“N***a, is you takin’ notes on a criminal f**king conspiracy?” Buzzfeed‘s Matthew Zeitlin explains what the banksters at J.P. Morgan could learn from Stringer Bell and the New Day-Co-Op. “[S]pelling out in a spreadsheet your exact intentions about hiring specific people for their parents’ help for specific deals is probably not considered best practices.”
More fruits from Californication: With public support for legalizing marijuana over 50% for the first time, and a new documentary, The House I Live In, once again calling attention to the many cruel absurdities of the Drug War — $1 trillion spent, 2.2 million in prison — signs suggest the ill-advised War on Drugs may finally be receding as a sacrosanct institution in Washington.
“For decades, the politics of the drug war were straightforward: Being tough could help at the polls and came with no political downside; being open to reform had few advantages, but would be used against a candidate on the campaign trail. That calculation is no longer so simple.”
I saw this a few weeks ago, and Follow me Here reminded me of it: As we pass the fortieth anniversary of the failed war on drugs, Wire creator David Simon makes a deal with Attorney General Eric Holder: End the drug war for a Wire season six. As if there weren’t already enough good reasons to do so, S6 would be the cherry on top.
I’ve been meaning to blog this for a few days, via Genehack: After the show is harangued by Baltimore’s current police commissioner, the consistently take-no-guff David Simon sticks up for his creation, The Wire. “As citizens using a fictional narrative as a means of arguing different priorities or policies, those who created and worked on The Wire have dissented.“
Take that, Pulitzer people. Wire mastermind David Simon, among others, receives a MacArthur Genius Fellowship. “His first reaction was to deflect the money (paid quarterly for five years) to charity, but the foundation urged him to take time to absorb the news.” Hey, money ain’t go no owners…only spenders. [Full list of winners.]
Casting continues to fill out for Kenneth Branagh’s Thor: Apparently Idris Elba will play Heimdall (Asgard’s bouncer, basically), and Stuart Townsend, Ray Stevenson, and Tadanobu Asano have signed up as Fandral, Volstagg, and Hogun respectively (Fandral, Hogun and Volstagg.) Stringer Bell and the Warriors Three join Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman, Jaime Alexander, Colm Feore, Anthony Hopkins, and Stellan Skarsgaard.
“For some cold-ass crook gangstaz, y’all carried it like Republicans and s**t.” Haven’t watched this yet, as volume is a consideration at work (and sad to read in the comments that the Slim Charles classic, “If it’s a lie, then we fight on that lie,” didn’t make the cut.) Nonetheless, by way of a friend, 100 great quotes from The Wire, distilled into 10 minutes. All in the game, you know.
“[T]he cameo of a red pack of Skittles in the opening scene of David Simon’s new HBO miniseries, Generation Kill, was a welcome sight, because it signaled that the program was going to be faithful to the smallest detail of the invasion I had witnessed…It wasn’t until later episodes that I realized this miniseries is so realistic it should be used as an educational tool for troops going to Iraq and Afghanistan.” In Slate, former embed Peter Maass sings the praises of Simon & Burns’ (and Evan Wright’s) Generation Kill.
While the ass-hattedness of the hick Sgt. Major obsessed with grooming standards, the Howard Zinn-lite ruminations of the Mexican Sgt., and Ziggy‘s wry way with the perfect quip all seem a little overdone, I’ve found Generation Kill interesting and compulsively watchable so far, and particularly enjoy the “Situation Normal” bungling of the officers. (I would so not want to get stuck in a firefight with the likes of “Captain America” on my six.)
“What’s moving and shocking about McCarthy’s book is that it’s so believable.’ Mr. Hillcoat said. ‘So what we wanted is a kind of heightened realism, as opposed to the “Mad Max” thing, which is all about high concept and spectacle. We’re trying to avoid the clichés of apocalypse and make this more like a natural disaster.’” Also in movie news, the NYT checks in with the filming of John Hillcoat’s The Road, based on the book by Cormac McCarthy and starring Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee as father and son respectively, along with Guy Pearce, Robert Duvall, and Michael Kenneth (“Omar”) Williams. I mean, it kinda figures that Omar would’ve survived the Apocalypse.
They may have lost some luster due to Scott Templeton garnering one for the Whiting/Klebanow regime. Nevertheless, the 2008 Pulitzers were announced yesterday, and they included 6 for the WP, Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought in the history category and a special citation to the freewheeling Bob Dylan “for his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.” Well, ok then.
