Friday, January 9, 2009

Watching "Clockers" in a post-"Wire" world

When I read Richard Price’s novel Clockers back in high school, I was pretty well blown away. Here was a book that took me deep into a world about which I knew nothing, that of streetside drug dealers in the New Jersey ghetto. I was captivated by the dealers’ inscrutable lingo, their mysterious street names, the curiously malleable code by which they lived. It’s a hefty novel – more than 600 pages – but I breezed right on through, devouring Price’s muscular prose during study hall and between screenings at the movie theater where I worked.

Back in the mid-1990s, we were still feeling the hysterical reverberations of “Just Say No” and the D.A.R.E. program. Street gangs were an improbably omnipresent bogeyman, even in small town Wisconsin. That made Clockers’ treatment of the crack game all the more remarkable. It astonished me to see dope-slinging treated like any other business, and drug dealers depicted as actual people with feelings and families. Price tossed me deep into the heart of this foreign landscape by crafting a fully seen world, coloring his corners with the most vivid eye for detail I’d ever seen in a novel.

I first picked up Clockers in late 1995, in anticipation of Spike Lee’s forthcoming film adaptation. I was a devoted Spike Lee fan in high school, so the concept of Brooklyn’s own auteur bringing one of my new favorite novels to life was pretty exhilarating. Since it wasn’t the type of movie that was likely to play theatrically anywhere near Sparta, Wisconsin, I had to wait for the video release. When Clockers finally hit the shelves of Preferred Video (R.I.P.), I snatched it up and settled in to my friend Matt’s basement, anticipating a kick-ass evening of tension and artistry.

What I got instead was an okay adaptation that hit most of the right notes but never quite captured the spirit or urgency of the book. Here’s how much impact the movie had on me: at a literary trivia event a few years ago, I correctly answered four of five questions about Price’s novel, which I hadn’t read in 12 years, while the only question I missed was about the movie. In fact, the only elements of the adaptation that stuck with me over the years were Delroy Lindo’s brutal performance as the neighborhood kingpin and the irksome fact that the movie changed the protagonist’s favorite beverage from vanilla Yoo-Hoo to “Chocolate Moo.”

When I started watching the first season of The Wire last summer, Clockers was the first reference point that popped into my head. As the courtyard drama of David Simon’s masterpiece unfolded, I started to believe The Wire was a far better representation of Price’s work than Lee’s film was. There are plenty of obvious parallels between the two stories, most markedly in their lead drug dealers. The Wire’s DeAngelo Barksdale is essentially Baltimore’s answer to Clockers’ Strike, an ambitious young middle manager trying to save his soul while climbing the ladder. Both men have dreams that reach beyond the corner, but each is trapped by his personal relationship with his higher-ups.

DeAngelo mirrors Strike closely enough to make The Wire feel instantly familiar to me, but that didn’t distract one bit from my enthrallment with the show. It’s become almost a cliché to heap praise on The Wire, but every word of that praise is well deserved. (Yes, I am that annoying friend who won’t stop telling you how it’s The Best Thing That Has Ever Been on TV.) Anyway, David Simon and the first-season Wire writers go Richard Price one better by digging even deeper into the day-to-day business of slanging dope and the lives of those who do it. Anyone who’s been stuck in a draggy office job should be able to empathize with the dealers’ head-butting with upper management, disputes with unscrupulous customers and long stretches of stifling boredom. Even more than Clockers, the series drives home the idea that selling drugs is a job like any other, albeit one with an exceptionally high mortality rate. There’s little doubt that The Wire owes a lot to Richard Price, a debt that Simon paid back by bringing Price on board as a writer later in the series.

While jonesing for a Wire fix last weekend, I decided to revisit the Clockers video that’s been gathering dust on my shelf ever since I found it in a supermarket cut-out bin many years ago. (Underwhelmed though I was, I apparently I liked it well enough to drop three bucks on it back in the day.) I didn’t presume it would hold up to The Wire, but I was intrigued to see how much carryover there was between the two.

