Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Notes on Narcos and Reality

I’ve been watching the new Netflix stream-a-thon, Narcos, about Pablo Escobar and the Medellín Cartel. In that it involves the cocaine trade it is like Breaking Bad. But they are utterly different. Breaking Bad is relatively small in scope, just a handful of bad guys and good guys, all closely knit, with the trade confined to one city in New Mexico. We’re dealing with relatively small amounts of cocaine, measured in pounds, and money, mere millions. Narcos is huge in scope, sprawling across several countries, hundreds and thousands of people (though of course the drama concentrates on a few), dealing in tons upon tons worth billions of dollars.

Breaking Bad is more tightly stretched and gripping–though I’m only five episodes in to Narcos. Walter White fights with himself at each step of his depraved way while the characters in Narcos accept what they have to do. Some may be reluctant here and there, but that’s more about caution than moral conflict. But that’s not what I’m interested in at the moment.

I’m interested in certain matters of presentational technique. Each episode of Narcos opens with a standard disclaimer in white on a black screen:

This television series is inspired by true events. Some of the characters, names, businesses, incidents and certain locations and events have been fictionalized for dramatization purposes. Any similarity to the name, character or history of any person is entirely coincidental and unintentional.

That is, we’re going to see a mixture of fact and fiction. We know that Escobar and the cartel are or were real. Unless you followed the story very closely, of have read up on it, you probably don’t know much more about it than that. You’re not going to know just what characters in the story are real and which are fictionalized, and so on down the line. And even where the characters are real, many of the conversations and incidents will necessarily be fictions.

Just what and how does any of that matter? That’s a tricky question, one that’s as old as Plato, and I don’t want to even attempt an answer. I just note that it’s on the table. And, of course, it would be on the table even if it were ALL made up, because that’s the way it is trying to extract truth from fiction.

What’s interesting about Narcos is that such questions are up there on the screen all the time. The show makes extensive use of documentary footage and still photos or real people and events. We will see something happen in the fictionalized drama, and then see news footage of the same events shot from the same vantage point. We’ll see still photos and newspaper headlines montaged into the visual flow.

There’s nothing mysterious or confusing about any of this. There’s no attempt to fool us. Rather, it is assumed that we can read the signs and made sense of it all, sorting documentary sources from fiction in real time. It’s not as though anything is being thereby put into question, but rather the possibility of questioning is always there. They know reality is a construct, we know it to. What we see is the construction.

The other thing that’s interesting is that many of the actors are Hispanic and speak Spanish on screen – as they characters they represent in fact did. And so we see their dialogue in subtitles at the bottom of the screen, just as if we were watching a foreign film in an art house cinema. But it’s not a foreign film. It’s American made with much of it shot in Columbia. It’s as though we are being made foreign to our own selves.

We are strangers in a strange land constructing reality in real time from a mixture of fictional enactments and documentary records.

Welcome of the 21st Century, the Information Age.

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