Blocking Out The Wire

by zunguzungu

One of the things that makes The Wire what it is, I think, is that it combines an incredible level of detail in portraying the local with a radical disinclination to address the larger context in which the “local” is located. This, of course, would hardly be a criticism if the show’s accomplishment in one kind of realism didn’t draw attention to its failings in another; after all, can you name a television show that does a better job in displaying the functioning of international capitalism than The Wire? In any case, “better” and “worse” are precisely not the right way to adjudicate this question. Instead, I would suggest that The Wire can’t see anything outside of Baltimore for the very simple reason that it carefully (and strategically) avoids looking.

Think of season two, for example, where the global criminal underworld stretching out from Baltimore’s port is not so much portrayed as obscured, where we don’t so much see the connections as we become aware that our sight of them has become closed off. The season begins with the Barksdale crew’s main supplier, who we never see, cutting them off, for reasons not fully explained, due to events that have happened off screen. The crime that pushes the season’s plotline happens on a ship crewed by foreign nationals who obstinately and successfully pretend not to speak English, thereby flummoxing the helpless Freeman and Bunk, who, confronted with a Swahili speaking crewmember lose their composure (“English Motherfucker!” and “Negro, you cannot travel halfway around the world and not speak a word of English!”). After all, what could be more existentially troubling to West-side Baltimore po-lice than a black man who so exists outside that frame of reference as to be completely illegible? Yet the show also shares this perspective, failing to subtitle his words and allowing the boat to sail right out of the narrative. The other main embodiment of global criminal capitalism (and the most important one) turns out to be a man whose name, “The Greek,” is more a sign of what he isn’t than of what he is. While the name intentionally harks back to what we think we know about the criminal underworld–the ways that familial gangs are structured by ethnicity in movies like The Godfather,The Departed, Eastern Promises, and The Wire itself (Italian, Irish, Russian, and African-American gangs, respectively)–it turns out that “the Greek” is a false clue deployed only to mislead Baltimore’s locally bound police. “After all,” he smirks “I’m not even Greek” He can therefore disappear into nowhere in the final episode precisely because the local knowledges that would suffice to track a locally-based hoodlum like Omar and Avon (who have local roots and histories) is useless against a crime boss whose locality is a trail of bread crumbs leading in the wrong direction.

As Joseph Kugelmass noted, one of the conceits of The Wire is that it melds the show’s own hermeneutics with the technologies of detection being used by its protagonists; we often see the action, especially in the first season, through camera angles that mimic the very public surveillance apparatus that the show’s detectives are using to track their counterparts. But in this case, the show does exactly the inverse: it weaves our heroes’ dis-inclination to look outside of Baltimore into the fabric of the show’s narrative, carefully framing the drama so that everything outside of Baltimore appears off-screen.

The fact that the show is about locality, however, doesn’t take from the fact that it is also, itself, bound by this local perspective. After all, while we are privy to anything that happens in any corner of Baltimore, from the darkest street corner or boarded-up row house to the inner sanctum of the Mayor’s office, the experience of anything outside Baltimore is inevitably one of disorientation and confusion for both characters and for their audience. Brody’s dismay at discovering that other cities have their own radio stations, Stringer Bell’s ignorance of go-go music, the comic scene in which west-side players are dumped in the woods and we pan across the looks of shock on their faces, McNulty’s alienation within the Washington DC party he stakes out, even the show’s own inability to explain why Herc has a Bronx accent, all speak to the ways the outside world is constituted as a blind spot within the show’s Baltimore narrative, and the show’s viewers share in that blind spot as inevitably as we share in it’s insights. When Wallace retreats to PG county, after all, he drops off of everyone’s radar, gangsters and police alike, and even off of ours: we see him only in the moments when he’s calling the Towers from a pay phone and the question of whether or not he’s turned remains in suspense. We never find out who the New York crew are that move into Baltimore in season four, or why they’ve come; they can be negatively identified through their lack of local knowledge, but they are never placed in a positive sense, nor does the show try to do so. And Brother Mouzone–Omar’s analogue and opposite–remains a cipher or an empty cliché set next to the kind of visceral history-in-place that Omar represents, in details like the scar on his face that signifies the past he carries with him.

