Anatomy of A Homicide Review
By: Christopher Wilbur
Ted Bogosian takes us on an inside journey in Anatomy of a Homicide: Life on the Streets, through the nearly decade long running television show, and through the particularly poignant episode, “Subway.” Homicide: Life on the Streets aired for most of the nineties from 1993 to 1999, breaking the iconic one hundred episode mark, reaching one hundred and twenty two. The show featured the Baltimore Police Department’s Homicide Unit and had an unusual realism for broadcast television that for all it’s art and integrity, relegated it to the 10:00pm, a post-prime-time position. However, one episode designed as an arrow to vault over mediocre ratings, the bane of art on broadcast television, was the subway, whereas rather than remitting realism in order to reach median audiences with a softer message and fluff, the show dipped deeper into it’s existential origins and illustrated a picture of life, and death, not usually dealt to wide-network televisions.
“Subway” is a story about John Lang (Vincent D’Onofrio), who on a usual morning’s commute through the newly installed Baltimore subway system, has an unusual encounter with life and death. While moving toward the train, in a flash of camera shots and angles, Lang stumbles and falls to the horn blast of an oncoming train. Next scene, he is caught between the station and steel of the train. The strangeness is that he is aware, intelligible, lucid. Detective Pembleton, a Homicide staple, and begins asking the trapped man traditional questions, “Mr. Lang, can you tell me what happened?” “You were pushed? Did you see who pushed you?” “Is there someone we can get ahold of for you?” Belligerent Lang, seemingly unaware of his mortality, though perhaps panicked subconsciously, berates Pembleton, “I’ve talked to you cops already, lemme talk to whoever’s getting me the hell outta this.”
Confused witnesses say he was pushed, but then “no, he wasn’t pushed, he fell” and “I was jostled, and then he fell,” but one witness arouses the suspicion of second detective, Mike Kellerman. Witness Larry Biedron tells a changing tale of the incident and remains in questioning for the rest of the episode. Lang, however, is coming to realize the severity of his injury. “He got twisted from the waste down like a rubber band,” says an EMT beneath the train to Detective Pembleton, “his spinal cord is probably severed, so he isn’t in much pain.” Above the train, Lang is asking repeated questions, “I am going to be ok right?” “She said I am going to be ok!” But doubt is creeping into his voice, fueling the rage of being trapped by the train.
Pembleton rests on his investigative questions and realizes instead, bonding is the victim is the best he can do. They form an easy alliance against the nurse, whose professionalism seems out of place under the conditions of life and death, and Pembleton argues on Lang’s behalf that she provide him pain medication.
That atmosphere is really profound here, the audience is unwittingly transported to the trapped man’s body. The reality of life, so full and vigorous and perhaps rich, is present in one man, bottled up in his body by the precarious impingement of his torso to the train station’s platform, as soon as the rescue team pushes the train away with pressurized bags, that life will slip out as the “elastic band” lets loose. The immediate fragility is so palpable, so accessible, so unusual for broadcast television. And elements of philosophy are interwoven, with additional darkness.
Detective Kellerman learns suspicious witness Biedron is found to have a history of people pushing into oncoming trains, and to have been committed for mental illness. Indeed, in the final scene Pembleton dips his head into the police car with confiscated Biedron, but Biedron quite unwittingly says, “Hey, you still got my ID, I need that back,” illustrating his disconnectedness and adding an ambiguous meaninglessness to the scene, playing quite an untraditional villain.
However there is a strange band of beauty in the sunset of Lang’s life. He opens his eyes wide as the machines pry his body from the platform and says something in a trance. His eyes wide and glaring, he seems oddly solitary amidst the chaos about him, and emits an uncanny tranquility. “Have you ever seen the leaves on a sugar maple tree, when a storm is coming, will turn over to take in the rain.”
The words wear heavily on Pembleton and indeed seem to reverberate as an abstraction from all that has been happening on the deck. They seem transcendentally elegant, especially amidst the scene of darkness and death. The episode ends with Lang’s girlfriend running past the subway unknowing of the passing of her lover and the scene seems to imply that the world goes on despite the pain and beauty taking place continuously, and often does ignorantly, perhaps blissfully.
Ted Bogosian captures the action behind the scenes in the PBS documentary Anatomy of a Homicide: Life on the Streets. In traditional documentarian style an authoritatively voiced narrator takes the viewer through the experience of being on the set. The journey from inception to production is documented. Writer James Yoshimura is inspired by a Taxicab Confessions episode where a New York detective responds to the drivers question “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen?” The detective candidly describes reoccurring incidents of victims being stuck between subway platforms and subway trains. He uses a plastic bag filled with water to illustrate the twisting effect the lower body undergoes that serves as a tourniquet to the torso. Yoshimura, intrigued, pitches the idea to the Homicide’s creating team in a comfy, living room like scene on couches. All find the idea interesting and Yosimura gets to work. Bogosian’s camera then follows the writer through creation and illustrates the organization of the organization.
Humor is woven in by Bogosian as Yosimura attempts to get permission for profanity in the script. Censorship replies, look “I can give you a dump or a crap, but not a dump and a crap.” “But don’t you need to take a dump to have crap?” Yosimura fires back. The negotiation doesn’t stop there. Organizationally, above the creators are administrators, who must deal with logistics. They provide the stark reality of bottom line and possibility. Yosimura argues with a manager over the use of the Baltimore subway for the scene, the manager, dubious about cost and complication, retorts it’s unfeasibility. Yet finally his manager agrees and the team manages to secure the subway, provided they shoot from dusk to dawn, in a single night.
The documentary then demonstrates the show’s requirement for innovation. There is no adequate shot for the actor wedged between the train and the platform, the train is simply too close. So they contract out an aluminum sheath so that adjoining train-cars can be connected, providing the illusion that they are one. Actor D’Onofrio is then able to perform mid-platform, while both the Homicide crew and Bogosian’s camera capture the action.
The episode from start to finish is filmed over a week, requiring intense collaboration and orchestration. A single camera is used to reduce cutting and editing. Scenes are shot back-to-back in absence of repose. Everything is on the fly, the staff operates like clock-work, well conditioned and ready for the stress. Weekly, a new director is brought in to give a fresh touch to every episode. Ironically, the creative input of the director, is often marginalized as the organizational production machine proves enormously resistant to change. This induces successful directors to use a sort of finesse, to convince rather than direct, influence rather than impel.
Finally, production is completed, it was a whirlwind of cameras, typewriters, negotiations, laughs and arguments, but it is over. Everyone celebrates at a local bar where the episode in full form airs for the first time. Bogosian’s camera then sets on the bar-room television for the opening scene of Homicide. The pictures then blend so that Bogosian’s audience is watching the Subway episode as if it were aired directly to their televisions. All of the spectacular magic of production disappears and what is left is a final product quite seamless and authentic. The plot unfolds as a complete narrative, with additional audience impact as this audience was privy to the production process.
When Lang’s girlfriend again passes the subway on her run, closing the episode, Bogosian’s camera pans out and the bar-room audience is revealed once more. There is a breathing out and it is all cheers to another exhausting episode completed, one that would put Homicide: Life on the Streets back in nearly the number one television ratings slot. An anatomical dissection of a television program’s production process took place in Bogosian’s traditionally sound yet slightly avant-garde documentary Anatomy of a Homicide: Life on the Streets.