Posts Tagged ‘The Wire’

20 January, 2013

Nudity in the Homeland

Cable came to our house only on the heels of a Phillies season that had to be watched. I still don’t know how to use it or what to watch. There was a time when the small resident thought that TV meant the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour. She and by then her sisters were quite possibly a handful of mites who watched nightly as a list scrolled on the screen at the end of the program, the names of those killed in the invasion of Iraq. I confess now that I, seeking relief from writing during lunch, often click it on and watch whatever happens to be available – usually re-runs of Old Christine and, presumably new episodes of What Not To Wear, while waiting for the ads to cease on CNBC or CNN.

Even before cable, though, a world of things I didn’t know existed had begun to occupy my headspace, though much of it has come belatedly. We watched ‘The Wire’ on Netflix, and I have come out as a zealot with regard to that show, in person and in a post here. Feel free to ridicule the statements made about Cable therein. More recently – thanks to a Roku Box – we’ve watched ‘Breaking Bad,’ and ‘Downton Abbey’ using the same device. So it seemed only natural that we should also take a look at another one of the shows that “people” rave about, ‘Homeland.’

Granted, with a title like that in the wake of the devastation caused to so many people both overseas and here by the administration that sent the country to war, and began to set up and fight strawmen here (see Amitava Kumar’s excellent article on the controversy of the Ground Zero community center for an example), under the guise of protecting the homeland, complete with the Dept. of Homeland Security, I knew some of what to expect. Still, I was disappointed and, worse, disgusted after watching the first three episodes last night.

Arab speakers and practicing Muslims as potential terrorists or just plain suspicious? Check. Long spells of full frontal female nudity that has nothing to do with anything? Check. Asinine rehashed plot? Check

It is hard to give any show that deals specifically with post-9/11 gung-ho terrorists-are-everywhere! scenarios a star rating after seeing Bigelow’s ‘Zero Dark Thirty.’ Whether you are blown away by it and defend her depiction of torture like Manohla Dargis does for the NYT, or whether you are blown away and condemn her refusal to depict the full truth of it (that torture discloses next to nothing) as Matt Taibbi does for Rolling Stones, that movie has substance. It makes a person – particularly an American person – pause just a little, ponder the average yeah-man-let’s-kick-butt understanding of foreign policy.

As far as ‘Homeland’ the TV show is concerned, there is nothing to make me keep watching. Idiotic portrayals of people who look like they might be Arab-speakers? I see it all the time in the streets and public spaces of America, particularly airports. Rehashed plot? I’ve already seen ‘The Manchurian Candidate.’ Twice. Once with Frank Sinatra and once with Denzel Washington in lead roles. At roughly an hour and a half running time that’s a lot smarter way to spend my time. And breasts. I’ve got those covered in every sense of the word.

Pretty little is as loathsome to me as the exploitation of the naked female body to no greater purpose than to tittilate a population starved of imagination. Well, there’s the abuse of children, the glorification of drugs and Rush Limbaugh, but not by a great divide. McNulty had some good sex in ‘The Wire’ (with his wife, Elena, with his mistress, Ronnie Pearlman), but those scenes, few and far-between, were directly connected to his character as a skirt-chaser. Walt, in ‘Breaking Bad,’ has one sex scene with his wife, Jesse two with his now dead girlfriend. In three episodes of ‘Homeland’ there have been so many long pans of Morena Baccarin’s breasts that I wonder if the perkiness of her chest was the reason she was cast in this role, and it seems imperative that Melissa Benoist is displayed front and rear to full effect – let us not forget the girl-on-girl crotch swipe in this same scene – to no apparent purpose.

It made me think fondly of ‘Downton Abbey,’ where events that are anticipated and the subject of numerous episodes – the wedding between Mary and Matthew for instance – are not overdone. We know there’s a wedding, we see her heading out, and that’s it. No excruciating drag-out of the inevitable in dis-service to the viewing public. We’ve seen weddings, we know what happens, and unless there is something unusual happening at one – Edith jilted at the altar in ‘Downton Abbey,’ – there is no need to bash us over the head with it.

Perhaps it is because I write fiction and love to read books, and I’m acutely aware of over-telling and being over-told-to. There is such a thing as too much information and ‘Homeland’ – with regard to naked women, but also with regard to its prejudices – makes it quite clear that the writers underestimate the viewer. Who wants to be taken for someone whose intellectual capacity is that of the lowest common denominator, the insular, ignorant, porn-fed, American male? Not me.

