Those Provident Fires

The Wire has a rich, profound, and possibly lazy relationship with the real world. That much we know. I don’t think it’s ever been suggested, on Heaven and Here or elsewhere, that the program bears the genetic stamp of past forms of fiction. Ninety-percent of the articles written on it take the “you think it’s a genre show, but it’s another thing” angle and run with it; Simon’s proffered that as the show’s creation myth, and “authenticity” has become it’s calling card—and the principle preoccupation of many of its fans.

However, this reading of the show sets up a sharp opposition between The Wire and contemporaries like Law and Order or (later) NYPD Blue. The Sopranos, the original take-the-genre-and-run joint, exploded mob stereotypes by fixating on their domestic and personal consequences. But it’s not like these themes weren’t present in Godfather II, or Goodfellas. Sure, there was mountains of nuance-less dross on either side, but at its height, the best fiction provides a jumping off point, an occasion, for the real world to step in. That’s the paradox of genre-defining icons—they’re both so stylized it hurts and indefinitely complex, and it can be hard to tell which one came first. Impenetrable and yet begging for elaboration.

I’ve been watching a lot of film noir lately. I’m hardly a expert, but I do know that these movies are responsible for much of language of cops-and-robbers moving pictures. In one sense, they should be anathema to the Wire-viewing part of my brain. However, I’m increasingly struck by the number of characters that seem direct reference points for The Wire‘s universe. I’m not implying that the writers do this intentionally; nor so I believe in some great big soupy reservoir of cosmic creative brain-mass that we all dip into. Yet almost at random, performances crop up that evoke my Wire faves. Just this week: In East Side, West Side, Van Heflin plays a goofy, lovestruck cop who turns abruptly into obsessed, nearly grim, case-solver. Maybe I’m tainted, but me (and Pizza Whale) both saw McNulty at both ends. And it wasn’t just the narrative; the acting itself reminded us of ol’ Bushy Top.

Morris Levy, too, is often in my thoughts and prayers. Last night, I watched Illegal, with Edward G. Robinson as a theatrical D.A. whose hurbis drives him to mob defense. Now, I’m sure that Levy is actually based on so-and-so, who defended such-and-such, with a nod to Simon’s cousin Mel, plus a few in-jokes about Baltimore Jews that I don’t get. But if I didn’t know about The Wire‘s pipeline to “the real,” I would swear Levy was modeled after characters like this. Actually, I had to kick myself and yell that three times after meeting Jose Ferrer’s villain from Whirlpool. Dude even has Levy’s look and nasally insolence:

This is not to suggest that my spotty viewing is authoritative, or—I’ll say this again—that there’s some real-time connection between the making of The Wire and these old movies. What I do want to get out there is the possibility that fiction does yet have a role to play in our understanding of this show. CC’s been claiming that the show’s male slant makes it inherently “unreal,” and JSJ reminded me that, practically speaking, any watchable television show is distinct from reality. And let’s not forget, Simon’s fond of calling the show a “visual novel.”

Maybe film noir is the beginning of everything The Wire seeks to rebel against, or transcend, in the depiction of crime in the city. But in between all the formulas and phoned-in scripts, there are those moments when a great performance distills something about the detective, lawyer, mobster or victim that helps focus all that real world data. Part of what I love about the show is its open-ended character development; I hated the prequels exactly because they assumed essentialism and downplayed the connection between society and soul.

That doesn’t mean, though, that characters in a work of fiction don’t need a template. Otherwise, they’re nothing more than a collection of loose events–whether these are “real” matters very little–grasping at thin air. I humbly submit that, at its best, film noir can provide that necessary template.

Or, to put it another way: YOU DON’T MAKE A DRESS OUT OF PLANTS!

Relatedly: I’ve had this conversation seventeen times now, but figured it should go public. Is there any chance that Lance Reddick’s not supposed to be playing Daniels here?

And if so, why would that move luxury cars?

P.S. If anyone tech-savvy knows how to center videos in this template, tell me. I hate the way this looks right now.

