I was spouting off yesterday, and told a friend that I think The Wire: The Complete Series is the Great American Novel, come round at last.
He replied, "So, you highly recommend The Wire?" The problem is, he's a retired Chief of Police. I do highly recommend The Wire (even though I'm only midway through Season 4). But do I highly recommend it to a former policeman? I wouldn't recommend a medical show to a doctor. It seems like great fiction to me—in fact it might be the greatest work of art I know of in the entire moving picture medium, movies or TV. But then, I don't know the reality.
It's a thorny issue. Regardless of what you think about her politics (or her publication), you ought to read Maureen Dowd in the New York Times today.
She rather gently goes after "filmmakers who make up facts in stories about real people to add 'drama,' rather than just writing the real facts better."
I've always hated most "true story" movies for this reason. I don't trust 'em. There's a good reason for that: they're not trustworthy, generally. It's not just Hollywood mannerism, the oppressiveness of convention, the tyranny of special effects: the more you know about a subject, the less a movie version will suffice. What's tragic is that the corollary is also true: the less you know about a subject, the more likely you are to accept the debased, tarted-up movie versions as accurate.
Bad data always corrupts. "Historical movies that aren't" do more harm than anybody knows. Most people—me probably included, although I'm more wary than most—know a whole lot about everything that just plain isn't true, thanks to the incredibly low standards of factual accuracy we've come to accept as normal in movies.
No average American knows one damn true thing about the American Wild West, for one thing. At this point it's pure mythos, pure lore, and digging down to the truth would require a far more extensive archaeology than all but a tiny handful of dedicated scholars could ever give it.
I'm not above it. (Neither are you.) I admit, I accept movies from Bonnie and Clyde to The King's Speech as being "accurate enough." I suspend critical skepticism and go with the stories. I don't know any better.
One of the surprises of parenthood for me is that my son isn't a reader. He had some perceptual difficulties early in his education and his elementary school teachers adjusted too little, too late. By the time he hit high school, he was reading well above grade level, but the damage was done: he'd been forced to read aloud to the class when he couldn't, and suffered the slings and arrows of juvenile teasing because of it. He now says he "hates reading." I've tried to explain to him that books are how human pass along knowledge, and he retorted, "why read a book when I can get the same story in two hours?"
That is, from a movie. Movies aren't supposed to be for learning about life, history, culture, facts, truth. Except, that's what people do.
It's always amazed me that we, as humans, as a culture, will literally spend hundreds of millions of dollars spinning pure fantasies as entertainment, but documentary programs are generally limited to a few props and an actor or two. I'd like it better if it were the opposite. We have this wonderful new medium—less than a hundred years old—and we routinely squander it on tripe, rather than using to inform people about the real world and what we actually do know about history, as a people, as a culture. (I've seen some very good movies, don't get me wrong.)
I'm not against works of imagination, and those who like blue creatures can go watch them. (My son likes zombie movies. I enjoyed Shaun of the Dead, which he made me watch. I did not mistake it for truth-telling.) But the pendulum has swung way too far. A series like The Wire, which deliberately rejects the heavily formulaic high mannerism of its genre and attempts real novelistic truth-telling on an almost Dostoevskian scale, goes very much against the current grain.
An even newer medium, animation, is being similarly wasted. I'd love to see a beautifully animated King Lear, or the real story of the 300—it's dramatic enough. But we get talking cars, talking fish, the usual. Some of them even have the depth of a '60s Bugs Bunny cartoon. (I've seen some very good animated films, don't get me wrong.)
The whole point of fiction is that it allows us to get closer to truths that can't be told any other way. Fantasy can be entertaining, but the greatest fiction of all usually has elusive reality underneath it. Movies or TV that purport to tell reality shouldn't take liberties. Not without protest and censure.
We can't always tell the truth when we claim to. But we should at least try.
"Open Mike" is a series of casual off-topic essays that sometimes appears on TOP on Sundays.
ADDENDUM: More reading. Another article along similar lines, by Barry Lando—it's called "Zero Dark Thirty: Hijacking History." A quote:
That point was driven home by a study done in 2009 by Andrew Butler, now at Duke, but then at the Department of Psychology of the Washington University of Saint Louis.
His researchers gave a group of about fifty students an accurate written account of an historical event to read. They also showed them an excerpt from a feature film about that same event, an excerpt that wrongly and blatantly contradicted the central fact of the printed text.
When they were later tested, 50% of the students recalled the misinformation portrayed in the film as being correct.
(Thanks to Carl for this.)
CORRECTION: A bad example was removed from this post because it was wrong.
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Featured Comments from:
frank: "For what it's worth, I can confidently say that what is depicted in The Wire is not HBO hyperbole. I worked in those neighborhoods back in the early '90s and saw firsthand the mayhem, trauma, despair, alienation, brutalization and hopelessness embedded in those neighborhoods. And of course none of that has substantively changed, at least as reported to me by colleague familiar with those neighborhoods.
"The homicide rates are 'waxed figures,' fluctuating as a function of political pressure. The powers who are politically in place look to 'feel good legislation' whose purpose is to convince the community that 'we are taking seriously these problems,' yet, of course, nothing changes. The real jobs are illegal, drug-trade related, as is the acquisition of the weapons needed to keep the various trade factions in positions of power and segmented into their respective 'turf.' Good luck on the efficacy of legislation relative to eliminating this source of homicide. And no self-respecting 15-year-old is gonna give up $100 a trip muling in favor of a minimum-wage job at Mickey Dee's. Ain't gonna happen.
"I'm about to begin watching the entire series again, just so I can see how far it is we haven't come."Rob: "My daughter-in-law has a Ph.D. in sociology and teaches at the university level. She loves The Wire on many levels, but especially for how it portrays the drug culture and its many social and political ramifications. She has also told me that there is a course at Harvard dedicated to exploring The Wire. So I don't know if the program is good enough for a police chief, but it certainly is good enough for scholars in the fields of sociology and criminology.
"By the way, as great as The Wire may be, nothing can match Breaking Bad."
Mike replies: I would take that course. Seriously.
Will: "When I was working in the video section of one of the country's biggest independent record stores, we had a saying: 'There are two kinds of people in the world; people who think that The Wire is the best show in the history of television, and people who have never seen The Wire.'
"I've watched it four times, and am due for a fifth. I have so much to share, but I can limit it to these two fun facts: 1.) The character of 'The Deacon' (who first appears to advise Bunny in the Hamsterdam storyline) is played by the real-life inspiration for Avon Barksdale. 2.) Writer Richard Price joined the show in season three, and wrote a tiny role for his daughter into a season three episode. She reappears in equally small roles in two more Price-written episodes, one each in season 4 and 5. She may have 60 seconds total screen time on the show, but her story is a complete one, with a beginning, middle, and end, and is as poignant as many on the show.
"When I worked at that record store, we had many, many celebrity customers. The only one that actually made me nervously starstruck, though, was Andre Royo, the actor who plays Bubbles."