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.

No comments: