Sunday, August 07, 2005

#21: On DEADWOOD & How We Civilize Ourselves 2/17/05 Now some of you might be expecting comment tonight on the upcoming Oscars. But we’re going to do something different tonight. When jazz cellist Karen Patterson talks about “art & the cultivated community,” she’s coming at the question, “How do we civilize ourselves?” Recently I some film critic commented that American crime shows are really a modern extension of the genre of the “Western.” I began looking at my favorites – CSI: MIAMI, for one – a little harder, differently, after that. But it really makes sense when you have a master cop show-maker producing a Western. If you have HBO, maybe you could watch the first season of DEADWOOD on Sunday nights starting last March. I don’t have HBO, but I’ve pricked up my ears over this series, created by David Milch, who came up with, for example, NYPD BLUE & some other cop shows. Last Tuesday the first season of DEADWOOD came out on DVD. I’ve just compressed three months’ worth of weekly viewing into the last several days. Since DEADWOOD’s story line picks up the action in each episode pretty much where it left off the previous week, this method actually gives you an added, unplanned sense of two things. First, this show & others like it are really serialized novels, & I think fairly self-aware ones. Second, you grasp the rush of change in this Dakota Black Hills renegade camp just two weeks after Custer’s massacre at Little Big Horn. Historical documents tell us that in March of 1876 there were no whites in that Sioux Territory & by July, thanks to gold strikes, there were 10, 000. So there really was a Deadwood, & on this show it’s populated with a mixture of fictional & real historical figures. Wild Bill Hickock (Keith Carradine) is shot in the back during a card game a third of the way through the first season, but he’s so compelling that his shadow colors the remaining narrative. Saloon-owner/pimp/boss/emergent civic pillar Al Swearingen – played by Ian McShane, who collected the 2004 Golden Globe for best actor in a TV dramatic series – is based on a real man, & also, David Milch says, on the Shakespearean character Falstaff from the Henry Five plays. Even this suggestion has expanded my conception of Falstaff as nothing previously & made me highly suspicious of how the classics are taught in this country. Don’t watch this series expecting that ridiculous fat guy you saw in watered-down high school productions. There’s Seth Bullock (Tim Oliphant), a man of “active conscience,” according to Wild Bill. Seth leaves the US – that is, Montana – for the wild territory, & leaves his old job of marshal, to make his fortune running a hardware store. He resumes marshalling, but that’s later on. There’s Brad Dourif as Doc Cochran, a secretly traumatized Civil War refugee doing his best in this wild place. The women comprise an ensemble who, over the course of 12 episodes, come together to overcome immense brutality & abuse in their own histories & present everyday lives, supporting one another & rescuing an orphaned girl literally encircled by wolves in the opening show. In 1876, 95% of the white women in the Dakotas were prostitutes, & women of higher class through the country were routinely kept drugged on laudanum (opium & alcohol). There are lots of whores in Deadwood – Trixie (Paula Malcolmson) risks Swearingen’s wrath to help Alma Garrett (Molly Parker) kick her habit, save her gold claim & assume mothering of little Sofia. Madame Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens) – incidentally, a character born in Syracuse - is a complex woman with a knack for forming real friendships with men who then help her strike out on her own from saloonkeeper Cy Tolliver. Robin Weigert plays Calamity Jane, a sewer-mouth drunk, enormously vulnerable, with a healing gift that Doc puts to work during the smallpox epidemic. The crippled Jewel has a fragility that illuminates kindness in unexpected places in Deadwood. This six-disc DVD collection has several well-done actor commentaries & interviews about production. David Milch wanted to do a series based on cops in ancient Rome during Nero’s reign, when there was no law except force. HBO was already doing something on Rome, so he set this project in the Old West instead. He did not study old Western movies as part of his research at all. Milch surmises that the Hayes Code of decency, which rated movies from the 30’s through 1988, had created the stereotype of the “laconic cowboy,” that man of few words & complicated morality who actually bore little resemblance to what we’d find in a town like Deadwood. I understand that now there’s a whole website devoted to counting the number of “F-words” in each DEADWOOD episode. A flood of obscenity co-habitates, as Milch puts it, with the ornate Victorian language that the literate learned to read with in 1876. In the absence of government, says Milch, who speaks well will lead. A number of episodes focus on characters wrestling with dilemmas of convention, effectiveness & presumed audience in how to articulate pubic issues. These struggles are mirrored in the vocabulary of social customs, such as ways of handling the dead, probably the first quasi-religious practice attended to in settling new communities. Milch often locates important turning points in the story at the town cemetery. Seth Bullock’s revelatory fight-to-the-death with a Sioux outside town relates to afterlife beliefs. And Swearingen maintains his primitive hold on his underlings not so much by merely killing the disobedient as by feeding their bodies to pigs. Deadwood is an illegal town. During the show’s first season the community improvises its own first government when an impending treaty with the Sioux, in the aftermath of Little Big Horn, means that law & government will come anyway. One might say that socially they have been addicted to liberty & they start to sober up by faking it till they make it, by guessing at what would be normal publicly. Privately, these characters, who have abandoned & left behind old lives & identities, indicate they will stick around by the advent of infinitely delicate self-revelations to one another. How do we civilize ourselves indeed? The program’s lovely opening sequence follows an escaped horse galloping through the camp, spooked & throwing its head, finally halting on Main Street, where its seen in reflection in a pool of water. Just so can film show us ourselves. There are lots of Deadwoods out there today too. (1078)