Reality, and Then Some, as Conveyed in 'The Wire' and 'Oliver Twist'

Michael B. Jordan (left) as Wallace in The Wire

The spoonful of sugar that The Wire employs in relating its harsh theme is all wrapped up in that medicine's themes of fatalism. The humor employed in Oliver Twist highlights the opposite: the needlessness of the system that allows orphans to starve to death.

Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist and the HBO television series The Wire are two works of art dealing with a similar subject matter: urban decay, poverty, and the various ways that poor people are corrupted by the societal ills of their time. But the similarities stop there.

One is a picaresque, while the other is a realistic depiction. One wraps up its ending in a neat little bow, while the other offers a largely unresolved plot. While one has spawned a hit Broadway musical, as well as the archetypical image of the Victorian street urchin, Broadway audiences would be hard-pressed to imagine the street characters of the other singing much of anything.

The difference between urban poverty as imagined by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist and the writers of The Wire are profound, so one could rightly ask why even try to compare them? To me, the answer to this question has more to do with form than content.

One should start by saying that David Simon and his team of writers were probably not thinking of Dickens when they were coming up with the storylines for The Wire. Simon no doubt thinks that Dickens’ version of Victorian-era London is overly “sentimental”, a word that is often used to describe Dickens, especially by artists working within the tradition of realism. But it's interesting to notice that even the realism used on The Wire owes a debt to dramatic indulgences akin to those employed by Dickens in Oliver Twist.

All art dealing with subject matter that makes a claim to “the real” must deal with the very simple fact that art is an abstraction. At the very bottom of our understanding of art that tries to represent reality, we must understand that it is still just a representation. With The Wire, just as with Oliver Twist, one would be very foolish to confuse what we see in either with “what actually happens”; a savvy audience doesn’t take even a documentary film as gospel truth, much less a scripted television series. So the lesson one takes from viewing The Wire alongside reading a book (or watching the film version) like Oliver Twist is that to understand true-to-life stories, we must understand such stories as reality, and then some.

Barney Clark as Oliver in Oliver Twist (2005)

The subject matter taken up by both Oliver Twist and The Wire is, of course, very sad, and in their purest form the facts of this material would create not tragedies where we come away with our minds scrubbed clean by catharsis, nor even realism, but we come away only with tales of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The reality of Victorian London was that, for many, it was hell; countless children died, and no one will ever know their names. The same is true of many modern cities, where life is cheap and death walks among the living. There is no redeeming quality to these facts and of course, there shouldn’t be.

Baltimore’s drug trade as it exists now, or the life of the orphan in Victorian-era London, are not only unbearable but nearly incomprehensible in terms of what we understand as story, or even logic for that matter. In other words, if we are going to learn about the slow (and very undramatic) grinding of the human spirit as it occurs within these two settings, some necessary dramatic indulgences will have had to be made.

The “then some” that is added to the “reality” of these works makes the harshness of their message palatable to our aesthetic senses, and thus makes those messages effective. But again, it should be noted that palatability to the artistic senses and palatability to the moral or social sense are not the same. One deals with the means by which a message is given, the other deals with the message itself. The aesthetic sensibility that is appeased in the telling of a sad story often violates the moral sensibility. In fact, one could even posit that it is impossible to get across a sense of moral violation, without appeasing the aesthetic sensibility.

So the profoundly different ways that Oliver Twist and The Wire make use of “reality, and then some” being, respectively, sentimentality and realism, can be equally constructive to our aesthetic sensibilities, depending on our taste, and thus to our moral sensibilities as pertaining to the real things they are talking about. And this is important, if only for the reason that, when we understand that both these works have added a “then some” to the bare facts of their represented realities, we understand that reality better. In addition, the ways that either work adds their respective “then somes” are very relevant to the “realities” they are ultimately trying to express.

The “then some” used by Oliver Twist is, a sense of light-hearted adventure, and much more comedy than one would think possible of the material. Oliver is the uncorrupted orphan, and he is surrounded by clowns. He is the representation of all that is good and true, not just about poor people specifically, but humanity in general. He is that which is at stake in the cruel machinations of Fagin and Sikes, the ideal against which the base cleverness of the Artful Dodger is meant to be understood.

This is not to say that Fagin and Sikes and the Artful Dodger are wholly contemptible characters, but that they just aren’t Oliver. There are gradations to their states of corruption, some of which has to do with circumstance, some of which has to do with inner worth. But what Oliver shows is that ultimately the inner self is not subject to the outer world. And so the sentimentality (or idealism) of Oliver’s character makes a bold statement, that however bad this world gets, a person can remain oneself.

But even more interesting than what Oliver Twist has to say about the final effect of the “reality” of Victorian London is the transformation of contemptible characters into comedic entities. The fact that Oliver is safe, as it were, from being corrupted by his reality transforms many of his corrupters from villains to clowns. We get a sense throughout that Oliver will be okay in the end, and that even if he doesn’t make it back to good Mr. Brownlow, he will be whisked away to heaven like Elijah, the ultimate happy ending. And so Fagin and Sikes, in trying to topple Oliver’s unimpeachable goodness, become less like men corrupting a child and more like clowns tripping over their own shoes. Think Home Alone… This is a film, basically about home invasion, yet it’s funny because we know that Kevin is safe from the bumbling burglars.

While the villains of Oliver’s story are both very poor and very cruel, they are also totally blind to their own poverty and cruelty, so much so that the individual behavior that supports the larger infrastructure of London’s corruption appears as farce. We see characters of government workers who are so overdrawn in their willingness to mistreat the orphans in their charge, starving, beating, and enslaving them, that their particular character aspects become ridiculous, rather than sad.

Even small details like Ms. Corney and Mr. Bumble’s grotesque romance or Nancy’s fits of rage become funny. We ask, “How could Mr. Bumble quibble about the quality of tea, or even his own income, when children are dying because of his actions?” But we end by laughing rather than shaking or heads; these evil characters are caricatures, yes, but they are caricatures of thematic import. The way that this sentimental and comedic “then some” interlocks with the “reality” of the facts of the orphans’ lives create a thematic difference.

This is especially true when this thematic difference is viewed against the characters in The Wire, whose corruption is total. Individuals cannot stand against the particulars of their environment; characters are defined by where they happen to be, and there is no real escape from Baltimore. In fact, there is little to separate the characters from their setting. Setting is character, and each character is neither more nor less than the environment by which he or she is surrounded.

What’s more, all characters seem to be aware of this fact. The poor characters know that they are poor; the corrupted characters know that they are corrupted; the characters who know that they are destined for an early grave, defending a street corner that ultimately has no real value, are fully aware of themselves and their limited roles in this world.

And so the “then some” that emerges from these aspects of The Wire is a certain level of romance. The characters of The Wire revel in their lots; they rage against their circumstances, too, but their ultimate comforts are romantic, that they would solider through unthinkable odds and retain their dignity. Kima talks with a quiver in her voice about the patent leather shoes of the senior police officer who dropped the handcuffs, or “bracelets”, to her on her first arrest as a cadet. Bubs describes the slum where he will lay his head with the words, “Heaven ain’t far from here.”

Wallace, perhaps the closest analogue to Oliver Twist, is offered an escape from his life in “the game”; he can go live with his grandmother in the country. But he says, “It’s all right here” pointing to the streets where he has always lived, and he chooses to stay in Baltimore, even despite his very real danger.

Where in Oliver Twist, sentimentality merges with “reality” to yield comedy, the non-sentimentality of The Wire merges with “reality” to create romance. And while the differences between these effects are profound, such differences between two works of art pale in comparison to the difference between either one of them and “what really happens”.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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