Wednesday, August 23, 2006
Deadwood and To Whom Its Dialogue Is Beholden
On Unfogged the other day, we had a long, productive conversation about the merits of Deadwood. (I presented my case rather better there than I have before, but I still dig Sean’s more.) We can continue that conversation, but I actually want to have another one, based on Ogged’s latest post, in which he claims that:
just as the dialogue in NYPD Blue seemed cool and edgy at the time, and now seems like a strained attempt at mimicking tough-guy culture, I think the dialogue on Deadwood will seem simliarly stupid in several years.
Why do I want to parallel a conversation from there over here? Do I think I can compete? No, of course not. But I think the best response to him lies in our domain: namely, that NYPD Blue‘s language was stylized, whereas Deadwood‘s is literary. To that end, I present—below the fold, as this is a family blog—the line of dialogue we discussed before Ogged’s latest post:
Ellsworth: I’ll tell you what: I may have fucked my life up flatter than hammered shit, but I stand here before you today beholden to no human cocksucker.
Why does that sentence work? My best guess:
The “I’ll tell you what” is conventional enough. Only, which convention does it partake of here? Is it the quiet, conspiratorial “I’ll tell you what” salesmen whisper when they want to do us a favor and throw in the top coat for an extra $400? (They’ll have to run it by their manager.) If it is, the “tell” and “what,” the speech and its content, would be emphasized; the “I” and “you” would sink, unstressed, in order to abnegate responsibility for the fucking “I’m” about to do to “you.” That doesn’t seem to work.
So, how about the one in which the stresses fall drunkenly on the first and third beats? “I’ll tell you what” embraces the responsibility for the beating “I” declare, for all to hear, that “I’m” gonna put on “you.” This works much, much better. Such statements should, by law or enforced custom, incite terrible violence ... only this one doesn’t.
Instead, we’re treated to a somber but forceful self-introspection. Ellsworth, we learn, “fucked [his] life up flatter than hammered shit.” Look at mess of alliteration and assonance there. We have the f sounds stumbling in and out of “fucked,” “life” and “flatter.” Notice how the poetic trickery staples the phrase together. The fə occurs in “fucked” and draws “life” and “up” together, almost into a single word (li-fəp), uniting life up with that what’s been fucked. You know, life.
The third f introduces the next sound, what linguists call the “near-open, front unrounded") æ which occurs in the word which best describes it: “flat.” The flæ pulls together the alliterative fs with the assonant æs. (It also flips the l and f sounds of “life up,” a mirroring which’ll manifest thematically half a second later.) The repetition of the internal æ does what it describes: it hammers.
The æ, æ, æ drives home the content of the phrase, too. He may have “fucked up [his] life,” but he did so methodically and with force, rendering it “flatter than hammered” ... and at this point we expect something worthy of the assonant pounding it just took. I’m not sure why we do, since the phrase itself is difficult to imagine: how do you fuck up something flat? Begs the question:
How do you fuck it up flatter?
The image we have at this point in the sentence is one of drunk declaration; of the man who makes it, we sense that he’s ruined his life through long effort, through the labor evoked by the mention and soundscape of hammering. So we expect the object on the anvil, so to speak, will be worthy of the beating it’s taking. Something substantial, you know, dull-red and ready for a vicious forging.
Instead, we get “shit.” That’s been “hammered” flat, no less. Suddenly, the entire sentence turns on its head. The rugged worker, ruined by his steady toil, turns out to have been hammering shit. Those forceful æs suddely sound as tinny as the i in shit.
It’s pound, pound. pound, clank. Thud, thud, thud, tick. Our brains skip a beat. In short, our impression of Ellsworth changes from proud prospector to tedious slattern in the space of a sentence.
When he realizes his mistake, he pulls back and changes course. “But,” he says, and mouths another, equally conventional, opening statement. Unlike the threating “I’ll tell you what,” however, “I stand before you today” belongs to the rhetoric of the public confessional. No one stands before anyone, today or any other day, unless they’ve come to repent (or pretend to). Realizing the bluster of “I’ll tell you what” has come to naught, he decides to fluff his feathers Protestant-style with a declaration of sins past.
As with all such declarations, this one suggests the current superiority of the speaker to his audience. Do they stand before the crowd, listing their iniquities for strangers to judge? No, they don’t. They stand there, comfortable, quiet in their sin. But the speaker, in high Protestant-style, aims to clear his name. In public. He is no Catholic, absolved in isolation. He has a direct relation to God and a firm commitment to the community. Just like Milton.
