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Godard’s Breathless

Short response on the French New Wave film Breathless, written in 2012:

Jean-Luc Godard’s film Breathless is one of the most famous and influential films from the French New Wave. The film is characterized by the use of new techniques during shooting and production, yet managed to achieve mainstream success. Unlike popular Hollywood cinema of the time, Godard used hand held cameras, discontinuity editing, mise-en-scene and on-location shooting to give his film a new look. This experimental treatment by new wave directors, which made films seem amateurish and casual, was markedly different from the polished look of French films from the 1930s and 1940s. Multiple times in the film Godard would stray from the main narrative, Michel’s attempt to flee the country. Many scenes included information that did not move the story along in any direction, such as the longest scene in the movie when Michel and Patricia talk about inane issues in her bedroom. This gave the film an added element of realism and was unlike the passionate, character driven plotlines of Hollywood.

Editing in Breathless was one of the films most distinguishing accomplishments. Godard loved to incorporate jump shots and cared not for continuity in his editing. Tired of the conventional camerawork of the time, he broke from the norm and would on numerous occasions use the jump shot and hand held camera. One scene that typifies this style of editing is also one of the most crucial scenes in the film. The first time Michel encounters the law, and in the process shoots the patrolman (the central action around which the film is based). After breaking a few traffic laws and whizzing by a truck Michel finds himself being chased by two policemen. The camera pans from inside the car to look out the rear window where the police are seen overtaking the truck. The first jump cut of the segment is then utilized, with a long shot similar to the previous one of the police, except this time the truck is nowhere in sight. This discontinuity suggests a little time has passed as both the police and Michel have zoomed far ahead of the truck. Godard then breaks the 180-degree rule, showing two shots in quick succession. The first shows Michel’s car race across screen from left to right and then a cut to the two police officers riding in pursuit across screen from right to left. This minor shift of perspective is not enough to greatly confuse a viewer but is Godard’s playful way of experimenting with convention. Michel then parks his car off-road to deal with a mechanical problem. A series of medium shots of the police driving by on the road and Michel struggling to fix his car are shown. Eventually the second policeman notices the car and drives towards Michel. It is here we noticed Godard’s most significant use of the jump cut for much of the film. Michel, seeing the officer, reaches into his car via the open window and grabs his gun. The officer is heard off screen telling him to stop. The film cuts to a close up of Michel’s hat, slowly panning down to his face. There is then a jump cut pan down his arm to the gun. We hear him cock the gun. There is another jump cut to an extreme close up of the gun, panning along the bullet chamber and barrel and then the sound of the gun firing is heard. Following this there is a medium shot of the officer falling backward into bushes and then an extreme long shot of Michel running across a field. The jump cuts in this scene make the murder seem swift and as a result ruthless. The cuts can also be seen as Godard’s way of having us relate to Michel, who is apathetic and, much like a jump shot, disconnected. The restlessness of the characters is suited to the restless rhythm of the editing. The jump cut also forces the audience to focus on what is important in the scene, in this case the murder. Once the act is done the scene ends.

When one attempts to consider what molded Godard’s stylistic choices, it must be remembered that most French new wave directors were eager to push boundaries and try techniques and technologies that were new to them. Godard himself said Breathless “was the sort of film where anything goes: that was what it was all about. I [also] wanted to give the feeling that the techniques of film-making had just been discovered or experienced for the first time.[1]

This scene is a perfect example of new wave film editing and is a product of a new, rising post-war France. During the war, France’s reputation, economy and influence had taken a hammering. Now with the past behind them, many had started to refer to France as “awaking from its slumber[2]”. There was pride in the way the French people began rebuilding their country and its image. The fundamental changes within French society were reflected in the rebooting of their economy and the ‘New Look[3]’ in fashion. The significance of this new and exciting time was not lost to the young new wave directors. They jumped on the bandwagon with great abandon, hoping their new style would draw new audiences in a new era for cinema. Critics such as Godard berated the old guard of French directors for not putting effort into their art and fancied themselves as filmmakers. Many went on to gather money from friends and benefactors and do low budget films, with hand held cameras swiftly and efficiently (much like Breathless). “Literary and cultural criticism expanded during the late 1950s and early 1960s[4]” in France, further emboldening this new group of rising directors. “New forms, new modes of production, and new audiences proved that French culture was indeed undergoing what L’Express called a nouvelle vague [new wave], and that Wave was now proving significant to every aspect of Parisian life.[5]

This film’s defiance of traditional narrative techniques and editing make it a perfect example of French New Wave films. A familiar story told a different way, Breathless was more style than substance, but a style that was uniquely Godard and steeped in what would become new wave influence.

[1] Jean-Luc Godard, “‘From Critic to Film-Maker’: Godard in Interview [Cahiers du Cinema 128, December 1962]” (Cambridge. MA: Harvard University Press, 1985)

[2] Richard Neupert, Ch. 1, “Cultural Contexts: Where Did the Wave Begin?” in A History of the French New Wave Cinema (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002)

[3] Richard Neupert, Ch. 1, “Cultural Contexts: Where Did the Wave Begin?” in A History of the French New Wave Cinema (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002)

[4] Richard Neupert, Ch. 1, “Cultural Contexts: Where Did the Wave Begin?” in A History of the French New Wave Cinema (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002)

[5] Richard Neupert, Ch. 1, “Cultural Contexts: Where Did the Wave Begin?” in A History of the French New Wave Cinema (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002)


The Wire: The Influence of Social Institutions on the Individual in Postindustrial America

Took a class on the TV show The Wire recently and just wanted to share my lengthy final paper from the class, just to change things up.

The Wire attempts to depict a realistic world. There is no perfect case, the police are not all morally principled and do not all look like models. Criminals are not all the spawns of the devil, but more rounded, human characters. In an attempt to portray real affairs The Wire breaks with the most basic character drama conventions—it doesn’t dramatize the individual’s character development. Instead it examines how individuals are influenced in a postindustrial society. It demonstrates, over five seasons, the influence political and socio-economic institutions such as the Law (Baltimore PD, all seasons), Crime (Barksdale/Stanfield Organizations, all seasons), Politics (City Hall, season 4 and 5), Port (Unions and dockworkers, season 2), Education (Schools, season 4) and Media (Baltimore Sun, season 5) have on societies’ lower rungs. With close textual analysis of critical essays, as well as small scene examples, this paper will attempt to show the lives of the characters on The Wire, and indeed real life, are not affected solely by their actions and choices, but by those of the institutions they devote themselves to.

Mimi White’s essay ‘Ideological Analysis and Television’, in Channels of Discourse, Reassembled, primarily focuses on the meaning and use of ideological analysis and criticism in societal studies.  The ideology is based on the assumption that all cultural artifacts are produced by and for specific groups. It “aims to understand how a cultural text specifically embodies and enacts particular ranges of values, beliefs, and ideas[1]”, all of which are influenced by the “complex interrelationship between among different practices and institutions[2]” prevalent in our society. While this is not exactly pertinent to our discussion, if we use White’s theories as a lens with which to view the institutions in The Wire, we drawn some interesting similarities. The ideology is prevalent in the institutions that govern us and we, the general public, are shaped by their institutional and social interrelationships—all the while in their image. White examines her ideology through the use of Marxist theories of culture and society. These theories are based off the fundamental principal that the primary influence on a human society is its mode of reproduction (economic base). Society itself is broken into a base/superstructure model. Those who control the mode of reproduction control societal structure. “Class divisions are established based on who owns and controls the means of production and who labors within it. The dominant mode of production in turn determines the superstructure, which includes the arrangement of political and legal systems, culture and ideology.[3]” White could not be more clear in stating the power lies in the hands of those at the top, whose every action has far reaching implications that filter down to the general populace. And as stated in the essay, the dominant class (and in our discussion the institutions) only act, and produce, for their benefit. The older, more experienced, characters of The Wire, those who have dealt with institutions longer, know this. They understand that at the end of the day the institutions wield power for their benefit alone.

