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Sunday, 17 February 2013


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I don't know if it helps you but perhaps you don't know that Ed Burns, a former Baltimore police detective and teacher, and David Simon, a journalist for the Baltimore Sun, have co-written The Wire. I recommend you watch the Q&A sessions that were made available in the DVD sets too.

While I'm at it I'd recommend Generation Kill, also by David Simon.

And I've heard Treme wasn't bad either !


From On The Media ...

Joseph Mitchell and Ryszard Kapuscinski created some of the most celebrated narrative non-fiction of this century; full of indelible characters, scenes, and dialogue. But both have been dogged by accusations that they doctored dialogue, manufactured scenes and created composite characters. In an interview that originally aired in December 2010, Bob talks with celebrated narrative non-fiction writer Lawrence Weschler about great writers and questionable facts.


Also in this week's show, "The Lifespan of a Fact" and "Facts Wrong In Cold Blood."

Do let us know how your police friend responds to The Wire. He probably has some unique insights, although if he's not worked in a city force with the level of drug culture in Baltimore, he might not be in sync with the issues.

So you're arguing that Shakespeare shouldn't have written Richard III?

[A complex question. Fiction can tell deeper truths than non-fiction. I'm not arguing that that isn't so.

Are you arguing that Richard III the play wasn't political propaganda and pandering entertainment, and that it didn't distort historical facts from the early 1600s all the way to the present day? I see it as flattery to the reigning power structure, among other things. --Mike]

In the first paragraph of Dowd's piece, she references the film Argo and "courageous Canadian diplomats." Dowd gets it right by mentioning the Canadians first. Unlike their portrayal in the film, the CIA were minor players. Here's an account of "Ken Taylor and the Canadian Caper" on a Government of Canada website: http://international.gc.ca/history-histoire/people-gens/ken_taylor.aspx?lang=eng&view=d

As usual, Mike, I agree with you so closely that sometimes it seems as if it's hardly worth reading your blog (though it's always pleasant to have one's biases reinforced). On the question of book vs movie, it often seems to me like comparing a carefully prepared, home cooked meal (takes some time, some effort, you may not get exactly what you were aiming for, but you will probably be nourished on several levels) vs fast food (quick, predictable, you will probably enjoy it a bit, and if you get the side salad you'll probably get some beneficial nourishment). Having both in your life is a great luxury. (I'm reading Macauley's 19th century History of England right now and it is absolutely thrilling for a modern political junkie and it is changing the way I see the world … but I still like to kick back and watch Blue Bloods on Friday night.)

On the topic of animated films — um, I guess they're not "films" anymore, are they? Should I drop my pretensions and go back to calling them "movies"? — have you seen Brave? It's a fine bit of fast food: wonderful acting and animation, and a good story with a proper moral, and even if I knew it was going to end happily there were times when I started to think, "Surely they couldn't turn this into a tragedy … or could they? And you want scary? Zombies have nothing on the fight scene at the end. (I won't spoil it for anyone who hasn't seen it, but it may be a bit much for anyone under the age of about 9, and it had me gripping the arm rests i
on the theatre seat.)

Another example: look up Ken Taylor's comments on how loosely the movie Argo dealt with the facts of the "Canadian Caper" in Iran. Diplomat John Sheardown, who played a key role doesn't even get a mention.

It's interesting to note that Spielberg's Lincoln (which he goes on and on about elaborating the pains he took to get the details right- even to incorporating the sound of his actual watch) got Connecticut's slavery vote wrong. Even when they try to do it right- they often get it so very wrong.

And that's not to mention how people regularly take outright movie fiction to be fact. Though most will (hopefully) realize that the Lincoln displayed in yet another movie was never actually our nation's most prodigious vampire killer- how many believe that sharks are the most relentless killers of mankind to this day?

We now have entire species of our ocean's greatest predator near extinction. And although industrial fishing and pernicious "shark finning" are in large part responsible- the attitude about sharks from that movie has not exactly gained them any fans from those that coo over the warm and fuzzy animals of the planet.

And then of course, we go home from watching our fiction as good as fact movies to turn on certain fiction as good as fact news programs...

Having watched The Wire, on DVD about 4 years ago, It became for me, the gold standard of what could be achieved in terms of story telling, character development, and cinematography. It's hard to express exactly why this is so, however, the memories of the experience, continue to evoke strong feelings. These include Michael K. Williams' character "Omar" (my favorite), Idris Elba, and really pretty much every other performance, along with intelligent and poignant story telling. In terms of Photography, and the visual look of the show, I was time and again blown away. The manner in which shots were setup in the streets of Baltimore, the use of "magic hour" lighting to bathe the corners, buildings and characters, was outstanding. Another strong image for me, was the opening sequences, especially Season 2, with the rows of shipping containers in, the port. The use of color and light, again achieving a sense of the sublime. I also realize that my comments may only scratch the surface.

A counter commentary (devil's advocate):

So What?

