Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Authenticity in the Wire: A Parallel with Westerns?

David Simon went to great length's to make The Wire's Baltimore of as true to life as he could. His team did extensive research, drawing from years of experience in the very institutions they depicted (from Ed Burns' time in homicide and public schools to Simon's newspaper days to Bill Zorzi's political insight). This push to achieve authenticity had many goals. For one, we can look at The Wire as journalism (of the type which tells stories the 'real' newspaper world misses in the fifth season). We can also see The Wire as a type of ethnography, much like Simon's books, The Corner (or the miniseries) or Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.

But if the use of authenticity was to promote these aims, well, Simon's work for the Sun (like his piece on Melvin Williams) does better as real journalism, and the books work better as ethnography. The Wire uses its authenticity for another reason. Only through exhaustive attention to presenting an 'authentic' Baltimore does Simon derive authority for the themes he presents. Only by rendering the computer technology of wiretaps in the most accurate details does Simon have the authority to criticize the Police Department.

But authenticity works two ways. To arrive at authenticity, both the objective history (which is always up to interpretation), and how the consumer shapes that reality with their pre-conceived notions come into play. What popular culture 'knows' of Baltimore (crabs, inner harbor), contrasts with the 'reality' Simon creates.

Westerns also derived their thematic authority from authenticity. With the release of The Great Train Robbery in 1908, the Western film genre was born. In fact, the movie came only three years after the event on which it was based.(1) In the thousands of Westerns since, urban viewers have fantasized about the mythical West and the romance, independence, freedom, violence, and opportunity it represented. As Richard Slotkin writes in Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America,
Cultural Tradition defined "the West" as both an actual place with a real history and as a mythic space populated by projective fantasies. Expectations about Western stories were therefore contradictory: they had to seem in some way realistic or "authentic" while at the same time conforming to ideas of setting, costume, and heroic behavior derived from literary fantasy. (2)
By using "real" Indians (often white actors in "red face"), "real" clothing (often very inaccurate historical clothing), and "real" settings (spaghetti westerns?), Westerns evoked the West of opportunity. I kid about the poor attempts, but Westerns really did go to great lengths for authenticity's sake.

In the same way, The Wire creates images of Baltimore which represent a reality, but also literary constructions. The idealized, bling of popular culture drug dealers does exist to a degree in The Wire, but Simon molds it to his own designs. Namond uses the "fashion" of drug dealing and bling (compensating for his not so dealer sensibilities), but a real player like Barksdale downplays it so as not to draw attention to himself. The cop world has its own stock characters, The Irish Cop (McNulty), the quiet but brilliant investigator(Freamon), the straight shooter boss(Daniels), but Simon adds to it, the closeted (maybe) department politics warrior (Rawls), the ultimate middle manager (Landsman), the man with the code (Bunk). It is reality behind the images which lend them power.

It can be argued that authenticity is an important part of any dramatic situation. But few genre's focus on authenticity like the Western (and the Wire). While The Wire's cop show genre cousins, CSI and Law and Order, try to portray reality, they put a bare minimum of effort into it. Most cop shows also put little effort into authenticity outside of maybe costuming and weapons. In many other television genres, authenticity plays a minor role. The type of toaster used in a suburban situational comedy does not matter. Some other HBO shows have also been praised for their authenticity, namely, The Sopranos. While it may indeed be a good look at mob life in New Jersey, other accounts disagree. However, the Wire and Westerns both go to lengths to create a reality based on a real place and myth. The old story is that when a group of Indian actors performed a stunt chase particularly well, the director congratulated them on such an authentic chase. Their response: "we tried to do it realistically, just like in the movies!"

What connects the uses of authenticity is a desire to show a life unlike the viewer's own. More importantly, authenticity supports the themes of the Western or The Wire. By showing the promise of the frontier (and by extension, America) in all its historical accuracy, urban viewers could imagine themselves personally, and America as a nation, progressing to greatness and wealth. In the Wire, the use of authenticity reinforces the failures of American democracy/institutions and by extension, America itself.

