Author Archives: ms152er

Characterization (or the Lack Thereof) in Generation Kill

Like the other interviews with David Simon that we’ve read, I found Richard Beck’s question and answer session with Simon especially informative and ripe for analysis. I was bothered by Simon’s assertion that he “didn’t care if [the majority of the marines portrayed in Generation Kill] were a blur.” I understand his reasoning that in real-life war soldiers undergo a process of deindividuation and blend with one another. Nevertheless, as someone who views characterization as an essential component of storytelling—particularly in the work of someone like Simon who strives to approximate reality—I’m reluctant to accept any defense of throwing characterization to the wayside as sound. Simon cheapens the rightfulness of our urge to differentiate among different characters by analogizing this task to a quiz testing our reading (or viewing) comprehension. How can we relate to camouflage-clad men veiled by anonymity, and how can we “[f]eel the movie,” as Simon encourages, if we don’t appreciate its characters? What’s more, what is the point of depicting the experiences of actual rather than fictional marines—even their names are retained—if the characters resemble mere “thumbnail sketches,” as Nancy Franklin describes? Doesn’t Simon’s approach contradict his self-proclaimed vow to swear by Evan Wright’s book, to make choices as if the text were his bible? After all, Wright dedicates whole paragraphs to distinguishing individual marines. Indeed, Franklin derives one of her major criticisms from this issue. She writes,

If we got to know any of the characters in “Generation Kill,” the show might be more interesting, or, at least, more memorable. But only a few accidental distinctions set them apart: a raspy voice in once case (an officer who had throat cancer), hair and skin color in others. Some talk more than others.

The final wry statement in the excerpt demonstrates that we must dig to find even minor distinctions. I don’t doubt that Simon’s treatment of character was deliberate, but I don’t believe that his choice is effective. Without adequate characterization, a narrative cannot fully be brought to life. Furthermore, Simon constantly claims that he conveys reality’s complexity, but to deem the marines one and the same is an oversimplification that runs counter to Simon’s alleged ruthless construction of authenticity. While the homogenization of soldiers undoubtedly exists at some level, ultimately it’s an appearance; though the marines act as a singular force, seemingly stripped of their identities on the conveyer belt of the faceless killing machine, in truth, they remain individuals. Surely Simon would have objected to blurring the league of drug dealers in The Wire, so why doesn’t neglecting to isolate the personalities of the marines in Generation Kill fluster him?

All of that being said, I still give Simon credit for challenging viewers by conveying the messiness of war. He explains his refusal to appease “people who want to be told that the world is what they already think it is, or … want to be very quickly told what to think.” Simon effectively communicates that nothing war-related can be compartmentalized, sorted into boxes and clearly labeled, but rather, like in the operations of Baltimore that he portrays in The Wire, entangled interactions shade controversial themes grey, leaving us with no easy conclusions.

On a different note, I was fascinated by one of Beck’s subtle yet meaningful opening remarks. “[Simon’s] speech,” he notes, “is highly declarative. When he became animated, he would sit up and lean forward in his seat.” This observation supports the sense of Simon’s temperament that we’ve received through the aggregate of articles about him that we’ve read. Simon is clearly opinionated and arguably obstinate. The question is to what extent these aspects of his personality show through his work. Though he proclaims otherwise, is he at all susceptible to black-and-white thinking?

Revelations in Generation Kill DVD Bonus Feature

The featurette in which Evan Wright and First Reconnaissance Battalion marines reflect on their experiences in Iraq and the HBO mini-series Generation Kill inspired me to reevaluate my assessment of the value of DVD extras. Most bonus features strike me as bogus, but I perceived this one as authentic. (Could this be related to the sense of realism that pervades Generation Kill? These are the flesh and blood bases of characters rooted in non-fiction—even their real names are preserved—rather than actors temporarily stepping outside of fictional roles.)

Furthermore, it discredits the image of soldiers as mindless drones, revealing the articulate thoughtfulness of the real-life models for Generation Kill’s characters. Their remarks compelled me to consider whether or not Generation Kill depicts marines’ deindividuation and blind following of orders, and if so, if this is fair. Does David Simon’s anti-institutional, anti-authoritarian bend rear its head in the mini-series?