So What if not 1 person in 100 knows the Titanic sank in calm water? So what if everybody thinks that quick-draw gun fights were common in the old west (serious western history buffs claim that's entirely a creation of the movies.) Not 1 person in 100 knows LOTs of things far more important and applicable than that and life goes on.

What you Really Need To Know to live in our society, versus what you Really Ought To Know To Be Well Informed are quite different. And aside from issues such as politics, it mostly doesn't matter.

I do not find this a happy circumstance, but I have come to think of it as reality.

By the way, I think the view that "if only TV/movies/the-web were more truthful people would learn more" is mostly false. What would happen is they'd rest and relax with something else.

Well Mike - if you're into season 4 already, then you have seen 'Hamsterdam'. And you should probably tell your PO friend that sometimes, even the best of intentions from the best men can lead to, well, Shakespearean tragedies.

"The Wire" is the best I've seen so far on TV, tho as a European, you'll definitely need some of the first episodes to get accustomed to the 'Bodymore Murdaland' type of terminology. Still, no translation could ever top this original.

If you want scary reality TV, watch the first episode of Connections from 1977. Then watch again the last episode from that first series about how we define our identities from the products we buy. Go from that last episode into Fight Club and see Edward Norton's character blowing up all that stuff which had come to define him. We do it with cameras and lenses. In the end it is a form of vanity.

We were particularly offended in the UK by the film U571, which was pure fiction but has probably established the capture of the enigma machine as a US effort. It's actually a good film, but it becomes the 'truth' in the modern consciousness.
I could also say the same for half a dozen 'historical' films which either ignore or omit the facts through either a narrow artistic scope or wilful misrepresentation to add drama. Gallipoli, Braveheart, even Saving Private Ryan (a fine film but nary a Brit or Canadian in sight). What can you do against the dumb juggernaut of Hollywood though?

Which is preferable?

(a) A film (or television program) that is either never produced or gets little viewership because is is dryly faithful to scholarship or,

(b) a film (or television program) that hip-bumps facts, or fills factual potholes with color, in order to improve entertainment values and attract production financing?

Of course the answer is unquestionably (b) for a bouquet of reasons. But let me give you one which is personally relevant to me.

As a young boy in the 1960's I was virtually weaned on the bigger-than-big-screen historical epics such as "Ben Hur", "Cleopatra", "El Cid", and "The Fall of the Roman Empire". I couldn't get enough of them I still love them and watch many during the dark, gray weeks of winter's depths (such as now). These were true spectacles with casts of thousands and real sets often, as with "Roman Empire", meticulously researched and constructed in full-scale. These were films that made life-long memo impressions on a 10 +/- year old boy not for their accuracy o political correctness but for the basic stories they portrayed.

Fast forward that boy to his 50's, strangely the typical time of life when men seem to give a shit about history. Now I am interested in whether or not Marcus Aurelius wanted to pass power to someone other than his son, Commodus, (no) or if Commodus was really such an egomaniacal goof (yes) and died in a gladiatoral fight (no).

My point: the entertaining film that gets well-produced with factual liberties has 100% more chance to instigate subject matter interest in viewers than the scholarly version that remains in a Word doc file on someone's hard disk.

Excepting, of course, egregiously inaccurate productions (unlikely to be accepted in the Wiki/Google era anyway) the nitty historical details just ... don't ... matter in any practical sense. Filmmaing (and certainly more so television) really is just entertainment. As they say, "Any resemblance to real persons..."

A few years ago, ESPN wrote a little article about the realism of the movie Hoosiers. I'd love to see that applied to other movies.

Perhaps the worst case of promoting "true" events in a movie that I've seen is for the horror movie "The Strangers"; A movie where three unknown people in masks terrorize and kill a couple staying in a secluded house. The tag for the movie is "inspired by true events".

Of course, this being a horror movie, most people would take that with a grain of salt anyway. But in this case, here's the true events that inspired a movie about scaring and murder, from Wikipedia :

"According to production notes, the film was inspired by true events from director Bryan Bertino's childhood: a stranger came to his home asking for someone who was not there, and Bertino later found out that empty homes in the neighborhood had been broken into that night."

Many years ago when the movie "Tucker" was released, I happened to meet someone from Lucasfilm at a party. I shared with him my thought that, while the movie was well produced and otherwise historically fairly accurate, it veered off at the end with a rant that never occurred which predicted the future decline of the American automobile industry due to the suppression of innovation. I explained that the movie could have been equally good yet still accurate to the historical facts. His answer? "That's show business." The fact is that Tucker failed because of undercapitalization. That's the same reason why Kaiser-Frazer and DeLorean failed, and why Fisker will probably fail. Why is this important? "Those who fail to remember the past are doomed to repeat it."

Open Mike Real Stories;

Your reference to "Maureen Dowd in the New York Times today" made me laugh, kinda reminds me of the old saying; "the pot is calling the kettle black".

I tend to watch movies knowing "it is just a movie".

