♦ HBO’s new drama set in the 1970s The Deuce begins in the States this week and kicks off later this month on Sky Atlantic in the UK and The Guardian has a meaty interview with its creators David Simon and George Pelecanos, who also worked together on The Wire. Here’s an abridged version of that chat…
Simon is animated by the perpetual struggle between capital and labour and believes that, after the ravages of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and globalisation, and the anti-establishment anger that produced Donald Trump and Brexit, the argument for unions and collective bargaining is as vital as ever. Which brought him to The Deuce, his ambitious new HBO series charting the rise of the porn industry in 1970s New York.
“What I stumbled into seemed to be a ready-made critique of market capitalism, and what happens when labour has no collective voice, and that seemed to be apt for this moment because I think a lot of the lessons of the 20th century are going to have to be learned all over again thanks to Reagan and Thatcher and all the neoliberal and libertarian argument that has come after,” says Simon, 57.
Simon continues: “There was always a market for prostitution, and even pornography existed below the counter in a brown paper bag, but there wasn’t an industry; that had yet to find its full breadth in terms of the American culture and economy, but we all know what was coming.
“It’s now a multibillion dollar industry and it affects the way we sell everything from beer to cars to blue jeans. The vernacular of pornography is now embedded in our culture. Even if you’re not consuming pornography, you’re consuming its logic. Madison Avenue has seen to that.”
Whereas his critically lauded The Wire was ostensibly about the drugs trade in Baltimore but subliminally about race, The Deuce could be seen as ostensibly about the sex industry in New York but subliminally about gender.
Pornography “affected the way men and women look at each other, the way we address each other culturally, sexually,” he says. “I don’t think you can look at the misogyny that’s been evident in this election cycle, and what any female commentator or essayist or public speaker endured on the internet or any social media setting, and not realise that pornography has changed the demeanour of men. Just the way that women are addressed for their intellectual output, the aggression that’s delivered to women I think is informed by 50 years of the culturalisation of the pornographic.”
He admits: “I don’t have any real way to prove that, but certainly the anonymity of social media and the internet has allowed for a belligerence and a misogyny that maybe had no other outlet. It’s astonishing how universal it is whether you’re 14 or 70, if you’re a woman and you have an opinion, what is directed at you right now. I can’t help but think that a half century of legalised objectification hasn’t had an effect.”
The series is a collaboration between Simon and novelist George Pelecanos, described by Esquire as “the poet laureate of the [Washington] DC crime world”, who also had a hand in The Wire and Treme. Pelecanos has previously written about Hispanic sex workers trafficked on the same trail as drugs and guns.
“Personally, I think pornography has had a crude effect on society,” he says. “I’m a first amendment [freedom of speech] guy but I really feel it’s kind of like racism in the last few years: we’ve had a wake-up call because everybody thought, ‘Wow, it went away’. Same thing with misogyny, right?”
“I think the culture’s changed because of the way women are depicted in popular culture. Pornography’s a big part of that. You can say nobody’s getting hurt, it’s just a masturbation fantasy and all that stuff, but these women are trafficked, man.”
He believes there is a through line to Trump’s stunning victory in last year’s presidential election. “There’s no doubt if Hillary Clinton had been a man, she would be president now. The code words that were used against not just her but female journalists and everybody that was involved peripherally in the campaign was awful. Never seen anything like it.”
Whereas Simon was seized by the convulsions of capitalism, for Pelecanos there was the attraction of gritty, graffiti-strewn Manhattan as seen in 70s movies such as The French Connection, Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, and blaxploitation flicks including Black Caesar and Shaft. His noir novel King Suckerman is set in the Washington of the day.
“That’s sort of my era,” Pelecanos explains. “I was a teenager in the 70s so you remember that better than anything. The texture of those movies, they felt really real, mainly because in Taxi Driver [Martin] Scorsese basically puts the camera operator in the back seat of the taxi and just shoots over his shoulder. There’s no lighting, there’s no costumes, there’s no picture cars. He’s just shooting what there is. In Mean Streets, they didn’t have to do anything but point the camera outside and get everything.
