In The New Yorker article by Nancy Franklin, she points out that Evan Wright’s original articles were part of a magazine series title “The Killer Elite.” I agree that this title seems more apt than “Generation Kill.” The “Elite” signify a special group of Marines trained to kill without guilt. Other comments that the series lost its zip as it experienced various media – newspaper print, book printing, and television miniseries – seem to hold true. The interview with Wright and the real Marines made one thing clear that didn’t seem to come through in the miniseries. And, that is that the Marines shown with Wright are very intelligent men who take their work quite seriously and obviously feel its effects in very different and individual ways; all the while masking any feelings that might break through that buffered demeanor. I wonder whether this kind of war can be filmed and viewed as entertainment or edutainment. It is impressive that most of the blogs I read with comments from actual Marines touted the show as being true to the reality of the desert war circumstances and situations. Being in the military is truly one of those dirty jobs that somebody has to do. And that’s too bad.
The dialogue in GenKill sizzles with pop culture and homophobic references, racial slurs, sexual innuendo and even a little history. GenKill is reflexive in that it critiques its own narrative about the military, including its leadership. Most of the narrative is politically incorrect and irreverent. It appears, however, that the irreverence and political incorrectness act as primary coping mechanisms. These mostly young and some older men who make up this spear head group of Recon Marines prepared to go up against the “haji” seem trapped in a distorted realm of masculinity. Wright points out that these Marines are different from portrayals of WWII vets who appear on film and TV as patriotic, adult men who have found and taken their places in society. Wright’s Marines are the misfits, what he calls the “throw away” generation of young men. While the visuals of this desert engagement convey the horrors of war, they somehow don’t seem so devastating and horrendous amid the sexual, racial and off the wall banter of men trying to stay sane in an insane environment. One Marine (I’m having trouble identifying who’s who) makes a reference, “country music, homosexual, special Olympics gay.” Another said that the Marine mission is “semper gumby, always flexible.” Episode 2 makes reference to the Vietnam War with an accompanying remark “gotta respect the pajamas.” Still another admits that the Marines are “so homoerotic.” Another communicates that a cheap, vibrating thrill can be had if you lay with your “cock on the ground” when the tanks go by. Then there’s the social commentary – “Fifty percent of Americans are obese” and the dialogue goes on to identify them as white trash, poor Mexicans and Blacks. With a reference to incest, one Marine talks about “sister fucking” and “cross-eyed hicks.” Thai pussy is a subject for discussion as well as one Marine’s quest to finally shoot his gun and kill someone. These examples of dialogue cover up the fact that supplies are hard to come by, maps are unreliable and blame is carried on the lowest rungs of the military ladder. Religion creeps into the narrative in the form of Buddhism and Islam. One Marine chants “nam myoho renge kyo’ as he prepares to shoot an Iraqi. Another shouts, “as salaam alaikum” to young Muslim girls along the road into the city. One message comes across loud and clear and that is that the “white man got to rule the world … white man won’t be denied.” The topsy turvy world of the Recon Marines chooses the Corps over community college and for one Marine “messed up is the way I roll.” That the Marines are indeed in the cradle of civilization between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers is not a factor as they survive in the tight area of the humvee with too much equipment and protective clothing for the hot desert sun. One Marine’s solution to stop the killing is to put a McDonald’s on every corner. The most telling remark in Episode 2 with regard to war and the quest for control of resources – “the white man’s oppression and the white man’s burden.”
I’m glad to know that Stringer Bell’s wife-beater t-shirt, among other things, elicited critical analysis that focused on the spectacle of the black male body as well as the homoerotic aspects of that spectacle as portrayed in The Wire. The boys locker room is a story older than the Greek lyceum and much more titillating when color is added (ala Caliban, Othello, and Crusoe’s Friday to name a few). Simon’s focus since Homicide has been on more than drugs, the ravaged inner-city and its prey and predators. The all too obvious side show is one of white patriarchal spectacle that culminates in the critically acclaimed conflation of The Wire as ground-breaking television and searing comment on urban communities. James S. Williams’ detailed article delineates and reduces The Wire to an ethnographic and anthropological “visual novel” with “elegantly choreographed and discrete scenes [that] stand out dramatically from the rest of the action” (59). Williams confirms that “Only young black male characters receive this degree of visual investment [in The Wire] which at times achieves a Cocteau-like intensity [perhaps a reference to Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast] and sensory rhythm” (59). Williams casts the obvious gay blade thug in the persona of Omar, murderous thief that he may be, as such a “half-mythical figure living in the shadows that he attracts a cinematic glow whenever he appears” (61). Maybe Omar does exude an aura that I can’t see, but he appears more on the screen, especially at night, as a Batman like figure. In the daylight, he looks like a broken down thug. I do, however, agree with Williams’ conclusion that The Wire provides “one of the most far-reaching formal explorations yet of the relations between race and spectatorial desire and opens up the possibility for new forms of gay realism in both television and film” (63). The question remains as to Simon’s intent, or was this homoerotic portrayal a side effect of aiming the camera on this slice of life? Do we have Simon to thank for gay organized crime members like Vito in The Sopranos and the cowboy lovers in Brokeback Mountain? Is this how the literary and filmic patriarchal pyramid will collapse in on itself?