It is also interesting to analyze the marines’ behavior in the panel discussion from a psychological perspective. Obviously, they are bound to appear drastically different when safely tucked away in a Hollywood studio than when abroad in the heat of combat. Yet, while a staggering incidence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other mental disorders exists among individuals released from active duty in, or on leave from, the military (and many of those who don’t suffer from a full-blown mental disorder still present with disordered symptoms), the men who inspired Generation Kill seem remarkably well-adjusted, level-headed, in touch with reality. This raises a thought-provoking point: Generation Kill doesn’t hone in on war’s devastating blow to soldiers’ mental health but rather illuminates the killing mentality ingrained in the armed forces, the divorce from sentimentality and other unnatural shifts that marines are trained to undergo. In this sense, Generation Kill explores war’s precursors and operations rather than its aftermath, focusing on the past and present rather than the future. How does this course of action separate Generation Kill from other literary or cinematic representations of war?

Generation Kill’s Reflection of HBO’s Modus Operandi, Social Commentary, and Reception

I’m intrigued by how Generation Kill serves as an exemplar of HBO’s established style of raciness. Its expletive-laden dialogue parodies our generation’s communication style, constantly featuring words such as “dick,” “cock,” “pussy,” “cunt,” “damn,” “shit,” “fuck,” “motherfucker,” and “asshole.” Perhaps this language is exaggerated among marines, or perhaps the series’ writers are seeking to make a statement about the present youth as a whole. After all, distinctions in the characters’ speech extend beyond profanity to referential slang characteristic of contemporary forms of addressing one another, such as “bro,” “bra,” “dude,” “dawg,” “homeboy,” “homie,” and “homes.” How do subtleties—which perhaps aren’t so subtle due to their repetitiveness—in characters’ language reflect the greater aims of Evan Wright, et al. to serve social commentary specifically targeted toward current adolescents and young adults?

I think that a solid study of Generation Kill involves us placing the mini-series within the context of existing media representations of the Iraq War. The 2003 invasion of Iraq drew unprecedented media coverage and raised weighty questions about media bias, censorship, and propaganda. However, there haven’t been a wealth of fictionalized portrayals of the war, and those that have been released, such as the 2007 feature film In the Valley of Elah and the 2008 television mini-series House of Saddam, have suffered commercially, failed to garner warm critical reception, or both. (The same can be said for cinematic portrayals of the September 11 attacks, indicating that, as far as small audiences are concerned, perhaps the public feels that it’s too soon to digest fictionalizations treating devastating, controversial events that are so recent in our nation’s history.) It’s worth considering that innumerable books have been written about the Iraq War, but very few have been adapted into productions, like Generation Kill. Of course, the majority of these books are nonfiction, journalistic accounts, not dramas rooted in fiction. Still, so is Generation Kill. And so, I wonder, what brought Generation Kill to the screen? Did David Simon’s moxie allow for the adaptation, or does Wright’s book contain outstanding value? And why do we suspect that Generation Kill attained such limited viewership when it aired, though it secured wide critical acclaim? How adeptly are its themes presented, and what are the circumstances that underscore how it was received?

Location, Location, Location

I wrote a substantial amount in response to lins’s post “Unexplored Cities,” and so I decided to recast my comment as a post: Different series incorporate setting into story to different degrees. As such, only sometimes does environment prove an essential element in a series’ narrative. In response to lins’s post, burritoluca cites a few excellent examples of series in which aspects of locale are constantly interwoven into the unfolding of plot. Of course, sometimes these details are irrelevant to storylines and instead merely serve as sidenotes. Like in Californication, features of a series’ milieu ground viewers in place and time, allow us to view characters within a distinct context, and deliver commentary on a particular culture. Other models of the significance of setting in a series are Entourage and Gossip Girl. In the two series, Hollywood and Manhattan serve as more than backdrops; they function as a vehicles for narrative and character development. After all, in Entourage, it’s the very arrival of Vince and his bright-eyed comrades in Los Angeles that acts as a catalyst for the overarching story to unfold, spinning a web of interweaving conflicts. Furthermore, consider the urgency of Gossip Girl’s writers’ desire to keep the cast within the boundaries of New York City. (About half of the principle characters conveniently matriculated to NYU.) Entourage and Gossip Girl assume similar approaches to depicting their stories’ respective venues, primarily glamorizing their settings in a vein similar to Sex and the City’s representation of NYC. Their characters reside in ultra-wealthy neighborhoods, and they promise to display the trendiest hot spots by dint of on-location filming. A key question that naturally arises when taking in an episode of a series like Entourage or Gossip Girl is how realistic the series’ depiction of its setting is. While Gossip Girl debunks the glittery mystery of the world of elite Manhattan prep schools in an overly stylized manner, at once critiquing and celebrating adolescent atrocities, Entourage strives to unveil the amusing, unsettling happenings of the bizarre world of Hollywood from a slanted point of view. It doesn’t deny the corruption or trials and tribulations—the sordid affairs and acts of desperation—that set the entertainment industry into motion, but it doesn’t hone in on these unappealing aspects either. (Let’s face it: for every Vincent Chase, there are a thousand starving artists scrounging for tips while waiting tables just to get by.) Just how real are the “realities” that these series present?

