Monthly Archives: December 2009

Beck & Franklin

Not a long post, but I wanted to say that these articles were so great to read right at the end of the year. I feel like they really dismantled some of the assumed notions people have about creative authorship in television (in particular to David Simon) as well as shined a light on the transformations material takes as its moved up the production chain to television (especially when the material falls into the hands of someone who may not share the writer’s vision).

With that in mind, what kind of conflicts do you see arising for television in the future? Looking at these articles, it’s clear on a specific level the obvious issues between Simon (who comes off as pompously all-encompassing) and Wright, whose style got lost in the production process. This is only one example where, even though the issue didn’t stem from viewers in particular, their idea for what they wanted the viewer to experience differed greatly. Thoughts?

Gen Kill and Reality

In television the issue of defining an author is a difficult task. This is especially true when the show has been adapted from a novel. Franklin’s article highlights some of these issues. Largely, I would say that both Simon and Wright are the authors of this series as much of the material has been adapted directly from the novel, but as Simon notes in the other article, he has put his own dramatic ‘flare’ on the series to make it  TV- appropriate. One thing I disagree with in Franklin’s article is that she says “Actually, it’s a little surprising that Simon went for this material at all”. I didn’t think it was surprising at all given that Simon’s area of specialities lies largely in television based out of journalism, which Wright’s series is. Also, as I noted last week, there is a very apparent chain of hierarchy within the series, which is also a theme in many of Simon’s works. Overall, I think that Simon is fooling himself if he believes you can have a journalistic piece without bias, and one of the biggest mistakes he made was removing the ‘reporter’ character so much from the series. In the novel, this character served to help readers identify with a world they are otherwise alienated from, and I think this was what made the subject matter so shocking and relevant. It allowed us an insider perspective and someone to identify with, whereas in the series the reporter is given little credit or intelligence. I think that Simon’s goals for un-biased television are helpful in keeping the series realistic, but even he cannot deny the need to adapt the novel in order to make it more watchable. By adding these dramatic elements, he has contradicted himself in his quest for realism, but also made the show more successful.

Why Simon Bugs Me

Overall, my reading of David Simon is that he started out as a journalist with a very specific vision of what journalism was supposed to be and then became disillusioned with the changes that came to the Sun. By then he had begun realizing that television and narrative could do something similar–it had its own kind of power to convey truth. When he made the transition, he really wasn’t able to give up journalism completely. He saw his work on television as a form of journalism and was obsessed with his own authority and authenticity. His work demonstrates that he really believes that he has an almost God-like power to perceive events objectively at the same time that he makes very specific judgments about that reality (even if, as in the case of Generation Kill, he wasn’t even there). Simon constantly confuses his truth with the truth, and while it may very well be that his truth and the truth are quite similar, the fact that he refuses to recognize his true place as a reporter or interpreter of true events really bothers me and is frankly dishonest. Simon may believe that he can separate himself from the situations and the problems, but he cannot. It bothers me that he refuses to realize that he is just as much a part of the system as anyone else. Simon is not outside it all looking down, he is a perspective from within it all. If he were claiming to write fiction, the former perspective would be fine. However, the fact that he labels himself as nonfiction, the fact that the world he is claiming full understanding of is not his own invention but “real” changes the stakes of his claims.

Simon is not Flawless

At this point in the year, the only person who’s jaw would actually drop when they saw that title is David Simon himself. Still, I still feel obligated to point out one thing that Generation Kill has really shown is that Simon is not perfect. The Wire, in many ways, was a near-perfect show – though the last season, as many writers have pointed out, falls off the table a little bit due to time constraints put on by HBO. Although Generation Kill is a very good show, it is nowhere near the level of either The Wire or the original book itself. The fact of the matter is, Generation Kill, the show, lacks the complexity of The Wire and the realism of the book (and, although Simon concedes that there were times during the making of the show that they had to sacrifice things, he shys away from actually criticizing the show; any criticisms that he accepts he attributes to the “bosses”).

Richard Beck and Nancy Franklin both address these unspoken issues in their respective interview and article. In his interview with Simon, Beck tries to ask Simon about some of these potential flaws of the show. Simon, however, is quick to advert any of these flaws, making claims that are, quite simply, absurd. For example, Beck brings up one complaint by some viewers that two of the characters in the show were almost impossible to distinguish – both because of a lack of depth and similar looking actors. Simon quickly retorts, “That’s how it is when you’re dropped into a unit. I wanted you to feel the initial disorientation” (48). Beck, of course, cannot respond to this somewhat questionable response, but you can almost feel him trying to conceal his smile as Simon made this claim.