Who, incidentally, Ellsworth suddenly channels: “I stand before you today beholden to no human cocksucker.” The unnecessary and archaic “beholden” thrusts Milton in your mind, as does the pejoratively adjectival “human.” This “human” reeks of “mere.” God will judge him, it suggests, not some human authority. Given the implicit insult of “human,” then, we expect something exalted, like “authorty,” to follow. Instead, we’re treated to “cocksucker.”
The dissonance is jarring. We may not think it consciously, but somewhere, our brains know “cocksucker” ain’t sufficiently exalted to be diminished so. We wonder what, exactly, is lower than a “human cocksucker.” We imagine the angelic host on its knees, The Great Chain of Being collapsing before our eyes. Links collide with unlike links and ungodly things starting slouching, waiting to be born ...
... and then we realize: This, kids, is literature.*
* And that Scott has far, far too much time on his hands.
But isn’t the cadence of “I’ll tell you what” much flatter, with the emphasis more or less even throughout each word, though perhaps slightly greater on the last two? What you describe—*I’ll* tell *you* what—reads as if it should sound as if it’s a response to some kind of challenge: you may think you can tell me what, but in fact, it is I who am now telling you what. Whereas my memory of the line is that it’s more of a slightly threatening declaration: I’ll tell you what and what only, so listen good.
I’m gonna skip right over Deadwood to address the claim about NYPD Blue.
I don’t know about ‘cool’ and ‘edgy’ - these aren’t aesthetic qualities, they’re projections onto the text of pathetic social wishes and I don’t give a damn - but the dialogue in NYPD Blue is just terrifyingly good, not least because it’s very much grounded (near as I can tell) in two particular speech patterns.
Milch and his storytelling partner Bill Clark, the detective whose tales of the NYPD were a gold mine to Milch and Bochco at the show’s outset, wrote a book about the first three years of the show called True Blue. It’s a well-written and informative book, and sneakily aspires to the status of literature at times. Its final chapters are gorgeous autobiographical writing by Milch mixed in with recaps of some Season Three storylines and their relationships, thematic and eventual, to his own life. John Kelly’s speech - template, in a way, for the squadroom pidgin derided as ‘tough guy talk’ - is revealed to be a strong emulation of Clark’s manner of speaking. It’s just spot on. Far from being some kind of artless ‘tough guy’ posturing, Kelly’s talk, with its constant recourse to a small handful of terms (’skel,’ ‘reach out,’ ‘The Job,’ ‘this Job,’ the near-childlike use of dangling connectors and prepositions), is a lived-in personal language. What strikes me is the degree to which Milch appears to have absorbed Clark’s speech patterns. (Though note that by the end of Milch’s run on the show, Clark had started to sound a good deal more like him.)
Sipowicz’s weisenheimer style, near as I can tell, is Milch at his least affected. I suspect there’s some of Milch’s dad in there as well, and the crowd Milch used to run with as a kid (his dad was a peripheral figure, a doctor, in a certain Buffalo organized crime scene). That’s a more mannered speech, since it has more work to do getting between emotional extremes - but then Milch knows too well what a certain kind of authoritarian self-destructive drunk sounds like.
I have no idea what the hell people are talking about when they criticize the speech on that show - it sounds foreign and clipped but not, I think, because it’s over-stylized. It’s believably terse, believably earthy, believably accidentally-profound, and it ably mimics real voices.
Ogged’s complaint about the language of Deadwood is asinine, as is his entire post, for various reasons not worth rehashing here. Suffice it to say, he’s wrong about: women on Deadwood, the psychology of Bullock, male posturing, what ‘civilized’ Sipowicz (hint: it wasn’t Costas, not fundamentally), and boredom(!). But I suspect he’s protested too much, and knows it, and is now trying to bluff his interlocutors by going argumentatively all-in with nothing in his hand. There are criticisms to be made of Deadwood but he’s not made any.
This is a good post, BTW. That line was almost irritating at the time, because its flouting of what I took to be the conventions of profanity (where did that ‘cocksucker’ come from?!) was so jarring. Now, after nearly three seasons of the show, I’ve taken its rhythms to heart as well, and the early dialogue makes a great deal more sense to my ears.
BTW, Season Three is excellent, as you can imagine. Hearst - played by George McRaney - is formidable and crazy enough to go toe to toe with Swearengen any day. And the transformation of Swearengen’s character has been the show’s greatest triumph. Bullock has gotten more stylized over time as well - he now says less and accomplishes more with it than ever before. Milch is a joyful realist: the show rejoices in imperfection rather than ironically/distantly reveling in it, and Deadwood has come to feel like a comforting place to be.
