Un-American Activities: ‘The Wire’ and ‘Heaven’s Gate’

I came late to  ‘The Wire’, something fairly typical of me in the way that I ‘consume’ television series.  I’ve written before about this in pieces on ‘The Sopranos’, ‘Twin Peaks’ and ‘This Life’.  My preferred strategy is to wait until all the fuss dies down and then borrow or buy a few box sets of DVD’s and watch these series at my leisure, either one episode at a time or in multi-episode binges.   All of which makes me possibly the last person in the known universe to blog about ‘The Wire’ but at least it gives me a chance to think through what it is I want to say about it.

Just in case there is anyone reading this who has recently returned from 10 years of exile on a tropical island without cable tv, ‘The Wire’ was made by HBO with a star-free cast and across its five seasons (2002-2008) aimed to take a cold, hard look at the life of a strictly non-hip US city – Baltimore – through the eyes of its police, its politicians, its journalists, its drug gangs, its dock-workers and so on.  Though many of the ensemble cast appeared in all five seasons, each season took a slightly different focus; thus Season 1 was largely about the interaction between the police and the drug gangs, Season 2 focused on the plight of Baltimore’s shrinking docks and those working there, Season 3 concerned itself with City Hall politics, Season 4 with the school system and the final season with the print media.

Much has been written and said about ‘The Wire’ and most of what has been written and said – in this country at least – has been  extremely positive.  Most fans feel that it offers an unflinchingly accurate portrayal of black urban street life, of City Hall ducking & diving, of the slow death of print newspapers and of the travails of a city police department, to name but a few of the areas singled out for praise.  Across all these different facets of city life, ‘The Wire’ is, above all, feted for its apparent ‘authenticity’.  This is a drama that seeks to portray the harsh realities of life in a modern American city and spends much of its time concentrating on the choices and compromises that people make to get them through their daily round.  There are good guys and bad guys, mavericks and team players, there is friendship, even love, but then there is corruption and disillusionment, squalor and death as well. 

There is hope, too. ‘The Wire’ is a long way from being just a nihilistic hatchet-job on the life and body politic of Baltimore (or the USA).  Through the five series, characters are redeemed, either by circumstance or by their own efforts.  Junkies clean up, gangsters go straight, failed cops find themselves having far greater success in other walks of life.  The milk of human kindness does flow through the veins of ‘The Wire’ and the only characters with whom the writers appear to have little or no sympathy are the politicians. 

Among many of my friends, ‘The Wire’ has been lauded as the greatest piece of extended television drama of all time.  The socio-political insights, the finely-drawn characters, the shrewd and effective plotting – all of these factors are cited as reasons why ‘The Wire’ is so good.  It lacks the obvious Liberal/Democrat wish-fulfillment of ‘The West Wing’, it lacks the sentimental  clichés of Italian – American life littered across ‘The Sopranos’, but offers us instead what seems like a non-idealised view of Baltimore life at the sharp end.  The story arcs remain credible throughout,  whilst the characters generally develop in ways that seem consistent and realistic.

For all that, I am sure that there are many middle -class  people living in Baltimore who barely recognised their own city from ‘The Wire’ and who probably have a very different take on how it is to live in that city.  At the very end of Season Five, Dominic West’s  (ex-)Detective McNulty pulls over to the side of a road and looks out over the city.  Through his eyes we see snippets of  a possible future; characters move up or move on or sink into the mire, either regaining or losing their integrity along the way.  But we also see a Baltimore that we never really see in the other 59 episodes – we see long-shots of a city with broad avenues and grand buildings, we see bustling streets with a ticking heartbeat that is a long way from the ‘corners’ of the West Side or the grim post-industrial landscapes of the old docks.

I’ve never been to Baltimore so can’t really comment on the veracity of ‘The Wire’s portrait of a city in virtual meltdown.  However, I find it hard to believe that there aren’t other Baltimores where people lead lives that are quite different from McNulty and  Omar,  from Lester and Bubbles,  from Daniels and Marlo.  The fact is that Baltimore is really just a shop window for the themes of ‘The Wire’, themes that could probably apply to any large American city with a substantial black population and a fading blue-collar tradition – Washington DC or Cincinnati  for example.  Those themes – racial tension, political corruption, drugs, economic downturns, education, media manipulation of facts, broken homes and broken dreams are universal to all such cities.

McNulty, Bunk and Lester; allegedly the ‘Good Guys’

The status of ‘The Wire’ as a favourite of critics and huge numbers of fans across the world  cannot, however, disguise the fact that it was some way from being a mainstream hit in America.  Many people who didn’t subscribe to HBO wouldn’t have seen it anyway and many others were in all probability put off by what creator David Simon has itemised as  “the complexity of the plot; a poor time slot; heavy use of esoteric slang, particularly among the gangster characters; and a predominantly black cast.” (Wikipedia). ‘The Wire’ would often find itself up against NFL games on the Sports channels and other more mainstream series such as ‘Desperate Housewives’.  Ratings were increasingly poor on a season-by-season basis, though HBO apparently accepted that many fans were picking up illegal postings of the series via the Net, watching it online via HBO On Demand or simply waiting for the box set to come out.

