Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 13, 2017

The Deuce

Filed under: racism,television — louisproyect @ 5:25 pm

I have just spent probably the longest 90 minutes of my life watching the first episode of “The Deuce”, an HBO series that examines prostitution and pornography in New York City in 1971. The show is co-written by George Pelecanos and David Simon, the creative team behind “The Wire”, another highly acclaimed HBO series that I could never stand for more than 5 minutes. Both shows are highly exploitative. In the name of gritty realism, they pander to the tastes of an educated urban middle-class that gets its kicks out of gaping at society’s lower-depths, especially African-American petty criminals who are stereotyped in this fare. In “The Wire”, it was drug dealers; in “The Deuce”, it is pimps and prostitutes. Despite the lofty pretensions of the men and women behind this series, it is nothing but Blaxploitation tailored to the carriage trade. All this would be forgivable if there was something dramatic going on. Sitting through the first episode was analogous to watching paint dry, to use a hoary cliché. How something as lurid as pimps and whores going about their business could turn out to be so humdrum and predictable indicates to me that Simon and Pelecanos’s reputation has been overblown to the nth degree.

“The Deuce” includes Richard Price and James Franco as executive producers, who likely had an influence on the story’s narrative arc. Price, a one-time very good novelist, began a steep decline once he began writing policiers like “Clockers”, a 1992 novel based on the cat-and-mouse games played by cops and African-American drug dealers. Expecting something approaching Dostoyevsky based on the rave reviews, I couldn’t get past page 50 or so. This novel evidently qualified Price to begin writing for its first cousin “The Wire” ten years later. Price also adapted the very fine British Criminal Justice TV series about a young man falsely accused of murdering a woman he met on a one-night stand into the mess called “The Night Of”. Like “The Wire” and “The Deuce”, it was mostly a way for Price to highlight repulsive and grotesque African-American characters.

In addition to executive producing “The Deuce”, James Franco plays twin brothers Vinnie and Frank Martino. Vinnie is a bartender from Brooklyn while his brother is a Vietnam vet with a gambling addiction. Evidently the two of them become pioneers of the porn industry but I don’t have plans to stick around to watch the characters “making it”. I find pornography in and of itself to be a crushing bore so I don’t expect a film about its rise to break the mold.

Like Franco, Maggie Gyllenhaal is both an executive producer and an actor. She plays Eileen “Candy” Merrell, a street-walker in Times Square, where most of the action takes place. Unlike the other whores, she works on her own.

Setting the tone for the sort of pimps that are featured in “The Deuce”, we meet C.C. and Reggie Love hanging out in the Port Authority Bus Terminal. They are dressed in the garish costumes featured in Blaxploitation films of this period, conked hair and all. The predictably named Reggie Love, who has returned from a tour of duty in Vietnam, is singing the praises of Richard Nixon whose ability to intimidate the Vietnamese makes him a fellow pimp in spirit. From there the conversation turns to how they want to line up some white bitches for their stable. Listening to the dialog between the two characters is a revolting experience akin to that produced by the scene in “Dumbo” where crows are stand-ins for Black people.

When C.C. spots a young woman who has just deboarded a bus from Minnesota, he strides toward her with a cane in his right hand. No, he is not disabled from a tour of duty in Vietnam, only using it as a fashion accessory. It is obvious that subtlety is not a word found in Simon and Pelenacos’s vocabulary.

Leaving aside the message of this dubious product, there are stylistic choices that strike me as boneheaded. In the ninety minute pilot for “The Deuce”, there are 46 separate scenes, most lasting no more than a minute. They all involved different characters, sometimes overlapping in the by-now overused “coincidence” fashion of films like “Crash” or “Amores perros”. You know the sort of film I am talking about, right? It is one in which 25 different characters cross each other’s path beating the kind of odds you would find in the NY State Lottery. The hub for all of these coincidences is the House of Korea, a restaurant in Times Square where Vinnie works as a bartender that is favored by pimps, prostitutes, cops and businessmen far more interested in getting drunk than eating some of the best cuisine on earth.

Additionally, to appear faithful to the period, nearly every character smokes cigarettes during the dialog. It becomes a huge distraction since it is so italicized. As I said, Simon and Pelenacos are not into subtlety.

Since the device of having such brief scenes is meant to draw you into the texture of Times Square society in 1971 rather than to develop the characters psychologically, you begin to tire of the fragmentation. Price used the same approach in “The Night Of”, which he clearly borrowed from “The Wire”. I much prefer something like “The French Connection” or “The Godfather”. If that makes me a moldy fig, so be it.

I think Ishmael Reed had the last word on this crap in an interview he gave to Wajahat Ali on Counterpunch:

ALI: Let’s talk about the media. Here are some popular examples of media content and personalities that have gone mainstream and are successful: Oprah. Will Smith. Jamie Foxx. Tyra Bank. Tyler Perry. The Wire. Barbershop. American Gangster. You’re known as a vociferous critic of mainstream media and its tendency to stereotype. So, why complain now? You guys– African Americans – have made it.

REED: The Wire– you know, David Simon [the creator of The Wire] and I have a running controversy for years. It all stems from a telephone call I made to KPFA [Pacifica radio] when he was a guest there in the 90’s on Chris Welche’s show. He was going around the country with a Black kid from the Ghetto to promote something called The Corner– it was all about Blacks as degenerates selling drugs, etc.