Now get back to work damn it!
I think Mamet is the obvious model for that particular mode of emphatic profanity. Of course it’s literary, it’s based on the work of one of the best known playwrights/screenwriters of the day.
Jonathan - I hate myself for this but here’s a self-link to address your point. Short version: I totally disagree about Mamet. He and Milch like to use profanity in their work, but the function of profanity in Deadwood and in Mamet’s plays is quite different. Swearengen’s cussin’ isn’t a mannerism; its primary purpose is internal to the character, unlike Mamet’s characters’ very pointed pursuit of an external narrative objective. I adore his dialogue, but it’s essentially stagey. He’s not a naturalist, though he could be. Milch is after a weather-beaten language of community. Its morals are homegrown.
What you describe—I’ll tell you what—reads as if it should sound as if it’s a response to some kind of challenge: you may think you can tell me what, but in fact, it is I who am now telling you what.
I think, implicitly, it is a response to a challenge, if only the one presented by the inertia of awkward silence. I tried to analyze that without re-watching the episode, because I want it to retain the flavor of a textual analysis instead of a description of what I heard...but, correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t Ellsworth say this to the air, after Dan’s poured him a drink and paced to the other end of the bar? That said:
Whereas my memory of the line is that it’s more of a slightly threatening declaration: I’ll tell you what and what only, so listen good.
I think we’re in agreement here, i.e. describing the same conflict between the phrase and its somber, reflective context.
First, don’t worry about the self-linking. I damned near linked to your post, too; I just didn’t want you stealing my thunder. That said, I never watched but an episode or two of NYPD Blue, but you’ve made me want to not dismiss doing so out-of-hand in the future. (I’m watching House currently, then am moving to The Wire, probably, then ... oh, and The Wife may get a say in some of this too, eventually.)
Also, in general, I don’t mind self-linking in the least. If you’ve analyzed something before at some length and your audience is already in front of the computer, all you’re doing is providing them with the opportunity to follow a particular point in more detail. It’s a media thing, I guess. At a lecture, it drives me batty when people refer to things they’ve previously written but don’t summarize them; when I’m online, I control what I read, so clicking’s actually a convenience. Am I wrong about this? (He asks, since he self-links all the time for this very reason.)
I wasn’t kidding when I said I almost linked to waxbanks’s post; it’s well worth the read. I haven’t seen/read enough Mamet--that’s probably not true, now that I think about it--I haven’t thought enough about Mamet’s prose to say anything about it--wait, that’s not true, either. I don’t know what it is I find confounding about comparing Mamet to Milch, but it’s something. I’ll credit it to the excellence of waxbank’s post generating some anxiety, for the time being.
Scott: too kind as usual. re: Self-linking, you’re right of course. I’m just super-deferential in comment threads like this one, where genuine adults hang out and everything, out of worry about having a certain snot-nosed quality.
re: NYPD Blue: I don’t want to oversell it, now. I absolutely loved the first season, which is crucially the only part of it I’ve seen. The music is almost all awful, the hairdos are nauseating, and there’s a neatness to the criminal proceedings that can be surprising and off-putting. But people are right to praise the show - the writing and acting are just phenomenal, and David Caruso was incendiary, from the pilot onward - and I think wrong to piss on its language. But rest assured in advance that it doesn’t hold a candle to Deadwood. Then again nothing I’ve seen does. (I’ve yet to see The Wire, an oversight to be corrected once the GF and I have moved house.)
How do you like House? I only watched one episode - the most recent season finale - and though it featured snappy dialogue and a cute structure, and I could see how people raised on medical procedurals would love it, I’m not sure I’d be able to take it seriously given all the other extraordinary stuff on the air. Then again the episode that I saw (House gets shot and goes off to dreamland) was atypically bizarre. Should I stick with it? My brother digs it, but his genius is rotated at least 150 degrees from my own disposition, and so he’s no help.
I’m sure that waxbanks is correct--the function of profanity might be very different in the two cases. But quoted out of context, that line still sounds very Mametian to me. Its rhetoric and prosody, its mixture of registers. Of course I haven’t seen Deadwood myself so I was reading the line without its proper dramatic context. I have read and seen a lot of Mamet on the other hand so I am attuned to those particular rhythms.