By way of my bro, Underground Online queries numerous celebrities and luminaries on the most pressing issue of our time: Who would win in a fight between a minotaur with a trident and a centaur with a crossbow? Those weighing in on the debate include David McCullough, Ridley Scott, Helen Mirren, Ed Harris, Marc Singer, and the Battlestar and Wire crews. I was asked before being shown the site, and you can count me in the centaur camp. Screw the dice: If this is happening outdoors and not in close quarters, ranged cavalry > heavy infantry (although admittedly there’s something to be said for the existential Nolte thesis.)
“No one went near the theme; everyone stayed dead-center and literal, oblivious to the big-ass elephant in our mythical newsroom…Here’s what happened in season five of The Wire when almost no one — among the working press, at least — was looking: Our newspaper missed every major story.” With the finale come and gone, David Simon has to explain to the press the theme of the season, which they — ironically — missed. (See also: the next post.)
Fare thee well gone away, there’s nothing left to say. Pour a glass of Jamesons and give the devil (way down in the hole) his due: The Wire, a television show with a better claim than most to the title of “Best Ever” (and definitely the best show ever made about American politics), ends this evening. As such, before one last Sunday round with the men and women of Baltimore, some links from the vault:
And you know the only thing better than having enjoyed all 60 hours of the show? Having never seen it at all. If that’s you, pick up Season 1 and start from the beginning — you’re in for a real treat.
Update: “The main theme is that…it’s a newspaper that is so eviscerated, so worn, so devoid of veterans, so consumed by the wrong things, and so denied the ability to replenish itself that it singularly misses every single story in the season.” The final episode has aired, and David Simon has emerged from behind the curtain for a last round of interviews. “By the way, if you want to not focus on what the fuck’s going on, read the newspapers. Suffer the journalism, and don’t worry: the big picture will elude you nicely.“
“The season is about how far individuals and institutions and society in general can go on a lie. And if you think that theme is hyperbolic and that lies…are too big and too outrageous to sustain themselves, I’d simply point to this ugly mess of a war we are in, why we are in it, what was printed and broadcast and declared by the nation’s elite and its top media outlets. You look at Iraq and how we got there and McNulty and Templeton are pikers by comparison.” David Simon talks with Newsweek about the rationale for Season 5 of The Wire. “The season is about the chasm between perception and reality in American life and how we are increasingly without the tools that allow us to recognize our true problems, much less begin to solve them.” Speaking of which, the penultimate episode, “Late Editions”, is now available on On Demand.
“The suspect is likely a white male in his late-20s to late-30s. He likely is not a college graduate but feels nonetheless superior to those with advanced education, and he is likely employed in a bureaucratic entity, possibly civil service or quasi-public service, from which he feels alienated…” The Wire Episode 58: “Clarifications” is now available On Demand.
4 Months establishes its naturalistic, real-time feel from its opening moments, as we watch a young Romanian student named Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) fiddle with her belongings and seemingly make preparations for an important trip. As she frets, her roommate, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca, Oscar-worthy) wanders down the hall of their dormitory, navigating the nooks and crannies of a casual black market economy with a bored, practiced ease. (She picks up cigarettes for bribing officials, looks over the recent array of smuggled-in beauty products, and procures some Tic Tacs from a friendly dealer-neighbor.) But Otilia too gives the sense that something major is afoot, something we gradually glean the outlines of as the day goes along. Leaving Gabita behind, Otilia ventures out to lock down a nearby hotel room (something Gabita was previously meant to do, but apparently didn’t), borrows some money from her boyfriend (Alexandru Potoceanu), and eventually goes — on behalf of Gabita — to meet a Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov, memorably sinister), a man we eventually come to learn is a back-alley abortionist.
