The Look Back: The Wire’s “Middle Ground”

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In The Look Back I will be looking at movies and television series/episodes with fairly recent anniversaries and writing about why I love them so. Basically it’s a desperate attempt to write about things that would normally have very little relevance at all.

Nine years ago today the nominations for the 57th Primetime Emmy Awards were announced. 2005 was a simpler time; Everybody Loves Raymond led the pack with 10 nominations, Angela Lansbury received her 18th nomination, and Desperate Housewives became the second series ever to earn 3 nominations in a lead acting category (the other series? Golden Girls, of course). But not every nomination announced was as standard as expected. A small HBO drama well into its third year earned its first Emmy nomination ever in the Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series category. The series was The Wire, and the episode was “Middle Ground.”

For some reason, “Middle Ground” was The Wire‘s first Emmy nomination ever. (The show would only come to earn one more nomination, for its series finale “–30–” again in Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series.) How is it that the most talked about series of its time took 3 years to earn an Emmy nomination? Well, because the voters who decide the Emmy nominations are a group of asinine dumbfucks. Regardless, “Middle Ground” has good reason for being The Wire‘s first Emmy nomination. It’s a brilliant hour of storytelling (as most episodes of The Wire are) and stands out from every other episode of The Wires 5 year run. This is because “Middle Ground” is something all other episodes of The Wire are not: a stand-alone episode of television.

What makes “Middle Ground” a stand-alone episode is that all of the major stories of Season 3 start to come to a head. McNulty and co. have successfully sold the Barksdale crew tapped phones and are thisclose to catching Stringer Bell. Bunny has given a presentation revealing the existence of Hamsterdam and Rawls and Mayor Royce are scrambling in how to explain it before the story breaks. Cutty is nearing his redemptive end. And there’s Stinger and Avon, whose relationship is the heart of this episode. All of these stories are reaching their ends because “Middle Ground” is the penultimate episode of The Wire‘s 3rd season, but there’s something about the narrative propulsion that brings a unique energy to the episode.

Take “Middle Ground”‘s opening scene, for example, which is one of the greatest scenes in television history.

The scene is impeccably shot by episode director Joe Chappelle, whose blocking of the scene hearkens back to Sergio Leone westerns. But the scene works as well as it does not because of its incredible visual style, but because of the palpable energy that stems from a simple conversation between two characters, Omar and Brother Mouzone. (I’d love to show every Breaking Bad fan who thinks Gus Fring is the best television villain ever Brother Mouzone, who puts Fring to shame.) Every line crackles, and when watching the scene it feels like it’s the most thrilling thing you’ll ever see, even though it’s just two men talking to each other. Immediately, “Middle Ground” finds energy and propulsion by simply trusting its characters, which is something that carries on throughout the entire episode.

Another benchmark sequence in “Middle Ground” is the collection of scenes where Bunny shows off his precinct to Carcetti. The scenes are made up of, again, two men talking to each other, this time about the simplicities of daily life in Baltimore. Bunny’s precinct has turned into a “normal” neighborhood, something its residents haven’t been used to, and the sequence relishes in the beauty that comes from this newfound normalcy. One scene that particularly comes to mind is when Bunny and Carcetti attend a community meeting.

It’s a short scene that just features people talking, but the scene strikes a deeply emotional chord. It’s a meditation on human connection. The collection of these scenes between Bunny and Carcetti feel like if Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy was set in Baltimore, but that feeling comes to a crushing end once Carcetti reaches Hamsterdam. The close up of Carcetti’s face realizing what Hamsterdam is is a shattering moment in a series full of them, but that devastation could not be achieved without the beauty of the scenes that preceded it.

And speaking of devastation: Stringer and Avon. As mentioned before, Stringer and Avon’s relationship is the heart of “Middle Ground.” It’s been crumbling slowly, but in “Middle Ground” it reaches its breaking point. The last scene the two men share together is another hallmark one, as it is just Stringer and Avon reminiscing about where they’ve come from and where they stand now.

