Friday, September 28, 2007

Whither Europe?

A Manifesto commenter made me start thinking about something- why is there a Europe? First though, I'd like to link a VERY eye-opening article I just read about weight-loss (that transition almost sounded like a newsbroadcast.) I don't care about weight-loss, so me finding this article interesting says a lot about the article. This article makes an overwhelmingly persuasive case that exercise has no effect on weight loss on the aggregate. It's pretty shocking, but it really seems like they may be right. Read it here.

Okay, so why is there a Europe? Let me preface this first by saying that John and I have traveled somewhat extensively and have plenty of European friends. I mean, we're totally comfortable with it- you can go shopping with them, go to the clubs, whatevah. Your coworkers, your brothers, your mom and dad might be Europeans and just haven't been open about it yet.

Okay that was a tangent and a half for a basically kinda lame joke... Sorry. So why is europe a continent? Let's answer it the simple and obvious way first, which is to say: "they made the maps."

Okay so that's why Europe IS a continent, but why should it be a continent? I urge you to review the map again. Europe is obviously, uncontroversially, just the western part of the Asian continent. The definition of "Continent" is notoriously vague but it's "understood to be large, continuous, discrete masses of land, ideally separated by expanses of water." Which is to say, Europe doesn't count. Have a look at this picture from space and see if you can find a single reason why Europe should be its own continent:

North and South America are technically connected by a thin strip of land (the Darien Gap, a dangerous place me and M. Zee actually braved and loved) and if someone wants to make the case they should be the same, that's fine. Personally I see a pretty simple intuitive difference of land when viewing the landmass so i vote different. But Europe? No way. One rather gets the impression that the Europeans simply wanted to distinguish themselves from those "unwashed hordes" who looked and spoke differently- hence the separation.

I could keep ranting about this for much, much longer but I've decided to cut it short since it was basically just inspired by one commenter. There have been a lot of aaaathatsfiveas regulars (like MC) basically owning off-the-cuff commenters lately on geography-related issues- it's so hot right now.

This is one of the best wiki pages I've ever seen, providing a chronology of inventions that's far more riveting and fascinating that you would think.

Posts I live to write, Part One

I'm going to go ahead and take this opportunity to talk a bit about HBO's the Wire, the best thing I've ever seen on any screen anywhere any time (movies, television, anything.) When one is in a situation of liking something fairly obscure so damn much, the ways to proceed become difficult. I'm not sure I could overhype the Wire if I tried, but I know that of everyone who's watched the wire on my account, only one hasn't unabashedly loved it and I probably gave him the mistaken impression that the Wire will instantly hook you. (Also, he's a noted contrarian who only seems to appreciate dramas that are whimsical and/or nostalgic.) Watch it with subtitles on at first and commit yourself to the entire first season, as crazy as that sounds.

What I'm about to say is going to sound extreme and over-the-top to most of you and maybe it is. But bracket your scepticism for a moment and consider this: In 1878 a Railroad tycoon hired photographer Eadweard Muybridge to settle a bet on whether a galloping horse ever had all four of its feet off the ground and Muybridge's solution (the zoopraxiscope) sparked the creation of the motion picture. 62 years later Orson Welles was filming Citizen Kane, the movie that finally realized the deep potential of the technology. I'm not some Citizen Kane worshiper by any stretch, but I'm sure it must've felt like a revelation that after decades of light, funny, consciously-"populist" fluff^^^ someone was finally demonstrating new artistic and narrative depths w/r/t cinema. The same year Citizen Kane was released, New York licensed the country's first commercial broadcasting station for television the story of which hardly needs telling, but could also be largely summarized as "consciously-populist fluff." However, on June 2, 2002- 62 years after Citizen Kane was filmed- The Wire was broadcast on HBO to little fanfare.

I'm not comparing the two accomplishments themselves, but I would submit to you that The Wire realizes the potential of television as a political, sociological and artistic medium in much the same way the Citizen Kane did for film. These aren't the kind of things you're supposed to say unless you're speaking about things that are 30 years old but I think it's true. You spend 50+ hours watching this group of people in the Wire (a phenomenon unique to TV), and if anything is the difference that makes the Wire so great, it's that the writer's really "get" that. No character is so "heroic" that they don't have deep flaws. And I don't mean "Ross is a bit arrogant/ Phoebe's kinda spacey" flaws- we're talking excessive use of force, cheating, theft, murder, etc. I feel the deepest sympathy when the "villains" die, but it's not because the show tells me how to feel (you won't hear a single strain of tear-jerking strings trying to cajole you) but because they were so real (so real in fact, that describing anyone but Marlo as a villain feels wrong. Screw Marlo though, seriously.) Alright, enough of that let me make fun of Lost a little bit.

