We didn’t watch "Deadwood" last night â€” we were too busy, and we didn’t want to give it any less than our sickeningly devoted, complete attention, because, let’s be honest: best show in the history of television.
It’s also inspired its fair share of interest writing, most notably Matt Zoller Seitz and crew at The House Next Door, whose series of "Deadweek" articles has been as dense and well-considered as the show deserves. Seitz reviews the initial episode at the Newark Star-Ledger.
At the New Yorker, Nancy Franklin struggles with where to place "Deadwood" on the Western/post-Western sliding scale:
It has been many years since Westerns were essentially black-and-white, cut-and-dried stories of good versus evil: morality tales with lots of horses and guns and one of everything elseâ€”a sheriff, an outlaw, an embattled hero, a town drunk, a whore with a heart of gold, a honky-tonk piano, and a schoolteacher from Illinois, who found out shortly after arriving in town that, for worse and for better, there was more to life than book learninâ€™. Indians were, for the most part, the obstacle that had to be overcomeâ€”although sometimes there was a â€œgood one.â€ Although Westerns have evolved, the conventions are still often glaring, making even Westerns that have gray, shadowy moral areas a tough sell to some people. Thereâ€™s just too much dust, leather, whinnying, shooting, and mudâ€”too much brownâ€”and not enough talking, understanding, humor, and complexity. The trappings of Westerns make them seem fake and message-y, even as they strain to be realistic. David Milchâ€™s â€œDeadwood,â€ which begins its third season on HBO on Sunday, is the exception to the rule; in what Iâ€™d assumed was very poor soil, heâ€™s produced a gorgeously living thing.
At his blog, Dave Kehr muses of Franklin’s summing-up of genre conventions: "this isnâ€™t the list of someone whoâ€™s seen a lot of Westerns; itâ€™s the list of someone whoâ€™s absorbed the high culture caricature of them that has emerged since the genre effectively passed away, fatally linked in the minds of most baby-boomers with the disaster of Vietnam." He continues:
It has indeed been many years since Westerns were like what Franklin describes â€“ Iâ€™d say, since about 1903 and â€œThe Great Train Robbery.â€ Westerns have, in fact, been the primary means through which American filmmakers have expressed â€œthe gray, shadowy moral areasâ€ of American history and the American character. In my experience â€“ which includes way too many hours watching the routine B movies Franklin presumably has in mind (little she says applies to the adult Westerns that emerged in the late 40s, and were developed by such outstanding artists as Ford, Howard Hawks, Samuel Fuller, Budd Boetticher, Anthony Mann, Delmar Daves and quite a few others) â€“ Iâ€™ve found the genre to be far less reactionary and rigid than consistently questioning and even progressive. There probably is a brutally racist, genocidal Western out there somewhere that advocates the extermination of the Indians, though I have never seen it or heard of one that fits that description. From the very beginnings of the genre on screen, Westerns frequently took the point of view of the Indian â€“ romanticizing him and condescending to him, of course, but almost always following the Fenimore Cooper tradition of the â€œnoble savage.â€
We’re inclined to agree â€” we’re so far into the age of the revisionist, the neo-Western, that it’s become easy to assume a set of values, tropes and archetypes that must have belonged to traditional Westerns without ever actually seeing any of them. Circle the wagons! At the New York Times, A.O. Scott muses on John Ford‘s "The Searchers," particularly the final shot, quoted so often that it doubtless seems a cliche to plenty of people who at the same time have no idea where it’s originally from.
But that image of John Wayne‘s shadow in the doorway â€” he plays the solitary hero, Ethan Edwards â€” does not just pick up on other such moments in "The Searchers." Perhaps because the shot is thematically rich as well as visually arresting â€” because it so perfectly unites showing and telling â€” it has become a touchstone, promiscuously quoted, consciously or not, by filmmakers whose debt to Ford might not be otherwise apparent. Ernest Hemingway once said that all of American literature could be traced back to one book, Mark Twain’s "Huckleberry Finn," and something similar might be said of American cinema and "The Searchers." It has become one of those movies that you see, in part, through the movies that came after it and that show traces of its influence. "Apocalypse Now," "Punch-Drunk Love," "Kill Bill," "Brokeback Mountain": those were the titles that flickered in my consciousness in the final seconds of a recent screening in Cannes of Ford’s masterwork, all because, at crucial moments, they seem to pay homage to that single, signature shot.
At Salon, Allen Barra, surveying the past 50 or so years of Western literature (to which he attributes the new mini-trend of what he calls "Contemporary Art House Western"), writes that "The western isn’t undergoing a resurgence, because interest in the West has never waned." And at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, Dennis Cozzalio picks his two favorite line readings from the year so far: one of them is David Wenham‘s snippy "What an incredible piece of filth!" from John Hillcoat‘s remarkable neo-(neo-)Western "The Proposition." Which is interesting â€” we find that the line that’s haunting us, out of all we’ve seen this year thus far, is also from that film: John Hurt‘s great and terrible George Borrow quotation, gasped out as he undergoes a violent death: "Life is very sweet, brother; who would wish to die?"
+ Deadweek: June 4-11, 2006 (The House Next Door)
+ Life, and death, go on in ever-evolving ‘Deadwood’ (Newark Star-Ledger)
+ DEAD ON (New Yorker)
+ Horse Operas (DaveKehr.com)
+ ‘The Searchers’: How the Western Was Begun (NY Times)
+ The new true West (Salon)
+ SAY, SAY, SAY: TWO OF 2006’s BEST LINE READINGS (Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule)