Sunday, 15 August 2010

Small, Striking Moments: The Corner and The Wire

The HBO ‘miniseries’ The Corner (2000) is now predominantly viewed and marketed as a warm-up or sketch for The Wire (HBO, 2002-8). When we enter for the first time the fictional world of the prior series (in its first episode, ‘Gary’s Blues’), the presentation of that world employs aspects of the rhetoric of a documentary. A handheld camera travels backwards to keep in frame its subject - a black man in early middle age (Gary, played by T K Carter) - as he hurries along an alleyway and then across a street. Offscreen, a voice asks him questions.

Gary enters a corner grocery store. The camera remains outside, and executes a three hundred and sixty degree survey of its environment. What is dramatised, however, is not the camera’s capacity for revelation, but the fact that its presence alters that which it would observe. It pauses first on three stationary youths, all of whom in their own ways exhibit a desire to give nothing away. Next, it stops on a man in a tracksuit crossing the street towards us, who meets the camera’s gaze, turns on his heel halfway across the street and crosses back. Finally, it catches a man walking past close by. The offscreen voice offers him an open opening gambit (‘Hey how’s it going?’), but he returns the greeting before it has even finished in a tone that ends the conversation, and moves past the frame without breaking his stride. Thus do we see figures variously frustrate the curiosity of the camera by doing nothing, turning around, and ploughing onwards.

Gary exits the store holding a cigarette. They are sold individually, he explains, for 25 cents. ‘Be a lot cheaper to buy a pack wouldn’t it?’ the offscreen voice ventures. ‘Yeah well, you know,’ Gary responds. ‘Why buy a whole pack ’cause you gonna wind up giving half of ’em away.’

The device of having the character who will turn out to be the episode’s protagonist speak to an embodied observer and enquirer is used in the introductory sequences of all six episodes of The Corner. The title card then acts as a watershed: afterwards, the camera is no longer tied to a following figure. Douglas Pye has argued that often in narrative fiction (he is specifically discussing Hollywood movies) ‘the initial overt marks of the presence of narration cue us to a relationship between narration and fictional world which we are expected to carry forward without the overt marks being retained’ ('Bordwell and Hollywood, p48). The Corner is based upon a six hundred-plus page book of investigative journalism of the same name (co-written by David Simon and Ed Burns). The opening sequences of the television episodes embed this provenance and method within the adaptive medium. Even after the initial mode of narration drops away, our viewing should continue to be informed by a way of seeing that places at the centre of its quest to understand the world the observation of human lives and the asking of questions about them.

'You want to know if a dope fiend's for real, check the bottom of his shoes.'

We are in an office basement which serves as the headquarters of a newly-formed special unit of the Baltimore Police Department, a unit whose purpose is to investigate the Barksdale drug organization. Detective Sydnor (Corey Parker Robinson) enters, dressed as a drug addict for an undercover operation. He plays to the other detectives, first adopting the language and gestures of the fashion world (‘Detective Sydnor’s ensemble is the latest in Westside project-wear [...] torn cammies by Versace, stained sweatshirt by Ralph Lauren…’), before declaring: ‘I ain’t showered in two days, I ain’t shaved in four. Right now I am one ripe, nasty son-of-a-bitch’. The most appreciative audience member is Carver (Seth Gilliam), who immediately joins in with Sydnor’s strutting, ribbing his fellow detective but also joining him in a loudly-voiced holding at a distance of the category of person Sydnor is imitating (‘Look at this piece of shit!’).

Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn), another detective, looks on more sceptically. After Sydnor has finished regaling the group with a rundown of his costume, she turns to her confidential informant, Bubbles (Andre Royo), a drug addict who will be accompanying Sydnor on his round of ‘buys’ from Barksdale dealers, to seek his opinion. ‘Clothes is torn down enough,’ Bubbles concedes, ‘but he could use a little bit more stains, more dirt.’ His first major criticism is of the wedding ring on Sydnor’s finger. ‘Shit, you married to the needle boy’ Bubbles chuckles. ‘That shit been pawned off if you for real. It’s a dead giveaway.’ After more criticisms, Sydnor protests that Bubbles surely cannot have a problem with his footwear. Bubbles, sitting down, places Sydnor’s heel on his knee, showing the sole of Sydnor’s shoe. ‘See? You walking down them alleys in the projects man, you stepping on the dead soldiers.’ ‘Dead soldiers?’ an uncomprehending Kima repeats. ‘Yeah, empty vials. You can’t walk down a Baltimore street without that shit cracking underneath your feet. You want to know if a fiend’s for real, check the bottom of his shoes. OK? Have him dance on some empties before we go out there.’

The limits of Sydnor’s costume are an index of the limits of his empathy and understanding. The attitude towards ‘dope fiends’ exhibited by Sydnor and Carver in this scene is one of contempt. If one views a category of person through such a distancing lens, it is not surprising that an attempt to emulate their appearance will tend towards caricature - a generalised set of undesirable attributes. In this case, Sydnor’s dope fiend is ‘tore down’, unshaven and malodorous. But, as Bubbles points out, because he has not walked a mile in such a person’s shoes, his masquerade will not withstand the scrutiny of true players of the game.

What is at stake here is more than ‘surface realism’ - although the series and the discourse that has bloomed around it clearly have a strong investment in this too. The point is not, or not only, to reproduce the way things look. The Wire constantly invites us to extrapolate meanings, and modes of existence, from small details of appearance and behaviour. When Bubbles points out the limits of Sydnor’s ‘inhabitation’ of his dope fiend character, he points out the stories told by the presence or absence of a wedding ring on one’s finger or of broken glass on one’s shoes, for those who are able to read them (‘See?’). Similarly, the availability for purchase of individual cigarettes in corner stores is at once a neat little detail and a neat little story - a small window onto a mode of existence where even the most temporary accumulation of the most minimal ‘property’ renders one a target, leading to the formalisation of novel methods of buying and selling basic commodities that answer to such an economy.

-- -- --

The moments described above, and my description of them here, were a starting point for an article I wrote about The Wire. However, I couldn't find a place for them in the flow of the article in its final form, even though the ideas contained within them remained relevant to it throughout its development.

'The Rhetoric of The Wire' has now been published in the first issue of Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism. I am deeply honoured to appear alongside the likes of writers such as Ian Cameron, John Gibbs, V F Perkins, Douglas Pye, Deborah Thomas, George Toles and Michael Walker, whom I have long-admired, as well as my friends and peers James MacDowell and Lucy Fife Donaldson.

(NB This would have been my first post with images, but my DVD capture technology pixellated them [I think Bubbles's magnetism was too much for my PC] and I couldn't get Blogger to lay them out like I wanted - it's worse that Word!)

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Holiday reading: The Road

This blog contains spoilers.

Most of last week I was camping in the Lake District, and I managed to read a novel that I've been wanting to get around to for a long time.

I spend more time than might be healthy worrying about fuel and food shortages, resource conflict, and social collapse - thinking about all the things that need to keep happening to keep society going, and about how I'd cope if I found myself in the position of Robinson Crusoe, or the 'castaways' on Desert Island Discs. Should I be spending time learning how to grow my own food? Build drystone walls? Fashion spectacles for if my eyesight continues to deteriorate?! For this reason, and because I was so gripped by No Country for Old Men, I felt primed for The Road.

The novel follows a man (who remains unnamed throughout) and his son as they traverse an America in which society has collapsed, nothing grows, and the sun barely shines - effectively, a nuclear winter, although the specifics of whatever precipitated this ecological state are never gone into.

