Friday, May 30, 2008


Ok. Anyone who has read my blog previously knows that I'm big on comparing the Wire to Western "classics" and other aspects of this genre. I guess it makes sense that I'll continue doing so in an episode by episode format.

One aspect of The Wire which I enjoy immensely, and I think this is something I appreciate in all creative outputs, is messing with genre conventions. Casting Brad Pitt in a role where no one can understand a word he says (Snatch). Brilliant.When Salvador Dali creates the perfect replica of the Venus De Milo, but as a dresser- I dig that. When Ray Charles played all the biggest hits of Country and Western music- as straight country as Hank Williams ever did, but coming from Ray... Yeah!

I think David Simon digs this streak of individuality as well. In the commentary to the first episode, and in a letter he wrote to HBO begging to give The Wire a chance, Simon sees the show as going beyond "the cop show." This genre was the networks' bread and butter, but TW was HBO's chance to stick it to the big boys. If Simon and his team could create a better show than CSI or Law and Order- well, then "it's not TV. It's HBO."

However, Simon did this by going so far outside of the cop show genre that he was not so much playing against this genre as creating his own by the fifth season.

But genre does mean something. In certain ways we could substitute the word genre for "commodification." If genre is a set of conventions that a creative work reflects or organizes itself around- then genre often translates into how a work of art is consumed. Think of movies (I like comedies, I hate horror) or music (Jazz sucks! Soul rules!). Stores sell art in these packages so people know a little about what they're buying into. Artists often use genre because it's sometimes easier to create a Sonnet than throw a bunch of words together.

Of course The Wire is organized vaguely around season long investigations into drugs, politics, schools, the docks, and the media. But it rejects many of the genre conventions. They "renounced the theme of good and evil," which is the heart of a cop show, because it bored them. In fact, people didn't really live or die based on their good or evil- just how they interacted with institutions. Commercial success is not Simon's primary goal (though I imagine he's doing just fine).

But Simon did play off many other genres- The Western being my favorite to discuss and one of the most prominent (um, also the Greek Tragedy I guess). The Western is such an interesting choice because it represents the two competing myths from my last post. Namely that if you're smart, do it better, work hard, and sacrifice, you can "win." If you don't there's still a place for you. The West symbolized this world of opportunity, individuality, ruggedness, and promise of the "pursuit of happiness." According to Frederick Jackson Turner, it was the frontier- this moving line of settlement- that brought about America's unique democracy without resulting to class or ethnic wars like those of Europe. (It turns out that Turner wasn't quite right about the lack of class/ethnic conflict in the West or really the whole frontier bit, but that's for a blog on another genre, History).

So by making West Baltimore into the new Monument Valley (where John Ford filmed most of his Westerns), Simon creates an anti-Western. By making the good bandit into a short, homosexual, African American- Omar- we get an anti-Western hero. By turning the inner city into a world where the law exists only tangentially, where men carry guns and the will to use them, where you need your wits to survive- well, it ain't Dodge City, but you see where I'm going here. Of course, the whole thing is not one big Western- as much as I seem to think it is. So as I review the episodes, the theme will wax and wane, and how Simon uses it- either the "anti-western" or homage to the Western. I will discuss certain facets of this theme in greater depth:

Trains: I've mentioned this here, but Trains are particularly important to Westerns. The Wire likes (hates) Trains. Trains are also important to industrialization. The Wire loves industrialization (hates de-industrialization).

"Law and Order"- ok, obviously this is more in the cop show genre, but I think Westerns use it a little differently. Because in the West- law and order are just a bit more ambiguous. Not unlike Bill Rawls sexuality.

Guns- specifically how people talk about guns, fetishize guns, etc. My "six shooter" has become my "nine."

The Establishment vs. "the real people"- in Westerns people hated all of those back east. In the Wire, people hate those in DC or NY (or, in an ironic switch, the "county".

Nostalgia- in the West, everyone is always resisting the coming of civilization. It always "used to be better." Civilization could be represented by trains, towns, or people in suits. In the Wire, civilization could be represented by Johns Hopkins, condos, or people in suits.

Characterization- Omar is one such western characterization, Brother Mouzone is another one (the outlaw who is a member of the Nation of Islam and reads Harpers, right). Is Marlo The Wire's railroad baron?

Ok- that's good enough for now. We'll see how it actually plays out and get a read on which seasons featured more or fewer homages to the western.

No comments: