Thug Life in D.C., an "America Undercover" documentary from HBO about incarceration in our nation's capital -- not in the actual Capitol, but close enough for discomfort -- begins with the Ripleyesque statistic that in the District of Columbia every other black male aged 18 to 35 is "in jail or in prison, on probation or parole, out on bond or wanted by the police." You can imagine what sort of entertainment will be built upon that rock, and it isn't Cosby.
Neither is it quite Cops, though it differs from that show more in artistry -- director Marc Levin also made the Sundance-honored Slam, which shares with Thug Life a setting and situation -- than in functional effect. For while it means, and manages, to excite pity, compassion and even a reluctant respect for its luckless subjects (where Cops wants only to make you love the police), it's nevertheless also an exercise, inevitably, in cultural voyeurism, in armchair slumming -- a fly-over of the lower depths from the comfort and double-locked, chain-bolted, rapid-response security of one's own home. HBO, which as a premium channel has the luxury of portraying life in its rawer particulars, produces a lot of this sort of stuff -- shows like Hookers at the Point, One Year in the Life of Crime (and its sequel, Life of Crime 2) and the always astonishing Taxicab Confessions, that Candid Camera of the night. Levin himself has worked for the network before, on subjects related to Thug Life, including Prison Life: Prisoners of the War on Drugs and Gang War: Bangin' in Little Rock.
The question with any such program is whether it goes beyond tabloid titillation to inspire some useful apprehension of the human condition, and to what degree it evaporates the otherness of those whose place, problems and practices are seemingly remote from our own; it's no good bringing the world into your living room if what's unfamiliar just stays foreign. It is a dead cert that a camera turned loose in a house of correction -- Thug Life mainly concerns the juvenile block of the 1,600-inmate D.C. jail -- will record something outside ordinary straight-life experience; the trick is to arrange that information in an order that manifests the deeper nature of things, their hidden relations, and Levin does this artfully nd in such a way that the point of the story isn't wholly clear until it's been wholly told. There is no distanced attempt to describe this institution, its inmates or administrators in terms political, sociological or historical; nor are the roots of inner-city distress directly addressed, nor remedies proposed, nor the practical facts of modern penology discussed. No pundits or pedants are employed, speaking from comfy chairs in book-lined libraries, only the people whose life this is, from warden Patricia Jackson on down. (The citizens of this community, on both sides of the bar, are nearly all African-American.)
What slowly emerges is a tale of what might be called "the humanity of evil." We see it first in the suddenly unguarded, devastatingly sweet smile of a 16-year-old murder suspect told by his mother that she misses him, and then, at greater length, in the recurring presence of Aundrey Burno, a.k.a. Bruno, also jailed at 16, and waiting two years for his cases (attempted murder and murder) to come to trial. (So much for the Sixth Amendment.) When we meet him, in solitary confinement, face masked with a towel, Bruno is talking tough, in a 'hood patois Levin has seen fit to subtitle; but eventually the mask comes off, and reflection begins, and to the camera and in meetings with his kid brother he tries to communicate what wisdom he's managed to accumulate. By the film's close, with Bruno now imprisoned as an adult with adults, his circumstances have if anything worsened: How will the story end? he's asked. "I die," he says. "I ain't got me surviving." That we've seen something in him worth saving makes the whole business that much more awful.
The face of crime a lifetime hence is the stuff of the Showtime series Total Recall 2070, based ostensibly on an Arnold Schwarzenegger film based ostensibly on a Philip K. Dick short story. Apart from the false-memory machinery of the model, however, the show takes its cues -- the drizzly, funky, smokestacked, billboarded, polyglot, neo-retro, Raymond Chandlerized future, the attitude and employment of its central character, and questions of consciousness among the android class -- from another Dick adaptation, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. And as in that film, its policeman hero, an agent of the Citizen's Protection Bureau, or CPB -- not to be confused with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting -- is something of a man in the middle, stuck between representing the interests and curbing the excesses of the Consortium, a syndicate of six corporations that has come to rule the world. As if that could ever happen!
As Detective David Hume -- not to be confused with the 18th-century Scottish philosopher -- Michael Easton (VR5, Two) banks his fires in a manner meant to suggest brooding thoughtfulness, reserves of passion and coiled force; once placed by People magazine among the world's 50 most beautiful humans, he's a little bit Duchovny, a little bit Keanu and a little bit Lost Baldwin Brother, with maybe a touch of Seth Green. And yet, notwithstanding he's a hotshot shamus, it takes him nearly the whole pilot to realize what anyone who has ever seen a movie, any movie, will recognize within seconds: that his new partner, Ian Farve (Karl Pruner), is born of no woman. Naturally, man and machine are fated for one of those odd couplings that have powered films as diverse as Alien Nation, 48 HRS., Turner & Hooch and the one with Whoopi Goldberg and a T. Rex, and indeed the whole show seems recycled and, in spite of such seemingly contempo topics as genetic determinism, conceptually antique. The robot issue goes back at least to Karel Capek's R.U.R., and even Philip Dick has been dead nearly 20 years. That said, Total Recall 2070 is well-made and fairly diverting, with lots of good-looking young actors and actresses (hardly a soul over 40 in this future), special effects and sets that look pretty good for TV, and Pruner's Farve pleasantly reminiscent of both Brent Spiner's Data and Dick Gautier's Hymie the Robot. It more or less computes.
There is another sort of speculative fiction that instead of imagining the future refigures the past, providing new explanations for old acts. Such are The Artists' Specials -- and its companions The Composers' Specials and The Inventors' Specials -- HBO series for kids that write a young person, or persons, into the life of a historical figure, in order to make history live.
In Mary Cassatt: American Impressionist, star Amy Brenneman (Your Friends and Neighbors, NYPD Blue) finds her atelier upset by the unexpected arrival from Philadelphia of her brother's family, including a snobby sister-in-law so horrible it's hard to reckon why someone hasn't taken a plank to her head, and three children who get underfoot, make fun of modern art, fight and sulk (teenage Katherine is missing the social season back home, while trying to deny the rough charms of young Gilbert the gardener), until they quite expectedly begin to improve each other's lot. There's Mary working away in somber tones to please the taste of the Salon, when little Elsie, sprawled in what art fans will recognize as the exact attitude of Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (with that painting's little dog, here called Wags -- and a bundle of trouble, you can imagine -- plopped nearby), asks, "Why are you using all dark colors? . . . I like bright colors. Blue is my favorite, but I like yellow and red, too." "So do I," says Aunt Mary, and -- voila! -- a masterpiece is born. Katherine, meanwhile, sets about trying to engineer a love connection between Mary and Edgar Degas, represented by Thomas Jay Ryan (of Hal Hartley's Henry Fool) as a kind of cute grump, allergic to flowers, children and dogs. (Though I happen to know that not only did Degas like dogs, he arranged to get one for Cassatt.) He utters his famous line about refusing to believe a woman could draw so well, offers practical advice about painting light coming through curtains ("give the paint in the background a scrubbed look") and doesn't change her name to his -- though it looked to me they might well sleep together after the show.
It's a silly thing, generally, but it stands up for the spiritual over the material, inner life over outward appearance, merit over class, talent over sex, the individual against (high) society, and for-art's-sake art as a human good, and aims to make creative eccentricity heroic. Such insanity is always welcome around these parts.
© Robert Lloyd 1999 and 2011