A scene from Season 1 typifies this attitude. Young drug dealers Poot and Wallace wax lyrical over boneless chicken nuggets, and wonder how much money the invention must have garnered for the innovator. D’Angelo, older and wiser, scoffs at their naivety. “The man who invented them things, just some sad ass down at the basement of McDonald’s thinking up some shit to make money for the real players[4]” he explains. The little man can never win against the power of the superstructure. In D’Angelo’s mind powerful institutions regularly exploit those with less power. Social inequality and economic subservience are the inevitable result.

Other theories White contemplates are those of subjectivity in an individual’s outlook to the world. Again this ideology can be used to frame our discussion on The Wire. These theories are argue “the very ideas of individuality and the self are built upon, and chronologically come after, one’s participation in complex networks of social and cultural processes that inform the unconscious as well as the conscious being.[5]” So, just as in real life, the characters on the show, regardless of where they are from, are shaped and defined by the institutions that govern them. White then considers the work of Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, who built upon the base/superstructure theory. Althusser believed while the mode of reproduction was vitally important, society was wholly made up of a “variety of interrelated social and intellectual activities or practices, including the economic, the political and the ideological.[6]” Each of these practices was influenced by, and in some cases were, the institutions. He further noted these practices, much like the institutions, were “distinct but coexisting arenas of human activity. They exert mutual influence and pressure on one another but also operate with relative autonomy.[7]” The institutions in the show are also all unique, yet defined by a network that influences and connects them all. For instance in Season 4, the ‘killing’ of a state’s witness led to a productive tension between the police department and city hall. In Season 5 both the police department and the newspaper delegate more resources to the investigation and reporting of the fictional serial killer. The institutions are constantly reacting to mutual situations and one another, in turn affecting the people at the lower rungs of society. Each season of The Wire is structured by this sort of mirroring of institutions, which will be further examined later in the paper.

In his essay ‘Dramatizing Individuation: Institutions, Assemblages, and The Wire’, from the journal Cinephile, Alasdair McMillan discusses institutions in The Wire alongside the theoretical institutions in philosopher Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish to examine ‘postindustrial’ urban society. In this vein McMillan defines the portrait of urban life in Baltimore by The Wire as a ““postindustrial American tragedy” of a minor metropolis and its decaying, dysfunctional institutions.[8]” The author believes that both Foucault’s work and the TV show ask one fundamental question—“what are the functions and effects of institutions in the formation of the ‘individual subject’?[9]” He uses the literal ‘wires’ in the wiretap as an analogy for the networks and connections made within the show. These ‘wires’ help us see beyond the usually closed doors of a city’s institutions, into their inner workings and how they discipline, manipulate and betray their subjects. The Wire, says McMillan, is much less concerned with any one institution and its workings than with the whole institutional network and fabric held together by the analogous wires.

Foucault states disciplinary powers, the institutions, seek to produce ‘docile bodies’, or individuals molded to be loyal to and perform within their given institution, and does this through attempted surveillance. This is exactly how the institutions in the show, primarily the Baltimore police department, deal with deviants and delinquency. However McMillan agrees disciplined criminals will always find a way to manipulate or subvert institutional techniques. In fact these techniques actually produce the criminals they are supposed to suppress. This can be seem in The Wire, where they drug organizations are forced to continually adapt to various police surveillance techniques. Corner boys maintain a large network of lookouts to warn of raids, and hide their ‘stash’ in bushes and guns on car tires so if taken in they are ‘clean’. The discipline and organization of the institution of law (the police) has forced the criminals to organize themselves in order to survive. This newfound discipline of the criminal institutions empowers further criminals. The cycle goes on and on leading to the bloody institutional combats that ensue: in this case the ‘War on Drugs’. As Foucault states the “delinquent is an institutional product.[10]” McMillan agrees stating the “actions of individuals within criminal organizations are clearly determined by their distinctive relationship with the legal institution.[11]” The crime and law institutions, and their eternal conflict, form the backdrop for the show. As time progresses we can see that while attempting to adapt to one another they slowly become more like one another, albeit with the criminals being more informal and violent. In the first episode of Season 3, de-facto head of the Barksdale Organization, Stringer Bell holds a meeting with his drug lieutenants where he informs them of an unpopular decision to ceded territory. The moans, groans and wisecracks (“Does the chair know we gonna look like punk ass bitches?[12]”) in an institutional setting mirror the morning briefings of the Western District police department. The Co-op drug dealer meetings also mirror a more informal version of the COMSTAT police briefings. While the criminal institutions are more fluid and independent that the institutions of the law, they are no less permanent. This can be observed at the end of every season. Season 1 ends with the arrest of higher ups in the Barksdale Organization, causing only an internal restructuring of the institution. The second season sees the Greek and his minions escape. The third season sees the eventual collapse of the Barksdales, thought immediately after we see the rise of Marlo Stanfield in season 4. Season 5 ends the series with neither institution satisfied, with the police no happier about their investigation than Stanfield is about his loss of street power and respect.