The Wire as Contemporary Greek Tragedy? The Wire as Rogue TV?

In novelist Nick Hornby’s interview with David Simon in The Believer, Simon describes The Wire as a contemporary Greek tragedy. “Because so much of television is about providing catharsis and redemption and the triumph of character,” he alleges, “a drama in which postmodern institutions trump individuality and morality and justice seems different in some ways….” What aspects of Greek tragedy (e.g. the chorus; the mythological cycle of arete, hubris, ate, and nemesis) crop up in The Wire, and how are they reinvented for the present era, for the specific milieu that Simon explores–modern day Baltimore? For example, Simon cites Baltimore’s institutions, including the “police department,” “drug economy,” and “school administration,” as replacements for the Olympian gods. While a few of the classical Twelve Olympians wreaked havoc as destructive forwards–like Ares, the god of war–most of the ancient Greek gods were benevolent. With this in mind, we see that Simon’s “gods” are darker re-imaginings, or simulacra, of their originals.

Consider the argument that the primary aim of only a portion of film is to deliver appeasing entertainment through cathartic exercises, whereas the central focus of the majority of television is to satisfy viewers with comforting, formulaic entertainment, based on character redemption and other operations that episodically resolve disruptions of justice in the narrative and foster the renewal of hope. Apply these notions to The Wire’s atypically pessimistic, or realistic, depictions of the trajectories of its characters (keeping in mind the view of Baltimore as a character). If catharsis is a facet of feel-good entertainment, does The Wire abandon this practice and thus fall outside of the category of escapist entertainment? How might its alleged rejection of convention have affected its viewership? What’s more, is sheer entertainment a primary goal in the majority of television series but only a portion of films? Was The Wire more suited to be a mini-series or feature film?

Derek Kompare’s “Publishing Flow”

I am intrigued by Kompare’s distinction between the publishing and flow models and his investigation of actions like timeshifting, which disrupt television flow and reconceive television as a medium. His article heavily reminded me of Kristin Thompson’s discussion of television flow in Storytelling in Film and Television. Like Thompson, Kompare begs the question, “When the specificity of television no longer lies in flow (re: the introduction of DVD box sets, digital video recorders, and dissemination via the Internet), where does it lie?” Moreover, do new options, such as the ability to watch an entire season of a series straight through on DVD, detract from the traditional viewing experience? Commercials, for instance, have conventionally provided individuals and their fellow viewers with a social intermission of sorts and have not necessarily eroded momentum because an episode’s pacing is designed around commercial breaks. Furthermore, weekly broadcasting allows for the development of anticipation, as one episode’s cliffhanger leaves us anxiously awaiting the next episode’s resolution—and its continuation of the cycle. Kompare cites a thought-provoking quotation by Brian Winston: “There is nothing in the histories of electrical and electronic communication systems to indicate that significant major changes have not been accommodated by pre-existing social formations.” Kompare explicates that the allegedly “revolutionary” technological advancements of the past fifty or so years signify a shift from “live” media forms to the assemblage and distribution of existing bodies of work. As such, these changes are little more than representations, or manifestations, of inconstant consumer values at work. Kompare goes on to recognize that the DVD player was introduced not only as a novel technology but also as an upgrade from preceding systems like the VCR, as indicated aesthetically, practically, and by other criteria. He concludes that developing technologies have indeed served to “wow” consumers with improved quality, convenience (consider the sense of urgency in watching several consecutive episodes in one sitting, for example), and individualization (greater freedom of choice). However, they have in turn objectified television. Are these dramatic alterations of the traditional television viewing experience commendable, negative, or an immeasurable function of the changing times? Has television been enhanced, devalued, or simply updated?

Annotated Bibliography: Entourage

1. Strauss, Gary. “Will Success Spoil Doug Ellin and Entourage?” USA Today [McLean, VA] 10 July 2009, Life sec.

This article discusses the obstacles that the creator and writers of Entourage face as the sixth season approaches. In it, creator Doug Ellin claims that the success of the character Vince presents an obstacle, as the explosion of his career as a movie star leaves little space in which to continue building plot and character. The article will help me explore how the creative forces behind the series manipulate Vince’s career to accommodate for conflict and budding storylines.

