Tuesday, August 21, 2007

"Nobody gets out alive, Doc."

I just finished watching Season 3 of "Deadwood". Last night, in fact, I watched the last two episodes. "Deadwood" is HBO's second-best show, after the incomparable "The Wire". Which means that "Deadwood" may well be the second best television drama ever made. It is fantastic. I could write a lengthy post about whether it better suits the description "Dickensian" or "Shakespearian", but I'll settle for saying that each is true at different moments. Its scripting is so consistently brilliant that I struggled to choose a single quote for this post. I would have struggled to choose a single quote from any random episode, it was so full of clever, hilarious, perfect lines. Spoken by some great actors, each at the top of their game. The dialogue is so stylised that it took a few minutes at the start of each season for me to tune in, to catch the peculiar rhythms and constructions favoured by David Milch and his gifted team of writers. Its somewhat archaic, baroque and tortuous in its often long-winded detail, and famously peppered with the saltiest profanity. Much of it is spouted by Al Swearengen, fabulously played by Ian McShane, and a character of such charm, terror and complexity that he makes Tony Soprano look like the Fonz by comparison. Swearengen is surrounded by a host of grotesques and eccentrics, psychotics and innocents, each of them shaded with depth and realism by the writing and performances. Its worth saying again: It is fantastic.

Its a Western, obviously. But at the same time, its so much more than a simple Western. Its an investigation of the Western myth, a study of the establishment of civilization in all its beauty and ugliness and complexity. Men head West to the frontier in search of gold and wealth. They put down roots and they come into conflict with one another. They struggle to introduce and uphold the law. Its also a soap opera which details a panorama of the titular township, or "the camp" as the characters tend to call it. From Seth Bullock, the Sheriff and the closest thing the show has to an old-fashioned Western hero (albeit one with a hair-trigger temper and a propensity for ultra-violence) to the tubercular doctor, Swearengen's many whores, the world of the Chinese who fill the towns backstreets, the shop-owners, telegram operator, newspaper publisher, the miners and gamblers and actors and politicians and soldiers who drift through the town, the show was filled with an array of the staple figures and icons of the genre. Only "Deadwood" never handled them the way any other Western ever has. Wild Bill Hickock, who is a major character in the first half of the first season, is a man weary from dealing with his own notoriety. Wyatt and Morgan Earp are young and opportunistic in their search for wealth. The single American Indian we glimpse is a function of the plot and no more, almost as if Milch is commenting on the genre's (and the Nation's?) misrepresentation of that people. The Indian shows up and attacks our hero and is killed after a fight notable for its brutal violence.

Indeed, "Deadwood" dispenses with most of the cliches of the genre. There is a single gunfight in the first season, brief and almost cursory, and after that the violence is always unpleasant. Swearengen likes to work with a knife, and his murders are necessarily followed by scenes of many scrubbing blood from floors. People are beaten and stabbed and shot in the head. There is little or no heroism, only cynicism and compromise, exploitation and weakness. Good and evil are utterly relative, especially in the third season, where Swearengen leads the resistance to Hearst, a millionaire prospector who seems bent on destroying the town itself, and whose presence is positively satanic. The frank treatment of the nature of prostitution is also almost shocking in relation to the kind-hearted whores familiar from the Westerns of the 1950s.
That third season is to be Deadwood's last. Creator David Milch moved on to another HBO show, "John From Cincinatti", which just finished in the states after enduring some bad reviews and disappointing viewing figures. Milch stated that he would finish "Deadwood" with a pair of television movies, wrapping up loose ends and ending storylines, but they have yet to be scheduled (though the recent cancellation of "John From Cincinatti" may just spur Milch on).

Considering "Deadwood" got me thinking about what I like, and how one thing leads you onto another and how eventually - or in my case, anyway - you can't keep track of what you liked first and what brought you to where, and it all seems a big bright web of interlinked culture. There is a joy to this, I think. For example, one of the writers on "Deadwood" and the co-creator of "John From Cincinatti" is Kem Nunn, an American crime novelist. Nunn's area is Surf Noir, novels set against the background of the Californian surfing community, rife as it is with bikers and drug dealers and outsiders. "John from Cincinatti" is also Surf Noir to a certain extent, but the defining work in this weird little sub-genre is Nunn's debut novel, the terrific "Tapping the Source", which follows the arrival of a young man from a desert township in L.A. and his efforts to find his vanished sister among the dark waters of the surfing community. I first read Nunn six or seven years ago when I came across "Dogs of Winter" marked down to 50p in a Virgin Megastore which was pulling out of the book market, loved it, and have kept an eye out for his name ever since. It was a surprise to see it among the credits on "Deadwood", and re-energised my interest in is work, prompting a recent reading of "Tapping the Source".

