Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

The urban dystopia, then and now

I watched “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” recently, and that movie plus my re-watching of “The Wire” on DVD brought up some thoughts about cities, society and progress.

“Pelham” is set in early-’70s New York City, and it was kind of jarring to see and hear the regular stereotyping, not only in the dialogue but even in the closing credits. The leader of the train hijackers is considered “a fruitcake” (read: gay) because of his British accent, there is talk about how women are inferior in their performance of jobs with the Transit Authority and Police Department, and the most sexist blather is about how one of the hostages in the subway car is an undercover police officer and is believed to be a “dame,” which would seem to limit the officer’s effectiveness.

In fact, the officer is a man dressed as a hippie, wearing long hair and with sandals on his feet, and he turns out to be a hero after the robbers set the subway car in motion at high speed and make their escape. He jumps out, shoots a hijacker and is shot himself.

Walter Matthau played Lt. Zachary Garber of New York City’s transit police, and when he descends into the tunnel and finds the injured officer, he says, “Don’t worry, miss, the ambulance is on its way.”

I place movies like “Pelham” in the same category as “Serpico,” “The French Connection,” “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Taxi Driver.” Maybe it’s a characteristic of movies made in and about the 1970s in New York City, but the movie-version city is always on the verge of total chaos brought about by some event. It’s crowded, gritty, under extreme social and economic stress, and basically a pressure-cooker.

Contrast this with “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan,” which are late-’70s films that show a much more upbeat view of New York City. “I don’t care what anyone says; this is still a great city,” Woody Allen’s character Isaac says in “Manhattan.” Diversity, a threat in the other films, is a strength in the above-mentioned works by Allen.

Now flash-forward about 30 years or more.

HBO’s series “The Wire” is set in post-9/11 Baltimore, a city also seemingly on the verge of collapse. I have all five seasons on DVD, and recently started a project to watch from Season One.

“The Wire” is the best series HBO has ever aired, and maybe the best ever on television, and while HBO has had some awesome series, this one is the most real. There are great actors here, but the real star is the city of Baltimore. The characters, good and bad, serve it, leech off it and use it to further their ambitions, grabbing for crumbs as the city’s government flails about and struggles to stay afloat financially and otherwise.

Nobody is totally clean – or totally dirty. That ambiguity makes “The Wire” great, and it’s a pity that the show’s creators and stars are not decorating their houses with Emmys. I guess the show was too real for many people. I know from reading and listening that some thought there were too many black characters. Well, the real world is sometimes hard for people to take when it’s presented on television.

The grit in Baltimore is there, but not in the washed-out colors of a ’70s film like “Pelham.” There’s the drug trade, the public housing project “towers” (CGI’d in because the series was shot on location after the “towers” were demolished), the “pit,” the cops, the system, the police cars, the Escalades and the bosses (drug and police), who demand much and go ballistic when things go wrong. And when someone screws up, the penalty is real assassination for those in the “game” or career assassination for those on the police force.

There is the struggle to make a living, the compromises that are made, the values that are touted and then dismissed, the dreams made and lost, innocence flowering and lost. There are a few small victories, and a few are even preserved to the end.

I feel a connection between “The Wire” and “Pelham,” and it’s the notion of the big city and its battles. But I feel less pessimistic about a city like New York than Baltimore. I am biased because I grew up in Queens and saw Manhattan as a shining city to visit, and have never been to Baltimore.

Still, while life is hard in New York City, I always get the feeling that it will somehow triumph, while the Baltimore of “The Wire” seems to be doomed.

Season Five really hit home because of its focus on the media, and again the bad are rewarded and the good are punished. Again, that’s why its ratings were so low; it was just too real.

The future of the city is up in the air. Places like Detroit have seemingly lost everything, and now there will be no printed daily newspaper seven days a week. Other cities may claw their way back to the heights.

It’s hard to imagine now, but the New York City of the era of “Pelham” was thought to be so over. As it turned out, it wasn’t and even survived probably the worst disaster imaginable on Sept. 11, 2001, which only shows that bricks and mortar may be destroyed, but people are made of stronger stuff.

But even then, sometimes people lose. And that’s the message of “The Wire.” And when they lose again and again, it can be too much.


December 17, 2008 - Posted by | Living in the modern age | , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. Hi — a quick story about the Wire. I was hooked when it first came on the air because an old boss of mine was on the show. In the late 90’s I worked in an Ad Agency and this guy was supposed to give many presentations to clients. I heard he was very nervous about this and his boss told him to take acting lessons to improve his public speaking skills. (And to be honest, I pretend I’m someone else whenever I’m asked to speak publicly or teach co-workers!)

    I learned later how good his acting lessons were, when I started to see him in commercials after he left the agency. So when you’re watching the Wire – check out the cop behind the desk, always wearing a white shirt and frown, John Doman. My old boss.

    Merry Christmas, Vinny!

    Comment by Diana-NYC | December 24, 2008 | Reply

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