(1) Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998), 231.
(2) Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation, 234.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Put the F***en song on, Hugh!

Happy St. Pat's Day...

One of my favorite scenes from the finale. ::spoiler::

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Jury Nullification in History (Part I)

Well, it's good to see that a few of you are still lurking in the shadows (according to google analytics), even if you don't comment. So I will continue writing. I had hoped to make this into one post, and had started writing it weeks ago, but I honestly need to do a bit more research on jury nullification in the twentieth century in the United States. So here is Part I of a hopefully 2 parter to roll out next week:

Shortly after the Finale of this season, David Simon and other members of the Wire Braintrust wrote an op-ed in Time Magazine. They suggested jury nullification as a way to combat the current drug war on the American underclass. Much of the current discussion revolves around its use in the drug war, its legality, and its effectiveness. Recently, in an interview with the website "Play or Get Played", David Simon elaborated on Jury Nullification as a form of civil disobediance. Though some think it to be an impractical tactic, as the nullifier is often directly asked whether they will convict solely on the evidence at hand or on the law's fairness (especially in death penalty cases). The nullifier is forced to tell the truth and be tossed off the jury, or lie and risk being held in contempt of court. Simon feels the technique could provide some benefit and at a certain tipping point, becomes effective in making life hard for prosecutors because they can't get a jury together without some nullifiers. He cites the prohibition of alcohol as an example where this sidestepping of the law (Volstead Act) worked.

Jury nullification is not new in American history, and came (like much of our legal system) from English Common Law of the 18th century.(1) One of the more famous instances involved the trial of John Peter Zenger, a printer of unauthorized materials in New York. Printing of unauthorized materials (criticizing the New York Governor Cosby) was considered Sedition and Libel (even if the material was true). Zenger's lawyer, Alexander Hamilton (yeah, that guy on the $10 bill), advised the jury that "they have the power to nullify the law in situations when strict application of the law would yield an unjust or inequitable verdict" (2). Hamilton won what was considered to be an unwinnable case using the tactic, increasing his own stature and that of the nullification. Incidentally, the Zenger incident is sometimes credited with helping codify Freedom of the Press in the U.S. Constitution.

Jury Nullification has been used ever since the Zenger trial for a variety of reasons. In the 19th century, the supreme court limited the right of jurors to nullify. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story felt it was the job of jurors to decide on the facts of a case and the job of the courts to determine interpretation. However, he was more concerned with juries attempting to convict a dependent for an act the legislature did not intend to criminalize rather than juries acquitting based on their position as "conscience of the community."

Despite the dimmer view of jury independence, 19th century juries tried to remain autonomous. One of the more prominent instances involved abolitionists attempting to nullify fugitive slave laws. While these efforts would work in the jury trials of state specific fugitive trials, most of these occurred in far northern or western states. In fact, personal liberty laws were often more effective, requiring that judges and officers of the law ignore slave fugitives in certain states. Some states mandated that jails could not be used to hold fugitive suspects. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (part of that Compromise of 1850), all trials were held before federal judges rather than juries, negating any chance at nullification. However states continued passing legislation hostile to fugitive slave law. Wisconsin's Supreme Court even declared the law Unconstitutional (an act which was unconstitutional itself). Despite the efforts of many states, the new Fugitive Slave Act forced many runaway slaves to head for Canada rather than the North. Of course, the Civil War made this pretty null and void.

Though the Supreme court looked poorly on jury independence in the late 19th century, nullification did not disappear. Many have claimed that juries acquitted white southerners accused of murdering African Americans. I will report on that, it's use during Prohibition, the civil rights movement, in other cases, and in the present day next week.

I know everyone awaits with anticip...

(1) Irwin A. Horowitz, "The Effect of Jury Nullification Instruction on Verdicts and Jury Functioning in Criminal Trials," Law and Human Behavior, Vol. 9, No. 1. (Mar., 1985), 26.
(2) Ibid.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Realism vs. High Greek Tragedy

Ok, I was going to just respond to Adam's comment in the comments section of the last post, but my comment was about Post-Length, so I figured I would throw it up here.

