November 2009

Arts & Letters

School for gangsters

By Alan Saunders

‘Underbelly’ and ‘The Wire’

“Was that like a movie or what?” says one young thug to another after a shoot-up at a petrol station. We’re in the middle of the Melbourne gangland killings, as depicted in the TV show Underbelly, and the dialogue reveals two things: that the writers of Underbelly don’t trust their audience to catch movie references unaided, and that crims enjoy the depiction of crime as much as the rest of us. If you’re an Aussie hood, you’re not going to adopt Squizzy Taylor or Ned Kelly as your role model. Instead, when the cops haul you in for kidnapping some guy and putting him in the boot of your car, you’re going to say, “I guess I’ve just watched Reservoir Dogs too many times.”

It’s well known that Mafiosi didn’t know how to behave like Mafiosi until Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola showed them in 1972 with The Godfather. Decades before, John Dillinger – Public Enemy Number One during the Depression years – was gunned down coming out of a movie house after watching Clark Gable and Myrna Loy in the gangster film Manhattan Melodrama. Clearly, bad guys like watching bad guys on screen in the same way tweenage girls like pictures of Miley Cyrus. The Sopranos’ Tony Soprano, for example, watches old Jimmy Cagney movies on TV. But what’s in it for the law-abiding? The idea that we enjoy crime stories because we like to see order disturbed and then restored is attractive, but perhaps a little antique. It might have been true in the great age of the amateur, when mysterious crimes were solved by detectives with rooms in Baker Street or maiden ladies in English country villages, but it works less well in our ambiguous age.

What we seek, perhaps, is a way of coming to grips with the world in which we live. Serial killers and paedophiles – two of the villains du jour in modern crime fiction – are answerable to little more than their own sad psyches. Many a criminal of a different sort, though, hangs like a spider at the point where several filaments of cause and effect meet. From this node, threads stretch high and low, far and wide – from neighbourhood streets to City Hall, and out across the world to the drug fields of South America.

Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in The Wire, which now represents the gold standard for TV cop shows. There is no reason to suppose that David Simon and his co-writers are doing anything so banal as seeing crime on the streets of Baltimore as a product of – worse still, a metaphor for – a sick society. Their work rests simply on the recognition that crime is fed by, and feeds, appetite – whether that appetite is for drugs, money, power, votes or a good story in the morning papers.

The gangs that fought on the streets of Melbourne had their origins way back in the Painters and Dockers Union, but the first series of Underbelly never manages to be as political as The Wire. The focus is narrow, though there are hints of broader ambitions, such as the use of voice-over. This is a device familiar from film noir of the 1940s, where the voice is almost invariably male, knowing and rueful. In Underbelly, however, the voice is female; it is the voice of actress Caroline Craig, who portrays one of the cops on the case. Though sometimes rueful, Underbelly’s voice-over knows too damn much. It begins by inviting us to hear a story: “And that was the beginning. Looking back, what the media called the Gangland Wars started the night Alphonse Gangitano shot Greg Workman for no good reason at a St Kilda party. It triggered a series of chain reactions that would see almost 30 people murdered.” We recognise what’s going on here. This is the tone in which you begin an epic: this is “Wars and a man I sing …” or “Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’s son Achilles …” The trouble is, the writers of Underbelly aren’t singing of Aeneas or Achilles; they’re wittering on about the media and using phrases packed-flat-for-easy-assembly, such as “triggered a series of chain reactions”.

This is no small matter. Crime fiction and crime drama live and die by words. The language must embody the squalor being depicted and, at the same time, transcend it through pitch and rhythm. It requires the confidence to combine the poetry of the streets with a rigorous policy of exclusion. The apparently superfluous can be admitted if it is strange and beautiful, but everything else should be viciously pared back.

One of the great virtues of The Wire is its dialogue. It has the poetry of a language that seems brutally direct to those who use it but impossibly oblique to those who merely overhear it – like us. Because nothing is explained, Baltimore feels a long way from Melbourne. In contrast, an Underbelly cop says to his boss, “We’ve kept them separate …” after they’ve pulled in a couple of witnesses – well, they would, wouldn’t they? –  “… so they don’t get together on their stories.” Yes, we knew that already. Just as we know most of what Caroline Craig’s voice-over tells us: “At last we put a face to the name of our biggest problem …”

It’s important to recognise that verisimilitude is not enough. A lot of what is said in Underbelly could well be a transcript of what was said on the scene or in interview, but that is not enough to convince us that it actually was said. Banality of language, though true to life, is seldom true to drama. When some psycho in Underbelly offs a guy and yells “I fucking got him!”, it strikes you as the sort of yell that could well have occurred, but still, it won’t do. Compare it to a sequence in The Wire in which two cops arrive at a murder scene with tape measures in order to check distances and angles of fire. For the next few minutes, only one word is used, “fuck”, repeated time and again in a variety of tones: disbelief, disgust, exasperation, annoyance. It comes close to being comic and it’s certainly a mannered conceit, but it conveys – as few things in cop shows do – a grave sense of what a serious act it is to take a human life.

The inadequacy of language alone does not explain Underbelly’s failure to convey the gravity of what it depicts. The sheer body count doesn’t help either. As the corpses pile up, episode after episode, I find myself caring about them as individuals no more than I would care about the body in the library in a game of Cluedo. And why should I? Gangsters are not very interesting people. There are no Napoleons of crime, no Michelangelos of murder, no Rembrandts of robbery. We are talking about small minds and souls, not soaring ambitions. Why else are they unable to arrive at a method of conflict resolution that does not involve a gun?

One way of getting around the problem of the banality of the personnel is to evoke the landscape they inhabit. In The Wire, the projects of Baltimore look painfully real (all the more so, paradoxically, because they don’t look very dirty). Underbelly does Melbourne well enough: grey skies lowering onto the high, narrow streets of the inner city. But one looks forward to the third series, The Golden Mile. This promises to constrict its focus to a very distinctive landscape, Kings Cross in Sydney, to tell a tale of bent cops, straight cops and – as the press release puts it – “cool criminals”.

Yes, there they are again, those cool criminals. The Golden Mile is set in 1989, just a couple of years before Reservoir Dogs. So, can we look forward to more guys in spiffy suits going to work in slo-mo? Perhaps. But the bent cops could be good news. They sound like politics.

Alan Saunders
Alan Saunders was a writer, philosopher and broadcaster who contributed to the Sydney Morning Herald, the Bulletin and other publications. He was a presenter on ABC Radio National for 25 years where his programs included The Philosopher’s Zone and By Design.

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