For me, there’s something else about ‘The Wire’ that would explain why it nearly got cancelled twice and why it was consistently overlooked by the people who dish out TV awards.  In my view, many Americans would have a problem with ‘The Wire’ because it paints the urban society of – in this case – Baltimore, but by inference most major American cities in such an unflattering light. 

If we backtrack to 1980, we can see another example of this phenomenon with Michael Cimino’s ‘Heaven’s Gate’ – a movie that became almost a watchword for the excesses of the post-‘Easy Rider’ crop of ‘auteurist’  Hollywood directors.  Anyone who has read Steven Bach’s book about the movie (‘Final Cut’) will quickly have gained an appreciation of all the errors of judgement that Cimino made in making ‘Heaven’s Gate’ and there is no doubt that there were many of them. 

 Cimino’s arrogance and his cavalier attitude to cost and budget over-runs ensured that his reputation took a pounding even before ‘Heaven’s Gate’ was ‘in the can’.  His  hubris was probably the last straw for the studios, ensuring that the era of the Hollywood auteurs was effectively over.  From that point onwards, studios exercised far closer control over budgetary issues and prima donna directors.

However, what that left us with was ‘Heaven’s Gate’ itself. Despite being drastically cut in its initial 149-minute cinematic release, what was clear was that this was what David Thomson has referred to as a ‘wounded monster’ of a film and even expanded and revised versions continue to divide opinion – many people think it’s the worst movie ever, others that it’s a great film.

I definitely fall into the latter camp; for me, the cinematography (by Vilmos Szigmond), the music (by Bob Dylan alumnus David Mansfield) and many of the performances are masterful.  It’s a long way from being the perfect movie but it is pretty damn good on many levels . Most significantly, the fact that Cimino chose to plant a bomb under some of the most cherished myths of the American West was a brave and adventurous strategy that would have gone down a storm just a few years earlier.  Ralph Nelson’s ‘Soldier Blue’ from 1970, an infinitely less accomplished piece of work in almost every respect, had drawn a favourable response in its depiction of how Native Americans got well and truly shafted by the American ‘establishment’ – as I recall, it’s a depressing and not particularly well-made movie.  ‘Heaven’s Gate’  – a much better movie on every level – did a similar job for the plight of the poor European migrants who flooded west and began to set up homesteads on the massive ranges that had previously been the exclusive province of rich cattle farmers.  Even so, it got completely trashed by most critics.

‘Heaven’s Gate’ – the Harvard Waltz Sequence; the ruling class at play

‘Heaven’s Gate’ is based on events that happened during the so-called ‘Johnson County War’, which took place in Wyoming in April 1892.  The Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA) – an organisation of rich cattle farmers with links to the Republican Party – hired gunmen to stop the sporadic outbreaks of rustling carried out by starving migrant farmers.  These gunmen often dispensed summary justice, killing suspected rustlers without recourse to the mechanisms of the law.  The WSGA gunmen were eventually pinned down in farm buildings near Fort McKinney by a Sheriff’s posse of about 200 men , but were saved from annihilation when Wyoming’s Acting Governor sent an urgent telegram to President Benjamin Harrison who ordered the Sixth Cavalry, based at Fort McKinney, to intervene.  The WSGA ‘enforcers’ were close to being routed but the Army’s intervention meant that they were instead spirited away and held at an army fort near Cheyenne.  Documents taken from their leader implicated many of the leading lights of the WSGA in a plan to systematically murder up to 70 suspected ‘rustlers’.  Despite all this, the ‘enforcers’ were eventually freed on bail and many fled south to Texas.  In any event,  the case was dropped when the Johnson County authorities refused to pay for the upkeep of the ‘prisoners’ or the costs involved in bringing them to court.  The whole affair swiftly fizzled out, though feelings in Johnson County ran high for many years.

Many of these events form the basis of the action in ‘Heaven’s Gate’.  Kris Kristofferson’s sheriff attempts to mediate in the disputes but he is very much of the same social background as the WSGA and though he tries to do his job honestly, he clearly does not relish being seen as a ‘class traitor’.  Cimino depicts the WSGA leaders and vigilantes as the bad guys and the huddled masses of the incomers as the good guys.  It’s an almost Marxist take on the mythology of the West with the proletarian migrants taking on the fat cat WSGA and almost winning, but for the intervention of the Army at the 11th hour.  In a coda at the movie’s end,  we see an older, disillusioned Kristofferson aboard his steam yacht off Rhode Island.  He has returned to the East and re-assumed his position of privilege within the ruling elite.