“We had to build everything and find the cars and the costumes, but it’s cool, man. I mean, we wanted it to look like a movie that got found, that was made in ’71, put in a vault, and somebody pulled it out and said: ‘Look what we got.’ When you look at the pornography scenes, they’re kind of starkly lit, as it is on a film set, and it’s not beautiful: it looks like work or boredom, even. Not to say somebody’s not going to get titillated – they probably will – but we didn’t want that and we didn’t try to do that. It is a challenge because you can’t not show it. Then you’re erring on the other side; you have to show what you’re talking about.”
Not that the experience made Simon nostalgic for a pre-gentrification, pre-hipster age: “There are things that have gone wrong now that are a different kind of wrong, in terms of people being priced out of neighbourhoods – Manhattan especially, but even some of the outer boroughs becoming a playground for the rich. But I don’t know if you can look back on what the lower-east side was like, the Times Square of the 1970s or the upper Manhattan, the Washington Heights of the 1970s, and think, ‘Oh man, this was a paradise.’ There were profound problems of dispossession and crime and pain, there were people who were asking the question in the late 70s: can New York survive?”
Simon, Bernstein and co-writers Ed Burns and Bill Zorzi have since met to restructure the show and work out how to keep it relevant to the political moment. Evidently Simon is as hungry as ever, 15 years after The Wire, which still seems certain to be in the first paragraph of his obituary.
Although highly regarded in his field, Simon is no TV addict. He loves The Sopranos (“excellent work”) and admires Deadwood, The Handmaid’s Tale and the Canadian series Slings and Arrows, but has not seen Breaking Bad or Mad Men. Nor has he succumbed to the craze for Game of Thrones: “I have a cousin who’s read the books. He tells me you’ve got to read the books first. I’ve heard it’s excellent.” Instead he spends evenings reading – he’s currently researching the Spanish civil war – or watching baseball.
“I tend not to watch shows until they finish and then somebody will come to me and say, ‘No, no, they knew what they were doing, they knew where they were going’, and so I’ll be sticking in DVDs or downloads two years after something’s on the air. It’s certainly hypocritical when I guess I’m asking people to watch my television shows in real time. But nothing’s worse than giving eight hours, when you could have read a couple of books, to find out, boy, that was a great idea but those guys really didn’t have a plan… so I end up taking the guesswork out of it by being late to everything.”
The Deuce came about when an assistant location manager from Treme told Simon and Pelecanos about a man he knew in New York, a veteran of the old 42nd Street cesspool. “He kept saying, ‘You gotta meet him, you gotta hear these stories’, and George and I were very ambivalent because the idea of doing a show about pornography and prostitution seemed gratuitous. Since the advent of premium cable, when they got rid of the advertisers, there had been a lot of porn pilots that had gone nowhere and, in our view, rightly so.”
Simon explains: “We were not particularly interested in having a heightened moral debate over the worth or utility or damage from drugs in The Wire – that’s not what The Wire was about. Certainly I think the use of illicit drugs is on the whole destructive to individuals and to society, but the war against them I think is infinitely worse and doesn’t in any way mitigate the damage from drugs. I was much more interested in how power and money array themselves around the drug war and around the industry of illegal drugs.
“The same logic applies in The Deuce, which is much less interested in having a discussion about whether pornography is good or bad or prostitution is good or bad. I accept these things as the given in the human condition. Now, if they’re going to exist, where does the money go? What happens to labour? Who profits? How does the society as a whole array itself to acquire that profit or to participate in it or to acquire the product? These things were way more interesting to me.
“Once you allow the moral question to dominate the narrative then I think you end up with a stunted argument and there’s only so much that can be said. On the other hand, if you follow the money and power and you see who’s attrited and who’s exalted, then you have a much more interesting story.”
Simon, after all, pushes his audience hard and does not deliver answers neatly tied up with a ribbon. “In 1971 a 12-year-old kid had to hope to steal his father’s Playboy magazine from under the mattress and even then it was a much tamer version of anything pornographic in the modern sense: you couldn’t figure out the facts of life from the centrefold. Do I think we’re better or worse off nowadays when a 12-year-old with a couple of keystrokes can access the entire construct of human sexuality right down to every misogynist fantasy, that that can be fed into a 12-year-old brain? Probably not a good thing.
“But I’m not sure how you make a narrative out of that and address all the others factors, which I think if you’re going to do anything, have to be attended to. I think in some ways you can get lost in either being too puritan or too prurient in this piece and what you have to do is basically attend to the why, the why of how this comes to be. That’s what makes it a grown-up story.”
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