Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The Corner

While listening to some of the commentaries on The Wire, I heard much talk about the miniseries The Corner, so I decided to give it a look. The show isn’t as ambitious or totally successful as The Wire itself, but it’s still great in its own way, and from a fan point of view, it’s a lot of fun to see many familiar faces from The Wire in completely different roles.

At the beginning of the show, that was the main appeal for me. The first really striking thing about the show is the look, shot on 16mm instead of 35mm, it feels a lot more ‘real.’ When the show opens with Gary walking the streets, talking to the camera, I wasn’t sure if that was the real Gary or the actor.

The first episode of the show is undeniably harsh, the hardest thing to watch in the whole series. A half hour in, I said that this was like The Wire minus everything that’s entertaining about it. Ronnie is the most annoying character on the show, and it’s hard to watch her and Gary scramble around, desperate for a fix. The show isn’t as story based as The Wire, so the opening is pretty much just people going around getting high. That’s probably an accurate representation of the way these people live, but it’s still hard to watch. You don’t have the emotional or narrative hook yet, so I found myself sort of adrift, looking for a character to latch on to.

In this sense, The Wire actors both help and hurt the show. When things were uncertain and discomfortingly ‘real,’ I could look over and see Freamon or Norman, and find something familiar. The realism of the show has been hurt by having these guys we know from the other show in it, but I think it does make it easier to watch.

All of this isn’t to say it’s an unwatchable show. By the end of the first hour, after we get glimpses at what Gary’s life used to be like, things start to come together. The goal of the project is to give you a window into this world, and it helps to know that a dope fiend is made, not born. Gary never wanted to be like this, but a whole bunch of things happened, and now he’s on the street.

A movie like Requiem for a Dream gets criticized for being anti-drug, but in a lot of ways, this is an even more powerful critique. The Requiem characters still look good, and get joy from doing drugs. These guys don’t get joy from doing drugs, if they don’t do drugs, they’re in pain, if they do drugs, they’re just okay. The settings are just so run down, there’s absolutely no glamour in what they’re doing. The total breakdown of Gary’s life is as strong a reason not to do drugs as anything.

As the show goes on, it gets better and better. Once the drug milieu is established, we see characters struggling to get out and turn their lives around, even as De’Andre gets pulled more and more into the game. Unlike The Wire, these people are not involved in high end operations, De’Andre is like a younger version of Bodie, proud to hold his corner with his crew. Knowing what we know about Gary, it’s hard to watch De’Andre go down that path.

One of the things I found interesting about the show is that nearly all the characters do know they have a problem. With the exception of Rita and Scalio, everyone seems to know that on some level, they’ve got a major problem, they’re just so enmeshed in the lifestyle, they don’t see a way out. That’s the point made at NA meeting, getting off the drugs is the easy part, after that you have to live with the fact that you’ll always be an addict, and treated as such by society.

But, they also make the interesting point that being a dope fiend is the hardest job. Certainly, watching these guys hustle all day for ten dollars, I’m tempted to ask why they don’t just get a job to support their drug habit. But, as we see, that’s tough. Things are going well for Gary when he works at the crab restaurant, but when that job ends, he can’t get anything else. Similarly, De’Andre just isn’t socially adapted for work at anything but the corners. His plot illustrates where a lot of the Colvin material in season four comes from. What Colvin’s class was meant to do was help the corner boys get socially adjusted, so they could function at regular jobs. If De’Andre had gotten that kind of instruction, he might have been able to deal better with the authority figures at his job.

But, he has a lot of authority issues to begin with, what with the fact that both parents are drug addicts. When Fran tries to turn things around, she reasserts her authority over De’Andre’s life, but has to deal with the fact that he thinks she’s going to relapse at any minute. Because of what she used to do, she can’t be an authoritative parental figure in his life.

Fran’s struggle to get and stay clean forms the backbone of the series’ backhalf. It’s hard to say what’s writing and what’s reality here, but I like the fact that Fran succeeded in getting things together. The ending was already depressing enough, with the news that nearly everyone on the show died, so seeing the real Fran there at the end, keeping things together, was fantastic. It’s a struggle, but she resolved to change things, and was able to do it. That seems to be what’s needed to get off drugs and turn one’s life around, an iron will and resolve. Gary may say he’d like to quit, he knows what he’s doing is bad, but he never fully commits to turning his life around, and as a result, he winds up in exactly the same place he was at the beginning of the film when we reach the end.

It’s interesting to consider the way the real people behind the characters perceived the film. It must be really hard to watch ‘yourself’ doing some of these things, particularly for Fran. They seemed to film in the same locations where these things really happened, and I’m sure a lot of neighborhood people were involved. Much like The Wire, it feels very real and credible, though the 1993 setting does date things a bit. It’s weird to hear Coolio’s ‘Fantastic Voyage’ dropped at a non-hipster party in 2007.

The difference in style between this and The Wire is also really interesting. Charles S. Dutton directed, and is presented as the primary authorial voice. Yet, for me, it’s primarily David Simon’s work. What Dutton brings to the film is a more documentary style, with a lot of handheld camera work, and that grainy, 70s film look. I think it works for this story, but I’m glad The Wire has a more sedate look. With The Wire, there’s so much going on, and it feels so real already, you don’t need these signifiers of realism. But, The Corner is presenting itself more as a documentary, so it’s logically going to use this style.

Watching the show also makes it clear why there’s so little focus on the addicts themselves in The Wire. Bubbles is our representative in that world, but Simon probably feels like he already told that story here. This could easily be placed as The Wire: Season Zero, and it does give you a much better understanding of a lot of the themes and assumptions inherent in The Wire.

On the whole, it’s a very successful film. I don’t think it comes close to the best of The Wire, but it’s still emotional and a nice way to warm up for the final season. I’d definitely recommend it to any The Wire fans, though unlike The Wire, I can certainly see why people wouldn’t necessarily enjoy it. It’s not as fun a work as The Wire, but once you get into it, it’s got a lot to offer.


crossoverman said...

Having read David Simon's book, I'm more forgiving of the harshness of the first episode - and how it doesn't work dramatically, but it is in some regard a documentary even though actors are playing the parts.

Patrick said...

That's true, and it's a great testament to the work of the actors and the direction that the opening episode is as disconcerting as it is. I gave the book to my dad for Christmas, so I'll give it a look when he's done with it.

And, if you saw and read The Corner, you seriously need to see The Wire. It doesn't focus as much on the street level stuff as The Corner does, it expands to the point that by the current seasons, virtually every aspect of the city is represented in some way.

crossoverman said...

Yes, "The Wire" is the biggest hole in my recent television watching. I will get to it soon.