‘Heaven’s Gate’ – the Roller Rink sequence; the huddled masses take to the floor

‘Heaven’s Gate’ was released in 1980 and it could be argued that a kind of Marxist Western was never going to play too well in an America where an old school ex-Hollywood cowboy was riding the range in the White House.  In 1980, Ronald Reagan’s popularity as President was probably approaching its zenith and for that reason alone, ‘Heaven’s Gate’ was doomed as far as ‘middle America’ was concerned.  It portrayed some unsavoury truths about the American West, truths that many Americans saw as ‘unpatriotic’ at a time when gung-ho was the name of the game and pinko liberals were lying low.  No wonder it bombed at the Box Office, though predictably, the movie fared much better in Europe. However, in all likelihood, had the movie been released 5 years earlier, it might well have been received more sympathetically in a country still just about clinging to the tail-end of 60’s ideologies.  By 1980, the USA had changed and become much more conservative, Hollywood had changed and the studios were sick of all these bratty directors and their grand narratives of American dysfunction.  It was time for Rocky and Rambo and all those rugged American heroes; no-one had much time for class warfare in 1890’s Wyoming.

Returning (finally) to ‘The Wire’, it seems to me that there are strong parallels with ‘Heaven’s Gate’ in this specific area. Like ‘Heaven’s Gate’, ‘The Wire’ asks ordinary Americans to face some unpalatable truths about their history (in the case of ‘Heaven’s Gate’) or about their cities (in ‘The Wire’) and it seems to me that some conservative-minded Americans aren’t always that good at acknowledging the Elephant in the Room – same with the Tories in this country.  For some Yankee chauvinists (particularly those of the Rush Limbaugh school of twisted thinking), everything has to be wonderful from sea to shining sea and anyone that doesn’t think so is probably some kind of dangerous subversive commie terrorist (or similar) and should relocate to Pakistan or Eye-Rak.  Like Frank Zappa said all those years ago, ‘It can’t happen here.’

The fact is that for many middle-class Americans, the inner cities of their country have become no-go areas.  Drugs, violence, homelessness, life in ‘the Projects’ – all these issues are something that many Americans have just blanked out.  They’ll deal with as much of it as they have to and hope the cops can keep the lid on the rest of it.  Same story here, really; the recent Tottenham Riots showed a side of London life that many Londoners knew nothing of and didn’t really want to engage with.

The Wire: Michael Kenneth Williams as Omar; ruthless, driven, gay, feared, a loner with his own sense of morality and – allegedly – a favourite of Barack Obama 

In some respects, ‘The Wire’ – particularly in its final season – is even more damning of American society than ‘Heaven’s Gate’.  Season 5 is built around the idea of a lie that just gets bigger and bigger; there’s an element of black comedy in here somewhere. The Baltimore Police Department is suffering from budget cutbacks and overtime bans, so Detective McNulty effectively ‘invents’ a serial killer preying on the homeless, knowing that City Hall will be compelled to loosen the purse strings as this is such an emotive issue.  McNulty then surreptitiously diverts the resources and manpower he is given to continue the pursuit of drug lord Marlo Stansfield.  However, the lie just gets bigger and bigger; Mayor Carcetti picks up on the ‘serial killer’ case to use as a weapon against the State Governor’s lack of action on homelessness and promote his own claims to replace him.  The local ‘Baltimore Sun’ newspaper also gets involved, with an unscrupulous reporter further embroidering the story in order to advance his own career.  In the end, only a very few of those who are supposed to be on the side of truth and justice are free from the taint of this lie and by the time the truth emerges, it’s too late for anyone to unravel the multiple layers of deceit in which so many have become complicit. 

Comparing ‘The Wire’ to ‘Heaven’s Gate’ is  – of course – an idea that you can only push so far.  I have  a lot of time for both, but there’s no doubt that ‘Heaven’s Gate’ is deeply flawed on many levels whilst retaining an indefinable ‘je ne sais quoi’  that makes it a far more interesting proposition than many other movies of its type.  At the time of its release, the smokescreen of outrage at Cimino’s perceived excesses tended to legislate against any genuine appraisal of the film , but many contemporary analyses take a less polemical stance. Sure, ‘Heaven’s Gate’ has many flaws , but at times it’s an interesting and beautifully-staged movie and if you haven’t yet seen it, I urge you to do so.

By contrast, ‘The Wire’ – for me – offers a far sharper critique of American society – then again, it has a much broader canvas on which to tell its tale.  Across 60 episodes, it illustrated – often graphically – the crushing realities of life in the inner city, the bureaucratic minefields of police work and the institutionalised corruption of local politics.   ‘The Wire’  told a story that often exposes aspects of American life with which few establishment figures could be comfortable.  It also laid down a new standard of excellence for television drama and I think it could be a long time before we see anything that combines such a compelling story-line with so many insights into American society.

2 responses to “Un-American Activities: ‘The Wire’ and ‘Heaven’s Gate’

  1. When I initially commented I clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now each time a remark is added I get 4 emails with the same comment. Is there any manner you may remove me from that service? Thanks!

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