Tuesday, August 08, 2006

More Than You Ever Wanted to Know About Dirty Words

Came across this in director David Milch's commentary on Episode Three ("New Money") of the DVD edition of the second season of Deadwood. I've been impressed with Milch's elucidations on the show in the DVD extras, particularly Season One's -- I was a little saddened to see that Season Two's boxed set offered far fewer of his little professorial-yet-accessible lectures.

(Man-crush??? Your words, not mine!)
The language on the show, you know, the profanity, was quite controversial, but what I was trying to do with that was sort of break down the conventions of language, and show the way language regenerates a meaning which is dependent upon its particular environment.

The reason people in Deadwood spoke the way they did was they were sending a sort of signal about -- this was a lawless environment, and that they would obey no laws even in terms of the conventions of language, as a way of saying I am equal to this environment. Like if you meet somebody in a bar after work, you know, and you haven't seen him before, you're trying to be polite, you'd say "Hey, where are you from?" And the guy says "Oh, I'm from Topeka, Kansas." In Deadwood, if you see someone you don't know, in a bar, you say "Where are you from?" the're liable to kill you -- because these are all people who have, you know, complicated backgrounds, they don't know if you've got a warrant, so... In Deadwood, you say "Where are you from?" they'll say "What the fuck is that to you?" As a way of saying every word is important in an environment like that.

So the first obligation was to sort of break down the viewer's conventional ideas of what words meant, and so I sorta wanted an unrelenting stream of obscenity at the beginning of the show. That first speech of Ellsworth's, you know: The elements of that scene were, first you saw the gold, Swearengen is weighing the gold, then he pours a drink, establishing the nature of this environment, and then once the alcohol is in him then the language changes. He says, "I might have fucked my life up flatter than hammered shit, but I stand before you today beholden to no human cocksucker!" And then he begins to eliminate the elements of the ordering forces in society: "And not the US Government, or the savage fuckin' Red Man, or George Custer himself, had better try and take it away from me!" And Swearengen, by way of affirming the environment, says, "They better not try it in here." Then they address, even the subject of accents. He says, "What's that Limey damned accent of yours, Swearengen? Are those rumors true you're descended from English royalty?" Swearengen says, "I'm descended from all them cocksuckers," which is a way of saying that the invoked content of language, the logic of language, is gone. People are going to lie all the time, and finally when you've obliterated any expectation that the prior meanings you've affixed to language will obtain, then you start to regenerate meaning.

That's why a guy like Wu, for me, is an interesting character, because what I try to do with Wu is, there's a guy who knows like one word of English -- cocksucker -- and yet the viewer, as a result of protracted exposure, is able to understand everything....

Which is to say language generates meaning from context. What begins as what seems like an unremittingly and unrelievedly profane environment in fact is just just finding a new way to organize itself. At the level of language, I was trying to prefigure the theme of the improvisation of society.

There's more than you ever wanted to know about dirty words!
Ah! One other thing: In reviewing Season Two alongside the new Season Three episodes, I've noticed that the burgeoning threat of the Hearst Mining Company's designs on the town of Deadwood has been repeatedly referred to "Leviathan" -- to the point where last week's episode, in which the plutocratic shit truly starts to hit the fan, was titled "Leviathan Smiled."

Yes, of course it's referring to the Biblical whale -- but last night, poking around on Wikipedia on an unrelated matter, it smacked me in the face: Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan!

"Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short," anyone? Where you at, Nash? By Banquo's beard, these are some smart cocksuckers.


Will Divide said...

I could watch animals eating humans all day long. -- David Milch

Thirty years ago this summer, the very callow Will Divide sat in a Yale University classroom once a week to watch David Milch chain smoke Lucky Strikes and pace back and forth as he unwound a series of nearly unfathomable monologues about the books he assigned us: Sister Carrie, Madame Bovary, Nostromo, The Red Badge of Courage, Daisy Miller. His text was all in his head, though ably reflected in Warren and Brooks' Understanding Fiction which David revised with R.P. Warren.