Adam's Question: The Wire is lauded for its attention to detail and how close to real life it gets (see the "Real Thugs" posts on the freakonomics blog). However, David Simon is always talking about its grounding in Greek Tragedy. Which one do I see Simon using most?

I think Simon does both and succeeds. He uses the idea of the Greek tragedy not so much for The Wire's style (which is obviously gritty, realistic, West Baltimore), but for logic and the force which drives the storyline.

In Greek tragedies (brief crappy primer on Greek drama follows), a very specific moral sensibility played out in which a character's fate is often determined by the cruel and capricious Greek God's (in The Wire, the God's are the post-industrial city's institutions, like the copshop, Sun, schools, drug industry, etc.). It was often a character's hubris and one fateful act (which they usually didn't recognize at the time) which sent them down a path to destruction.
For example, Frank Sebotka puts the window up in the Polish church which eventually causes him to lose his union, his family, and even be killed (see season 2 storyline).
Another quick reference which shows my point- O-MAR and MAR-lo are both fairly common names in West Baltimore and "realistic", but they are also referencing the Roman God of War (Mars). Pretty appropriate considering that their characters survive on their reputation for war/battle. Another little tidbit involving Omar in Season 2, while waiting to testify against Bird (one of my favorite scenes of the show), Omar has this response with a security guard doing a crossword puzzle:

Guard: Mars is the god of war, right?
Omar: Planet too.
Guard: I know it's a planet, but the clue is "Greek God of War"
Omar: Aries. Greeks called him Aries. Same dude, different name is all.
Guard: Aries fits. Thanks.
Omar: It's all good. See, back in middle school I used to love them myths. Stuff was deep. Truly.

Ok, maybe that's not the most realistic conversation ever. But great nonetheless. For that bit and the rest of the courtroom scene via youtube:

Thursday, March 6, 2008

You asked for it

I said I wasn't going to do any predictions for the finale. I made it clear that I am not so literarily inclined to guessing. I don't have Bulfinch's mythology memorized or Polti's Thirty Six Dramatic Situations on notecards. But Adam asked for it. Although terrible at this parlor game, I will give it a try. What will happen in episode 60?

Media story- Gus's contract will be bought out due to his increased friction with the bosses. And especially to bury any indications that Templeton fabricated his stories. Templeton will win the Pulitzer. The newspaper misses the whole McNulty and Templeton lying about the serial killers bit...

Cop-shop: The whole McNulty lying about the serial killers bit- obviously explodes internally. This can't happen at a worse time politically. Daniels is about to be promoted, Carcetti is on his way up, Rawls still hates McNulty but thinks he may have a chance at remaining the chief if its quiet. Some serious things are threatened, including Beadie's position in harbor patrol if McNulty doesn't go quietly. He does go... as in commits suicide. I mean, let's be serious, the bust he's sacrificed his career for is meaningless, his family has deserted him (both of them), everything he touches gets hurt- pretty depressing stuff. So he hangs himself on a doorknob. Or throws himself under a train. Cop funeral comes and goes- with a powerful speech by The Bunk. The day afterwards a rookie takes McNulty's desk, and he's basically forgotten. Lester is put on "the boat." Oh yeah, Pearlman occasionally sells grand jury information to lawyers- It's Baltimore, baby, no one gets out clean.

Marlo trial, etc- Marlo gets out on the illegal wiretap. After Levy comes to them alleging said wiretap, the state decides to drop charges rather than expose the serial killer fake plot. The Greek gets nervous that Marlo has gotten out easily and thinks he is turned. Without his muscle to save him, Marlo is killed by the Greek's people.

4 Kids- I think we saw the last of Namond last episode, he's proven successful, maybe we see him win another award or a scholarship to college (even though he's a little far away I think). Micheal lies low for most of the episode, but does end up connecting with Cheese as an enforcer. Dukie shoots up in the barn with the arabbers. He later gets caught by the police with some dope and sent to boys village. Unable to contact his parents, they try to get Prez to be his guardian, but Prez can't take on that responsibility and Dukie is lost within the system/addicted to drugs. Randy commits a crime and is put in jail somewhere in the episode or maybe the montage. In the montage we see what the point of their story is- 1 in 4 makes it out, 1 in 4 becomes a drug dealer, 1 in 4 becomes addicted to drugs/dies, 1 in 4 is in prison.