I debated about writing this part, because most of the people I dearly love also love Lost. Some of them got into Lost based on my strong recommendation and I feel really guilty for being all "hey check out this cool thing, oh you like it? Okay now it sucks" about it. However, I'm just not the same television viewer that I was back then. I was hooked on Lost for awhile and I remember being impressed with how intelligent it was ("oooh they name characters after philosophers how totally fucking deep!") for a TV show. It's embarrassing to have to even type that out now because Lost is not an intelligent show and it's not even a very original show (Twin Peaks meets Gilligan's island!) It's simply figured out that by promising a resolution that it can never provide it can maintain some viewership faithful for the payoff (which- trust me- will be deeply unsatisfying at best.) Further, by shifting the new focal points of each different season like a debtor transferring credit card balances they can make you forget that, when all's said and done, they owe you a shitload of money and they aren't paying it down. That's not really it though; there's something more.

Lost, along with every other piece of non-HBO drama I've seen since getting hooked on the Wire feels deeply, deeply manipulative. Leah and I were excited to get back to watching Lost after a Wire-driven hiatus (and the overwhelming-sounding fact that 4 complete seasons of the Wire are already out there will soon feel like a god-damn Christmas present, btw) and our reaction was so immediate that it was unmistakable what had happened. The camera had panned-in on Jack's face while he said some calculatedly dramatic thing as booming over-the-top strings repeated an ominous low G to make you feel the exact sense of foreboding and dread before the cut to commercial. It felt so hammy and self-satirical that Leah and I both wanted to laugh and yet we looked around the room at our rapt friends, reflexively watching a jeep commercial (not a coincidence, obvs) with mouths agape, and marveled at how big the gap had become; we were not the same TV-watchers who had raved about lost 3 months before.

At this point I could play it off self-deprecatingly and wax nostalgic about my new inability to appreciate some former entertainment, but the truth is it felt good and refreshing to recognize the naked manipulation of Lost. We've since tried three+ times to watch season 3 and we haven't even come close; it feels like someone explaining why a joke's funny (and if this piece does too, then I'm sorry but I'm only trying to tell my story.)

Bill "The Sports Guy" Simmons has a great article about the Wire (and he mentions it frequently) that's worth quoting at length:

We ended up banging out three episodes the first night and another three the second night. Then our cable system switched to a new provider ... and all the Season 1 episodes disappeared into thin air. Now we were scrambling. None of the video stores around us had Season 1 in stock. I ended up ordering Season 1 online (two-day delivery courtesy of Amazon Prime), but we were so hooked on the show that when someone returned Season 1 to our video store, we rented the last three discs that same night. We banged out the last seven episodes in two nights before the DVD was even delivered.

That so closely resembles my own experience that it's funny- I remember waking up at 5:00 am to watch 2 episodes before I had to go to work on more than one occasion. He goes on "I'd put Season 1 of "The Wire" against anything." (which I'd amend only to include all of the Wire with season 4 being the best... so far) and " Anyway, I can't believe I didn't watch this show sooner. It enrages me." which I complete relate to.

The Wire Season 4 is a true masterpiece, in which they follow the rise of a new drug lord along with 4 urban youths being tempted to drop out and fully commit to that world. Metacritic (basically the same as Rottentomatoes, good for non-movie things like shows books, etc.) has The Wire season 4 listed at 98/100 based on all of the collected reviews- the highest rated TV show there is, period. Reviews like " This is TV as great modern literature, a shattering and heartbreaking urban epic" don't seem at all over the top, nor do the surprisingly frequent comparisons to Dickens. Slate says ""no other program has ever done anything remotely like what this one does, namely to portray the social, political, and economic life of an American city with the scope, observational precision, and moral vision of great literature."

Part of what makes the show so great is that it's written by an ex-cop-turned-teacher and an ex-journalist for the Baltimore Sun. Their Baltimore is a strikingly realistic one as a result, and versatile enough to make any point it needs to make without being overt. The Wire is highly political, but they aren't lazy about it by making one character verbosely political and speaking for the writers (in fact, the most articulate political points that are spoken- Carcetti S3E12- support the very opposite view of the creators.)

