Call Me Choppa: Aesthetics in Money & Violence

The web series game has been around for a minute. From Google-backed YouTube to creatively supported Vimeo, there’s plenty of content floating around on the internets.

In the midst of all of this, the increasing access to high-quality consumer-level cameras and equipment has created a bubbling underground of creatives making all kinds of video for niche and mainstream markets alike.

Enter Money & Violence.

Popping up around August in 2014, the hood-drama YouTube series has garnered a tidal wave of national press and hometown love/hate. Everybody from Ebro at Hot 97 to Tribeca has had something to say about it. As such, I’ll try not to retread those opinions (too much.) There’s a lot of technical and narrative things to touch on, so ride with me as I go a bit deeper and get super nerdy on ya’ll.

Money is definitely produced and directed and acted out as a hood & hustle type of story. Creator Moise Vernau clearly understands both his audience and the story he’s trying to tell. What’s more important about this though is this harkens back to the cinematic forefathers of the Eurozone.

I’m specifically talking about the fact that Money doesn’t exist in a vacuum; Vernau himself has explicitly admitted that he doesn’t want Money to be another Belly or The Wire clone. Rather, I’m suggesting that Vernau & co’s lack of a formal education grants Money the authenticity of experience and production that is rarely appreciated or even able to reach this level of fame in today’s society.

Much like the founders of French New Wave, Italian Neorealism, et al, Vernau is exploring the form as he experiences it and remaking it within the purview of his own vision. This in turn begets the “authenticity” that many reviewers and folks have extolled as the series’ claim to legitimacy.

Now, what does that mean in English?

Basically, Vernau is out here shooting this series, learning on the go with his team, making film from square one. While there is a clear narrative understanding of its peer group, Money is re-making the wheel technically and otherwise.

This isn’t a knock (I’m a fan, if not a frustrated one,) but more a matter of discussion. And, it’s a discussion I wanna have because I’ve seen a lot of talk of the “authenticity” of Money. Sadly, that often just feels like double-talk. There’s no real explanation or thorough investigation as to why and how this authenticity is created. I will attempt to.

Let’s start with dialogue.

Money is built almost entirely on dialogue. In fact, if The Wire was a Shakespearean take on Baltimore street drama, Money is your boy spinning harrowing tales over a pre-game.

I say this because there’s no pretense of high-minded writing here. Money’s dialogue is colloquial, understandable, and often didactic. Rafe in particular is the grimy griot of Money, dispensing gems and rapid fire hood parables like a bearded anansi.

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This works in a few ways.

Mainly, it functions on the relatable level. If anything, Money’s cast are real people. Obviously this is achieved by sourcing talent from the hood they shoot in. But on a deeper level, the cadence, reactions, and language is all unmistakably New York. It’s the type of cinéma verité that make convincing performances, much like Beasts of The Southern Wild.

But let’s go back to the didactic shit for a minute.

At times, Vernau’s writing is overloaded with heavy concepts wrapped in idioms, all in the language you’d expect from an old head on the block. His character, Rafe, is often vacillating between dispensing violence and trying to teach some younger character about a facet of street life. This is by no means wrong, or bad. But it does get tiring when any three minute conversation becomes a ten minute speech on the integral tenets of pulling the jooks. Or, the tenets of achieving success.

MoneyAndViolence_S1SF_Screenshot

Now, what separates that from the speeches we’ve come to know and love (hate) from more traditional outlets (i.e. Stringer Bell, Any Shonda Rhimes Character Ever, Tarantino, etc)?

Honestly? Nothing. Just pretense.

There’s an expectation of a certain type of writing when it comes to those bigger names. With Money, there’s no expectation. Vernau is weaving his own narratives here and his particular style solidifies as the season progresses. While I personally feel like it could be better, it clearly is doing something for the uber-fans who extol the work.

But, let’s move on.

Visually, Money’s bread and butter is a roaming, almost self-conscious camera. From sweeping pans of space to tight close-ups of characters as they speak, our observation of the narrative is very alive. In fact, I’ll take the time to officially name it Homeboy Camera™.  At first (and second, and third, and fourth) glance, it feels juvenile and green. But, after much debate, I’m here to argue that it’s worth putting this into the bucket of style as well.

Money centers around the trials and tribulations of street life in BK. 95% of the characters are trapped in situations that they can only dream to escape on some level, with varying degrees of success. This sense of entrapment is enforced by our friend, Homeboy Cam™. This is especially true of the tight, cramped close-ups of characters as they’re on the phone or in dramatic situations.

There aren’t too many deep space shots in Money. If we’re assuming a lack of permits and the show itself being a single-camera production, it could be a moot point. But, from a stylistic point of view, it creates a consistent focus on the camera’s subject while simultaneously holding the subject hostage within frame. In fact, no matter the subject, the tight framing immediately directs your attention; you can’t look elsewhere because there’s nothing else being shown. This aggressive and claustrophobic approach captures attention and also keeps you locked into the scene.

Whether this is always intentional or not, this stylistic approach generates a continuous medley of situations and conversations that are tense and rhythmic. This is especially true when a string of interior shots are strewn together. While they are often clearly in different spaces (i.e. jumping from Leon meeting with his shooter to the Jamaicans communing,) there is a certain illusion of shared space; effectively shared drama. This shared world angle works well when you realize that, despite lacking large establishments of space, every event in Money is connected; everyone is fighting for their little piece of New York.

This rat race is a powerful subtext in Money. There’s never a scene that goes by that you’re not reminded that everything has a consequence, no matter how big the score or how small the situation. This may in fact be the biggest gem in Money. Unlike many of it’s cousins in the genre, Money presents life in a matter of fact way. There’s no true heroism or villains (except maybe Tai. Fuck Tai.) No matter how noble his code, even Rafe is effectively morally bankrupt past a certain point.

Ultimately, everyone is just trying to live.

That very fact is unshakably profound, considering New York is cannibalizing its citizens in an effort to make more space for folks who can afford wholly unreasonable rent prices. Given this, Money is a harsh but honest look at how those at the bottom rungs try to make their own rules, in spite of the cultural waves of the majority (see: the monied.)If anything then, the series should be commended purely on presenting that narrative with the very people who inhabit the spaces it spins tales of.

The series has a clear arc of improvement, both technically and otherwise, throughout it’s lengthy season. One can only hope that it remains true to its roots as it garners the success it’s reaped.


these boots mine. The original Homeboy With A Keyboard ™,  dap wants to be an enigma, but he’s pretty transparent. A transplant from “Back East,” he found himself in Oakland writing about alla the fun things.  He’s in love with the coco(a) (skinned women and butter,) among other things.  Find his rants and retweetery @dapisdope

 

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