Jonathan - that’s quite fair. Here’s one major difference: Milch’s dialogue is dramatic in the grand fashion, meant to be articulated with body and a musical delivery. Mamet’s writing - especially when he directs it - is written just as precisely but considerably less humanely. Mamet talks about his scenes as being solely about what is wanted and the method/machinations by which it is pursued; for Milch, the dialogue is meant to function as (in his words) a kind of electrical connection between people, something quite deliberately mystical, and the sense of abstracted transaction isn’t presence. Business is always going on underneath his lines, as in any serious writing, but that never renders the surface material counterfeit. My sense of Mamet’s writing - even in the slightly off-putting lark State and Main, but especially in his scripts from Spartan and the far too mannered Spanish Prisoner to Glengarry and the thrilling but suffocating Oleanna - is that distrust is a basic aesthetic and communicative mode for him.
I don’t get the sense that he likes people very much at all, except insofar as they can embody principles (his beautiful essay about scotch-tasting, for instance, features such a formalized presentation of already-formalized masculine bonding rituals that it’s easy to remember Mamet actually feels pleasure at all). As such, all his dialogue is stylized all the way back into a kind of loopy ‘naturalism’ - it tumbles trippingly from the tongue, but not according to the rhythm of improvised speech. You can believe that Milch’s guys and dolls are making it up as they go along (which is part of the reason Swearengen’s meandering monologues are so electrifying). No one would ever, ever make that mistake with Mamet’s dialogue.*
Watch an episode and you’ll see what I mean - you’re in for a treat.
* But damn it, here I have to note (as usual) The Untouchables, which combined a scary technician director and a great formalist writer and somehow came out a moving, sentimental film. It’s not my favourite Mamet writing (though by Christ every time Costner reaches that line, ‘He’s in the car,’ I want to jump through the ceiling), but it reveals again that Mamet’s systematicity and abstraction can be humanized so much in performance - as long as it’s out of his directorial control. Glengarry on film is that way as well - Pacino’s long monologue in the restaurant! - though it’s a more schematic piece from line to line. Oh, deliciously so.
I’m surprised at how negative the feelings were toward Deadwood at Unfogged. Personally, I think the show is excellent, one of the best television shows ever, and better literature than a lot of contemporary novels. The early episodes are truly exciting in that conventions about who it’s okay to kill are severely absent and because the dialogue is genuinely disorienting, both in its delivery and in its complexity. It’s kind of fun, and certainly novel, to be somewhat cast adrift with respect to the signifigance of events, speeches, while watching a television show, especially when its a matter of depth and not opacity.
I think the show is excellent, one of the best television shows ever, and better literature than a lot of contemporary novels.
I completely agree with you, but I’m not surprised at some of the antipathy. There was a point where I shared it: where I wrote off the novelity of (what little of the) dialogue (I had heard) as pretentious (in a “those cocksuckers are trying too fucking hard” sort of vein), and where I found the show needlessly and even cartoonishly violent. One of the burdens of novelty is that even if you’re trying something of an interesting and coherent take on genre and language, even your natural allies will take a while to figure it out.
Excellent post. I agree, the dialogue in Deadwood *is* literary in a sort of “poetic naturalism” kind of way. It’s not realistic in terms of historical authenticity of lexicon or syntactical structures, but rather literary/naturalistic in representing, as waxbanks stated, something internal to the characters (as well as reflecting the intensity of their environment). Historically accurate idioms just wouldn’t carry the same intenstity (as Milch has said, they’d sound too much like Yosemite Sam).
Not only will the dialogue of Deadwood *not* seem silly in several years, but I suspect (I damn well hope) that we look back on Deadwood as a milestone in visual narrative achievement. I agree that it is better than a large majority of contemporary literary and cinematic works of art. It’s that good. Actually, there is a damn sporting chance that Deadwood could figure prominently in my dissertation....we’ll see.
At any rate, I see Deadwood as the unholy, bastard offspring of Shakespeare, Melville, and McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (and, yes, “unholy” and “bastard” are positive adjectives in my semantic worldview).
Cocksucking naysayers be damned… :)
At any rate, I see Deadwood as the unholy, bastard offspring of Shakespeare, Melville, and McCarthy’s Blood Meridian
At any rate, I see Deadwood as the unholy, bastard offspring of Shakespeare, Melville, and McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.
Holy shit I have to see this show now.
One of the burdens of novelty is that even if you’re trying something of an interesting and coherent take on genre and language, even your natural allies will take a while to figure it out.
I keep telling myself that its the striking novelty of my opinions and jokes that causes the blank stares, but I’m starting to wonder…
How do you like House? I only watched one episode - the most recent season finale - and though it featured snappy dialogue and a cute structure, and I could see how people raised on medical procedurals would love it, I’m not sure I’d be able to take it seriously given all the other extraordinary stuff on the air.