Interviews with the creator David Simon (the ex-journalist) have become one of my new favorite things to look for on the web. Like other true geniuses (Noam Chomsky and DFW among them) every interview feels brilliant and free flowing as if you could ask any question and the answer would be just as strikingly insightful. The connections to Chomsky don't stop there- Simon constantly describes the show as being about the powerlessness of the individual in the face of the gigantic institutions. Chomsky describes much of what he does as "Institutional Analysis", deemphasizing the role of individuals in the face of pressures monetary, political, social, and so on. When Season 5 (the final Season of The Wire and "The one about the media") gets started in January, I won't be surprised at all if it plays like Manufacturing Consent. Incidentally, I have it on good Authority that Chomsky is a Law and Order fan (no kidding) from way back and "never misses an episode." Based simply on that I know that The Wire is therefore his favorite show in history and that he now hates that he ever even watched Law and Order once.

I'll close with some more Bill Simmons (remember he's "the sports guy") who breaks character to end a column with a rumination on Season 4. After saying that "I agree with others who argue that it's the most important television show of all-time", he ends his piece with these words which are again worth quoting at length:

"Two weeks ago in this space, I explained how I'm one of those people who doesn't like when other people tell me, "YOU HAVE TO WATCH THIS SHOW!" If anything, that makes me not want to watch it. I like to stumble across these things organically.

Now I'm wondering if I avoided "The Wire" because its central themes -- drugs, corruption, urban decay -- were realities that I simply wanted to ignore. Instead of being haunted by a show like this, it was easier and safer to skip it entirely. Most people feel this way, I'm guessing; it's the only conceivable reason why five times as many people would watch "The Sopranos" over a show that's better in every way****. See, when most Americans dabble in inner-city TV shows or movies for our "taste" of street life, we're hoping for the Hollywood version. We don't want despair and decay, we want hope and triumph. We don't want the zero sum game of drug dealers killing each other, we want the Rock coaching juvie kids and turning their lives around in two hours. We want them to win the big football game, we want the movie to end, and we don't want to think about these people ever again.

That's the real reason why "Gridiron Gang" became the No. 1 movie last weekend, and that's the real reason why "The Wire" was barely renewed for a fifth season."

Why did I wait so long to watch the Wire? My Dad has been into it forever and telling me I needed to watch it, and I'd read the otherworldly praise it's received since the beginning, but it still took me forever. Maybe because it seemed like a project and projects are easy to put off. Maybe (and let's be honest here) because it wasn't marketed to me, advertised to me, or reported about to me (no glossy magazines targeting my demographic were running cover stories, though inevitably some smart hip guy on the staff loved it and threw in blurbs wherever he could, seriously.)

I've had this post ready for a long time, and I've hesitated to post it because I couldn't think of a way to end it. In my head I thought I wanted to talk about the difference between your unique self versus your "Middle class American age 24-36" demographic market self- the self who discovers and treasures a song or an album from unlikely sources versus the self who goes out and purchases the Garden State or The OC soundtracks and moves on. That made the Wire sound like it had obscurantist tendencies, which it doesn't. There's nothing all that difficult about the show (while it extremely, immeasurably intelligent it doesn't even have to be watched on that level to be appreciated) apart from learning the characters at first. That's why I decided to quote the sports guy at length; it's an important show- a show on which drugs have been realistically legalized for a spell, the decline of working man has been rendered literally and metaphorically- but it's also a viscerally exciting; edge of your seat entertainment.

Let me instead end with a horrible marketing tagline, which may be all you need at this point to start watching it: Maggie Gyllenhaal says:

"Make a The Wire transfer and watch your "interest" compound hourly!!!"

^^^ Of course this is an oversimplification; this is just a rhetorical device. Congratulations on having seen La R├Ęgle du jeu.
****If you've read Simmons in the past, you'll know that he absolutely loves Sopranos and wrote about it frequently, which makes this line even more heartfelt.

Don't watch this video below under any circumstances unless you've seen the Wire multiple times. There are several reasons for this, not the least of which being that you could be two minutes closer to the video store by the time you were finished. Obviously the video store trip's aim would be acquiring the first 4 discs of the Wire season 1.