A Brilliant, Thorough Look at Cinematic Style on The Wire

Slate's Culture Blog
April 9 2012 11:33 AM

The Visual Style of The Wire

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A still of Aidan Gillen and Robert Wisdom on The Wire

Last week, David Simon told the New York Times he has "a certain amused contempt" for many late-arriving fans of The Wire. Some of those fans then expressed their own amused contempt for the famously grumpy Simon, who didn't seem to appreciate the millions of people who have come to love the show he created, regarded by many as the best TV drama ever made.

David Haglund David Haglund

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

Simon quickly apologized to those fans, saying that he didn't mean to complain about everyone who came to the show after it was on the air, just those who seem to enjoy the show for the wrong reasons. "What I was expressing disappointment at was specifically the guys doing all the bracketology on Grantland," he told Alan Sepinwall. Those writers, Simon said, "want to break it down like a deck of cards, and argue over whether the jack of spades is better than the jack of hearts. The Wire wasn't about whether Stringer was better than Omar."

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Presumably Simon would hold Erlend Lavik in higher regard: Last week, the Norwegian academic posted online a 36-minute video essay called "Style in The Wire," which carefully and thoroughly analyzes the various visual techniques used by the show's directors over the course of its five seasons.

As Lavik notes, the visual style of The Wire is much less discussed than its multifaceted narrative, its wide range of complicated characters, and its social critique. But he makes a compelling case that the look of The Wire also contributes to the show's power, and that the series' directors established a visual approach that suited the show's aims.

The primary influence on the show's look is documentary filmmaking, particularly the work of Frederick Wiseman, Lavik says. In conversation scenes, for instance, the camera will often not switch to a speaker until that character has begun talking, as though the cameraman does not know in advance who will speak when. And the camera often "sneaks up" on a scene, creating the impression that we are eavesdropping on something actually taking place.

Even the 4:3 aspect ratio—which has, according to Lavik, become rare among cable's prestige dramas—was chosen by Simon because it seemed less inherently cinematic, more "real." (Lavik points out, however, that directors on the series often constructed a widescreen effect by shooting with a long lens across a blurry, horizontal object in the foreground, as in the scene with Mayor Carcetti and Bunny Colvin pictured above.)

Much of the show's style comes from what it does not include: There are no dream sequences, for instance, which have become common on other prestige dramas (like The Sopranos and Mad Men); only once does the camerawork overtly echo the psychological state of a character (after Ziggy shoots someone in Season 2); and the show's only flashback—a brief, black-and-white shot in the pilot episode—was apparently dictated by network executives, who were worried viewers wouldn't follow the story.

From that point on, the show trusted the audience's intelligence enough not to rely on techniques that might have made the series more viewer-friendly, but which would have distracted from the show's no-frills narrative style. Given that careful, deliberate respect shown to the audience, one can at least appreciate, I think, Simon's frustration when critics treat the show "like a deck of cards"—even if he still seems rather grumpier about it than is particularly called for. 

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