I am not a Yalie, and after a year of thinking and reading I went back to hear another of his lectures and found that I then understood about forty percent of what David was talking about, and that, in fact, his apparently rambling presentation was a marvel of unity in its examination of the psychological groundings of the work in question; nothing short of brilliant. Mind you this is when he was still a junkie...

I am not a fiction writer either, and have not been in touch with Milch for about 20 years. But to listen now to his discussion of the material in the two seasons of Deadwood DVDs is a real treat, and a continuing education.

Matt said...

I love Deadwood (though I have only watched Season 1 so far . . . Season 2 is on the way).

But I have to say: in terms of situating one within the Wild West, no movie does a better job than Dead Man. That early, establishing shot of a man getting a blow job in a side alley -- and the look he gives Johnny Depp's character when he catches him looking at him -- says all you need to know about this new, lawless terrain. I'm wiling to bet that it was an inspiration, in some way, for Deadwood.

roxtar said...

As a public defender, I deal with the roughest of the rough element. So when their kindly, grandfatherish, suit and tie wearing lawyer calls a dirty cop a "lying cocksucker", well, let's just say you can feel the love.

Akatabi said...

The reasons I don't use dirty words much are I'm no good at it and overuse leads to banality. While they can establish social bonding (we're close enough to skip the formalities and let our hair down) - they at the same time indicate I can break this little taboo with you and I can break a bigger one if I want to (like wolf pups going for the throat in play-fighting).

Consider the invective used by the right and left - islamofascist, feminazi, even liberal compared to wanker and wingnut. Clearly the left needs a msster of the craft like Hubert Selby Jr. to coin some new vocabulary.

nash said...

I don't have cable, Neddie, and haven't seen Deadwood -- though perhaps I'll add it to my Netflix queue, since it seems to be one of the more interesting things on telly right now. (I just finished catching up with The Shield, and hell, I haven't even begun on The Sopranos yet.) I'm certainly not the sort who's bothered by dark themes and foul language.

I rather like the fact that Leviathan is apparently being used to refer to a corporation. If you look closely at the marvelous Leviathan frontispiece, you'll notice a quotation in Latin at the top. It's from Job 41:33-34 (in English versions). At the end of Chapter 28, Hobbes translates the relevant lines this way: "There is nothing on Earth to be compared with him. He is made so as not to be afraid. He seeth every high thing below him, and is king of all the children of pride." Him is the Biblical Leviathan, of course, but here Hobbes is explicitly comparing this monster to the earthly Sovereign -- the political authority that we create (and pretty much totally submit to) in order to get ourselves out of the godawful state of nature, wherein our lives are solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. To what extent this is also an accurate description of life in the Wild West as depicted in Deadwood, I cannot say.

In our day, of course, many a corporation is more powerful -- and more dangerous -- than many a government, so we may as well wrench the signification of Leviathan sideways a bit and let it stand for terrible corporate monsters as well. Mind you, Hobbes's Leviathan is a corporate monster, too, but in a different sense; look again at the frontispiece, and notice that the sovereign's body is actually made up of lots and lots of little people -- who make the sovereign in order to provide mutual security and order for themselves (and give up most of their rights and freedom to it in the process). The corporate Leviathan, by contrast, is made up of lots and lots of little (or not so little) shareholders -- and its primary objective is the maximization of its profits. Neither of these beasts is terribly attractive, but forgive me for suggesting that the corporate Leviathan seems somehow...beastlier...than Hobbes's.

And if we're talking about a mining company in the Old West, well, we're probably talking about something pretty beastly. (Not that mining companies in the East weren't pretty beastly, too.) More power to the exuberantly profane folk of Deadwood if they can prod more people toward thinking that maybe governments aren't the only terrible monsters bestriding the modern landscape.

Speaking of the plutocratic shit hitting the fan, has anyone here read Jack London's The Iron Heel?

Categorical Aperitif

Neddie said...