Language and imagery are the novel's main strengths. Alan Warner puts it well in his Guardian review when he suggests that
what propels The Road far beyond its progenitors are the diverted poetic heights of McCarthy's late-English prose; the simple declamation and plainsong of his rendered dialect, as perfect as early Hemingway; and the adamantine surety and utter aptness of every chiselled description.
Around halfway through the novel, when we have become accustomed to the extreme precariousness of the lives of the man and boy, as they wheel a cart along asphalt, picking up what food they can and preciously guarding what they have, the man discovers a family's long-abandoned bunker, hidden under grass in their garden. It contains cans and cans of food: 'chile, corn, stew, soup, spaghetti sauce. The richness of a vanished world'. The moment of discovery is a truly affecting one by virtue of its context.

The 'vanished world' of the novel is precisely a world where there's enough to eat, and a world in which food can still be produced. The loss of art, architecture, science, knowledge... these things are not considered directly. This is a consequence of the restrictions the novel observes. It mainly limits itself to describing the two main characters and their actions, and does not create within these restrictions occasions for reflection upon the lost civilization in broader terms.

As well as no longer having any meaningful past, wiped out as it has been, the characters are also robbed of any future. The underground bunker full of food represents not just the richness of the past, but the ability within that past to have a future; to have the wherewithal to save, make plans and think beyond one's immediate needs, and the faith that it is worth one's while to do so.

This is stark and effective, but it does present structural challenges that I did not feel that the novel entirely overcame, or at least did not sufficiently compensate for. When your characters live in an eternal and precarious present, how does one develop a story? Can one create a narrative that feels other than episodic and arbitrary?

My other main reservation is partly to do with the book, and partly to do with its critical reception. I confess that I love the critical fawnings that are used as pull quotes on book covers and inside them. I always read them in order to whet my appetite for the main course that is the novel itself. I am promised various kinds of brilliance in various authoritative, taut phrases; by reading this book I will experience this promised brilliance; the time I spend reading will be fuller and better living than if I was doing the washing up or sitting on the sofa eating biscuits; and afterwards perhaps I will have some taut phrases of my own, or at least I'll be able to inhabit rather than just observe and assume the fittingness of the judgements of the quotes on the cover.

There are the usual cliches. Kirsty Wark is quoted describing The Road as 'shocking and harrowing but' - of course - 'ultimately redemptive'. Reading the quotes back after having read the novel, I found myself temporarily transformed into Bertolt Brecht, feeling contempt for 'the scum of the earth who want the cockles of their heart warming'. However, I was also slightly troubled by something more specific to this novel's reception. In describing it as 'a warning', I think there is a danger of a self-congratulatory display of concern and social consciousness which amounts to very little and serves no useful purpose.

The Road ends with a one-paragraph coda, after the business of the plot is concluded. (In its muscular simplicity and subject matter, it reminds me of Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes.) Here it is in its entirety:
Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.
We should not reduce The Road to the message or warning that this paragraph contains. Nevertheless, this is a rhetorically privileged moment. It is the first time we break away completely from the man and boy, and the last thing in the novel. We are no longer being presented with narrative, but with poetic and pointed description standing alone.

It probably seems churlish and uncharitable to begrudge McCarthy a one-paragraph coda after a 300 page novel characterised above all by economy and restraint, especially a paragraph so beautifully written, the sentiment of which one surely could not disagree with. However, it seems to me to provide the invitation to the kinds of interpretations referred to above.

The Road is, throughout, all about effects and not causes. How did this nuclear winter come to pass? We do not know. McCarthy's tone throughout is elegiac, regretful and humane, and this tempers and makes more palatable but does not eliminate the fact that he is also fatalistic and despairing, perhaps even nihilistic? When faced with the terrifying spectacle of an unexplained and total destruction of society, ecology and food production and supply, I would not say I had been 'warned', because a warning suggests that if I fix my ways there's still time to make everything alright, and I do not think that is what the novel suggests - and it certainly does not suggest how one might go about doing the fixing. If McCarthy is a climate change thinker, he is a James Lovelock. Again, the lost world evoked by The Road is not a world of excess, despoilation or rapaciousness: it is primarily a world where people simply had enough to eat. The novel does not present us with any past figures or actions who contextualise its calamitous present and would therefore serve as objects of blame. And a bit of tinkering at the margins by the reading public will not save us.