Then, things get worse. For not only is abortion a criminal offense under the Ceausescu regime, one that carries a penalty of prison or even death, but the helpless Gabita (the pregnant one) turns out to be flaky and careless to the extreme, and basically an abuser of Otilia’s competence and compassion. Worst of all, the seemingly innocuous Mr. Bebe — despite dripping with doctorly condescension toward the “young ladies” — turns out to be the type of monster that can readily flourish in the interstices of totalitarianism, reveling in the power he manages to hold over the desperate Gabita and Otilia. And, even beyond the ruthless Bebe — who, trust me, is more than loathsome enough — there awaits the very real risk of medical complications, and the danger of discovery by the authorities…
Sustained by long, masterful, and unbroken shots, 4 Months manages to ratchet up the tension well beyond comfortable levels, making even scenes of a casual dinner party at Otilia’s boyfriend’s house palpable with dread. Like the two women at the center of the story — and, like many people living through totalitarianism, I’d suspect — we’re constantly on pins and needles, waiting for the other shoe to drop. (But don’t get me wrong — some really horrifying shoes drop in this film.) As a remorseless and nerve-wracking Eastern bloc thriller, 4 Months has few parallels I can think of. So why do I harbor reservations about the film? Well, four years, 0 months, and 3 days ago, I wrote of the considerably overpraised 21 Grams that it “just ambles around in its terminally depressed jag for so long that it loses any sense of perspective, and instead becomes just a vehicle for indulging the arthouse fallacy that misery is a substitute for character.” Now, 4 Months is a much, much better film than 21 Grams, but — however tense and suffused with menace — the same problem persists.
Coming out of 4 Months, I was reminded of an interview I read with David Simon about the importance of humor in The Wire, which however bleak is also by all accounts a gut-bustingly funny show. (I know, I won’t shut up about The Wire, but bear with me here.) This article makes the same point: “Though people don’t talk much about the humor in ‘The Wire,’ it’s there. You drop somebody into an alien environment — a closed society like the homicide cops or the drug culture–and the key to working your way into that culture is to understand the jokes, which David does. It’s crucial, because, if it weren’t there, the work would be too depressing. It’s crushing subject matter, but not necessarily to the cops–they’re making jokes while they’re looking at dead bodies–and not to the people shooting dope, even. They’re not necessarily walking around saying, ‘Woe is me.’ There’s a grim humor that springs out of that life.” Picking up along the same lines, Jacob Weisberg wrote: “While The Wire feels startlingly lifelike, it is not in fact a naturalistic depiction of ghetto life. That kind of realism better describes an earlier miniseries of Simon’s, The Corner…The Corner seems to have been a crucial life study for The Wire, a program that attains the dimensions of tragedy without being depressing. The Wire does this by painting with brighter colors on a wider canvas and by leavening its pain with humor…What ultimately makes The Wire uplifting amid the heartbreak it conveys is its embodiment of a spirit that Barack Obama calls ‘the audacity of hope.’” (You see how I snuck in an Obama reference with a Wire reference? See, I’m always on message.)
Seriously, though, it’s that critique which gets to the heart of my hesitation about fully embracing 4 Months. I don’t fault its unflinching refusal to sugar-coat what amounts to a horrible tale in a sad time and place, and it probably speaks worse of me than of Mungiu’s film to even hold such a thing against it. Many stories — maybe even most of them — don’t have happy endings or a laugh track. And, after all, we watch Otilia and Gabita persevere through an extraordinary amount of suffering, so why should they have to crack a joke just to let us off the hook, and make us feel better about their obvious misery? Still, if you can look past the razor-sharp tension that drives 4 Months, it is a relentlessly downbeat — and even one-note — affair. 4 Months is an impressive and powerful movie in any event, but I think I’d hold the film in higher esteem if it — like The Lives of Others — occasionally broke the gloom and allowed its long-suffering characters an uncertain smile, even while staring into the abyss.
“[T]he closest comparison I can find for this season is Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Dr. Strangelove‘ — if, that is, Kubrick cared even one-tenth as much about humanity as Simon and partner Ed Burns so obviously do.” So said Alan Sepinwall in his Season 5 preview, and it’s definitely playing out that way. The masterful and gut-bustingly funny Wire 55 is now available On Demand. And, now that we can talk about it — don’t scroll over the link if you’re at all behind — a remembrance of last week’s fallen.
Undecided voters: If the moving speech below can’t entice you to vote for Sen. Barack Obama for president, maybe this’ll help: His favorite TV show is The Wire(!) “Michael Kostroff, an actor who was in town to volunteer for Obama and had a chance to meet him, told the Sun that Obama’s favorite TV show is his own: HBO’s ‘The Wire,’ which chronicles Baltimore’s violent drug culture and the police who quixotically try to stop it. Obama told the Sun his favorite character is Omar, a stick-up artist who steals from drug dealers and then gives the loot to poor people in the neighborhood. ‘That’s not an endorsement. He’s not my favorite person, but he’s a fascinating character.’“
Update: Episode 54 is now On Demand.
