Saturday, September 29, 2007

Television















Michael Newman has an excellent article on television and cultural legitimacy here (thanks to Girish for pointing it out). As we celebrate the "erasure" of high-low biases, and the acceptance of television, are we really just plowing over another hierarchical social mapping in the process?
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Mark Kermode has a really problematic "conversion" article (hat tip to The House Next Door for linking to it the other day) where he, as a film critic, learns to stop worrying and love the boob tube. Cinema, that is, movies, always seemed more profound, a better and more immersive and hence more artistic experience, than television. (His favorite film ever by the way? The Exorcist. He's no purist of cinema as an aesthetic form.) After years of near-abstinence from TV, he finally caves. How does he do it? Well, he watches drama & comedy series, which line up most congruously with the artform, these movies, he so loves. No news or documentaries (he had no beef with those), no reality television shows ('the new porn'), no makeovers, etc. Most of the original content on television that differentiates itself from cinema is therefore disqualified from consideration before he's even started.

In short, he's not saying anything at all about the forms of cinema or television, as modes of exhibition, as political entities, or even as aesthetic fields (except for a few dumb remarks I'll touch on in a second). Why am I not surpried? This essay is nothing more than a cog in the big ideology machine to erase certain differences between film, television, and (though unspoken) computers--which, with the rise of digitization and its (illusory) smoothing out of "everything" you could ever want in the marketplace, serves the corporations whose products get shifted around from cinema screen to iPod to flat-screen, not always in that order. And as Newman's blog entry indicates, a lot of the hierarchies remain, so let's not be too thoughtlessly optimistic about the future, here.

Mainstream film reviewing and television reviewing both frequently operate as product endorsements; advertisements for a company products en toto, or a way of life (if not always for a particular product--like, say, an Uwe Boll film). This doesn't mean professional reviewers are all mindless; but the game has become so rigged that even the smart, dutiful ones have to cave in. And of course, the game has been rigged so well that some of us whippersnapper bloggers are reviewing movies, and hence advertising for companies in some capacity, for free. One difference between film and television commentary is of course the role of justifying the series format for the latter, and evaluating a TV show as it goes along. Someone gives up maybe two hours on a film they saw; but following a show involves more time, and the impetus these days of hooking viewers through continuity-reliant dramas seems to be at a peak. This goes beyond a critics' view of things, though I think it has a certain middle-class apologetic to it (thou shalt justify why you spend time watching Veronica Mars). More conventionally denigrated low-class forms of television--professional wrestling, soap operas--draw people in just as shamelessly, but regular viewers of these programs have always acknowledged it as precisely the addictive ruse it is, I think. Very popular, middle-class, middle-brow (or boutique) shows like Grey's Anatomy or House or whatever else are "canonized" on the Internet and around the water coolers not because anyone waxes poetic about their quality so much as the fact that they've hooked everyone in, from episode one to the latest (which of course then becomes a major foundation for TV value judgments).

Whereas television viewing, especially for the first 15-20 years of cable, was known for being transitory, fragmented, imperfect, it's now beautifully consolidating that spectatorship. Ideally speaking, no differentiation of media of scheduling stands in the way of the worlds of image-commodities (see post on Culture Monkey below). You can TiVo a series, or Netflix the DVD box sets, and watch it all in order at your leisure. Now that you don't need cable to watch cable TV, and commercials (as they are) are slowly becoming obsolete, what matters is first to ensure viewership when one can't fix it in space in time. Hence all the hooks; hence the "addictions" to TV on DVD (etc.);

Mark Kermode writes:

Well, on one level, TV clearly has improved, with the move toward the rectangular 16x9 widescreen image meaning that modern TV dramas no longer need look 'boxy' or 'cropped', a long-standing aesthetic barrier. Just as cinema's evolution from the old 4x3 'Academy' screen ratio to the more elongated 'widescreen' format was as significant as the advent of colour, so television's new picture dimensions are broadening its creative horizons immeasurably. Put simply, TV is no longer square. This is a major improvement and it's significant that my strict policing of my kids' TV viewing habits allows them to watch programmes on CBeebies and CBBC but only in the correct aspect ratio ('How many times do I have to tell you, Tweenies is anamorphic 16x9!').