ALI: Was that HBO?

REED: Yes. HBO does all this kind of stuff. I called in and told Simon, “You’re using this kid.” Later I said it [was] like Buffalo Bill going around the country exhibiting Indians. He got really pissed off and went to the New York Times, where he has a supporter there named Virginia Hefferman, another Times feminist who, when it comes to Black urban Fiction, can’t tell the difference between the real and the fake; she’s his supporter. She said that George Pelecanos, David Simon, and Richard Price are the “Lords of Urban Fiction,” when the Black Holloway authors like Iceberg Slim can write circles around these guys when it comes to Urban fiction.

Simon, Price and Pelecanos’ Black characters speak like the cartoon crows in those old racist cartoons [“Heckle and Jeckle.”] Henry Louis Gates knows this about “The Wire,” yet his right wing blog, The Root, carries an ad for “The Wire” today and a glowing article about this piece of crap. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is an intellectual entrepreneur all right. He condemns my work as misogynist yet supports Simon’s Neo-Nazi portrait of Black people. “The Wire” and novels by Price and Pelecanos should be submitted to the Jim Crow museum at Ferris State University– this is the website: www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/, where they can have a honored place alongside of some of Robert Crumb’s Nazi cartoons.

When I was researching my novel Reckless Eyeballing, I attended a lecture sponsored by the San Francisco Holocaust Museum, March 26,1984. The program said that the stereotypes about Jewish men in the Nazi media was similar to that about Black men in the United States. I thought, what on earth are they talking about? And then I went out and examined some of this junk, especially the cartoons in the newspaper Der Sturmer – see Julius Streicher Nazi Editor of the Notorious Anti-Semite Newspaper Der Sturmer by Randall l. Bytwerk. I was shocked. Jewish men were depicted as sexual predators, raping Aryan women. They were exhibited as flashers. Both Bellow and Phillip Roth’s books include Black flashers. Jewish men especially those immigrants from Russia were depicted as criminals. Jewish children were seen as disruptive, a threat to German school children and so on.

If any one looks at this stuff for example, you’ll find a perfect match for the way that David Mamet, David Simon, George Pelecanos, Stephen Spielberg and Richard Price portray Blacks. They are very critical in their projects about the way Black men treat women, yet none of them has produced a project critical of the way that men of their background treat women.

4 Comments »

  1. Pelecanos is a crime novelist in DC whose hallmark is repulsive characters, many of them black. I’ve never been able to finish anything of his, and (to my slight embarrassment) I used to read a lot of crime fiction.

    [I still follow the few crime series on Acorn and Netflix that I can actually stand to watch, not all of them good by any means. I even got through the entire first season of Ozark without barfing despite serious problems with the writing. I watched all of Bezhat C. up to the marriage with the prosecutor, which ended it for me.]

    With Pelecanos involved, this verdict is unsurprising.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — September 13, 2017 @ 6:35 pm

  2. If there’s anything good that can be said about you, Louis, it’s that you’re unembarrassed in your philistinism; you glory in your own short attention span and inability to grasp subtlety (the characters on The Wire are “stereotypes”? LOL, OK); and you celebrate your own encroaching senility. For that honesty, I do salute you, though I can’t escape the feeling that you might be satirizing yourself, what with all these Trot variants on MIM Notes “film reviews.”

    Comment by Jarosław Dąbrowski — September 14, 2017 @ 8:55 pm

  3. Now I’ve seen everything. A troll who reads MIM and uses the name of an obscure Polish nationalist while he is at it. Despite his hostility, I value his participation since he elevates trolldom to a higher level.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 14, 2017 @ 9:10 pm

  4. David Simon actually holds black cops more responsible for violence directed towards POC in Baltimore than white ones:

    https://www.themarshallproject.org/2015/04/29/david-simon-on-baltimore-s-anguish#.ZpzIIEgyo?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter&utm_source=opening-statement&utm_term=newsletter-20160809-560

    “What did Tom Wolfe write about cops? They all become Irish? That’s a line in “Bonfire of the Vanities.” When Ed and I reported “The Corner,” it became clear that the most brutal cops in our sector of the Western District were black. The guys who would really kick your ass without thinking twice were black officers. If I had to guess and put a name on it, I’d say that at some point, the drug war was as much a function of class and social control as it was of racism. I think the two agendas are inextricably linked, and where one picks up and the other ends is hard to say. But when you have African-American officers beating the dog-piss out of people they’re supposed to be policing, and there isn’t a white guy in the equation on a street level, it’s pretty remarkable. But in some ways they were empowered. Back then, even before the advent of cell phones and digital cameras — which have been transforming in terms of documenting police violence — back then, you were much more vulnerable if you were white and you wanted to wail on somebody. You take out your nightstick and you’re white and you start hitting somebody, it has a completely different dynamic than if you were a black officer. It was simply safer to be brutal if you were black, and I didn’t know quite what to do with that fact other than report it. It was as disturbing a dynamic as I could imagine. Something had been removed from the equation that gave white officers — however brutal they wanted to be, or however brutal they thought the moment required — it gave them pause before pulling out a nightstick and going at it. Some African American officers seemed to feel no such pause.”

    Simon’s acceptance of cop behavior in Baltimore over the decades comes through in this interview as well.

    Comment by Richard Estes — September 14, 2017 @ 9:39 pm


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