Clockers’ opening credits sequence – a montage of genuine crime scene photos of young black men killed by gunshots – could stand as shorthand for most of Spike Lee’s directorial career: it’s undeniably powerful, but remarkably heavy-handed. Thankfully, this isn’t one of Lee’s worst offenders, although he does shoehorn in some thudding commentary about social issues from guns to AIDS. Other than that and an oddly slow-jam-heavy soundtrack, I wouldn’t exactly say there’s much wrong with the film version of Clockers. The cinematography is lush and stylish and the acting is solid, with Lindo’s old school hustler and Keith David’s watchful cop standing out. In some ways, it’s a film ahead of its time; the depiction of life on the corners still looks more realistic and sympathetic than most anything that’s followed in its wake, with one major exception.

It’s that exception that really sunk Clockers for me this time around. The Wire looms so large that it seriously deadens the impact of any comparable work of fiction. For every effective aspect of Clockers, there’s a more indelible counterpart from The Wire. Sure, Clockers’ Rocco Klein is a charismatic cop who knows how to talk to dealers on their own terms, but he doesn’t approach the self-destructive brilliance of Jimmy McNulty. Lee does a good job of introducing Errol Barnes, a stone-cold killer with a haunted past, but he’s not half as scary/sympathetic as The Wire’s Chris Partlow. And when we meet a hero-worshipping young boy in danger of being seduced by the streets, no Wire fan could help but flash on the wrenching stories of Michael, Randy, Namond and Dukie.

None of this is Clockers’ fault, of course. It’s just that The Wire changed everything. Call it the Beatles effect: Their early music was fun, iconic and revolutionary in its own right, but the release of Revolver rendered songs like “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You” instantly dated, if not downright frivolous. The Wire simply lays waste to all that went before it. Procedural shows like Law & Order and CSI were never exactly heavyweights when it came to things like plotting, realism or dramatic integrity, but I could still sit down with them for some empty-headed entertainment. Now David Simon has rendered them nearly unwatchable for me. I’m afraid to revisit my previous all-time favorite cop show, NYPD Blue, because I don’t want the contrast to ruin it for me.

So where does that leave Clockers? Price’s book, I think, remains undiminished. Admittedly, I haven’t read it in more than a decade, but I still retain vivid memories of the bracing prose and fully drawn characters. In some ways, the novel may have been more cinematic than the movie. When I remember scenes from the story, they are as they played out in my head back in study hall, not as Spike Lee translated them to the screen. Price crafted a difficult, indelible novel that deserves its place among the best literature of recent decades.

As for the movie, I don’t want to be too hard on it. It’s an admirable adaptation, handsomely shot and populated with top-notch performances. It ranks in the top tier of 1990s “hood” flicks, yet it feels weirdly unsatisfying. Maybe my reaction would have been different had I gone into it with no knowledge of the book, but as it is the movie stands mainly as an interesting footnote to a couple of fantastic works of art. Lee’s work is more than passable, but I’m very glad that David Simon eventually (if indirectly) gave Price’s novel the adaptation it so richly deserved.

- Ira Brooker


  1. Hi Ira - Good review. Like yourself, I thought the novel Clockers was excellent. However, I'm not that impressed with The Wire. I think it tries too hard, and the characters aren't nearly as interesting as those in Price's novel. Perhaps it just demonstrates that TV can't beat a good novel.

  2. Couldn't have said it better. For it's time the film version was fresher than any of it's contemporaries but over a decade later the novel retains this while the film now comes across as heavy handed and a bit awkward. Maybe we will say the same for The Wire in the future, but as of right now it's as close as we are going to get.

  3. I have said the exact same of The Wire. It is the killer of cop/street drama. I remember watching a Law & Order after I had just finished the 5th season of The Wire and literally being disgusted with what I saw. It seemed almost insulting that anyone who was covering this subject would be so...wrong.

    If you haven't read Homicide I HIGHLY recommend it.

  4. Interesting review. Thanks.

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