Political- A lot of people want Carcetti to be governor. He ducks the serial killer issue, plays up his "gains" in education. Tells the people that he's tough on crime. Basically it's a new day in Baltimore. The Montage features his victory celebrations and a high ranking DNC official telling him that if he plays his cards right, he might be looking at a vice presidency offer, or better.

Ok, some of this was more tongue in cheek, but I don't think I went out on any limbs here or made outrageous suggestions. I've tried to follow the general arc of the seasons' outcomes and various character's hubris. So I think all of this could happen and remain true to the show's themes. But I have a feeling that Simon will go in an unexpected direction (he always does). Now, wise and worldly readers, what do you think will happen in the last episode of the wire EVER? Will I look back at this post on Sunday evening and chuckle?

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Wire as Muckraker?

I've touched on the feelings of Nostalgia in some of my other posts, but here I'm thinking about an older style of journalism for which which David Simon yearns. Much of his critique of The Media revolves around its ambivalence toward "the stories that matter" (as highlighted in Simon's interview here). The subplots of plagiarism, capitalization, buyouts, etc. are not the main story as articulated by Simon. Rather the biggest journalistic crimes are:
"the corrupt mayor asking for cooked crime stats, the elementary school test scores spawned from students being taught the tests, the deaths of Prop Joe and Omar -- all indicators of the city's real problems that never appeared in the Sun's pages"
I would hasten to add the failures and successes of hamsterdam, social services, and witness protection to the list. In fact, in almost every character there is a story missed by Sun in some way. If the institutions of Baltimore run the characters' lives, why doesn't the Sun report on these issues/institutions in a substantive way?

This style of reporting, muckraking, has actually been around for a hundred of years. For Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, it's the meat-packing industry as a metaphor on the failure of capitalism's promises. In Jacob Riis' How the Other Half Lives, the reader gets an expose of the New York City slums through a photoessay (an experiment in new media of its day). The muckrakers were related to the Progressive movement, whose figurehead was Teddy Roosevelt. Busting trusts, fighting for those without a voice, and being masculine, Roosevelt and the Progressives were determined to halt capitalism's largest crimes against humanity (and participate in a few of their own). Although their targets were powerful people in powerful places, the muckrakers were very much a part of mainstream journalism.
One can trace a similar vein of journalism to the 1930s (well, sorta). The consumer movement, symbolized by Stuart Chase and F.J. Schlink's Consumer Research group also critiqued capitalism. Though outside mainstream journalism, CR's newsletter and later Consumer Union's newsletter, Consumer Reports (which broke off of CR after a strike and personality issues, just read this to learn more). One of the more famous books to come out of this movement was F.J. Schlink and Arthur Kallet's 10,000 Guinea Pigs.

In the 1960s, Consumer Reports became famous from a different writer, current Presidential candidate Ralph Nader. His work on automobile safety, and what became Unsafe at Any Speed also critiqued the institution of capitalism. Another journalist/writer of this period included Rachel Carson, who wrote Silent Spring, which described the dangers of pesticides and lead to the outlaw of DDT. Carson also contributed articles to the Baltimore Sun.

Though my examples may be a little ahistorical, (and all you Media Studies and Mass Comm. experts out there can right my wrongs on the history of the media) I do think Simon sees this style of investigative journalism disappearing as a result of "doing more with less." I also think one could place The Wire in the same category as fictional versions of muckraking (like Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt). In fact, I think one of the reasons why The Wire is so popular with those of a more academic persuasion (even though it pokes fun at academics in season 3&4), is because of its muckraker roots. There are many strains of social science but many of us try to examine the lives of those who do not have a voice (or who's voice has not been heard). It's a goal the muckrakers would recognize.