When I read a NEWSpaper I used to think most of the info was correct. Over the last several years newspapers get it wrong 50% to 70% of the time, politicians get it wrong closer to 80/90% of the time (it has to fit the political agenda, even if they have to lie a little)

When you know a lot of data concerning a subject you find that most reporting on this subject is either false data / lies / somebody else's opinion.

I wonder if Ms. Dowd is as careful with her facts as she wants others to be.

[I opened the door here, but we're not turning this into a political discussion. Fair warning. --Mike]

Mike said:

"Fiction can tell deeper truths than non-fiction. I'm not arguing that that isn't so.
Are you arguing that Richard III the play wasn't political propaganda and pandering entertainment, and that it didn't distort historical facts from the early 1600s all the way to the present day? I see it as flattery to the reigning power structure, among other things. --Mike"

"Richard III" was everything you said, which was my point -- that Shakespeare was doing an earlier version of "Zero Dark Thirty," twisting history for dramatic and popular effect. But R3 is also a masterpiece containing lines that are quoted five hundred years later. ("Now is the winter of our discontent.") So would you rather have a literary masterpiece or niggling-good history?

The same arguments deployed against "Argo" or "Zero Dark Thirty" or "Lincoln" could be pointed at "War and Peace" and, for sure, the Odyssey and the Iliad. The requirements of history and fiction are simply different.

After watching Argo, does anybody think the Canadians weren't brave to do what they did and Americans shouldn't be grateful for it? That's the important point -- if you'd actually shown bit-by-bit what they did, the film would have been boring, because basically what everybody did for several months was sit on their asses; they weren't exactly involved in shootouts in the mean streets of Tehran. In the end, when the Americans flew out of Tehran, there was no conflict; the flight out was routine. The fact is, if the screenwriter had tried to "real" about it, the film never would have been made.

So -- the categories have to be kept distinct: fiction and non-fiction. Non-fiction gives you fact, fiction attempts to give you some semblance of "truth." To apply the standards of one to the other is to go on a fool's errand, an errand that Maureen Dowd frequently undertakes.

I was just in a discussion in which I said I admire Quentin Tarantino for his technique of unapologetic rewriting of history (hit men that need to make a speech before they whack someone, Hitler getting it in a theatre, the old West transposed on the old South, etc.).

It's as if he's reminding us: "this is just story telling, let's not build it up into anything beyond that." No moral position, no (correct) politics. And not anywhere close to a story that is almost true.

RE: Animation, check out 'Chico and Rita'. Available on Netflix. Good jazz soundtrack and wonderful animated evocations of old Havana.

"So -- the categories have to be kept distinct: fiction and non-fiction. Non-fiction gives you fact, fiction attempts to give you some semblance of 'truth.'"

But that's exactly what I'm saying. What I'm objecting to is fiction presented as if it were factual. "Titanic" should have been a movie about a ship with a different name--"The Sinking of the Colossus" or something. With everybody knowing it was based on the Titanic. They called it "The Godfather," not "The History of the Gambino Crime Family." What's so debased is the conflation of fiction masquerading as fact that we are so often subjected to. Fiction should be fiction. This is what I'm saying.


Not only should one not be concerned about recommending The Wire to a policeman, the show is used as a basis for teaching, and Ed Norris, Baltimore's former police commissioner, has been a guest lecturer at such a class taught at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University.


But the show isn't just about Baltimore; it realistically depicts similar aspects of parts of many US cities, including inner workings of the media, education and other themes explored in different seasons. A look at the Wiki article on the show (and many other articles available by quick web search), will provide many additional insights.

The majority of those who make Baltimore home know, however, that it is a tale of two cities, and the one depicted in the show, although very real, exists alongside one that is home to great art museums, hospitals and universities (like Hopkins), tourist attractions like the Inner Harbor, and wonderful neighborhoods (that are safe and amenable to some wonderful photo opportunities).

The Wire was one of my favourite shows, I also loved an earlier TV show set in Baltimore called Homicide Life on the Streets. But when the Wire was first released in the 90s it wasn't popular at all here in Australia. Now it is and I think watching these shows on DVD is so much better than watching an episode each week. I don't watch any series on TV and wait for the DVD release to come out so I can watch at my own pace and don' have to put up with ads!

"I don't watch any series on TV and wait for the DVD release to come out so I can watch at my own pace and don' have to put up with ads!"

I agree, it's a wonderful way to watch TV. I never watched "Seinfeld" when it was broadcast, but when it went into reruns it was on five nights a week where I live, and I watched the whole run in a few months. That was my first experience with speeding up TV. Now, like you, watching complete shows on DVD is my preference. Really is the way to do it.


Dear Mike,

No serious animation? Did you ever see Grendel Grendel Grendel? If not, go dig it up. More recently, how about Persepolis? And there are hundreds, if not thousands of non-feature-length animated films.

