Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Wire

The Wire cutter

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Clarke Peters on The Wire

Earlier this week, David Simon, the creator of The Wire, posted a fascinating piece on his blog about the recent conversion of the series from standard to high definition. Like everything Simon writes, it’s prickly, dense with ideas, and doesn’t sugarcoat his own opinions. He has mixed feelings about the new release, and although he ultimately comes down in favor of it, he doesn’t exactly give it a ringing endorsement:

At the last, I’m satisfied that while this new version of The Wire is not, in some specific ways, the film we first made, it has significant merit to exist as an alternate version. There are scenes that clearly improve in HD and in the widescreen format. But there are things that are not improved. And even with our best resizing, touchups, and maneuver, there are some things that are simply not as good. That’s the inevitability: This new version, after all, exists in an aspect ratio that simply wasn’t intended or serviced by the filmmakers when the camera was rolling and the shot was framed.

The whole post is worth a read, both for its insights and for its reminder of how much craft went into making this great series so convincing and unobtrusive. We don’t tend to think of The Wire as a visually meticulous show, in the manner of Mad Men or House of Cards, but of course it was, except that its style was designed not to draw attention to itself—which requires just as many subtle decisions, if not more.

Simon likes to present himself as a visual naif, “some ex-police reporter in Baltimore” who found himself making a television series almost by accident, but he’s as smart on the subject of filmmaking he is on anything else. Here he is on the development of the show’s visual style, as overseen by the late director Bob Colesberry:

Crane shots didn’t often help, and anticipating a moment or a line of dialogue often revealed the filmmaking artifice. Better to have the camera react and acquire, coming late on a line now and then. Better to have the camera in the flow of a housing-project courtyard or squad room, calling less attention to itself as it nonetheless acquired the tale.

Compare this to the exchange between Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut in their famous interview:

Hitchcock: When a character who has been seated stands up to walk around a room, I will never change the angle or move the camera back. I always start the movement on the closeup…In most movies, when two people are seen talking together, you have a closeup on one of them, a closeup on the other…and suddenly the camera jumps back for a long shot, to show one of the characters rising to walk around. It’s wrong to handle it that way.

Truffaut: Yes, because that technique precedes the action instead of accompanying it. It allows the public to guess that one of the characters is about to stand up, or whatever. In other words, the camera should never anticipate what’s about to follow.

David Simon

As it happened, when The Wire premiered twelve years ago, widescreen televisions were just coming on the market, and the industry shift toward high definition occurred about two seasons in, after the show had already established its defining look. Simon notes that he felt that a shift to widescreen halfway through the run of the series—as The West Wing was among the first to attempt—would draw unwanted attention to its own fictionality:

To deliver the first two seasons in one template and then to switch-up and provide the remaining seasons in another format would undercut our purpose tremendously, simply by calling attention to the manipulation of the form itself. The whole story would become less real, and more obviously, a film that was suddenly being delivered in an altered aesthetic state. And story, to us, is more important than aesthetics.

In the end, The Wire took a more subtle approach. Each scene was shot in widescreen, but composed for a 4:3 image, and the decision was made early on to tell much of the story in medium shots, with minimal use of closeups. This served the needs of the narrative while granting the show some flexibility when it came to the prospect of a future conversion, which, if nothing else, is easier now than ever before. (During the filming of It’s a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra spent most of one night manually enlarging every frame of the scene in which Jimmy Stewart breaks down while praying: it was a spontaneous, irreproducible moment, and they couldn’t get a closeup in any other way. These days, as I noted in my piece on The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo, you can do it with a click of a mouse.)

Still, there are always tradeoffs. This isn’t the first time a filmmaker has been forced to deal with shifting formats, and when you look back on the two most significant previous moments in the history of aspect ratios—the introduction of CinemaScope and the dawn of home video—you find directors and producers struggling with similar issues. Many early movies shot on widescreen, from Oklahoma! to Around the World in Eighty Days to Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, were actually filmed twice, with an alternate version prepared for theaters that hadn’t yet made the conversion. And we know that the problem of filming a movie both for theatrical release and for television obsessed Kubrick, who composed each shot for The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut so that it could be shown either letterboxed or in full frame. (Kubrick was good, but not perfect: the full frame versions, which expose regions of the image that would be matted in theaters, occasionally lead to small goofs, like the shadow of the helicopter clearly visible in one of the opening shots of The Shining.) Making movies at such transitional moments is an inevitable part of the evolution of the medium, but it’s never fun: you find yourself simultaneously dealing with the past and some unforeseen future, when the present provides plenty of challenges of its own.