“For Simon, this dispute basically comes down to the complexity of urban problems. As he sees it, the ‘Philly model,’ imported to the Sun by Carroll and Marimow [re: Klebanow and Whiting], ignored the decades of economic, racial, political, and social disconnects underlying that complexity. When it spurred reform, it was reform that could not match the intransigence of the underlying patterns. The reporting itself was formidable, Simon says, but to him, homelessness, addiction, and violence aren’t the central problems. ‘Those are all the symptoms of the problem,’ he says. ‘You can carve off a symptom and talk about how bad drugs are, and you can blame the police department for fucking up the drug war, but that’s kind of like coming up to a house hit by a hurricane and making a lot of voluminous notes about the fact that some roof tiles are off.’“
As The Wire 53 premieres on On Demand, some links on the journalistic controversies driving show creator David Simon’s animus this season. The CJR offered a long and interesting overview of the Simon v. Marimow/Carroll feud, and its partial roots in differing conceptions of urban journalism. An old 2000 City Paper piece suggests who Simon may have in mind in cub reporter Scott Templeton. And Simon himself recently discussed his old newsroom for Esquire, and got involved with Mark Bowden and Matt Yglesias over at The Atlantic. (Most links here via THND.)
“He preys on the weakest among us.” Episode 52 of The Wire premiered last night for we On Demanders, and hoo boy. Jimmy McNulty‘s done some outrageous stuff in the past, but this is beyond the pale. I’m curious to see how Wire fans react to the big moment here — If the show hadn’t spent so much time grounding itself in realism, I’m not sure it could pull off this turn towards the baroque. Still, I trust Simon and Burns.
“It’s really dark and explosive. Everyone’s off the hook; no one trusts anyone. Everyone questions the way things are operating on the street level, in the police department, in the newsroom. Like McNulty, he’s way off the hook this year. He’s doing things that are totally outrageous, questioning authority, and trying to find the truth. He goes way off the deep end this year.” On the eve of Season 5 (for the nOn-Demand folk), NY Mag‘s Joe Colly talks with Michael K. Williams, a.k.a. Omar Little of The Wire. Update: The last scene of Season 5 leaks! (Sort of.)
A New Year is dawning. A New Day is not. I spent the first hour of 2008 watching the first episode of The Wire Season 5 — which is now live if you have HBO On Demand — and it was time very well spent. Between instantly fascinating new characters in the Baltimore Sun newsroom and some even more byzantine connections made between the old regulars (Note Partlow’s errand to the Criminal Court, and wait ’til you see who Herc’s working for), the best show on television is back in a big way. (That being said, it might take me awhile to get used to Mel‘s husband Doug from Flight of the Conchords as the Sun‘s managing editor.) Update; More discussion of Ep. 51 here at Alan Sepinwall’s blog, who’s also compiling a list of The Wire‘s greatest moments (That might take awhile.)
“I slur when I’m tired, that’s all.” HBO launches new character-specific promos for Season 5 of The Wire, which include brief scenes of Jimmy McNulty, Omar Little, Tommy Carcetti, Marlo Stansfield, and Reginald “Bubbles” Cousins. Avoid like the plague if you’re not yet caught up. (Season 4 comes out on DVD tomorrow.)
“All told, the United States has spent an estimated $500 billion to fight drugs – with very little to show for it. Cocaine is now as cheap as it was when Escobar died and more heavily used. Methamphetamine, barely a presence in 1993, is now used by 1.5 million Americans and may be more addictive than crack. We have nearly 500,000 people behind bars for drug crimes – a twelvefold increase since 1980 – with no discernible effect on the drug traffic. Virtually the only success the government can claim is the decline in the number of Americans who smoke marijuana – and even on that count, it is not clear that federal prevention programs are responsible. In the course of fighting this war, we have allowed our military to become pawns in a civil war in Colombia and our drug agents to be used by the cartels for their own ends. Those we are paying to wage the drug war have been accused of human-rights abuses in Peru, Bolivia and Colombia. In Mexico, we are now repeating many of the same mistakes we have made in the Andes.“
To their credit, those left-wing hippie radicals at National Review said as much way back in 1996, and HBO’s The Wire has dramatized the dismal consequences of the conflict for several years now. Now, coming to the same dour conclusion in 2007, Rolling Stone‘s Ben Wallace-Wells explains how America lost the War on Drugs, and argues that continuing to perpetuate it in its current fashion — with its “law and order” emphases of crushing supply, international interdiction, and mandatory minimum sentencing — is tantamount to flushing money and lives down the toilet. “Even by conservative estimates, the War on Drugs now costs the United States $50 billion each year and has overcrowded prisons to the breaking point – all with little discernible impact on the drug trade…The real radicals of the War on Drugs are not the legalization advocates, earnestly preaching from the fringes, but the bureaucrats — the cops and judges and federal agents who are forced into a growing acceptance that rendering a popular commodity illegal, and punishing those who sell it and use it, has simply overwhelmed the capacity of government.” (Found via Jack Shafer’s endorsement at Slate.)
