"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Deadwood (HBO, 2004 - 2006)


Mud, murder and mayhem


 


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The famed HBO series created by David Milch which ran from 2004 to 2006 and too suddenly stopped with the story unresolved, remains an extraordinary achievement of television.
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The only known photograph of Al Swearengen (left) and his doppelganger Ian McShane (right)

For someone who grew up with cinematic Westerns and who for so many years regarded TV versions as pale (or anyway gray and white) imitations - too short, low-budget, constrained, formulaic, repetitive and two-dimensional (not that these adjectives stopped us watching them, mind) - the gradual turn-around that occurred as movie theaters showed fewer and then for years at a time no Westerns at all was astonishing. TV could now afford big budgets and the ‘mini-series’ format could permit lengthy interpretations of long novels. Think of Lonesome Dove. No Hollywood studio could have made and sold a picture of those epic proportions to be shown in a multiplex.

Timothy Olyphant (left) and Seth Bullock, whom he portrays (below)












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Deadwood extends this reach. It is a Western alright, no doubt at all about that, but it is a unique creation of a Western. Tim Goodman in the San Francisco Chronicle said, “While it's true that Deadwood is a Western, a genre so worn thin and hallowed out through the years it hasn't been approached much in the modern world, Milch has risen up to take the form and infuse it with his cockeyed genius and he has created a landscape, characters and dialogue so thoroughly original that Deadwood, when history has its say, may go down as one of television's greatest achievements -- a singular, original vision.”












Colorado Charley Utter at Wild Bill's grave and on the left the excellent Dayton Callie

No so much of the “genre worn thin,” Mr. Goodman, if you don’t mind. And what do you mean “hallowed out”? Did you intend “hallowed” or “hollowed out”? Still, your point is taken. Deadwood is indeed thoroughly original and a great achievement of television.
 
Feel the quality


Robin Weigert (above) as 'Calamity' Jane Cannary (below)











 


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Though the series was written and directed by a multiplicity of people, it retained a homogeneity and coherence that any single writer or director would have been proud of.

Directed by
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Ed Bianchi (8 episodes, 2004-2006)
Daniel Minahan (4 episodes, 2004-2006)
Davis Guggenheim (4 episodes, 2004)
Gregg Fienberg (4 episodes, 2005-2006)
Mark Tinker (4 episodes, 2006)
Steve Shill (3 episodes, 2004-2005)
Alan Taylor (2 episodes, 2004-2005)

Written by

David Milch (36 episodes, 2004-2006)
Regina Corrado (8 episodes, 2005-2006)
Ted Mann (7 episodes, 2004-2006)
Elizabeth Sarnoff (4 episodes, 2004-2005)
Jody Worth (4 episodes, 2004-2005)
Bryan McDonald (2 episodes, 2004-2005)
Malcolm MacRury (2 episodes, 2004)
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Mr. Goodman suggests that Deadwood’s very high quality is the result of three main elements:
  • the writing and the language;
  • the acting; and
  • the story-telling.
 
Language!
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As far as the language goes, it is certainly remarkable. On the one hand we have high-flown, mock-Victorian dialogue in which everyone speaks in full, flowing sentences made up of polysyllabic words, like George Eliot on speed. On the other, we have a degree of profanity never before attempted on the screen. Words, phrases and entire utterances which only a year or two ago would have censors fainting and their minions running for the smelling salts, spew from the mouths of the characters like a cascade of obscenity.
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I would say that Mr. Milch’s team of writers did get carried away. As the series progressed it was almost as though they became drunk on verbiage and eloquence. Soliloquies started appearing as characters declaimed Shakespeareanly. They talked to their dogs, to the decapitated head of an Indian, to a bottle, but really they talked to themselves. This gave the characters an increasing air of madness. In the case of EB Farnum, the hotel keeper and mayor, we are supposed to understand that he was indeed slipping into insanity. But Al Swearengen, insane? The very idea! Basically, it doesn’t work. It was a step too far.
 