The scene is, again, filled with incredible dialogue, every line more loaded as the next. There’s “We ain’t gotta dream no more, man” the episode’s epigraph, and the ending line of “Us, motherfucker.” It’s one of the most rich and textured scenes of television I’ve ever seen in my life, and it’s only made possible by The Wire trusting its characters and believing in the small moments they’re able to produce.

And it’s made even more devastating by Stringer’s death. The act of killing off Stringer Bell is an incredibly shocking, ambitious, and devastating one (I’d also love to show every Game of Thrones fan who thinks that the show’s killing off of characters are the most ambitious in television history what The Wire did in 2004), but the most crushing thing about it is that it’s just a small moment in The Wire‘s gigantic universe. Sure, Stringer’s death causes serious complications for the Major Crimes Unit, but after the season finale The Wire just moves on.

Handling Stringer’s death in this way brings perspective and gravity to the episode and series as a whole in a way that is, in the macro, uncommon for The Wire. The series has been lauded continuously for its tactfulness in understanding why institutions fail us, and its sweeping weightiness when exhausting the subject. But for my money, The Wire is not recognized enough for its smaller moments and perspective. The most striking thing about the series is how it’s able to craft a gigantic and complex universe while still being able to deliver small and intimate character moments that feel just as weighty as its big picture ideas. This is readily apparent in “Middle Ground,” as the episode is built on small and unique character moments which bring perspective, and is ultimately why the episode works on its own. It’s what I love about The Wire, and it’s why “Middle Ground” is the series’ best episode.

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The Look Back: In the Mood for Love is a Thing of Beauty

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In The Look Back I will be looking at movies and television series/episodes with fairly recent anniversaries and writing about why I love them so. Basically it’s a desperate attempt to write about things that would normally have very little relevance at all.

Fourteen years ago, Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love premiered at Cannes. In the Mood for Love did not go on to win the Palme d’Or, as that honor went to Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark. It’s interesting that the film wasn’t awarded the festival’s most prestigious honor, because today, if you seek out a credible list ranking the best films of the 21st century, In the Mood for Love will be at its top. I don’t consider myself a slave to lists like Sight & Sound or TSPDT, but I would be very much inclined to agree with their placement of the film. (The only other option? Mulholland Drive, obviously.) This is because In the Mood for Love is clearly a thing of beauty.

In the Mood for Love is set in 1962 Hong Kong and focuses on the budding relationship between Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung, who did manage to win Cannes’ Best Actor award) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung). Both Chow and Su are married and live in neighboring apartments, which causes them to only interact in the day-to-day sense.

These everyday interactions (passing by each other in hallways, going out to get noodles) might seem mundane or unnecessary, but they are absolutely essential in In the Mood for Love. Exquisitely shot by cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Ping Bing Lee (who, along with editor William Chang won Cannes’ Technical Grand Prize), the sequences luxuriate every fleeting moment Chow and Su share together. In reality, they’re just scenes of characters walking, but in In the Mood for Love, the scenes are visually sumptuous filmmaking.

Working as writer and director, Wong puts so much emphasis on the little time Chow and Su share together for a reason. Wong often obscures our view when the characters share moments together, and in result we, the audience function more as a secret observer rather than a viewer. The camera is telling us something that the characters are not.

Once Chow and Su do spend actual time together talking, it’s under the worst of circumstances. They have realized that their spouses are cheating on them, with each other. Chow and Su are left on their own, and Su tells Chow “On your own, you are free to do lots of things.” Left to themselves Chow and Su recognize an attraction that they share for each other, but they soon realize they would be no better than their cheating spouses. So the camera explores their romance for them.

In the Mood for Love’s visual language speaks multitudes to Chow and Su’s romance. The sequences of the two together are often filmed in slow-motion, and they soon become a rumination on the nature of human connection. This also instills a sense of longing that neither Chow nor Su can express to each other. When they aren’t together, Chow and Su are in their cramped apartments and workplaces. When they are together, Chow and Su are in wide open places, and their time together becomes something of a separate, freeing reality.