“BALTIMORE, Md. — Crime is up. The drug trade [still] rules the corners. The next election consumes every politician. And McNulty is drinking again.” A new day is [not] dawning: The Wire, Season 5, January 2008.
As another day dawns in Dorchester (one of what could be almost any of the white working-class neighborhoods surrounding Boston), Amanda McCready, age 4, is still missing, 72 hours after disappearing from her mother’s unlocked second-floor apartment, and where she is now we can only guess. By this point, the press are having a field day with the abduction story, the police are starting to have doubts about the girl’s survival, and Amanda’s Aunt Bea (Amy Madigan) and Uncle Lionel (Titus Welliver, of Deadwood) are looking to bring flesh blood to the search, namely private investigators Patrick Kenzie (Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan). Kenzie and Gennaro have doubts about taking the case — neither particularly wants to turn up a dead girl — but, as lifelong locals, they know they can find people and go places the badges can’t. In the manner of films immemorial, the police officer in charge of the case (Morgan Freeman) doesn’t take too kindly to these P.I. interlopers on his heels, but assigns them two ornery cop liaisons (Ed Harris and John Ashton) regardless. And, once Kenzie and Gennaro have re-interviewed Amanda’s troubled, hard-partying mom, Helene McCready (The Wire‘s Amy Ryan, giving a Best Supporting Actress-worthy performance) and checked out some of her sketchier haunts, they — sure enough — turn up some new leads in the hunt. But the trail’s growing colder by the minute, and as both P.I.’s know, few child abduction stories ever result in a happy ending — why would Amanda’s be any different?
Dennis Lehane, Amy Ryan, Michael Williams (a.k.a. Omar) appears briefly here as a cop…if I keep making connections here to The Wire, it only speaks in Gone Baby Gone‘s favor. As with that show and Bal’more, this movie relishes its urban environment — this is a Boston story through and through, and that strong sense of place brings the film to life more than anything else. Also like The Wire, Affleck’s film doesn’t refrain from acknowledging that the world is often not a storybook place. (The second act of the movie is particularly dark, and while I thought Affleck perhaps overrelied on aerial establishing shots of Boston and images of “regular” people at times throughout, his delicate handling of this potentially explosive section of the film in particular suggests his potential as a director.)
True, much of what is excellent about Gone Baby Gone must be attributed to Lehane’s book. But, there have been a lot of lousy movies made about excellent books over the years, and if nothing else, Affleck (and his co-screenwriter Aaron Stockhard) have brought Lehane’s story to the screen without sacrificing any moral complexity or narrative momentum. As I said, I think the film lags slightly in the third act (and I do have some issues with Monaghan’s character arc by the end, which I can’t really discuss without giving the film away), but the quietly haunting coda at the end redeemed a lot of those issues for me. The occasional shocks and disruptions notwithstanding, it seems, people are what they are, and life goes on as ever in the old neighborhood.
“In a way, it doesn’t make sense to talk of ‘The Wire‘ as the best American television show because it’s not very American. The characters in American popular culture are rarely shown to be subject to forces completely beyond their control. American culture is fundamentally Romantic, individualistic and Christian; when it’s not exhorting you to ‘follow your dream’ it’s reassuring us that in the eleventh hour, we will be saved. American culture is a perpetual pep talk, trafficking in tales of personal redemption and the ultimate triumph of good over evil. We don’t do doom. ‘The Wire’ is not Romantic but classical; what matters most in its universe is fulfilling your duty and facing the inexorable with dignity.” From the bookmarks, Salon‘s Laura Miller extols the classical virtues of The Wire. What she said.