You've got to be kidding. He's been utterly brainwashed by consumerist jingles! I'm as happy as anyone else that DVD has won the battle for widescreen video presentation, and I think it's great that TV channels commonly present films in their correct aspect ratio now. But this fetishization of widescreen (like the fetishization of all things "digital") is fundamentally no more than a proof that someone has taken a shovelful of marketing shit. Academy ratio does not look "inherently" boxy or cropped, of course. It probably will if the original print of the televised image was composed in 2.35 or 1.85. But there's absolutely nothing wrong with the good old-fashioned "square" image, and a critic who does not realize this is someone whose aesthetic faculties have been trampled and buried (sans funeral) by advertising-speak. Does Mark Kermode, lover of cinema, really think pre-1953 cinema was so limited by this "aesthetic barrier" before CinemaScope came to the rescue? That no beautiful images were composed for 1.33? I hope not.
(My parents, who have a massive widescreen TV in their basement, have everything set up so that DVDs of Academy-ratio films are cropped top and bottom so as to be "properly" widescreen. When this is happening with regular folks all over, it's not a victory for historical awareness of our moving image heritage--it's a sure sign that technology companies have referenced and used that call for awareness as a ploy to sell their newest product.)
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I've just finished the first season of HBO's The Wire, which came very highly recommended. And there is much to recommend it. The ambitious plotlines kept me from having any good idea of what was even going on until the third or fourth episode. As a treatise on crime and political corruption in America, it's a relatively clear-eyed account--it says what everyone knows (but which our mainstream media of course back out of when the setting is not fiction), that the political system is corrupt and full of bribes and backdoor deals; that bureaucracy frequently and conveniently inhibits itself from doing anything about this; that poor (black) communities are being continually blighted as a means for profit (not only drugs, but lucrative urban redevelopment projects); that police brutality comes from a number of sources (class privilege, race privilege, a brand of "populist" moralism--when the black lesbian and likable cop Kima rushes to join in on a beating, she's screaming at the perp, "Why would you hit a cop!?") but effects the same domination. And The Wire offers spectacles of cops-and-robbers violence, and occasionally a bit of sex. There's lots of dry humor. It knows exactly how to keep interest high from scene to scene, episode to episode.

Aesthetically speaking. There's one scene where a character named Bubbles, a heroin junkie, is thinking about going clean. As he sits on a park bench there are shots of sunlight through tree leaves; birds chirping. This is where The Wire is at its lowest--when its stylistic choices seem, not inappropriate, but borrowed. It's not organic to the style of the show in any way, it's just something the director or DP thought up because he wanted to show the inviting freshness of a drug-free life; it's like a slick commercial, but a little subtler. Where The Wire is at its best is maybe in its presentation of Omar (Michael K. Williams), a humanized spin on the Badass Motherfucker routine, who in small moments and an admirable seamlessness between performance, writing, and camerawork reveals a deep capacity for love, an adherence to codes ("I've done some dirt, but I never shot anybody who wasn't in the game"), and in his love (the pale boy in the photo below is his lover) and his work (he puts on a show for us viewers whenever he's out to use the guns) he exhibits a taste for beauty. Neither perfect nor "clean," his budding strength is one that is alternative to the system that The Wire depicts and (to an extent) critiques. He indicates something of what might step up if the sociopolitical system presented were actually, amazingly, to start to crumble. He's not a street criminal because he's an underbelly capitalist (like most movie & tv gangsters); and neither is he Robin Hood, mind you; he's a survivalist and he is a certain figuration of potential. It will be interesting to see where this all goes. "I'm hooked."

8 comments:

Ryan B. said...

Don't know if I mentioned it or not, but the The Wire's upcoming fifth season is focusing on the mass media. David Simon, a veteran of The Baltimore Sun Metro desk, probably has plenty to say regarding the gutting of metropolitan newspapers at the hands of new corporate ownership. But I'm real curious how far they'll go in the direction of self-criticism or criticism directed at the television medium as a whole.

Alex said...

I find the second season, which most viewers rate as the worst, the most interesting season so far (I'm still working my way through the third, however) - because the second season actually explores the reason WHY Baltimore doesn't function. The reason it doesn't (and literally can't) function is that, as the second season shows, Baltimore's economy was always based around it's function as a seaport. That port is in drastic free-fall decline, and unlike other failed former ports (San Francisco, London) financial services aren't going to replace the port's former profits.