It’s certainly a show, like Buffy, you have to grant its conceit. It’s more difficult, given the super-abundance of “realistic” hospital dramas, and the fact that, well, hospitals treat the ordinary as well as the extraordinary. That said, they stage that dilemma as a conflict on the show, wrapping in to House’s character a reluctance to deal with the ordinary; when he does, its invariably arch, a showcase for Hugh Laurie. These cases also seem to bring him into more frequent contact with Robert Sean Leonard, and it’s their relationship which seems—nine episodes into the series—the one with the most potential. Their casual banter betrays a deep familiarity; a dependence but, at times, a real weariness with each other. They’re an old married couple alternating who plays Archie Bunker.
The other night, I noted, by way of not noting, how easily the conceit could fail. I could watch the show for hours on end, whereas if I tried something similar with, say, Law & Order, the pacing would have knocked me dead halfway through the second episode. (May not have been a bad thing, considering.) But the creative team behind it—I don’t know how much input Bryan Singer has, but his fingerprints are all over it—seems well aware of the pitfalls, so every episode flows differently, it seems. You have the conventional, out-of-the-hospital opening, followed by them sitting around the table discussing options—and they clearly learned something from Whedon and company about how to make strategy sessions interesting. But after that, other than “investigate” and “treat,” it doesn’t settle into a routine; at least, not yet.
You know that internal timer you have, the one that tells you the show’s been on for 44 minutes and thus resolution’s right around the corner? Well, because of the way they play with the pacing, mine would go off 11 minutes into one episode, 24 into another, and, in one memorable episode, it never did. The episode ended, sans resolution. I thought they’d surely pick it up the next episode; they didn’t. The failure was absolute, the events narrated totally without purpose or payoff. (And since that was an episode Singer directed, I’m sure that was intentional.)
Anyhow, that’s why I can watch House: sweet homosocial relations and fiddling with genre expectations without, a la Deadwood, defying them.
I see Deadwood as the unholy, bastard offspring of Shakespeare, Melville, and McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (and, yes, “unholy” and “bastard” are positive adjectives in my semantic worldview).
I don’t know why I didn’t draw the Melville connection, esp. since he’s figured so prominently in my research—you know, all the other writing I do—the past two weeks. Melville’s prose is similarly unprecedented. I’m working through Billy Budd right now, so let me think about this some more and return, possibly with another post, a little later.
Funny and intelligent post, but watching “Deadwood” as a western is a waste of time.
True, some of the dialogue entertains. But seriously, the speech that flows from these characters in every episode is laughable, basically turning the show into a spoof of something it would like to be.
I noticed someone compared “Deadwood” to “Buffy,” and I would agree with that. Like the similarly overrated and frustratingly silly vampire show, “Deadwood” makes me want to kill the creators for thinking they have the talent to pull off such a monstrously ridiculous concept.
You can compare the language of “Deadwood” to Mamet and Melville all you want. While you can marvel at how someone can use profanity in such a “literary” way, it still seems extremely stupid that it’s coming from a cowboy who doesn’t live in the year 2006.
First, since I hear tell this post will be linked to someone traffic-creating tomorrow, I wanted to call attention to waxbanks’ article, from which the bits linked to and discussed above were excerpted.
Now, Jed, I’m not sure you can say it’s more preposterous than, say, the language of Billy Budd (which I’m working on right now). Melville’s rhetoric is equally overblown; its canonization has made our ears deaf to its glorious silliness:
Now the first time that his small weazel-eyes happened to light on Billy Budd, a certain grim internal merriment set all his ancient wrinkles into antic play. Was it that his eccentric unsentimental old sapience, primitive in its kind, saw or thought it saw something which, in contrast with the war-ship’s environment, looked oddly incongruous in the Handsome Sailor? But after slyly studying him at intervals, the old Merlin ‘s equivocal merriment was modified; for now when the twain would meet, it would start in his face a quizzing sort of look, but it would be but momentary and sometimes replaced by an expression of speculative query as to what might eventually befall a nature like that, dropped into a world not without some man-traps and against whose subtleties simple courage, lacking experience and address and without any touch of defensive ugliness, is of little avail; and where such innocence as man is capable of does yet in a moral emergency not always sharpen the faculties or enlighten the will. (51)
Read that aloud and tell me it sounds more natural than what you heard on Deadwood.
Finally, one of the features of Deadwood that makes it interesting to people who, like myself, don’t favor Westerns is precisely that those words don’t come from the mouths of “cowboys.” They’re not stereotypes so much as character studies in moral ambiguity, two things rarely seen in conventional Westerns.
it still seems extremely stupid that it’s coming from a cowboy who doesn’t live in the year 2006.