What "Tapping the Source" most reminded me of was Kathryn Bigelow's "Point Break". The detailed, atmospheric portrayal of the milieu, in particular, but also the relationship between two of the major characters. "Point Break", in fact, played as if somebody had read Nunn's book and been inspired but turned it into an action film halfway through production. Which is sort of what did happen. "Tapping the Surce" was optioned and over a decade or so in production and a dozen or so rewrites later, it had somehow become "Point Break", losing all of its plot and most of its characters (in the Sundance episode of "Entourage", Vince is close to signing up to work on an adaptation of the Nunn book, to be shot in Australia) but gaining some brilliant Kathryn Bigelow action scenes and a peroxide Patrick Swayze instead. Bigelow is an interesting director, always liable to smuggle a self-parodic strain into a big dumb macho blockbuster - from which "Point Break" greatly benefits - while also excelling at the cinema of action spectacle. I always appreciated that she admitted her debt to directors such as Walter Hill. Hill was the post-Peckinpah poet of Action Cinema in the late 1970s and early 80s, and also a man with an abiding love for the Western genre. He made the best Western of the 80s with "The Long Riders" (1980), a fierce and beautiful reading of the Jesse James story. But he struggled after that to disguise his Westerns in various genres, from his modernised remake of "The Wild Bunch" in "Extreme Prejudice" (1987) to "Another 48 Hours" (1990) and "Streets of Fire" (1984). In the 90s, the critical and commercial success of films like "Dances WIth Wolves" and "Unforgiven" made the production of actual Westerns feasible once again, and Hill made three in a row: "Geronimo" (1993), "Wild Bill" (1995) and "Last Man Standing" (1996). "Wild Bill", of course leads us back to "Deadwood". In his film, Hill adapted and conflated two sources: Pete Dexter's brilliant novel "Deadwood" and Thomas Babe's play "Fathers & Sons". His film is tightly focused on Wild Bill Hickock and his friends and circle and barely pays any attention to the town beyond them, but when David Milch was searching for a director to make the pilot episode of his new HBO show in 2004, he called on Walter Hill, and Hill subsequently won an Emmy for his effortlessly cinematic work. He was to return to the Television Western in 2006, directing Robert Duvall in "Broken Trail".

"Deadwood" is a far greater work than "Wild Bill", and indeed it owes much more to the aforementioned Dexter's novel than Hill's film does. Dexter is a writer with a foot in each camp - his work flirts with genre while remaining firmly literary, as in the crime story elements to be found in "Gods Pocket" and "Train". Dexter has worked as a screenwriter as well as novelist, and even here this divided aspect of his work is evident. "Mulholland Falls" (1996), which he wrote for director Lee Tamahori, is a crime film with pretensions, and as such it feels like a neutered attempt at filming a James Ellroy novel, albeit one with a great cast and some good moments. It is always interesting searching for trace of a favourite writer in their work for cinema, whether they are working as a hired gun or have allowed their own books to be cruelly mistreated by another hired gun. Dexter's work as a screenwriter is frequently baffling to anyone who knows his novels - "Michael" (1996) staring John Travolta as an angel, anyone? - but the two adaptations of his own work have not been horribly unfaithful. Stephen Gyllenhal's "Paris Trout" (1991) is if anything too faithful to the book, and as a result is lacking in energy and cinematic verve.