In terms of the political landscape, Baltimore and Washington are close enough to each other to share Baltimore Washington International airport, but the absence of Washington DC in the show is a particular source of distress to me, a former resident. Yet this, too, is programmatic: even in episodes dealing with politics, when the federal government shows up, it never does so legibly. The FBI, for example, is often present but their obsession with international terrorism almost always renders them irrelevant, except insofar as McNulty’s personal relationship with an agent can transcend the agency’s built in apathy to local issues (as in the fictional “Ahmed Bell”). The feds show up out of nowhere to quash the Hamsterdam project, and the specter of “No Child” haunts season four like a disembodied spectre–always present but located nowhere in particular–but the show works to characterize the relationship between outside and local as mutual ignorance and blindness: if Baltimore can’t see out, then at least Washington can’t see in. To this effect, the entire narrative purpose of McNulty’s dalliance with D’Agostino seems to be to spotlight the fact that although the two are connected by multiple plotlines, they absolutely fail to see into each others’ worlds, even when they want to: he cannot comprehend politics on the national level, yet he jealously (and successfully) guards his knowledge of the local scene from her when she briefly puts her withering contempt for beat-cop level reality aside.

What does all this mean? I have some speculations–in particular, about the ways The Wire‘s narrative strategies respond both to the neo-liberal governance it takes as its subject and to the post-modern fantasies of infinite transparency that it takes as its medium–but I’m inching my way towards some kind of a hypothesis about how the show’s modes of looking at its subject tend to shape and condition what it becomes possible for it to see and show. After all, what seemed to come across in my last post on The Wire as criticism or finger-wagging was intended (if I can be pardoned for saying so) in a non-evaluative sense. I wrote that:

The Wire is strikingly bad at understanding or even imagining any other form of social organization. And this myopia–the inability to see the fallacy of comparing the Baltimore Sun with marriage–is a blindness that produces a particular kind of insight. Simon and company are incapable of seeing any possible good coming out of structural forms because they’ve already closed their eyes to the possibility.”

This style of analysis is, of course, vintage De Man, for it tries to make “blindness” into a prerequisite for seeing rather than a sign of failure to see. But I came to it by thinking about the ways that filmmakers create visual narrative not merely by what they show but by what they block out of the camera frame. A propos of the Bordwell thread a few weeks back, D.W. Griffith is a “great” director in a historical sense less because The Birth of a Nation still holds up as a great film (I find it hard to sustain that argument) than because he was perhaps the first director to understand and exploit the potential of framing and perspective in the ways that now characterize almost all narrative filmmaking. Before Griffith, the standard practice was a “full shot” in which nothing of significance was off screen, and his innovations in perspective were produced as much by strategically blocking our view of important elements in the scene as by highlighting whatever is that was being highlighted. Studio executives used to demand the “full shot” because, they reasoned, the public would not pay full price to see half of an actor, but Griffith was primarily responsible for the idea that selective framing could, in fact, produce more with less. And this innovation went beyond the technical details of shot composition: the famous homecoming scene in The Birth of a Nation, for example, where the mother’s arm reaches out of a doorway to embrace her son as he returns from the civil war, produces a kind of pathos by the same principle, but it uses physical props to obscure the mother’s face instead of the line dividing off-camera from on-camera.

In The Wire, I would suggest, the show’s macro-structure — the manner in which its plotlines select what is and what isn’t knowable by its characters and by its viewers — fulfills a similar function to the way a single shot’s micro-structural composition produces its mise-en-scene. But instead of creating a single scene, The Wire’s careful and strategic narrative myopias create a particular sense of place and location on a grand scale, a Baltimore whose visceral micro-texture can come into focus only at the cost of placing global macro-structures firmly off screen. It does the local so well, in other words, precisely because it doesn’t do the global at all. And this, maybe, is a way of addressing the show’s dedicated and omnipresent cynicism: if an incredible emphasis on producing the local means that one can only imagine local action, then how could one ever imagine dealing with a global structural crisis? One rarely cures a disease by exclusively treating its symptoms, but the obsessively local framing of The Wire doesn’t merely block out the larger world, it produces its insights about local reform by this very process.