So they sound stupid because they’re smart? Or do you mean something derogatory by “literary”? If you mean needlessly ornate, I’d debate the needless part. If you mean ornate, period, and cowboys (or people living in the historical moment to which Westerns refer) wouldn’t speak ornately, I’d debate that too, based on my sense of the way rhetoric has changed since said historical moment--modernism being the literary event that, by many accounts, led to the prevalance of paired down declatory speech that you find in folks like David Mamet and which many people think of us “realistic”. So I would, in a fiction, actually find the idea of a contemporary person swearing in a flowery and rhetorical way less plausible on its face than the same from someone in Deadwood.
Also on the subject of “literary,"I don’t want to pretend I have a good working definition of literature, but in my mind it connotes a sort of stretching of the imagination by means of dramatic representation. I think this is much closer to the sense in which claims are made above about Deadwood’s literary qualities.
So, in a certain literal minded way, to the extent that Deadwood owns its own “Westernness” and departs from existing conventions about cowboy speech, it becomes more authentically literary, not less. I know you were talking about authentic full-stop, but still.
On the subject of smartness: The characters in Deadwood demonstrate a remarkable range of intelligence that’s expressed in the way they talk (rather than being expressed in the sitcom shorthand of, say, wearing glasses and being socially inept). I mean, you’ve got Swearengen, who’s a brilliant schemer and negotiator, you’ve got Doc Cochran’s moral intelligence (always undercutting Swearengen’s dehumanizing rationalizations,) you’ve got EB Farnum’s shortsighted talent for graft (coupled quite consciously, I think, with truly unecessarily overblown rhetoric), you’ve got Johnny, about whom what else can one say?
I mean--I find this shit convincing. Not as a facsimile for real human discourse (although if I started talking like Al Swearengen (and I swear more, and more elaborately, after watching the fucking show) wouldn’t that be real human discourse?) but as a metaphor for how we experience real human discourse, if you’ll grant me that mild vagueness. It may be that we’ll someday toss Deadwood’s artistic gambits aside as so much failed experiment, but, for the moment, it’s exciting to be watching something that might be important.
And, on the subject of Mamet, here’s a funny little thing:
I didn’t mean to suggest that westerns shouldn’t contain ornate language. However, I strongly feel the profanity in “Deadwood” kills a lot of its possible charm.
Does this mean I’m one of those morons who complain about profanity in every series, movie, or book? No, not at all. People ranging from Quentin Tarantino to Jonathan Swift to George Carlin have used it in intelligent ways.
As entertaining as some of the language in “Deadwood” could be, it seems like I’m hearing anachronism after anachronism. This isn’t to suggest that profanity didn’t exist in the period. And if the writer utilized his over-the-top dialogue hear and there, I would probably watch the show regularly. It’s the overemphasis that annoys the hell out of me.
Also, I’m not against anachronisms. But “Deadwood” sounds too silly in the end. It doesn’t only stretch the imagination (and “stretch” is an understatement). It makes me wish that some people would lose their imaginations.
Part of my disagreement could stem from my love for westerns. As far as moral ambiguity in westerns is concerned, you haven’t been watching the right ones. “The Searchers” and “Unforgiven” come to mind immediately.
Admittedly, many westerns don’t explore intelligent territory. I also admit that “Deadwood” defies convention. But defying convention doesn’t automatically translate into a “great literary achievement.” If that was true, then “Natural Born Killers” would be the greatest film of the 1990s, which it is certainly not.
First of all, Tarantino’s not a technician of profanity, he’s an enthusiast of it. His freakishly good ear for musical dialogue doesn’t translate to judicious use of cussin’, and works in service almost solely of itself in exercises like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction and From Dusk Til Dawn; it’s when his language gets constrained - as in Kill Bill and the underrated, surprising Jackie Brown, that he actually achieves something with his speech. (The best moments in Pulp Fiction - Marcellus’s wave to Butch, the syringe, the cut from young Butch to old Butch - are wordless.) Milch has been only gotten deeper into the heads and hearts of his characters as he’s wielded ever more ornate profanity. Know the difference.