McMillan believes The Wire’s characters each struggle to resolve the conflicts between their own morals and wants and the desires of powerful institutions. ‘Docile bodies’, individuals who conform to the imperatives of the institutions, are usually the ‘bosses’ depicted in the show. They adapt themselves “wholeheartedly to the criteria of institutional selection and promotion[13]” to further themselves. The two best examples of this situation are Major Rawls and Stringer Bell. Over the course of the series Rawls manages to rise from Major to Acting Commissioner, “assisted by both his myopic faith in statistics and some shrewd political maneuvering.[14]” In doing so Rawls blindly agreed with the orders and desires coming out of city hall, the political institution of the show. They asked for lower crime rates, which would cause Rawls to put pressure on his lieutenants who in turn would increase the number of street level arrests to, as the police say, “juke the stats”. This would lead to little or no good police work, overuse of manpower and have a negative impact on the neighborhoods where people were wrongly or obsessively arrested. One docile body trying to rise within an institution can cause such suffering to the people on the street. Bell similarly rose within the Barksdale Organization, and did not care who he harmed along the way. His insistence on preferring better quality drugs to territory eventually led to his break with Avon and eventual death. However more importantly his lack of emphasis on street control left many of the Barksdale crew with no territories to defend when Marlo Stanfield took over. Bell’s focus on furthering himself would eventually affect the corner boys and soldiers who worked under him. In this context, primarily that of the law institution, “The Wire makes it painfully obvious that even as this discipline [Rawls and Bell show to their institutions] makes the hierarchical system of institutions ‘governable’, it prevents it from fulfilling its social functions.[15]” As mentioned above when the likes of Rawls are handed institutional imperatives from the political institution (mayor’s office), they are influenced to focus on the clearance rates of murders. The overall police policy on stats leads to useless and unethical arrests of minor offenders and users in the drug game, completely ignoring the big players. As mentioned by many of shows primary police characters this leads to low level arrests and raids instead of good, solid police work leading to high-profile arrests that matter.

The Wire’s propensity to mirror institutions is clear to see in season four with the juxtaposition of morning meetings between middle school teaching staff and police briefings. In a season four scene former officer and recently cleared schoolteacher Roland Pryzbylewski, or Prez, is seen in one such school meeting. In the meeting he is told that they are being pressured, by other institutions such as city hall, to show an increase in test scores. They are told to teach only a certain type of test question so when the scores go up the educational institution can say it is doing well. Prez understands what they are doing, explaining to a colleague that just like the police department they are “juking the stats. Turning robberies into larcenies, making rapes disappear. You juke the states and Majors become Colonels.[16]” Much like the stat manipulation in the police department, the institution will save face but not be affecting any real change. They will not have taught the children anything worthwhile, and thus yet again the people at the bottom rung of society suffer at the hands of the institutions. The essay ‘“Way Down in the Hole”: Systemic Urban Inequality and The Wire’, co-written by Anmol Chaddha and Wilson, claimed that the problem with inner-city schools was not necessarily their surroundings, but the fact that “these institutions pursued specific polices that had detrimental impacts on the achievement of black students. While urban decline was an important condition that contributed to failing schools, the practices of educational institutions resulted in even greater inequality.[17]” The stubborn practices and stat-obsessed rulings of the institution resulted in marginalization and social inequality of young, black students. “Even if a student does value education and is committed to succeeding in an inner-city school, the structural barriers in the education system as depicted in The Wire present tremendous obstacles.[18]