Franklin, on the other hand, is much more vocally critical of the show. One of her biggest complaints was the way Simon adapted the book to the screen. “The magazine pieces are punchy; in the book, the tone has been neutralized and the author’s voice is not nearly as present. Fatally, it is entirely missing from the miniseries” (2).

What Franklin and Beck both demonstrate is the last thing David Simon would ever want to hear – he is not a flawless television producer. Yes, he was great with his portrayal of detectives in Homicide, and with his story telling of drug dealers and users in The Corner. And, he was near-perfect with his portrayal of Baltimore in The Wire. This time, however, he simply missed the mark. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, if he could just accept that.

War Humor

            Humor in the face of death is common in on the front lines. In Generation Kill it takes the grim, flippant humor of how modern soldiers deal with the kinds of trauma and isolation that they face in the front lines. As one of the real soldiers says in the Generation Kill extra we watched in class, “our humor is the ace in the whole, we can do anything”(Generation Kill extra). I feel this is portrayed well in the mini-series, especially after hearing what the soldiers had to say in the extra.

            While watching Generation Kill, I kept thinking about Band of Brothers, the original war book made into mini-series produced by HBO. In both adaptations I feel like while the details of the book were left out of the program, in a way changing the some of the messages of the book. But the humor element stayed very similar between both mediums. Except for the depth Generation Kill went into showing the humor than was done in Band of Brothers. Perhaps this is due to the nature of the books themselves, Band of Brothers is based on the fifty year old reflections of soldiers who are now in their nineties. The way they approach honesty is going to be different than the revelations coming from a reporter in the field. One should also consider how humor would be viewed differently for men raised in a different time.

            But watching both mini-series and reading both books I feel that the humor used by both groups of men was more similar then we think. The tendency to use, for lack of a better word, bathroom humor is present in both groups. Even though some people would like to glorify men from WWII, they should do a comparison and see how many similarities there are.

David Simon Can Do Anything

It was interesting to read Nancy Franklin’s article, primarily because of how critical she was of Simon’s portrayal of warfare in Generation Kill. For me it will always be difficult to imagine Simon’s work outside of the urban setting of drug trades, systematic racism, poverty, cops and corruption.  This makes Simon’s work with Generation Kill already stand out as odd for reasons I can’t identify, but one thing is clear, his voice is still present in this work.  Franklin is critical of, “David Simon’s Generation Kill” in a way that speaks not to Simon’s directorial styles, but rather his choice of story-line.  Franklin seems to be arguing that Simon had no real need to depict this story in the first place, because it ends up no more different than any of the other “war-is-hell dramas.”  Perhaps I’m a Simon loyalist and I’m looking for ways to rationalize anyone’s criticism of his work, but it seems to me that Franklin has more of a fundamental issue with warfare documentation than Simon’s work.
Hopefully I’m not painfully behind in coming to this realization, and if I’m not , then prepare yourselves: David Simon is the ultimate auteur.  I know we’ve debunked this notion of the author being the critical component of a films work and meaning, BUT there’s no denying that Simon’s work has a consistent and recognizable voice and style in his works.  Even within Generation Kill, which we (and Franklin) can debate as inaccurate and a story that’s already been told, Simon still makes the poignant social commentary on contemporary U.S. society that we have grown accustomed to.  Watching Simon tackle ideas of citizenry and hierarchy in this complex context of warfare is not much different than watching him grapple with issues of the streets and corruption, because both shows are about survival amidst the violence of humans, ideas, politics and ourselves.

So Mr. Simon I’m looking forward to your work on post-Katrina New Orleans and keep on keeping on.

A few things from Episode 6

In watching Episode 6 of Generation Kill, it seemed to me that the overall thematic point of the episode was viewer’s changing perceptions of many of the characters, but that in the end this changes nothing.  This theme is very prominent in a few scenes of this episode, and I’d like to discuss them further.  First, in the scene with the supply convoy (and the first American woman the soldiers have seen in a while), the sergeant with the odd accent demonstrates that he is not as “hickish” as he initially seems.  When the men start cat-calling at the female soldier he admonishes them for acting like a bunch of junior high aged boys.  This role reversal is reinforced again when Brad goes “flying.”  He’s always been the no-BS all business leader of his squad, but his running around with arms out (and possibly giant colorful lower back tattoo??) seem like the actions of a hippie not a marine.  Finally, although this isn’t even nearly all the examples, our view of the reservists fluctuates back and forth.  At first we hear how they are “cowboys” and then see them act as such when they accidentally start shooting at Americans.  However, after Captain America tortures a prisoner a leader of the reserve unit rightfully calls all of the marines “motherfuckers” for abusing the prisoner.  Now it seems that it is the Marines that are the cowboys and the reservists that are the measured fighting force.  Unfortunately all these changing perceptions don’t culminate in any meaningful change for the characters though.  The command structure is still out of touch, demanding everyone be “team players,” and commending Captain America for his bogus capture while chastising Nate and his men for killing a civilian in compliance with the ROE.  Finally, while most of the Marines are ready for the war to be over, the commanders are out politicking for one last mission.  These characters might go through personal changes, and personnel changes, but the system will never change.