Edo said...

Well, they're all about why Baltimore doesn't function so to speak. Each season takes on a certain apparatus of the city's socio-economic structure and delineates its intricacies. In the case of the first season its the inner-city drug traffic, in the second its the docks and shipping industry, in the third its law enforcement, and in the fourth its education. Of course, that's a simplistic breakdown since each of these systems overlaps and intersects with the others. A quality for which the show is to be commended.

I disagree with Zach that the show keeps you 'hooked' simply through a fetishism of the criminal world however. The gang violence, the sex, and the drugs are on display surely, but the very fact that the means of presentation is so run-of-the-mill, so conventional, almost makes it's ultimately unremarkable. This isn't "The Sopranos".

There's a real visual banality to the series that whether purposeful or not actually works toward something of the opposite effect. Rather than sensationalizing the show's milieus, the videography and lighting are so plain that they can't help but expose how cheap the stuff of this world's making is.

I'm thinking of the sets particularly, like a scene in the third season when a police named Herc witnesses the mayor receiving felatio from his secretary. As he nervously ambles down a corridor trying to digest what he's just seen, the paintings of past mayors loom above him ominously, but the montage of these images is executed so poorly from its typical use of forced perspective to the general crappiness of these fake pictures themselves that the effect is more akin to self-parody.

Another good example is a scene from the second season. After D'Angelo Barksdale is murdered in prison, a dealer named Bodie goes to a flower store to buy a funeral arrangement. When the owner realizes that the boy isn't here for 'just any' funeral, he takes him to a back room where arrangements come in the shape of kalashnikovs and glocks in pink and baby blue.

These two scenes are more obvious instances of what I'm getting at. Here the producers almost seem to come out and acknowledge that this show has a tight budget. But the point is that nearly every environment of the show is just as cheaply bought and decorated. The corridors of the powerful are always too decadent, while the ghetto environments appropriately seem held together by little more than masking tape.

Objects like a ring which is passed between many fingers in season four link and circumscribe the characters in a universe where banal, unimaginative dreams have shaped equally banal and unimaginative systems. Really, "The Wire" perhaps without realizing it itself points to how truly limited the definition of the American Dream has become at least in certain portions of America.

I could be wrong about the above statement. I have really no other proof than the series itself, and random news items I've read. So of course, I think that the show is also important, because it's rather informative, and the sources behind it seem trustworthy from what I've read about them.

I disagree with you, Zach, when you say that "it says what everyone knows...". I didn't know about a lot of the events the show samples. I admit completely to being ignorant as to the extent to which corruption and bureaucracy have crippled social change in certain of this country's urban polities. Of course, after Katrina, it's fairly obvious that there are whole portions of the local, state, and federal which require house cleanings. And even before Katrina, it wasn't exactly news that this country's politics is mired by the influences of back-door deals and lobbyists.

But the show still seems to me rather unflagging in its portrayal of such corruption. It's exact, meticulous, and shows you how a lot of the dots connect. I think it would be fair to say that a lot of us know 'what's going on' but we don't know 'WHAT'S going on', by which I mean details, minutiae. "The Wire" is in this sense the only show that I know of on TV, which I would hesitantly call educational.

Alex said...

"Well, they're all about why Baltimore doesn't function so to speak. Each season takes on a certain apparatus of the city's socio-economic structure and delineates its intricacies."

That goes without saying. In fact, David Simon's previous and concurrent series (Homicide and The Corner) are equally about the same topic. But the second season for me is the critical one, because it explains why Baltimore is so hopeless.

We as US television viewers often get to see narratives explaining why the inner city drug traffic flourishes (usually stereotyped narratives admittedly, but still) on many shows. The Wire is the only one that shows us why people can't get out of inner city drug trafficking - the legit jobs just aren't there. For example, when the previously feared hitman Cutty gets out of jail in the third season and tries to go straight, he can't find a legit job - partially because the port has collapsed in season 2.

Notice that, among the educated (mostly white) people in the show, none of them actually make any physical product whatsoever? Actual industry (making physical products) literally doesn't exist in The Wire's Baltimore. Our (sort of) main characters are Stringer Bell and McNulty. Stringer goes from being a dealer in physical products (drugs) to becoming a financier. McNulty's always hanging around his ex-wife, whom he always loses to a lawyer or banker - always a symbolic analyst.

