becoming a plastic as text became under the word processor; as I wrote:

Until recently, of course, it wasn’t possible to do this with the moving image. In the decades leading up to the twenty-first century, it was difficult to impossible to parse in such detail anything that appeared in movies or on TV. You couldn’t easily rewatch it. And you certainly couldn’t cut and paste together your own video as a method of argument.
The slippery nature of the moving image had long troubled cultural critics. In his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, the cultural critic Neil Postman bemoaned the passing of the age of print. Print, he wrote, allowed for parsing and rereading. Electronic media just slid past you into an eternal memory hole. “The eye never rests, always has something new to see,” Postman complained. While burning a book was heresy, electronic media, ever since Samuel Morse’s telegraph, was structurally impermanent: “the telegraph demands that we burn its contents.” This meant that the moving image could really never be used for careful thinking, the way we’d long used writing and reading.

For the time he was writing, Postman was absolutely right. But by the mid-2000s, things began to change dramatically. A riot of new tools emerged: hard-disk recorders like TiVo let viewers pause TV shows and scan them on a frame-by-frame basis, even as they were being aired. Digital video-editing tools became simple enough for children to use. Digital video cameras became so cheap they were incorporated into nearly every phone and laptop. And video-hosting sites like YouTube made broadcasting the moving image as trivial as blogs had made broadcasting print. In essence, we’ve seen a whipsaw transformation as tools emerged that allowed for a new level of literacy in the moving image — with TV itself as the first subject to be dissected.


In some respects, this frame-by-frame study of TV takes us back to the origins of the moving image. In 1878, the photographer Eadweard Muybridge helped settle an issue over which horse racing aficionados had long bickered: When a horse is galloping, is there a moment when all four hooves are simultaneously off the ground? Horses gallop so quickly that you can’t clearly perceive this with the unaided eye. So Muybridge invented rapid-fire photography, taking a series of pictures of a galloping horse mere milliseconds from each other, producing a flip-book-like sequence. Sure enough, he proved that the four legs of a galloping horse do leave the ground all at once. Better yet, he invented the first animated video player, the zoopraxiscope, to play the images in succession. When he took it on the road, crowds were fascinated by Muybridge’s ability to slow down, speed up, and freeze-frame the horse. The moving image emerged, in a sense, from our desire to scrutinize the evanescent visual moments of daily life.

Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope, of course, has also been reborn as the animated gif.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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