Which mostly don't make for bestsellers, which is why folks (collectively) don't know about them. Movies and TV are about making bestsellers. It doesn't have to be the top seller, it doesn't have to be a blockbuster, but if it won't be bought by millions upon millions of people, you will lose money. When you're writing a bestseller, once you've got your basic concept and your plot, it's nice if you can get every factual detail right (and it's completely infeasible, by the way, because it requires you to be truly encyclopedic about the topic you're writing about, because otherwise you don't know what you don't know) and it's nice if you can get the politics right, and so on, but if the inexorable logic of trying to get a sufficient number of buyers dictates you deviate from that, you do it without a second thought. Because otherwise you never get to do it again.

Which is really a set up for my main point. I'm not apologizing for that state of affairs; it's an unfortunate one. But it means that most of yours, and Dowd's, criticisms are fundamentally off the mark and emphasizing the trivial over the important. Because the important is so overwhelmingly important that it simply precludes ever producing a bestseller. Or at least stacks the deck so heavily against you that it's almost not worth trying unless it's about your life's central focus and passion.

Let me go after Dowd, primarily: she mentions in passing the Canadians, even in the first paragraph. What she doesn't mention is that the real story is primarily about the Canadians with the American film project being an interesting an excellent bit of sleight of hand to help pull off the operation. So right off the bat, this should be a movie about Canadians , with an American playing a supporting role. If you're going to get it even close to right. Which, in terms of public perceptions and pop images of history and world politics, is a hell of a lot more important than whether Jordan Hamilton had kids, because it plays right into the whole American perception that WE run the planet… even in situations where WE don't. It promulgates a major cultural myth, and so it sells the movie. Because a lot more Americans are going to go see a movie with an American hero then with an ensemble of Canadian heroes.

Oh yes, and it has to be in WHITE American hero, despite Latinos being on their way to becoming the largest plurality in the United States. No, it's not that a white person can't play a Latino, it's that you just about never see Latino actors playing non-Latino characters. It's about the Implicit racism of the “exceptionality of the other” and this movie promulgates it (and, no, it's not about whether the real character ever thought of himself as Hispanic––for one thing Latino and Hispanic aren't the same thing, and for another it's about how the culture perceives Latinos, not about how one person does: bestsellers, remember?).

So let's talk about the big, important, historical/cultural issues: that if Argo was going to be even a minimally accurate story, it would be about a group of Canadian operatives, well and imaginatively assisted by a Latino American agent.

This might be considered more than a modest deviation from the movie that was made.

Show of hands: how many people think this would be a major box office success in the US? Really?

Well, you might be right (I would disagree), but it's most definitely not the way Hollywood thinks.

I will give Dowd credit and assume she actually understands this about moviemaking, and that she's not just another jingoistic, unconsciously-racist American. Which just makes her column petty and foolish, rather than flamingly stupid.

Certainly the whole bit about Connecticut vs. Illinois voters is petty and foolish, unless you happen to be president of The Council to Promote Connecticut Historical Tourism. Yes it would have been lovely if the authors had known that bit of trivia about how voting was done, because it would have made a better dramatic moment. And I'm sure they can see that. But, you know, sometimes you don't get things perfect, and in the big scheme of things of Lincoln and the Civil War, this is indeed arguing about minutia, entirely on the level of whether he was wearing blue or green socks. OMG, their fact-checking wasn't perfect. BFD.

Same thing applies to complaints about TV dramas: big picture vs. trivia. They're supposed to be DRAMATIC; police work is mostly boring, as is almost all work, even in dangerous neighborhoods. Who wants to watch the boring parts?! My God, if police work were like it was shown on The Wire or any of the other pseudo-realistic gritty police shows, the only people who'd ever want to be cops or could stand being cops would be psychopaths or adrenaline junkies.

Same's true of medical dramas. Reality isn't about getting the technology and the diseases right, it's about the fact that approximately 25% of the medical practices efforts go into handling unnecessarily redundant paperwork. So, you want to talk about how TVs and movies distort people's perception of reality? How many people know that? It's infinitely more important than Connecticut vs. Illinois voting in the nineteenth century, because details like that should massively inform the health care debate. And they don't, because it doesn't make for good drama, and so it's not the image people have internalized of how the business of medicine really works.

I can totally get that this is a pet peeve of yours and Dowd's. But it skirts vastly bigger problems of deep and profound errancy.

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

Of course it's too much to expect that popular entertainment reflect reality too closely. Sometimes that's a shame because the reality might have been just as or more interesting that the fiction. But what's maybe not so good is when no one EVER gets a dose of reality, when they only get the paid-for pablum needed to sell the snake oil. Nowadays, they get to make their own pablum as social media replaces TV. And there are no actors or writers to pay.

Mike, if you like watching TV sped up, you'd love Netflix streaming. It's ruined me for watching TV series on a broadcast schedule.

As for Titanic, the James Cameron version showed calm weather with clear skies. I don't know what version you are referring to, but nothing in that one indicated rough seas of any kind.