McNulty is one of the harbingers of class in the show. The show makes it clear that he's probably one of the 4 most intelligent detectives in the entire city - he's an extraordinarily intelligent man. Yet, because he doesn't have a college degree, he has a low status within the city's hierarchy. The FBI is shown as idiotic (McNulty runs rings around them), but closed off to the low-status McNulty. Again, lack of job opportunities due to the de-industrialization of Baltimore.

Alex said...

By the way, Omar is the best-loved character on the show, but remember, he's merely one of a broad enduring system of criminals - from the financiers (the Greek and Prop. Joe), the operating executives (the Barksdales, Stringer Bell, Bodie Broadus, Marlo, Spiros), the specialists (Brother Mouzone, Weebay, Omar, the Sobotkas, Sergei Malatov)and low-level workers.

Not only are most of the criminals not glamorously portrayed (except for some of the specialists like Omar or Brother Mouzone), many of them are downright boring (Stringer Bell's life goal is apparently to be a real estate developer).

Zach Campbell said...

I disagree with Zach that the show keeps you 'hooked' simply through a fetishism of the criminal world however.

Is this what I implied? I didn't mean to. I was only pointing out that the show knows how to keep interests up by alternating between a couple of registers or using a few tools (expose of the underworld is just one of them). The 'hooking' function involves more than a singular fetishism, surely. I think this works especially since you're thrown into the series with little foundation or exposition--in order to keep viewers watching sans an accessible narrative, they've got a vested interest in keeping scene-to-scene interest high.

Of course, after Katrina, it's fairly obvious that there are whole portions of the local, state, and federal which require house cleanings. And even before Katrina, it wasn't exactly news that this country's politics is mired by the influences of back-door deals and lobbyists.

This is what I mean--it's not news, and I think most Americans, Dems & Republicans, voters or non-voters, all types of Americans are basically dissatisfied with the political and economic system. They know it's corrupt. I'm not saying we all know the minutiae of how it works--I'm saying most people seem to feel that, on some level at least, it works "that way."

As I haven't seen as much of the series as you guys, I'll have to abstain from further discussion ...

Edo said...

Sorry, Zach. I misinterpreted what you were saying. I noticed only after I had posted my spiel, while rereading your post that you didn't mean to imply that its means were simple and questionable. But I guess my response was more to the tenor of your comment about the scene with Bubbles contemplating a 'clean' life. I agree that the show sticks for the most part to formal convention relying on 'borrowed' techniques and expressions, especially in that scene, but I do think that for its aims it's doing only what it feels is necessary to get its message across. As you will see, the final episode of each season features an extended montage at its climax hammering home the inescapable, cyclical nature of this system of interconnecting agendas. It's the kind of device I think audiences will have gotten used to between the network narratives favored in Hollywood today and "Goodfellas" where I think that trend really took off. The insight is in this sense is indeed minimal, but I still think the emotional power is undeniable, given the marked ability of the writing and editing to get us involved in the conflicts of the characters. The point at which these montages come is ideal.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the series, because as you can tell I have quite a bit. I don't watch television at all - I saw most of "The Wire" via the internet and bit torrent - but I like to think that this could be one of the best shows on television. It's certainly one of the best I've seen.

Alex said...

Zach,

Keep in mind that the first season is the most conventional season of the show, and once the producers got approval for more seasons, took advantage of that approval to create a radically different show from even the first season. The first season has a lot of resemblances to parts of Homicide, for instance, but the second is pretty much radically new for a US "crime" series.

The creators of The Wire admittedly aren't as innovative on a purely artistic or technical front. But characters who initially appear as more stereotyped do tend to get more complicated and more shaded as the series progresses. And it isn't the type of stereotyped "humanization" we often see in something like NYPD Blue or Hill Street Blues.

Example: McNulty in the first season is partially the "rogue cop" stereotype and a conventional show would gradually go on to show him as having a "heart of gold", etc. Instead, McNulty's progression is very different and much more cynical. In fact, the show tends to argue that while McNulty tries to market and see himself as the "rogue cop", his problems tend to revolve around his chaffing at his class status, or his status in the police hierarchy, rather than his more conventional alcohol or romantic problems.