Authenticity of Generation Kill

I think Generation Kill authentically represents warfare, and has perhaps one of the most authentic representations of warfare in all of film or television. Generation Kill is most comparable to Band of Brothers, a similar mini-series based on World War Two. Band of Brothers, although realistic, ultimately glorified war and the courage of the men who fought in WWII. Generation Kill, as authored by the always pessimistic David Simon, instead chooses to examine the mainly negative aspects of war. Although we’ve seen negative portrayals of war on film before with Vietnam films like Full Metal Jacket and Platoon, we have never seen anything like Generation Kill before on television.

It seems to me that all films and television shows made about American wars by American artists have a negative or positive view of that war based on our success in the war. World War Two films and television programs usually glorify the positive aspects of war, whereas films about unsuccessful wars usually focus on the negative aspects of war.

I think that there has yet to be a war mini-series or movie that accurately captures both the glory and the tragedy of war simultaneously (although Clint Eastwood’s two WW2 films and Saving Private Ryan come close), and I think that Generation Kill could have served to show us some more positive aspects of the Iraq war, although understandably it’s hard to stay positive about a quagmire.

Evan Wright’s Voice

I thought one really interesting aspect of Nancy Franklin’s article on “Generation Kill” was how she discussed the presence of Evan Wright’s authorial voice in the magazine articles, the book, and then the series. She writes:

The magazine pieces are punchy; in the book, the tone has been neutralized and the author’s voice is not nearly as present. Fatally, it is entirely missing from the miniseries.

I thought this was particularly interesting because having read the book and watched the miniseries, I would be interested to read the magazine articles, looking for the “punchiness” that Franklin refers to. Personally, I thought Wright’s voice in the book lingered in the narrative appropriately and just modestly enough to not overwhelm the reader with his opinion.

Compared to David Simon’s voice, Wright’s voice is much more tempered, much more objective and passive. Wright abstains from long-winded diatribes against the failures and inadequacies of systems because of past experience, and surprisingly, Simon doesn’t inhabit his typical voice in bringing Wright’s book to the screen. In fact, Wright’s voice erodes significantly from book to miniseries, to a positive effect I think. Much of Wright’s voice appears in the book subtly, often only the exposition of certain facts rather than the interjection of personal opinion. His opinion is precisely what he is choosing to represent about the soldiers in Iraq and that opinion does not particularly favor war, but it cannot bemoan the horrors and tragedies of war given the ways the soldiers completely dedicate their lives to the concept. We are abundantly aware of Wright’s presence in Generation Kill, to an effective degree, but never in a way that becomes overwhelming.

I am interested about Simon’s role in translating Wright’s narrative to the screen. Upon watching the miniseries for the first time when it came out, I was not aware that David Simon had written and produced the series. Watching it a second time around, I have trouble discerning his role. Simon seems markedly less auteur-ial in this series, and even after having read the Beck interview, I’m still puzzled as to whether or not his distancing his voice from the text is intentional or not. There was no point in my re-watching of the series that I became aware of the “systems will fuck you over” mantra that Simon loves inserting into his work–the “rule of the new millenium” as it was described in the Lanahan article. I

Was Simon’s tempered presence on the series a good thing or a bad thing?

Our Generation?

After exploring Generation Kill, I wonder if it really does represent our generation (or “the greatest generation”) as Wright claims that it does. When watching the miniseries and reading the book, I couldn’t help but wonder if this generation is significantly different from past ones. While there were more glorified portrayals of soldiers from World War II or Vietnam, I cannot imagine that they were any less crass than the soldiers of First Recon in reality. I would guess that they had similar humor and repetoire within the troops, it was just never shown. They were just as sexually deprived, homophobic, and ready to kill. I realized through Generation Kill that there is a certain attitude that soldiers must develop to fight a war. I feel that Generation Kill is really about that attitude and how different people react to it. I believe, however, that past generations had to adapt in the same way in order to fight.

I do see how our generation is different in terms of technology and media influence. Sure, no one in World War II compared the war to a video game or Black Hawk Down. Yet, while in Iraq, the soldiers are completely detached from the technology that defines our generation. There are no cell phones, computers, or ipods. The only prevalent technology is the video camera, which does turn out to play a big role in the series. Yet, is this enough to really distinguish generation kill from past generations? While I think the miniseries and novel are interesting, I feel that they are flawed in attempting to portray a new generation. Really, this generation’s wartime attitudes are not drastically different from those of the soldiers in the past.