The Wire is the best television series ever broadcast. It's almost not even worth watching fictional TV until something better comes along. Just watch football.

Sorry Mike, but for someone who frames reality thru a viewfinder to complain about "truth" in other visual media is a bit hard to swallow. Shall we discuss the photo of the flag raising at Iwo Jima or the "news reel" footage of MacArtur reruning to the Phillipines?

"Remove the log from your own eye..." etc. etc.

PS I agree with you about The Wire! Totally awesome television!

Glad to hear someone mention "Homicide Life on the Sreets". My very favorite TV series, though I haven't seen "The Wire" yet. Detective Pembleton's questioning of a suspect in "the box" was as good as TV gets, IMHO. Highly recommended.

In regards to "Lincoln" the movie....fact v fiction... a little of both...
Tony Kushner:
For all the historical research he did for “Lincoln,” the writing that most excited Mr. Kushner was the made-up stuff. “Especially the stuff behind the scenes,” with Secretary of State William H. Seward and Lincoln discussing the 13th Amendment. “There are no records at all,” Mr. Kushner said. “We know that it happened, but we don’t know what was said. They didn’t leave a paper trail. So that gives you room to dramatize.”

In regards to "Lincoln" in fact, an interesting podcast and an outrageous book


And for how the "West was won..or wasn't.." read David Brooks and the sling & arrow comments to separate the wheat/chaff


thankfully dementia has no illusions ...it's all fact from within..:))

I see Lincoln has been mentioned a couple of times. One was about the Connecticut vote and the other about the color of his socks. I agree the color of his socks isn't that important. I can even go along with the vote thing. What I do find highly objectionable is that the entire story is about how he fought and cajoled to get slavery abolished. If you really believe that and don't want it challenged do not read his 1st inaugural address.

Sometimes the significance of altered facts is unimportant but sometimes the significance extends way beyond whether or not it makes for a good story.

I understand that commercial considerations trump truth (and consequences) for people producing mass-market entertainment in our society.

That's the essence of my complaint, in fact.

It's dangerous; it leads people to believe falsehoods, and then to make their current life decisions (including voting) based on falsehoods. Misinformation is MUCH more dangerous than ignorance, because there's no clue that you need to go do research.

The Old West, to jump back to that example, is for many people the imagery they get for brave strong homesteaders striking out on their own into a virgin continent (mmm, see the imagery!) and defending themselves from cattle rustlers with their trusty six-guns. Whereas in fact homesteading hardly ever worked except by cooperation among people in the area, the continent wasn't all that empty to begin with, and the murder rate in Dodge City was remarkably low. Oh, and rifles were more useful than six-guns for actually defending a homestead, but perhaps that's getting too political right now. In other words, a lot of the basis for the extreme individualist attitudes of a lot of Americans is a lie.

The Wire was excellent indeed, in about all ways. Needs good sound, too, since the sound is very layered and complex (meaning sometimes hard to parse for old guys like me). Treme not bad either, and again with the sound. LOTS of music, mostly of types I don't care that much about but so far as I can tell excellent examples. Not nearly as much story, though.

As for getting the story in two hours -- you can't. Unless you read faster than me. You can get a simplified, flattened version of the story, at best. Sometimes (too often) you get an unrelated story trading (I would call it fraudulently) under the same title.

Making movies from books is one of the worst habits of the industry (the other, it seems to me, being making movies from movies; so perhaps I should combine them and say that trying to ride on the coat-tails of a previous success is the worst habit of the industry).

Mike, how do you feel about, say, Macbeth, or Henry V?

I can't speak for the police, or the medical profession, or the military, but as a barrister, I try to avoid legal shows. My wife - who is a solicitor (i.e. attorney, not door to door salesman, or worse, for you Yanks) - says that is because no-one wants to watch a TV show that is about their work. But for me, it is the technical inaccuracies that rankle - although, no doubt, an accurate plot about legal (or police, or medical, or military, etc, etc issues) would be very, very, very boring (just like work, after all). Notable exceptions: Anatomy of Murder, all of Rumpole, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Rake (an Oz show, see it if you can).

The Wire is a fine show, but like much US television it's too slick. Even when it's gritty it's slick.

If you want really gritty have a look at Braquo or Engrenages (Spiral). The latter was inspired by The Wire but, to my eye, looks better - maybe because Canal+ doesn't have the money that HBO does and French actors haven't had as much plastic surgery:)

"What I'm objecting to is fiction presented as if it were factual."

That sounds like the EXACT same complaint people have about some photographs/types of photography.

Watched the first season of The Wire after reading similar praise from others whose opinion I respect. It was good, but not spectacular. Too clinical and detached for my tastes, but I can see why many like it as much as they do.

When it comes to police dramas, The Shield is and probably always will be my gold standard. It paints a picture of a brutal, thoroughly corrupt and morally bankrupt society on an accelerating downward spiral. The same team is currently doing Sons of Anarchy, which has managed to water my eyes on more than one occasion.

