The Wire re-emerged in headlines recently when show creator David Simon made some (seemingly misunderstood) comments about late-arriving fans of the show.
While Simon expressed an "amused contempt" for fans who walked "sideways" into the challenging show long after its five-season run had concluded, what he was really decrying was a certain website’s Wire-based bracket specifically, and the post-mortem dumbing down of the series in general. One imagines, then, that Simon would look kindly (to the extent that he can look kindly) upon "Style in The Wire," a video from a Norwegian academic that breaks down the look and filmmaking techniques of the acclaimed series in painstaking detail. Even—or especially—a creative stickler of Simon’s caliber would surely appreciate the thoughtful homage to uncompromising creativity that the video represents.
Created by Erlend Lavik, who hails from the Department of Information Science and Media at the University of Bergen, Norway, "Style in The Wire" dissects the beloved show from the standpoint of visual style—the filmmaking philosophy and camera techniques used to tell the stories of Baltimore’s hardest men and women.
Lavik begins by making the point that though the TV show as an entertainment form has ascended in the cultural ranks and is now commonly dubbed "better than movies," this rise in station has little to do with the visual style of the shows. When TV is good, in other words, it’s typically down to the medium’s particular capacity for narrative and character development.
And here he turns his attention to The Wire, a show he identifies as the "crown jewel" in the golden age of TV. Like anyone else, Lavik admits that The Wire’s greatest achievements were in dialog, character, and plot, but then goes on to make an argument that the show’s unusual and disciplined shooting style contributed, seamlessly, to the impact of the end product. The result of this style was a show that allowed viewers the satisfaction of discovering the beauty of a story, instead of having it explicitly and repeatedly pointed out to them.
"For several years now, I’ve had an interest in the potential that digital technology has to reinvigorate film and television criticism," says Lavik of his labor-intensive project. "I had sought to explore this in a couple of academic articles, but realized that theoretical speculations only take you so far, and decided it was time to put my money where my mouth is. I chose The Wire partly because it is a series that I admire a lot, and partly because I’m writing a book on the show, so I had already done much of the research." Lavik says the show’s visual style had been neglected by critics but the topic itself was a good vehicle for him to explore the video essay format. "Literary critics have always been able to do this, of course, and now finally film critics can do the same. It can be very awkward to write about film style without recourse to the visuals, so the video essay should enable us to analyze film and television’s artistic means of expression in more nuanced and accessible ways than before."
The great thing about Lavik’s video is that it itemizes and demonstrates the creative decisions—imperceptible to the "average viewer"—that made the show excellent. But it also provides a powerful demonstration of the monumental effect that those seemingly small creative decisions have on any creative end product.
Of course Simon has famously exhibited some disregard for the sensibilities of that average viewer ("fuck the average viewer," he has said, as is noted in the video). And Lavik’s video shows how that attitude informed the style of the show, which in turn helped make the show the creative milestone it was. And the video reminds us that while it doesn’t sound pretty, the underlying philosophy of "fuck the average viewer" is the best thing that can happen to a creative work—and an audience.
So does Lavik think even devoted viewers of The Wire will be able to clock the subtle techniques he dissects in his analysis? "That’s a very interesting question, because one of the main reasons I wanted to explore the video essay format was that I felt it could help bridge the gap between academic and journalistic film criticism," says Lavik. "Film scholarship has become so highly specialized, and often esoteric, that much of it does not even attempt to speak to anyone outside of the research community. Journalistic film criticism, on the other hand, often lacks ambition, I think, and functions merely as a form of consumer guidance. Writers rarely give their readers anything to reach for. Everything is pre-digested for you. The video essay I made is obviously meant for people who have already seen The Wire, but I hope most of those who are familiar with the show will be able to follow my arguments and observations. I certainly don’t think anyone will find it totally incomprehensible. But so what if there’s something you don’t understand? You’re watching it online, so Google it! Coming across something you don’t comprehend is not a cause for offense, but an opportunity to learn."
You may have to save a complete viewing of the 35-minute video for later depending on your work load, office environment, or perspective on creative sidetracking. For now, here are some of Lavik’s observations.
The overall style of the show is "quite plain," in contrast to the self-consciousness—and attendant camera tricks—of many other shows.
Even techniques like slow motion are used sparingly, and other elaborate devices not at all. The story is linear. And the one flashback that does take place in the series, Lavik notes, was included at HBO’s behest. Lavik also notes that Simon was influenced by documentarians, including Frederick Wiseman.
Simon has said that he never wanted to see the camera "fish" on the show: "I never wanted to see the camera know more than it ought to know." The result is, for example, that during a conversation, the camera moves to the next speaker after he has started speaking, not before. In other words, more like the way a camera would move in a similar scene in a documentary.
Lavik notes a relatively liberal use of wide framing and points out examples where this technique allows viewers to discern information and emotion for themselves, rather than having a close-up and extra edits hammer a point home.