Other formal elements of the film also inform Chow and Su’s romance. When together, almost every frame is flooded with color. Most often it’s red, the color of love and passion, and this warm, lush emotionality elevates every moment Chow and Su share together. There’s also the expressive, impactful use of music. The film’s score (by Michael Galasso and Shigeru Umebayashi) is yearning and aching, and the film also makes great use of Nat King Cole’s “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás” and “Aquellos Ojos Verdes.” It’s incredibly powerful, and perhaps the most successful use of music since Casablanca.

All of these formal elements bring Chow and Su together, even when as characters they explicitly do not. Every shot holds meaning, and the impact is never lost on the viewer thanks to Wong Kar-Wai’s evocative aesthetic artistry. In the Mood for Love is an emotionally expressive film in the grandest sense, and is entirely successful through pure filmmaking. That’s why it’s not only the greatest film of the 21st century, but is a thing of beauty.

The Look Back: David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive is Experiential Filmmaking at its Finest

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In The Look Back I will be looking at movies and television series/episodes with fairly recent anniversaries and writing about why I love them so. Basically it’s a desperate attempt to write about things that would normally have very little relevance at all.

The highest praise any given film can receive is that it’s an “experience.” When a film surpasses the ordinary expectations of storytelling what is remembered is not the experience of watching the film, but the actual experience the film becomes.

Thirteen years ago, when it premiered at Cannes, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive exhibited how pure of an experience a film could really be. Everything about the film works towards crafting a wholly unique experience that can only be described as Mulholland Drive.

The two characters who guide us through the film are “Rita,” an amnesiac, and Betty, a Hollywood newcomer who knows nothing about show business. At the film’s core is a mystery. “Rita” isn’t Rita, so Betty decides to help her find out who she really is.

What’s even more of mystery though, is how the film’s narrative develops. The film is a “mystery,” but rather than being a traditionally told one, the film’s plot functions more as a series of surreal events told through fragmented pieces. This adds a dreamlike quality to the film. Hollywood is where dreams come true, but in Mulholland Drive is it really just a dream?

On the outside, Hollywood is a place where up-and-coming actresses like Betty come and give auditions and sing doo-wop songs, but what lies beneath is much more darker than it seems. As Rita and Betty venture deeper into the mystery that encompasses their lives, more layers are peeled back, revealing things like terrifying dumpster monsters, secretive and controlling organizations, contract killers, dead women, deception, betrayal, heartbreak, and suicide. None of this is ever outright explained, and what becomes most mystifying is the unknown.

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Because Lynch ventures so deep into the unknown, the audience doesn’t really ever understand what the “known” is. Our guides through the film’s world are blank slates, and experiencing everything they do is perplexing for even the most prepared viewer. We’re even faced with what Rita and Betty encounter on a literal level, through Lynch’s liberal use of hand-held and P.O.V. camera work. The audience is put in the place of the film’s characters constantly, and we can make as much sense of their incomprehensible world as they can.

Through Lynch’s experiential filmmaking, we become Rita and Betty. And just like Rita and Betty, we are so often confronted with the unknown, and it becomes the most terrifying thing you can think of. What’s scarier than not knowing your name, your world, and yourself?

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But as the unknown becomes known for Rita, but mainly Betty, it still remains unclear for the audience. Was Rita and Betty’s time together (spoiler alert for a 13 year old movie) really a dream? What does Diane’s transformation into Betty say about herself? What does it say about good and evil? What about truth and deception? What really is reality, and what are dreams?

Because this film leaves the audience with so much to think about, there’s no other way to describe Mulholland Drive than as an experience. But, being an experience, was the entirety of Mulholland Drive the audience’s own escape from reality?

Just listen to what the band leader of club Silencio says in the film’s most pivotal scene:

No hay banda. There is no band. Il n’est pas de orchestra. No hay banda. And yet we hear a band. It is an illusion.

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Mulholland Drive is as much as an escape for Diane to become Betty as it is for the audience to become an active participant in the experience. Through David Lynch’s experiential filmmaking, Mulholland Drive is the most fully formed escape cinema has to offer.

No hay película. There is no film. Il n’est pas de film. No hay película. And yet we see a film. Mulholland Drive is an illusion.