There's a story about JJ Abrams when he was extremely jet lagged. Having gone back to his hotel room, he was reminded of the opening scenes of Die Hard. In the beginning of the movie, John McClane is told that he should take his shoes off and rub his feet on the hotel room carpet to ease jet lag. Abrams did this for a while until he realized that the entire scene was of course a set up to get McClane barefeet, so later scenes in the movie would work out better.

Die Hard is of course nothing but fiction, but it just speaks of the power of movies when it comes to shaping the ideas that we have of the world.

One example of total rubbish in movies is the statement in Rain Man (an otherwise-wonderful film, IMHO, and possibly Tom Cruise's best) about Qantas never having had a plane crash.

It simply isn't true!

Disclaimer: am from Australia ;-)

Adapting things for new media is always a tricky game. When done without knowledge, craft, and taste you end up with crap. But that's the same for everything.

I have a few more extended thoughts.

One of my favorite films is the Branagh adaptation of Henry V. Here we have an adaptation of typical Shakespearean propaganda (smile) so we are at least two levels away from "truth." But the film's portrayal of royalty, war, and politics is just great. It reminds you that a good film of a play is not just a film of people acting the play…

Which makes me think of the great book by John Culshaw about recording the Wagner Ring (http://www.amazon.com/Ring-Resounding-John-Culshaw/dp/0670598895) back in the day. I recall him writing that great recordings of a piece of music are not just a recorded concert performance just like "films are not filmed plays."

It's a different medium, and effective adaptation means that you have to take that into account.

Which leads to my final example: the Jackson adaptation of the Lord of the Rings. I like these films a lot, although it's clear that a lot had to be left behind. What Jackson has done is mostly left out the right things. What's left is a good and consistent distillation of the story into something that fits in a film.

What's interesting to me are the people who cannot abide the story being changed in any way whatsoever. They complain that the films are destructive and "untruthful" as if the original novel were an *actual history* with its own actual facts. This really turns the question of fiction and truth on its head. Here we have a fiction that people have gotten so attached to that it has become its own kind of truth in some completely constructed other reality.

"I understand that commercial considerations trump truth (and consequences) for people producing mass-market entertainment in our society. That's the essence of my complaint, in fact. It's dangerous; it leads people to believe falsehoods, and then to make their current life decisions (including voting) based on falsehoods. Misinformation is MUCH more dangerous than ignorance, because there's no clue that you need to go do research."

I think I've told this story before, but a long time ago some friends took me to see a movie (I think it was the movie version of Grizzly Adams, but I don't recall) about a big woodsy fellow who befriends all sorts of animals, including a bear. Featured all kinds of inter-species friendships and woodlands animals acting like pets. The movie was complete romantic fantasy. When I ridiculed it movie afterwards, The two of them got extremely upset with me (the woman cried, and her husband gave me an angry lecture). I learned to my astonishment that they both thought the movie was perfectly factually accurate. That possibility had never occurred to me. The fault was entirely with me, for being insensitive to things "that were very important to them."


A police detective friend told me repeatedly that the TV police program closest to reality was Barney Miller. He was not alone.

In an 2005 op-ed for the New York Times, real-life New York police detective Lucas Miller[7] wrote: Real cops are not usually fans of cop shows. [...] Many police officers maintain that the most realistic police show in the history of television was the sitcom "Barney Miller," [...]

[Funny...there's a scene in The Wire where the Mayor-elect is observing the detectives at their offices and he realizes they're all putting on a show for him, so he tells them to pretend he isn't there and act normally, so they all promptly go back to goofing off. --Mike]

If you want "truth" then you need to look at philosophy or religion for that. As Mark Twain famously said "Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please." Anyone who believes that historical facts are true is very naive. Always look to see who was paying for them first.

I wonder if Timothy Treadwell was influenced by Grizzly Adams, or whatever film it was you saw, Mike?

Adapting stories across media is an art form in and of itself, of course. One of the interesting cases is The Princess Bride. Both the novel and the movie script were written by William Goldman (who is primarily a screenwriter). So one can't really make the argument that the guy who did the screen adaptation didn't understand the story! And in fact I somewhat prefer the movie, myself; I refer to it as the "good-parts version" (a reference to the book, for those not into this). But my friend Lydia absolutely hates the film because she feels it leaves out all the best parts.

...and while we are at it....since when did the history channel stop doing history?

This goes further than fiction surely - do you believe everything you read in newspapers, or that TV journalism shows the entire story?

The amazing thing about the wire was how it humanized everyone in such a skillful way, no matter how ugly. That's what made it so appealing to my wife and me. Many shows since then have tried to do the same thing, like Deadwood. Some, like Breaking Bad, try to slowly "monsterize" an initially appealing character. Some shows go a little overboard and seem to throw too many contemporary hot issues in the mix, along with going overboard in making characters just too charming, good and bad, almost to the point of being cartoonish. But The Wire got most of it just right.