The Searchers is a great film, yes, and Unforgiven might be as well, but they’re from a different genre from Deadwood. Put simply: Westerns as we know them aren’t really about the West as it existed, and whining about anachronisms while touting The Searchers is more than a little goofy. Ford’s film is a fable, a complex one; Deadwood is a social portrait, and there isn’t a single character in The Searchers or Unforgiven who comes close to the complexity of Milch’s central creations. Westerns aren’t meant to contain characters like Swearengen (or for that matter like McCabe, from Altman’s great social Western McCabe and Mrs Miller, an obvious inspiration for Deadwood), a pimp/pillar of the community whose backstory is taken seriously and whose wild locutions have been given historical justification by Milch. (He’s explained in lectures that self-made men of the time were exposed to a certain kind of rhetorical source material - the Bible, Shakespeare, etc. - and that the grandiloquence of the show’s nasties, while stylized, is grounded in a certain performative mastery that would’ve been required of self-promoting types of the criminal (or any other) persuasion. Pay attention, man! Alma and Swearengen speak that way for status reasons (Alma has it, Swearengen wants/resents it); Hearst’s loopy oratory comes because he’s crazy as hell. Bullock and Jane, on the other hand, are a lot closer to the earth in their speech - and notice how stilted and formal Bullock’s language is compared to Swearengen’s. The difference is enormous! (Think too of Aunt Lou and Richardson, the jester Farnum, Ellsworth’s gentleness, Trixie’s brittleness. What a spectrum.) Not just an embodiment of certain aspects of their characters, but indicative of very concrete status concerns of the time. If you’re hearing a single ‘over-the-top’ language on the show, you’re not hearing anything.
Plus: Jed, there’s a difference between not knowing (or needing to know) what something means and not being able to pin down which of multiple meanings is appropriate. That’s why Pi isn’t a good movie, but 2001 is - and why the American Psycho and Fight Club, which share a narrative conceit, are in quite different aesthetic strata. Let’s not compare apples and oranges here.
Besides which: no one claims Deadwood is great because it defies convention. It’s great because it characters are unprecedently complex, its stories riveting, the performances and direction top-notch, the dialogue as rich and multilayered and just goddamn lovely as anything heard on TV. I mean: duh. :)
Here is what James Wolcott had to say about Deadwood:
At least Entourage is unpretentious, which is more than can be said for that true critics’ darling, Deadwood, where there’s so much scenery-chewing going on it’s a wonder the ramshackle buildings haven’t collapsed into kindling. Deadwood is McCabe and Mrs. Miller minus the pot-fumed, poetic lyricism, and without that mournful lyricism all you have is mud, bad teeth, overacting, and ox-thick brutality, though I do like Molly Parker—who doesn’t?
I have to agree. It does come off a bit as psuedo-literary kitsch to me.
Turn to Wolcott for aesthetic judgments? What is this, Page Six as critical paradigm? And I won’t even ask what ‘pseudo-literary’ means.
I still haven’t heard or read anything from “Deadwood” that matches “I’m a mushroom cloud laying motherfucker, motherfucker!” But then again, you said “Jackie Brown” is “different.” Not really seeing that.
You must have missed the part where I said I’m not against anachronisms in general. Therefore, I could logically tout “The Searchers” and still say the anachronistic language in “Deadwood” is self-parodic, overdone, distracting, and ultimately ineffective. Of course, I lose if the characters are “unprecedently complex.” You are a master of overstatement.
Regardless, my argument hasn’t been that “Deadwood” isn’t an interesting try—anything that defies convention is interesting. But as I expostulated earlier in the afternoon, it’s frustrating when you see a tittyfucking bastard fall straight onto his erected dick, shattering the cocksucker into a pile of human shit and dog turds.
Well yes, I like to overstate things sometimes, but here as usual I’m being precise:
By all means name a precedent in American television drama - or Western movies, if you’d like - for the kind of human complexity the characters on Deadwood have been granted. Tony Soprano is a full consciousness, as is his wife; you can make claims for Archie Bunker; and so forth. But consider, say, the five most fleshed-out characters on Deadwood. (Let’s say: Swearengen, Alma, Bullock, Cochran, Jane. Others (like Hearst) would also do.) Can you think of five comparably complex characters on any American TV show, ever? If you want we can make the exercise a little more precise: name a show featuring five characters drawn with anything approaching that level of subtlety...in only three short seasons. (You can’t name Seinfeld or The Simpsons here, as they’re largely abstractions, and the ensembles on many other quality shows are smaller. Deadwood‘s cast is huge, and treated with seriousness throughout, even down to Mayor Farnum.)
I’m a Buffy diehard but that show had only three characters of that general level of detail in its first three seasons (the young leads: Buffy, Willow, Xander). And each was sketched in to a degree, their emotional lives clearly portrayed but not at such painful level of detail.
So: literally unprecedented.
