DEADWOOD … AND McCABE & MRS MILLER

I haven’t written much about TOMBSTONE RASHOMON of late — though there is much to tell, it’s been going directly to the film’s backers as updates. So if you backed the film you already know how the shoot went, and what’s happening in post.

But last week I was struck down by a summer cold and, incapacitated, decided to watch the first season of DEADWOOD, which Cindy and Drew – the kind neighbours who also donated boots to the production – had lent me. I live in my own little world, do a lot of reading, and don’t watch television. So this was the first eposodic TV drama I had watched in its entirety since THE PRISONER.

The biggest surprise of my binge-watch was how linear the whole thing was. I had imagined that DEADWOOD would consist of separate, free-standing episodes with the same basic cast — like RUN FOR YOUR LIFE, or THE MAN FROM UNCLE, or early STAR TREK. This is a nice format which permits the shuffling of directors, multiple writers, many cast members, and sometimes permits an individal episode to stray far from the reservation (“Living In Harmony”).  Instead, I was presented with something very old fashioned indeed: what they used to call a “TV series”.

The constraints of a TV series seem very tight indeed. First: the characters must be established in the first episode, and reappear in every episode thereafter. Once they have been established as characters, they cannot be killed — unless their death is a necessary part of the historical story, as in the case of Wild Bill Hickock — so you can guarantee that almost everyone you met in episode one will still be hanging around at the end of episode ten.

Two: there cannot be a plethora of characters. Supporting actors may come and go, but DEADWOOD relies on a basic cast of about a dozen individuals, all of whose stories must be told. This is unfortunate, since few of the supporting characters have much character: there is a doomed gunfighter, an angry, alcoholic doctor, a no-speakee-English Chinese merchant, more than one whore-with-a-heart-of-gold, and so forth. We are familiar with these stereotypes which is why regular feature Westerns give them so little screen time. But in TV series, we are invited to share their lives at some length.

Three: it all moves extremely slowly. The first season of DEADWOOD contains as many gunfights as the average Italian Western. An Italian Western may run from eighty to 180 minutes. The first ten episodes of DEADWOOD are five hundred minutes long. My dog Pearl doesn’t like gunshots, so she won’t stay beneath my desk if I watch MY DARLING CLEMENTINE or FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE. But she lay happy and at peace there thoughout DEADWOOD, gunshots being far less frequent than sentimental music and closeups of people looking at things. The slow pace is exacerbated by the sub-plots involving the various stereotyped supporting characters, who often fill up their screen time by describing what is happening, or what has just occurred.

In a feature film, obviously, there is no time for this. In 90 minutes (what Buñuel wrote was the duration of a human dream cycle) you must introduce your characters, depict things as they happen, show the results, and wrap it up. This is the type of storytelling I’m used to, yet strangely I find my DEADWOOD viewing reassuring. Pondering the future of REPO MAN when it reverts to me three years from now, I’d imagined that to create an episodic TV series involved a very complicated plot and scores if not hundreds of characters. Not a bit of it! Just write a regular feature treatment, slow it down by a factor of 25, and hire Walter Hill to direct the pilot. Leisurely if not glacial pace guaranteed.

Not that I mean to be mean. There are good things in DEADWOOD. Some of the acting is excellent. Who cannot admire Ian McShane’s horrendous saloonkeeper, or his scurrilous henchmen, or the posh ex-laudanum-addict in widows’ weeds? There was a tendency to sentimentalize McShane’s character as the series progressed, though: in the first episode, he is the mastermind of the murder of a pilgrim family, offering $50 apiece for severed Indian heads; by the end of the first series he is the upright hero’s supporter and friend, performing mercy killings and revealing he is an orphan. Aaahhh…

It’s interesting to compare DEADWOOD to McCABE & MRS MILLER, a film the series’ creators have presumably seen. Both feature a similar number of characters, similarly attired. McShane’s character (at least before he starts to reform) is a combination of McCabe – who relies almost exclusively on charm and vision to get his way – and the gigantic English murderer who is sent by corporate interests to execute McCabe and appropriate his saloon. McShane is such a good actor that he pulls the mixture off, but his character is graphic novel-deep at best. He beats his whores and threatens to murder them, and is the master of every situation, whereas Beatty’s saloonkeeper is consistently charming, never swears, doesn’t abuse women, doesn’t even raise his voice, and fails at everything, in the end.

McCABE & MRS MILLER is a fine film, from that fecund period of New American Cinema, which ran from the mid-60s to the mid-70s, which experimented with a new type of protagonist, and achieved amazing things. DEADWOOD is a product of its times, as well.

 

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