I also meant to add that there is a common misconception that there is somewhere a History of the past that is a full and correct account of events. History as we know it is filtered by historians and commentators, and owes more to the age in which it is written, than the times it describes.

NB I can recommend E H Carr's "What is History" for an entertaining, if personal, consideration of the many ramifications of the historian's work.

David Simon wrote a book a few years before
he wrote "The Wire" that came from a year's
time he spent on a daily basis with the Baltimore Police Homicide unit.
The book is titled "Homicide - A year on the killing streets".
A reading of the book, truly enjoyable , will show you where "The Wire" came from.
Both really very well done!
Best wishes,

Interesting thoughts Mike, which dredged up from the depths of my memory an article by my favourite author, Guy Gavriel Kay, that is a bit dated but seems to have aged well (from August 2000). A pertinent quote:

"Why should we expect accuracy from Hollywood? From any segment of pop culture? Since when are the movies or television or romance thrillers held to any standards of truth?

Well, it seems to me a good question, not a rhetorical one.

Why are they not held to such standards? Why are these frothy little summer entertainments ($100 million dollars worth) deemed immune, as (Mel) Gibson suggests they should be, to allegations that they are lies? Insidious ones. Lies that erase and obliterate for huge numbers of people any vaguely accurate notion of events..."

The full article: http://www.brightweavings.com/ggkswords/patriot.htm


Re "Gallipoli": more a case of Australian juggernaut, depicting the great Australian/British icon that we brave Diggers were let down by incompetent toffy British officers. Although it is interesting to ponder the idea that what is commemorated as a great founding event was a disastrous military loss, unlike those of some nations who commemorate victories. The closest mosque to me was built by the Turkish community and named by them the Gallipoli Mosque without any rancour, or triumphalism, I'm pleased to say.

I haven't seen "The Wire" at all (I will put on priority) but at an advanced stage of watching "Breaking Bad" I'm struck by the duration of these dramas. Most feature films, with a few notable exceptions, have durations not much longer than two or two and a half hours.

Perhaps these long form dramas are an art unto themselves?

I remember being dragged along to a movie once which started with a screen saying it was based on events that actually happened. And at the end was a disclaimer that the whole thing was fictional and not based on any real people! So I wasted an hour and a half on something that in my book was a fraud.

Loved the Wire....initially we had to turn on the subtitles to navigate the argot and the accents. Soon we were fluent in Baltimorese...not bad considering we're from the Antipodes.

Every time I see "based on a true story" at the start of a movie, my knee-jerk reaction is to think "but is the truth content 1% or 99%".

I wonder if we're being conditioned as a society to only react to bold stimulus. It seems to me that real life is full of subtlety, nuance, and slow change. My TV is all about violence, sex-a-palooza, and inanimate objects that talk (and fly fighter jets!). How can we maintain any appreciation for reality when we're so rarely called upon to consider it?

However, if somebody ever opens a "James Bond for a Day" fantasy camp, count me in...

I wrote about this very topic in a longish (for a newspaper) feature that came out a few weeks ago, just before the big Oscar films hit. I too am constantly pissed off by films doing to fact what Hitler did to Poland (to borrow from Lubitsch, or was it Mel Brooks?).
Anyway, those who want to take a peek at a non-American response to this stuff, can have a look here:
And yes, Qantas did have several crashes before it became an international airline, mostly in outback Queensland, but I think they are still unblemished as far as deaths on the wider stage.

You should watch the French TV series 'Spiral' which is shown on BBC4 in the UK on Sat evenings.

The way the French justice system is portrayed is also fascinating - wonder if it is accurate ?


Perfect mix of fact, literature and art that is wonderful in both book and movie has only been achieved once - with In Cold Blood in as far as I can see.

I'm a fan of Japanese anime (well, some of it) and one of the thing that strikes me is the seriousness and complexity of the storytelling. Nuance and change are the hall marks of the characterization, and audiences are not treated like stupid idiots. The storytelling parameters are completely different from most commercial hollywood fare (animation and live action), though not terribly different from what makes The Wire, or Winter's Bone, so good. Sci-fi is the most depressing genre of (US) film for me, because that should lift us up, challenge us, make us think and question, and inspire us...but instead we use all that imagination to get some lady undressed and have her battle a slimy octopus. For a good example of animation for adults, and in the sci-fi genre, check out Space Brothers on crunchyroll. It's a story about astronauts but without the slimy pods.

Here's coincidence: my daily newspaper ran a two pages story on how Hollywood history fictions seem to replace history books with the younger generation.

But it's not just Hollywood that's doing it. In fact the Canadian goverment has fudged some facts about the 1812 Canada-USA war to make it look like it was an important event in Canadian history.


I'm not a cop either, but as an English professor and Baltimore native, I agree with you that The Wire ranks right up there among the most important works of American fiction. Like all such works, the series questions the Wild West mythos that you mention later in the post. The mythos casts issues in black and white. It involves territory to be conquered and controlled, easily recognized heroes and villains, and simple, direct action on the part of the heroes to achieve "success." Our great works of fiction, from Moby-Dick to The Grapes of Wrath to the Wire, are about the gray areas. They demonstrate that control is an illusion, that the line between hero and villain is indistinct at best, and that simplistic actions, no matter how heroic, often lead to disaster.