I've been thinking about Dexter because another writer I love - Gerorge Pelecanos - mentioned him in a piece on his own website in relation to "Deadwood" and another novel I'm currently reading, Oakley Hall's "Warlock". I bought "Warlock" about 6 months ago after reading an article in Salon about modern Western literature which mentioned it as a seminal work. A little research revealed it as the source material for Edward Dmytryk's 1959 film of the same name, starring Richard Widmark and Henry Fonda, and also told me that the New York Review of Books had just released it in a lovely new edition with an introduction by Robert Stone, making it even more alluring. Pelecanos mentions that it may be the main influence on Milch's "Deadwood", above and beyond the Dexter novel, and I suspect he may be right (his opinion may be an informed one, given that he is a stablemate of Milch's in his role as a writer on "The Wire"). It shares the HBO show's mix of epic and intimate and some of its clear-eyed realism, as well as many similarities in the characterisation and conflicts which power the narrative. Its basically an analogue of the Wyatt Earp story, and Hall adds to this elements of the Johnson County War and a few other Western legends, before rendering it all realistically and with a commendable psychological acuity. His prose style is clear and simple, never affected or overwrought, and in its quiet way, "Warlock" may be the definitive statement on the classical Western story.

The movie is the kind of old-fashioned technicolour Western shown on saturday and sunday afternoons, the kind of thing my Dad loves. But it takes some of the novel's ambiguity and casts Fonda (revisiting the role of Wyatt Earp he had already attempted in "My Darling Clementine" (1946) under another name) as an almost-villain, which is probably where Sergio Leone got the idea of doing the same thing for "Once Upon a Time In the West"(1968). It also features in Martin Scorsese's "A Personal Journey Through American Movies"(1995). Scorsese is attracted to its complex idiosyncracies and convoluted moral scheme, but also to its distinctive look - the town in "Warlock" doesn't look like the stock studio-lot Western towns in the majority of the genre films at that time. Added to that, there is a definite homoeroticism implied in the relationship between the Earp and Doc Holliday characters played by Fonda and Anthony Quinn and Richard Widmark's hero faces a consciously existential dilemma in choosing which side to align himself with.

I love Westerns, though I haven't written much about them on this blog. This year is another year where the Western seems semi-fashionable again, what with the Coen's "No Country For Old Men" (which I have written about), Andrew Dominick's "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" and James Mangold's "3:10 to Yuma". All three of these films are adaptations of Western books, and all three I await with feverish anticipation. "3:10 to Yuma" is an adaptation of Elmore Leonard's terrific short story, already the basis for Delmer Daves' tight little film from 1957 (which Mangold referenced in his "Copland" (1997) by naming Sly Stallone's principled lawman character "Heflin" after Van Heflin, star of Daves' version). The trailer suggests a defiantly old-school Western in the vein of "Open Range" (2004), and any adaptation of Leonard's Western work has as its basis brilliant source material. Leonard is mainly famous for his crime novels, but his Westerns are arguably superior, each full of memorable characters, taut, airtight plotting and great writing. He utterly renovated his style when he began working in the crime genre, and his sharp, precise prose was a victim of a shift to books which are genrally dialogue-led.

Dominick's film is based upon Ron Hansen's novel, and is by all accounts a Western by way of Terrence Malick, the suggestion of which only makes me more excited, and which seems to have terrified its studio into delaying release by almost a year and vacillating between three different cuts (one of them reportedly 3 hours long). The novel is dense and rich with the fruit of Hansen's research into his subject, and brilliantly vivid in its evocation of period, whereas the trailer for the film instead suggests a dreamy mediatation very much in the vein of Malick. It is notable for an impressive cast including one Garrett Dillahunt (who also features in "No Country for Old Men"). Which brings us back to where we started. Dillahunt is obviously a favourite of David Milch, having feaured in "John from Cincinatti" and playing two memorable characters across "Deadwood"s first two seasons. In Season 2 he was James Wolcott, psychopathic envoy for Hearst and no friend to the ladies of Deadwood. And in Season 1 he was Jack McCall, the man who would come to be known for killing Wild Bill Hickock by shooting him in the back of the head. That event stemmed from tension at a poker table, most notably the following exchange between the two men, which would have been unimaginable on television even 5 years ago, but is part of what makes "Deadwood" so distinctive and unusual:

Wild Bill Hickok: Sure you wanna quit playing, Jack? The game's always between you and getting called a cunt.

Tom Nuttall: Meeting adjourned, fellas, take it outside.

Wild Bill Hickok: That dropped eye of yours looks like the hood on a cunt to me, Jack. When you talk, your mouth looks like a cunt moving.

Jack McCall: I ain't gonna get in no gun fight with you, Hickok.

Wild Bill Hickok: But you will run your cunt mouth at me. And I will take it, to play poker.

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