2. Atkin, Hillary. “Taking Cues From Real World.” Television Week 11 Aug. 2008.

This article presents the five series vying for the 2008 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series, including Entourage. It mentions a specific storyline in one of the series’ episodes directly lifted from creator Doug Ellin’s life experience. It also examines how Entourage attempts to accurately represent a true Hollywood lifestyle, such as that led by Vince and his crew of companions. The article will allow me to cite specific evidence supporting the blend of reality and fiction as seen in Entourage.

3. Waldman, Allison. “Entourage.” Television Week 18 May 2009.

This article was written in response to HBO’s win at the 2008 Peabody Awards for Entourage. In it, creator Doug Ellin entertains the idea that committee members might have been impressed by the dramatic character development in the series’ fifth season. He explains how the series has matured over several years. The article will provide me with insight into the shifting focus and tone of the series from season to season.

4. Peyser, Mark. “Power to the Posse.” Newsweek 19 July 2004.

Newsweek’s initial review of Entourage praises the series’ originality and holds that it puts a new spin on the television genre of situational comedy. It describes similarities between producer Mark Wahlberg’s life and the series as well as aspects of the series that sever the resemblance. It continues to explain how the series’ characters are rendered at once irritating and sympathetic. The article will help me delve into the series’ inspiration and allow me to cite Wahlberg’s notion of the heart of the series.

5. Collins, Lauren. “Rollin’ With Dad.” New Yorker 16 Apr. 2007.

This interview with Doug Ellin primarily details the idiosyncrasies of the creator’s role of “family man” amidst his duties in the entertainment industry. However, it also explores his development of Entourage, and Ellin divulges the real-life inspirations for many of Entourage’s characters. The interview will allow me to discuss issues of authorship by eliciting connections between the creator’s personal and professional lives.

6. Wild, David. “Entourage.” Rolling Stone 8 Aug. 2004.

This article examines how the character of talent agent Ari Gold was crafted based on real-life figure Ari Emmanuel. In it, actor Jeremy Piven maintains that he presents a universal character representation, depicting a conglomeration of characteristics of talent agents. The article suggests why audience members, specifically entertainment industry insiders, connect to Ari. The article will help me relate fiction and reality again, specifically by exploring how an actor’s imagination of his character affects the end result and public reception of his portrayal.

7. “California Dreaming: An Update of an Old Format Obeys All the Rules of Sitcom With a Watchable Style.” New Statesman 18 Sept. 2006.

This review suggests that Entourage replicates aspects of the formulas of preceding television sitcoms, such as The Beverly Hillbillies. It assesses characterization in an effort to explain the series’ wide appeal. The review will help me situate Entourage within the context of the history of the sitcom and analyze how, if at all, Entourage redefines the genre.

Benefits of One-Track Narrative in Clockers

Spike Lee’s Clockers maintains a sharp focus on the struggles of low-level Brooklyn drug dealer Strike and the whodunit that ensues after Rodney, the druglord under which Strike operates, orders Strike to knock off a fellow clocker who has been taking more than his share of the drug trade profit. To a greater degree than the book from which it was adapted, Clockers hardly veers off the track of stereotype-defyingly truth-seeking and sympathetic homicide detective Rocco’s investigation of the crime. While the film could easily sink into a back-and-forth debate about who is to blame (Rocco doubts Strike’s brother’s Victor’s unswayed action despite Victor’s confession), Lee lifts it off of the ground by layering it with shrewd social commentary. He demonstrates carefully weighed meditation—a refreshing feat, given Lee’s reputation for allowing his biases to blatantly affect his work—as well as stylistic finesse. Elements of his distinct aesthetic crop up, like his placement of actors on camera dollies to give them the illusion of gliding above the ground, and shape his artistic license but do not weigh down the film. And so, Clockers feels far from formulaic or lacking in substance. In fact, Lee accomplishes more in steering straight forward than many directors do in diverging from the central narrative to address subplots. His success is largely due to the reality that the quagmire in which Strike finds himself searching to exonerate his brother and pitted against Rodney represents much more than an isolated case of murder. It serves as a lens through which we can view the broken dreams and fragile survival of drug-dealing and drug-addled “yo”s living in poverty. (Even the invented pronoun used by the police officers to refer to victims of drug-related murder, a ubiquitous incident to which they are desensitized, if calloused, bespeaks a loss of identity, one of the many harsh realities faced by the residents of the Brooklyn housing projects.) Bolstering Lee’s verisimilar portrayal of the snare of drug transaction, Mekhi Phifer’s seemingly passive performance informs us that Strike has trained himself to depend on stoicism for survival.