Similarly in season two we see the demise of the workforce through systematic pressure by institutions (in this case the Docks) leading to unemployment and social inequality. The dockworkers were struggling with the lack of work in the formal economy. In his book When Work Disappears, William Julius Wilson explains, “the lowering of unionization rates, which accompanied the decline in the mass production system, has also contributed to shrinking wages and nonwage compensation for less skilled workers.[19]” The economic institutions began to look for a more educated and suburban worker, doing away with the demand for cheap, low skilled laborer. The political institutions in The Wire focused on the redevelopment of the docks, for the gain of their political fundraisers and benefactors, transitioning to automated dock services. This political move led to mass unemployment among the dockworkers. This “joblessness and declining wages” that led to the “recent growth in ghetto poverty[20]” for African Americans, was now affecting the union dockworkers. Chaddha and Wilson’s essay once again, drew parallels between the plight of the white dockworkers and black residents in the show, both who were drawn to illicit activities to provide enough income to survive. There are “also clear similarities in their lack of trust in mainstream institutions and the sense they have been abandoned in the face of economic hardship.[21]” From When Work Disappears Wilson states the rise in ghetto poverty led to a shattering of community that held neighborhoods together. Less jobs lead to increase in “levels of crime and violence, leading to further deterioration of the neighborhood. The more rapid the neighborhood deterioration, the greater the institutional disinvestment.[22]” Another vicious cycle is discovered. With the rise in poverty and unemployment these ghetto neighborhoods became less and less desirable leading to less investment from the powerful institutions, much like in The Wire. Chaddha and Wilson write “beyond the problems posed by the restructured labor market and broader economic forces, political institutions have also failed to improve the conditions of the urban poor.[23]” The influences of the institutions enforce the status quo, sometimes even going above and beyond. The poor become poorer and the rich become richer at their expense leading to widespread social inequality. Through the characters of the show we can see “that various institutions work together to limit opportunities for the urban poor and that the actions, beliefs, and attitudes of individuals are shaped by their context.[24]” The dominant ideology in America is that one is poor of their own accord, their personal inadequacies to blame. The Wire undermines this view by showing us the decisions people make are hugely influenced by their environment and social circumstances.

In the Cinephile piece, McMillan quotes show creator David Simon as saying The Wire is about “the effects of institutions on individuals[25]”. Simon states more directly, “Whatever institution you as an individual commit to will somehow find a way to betray you on The Wire. Unless of course you’re willing to play the game without regard to the effect on others or society as a whole, in which case you might be a judge or the state police superintendent or governor one day. Or, for your loyalty, you still might be cannon fodder.[26]” This damningly statement shows Simon’s belief in the individual’s subservience to the institution. There is no greater example of a character who ‘played the game’ right but was eventually let down and betrayed by his belief and loyalty to his institution than Bodie. Starting as a young hopper in season one, he eventually rose through the ranks of his institutional crime organization by being loyal, obedient and hard working. Bodie was intelligent, ruthless, knew when to quit, and believed in the principles held by his institution. He died defending his corner, doing what he knew was right. The most loyal and faithful player of the game met his end unceremoniously, with two in the back of the head. He died just as he described in season one, a pawn in the grand scheme of things. While Simon says the show is about the influence institutions exert on individuals, I am inclined to believe it is as much a representation of the constant struggle between the two. The Wire suggests multiple times over its five seasons that “the only way for individuals to accomplish anything substantial from within their dysfunctional institutions[27]” they must go against them. Sometimes, “when the institution is dysfunctional, a transgression of its rules might just become a small victory for justice.[28]” There is no greater personification of this thought that the character of Jimmy McNulty. McNulty time and again would go above the heads of his superiors in order to influence cases, finally going as far as to create a fictional serial killer in season five so he could use the funds given to him for ‘real police work’. McNulty is the definition of the Individual-Institution battle that wages on around him. In his essay ‘The Depth of the Hole: Intertextuality and Tom Waits’s “Way Down in the Hole”’ James Braxton Peterson claims characters on the show are often “confront and are conflicted by the strictures of certain institutions.[29]” For example, in season 1, D’Angelo was often at odds with the institution of crime represented by his own family. In season 2, we see McNulty against the law and the workers against the Port. Season 3 features Omar Little versus the Barksdale organization/institution of crime and Major Colvin against the law. And in season 4 we see the personal struggles of Namond, Michael and the schoolboys as they face “the institutional-individual confrontation along at least two axes: the Individual v.s. the School, and the Individual v.s. the Street.[30]