There is one sentence in Kinder’s article that I didn’t fully understand: “But CSI never illuminates its urban context – either its actual setting of Las Vegas or the city of Los Angeles, whose race-based trials of O.J. Simpson and the cops who battered Rodney King and their disturbing outcomes help explain the popular appeal of this escapist procedural series” (50). I’m having trouble with the premise of the “race-based trials” as an explanation for “popular appeal of this escapist procedural series.” If there is a connection, perhaps it needs more illumination. Kinder’s references to cinematic processes and film history as foundational to television narrative and storytelling provide a broad framework from which to draw. The references to “precursors within the crime film genre” that combined “realism and emotional identification” bring Kinder’s discussion of “systemic analysis” onto a larger stage of media study (51). However, the one point about The Wire that comes through in Kinder’s article is that the characters are expendable and “can be killed off at any moment, as in real life” (52). The ensuing paragraph that discusses this expendability seems to apply to only the ghetto denizens. I recall that Kima Greggs, the only female on the case, gets shot up pretty badly; did any other cops get injured or killed? Kinder posits that viewers care about the public issues brought to the fore in The Wire because of the “characters who emerge from the ensemble cast” (52). If The Wire as a “powerful counter-example” that “never won an Emmy” had an audience “less than half of what The Sopranos normally drew,” – a show that garnered 22 Emmys, it would appear as if not very many of us were affected (57). Kinder makes a point about “television’s expanded narrative field” allowed by the concept of the series. However, with all the background and comparisons of film to television, Kinder does not mention the popularity of serial adventure, sci-fi and western films from the 1930’s to the 1950’s.
The dynamics of television and its electronic/digital spinoffs paint a picture whose focus shifts in the face of advancing technologies. Television has historically been a passive experience, recaptured only in reruns. However, now all manner and sort of television programming history is available in one media format or another. Perhaps as the history of television accumulates, patterns will emerge that not only track industry practices, profits and programming, but also connect with some of the same layered societal elements explored in The Wire. Simon’s approach as a journalist pays off in The Wire as noted in Lanahan’s Secrets of the City. Over five seasons, The Wire attempts to make sense of the criminal, educational, political, and media elements of a 100,000 piece urban jigsaw puzzle that has about 10,000 pieces missing and not a large enough surface on which to complete the puzzle. Most of our reading indicates that what has come through the tube, what is coming through now, and what will come through in the future acts as a measure and indicator of what the producers think the market will allow. DVD box sets, VHS sets and other media texts make up a kind of encyclopedia of knowledge that will be useful for study in fields that operate on the assumption that television has become more than market. Yes, television is an industry – almost everything is – but what is its purpose and sphere of influence. I’m waiting for the name of television to change to something that reflects its true nature, even though I’m sure I don’t know its true nature.
I’m familiar with only two – Sex and the City and Survivor – of the five case study television shows that Lotz uses to “illustrate the interconnections among changes in multiple production components” (216). I tried to watch Arrested Development once or twice, but it didn’t work for me. Never watched The Shield and never heard of Off to War. This is a small example of how we have become viewers that watch what we individually consider, in Lotz’ terms the “exceptional niche-specific shows and channels for distinctive audience” and we also watch some “mass hits” (240), not to mention the various technologies that we use in addition to/in lieu of television to view these products. This move away from television’s vast and historical cultural center recognizes a wider range of options that de-center an idealized past. Compared to literature and film, television might be considered an infant technology, witness its mostly passive, box/screen existence. Lots of early television network shows can still be seen on basic cable; TVLand as time capsule. I Love Lucy remains a profitable product. At the same time, new shows come and go (except for Law and Order), and compete against favorite re-runs and popular syndicated programming. The mixture of viewing outlets reflects a still larger landscape of individual choice – watching TV product online, taped, DVD boxed set, etc. In a description of her TV viewing habits, Lotz suggests that we may adopt network-like behavior and schedule our DVR viewing to certain times of the day and watch certain shows based on a need to “multitask while viewing” (242). Lotz’ description suggests a schedule and options designed to suite a busy, engaged lifestyle. While Lotz writes that we have become used to “expanded choice and control,” she emphasizes that “convenience, customization, and community” are the components that must integrate in order for the viewer of the post-network era to fully realize his or her new media, digital self.