Design and Product in the Work of Price and Simon

Perhaps due to its standing as a novel, I found Richard Price’s Clockers much more character-driven than David Simon’s Homicide and The Corner. It is worth noting that Clockers focuses on a smaller set of characters than those featured in Simon’s work. While it is recognizable that Clockers and Simon’s nonfiction share a resemblance, stylistic as well as content-based, I wondered throughout my reading of Clockers if the novel stands out as more “literary” than Simon’s work—and not simply because of its place in the category of fiction. It seems that Price’s task is two-fold, to explore the circumstances surrounding low-life drug dealers as well as to portray complex human interaction, as emphasized in the dynamic relationship between homicide detective Rocco Klein and drug dealer “Strike.” In this sense, does Price accomplish more than Simon? In other words, does he achieve an illustration of the drug trade in the projects of Northern New Jersey as in-depth as Simon’s depiction of crime in inner-city Baltimore in addition to more fully rounding out his characters? These queries call upon an underlying issue: what are the qualities that define a piece of literature as “literary”? Furthermore, it is important to consider that Homicide, The Corner, and Clockers may not set out to fulfill the same objectives.

Term Paper Proposal

In my term paper, I would like to apply the issues that we have discussed in class to a series missing from the syllabus: HBO’s “Entourage.” A case study of “Entourage” spins a web of questions related to television authorship. I realize that I must eventually narrow my focus, but I have outlined my brainstorming below.

The focus of “Entourage” shifts drastically from season to season, perhaps due, in part, to creative myopia, or poor long-term storyboarding. How has the series repeatedly driven itself into narrative dead-ends, and how has it gone about making U-turns?

Though Vince is ostensibly the protagonist, his character undeniably lacks substance, and he boasts less screen time than some of his companions. He is certainly the catalyst for the principal storyline, but toward whom is the focus of the series truly directed? Taking a step back, is there even one central character, or does the spotlight move from one character to another (more conspicuously than in typical TV series)?

Is “Entourage” more concerned with dishing out sheer, unbridled entertainment than constructing a dramatic arc? Does it prove even more formulaic than other comedic series?

With its surfeit of wisecracks about specific individuals in the entertainment industry aimed at Hollywood insiders, promise to display the trendiest Hollywood hot spots by dint of on-location filming, and episodic self-mocking celebrity cameos, among other features, is “Entourage” entirely self-indulgent or self-satisfying? Does it cater more to the folks inside of the Hollywood bubble than the general public?

In a variety of respects, “Entourage” can be viewed as a paradigm of HBO’s daringness. How does the series’ blatant upheaval of propriety—as defined by gratuitous profanity, risqué illustrations of sexuality, etc.—shape and reflect the network’s style?

While many celebrities appear in short stints on “Entourage” as caricatures of their public personas, others play fictional, and sometimes recurring, roles. A near reverse situation is Jeremy Piven’s portrayal of Ari Gold, a character admittedly loosely based on the infamous talent agent—and brother of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel—Ari Emanuel. (Here, rather than a celebrity portraying a fictional character, a fictional character resembles a real-life figure.) Additionally, while actual films and TV series are referenced in “Entourage,” the program also presents fictional media. What factors motivate these independent decisions, which, combined, comprise a strange blend of reality and fiction?

The debate surrounding the series’ inspiration begs the question of auteur theory. While it is widely accepted that Vince and the gang are based on a young Mark Wahlberg and his circle of friends, different reports credit different individuals as conceiving the series.

How accurately does “Entourage” represent Mark Wahlberg’s arrival in Hollywood and the personalities who serve as his wingmen? How early in production and in what manners do plotlines begin to diverge from Wahlberg’s own experiences? Forgetting the connection between “Entourage” and Wahlberg, how realistic is the series’ depiction of Hollywood in general?

“Entourage” has been accused of producing humor at the expense of certain communities, such as women and homosexuals, many of which are underrepresented or devalued. Still, for the most part, its creative team has managed to avoid rebuke and continue operating by arguably offensive methods, unscathed. Is “Entourage” an “equal-opportunity offender,” or does it in fact target specific groups? Does its content shed light on the hypocrisy of Hollywood liberalism? Does the series’ reflexive nature (it provides commentary on the very types of professionals who give it life) grant it immunity from reproach?

Finally, one looming question remains: has “Entourage” outstayed its welcome?