The white piece of paper

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Rob Lowe on The West Wing

“Why is this so hard?”
“‘Cause it’s a white piece of paper.”
“How high are the stakes?”
“How high can you count?”
“So what do you do?”
“Whatever it takes to get started. And we read new memos, and we try new themes, and we hear new slogans, and we test new lines, and after a few weeks of that…we’ve still got a white piece of paper.”

The West Wing, “100,000 Airplanes”

The first three seasons of The West Wing have a lot of virtues—along with some equally obvious flaws—but what I like about it the most is that it’s fundamentally a show about writing. When you’re an author entering an unfamiliar world or profession, even one that you’ve meticulously researched and explored, you naturally look for a hook that allows you to relate it to your own experience. A show called The West Wing could have focused on any element of the executive branch, but it’s no accident that Aaron Sorkin ended up centering so much of it on a speechwriter, a communications director, and a press secretary, all of whom spend most of their time dealing with words.

I’ve been hard on Sorkin in the past, mostly due to my disappointment in the first season of The Newsroom, but there’s no denying that he’s as adept as anyone alive at filling that blank piece of paper. Sometimes, his facility can be a problem in itself: he has a way of falling back on old tricks, bombast, straw men, and a lovingly crafted simulation of the way intelligent people talk. Yet even the worst of his vices go hand in hand with tremendous strengths, and we only need to compare Sorkin to other writers who have tried and failed to write smart characters—as in every line of dialogue in Dan Brown’s novels—to remember how talented he really is. It’s impossible to watch an extended run of The West Wing, as my wife and I have been doing over the last few weeks, and not emerge wanting to sound smarter and more capable. And when I feel the need to punch up the dialogue in my own work, I’ll often go back to reread a few old West Wing transcripts in hopes of picking up some of that magic.

Rob Lowe on The West Wing

Of course, The West Wing works because it takes place in a world that can sustain a heightened conversational register. Everyone is blindingly smart, as well as on the right side of history, and you can sometimes sense Sorkin straining when called upon to write characters of different backgrounds or opinions. If the show has one glaring weakness, it’s that enormous chunks of dialogue could easily be transposed from one player to another without much in the way of revision: everyone shares the same values, and if the characters stay distinct in our minds, it’s thanks more to performance and delivery than writing. Compare it to a show like The Wire, which adeptly handles so many different voices, and The West Wing can start to seem limited. In some ways, it’s an expression of the different ways in which Sorkin and David Simon—a veteran reporter for the Baltimore Sun—came to television: instead of will and craft rising to create a simulation of experience, it’s experience straining to bend craft to accommodate all the things it needs to say.

And what fascinates me the most about The West Wing, when viewed from a distance of so many years, is how fully its politics are an expression of a shrewd narrative strategy. Many of us catch ourselves wishing that our real policymakers were as articulate and principled as the ones here, but it’s a fantasy created less by a coherent vision of politics than by a writing style. The show’s idealism, which everyone agrees was its most striking characteristic, isn’t a political or philosophical stance, but a set of tactics that allowed Sorkin to maneuver so gracefully within a narrow range. (You can say much the same thing about the cynicism of House of Cards: it’s easier to write a television show when everyone breathes the same air, whether it’s tainted or pure.) The West Wing came to mean so much to so many people because it happened to be written by a man whose talents were best exercised within a show that gave us our best versions of ourselves. It’s as happy a marriage between talent and subject as television has ever provided. But it all emerged from those small daily choices and compromises demanded by a white piece of paper.

Written by nevalalee

July 14, 2014 at 10:09 am

Great art and the problem of spoilers

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Today on the A.V. Club, an article by critic Noel Murray has inspired a nice little discussion on the problem of spoilers, an issue on which I have some mixed feelings. On the one hand, I’ve been spoiled before. I had the death of a major character on The Wire spoiled for me by a clue in the New York Sun crossword puzzle, of all things. (Why, Peter Gordon, why?) And it always stings. On the other hand, I also believe that avoiding spoilers entirely can make it hard to read any kind of serious criticism. In some cases, a detailed plot summary can make it easier to get through a challenging work of art, whether it’s Game of Thrones or Andrei Rublev. And a good work of art is, or should be, more than the isolated details of its plot. It’s impossible to spoil a movie’s visual aspects, its director’s style, or the details of a great performance—although it’s certainly possible, alas, to spoil a joke.

In fact, you could make the argument that a defining factor of great art is its immunity to spoilers. And the opposite also holds: once a bad work of art has been spoiled for you, there’s rarely any reason to seek it out. Like a lot of people, I enjoy reading detailed plot summaries of horror movies that I never intend to see, to the point where I could probably give you a pretty good description, sight unseen, of the plot of Saw II. And I don’t think I’ve missed much—which is not the case for The Descent, for instance, not to mention The Shining. The same is true, unfortunately, of many works of mystery and science fiction. All too often, such stories are little more than delivery systems for a twist or an interesting idea, which could be conveyed as effectively in a paragraph as in an entire novel. (That’s why I like Borges, who pretends that the novel he wants to write already exists, and gives us the essential points by writing a review of it.)

