Breaking Down The Wire

The Wire and Martin Scorsese
Talking television.
Oct. 16 2006 4:27 PM

Breaking Down The Wire

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David and Alex,

For my money, The Wire's visual and storytelling style is what you might call "classical." The series runs against the tide of current television (and even film) drama by not indulging in spurious attempts to mimic the look and urgency of real documentaries with a lot of "shaky-cam": jiggley hand-held shots, quick unmotivated zooms, extreme close-ups, and editing that seems intent on letting no shot play longer than two seconds. It's an affliction shared by recent works like Friday Night Lights (the film and the series), the controversial Path to 9/11, much of the work of Oliver Stone, and virtually every awful network-TV miniseries involving natural and man-made disasters. (Though I don't include such deft appropriations of doc style as Paul Greengrass' Bloody Sunday and Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves.) Real documentary filmmakers would fire shooters who can't hold a shot or focus, or sit still on a subject. Why? Because it prevents the viewer from connecting with the subject and story at hand. And as David says, The Wire is, above all, intent on pulling the viewer into the story and characters.

Classical doesn't mean uninteresting. I see some of Scorsese's influence in the style—not the amped-up, dolly-mad Scorsese of Color of Money and Casino. And not the poetic realism of Raging Bull. More like his Taxi Driver, or his latest, The Departed. (Indeed, Simon has noted Scorsese as an influence.) It's a style, like David says, that never lets you forget the world around the characters. It often caps off a scene with a beautifully composed wide shot that encourages the viewer to think about a character. I seem to recall a very apt one of Stringer Bell from Season 3, where we leave him sitting alone in a bucolic park after he's begun to see that his drug-world savvy is not enough to make him a player in the ruthless world of downtown politics and real estate.
 
I note other differences from the prevailing tide in films and television. Many scenes in The Wire end just short of resolution of a conflict. That's just good storytelling that keeps the audience hooked. But then other times, like Alex says, they will extend the moment at the end of a scene long past what most any other film or show would. Perfect example from this season is when Bunny Colvin is working as the head of hotel security and is called to deal with a guest who has beaten up a prostitute. After he angrily handcuffs the guest and basically loses his job, the last shot is held for maybe eight seconds on the tableau of the distressed prostitute, Colvin, the guest, and his boss. No one says anything. We watch Colvin, paralyzed by the realization that he does not belong here—yet he's no longer a policeman either and can do nothing about what just happened.
 
The Wire, in general, favors the medium shot over the close-up. You could say it's a more democratic angle—it allows viewers room to make judgments of their own instead of being led by the nose by far more emotionally manipulative close-ups. It astounds me how many films these days play out overwhelmingly in close-up. You're at your local multiplex looking up at a big screen, and it's as if the filmmakers have decided to treat it like you are sitting in your living room watching a 13-inch set. Perhaps that's why I always loved the fact that Stanley Kubrick was willing to take this concern to fairly extreme lengths. In Barry Lyndon, you get only two close-ups in the entire three-hour film. But they are two of the most potent close-ups I've ever seen in a movie.
 
And then, of course, there's The Wire's construction of the scenes themselves. The series isn't afraid to let scenes play out for minutes at a time. The result is a show that is defiantly not "fast-paced," yet riveting nonetheless. Like a long, compelling novel.
 
Before I go, I want to add a thought about David's answer to Groovelady: As a filmmaker with some experience in Hollywood, I've seen what David laments. I know of successful producers who have tried to develop black-themed projects and made a point of seeking out black writers for consideration and found the talent pool distressingly shallow. Many of the best candidates were busy or unavailable. But like David says, black writers should have just as much right to be as successful and mediocre as the scores of white writers out there now. Maybe there needs to be an initiative to steer more black students and budding writers into studio internships or something. But the writer's life in Hollywood is such a lonely one. With no real studio system in place anymore, it's hard to know where to begin.

But there is also still plenty of prejudice out there in "liberal" Hollywood. On the heels of Hoop Dreams' success, my partner and I did a lot of meetings with the studios. At the time, Spike Lee was in the press, due to a fight over his film Malcolm X. Several of these execs we met with went off on Spike. About how difficult he was and how ungrateful. It became clear that they were also afraid of him. That he didn't play by their rules. We would point out that no one was more generous to us with praise for our film than Spike. (He even signed on as an executive producer for a possible dramatization of Hoop Dreams.) We told these execs that we saw him in a different way, but it fell on deaf ears. I think it was John Singleton who once said something like, in Hollywood, an uncompromising white filmmaker has ambition; an uncompromising black filmmaker has an attitude.
 
Steve

Steve James is the director of Hoop Dreamsand Stevie.