Considering the degree to which the police-crime drama has played out within the black urban confines in Homicide, The Corner and now Clockers, the opposing representations of good (cops) vs bad (murderers, addicts, dealers) prevail, even when they blur to gray. While Simon as a journalist relied on his notes, the cooperation of the Baltimore police and interviews with community residents, Price as a fiction writer turned his observations and experience into dramatic license to embellish the dystopian world of what one reviewer called “an in-depth vision of America Narcotica” (Paul West, National Review 8/3/92). Hardly. The “real” world of Simon’s journalism seems to underpin and add credibility to Price’s “virtual” fictional world. Although in a 2004 interview, Price said that he “grew up in a housing project in the Bronx, pre-Vietnam, pre-Beatles … I had instant history and instant mythology” (www.popentertainment.com/price.htm). This history and mythology is seen in his first novel The Wanderers which was made into a film about white guys in black leather jackets who went up against other ethnic gangs in and around NYC. As discussed in class, the geography of Clockers places it in a specific place and time that defines its characteristics and its denizens. Even though he was from the projects, Price observed that he was amazed at “how the projects went from launching pads for [white] working-class families to just terminals where generations [of black families] are stacked up in the same apartment because there’s no place to go” (Paula J. Massood, Black City Cinema, 193). What Simon observed from afar, Price experienced growing up. He saw his and other neighborhoods change and deteriorate over time and used them as the backdrop to tell stories about the people who live out these fictional and nonfictional lives. Price tries and succeeds in striking (no pun intended) a balance between Klein and Strike, but the social, political, and economic limits of the full influence of the drug trade are centered on a very small and marginalized group. That both Simon and Price use the black, urban locale to center their stories might be interpreted as a form of geo-cultural surveillance that in turn is used as a prop in the support of the existing hierarchy in which such circumstances are allowed to exist.
When HBO first became available, the company experienced difficulties in its billing structure and it took several months after signing up for service for an invoice to arrive. The promised feature film line up was HBO’s first viewer drawing card and it worked. It’s expansion to documentary as well as feature films, self-produced shows, major sporting events make it a rich viewing experience. Free of commercial infringement, excepting its own reflexive promotional messages, HBO as an alternative to network TV wins hand down. I agree with ddriscoll that HBO is TV is HBO and interrogators of TV can’t forget that. The Sopranos, derived from the Godfather and Goodfellas movies and borrows from several other older filmic sources, provided strong storytelling and character development over the seasons. Six Feet Under, in my view, was not as strong a show and after a while I lost interest in the characters. However, I catch a Soprano rerun whenever I can. One of the reasons I resist the DVR is that I want TV to remain TV. I want my viewing subject to its schedule so that I am forced to make choices about what I do with my time. If I didn’t have HBO and the other several cable stations, my weekly TV viewing time would be about 80% shorter.
I digress to the many nights of half hour westerns that I was forced to watch with my Dad. His favorite comment near the end of one of these oaters, “They’d better hurry up, they’ve got only two minutes left to catch the crook (bad guy, murderer, rustlers, etc.)” That comment still lives in me when I watch TV – I’m well aware of the clock and can pretty well gauge what actions will have to occur in the time left in my favorite shows. The discussion of the temporal structure of television seems to be the most significant framework in which narrative must operate. Whatever story is being told, whatever messages are being conveyed are subject to the tyranny of time. As we witnessed in the Homicide episodes, they got shorter as they went along to make way for commercial messages. Time rules the broadcast schedules and placement is everything, e.g., the moving around on the network schedule of Homicide to try to find its niche audience. If I don’t want to spend an hour watching an entire episode of Iron Chef, I’ll turn it on during the last 15 minutes so that I can see the presentation of dishes and the winner. Time regulates our lives — school, work, entertainment — and time regulates the ubiquitous panaroma of television viewing both within the particular show and its place on the weekly/daily air time slot.