Small, striking moments: The Corner and The Wire

I am periodically re-publishing the posts that I want to preserve from the previous incarnation of this blog, just in case I ever lose control of that site or it vanishes. What follows was originally published on 15 August 2010 on betweensympathyanddetachment.blogspot.co.uk.

The HBO ‘miniseries’ The Corner (2000) is now predominantly viewed and marketed as a warm-up or sketch for The Wire (HBO, 2002-8). When we enter for the first time the fictional world of the prior series (in its first episode, ‘Gary’s Blues’), the presentation of that world employs aspects of the rhetoric of a documentary. A handheld camera travels backwards to keep in frame its subject – a black man in early middle age (Gary, played by T K Carter) – as he hurries along an alleyway and then across a street. Offscreen, a voice asks him questions.

Gary enters a corner grocery store. The camera remains outside, and executes a three hundred and sixty degree survey of its environment. What is dramatised, however, is not the camera’s capacity for revelation, but the fact that its presence alters that which it would observe. It pauses first on three stationary youths, all of whom in their own ways exhibit a desire to give nothing away. Next, it stops on a man in a tracksuit crossing the street towards us, who meets the camera’s gaze, turns on his heel halfway across the street and crosses back. Finally, it catches a man walking past close by. The offscreen voice offers him an open opening gambit (‘Hey how’s it going?’), but he returns the greeting before it has even finished in a tone that ends the conversation, and moves past the frame without breaking his stride. Thus do we see figures variously frustrate the curiosity of the camera by doing nothing, turning around, and ploughing onwards.

Gary exits the store holding a cigarette. They are sold individually, he explains, for 25 cents. ‘Be a lot cheaper to buy a pack wouldn’t it?’ the offscreen voice ventures. ‘Yeah well, you know,’ Gary responds. ‘Why buy a whole pack ’cause you gonna wind up giving half of ’em away.’

The device of having the character who will turn out to be the episode’s protagonist speak to an embodied observer and enquirer is used in the introductory sequences of all six episodes of The Corner. The title card then acts as a watershed: afterwards, the camera is no longer tied to a following figure. Douglas Pye has argued that often in narrative fiction (he is specifically discussing Hollywood movies) ‘the initial overt marks of the presence of narration cue us to a relationship between narration and fictional world which we are expected to carry forward without the overt marks being retained’ (‘Bordwell and Hollywood’, p48). The Corner is based upon a six hundred-plus page book of investigative journalism of the same name (co-written by David Simon and Ed Burns). The opening sequences of the television episodes embed this provenance and method within the adaptive medium. Even after the initial mode of narration drops away, our viewing should continue to be informed by a way of seeing that places at the centre of its quest to understand the world the observation of human lives and the asking of questions about them.

‘You want to know if a dope fiend’s for real, check the bottom of his shoes.’

We are in an office basement which serves as the headquarters of a newly-formed special unit of the Baltimore Police Department, a unit whose purpose is to investigate the Barksdale drug organization. Detective Sydnor (Corey Parker Robinson) enters, dressed as a drug addict for an undercover operation. He plays to the other detectives, first adopting the language and gestures of the fashion world (‘Detective Sydnor’s ensemble is the latest in Westside project-wear […] torn cammies by Versace, stained sweatshirt by Ralph Lauren…’), before declaring: ‘I ain’t showered in two days, I ain’t shaved in four. Right now I am one ripe, nasty son-of-a-bitch’. The most appreciative audience member is Carver (Seth Gilliam), who immediately joins in with Sydnor’s strutting, ribbing his fellow detective but also joining him in a loudly-voiced holding at a distance of the category of person Sydnor is imitating (‘Look at this piece of shit!’).

Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn), another detective, looks on more sceptically. After Sydnor has finished regaling the group with a rundown of his costume, she turns to her confidential informant, Bubbles (Andre Royo), a drug addict who will be accompanying Sydnor on his round of ‘buys’ from Barksdale dealers, to seek his opinion. ‘Clothes is torn down enough,’ Bubbles concedes, ‘but he could use a little bit more stains, more dirt.’ His first major criticism is of the wedding ring on Sydnor’s finger. ‘Shit, you married to the needle boy’ Bubbles chuckles. ‘That shit been pawned off if you for real. It’s a dead giveaway.’ After more criticisms, Sydnor protests that Bubbles surely cannot have a problem with his footwear. Bubbles, sitting down, places Sydnor’s heel on his knee, showing the sole of Sydnor’s shoe. ‘See? You walking down them alleys in the projects man, you stepping on the dead soldiers.’ ‘Dead soldiers?’ an uncomprehending Kima repeats. ‘Yeah, empty vials. You can’t walk down a Baltimore street without that shit cracking underneath your feet. You want to know if a fiend’s for real, check the bottom of his shoes. OK? Have him dance on some empties before we go out there.’

The limits of Sydnor’s costume are an index of the limits of his empathy and understanding. The attitude towards ‘dope fiends’ exhibited by Sydnor and Carver in this scene is one of contempt. If one views a category of person through such a distancing lens, it is not surprising that an attempt to emulate their appearance will tend towards caricature – a generalised set of undesirable attributes. In this case, Sydnor’s dope fiend is ‘tore down’, unshaven and malodorous. But, as Bubbles points out, because he has not walked a mile in such a person’s shoes, his masquerade will not withstand the scrutiny of true players of the game.

What is at stake here is more than ‘surface realism’ – although the series and the discourse that has bloomed around it clearly have a strong investment in this too. The point is not, or not only, to reproduce the way things look. The Wire constantly invites us to extrapolate meanings, and modes of existence, from small details of appearance and behaviour. When Bubbles points out the limits of Sydnor’s ‘inhabitation’ of his dope fiend character, he points out the stories told by the presence or absence of a wedding ring on one’s finger or of broken glass on one’s shoes, for those who are able to read them (‘See?’). Similarly, the availability for purchase of individual cigarettes in corner stores is at once a neat little detail and a neat little story – a small window onto a mode of existence where even the most temporary accumulation of the most minimal ‘property’ renders one a target, leading to the formalisation of novel methods of buying and selling basic commodities that answer to such an economy.

— — —

The moments described above, and my description of them here, were a starting point for an article I wrote about The Wire. However, I couldn’t find a place for them in the flow of the article in its final form, even though the ideas contained within them remained relevant to it throughout its development.

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