How people actually spoke in the 1870s West is, of course, impossible to know. We have no recordings and even if any had existed it is unlikely that men and women would have committed f- and c- words to them. Did people in such settlements combine pomposity of phrasing with foul-mouthery of more than 21st century ghetto proportions? Perhaps it was authentic but perhaps it is merely 21st century-theatrical.
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An occasional infelicity slips in and the anachronism breaks the spell. But by and large, however the language of Deadwood may have been, the language of Deadwood is a tour de force of dexterity and delight.
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I think my favorite example of the swearing is the one ten-letter word that Jane has as her contribution to one episode from which she is otherwise excluded. She is asleep on her horse as the Deadwood stage rolls by. It wakes her abruptly and she yells after it her description of the occupants and goes back to sleep. My favorite example of the prolixity is when Al intimidates a convalescing Farnum with the prediction: "Gabriel's trumpet will produce you from the ass of a pig."
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Of course, to be able to carry off that dazzling linguistic trumpery, you have to have actors of the first order.
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Acting the characters
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We must start with Ian McShane because his character dominates and he is the most imposing as an actor. The real Swearengen was not British but that doesn’t matter. It is gradually revealed through the series that he has been running bordellos and cutting throats from New Orleans to Australia. He is uniquely vicious, both in the sense of violent and full of vice. He is clever, manipulative, ruthless, vile and yet strangely sympathetic. We may not all take his side when he battles Seth Bullock but there is no doubt who we are rooting for when he comes up against the superbly evil Hearst (Gerald McRaney). McShane is masterly. It is an unforgettable performance.
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His rival Cy Tolliver, faux-aristocrat saloon owner, just as vicious as Al but slimier, is played by Powers Boothe, also superbly well. Boothe so resembles Gregory Peck it is uncanny. Not that one could ever imagine Peck uttering such horrific sentiments or knifing minions in the groin out of sheer meanness. But who knows: had Gregory Peck been born that much later and appeared in 21st century Westerns, perhaps he would have done that, and magisterially.
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Timothy Olyphant as Bullock is very good. He lets us see the repressed violent temper only just beneath the surface. He always seems contained and restrained. Duty rules him. On the rare occasions that his fury is unleashed, he is totally convincing. Plus, what a vest!
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His partner Sol Star (John Hawkes) is the rational obverse of Seth, calm, reasonable and thoughtful. In fact the real Bullock and Star were amazingly successful entrepreneurs who died rich and, in Bullock’s case, famous (he was Teddy Roosevelt’s friend).
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Serial widow and hophead Alma Garret, later Mrs. Ellsworth, played by Molly Parker, is also very well done. She is certainly less sympathetic than the other ‘heroes’ but she carries off the Eastern lady slumming it in the wild and woolly West very well. I rather preferred her second husband (we are to presume at least her second), Whitney Ellsworth (Jim Beaver) whose demise is as much a sudden shock to us the viewers as it must have been to him (and his dog). He is completely decent. Well done, Jim.
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Brad Dourif does an excellent Doc, exiled to Deadwood for past misdemeanors (he robbed graves to do medical research) yet providing a selfless Florence Nightingale-esque succor to the camp. I wished all through the series that he would get a haircut but apparently there was no barber in Deadwood and he never did.
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At Al’s Gem Saloon his cronies were very well played too. W Earl Brown as Dan Dority, intensely loyal and quite fearsome in his horrifically magnificent fight with Captain Turner (Allan Graf, splendidly pugnacious and stocky). Trixie is the whore with a heart of if not gold at least gilt (Paula Malcolmson) and favorite of Al (who cuts another girl's throat to save her). She and her counterpart in the neighboring house of ill repute, Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens), lesbian brothel madam yet preferred partner of Cy, both escape the whoring trade and move on to better things.
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I loved Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie). He is Colorado Charley, Wild Bill’s pard who buried him (though not in the series; he was away in Cheyenne when Bill was shot). Whereas Calamity Jane Cannary, who was in fact absent at Bill’s death, is shown to have been present, as she is in every film portrayal. Dramatically, she probably had to be there. Robin Weigert is excellent in this part. Alcoholic, a displaced person, alienated, she is full of vim and vinegar (as well as bourbon). She out-mans the men of the camp yet shows occasional touching flashes of feminine softness. It’s a great performance.
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William Sanderson as the obsequious hotel owner and mayor, crony of Al, sucking up to anyone powerful, the Uriah Heep of Deadwood, is also excellent. It’s a great creation. His relationship with the simple-minded pagan cook Richardson (Ralph Richeson) is very entertaining.
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One mistake was the double casting of the same man (Garret Dillahunt) as both the assassin Jack McCall and the Ripper-esque geologist Francis Wolcott. It was an odd decision and it didn’t work. Why would McCall (whose death by hanging in Yangton, by the way, is not mentioned; it's a loose end) return with a cleaner face as a geologist? We keep expecting Deadwood residents to say, “Wait a minute, I know you!”
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Of the (so many) others, I would mention Jeffrey Jones as the portly and pompous newspaperman AW Merrick, and Ray McKinnon as the Reverend Mr. Smith, holy simpleton descending into epilepsy and death by brain tumor. The former was an engaging and the latter an intensely moving performance.
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Jewel the Gimp (Geri Jewell), Con Stapleton the fat fop (Peter Jason), Mr. Wu (Keone Young), Deadwood’s Vladimir and Estragon (as Keith Ulich calls them in Slant Magazine) in the shape of the liveryman Hostetler (Richard Gant) and the Little Nigger General (played by comedian Franklin Ajaye), the list goes on. They were all extremely good.
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Excellent likeness: Keith Carradine as Wild Bill Hickok