22 April, 2009

Writing like The Wire

In an article in the NY Observer, Leon Neyfakh poses this question: ‘Should Literary Novels Be More Like The Wire?’ First of all, let me say that I am a devotee of the now safely in TV history series, The Wire, a world that was made available to me through access to Netflix, since access to Cable has been scorned within these four falls by all its inhabitants including myself and we are now too invested in the point to be made by this to turn back. For a terrific essay on the thinking behind the show, please read Margaret Talbot’s ‘Stealing Life’ in the New Yorker (10/22/07) which describes the genius of David Simon, its creator. It is Simon’s way of ‘storying’ actual events that is being celebrated in the NYO article. Here is the beginning:

“Walter Benn Michaels, the punchy professor of American literature and theory at the University of Illinois at Chicago, came to New York last week and delivered an emphatic message to novelists: Please start writing more about class issues and the social order of contemporary life! It was a rainy evening, and Mr. Michaels spoke as part of a panel at the New York Public Library. At the center of the evening’s discussion was a brief, polemical essay that Mr. Michaels had recently published in BookForum in which he argued that the leading voices in American letters had, in their work, rendered “the reality of our social arrangements invisible.”

In his essay, Mr. Michaels implicated three groups of writers: those who traffic narcissistically in memoir and self-examination; those who write fiction about past horrors like the Holocaust and slavery; and those who focus in their work on the tribulations of individual characters while ignoring the societal pressures that determine those characters’ lives.

None of them, Mr. Michaels argued, would ever produce great art unless they reversed course. What novelists need to do, he said, is take a cue from David Simon, the creator of the The Wire, a show that portrayed over the course of five seasons the inner workings of Baltimore.”

Frank Sobotka
The article goes on to quote others who neither agree or disagree but who each speak, in essence, about their personal need to create timeless stories whether they are based in fact of – sorry – fiction. But ‘The Wire’ does much more than make a story out of fact. It does what Toni Morrison does in Tar Baby and Vikram Seth does in An Equal Music. It puts us in mind of each of its many characters, even the vilest of them (I have a particular loathing for Stringer Bell), and makes us believe in their necessary viability, and champion their particular – often vile, in the case of ‘The Wire’ – cause, vice, or mission. In fact, it persuades us to do this even when cheering for or believing in any one of these people is a mutually exclusive proposition. The gift of Morrison, Seth and Simon lie in the fact that we are taken through that intellectual discombobulation with effortless ease, such that we can convince ourselves that every character is both deserving of their own truth as they are right, and that all these people can be true and right at the same time. It is precisely the sort of hastily assembled but weirdly harmonious chorus of voices we choose not to hear in our own lives. (Unless we’re Quakers.And, if you are one, I salute you. If you aren’t, I urge you to try it. I aspire but will fall short, I fear, forever.).

But back to the blog. The stocky but strangely elven Frank Sobotka, secretary-treasurer of the longshoreman’s union of checkers (a lead in Season Two, picture above), is a terrific example of the kind of unsung flawed hero that gets unglued from the script and creeps under your skin. We become invested in a visceral way in the trivial urgencies and unnecessary deaths that are being depicted and the violence (and hard-earned speedily dispensed with sex) never seems overdone or gratuitous; it is simply the unfortunate grist of these lives as they are conducted, the way in which the terms of existence are negotiated and the form in which each individual story must end whether that end is psychological, spiritual or corporeal.

The topic of exploring the reason for narrative and the forms it takes must be in the air. Ana Menéndez, who wrote The Last War, quotes Umberto Eco in an essay in this month’s Poets & Writers entitled, ‘The Future of Narrative: Storytelling in the Internet Age.’ The story is about a linguist, Thomas A. Sebeok, who is hired to transmit, for the ages, the fact that the radioactive waste that was being disposed of by the US govt. was dangerous. The struggle? How do we retain the viability of the term ‘danger’ when all such meanings are ridden with the virus of cultural historical context?

In a review of Tar Baby, John Irving quotes this section from the book:

”At some point in life the world’s beauty becomes enough. You don’t need to photograph, paint or even remember it. It is enough. No record of it needs to be kept and you don’t need someone to share it with or tell it to. When that happens -that letting go – you let go because you can. The world will always be there – while you sleep it will be there – when you wake it will be there as well. So you can sleep and there is reason to wake. A dead hydrangea is as intricate and lovely as one in bloom. Bleak sky is as seductive as sunshine, miniature orange trees without blossom or fruit are not defective; they are that. So the windows of the greenhouse can be opened and the weather let in. The latch on the door can be left unhooked, the muslin removed, for the soldier ants are beautiful too and whatever they do will be part of it.”

And perhaps that also is the goal of the literary writer: to blend human experience which is so often imagined – in the form of aspiration or desire or fantasy or escapism – not lived, and fact in the form of actual events, to create something that outlasts the conditions which created it including its author, and which retains the beauty of a truth that is independent of its form of expression.

The Books:

The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.


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