I don't always agree with Ctein, but his comments on this issue totally nailed it on all counts. Those are the comments of someone who has thought it through and knows what he is talking about.

By the way, Mike, the great American novel was written long ago, by Margaret Mitchell.

Aren't most books crap as well? Movies and animation aren't the only mediums being wasted, if you want to look at it that way. Mind you, I've read some excellent books.

On the issue of accuracy, film just can't do things that text can. Text can easily, even entertainingly, describe what we don't know, what we can't see or show, and in a nuanced way. It's a descriptive medium. Film, on the other hand, is great at depicting--at showing us things, but hard pressed to explain or describe what we're looking at.

It's one thing to depict modern-day Baltimore and modern police with some accuracy, another thing entirely to depict 8th century Britain or 18th century America. Accurate-to-our-knowledge history movies would have to look something like Edgar Allen Poe's house in Philadelphia, which has been stripped bare of furnishings because we just don't know enough about them. Even if you don't care about the wallpaper or coat buttons, what about, say, key meetings with no records and conflicting accounts? Easy enough to describe. Impossible to depict. Not saying impossible to film, but daunting.

As J Hoberman puts it: "Movies don't necessarily record reality but they always construct it. That's what makes them magical." Unfortunately, it's also what makes them inherently fraudulent.

And that's only one of several qualities of film as a medium that make it less than ideal for transmitting knowledge. Wisdom or prejudice, values and mores, impressions--sure; but knowledge, not so much. At least not without extensive annotation and commentary, preferably text-based.

But that's how movies can best contribute to learning--as a spark for curiosity, discussion and debate, using all the other resources we have access to.

The Wire is certainly one of the finest examples of the medium's potential that I've seen, along with the 2004 reboot of Battlestar Galactica, The Killing, and the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender. (None of these shows are anything like the others, except in excellence of execution and innovative uses of the TV serial format.) Foyle's War and Portlandia may be right up there, too. I haven't seen the highly lauded Breaking Bad, Arrested Development, Deadwood, or Girls.

Even The Wire, though, while eschewing hackneyed formulas, has to invent its own formula to sustain a seasonal format.

The good news is that, at least as far as TV is concerned, The Wire heralded something of a golden age--one where "going against the grain" is a trend, risks are taken and rewarded, and shows like the above get financed, produced and aired.

There's some promise even on one specific issue that Ctein brought up: according to critic Alyssa Rosenberg, The Mindy Project is one medical show where insurance policy has been a significant dramatic force, and in the British import Call the Midwife, national health policy is the driving force for the drama.

Of course British imports were our gold standard for television long before The Wire. Still are, though home-grown excellence seems to be giving them more competition lately.

Hah, I guess this the "glass half full" response!

I showed a single scene of The Wire to my wife, where Bubbles is visited by Steve Earle and breaks down over his buddy's death. I gave her no set-up, just showed her the scene cold (she is an actress and director). She was in tears. One of the best scenes of physical acting I've ever seen. There are so many of these "best moments" in the Wire, where the writing and the acting just come together and you go "Wow!"

For any aficionado of the extended drama, nothing compares to Edgar Reitz's masterpieces - the "Heimat" (1&2) series. But of course they're them funny old furrin films with subtitles and people speakin (mostly) Cherman. Having watched and loved all five series of TW I feel qualified to compare.

And for anyone who can cope with foreign stuff, in German, the restored version of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's "Berlin Alexanderplatz" is another example of the fact that great long-form drama didn't start with The Wire, terrific though it is.

And how about "The Jewel in the Crown"? - which on re-viewing decades after its original release reveals dramatic depths that I'd hardly recalled. Or the three BBC dramatisations of John le Carré's greatest cold war novels? Not to be confused with the risible film version of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy". The original of this beautifully understated dramatisation, now cheaply available on DVD, has some of the most stunning screen acting you will ever see.

Ken Burns series BASEBALL is worth the time it takes to watch it. Don't know about how accurate his others are but the times I have lived through that he covers are well done.
Even non-baseball fans would enjoy it. Photographers especially for all the old photos used so well.

A few posts back, Greg mentioned the book "Homicide: a Year on the Killing Streets". While Simon worked on "The Wire", "Homicide" the TV series, which pre-dates "The Wire", is still my all time favorite cop show. Based on the Simon book. Check it out. Baltimore, Cops, Etc. You'll love it...

My father-in-law was a parole officer in Baltimore around the time when The Wire co-creator Ed Burns was in the BPD. Like many of the commenters above, he both loved the show and affirms its accuracy.

By the way, David Simon himself referred to The Wire as "sort of a visual novel" in an interview with Salon.

The NYT weighs in.


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