            The Wire is, as David Simon calls it, a “66-hour movie[31]” that goes far beyond the limits of genre. Rather it is an artistic statement of the individual condition in a society dominated by dysfunctional institutions. These institutions are immortal and cyclic in nature. With the fall of every drug kingpin, another rises. The demotion of one detective leads to the promotion of another. The constant ebb and flow between these institutions influences the actions of individuals in society, usually leading to social displacement, urban poverty and inequality and an internal conflict to find ones identity. The institutions force each and every character in The Wire to ‘play the game’, leading to various degrees of success and failure. Individuals must try their luck, or stay stagnant, as you can’t win if you don’t play the game. After all, as Omar says, “it’s all in the game.[32]

[1] White, Mimi. “Ideological Analysis and Television.” Channels of Discourse, Reassembled: Television and Contemporary Criticism. 163

[2] Ibid. 163

[3] Ibid. 164

[4] The Wire, Season 1. Simon, David.

[5] White, Mimi. “Ideological Analysis and Television.” Channels of Discourse, Reassembled: Television and Contemporary Criticism. 166

[6] Ibid. 168

[7] White, Mimi. “Ideological Analysis and Television.” Channels of Discourse, Reassembled: Television and Contemporary Criticism. 168

[8] McMillan, Alasdair. “Dramatizing Individuation: Institutions, Assemblages, and The Wire” Cinephile 4.

[9] Ibid.

[10] McMillan, Alasdair. “Dramatizing Individuation: Institutions, Assemblages, and The Wire” Cinephile 4.

[11] Ibid.

[12] The Wire. Season 3 Episode 1. Simon, David.

[13] McMillan, Alasdair. “Dramatizing Individuation: Institutions, Assemblages, and The Wire” Cinephile 4.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] The Wire. Season 4. Simon, David.

[17] Chaddha, Anmol, and Wilson, William J. ““Way Down in the Hole”: Systemic Urban Inequality and The Wire.” Critical Inquiry 38. 183

[18] Chaddha, Anmol, and Wilson, William J. ““Way Down in the Hole”: Systemic Urban Inequality and The Wire.” Critical Inquiry 38. 184

[19] Wilson, William J. When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor. 28

[20] Ibid. 34

[21] Chaddha, Anmol, and Wilson, William J. ““Way Down in the Hole”: Systemic Urban Inequality and The Wire.” Critical Inquiry 38. 175

[22] Wilson, William J. When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor. 44

[23] Chaddha, Anmol, and Wilson, William J. ““Way Down in the Hole”: Systemic Urban Inequality and The Wire.” Critical Inquiry 38. 180

[24] Ibid. 165

[25] McMillan, Alasdair. “Dramatizing Individuation: Institutions, Assemblages, and The Wire” Cinephile 4.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] McMillan, Alasdair. “Dramatizing Individuation: Institutions, Assemblages, and The Wire” Cinephile 4.

[29] Peterson, James B. “The Depth of the Hole: Intertextuality and Tom Waits’s “Way Down in the Hole”” Criticism, 52.3-4. 464.

[30] Ibid. 465.

[31] McMillan, Alasdair. “Dramatizing Individuation: Institutions, Assemblages, and The Wire” Cinephile 4.

[32] The Wire. Season 5. Simon, David.