God, I love Deadwood. I love the characters, the stories, the sets, the photography, the acting. I can relate more closely to The Wire, and no series ever strung stories together to a more fitting climax than did The Shield. The sense of place established by the characters and dialog in Justified is unsurpassed. What Deadwood did—and still does, after repeated viewings—is create a hyper-reality where disbelief need not be suspended; it’s torn away as brutally as James Ellroy describing a Los Angeles that existed, but never quite the way his does.
How does Deadwood do it? This may seem ironic when discussing a visual medium, but the whole things is about language. For a person who loves words—their uses meanings, the sounds as they fall upon the ear—Deadwood is the ultimate experience.
The Beloved Spouse and I recently finished what was our fourth (or fifth) trip through the 36 episodes. Not ready to give it up, we worked out way through the bonus features disks. They were a revelation, and highly recommended for fans, especially for insights into the creative process of David Milch.
Let’s talk about Milch for a minute. For years I spoke of him as if his given name were “That Cocksucker.” (“Don’t forget how That Cocksucker Milch fucked us on Deadwood.”) Jim Beaver recently placed the lion’s share of the blame on HBO on his Facebook page. He was there, I wasn’t, and a re-reading of the relevant portions of Brett Martin’s wonderful book Difficult Men shows I had been largely unfair. I still wish Milch hadn’t been quite so sensitive to HBO’s snub and found a way to get the two two-hour movies made to wrap things up, but that’s small potatoes compared to his overarching achievements in Deadwood.
The bonus features were another eye opener. True, they’re edited, and I’m sure Milch had final approval, but the respect, admiration—awe, even—the actors had for Milch was evident, even in candid shots. Watching him speak showed a bit of the charisma they must have felt. Something special was happening there, and while I can’t say everything they did worked—the George Hearst character might have been a little more believable had he not become evil incarnate—the flaws are negligible when compared to the accomplishments. (Some Season Three subplots don’t go anywhere, but I’ll give the benefit of the doubt that Season Four would done something with them.)
Probably the greatest praise I can give Deadwood is that it has made me re-examine mycreative process. (Such as it is.) I’ve toyed with the idea of a Western for several years; now I have a file full of notes for it, and plot ideas are springing up unbidden in the car and after showers. I’m paying special attention to the language I’ll use. Not just the style and voice, but the language, both narrative and spoken. I’m not fool enough to try to copy Deadwood’s unique speech, but some things Milch said in the bonus features stuck with me: the task is to create a language. It will sound like English, and it will have elements of the vernacular of the times, but the point will be to develop something unique.
Development. That’s the key. The story develops. The characters. Even the language. Milch spent over a year “developing” Deadwood before bringing in the crews and getting to work. The universe must be set in the creator’s mind before “work” begins. The story and characters and language and setting can develop in whatever form and direction, and the whole will not be ill-affected if the vision of the world is true. That’s where the real effort must take place for this book, and even for the Penns River books I have on the back burner, though that world is known to me well enough now that deliberation is less important than interpretation.
Gustav Mahler said after revising his Fifth Symphony, “I cannot understand how I could have written so much like a beginner. . . . Clearly the routine I had acquired in the first four symphonies had deserted me altogether, as though a totally new message demanded a new technique.” I’m no Mahler, but I understand what he meant. I’ve been dissatisfied with writing in general and my writing in particular for some time. Now I think I know why. I’d said as much as I could say with the tools and approach I had developed. So it’s time for me to develop, too. Even if the end result is not dissimilar, the approach will differ.
I might have come to these conclusions even had I not seen Deadwood as this precise moment in time. Maybe. I defy any limber-dicked cocksucker to gainsay it had nothing to do with it.