A really good novel or movie, by contrast, has qualities that can’t be expressed in summary form. And it’s still possible to enjoy such works of art while knowing how they conclude, if the artist’s craft is strong enough to return you, at least temporarily, to a state of narrative innocence. One of the most striking examples is The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Everybody “knows” what happens in that story, so it’s startling to read it again, as I did a few weeks ago, and remember that the original novel, unlike its many adaptations, is structured as a straight mystery. Stevenson saves the revelation of Hyde’s true identity for the end of the ninth chapter, and the effect, if you can put yourself in the position of a reader experiencing it for the first time, is stunning—the only detective story, as others have pointed out, where the solution is more horrible than the crime.

The same is true of many classic movies. I’ve lost track of how often I’ve watched Psycho—I’ve seen it on the big screen three times, twice in the past two years alone—and yet the structure of that movie is so strong, with its brilliant opening mislead, that the first appearance of the Bates Motel, through its dark curtain of rain, hasn’t lost any of its original power. (Seeing it with an audience also helps, especially when it comes to that wonderful second murder, which has rarely, if ever, been spoiled.) The same is true, to a lesser extent, of the end of Citizen Kane: I’ll never be able to experience it the way it was intended, but by the time that moment comes, I can glimpse at least a shadow of what it might have been. Is it good enough? Yes. But I’d still give anything to experience it, just once, the way it was meant to be seen.

Lessons from great (and not-so-great) television

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It can be hard for a writer to admit being influenced by television. In On Becoming a Novelist, John Gardner struck a disdainful note that hasn’t changed much since:

Much of the dialogue one encounters in student fiction, as well as plot, gesture, even setting, comes not from life but from life filtered through TV. Many student writers seem unable to tell their own most important stories—the death of a father, the first disillusionment in love—except in the molds and formulas of TV. One can spot the difference at once because TV is of necessity—given its commercial pressures—false to life.

In the nearly thirty years since Gardner wrote these words, the television landscape has changed dramatically, but it’s worth pointing out that much of what he says here is still true. The basic elements of fiction—emotion, character, theme, even plot—need to come from close observation of life, or even the most skillful novel will eventually ring false. That said, the structure of fiction, and the author’s understanding of the possibilities of the form, doesn’t need to come from life alone, and probably shouldn’t. To develop a sense of what fiction can do, a writer needs to pay close attention to all types of art, even the nonliterary kind. And over the past few decades, television has expanded the possibilities of narrative in ways that no writer can afford to ignore.

If you think I’m exaggerating, consider a show like The Wire, which tells complex stories involving a vast range of characters, locations, and social issues in ways that aren’t possible in any other medium. The Simpsons, at least in its classic seasons, acquired a richness and velocity that continued to build for years, until it had populated a world that rivaled the real one for density and immediacy. (Like the rest of the Internet, I respond to most situations with a Simpsons quote.) And Mad Men continues to furnish a fictional world of astonishing detail and charm. World-building, it seems, is where television shines: in creating a long-form narrative that begins with a core group of characters and explores them for years, until they can come to seem as real as one’s own family and friends.

Which is why Glee can seem like such a disappointment. Perhaps because the musical is already the archest of genres, the show has always regarded its own medium with an air of detachment, as if the conventions of the after-school special or the high school sitcom were merely a sandbox in which the producers could play. On some level, this is fine: The Simpsons, among many other great shows, has fruitfully treated television as a place for narrative experimentation. But by turning its back on character continuity and refusing to follow any plot for more than a few episodes, Glee is abandoning many of the pleasures that narrative television can provide. Watching the show run out of ideas for its lead characters in less than two seasons simply serves as a reminder of how challenging this kind of storytelling can be.

Mad Men, by contrast, not only gives us characters who take on lives of their own, but consistently lives up to those characters in its acting, writing, and direction. (This is in stark contrast to Glee, where I sense that a lot of the real action is taking place in fanfic.) And its example has changed the way I write. My first novel tells a complicated story with a fairly controlled cast of characters, but Mad Men—in particular, the spellbinding convergence of plots in “Shut the Door, Have a Seat”—reminded me of the possibilities of expansive casts, which allows characters to pair off and develop in unexpected ways. (The evolution of Christina Hendricks’s Joan from eye candy to second lead is only the most obvious example.) As a result, I’ve tried to cast a wider net with my second novel, using more characters and settings in the hopes that something unusual will arise. Television, strangely, has made me more ambitious. I’d like to think that even John Gardner would approve.

Written by nevalalee

March 17, 2011 at 8:41 am

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