Original Post (with comments)
Did I mention I’m addicted to Deadwood? Okay, maybe addicted is a strong word, but I’m really enjoying it, and as it happens, I’m in kind of a weird place, temporally speaking. I’ve absorbed the whole first season because I rented the DVDs. Now I’m ready to jump into the second season, but it’s already underway, four or five (or is it six?) episodes worth. What to do? Rather than lose the impact of seeing them all in order, I settled on the the methadone option – the “Special Features” DVD that came with the last two episodes of Season 1. DND (hereafter invoking a new acronym meaning, does not disappoint).
The guy who writes Deadwood is named David Milch. He’s one of those “established” TV writers, the guys who have the jobs that are the heart’s desire of countless inevitably unsuccessful writers. He’s there for a good reason, irrespective of the lock-out to new talent that typifies much of the industry. Milch started as a writer on Hill Street Blues (won an Emmy) and gained momentum up to co-creating NYPD Blue (won a couple of Emmys), which he rode all the way through the 90’s. Now, he’s doing Deadwood… unorthodox, like.
It turns out that the folks at HBO (geniuses, if you ask me) have given this guy a wide berth – a lot of what he writes is improvised on the set after he watches some aspect of an actor’s performance. The whole crew, according to the interviews on the “Special Features” disk, are like addicts waiting for new pages. (I can relate, but I’m okay.) Anyhow, the last segment on the disk is an interview between Milch and one of the stars of the first season, Kieth Carradine, who plays Wild Bill Hickok. I was impressed and intrigued by this gregarious but admitted self-hater before seeing this interview (he was on Jon Favreaux’s Dinner for Five not too long ago). Nevertheless, I was caught off guard by how insightful and esoterically erudite Milch was when, toward the end of the interview, Carradine asked him about a particular scene from Season 1 – a guy who was praising (and irritating) Wild Bill, after being asked to go away, changed his tune abruptly, and wished him dead. I’ll quote him so you can follow his train of thought as it comes around the bend.
Nathaniel West wrote, I thought, beautifully about that syndrome, and W.H. Auden, the poet, wrote an essay about West’s analysis of that syndrome, which he called, ‘West’s Disease.’ It’s about people who, for whatever reason, are unable to turn wishes into passions in their life, and lacking that capacity, sit passively in mute outrage, anticipating disasters. They go to fires. Any sort of natural disaster attracts them. And in the absence of a natural disaster, they sometimes try and create disasters. And they hate the people whose lives, whether successful or not, are pursued with passion. And first they idolize them, then they want to destroy them. They want to appropriate the vitality of those people…
Whoa. I talk to lots of people and I’d be mesmerized to be in a conversation of this sort. Maybe it just hits home with me because I’m so obsessed with understanding and generalizing about human behavior (which more than a couple of people have told me is futile). Nevertheless, to me, this was fantastic. It rang so true that I just had to investigate this West fellow. Here’s a good bio link. It seems that his most famous work was the novel, Day of the Locust (1939, never heard of it), and it also seems that his most distinguishing characteristic was his tendency to exaggerate to absurdity. This review that followed the release of a compilation of his works in 1997 makes the point.
In West’s cosmology, exaggeration rules: a moment of self-doubt becomes profound self-loathing; fleeting hostility becomes a blow to the head; and the merest gesture of compassion becomes an act of martyrdom. Prose is not always easy to read at this volume — West’s crazy normality has, in the 57 years since his death, often perplexed both the tourists and the folks back home — but this edition, which demonstrates the range of West’s craziness as well as his normality, is convincing evidence that his work is worth looking at again.
I like this idea of exaggeration to absurdity. Clearly, “West’s Disease” isn’t pervasive in society, in literal terms, but it’s recognizable. Better said – you can’t miss it! We all know people like this, people who hate those who achieve or succeed or just plain live life with a smile on their face. Most of these electrons (as I call them – negatively charged and all) do so under the radar, though I find that they’re easy to spot, for the most part. Very few will actually translate their contempt into actions – recall that their problem to begin with is that they can’t do this – but some will.
Some folks will go out of their way to screw someone whose very existence, and only that, irks them to no end. These people, even the impotent ones, are cancer. They must be avoided at all costs, and I’ll go so far as to say that they should be shunned the moment their nefarious predilections reveal themselves sufficiently. To me, knowing that this personality type exists has significant value. It’s just part of knowing what we’re up against in our march through life, and knowing what to do about it is often the difference between realizing our dreams and going in circles. Electrons with West’s Syndrome. I fucking love it. Cross another nuisance off the Christmas Card list.
(DISCLAIMER: Never, in the course of identifying personality types, do I intend to suggest that any given personality type cannot be substantially altered via sustained diligence, and maybe some drugs. Therefore, no person who bears resemblance to this should assume that they are a loser and are in danger of being shunned. That is, of course, unless they don’t get their shit together, like soon.)
I suppose the reason I like Deadwood so much (besides the profanity, of course) is the fact that the characters have so much depth and so much complexity. What’s even more interesting is that to be able to write characters like that, you have to have in your mind an understanding of humanity that is the exact opposite of complex. David Milch, being the kind of guy who quotes Socrates as he thinks outloud about the plight of his characters, obviously has a strong grasp of this ostensible paradox. He’s good because he gets mankind, which he owes in some small part to Nathaniel West. Because West could generalize, and then make it so absurd as to paint it plainly in our minds (and maybe even put a face on it), we can watch a Western that isn’t full of cartoon characters. Now that is cool.
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