The Corner, a six-part HBO miniseries about drugs and dependence set within a few square bad blocks of West Baltimore, is a nearly perfect piece of work, and I say “nearly” mainly in order to sound credible. Its occasional lapses in tone — as when a statistic or political point becomes a not particularly persuasive line of dialogue — make the merest dent in its overall excellence, and you may as well just forget I mentioned them. Television has made much use of junkies and dealers, populating the lower depths of cop shows, animating the odd documentary or shocking special report — particularly shocking, of course, when the subjects are middle-class teenagers, bored housewives or supermodels. Such things are “sensational” in the favored Man Bites Dog mode, whereas the addictions of the conveniently distant poor are regarded, by the people who bring you TV and by many other people besides, as commonplace and therefore beneath comment or coverage, except as they affect the crime rate. The Corner rectifies this oversight.
The series was clearly not made to please anyone. It is not pleasant, though it’s sometimes funny. It’s often hard to watch, and yet it’s just as hard to look away — not from morbid fascination but rather from a sort of awakened brotherly curiosity. Directed with a sure, never-heavy hand by actor Charles S. Dutton and adapted by David Mills and David Simon from a book Simon co-authored with ex-cop Edward Burns (Simon also wrote the book that inspired Homicide: Life on the Street), the series dramatizes the intertwining true stories of Gary McCullough, Fran Boyd and their teenage son DeAndre (T.K. Carter, Khandi Alexander of NewsRadio “fame” and Sean Nelson, respectively), with plenty of attention paid to a host of other characters who stumble, stride or sashay through their lives. (None of the actors, of whom mention must also be made of Toy Connor, Tasha Smith, Clarke Peters, Tyra Ferrell and Glenn Plummer, are any less than remarkable.) They steal, lie, cheat, shoot drugs, snort drugs, smoke drugs, sell drugs, shoot guns, skip school and break faith, and yet they are even at their worst sympathetic, because The Corner takes the time to show them at their best and all the stops in between. It is not in a hurry; it lets you hang. Time is the great luxury of television — The Corner runs about as long as the first two Godfather films combined — albeit a luxury largely squandered on material whose substance may be grasped entire by the first commercial break.
That Fran and Gary’s story in broad terms resembles The Days of Wine and Roses may be excused, since it actually happened that way, but Dutton, who grew up in the vicinity and knows his subject well, takes pains to avoid melodrama — no underscoring, no fancy camera angles, goofy lenses or unnatural lighting — and polemics. Certainly the series has a point of view — you will likely not leave it wanting to run out and score some smack, and you may pay your taxes a little more graciously this year — but it makes its case more by example than assertion. Shot in the documentary style reminiscent, not too surprisingly, of Homicide (which is not at all the nervous “documentary” style familiar from NYPD Blue), the series has the intimacy and pace and engaged repose of cinema verite; it’s slow and somewhat repetitious and, in the Hollywood sense of things, uneventful. When they are not hurrying through the frame looking for junk or money or something to steal or stealing something or making a stab at keeping a job and keeping straight, the characters take it slow. They lounge. They shoot the shit. They shoot hoops. They shoot up. Working the open-air drug markets that dot the neighborhood intersections is largely a matter of standing around, and when the cops show up, it’s a matter of standing around with legs spread. When something bad — something worse than the usual bad, that is — happens, it happens fast and is over fast, and is likely as not glimpsed from a distance, as by a passerby. In the series’ one gun battle, the enemy is unseen and possibly imagined. There’s an almost pastoral quality to some scenes — film tends to soften and prettify the ugliest, most broken-down subjects so long as the light’s good — and this is not entirely inappropriate, since even in the ghetto there are sometimes palmy days.
Yet the tension rarely lets up; and when it does, in the aerobic release of a dance party or the ordinary calm of a Thanksgiving dinner, it’s almost shocking. As for the fate of the characters themselves, as already written in real life by the characters themselves, well, change is usually a matter of increments, of last straws, and of often barely perceptible steps into or out of the mire, and the filmmakers have opted not to freight their drama with false fire and a big finish — progress and regress is embodied here in the slightest adjustments of attitude, in the cock of a head, the focus of the eyes, the slope of a shoulder. None of it leads toward a resolution, because the story doesn’t really end. Some of the players survive, some even thrive, but the corner is still there.
As things stand, The Corner could only have been made in the unbeholden realm of noncommercial premium cable — the money you pay to watch HBO or Showtime indemnifies the network against your possible outrage. (A public broadcasting system less subject to the bluster of partisan windbags might have produced something like this, but we don’t have one of those here.) MTV, which runs ads, pitches itself to kids and comes gratis with most cable subscriptions, doesn’t operate with quite that freedom, but its advertisers are far less likely than the family-car and baby-powder manufacturers of America to object to unconventional content — indeed, they’re paying to share in the network’s aura of jiggy-with-it youthcult edginess — and as a result things over there sometimes can get a little out of hand. Freedom has its downside.
All that MTV hath wrought in terms of audio-visual overexcitement and adolescent mind control has been applied to its second made-for-TV movie, Jailbait!, in which a dimwitted 18-year-old high school jock senior (Kevin Mundy) is put on trial for having sex, lots of sex, with a not significantly brighter 15-year-old trailer-trash sophomore (Alycia Purrott). Though described as a satire, it is essentially a Britney Spears video stretched to feature length, to similar soft-porn effect; directed by Allan Moyle (Empire Records, Pump Up the Volume) to reflect the house style, it’s all fancy camera angles, goofy lenses and a big-rock soundtrack — Blink-182, Sugar Ray, Bush and their like — to be issued on CD, naturally, in yet another display of the fearful synergy that increasingly deforms the content of our media. That MTV is also airing a video promoting a song from that compilation (“All My Fault” by the band Fenix TX) featuring Purrott and clips from the film should not surprise you. (Kurt Cobain is so very dead.)
Satire, says my dictionary, means “trenchant wit, irony, or sarcasm used to expose and discredit vice or folly,” but setting aside the film’s near-total lack of trenchant or any other sort of wit and its failure to marshal more than a handful of tired stereotypes and straw villains — even the network’s own related Web page admits the unlikeliness of the courtroom scenario — it’s never really clear what if anything is being satirized (apart from the media, again). If it means to question age-of-consent laws, it does a good job of undermining its case: These are poster children for chastity belts, for castration. Occasionally, as in a zany trying-to-induce-abortion sequence (the girl gets pregnant, twice), the picture seems to me frankly irresponsible, and more especially so in light of the proficiency with which it has been shot and edited. As with a wink it pats its hump-mad leads on the head and sends them off into a happy ending, the picture ultimately reads as a defense of MTV itself, its sexualized aesthetic, and its audience, which no doubt includes more than a few deflowered 15-year-olds, and many many more who’d like to be. “Who hasn’t screwed a sophomore?” someone rhetorically asks.
Oh shut up, I rhetorically reply.
© Robert Lloyd 2000 and 2011