For giggles, you might want to check out a comment that came in today on this Al Swearengen post, the first one I did, on Intelligent Design Creationism. Scroll to the bottom to the last comment.

I don't know what's funnier:

1) He seems to think he's actually talking to Al Swearengen

2) He seems to think that Al Swearengen is a "religious leader"

3) He doesn't realize the post is over a year old and hasn't been looked at by anyone save a few Googlers in months

4) You'd think a "saved child of Christ and a scientist (chemist & chemical engineer)" would know how to spell the word "profane"

... And his point that "then you will be saved by Christ... You do not have to do good works" makes me want to punch his smug little face in.


Will: Wow. Just wow. Small black clouds of envy (the Swedes call it svartsjuk, the "black sickness") are circulating around my head like birds after you get smacked on the head with an anvil.

Matt: Never saw Dead Man; will look for it. I will keep Wonder Woman away from it, though, because whenever we watch a Johnny Depp movie together, I have to keep a box of Kleenex handy to dab away the thin drizzle of drool that she emits.

Nash: "I rather like the fact that Leviathan is apparently being used to refer to a corporation."

Yes! This is exactly the point I was after. The Hearst Mining Company in the show embodies absolutely everything that was so awful about nineteenth-century laissez-faire capitalism. In the first season, the town of Deadwood is trying to set up systems and laws that allow survival and some measure of prosperity, with the miners being independent claim-holders, in business for themselves. With the arrival of the Hearst company (the character George Hearst is based on the historical father of William Randolph Hearst), they begin by using the power of capital (distortion of information, rumor-mongering, strong-arming of the press) to drive down the price of claims and buying them up, and ruthlessly turning the independent miners into wage-slaves. (This isn't a spoiler; it's just the lay of the land in the beginning of Season Two.) The town, which has been vying desperately to remain independent of the United States, enjoying the highest, non-statist, form of freedom, is now faced with the challenge of trying to fend off another Leviathan, the power of the corporation.

Fascinating stuff, perhaps too complex to go into in Comments on a blog. Let's all hash it out sometime when we have an evening and a bottle of Swearengen's Red-Eye.

nash said...

Well, then, I am going to have to check out Deadwood. Until I read this post, everything I'd seen about the show focused on (a) its exorbitant profanity level and (b) its degree of realism re. "what life in the Old West was really like" -- both interesting topics in their right, but insufficient to pique my curiosity at this particular point in my life. Judging by what Neddie says, though, there's all sorts of interesting political stuff going on alongside all the dirty words and dirty streets. Methinks I should check it out.

Oh, and re. Dead Man -- Depp is still annoyingly cute in himself, but his cuteness is considerably dimmed in context thanks to the darkness of the storyline, the grittiness of the settings, and the depravity of the characters (you'll never look at Lance Henriksen or Iggy Pop the same way again, I fear) -- I'm confident that the drool quotient will be considerably lower than it is with the usual Johnny Depp film. Add in the gorgeous yet gritty black-and-white cinematography and the sparse Neil Young score and you've got yourself one humdinger of an anti-Western.

Categorical Aperitif

Will Divide said...

Just finished watching season two, and I have to admit to several disappointments with it; though topping season one - which is nothing less than the greatest epic western ever made - would have been impossible.

What I absolutely loved about S2 was the depiction of George Hearst.


After spending most of the time setting up Hearst as a monster, Milch finally shows us a pleasent, affable, humble looking and modest speaking man.

What is going on?

At one point, when Cy Tolliver gets a little free with his hands, Hearst's eyes harden and he drops a quiet warning, backed up by his bodyguard. "Ah ha", you think, "This is how real operators behave."

But the real revelation is his meeting with Swearengen, where Hearst declares he's only interested in "getting the color out of the ground." He is so fucking abstracted he dosen't even call it gold. He does not care about gold and silver, his driving obsession is to remove the color from the Earth.

Buddy, everything you need to know about Leviathon is right there.