As for the profanity: again, if you’re hearing nothing but constant swearing, you’re not listening to what’s really being said. If you’re willing to grant my premise - that there’s a hell of a lot going on in every exchange of word or glance on that show - then you stop worrying about the profanity and start hearing the human music behind it. And the relative level of profanity of the characters becomes meaningful.
The mushroom-cloud line from Pulp Fiction is only neat-sounding, and substance-free; any of ten thousand rhythmic utterances would’ve worked in its place. Indeed, Sam Jackson could probably have started scatting at that point, uttering nonsense syllables, and been as comically menacing. Please.
Waxy B, I think you’re a little rough on Wolcott. Do you read his blog? Hardly Page Six.
Turn to Wolcott for aesthetic judgments? What is this, Page Six as critical paradigm?
If Wolcott is Page Six, what, pray tell, are you? Remind us what your credential is again? Aren’t you writing a cheezy coming of age movie, sitcom pilots, or something?
I can’t make an argument regarding the characters because I haven’t watched all three seasons of “Deadwood.” Honestly, this debate has almost inspired me to watch the entire series, though. I could get back to you on your challenge since I obviously doubt your suggestion.
But let’s get back to the main point of my posts: the profanity. Believe me, I understand where you’re coming from, but I simply disagree. Yes, if I could ignore the profanity, perhaps I would enjoy the series, the “human music” as you eloquently put it.
However, remember (and I hate expanding metaphors, but what the hell): you can only appreciate the notes in music if your ears have time to rest. Finding the “human music” in “Deadwood” beneath the ridiculous vulgarity is the equivalent of locating the respectable lady within the cum-filled mouth of a whore.
Lastly, you’re wrong about the “Pulp Fiction” line. “Mushroom cloud laying” is absurd self-empowerment at its best, and the redundant splendor of “motherfucker, motherfucker” couldn’t be matched by any other utterance. The fact that he refers to himself as a “motherfucker,” while in turn calling his target the same title that empowers Jackson’s badass, is great irony.
My ‘credential’? I’m not sure what you mean. I’m in a nice shirt, does that count? And have big forearms? But not for the violence.
I used to read Wolcott’s blog when he offered witty uninformed comments about politics and war, which were preferable (or at least comparable) to what else I knew of. Now I know of witty informed commentators, rendering him a bit of a waste of time. His comments about Deadwood are fluff, and in line with his comments about other art. And yes, his blog resembles nothing so much as Page Six if it had pretensions of political insight. He hits sometimes but misses more. Misses here.
Bit boring, this. Let’s talk about the show!
Well, I’m now well into the second season of Deadwood, and I admit--after taking a closer look at the dialogue--that my criticism ultimately falls flat.
While I still find some of the profanity in the show too over-the-top for the period, I can see why Milch would go that route. I believe I read somewhere that Milch originally used profanity that fit Deadwood’s time, but it only sounded silly and didn’t accomplish his goal of catching the untamed nature of a camp on the verge of becoming a town.
All in all, the show is fascinating and--for me, anyway--easily outranks The Sopranos in both plot and characterization.
However, from what I have watched thus far, I wouldn’t say the characters are unprecedented. But I do think two particular scenes from the show are absolutely mesmerizing.
First, when the inebriated Swearengen bares his sad history while receiving a blowjob, you could almost swear that McShane is demon-possessed. And second, you see a new dimension in Cochran when he prays--well, begs--God to take the life of the minister. Again, credit to the writers for putting together wonderfully literary language, yet these two scenes would have been futile without the great acting talents of McShane and Dourif.
Ordering pancakes as they would in Deadwood, courtesy of YouTube:
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Reading today’s TLS (the Oct 20 2006 issue) I came across the following two sentences:
Coleridge’s objection to utilitarianism had made an early impression on Whewell, who had aimed his own works on ethics at minimizing its influence, along with that of Ricardian econmics, which he hated for the political agenda of the Bethamites, who applied it. Above all, Whewell had objected to the deductive methodology of these people, to whom Mill was beholden.
It occurs to me that this passage would be mightily enlivened, and made more eloquent to boot, with the addition of a ‘cocksucker’ or two.
So, I’m wondering, Adam, how Deadwoodian dialogue would come out when transposed into, for example, the double-mouths of an alien race of triple-sexed beings that eliminate body wastes through no less than 7 orifaces. And let’s further imagine that cursing competitions are central to their diplomatic protocol. What happens when mere earthlings start negogiating with these folks?
I found this amusing:
So is Deadwood a response to the gangsta brand of hip hop and its language thus in dialogue with the baroque ebonics of same?