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13 Comments on “Those Provident Fires”

  1. jetsetjunta Says:

    Yeah, this is one of the pitfalls of being so thoroughly nerded out on the show (a nerdy pitfall, too). It comes up in conversation and someone blurts out something like “the show is just so REAL.” The thing is that Simon and Burns and everyone else involved are all totally devoted to verisimilitude, and are clearly very good at it. But watching a truly realistic representation of drug dealers sitting on a corner all day selling dope would be truly boring, like watching anyone do their job all day (aside from a bullfighter or an intergalactic spy or whatever). I think it’s worth bearing in mind Simon’s own comments about the show being inspired by Greek drama rather than a more Shakespearean model… or wait, no need even to get that deep into it. It is helpful to just remember that when the writers get together and craft stuff, they are making theater, and theater can be real or absurd but if there’s no ideas there, fuck it, it’s going to be worthless.

  2. morewire Says:

    The similarities between The Wire and noirs extend further than just stock characters: Noir was notable at the time for presenting a more morally complex world than traditional thrillers, complete with endings that usually deny the viewer the happy ending. The dialogue may be hard-boiled and the visuals impressionistic, but both Noir and the Wire take pride in turning conventions on their ear.

  3. gukbe Says:

    Noir was always notable for the way the characters would make one bad choice that would hurtle them into an inevitable (and often dark) conclusion, from which they rarely made it out. I’m sure there is a very good paper to be written on the Wire from this perspective, but it is important to remember that, at the very core of the show, the Greek tragedy aspect rules all. It is often the character’s personal foibles that lead them down the dark path, but the Wire is always keen to establish the reasons why the choices were made. “I did it for the girl and I did it for the money” isn’t sufficient, and that’s one of the many reasons I like the show.

    As far as character types go, I often think of the mafia commentators endlessly prattling on about how the Godfather changed everything. Once the mobsters became aware of the films, they wanted to emulate them, and this caused a mentality, etc… The Sopranos dealt with it heavily, and such as we are in our postmodern world, I can’t help but think that the gangster images presented in many noir films have been copied in the real world and filtered down through the generations.


  4. […] Those Provident Fires. Nice post on the connections between Film Noir and The Wire that touches on the paradox of something lauded as “real” not bearing much relation to reality, which in turn makes it more “real”. Nice comments too. […]

  5. Andrew Says:

    Some good posts. In particular, I came in here to say something very similar to gubke’s second paragraph. In fact, we know that that this process of art influencing real-life continues with The Wire:

    http://afish.typepad.com/afish/2005/01/chicken_egg_art.html

    Moreover, as jetsetjunta gets at, it can be tricky to separate verisimilitude and fiction. No doubt that the individual elements which populate The Wire are grounded in reality, but these elements have been selected and emplotted in an unrealistic, or perhaps more accurately, an extra-realistic way, with the most compelling real characters and stories chosen, and the just-as-real dross discarded.

  6. big doe Says:

    @ gukbe: Your comments on mobsters’ appropriation (reappropriation?) of the language, styles, etc of mob movies and earlier noir films are right on point. Similar to the ways the codes of Scarface, etc are taken up by many hip hop artists (a select few of whom have ties to organized crime). Condensing all this into one person (though I don’t know anything about connections to real gangsta shit), we have Method Man playing Cheese, a character who would likely listen to and take words and ideas from artists such as Wu Tang, who rework the language and styles of Scarface, etc, etc…

  7. Andrew Says:

    I am new here, so I am not sure if this sort of off-topic posting is approved of, but a new Season 5 promo is on youtube. Some revealing stuff in there for those of you who are spoiler extremists:

  8. Aaron Says:

    Lets not forget that, irregardless of the “realness” of the scenes in the script, the words are filtered through actors whose performances are influenced by years of theatrical training and by alot of the very same performances shoals has been watching.

  9. christycash Says:

    1. edward g. robinson rules. 2. am thinking about if there’s a parallel between the post-war aspect of noir and the historical period of the wire. most of my other thoughts are occupied with christmas right now so i will get back on that in a few days. 3. can we talk about those car commercials more? do people have feelings about that? let’s not forget clay davis being on the verizon spot last year. i’m too tired to use the internet right now, but there’s like, NO way daniels could afford that car as daniels right? i guess lance reddick could just be playing “lance reddick, tv actor” but no one who sees that commercial is not going to think “wire” immediately. like the redhead from gray’s anatomy in the other one.

  10. williedigital Says:

    sure, Daniels could most def afford at least a lease on the broham. He’s got $ in spades though, judging from the diggs he keeps with wifey.

  11. John Peterson Says:

    Looks like Daniels bought himself a toy with his dirty money from the Eastern District.


  12. www youtube com watch v

    Thanks for the compliment no one has ever told me that before!!


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