We mustn’t forget Wild Bill Hickok, of course. It had to be a Carradine (Keith of that Ilk). An inspired choice, a veteran Western actor to play a veteran Westerner. In fact the series never really recovered after Episode 5. Hickok was so much a part of Deadwood’s fame and its interest to us, and was so much a giant, even in his own time, that his death left a gaping hole in the series.
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Well, we can’t mention them all (though I haven’t done badly). Other characters not discussed are not necessarily for that poorly acted or unimportant to the story.
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I was only sorry that Eddie Sawyer (Ricky Jay) disappeared without explanation just when his character was getting interesting.
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But so much for the acting.
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Narrative
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As for the story-telling, yes, the narrative is complex. One critic (I forget which) said when series 3 began that followers would understand nothing and would be thrilled to be in that condition. Puzzling out Deadwood is as enjoyable as watching it.
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The 3rd series, in particular, when, as Alessandra Stanley in the New York Times said, “Nobody is canoodling: even the saloon whores are underworked and bored”, when sex is put aside for politics but murder is no less prevalent, is introvert, intricate and intense.
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The plot is like a chess game between Swearengen and Hearst, although in a faulty move you are as like to lose a finger or an eye, as a chess piece.
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One aspect of the story I found disappointing: the whole second and third series built up to the coming clash between the Swearengen-led forces of the camp and the imported thugs of George Hearst. Both sides bring in hired guns. The men arm themselves and go heeled. This is classic Western plotting. The storm is coming and will break in the great climax of the film.
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Yet in Deadwood, the big showdown never arrives. It all seems rather an anti-climax in the last episode. Mr. Hearst rides off with a sneer. A ‘proper’ Western would have had a splendid shoot-out in the main street, an Open Range-style gunfight all over town. It doesn’t happen. The fact that it didn’t happen (in history) shouldn’t have stopped the writers. They played pretty fast and loose with history elsewhere.
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Brian Lowry in Variety wrote that the series presents “a glimpse of the West that extends beyond mere revisionism, creating a living 19th century community populated by entrepreneurs, thugs and whores, in roughly that order”. 
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Alessandra Stanley says, “Deadwood is a counterintuitive western; instead of wide open spaces and men of few words, the town where it is set is a cramped, muddy ghetto peopled by gabby merchants and jabbering prospectors.” In fact, of course, Ms. Stanley, many Westerns, even very great Westerns like High Noon, were set in towns and played on the claustrophobic, closed-in containment to build up the tension. Deadwood does this in spades. The gabbiness, yes, that is different. You are right. We are much more used to taciturn tough Westerners for whom action speaks louder than words.
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Key aspects of the narrative are the cheapness of life and suddenness of death, the casual racism (virulent and vile to our ears but ingrained and natural then) and the development of the characters. As the Reverend Mr. Smith loses his faith, the lowlife gambler Andy Cramed (Zach Grenier) finds his (though it doesn’t stop him stabbing his former employer in the guts). Whores reform. Freighters become deputies and marshals' wives schoolteachers. Drunkard Jane becomes a nurse, then a drunk again.
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Visually, the darkness is appropriate to the theme and tone of the play (for it is a play, in three acts) as well as reflecting authentically the poorly-lit interiors of the day.
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Shakespeare in the mud, says Tim Goodman. Profanity begets profundity, says Keith Uhlich.
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Mud, murder and mayhem, say I. It’s magnificent. And all for under 50 euros. Why did I wait five years? Buy this box of DVDs and marvel. You won’t regret it.
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