Archive for the ‘Deadwood’ Category

Soap with a Prize Inside! (Some Afterthoughts about “Deadwood”) #1: “The Fucking Pinkertons”

July 16, 2010

Swearengen swore all along that the Pinkerton National Detective Agency was nothing but bad news, but until they actually appeared on the scene we had to rely on our historical memory of the Pinkertons’ most notorious deeds—the dead-of-night firebombing that killed Jesse James’ little brother, the violent, depraved union-busting that lasted well into the ’30s—to accept them as a legitimate threat. The first agent arrived only at the beginning of Season 2, and even then her true identity went unpublished for several episodes. Alice Isringhausen turned out to be small-fry, easily dispensed with, but the night that George Hearst’s “bricks” thundered into camp in a cavalcade of hoofbeats and satanic shadowplay represented, as Cy Tolliver put it, the advent of professionals. By light of day they congregated in intimidating knots along the thoroughfare, managing to stand out in a town already festooned with memorable faces.

Where did Milch find them all? He’d been using real cowboys to give the place tone all along, and the Pinkertons must’ve come from their ranks: they certainly carry the whiff of such stuntmen-turned-actors as Ben Johnson, Richard Farnsworth, and Allan Graf. Their unshaven and pockmarked faces looked sculpted by alkali dust blasted out of a wind machine, and they needled the miners with gibes—“Wipe your ass, Hiram! It feels strange at first but the shit protects against blisters!”—which they delivered in coarsely musical American cadences. Each man of them sported like an odor his own brand of unnerving self-confidence: even the old buzzard who breaches protocol by drinking Hearst’s liquor is fit enough to murder Ellsworth by merely raising his hand. Like a biker gang crashing a family reunion they settled in and all but destroyed the camp’s serenity; the incredible tension that turns even Swearengen and Bullock into dithering Hamlets, and which lasts until a tidal wave of mourning sweeps everything away in the show’s closing minutes—that’s all the Pinkertons’ doing.

Silk from a Sow’s Ear

June 4, 2010

What I wrote about Justified still goes, and then some. Its unflashy, straightahead brand of storytelling (presumably fallout from its modest budget) may keep it from ever being considered one of the great TV series, but it’ll do until one comes along. There have been weak episodes, such as the one where Raylan Givens’ pursuit of a dentist-embezzler carried him into a half-assed shootout on the Mexican border, the only time where the show’s violence, and Raylan’s almost divine facility with a handgun, were cartoonish and uninteresting. (It was also a case of someone’s affection for Midnight Run getting the best of them.) But even that episode could boast the classic confrontation between Clarence Williams III, playing a vinegary Vietnam veteran, and the young cop who tiredly confesses to him “Sir, I don’t know what the Mekong Delta is.” Justified is full of lines like that, lines which, while written totally in character, contain a bemused, aware measurement of American life.

It’d be too much to say that Justified breaks the fourth wall, but it definitely messes with it. Its one identifiable character arc—something to do with Raylan coming to grips with his “anger”—would be a groaner if the show’s creators took it at all seriously. It’d be just as easy to make Justified sound slovenly and lax, what with its nick-of-time appearances by characters who couldn’t be more genie-like if they showed up in puffs in smoke, Raylan’s fail-proof ability to intuit what the bad guys are going to do next, and the unlikely presence of not one but two small-town goddesses—Raylan’s current squeeze, Ava, and his ex-wife, Winona—either of whom could burn the big city down.

The truth is, Graham Yost and his writers aren’t crafting a masterpiece of Sopranos-level subtlety or polish (the direction is often merely functional), but they preempt such carping by focusing on Elmore Leonard’s menagerie of felonious, lovelorn fuck-ups and the back-country no-class world they inhabit. If Jake Gittes’ M.O. in Chinatown was to let sleeping dogs lie, Raylan Givens likes to kick them awake, demand their tags, and then start whacking them on the snout with their own chew-toys. But his self-righteousness never descends to a Death Wish shellacking of the bad guys, and sometimes, as when he picks a fight with two burly barroom louts, it even blows up in his face. It’s Raylan’s very fallibility that makes him, if not heroic, then at least endlessly diverting. Timothy Olyphant had to place his natural warmth under house arrest to play that natural-born prick Seth Bullock, but here he lets it ooze all the way through, and there’s something commonsensical, even disarming, in the calm, splay-fingered way Raylan addresses the hit-men and hostage-takers who are evidently overrunning southern Kentucky nowadays, even when he’s threatening their lives.

The balance between available talent and worthy material has probably always been out of whack, but these days, when a single show like The Wire can uncover literally scores of good actors in one fell swoop, it’s a joke to hope that any more than a few of them will find gigs that exploit everything they can do while treating them right money-wise, making it extra nice when a show like Justified comes along and starts passing out the juicy parts like Halloween candy. It took me a while to warm up to Walton Goggins—with his harshly chiseled features and thousand-yard stare, he looks like he ought to be a terrible actor, but he’s actually as much of a hoot as the shape-shifting, homicidal Boyd Crowder possibly can be. In fact, all the Crowders are fun to watch, especially the mountainous M.C. Gainey as the patriarch Bo, a habitual criminal who lumbers about in cammies and seems like the world’s coolest granddad until utterly vile things start spilling out of his mouth. (Gainey was also a kick as the no-nonsense Nam veteran in Citizen Ruth, and those were his blubbery nether parts jiggling against Paul Giamatti’s car window in Sideways.) Justified has also given guest-shots to a handful of Deadwood alumni—the next best thing to a Season Four, I guess, even if it was a sadistic tease to bring Con Stapleton back for only one brief scene.

Some of the other guest stars have given me simply ridiculous amounts of pleasure; along with Williams my favorites include Katherine LaNasa, as a manicured trophy wife with a bagful of dirty tricks, and Stephen Root, as a hanging judge with a weakness for whiskey and strippers. All of these characters, morally maladjusted as they are, are integral cogs in Elmore Leonard’s cosmic, comic view of temptation. His novels and short stories offer something like a malt liquor version of Jean Renoir’s judgment on the human race: people, in his eyes, indeed have their reasons, but they’re almost always half-baked, and are frequently indictable.

As Al Sees It

February 28, 2010

Trixie (on Sol Star): He stares in my eyes when he fucks me. Longin’ like.

Swearengen (sipping his coffee): Jesus Christ.

On “A Two-Headed Beast”

July 23, 2006


That isn’t to say that watching the scene is a pleasure; it’s far from that. It had come to me only earlier in the week how much I’d cottoned to Dority and W. Earl Brown’s work in the role, a realization born of the fact that David Milch and his writers had set Dority on an unavoidable collision course with Turner, an Old West version of Oddjob whose indomitable mien made him seem the inevitable victor in any encounter he might face. Dority, with his paunch and shoulder-length hair, is like your older hippie brother who’s gone bad, but his relative innocence (at least when compared to Al Swearengen or Cy Tolliver) and his sunny drawl take much of the moral stink off of him. Also, as Swearengen has had to evolve, so have his men, even if they didn’t know why or that they’re doing it at all.

Brown has stated that Milch said he wanted the fight to have three qualities: 1) an absence of fistfight clichés (no roundhouse punches or people thrown through store windows); 2) a rolling rhythm, gaining in intensity just when it seemed to be slowing down; and 3) something he’d never seen before. It’s that second quality which really defines the fight, which in memory seems to occur in a mere handful of set-ups even though it’s nearly five minutes long. The sequence in fact does have several cuts, but none of them are for the sake of flashiness—they simply propel us to a better vantage point of the convulsive action, whether we want to go or not.

It’s that motion of Swearengen’s, that downward tilt of his head without any change in his expression, that got to me. I don’t know fully why, though I’m sure it has to do with how the show’s relationships are made so concrete and believable that we can sense with unusual particularity how all of these people feel about each other. Swearengen’s history with Dority has been doled out to us in dribs and drabs—we know, for instance, that they cut the lumber for The Gem together. When Dority’s face is in that water, Swearengen is at risk of passing with him. From his point of view he’d have no leg to stand on if Dan were killed; Dority’s drowning would only finish what Hearst had begun by cutting off Swearengen’s finger. And Ian McShane has never been finer in the role than in his scenes leading up to the fight, when Swearengen desperately tries, without success, to suss out Hearst’s intentions—“What’s in his head, I cannot fucking find in mine”—while pretending to his allies that he’s only working by his own timetable. Al Swearengen may be nothing but a sacred monster, and but for sheer naked circumstance he and Dority would be child-killers, but in this one moment none of that matters. Two men’s lives, and all of their labor, can be seen vanishing into that oily mudhole.

Technically the scene’s a bloody marvel. For one thing, whatever Brown’s makeup artist makes on the show, it can’t be nearly enough: by the end of the fight, his mouth dripping ropes of saliva, his face split and bruised, his hair and clothing slathered in blood and grease and mud, Dan looks like a caveman who’s been blindsided by lightning. The sound design, too, is a thing of beauty. Except for a wagon rolling past at the beginning and the heavy thuds of the men’s blows, there’s barely a sound in the entire five minutes—only a grunt here, a murmur there from the townspeople watching or strolling past. The glaring absence of mood music gives the fight a fluid but fully shaped form—we can clearly retrace the action in all its vigor the second it ends. And in the end we’re left with the sound of Allan Graf’s indescribably ghastly howls after the gouging, at least until Dority takes his cudgel-like fire log to the back of Turner’s skull. We don’t see that last bit of violence, and barely even hear it, coming to us as it does from Al’s distanced perspective on the balcony, just before he flips his toothpick over the railing and goes back inside. After everything that’s come before, it’s a blessing to have things end with a whimper.

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