November 28, 2008

David Milch and Language

Taking my cue from Sam's analysis of HBO's The Wire and Deadwood--the two finest shows to ever grace television (along with Rome, a flawed but relatively close third), I found an interview with David Milch regarding his thoughts on creating and writing Deadwood. Incidentally, if you haven't seen any of these shows, you are less of a person. Seriously. There should be a social restriction on when you are allowed to wander freely from your homes.

Deadwood takes top spot for me, in part due to my own nostalgia for Westerns films. What sets it apart from everything else is its dialogue. Milch's use of language is what Shakespeare would have written had he grown up a few hundred years later, in the wide, brutal expanse of America. Profane, artful, and bearing an internal rhythm that rivals Milton's Samson Agonistes. Even if the diction is a little too complicated for legitimate representation of the West in those days, it has to be closer than the strange minimalist responses we've all grown up with.

In the article, transcribed from a live interview at Bartos Theater with David Thorburn, Milch explains his emphasis on obscenity as follows:

As for the obscenity in Deadwood, I was trying to identify what organizing principles exist in a place without laws. Because Deadwood was a criminal community, built on land that had just been ceded to the Indians, they didn't want to pass any laws, since allowing law to exist would undermine their claim to the town. Language therefore had to serve two functions: to beat down any expectations of civility, and to show how words generate meaning through the context and emotion with which they're used. This is how one word can bear the weight of an entire story if the emotions and the context are there. In Swearengen's scene with Wu, I wanted to show how even with all the stereotypes about Asians, and the language barrier, a kind of order could develop.

And his use of profanity:

The guardians of the classical movie Westerns were offended, and asked me to prove that the language was accurate. The great Westerns were made under a strict moral code that prohibited obscenity, since the Jewish immigrants who ran Hollywood didn't want to rock the boat. There was a period in the late 'teens and early twenties when films started to become racy. They developed the Hayes code, which strictly regulated the language used in the films. When artists are faced with those kinds of strictures, they can either choose not to participate, or to find a way to internalize them in a way that serves the story. The image of the laconic cowboy was the result of the Hayes code; a character that not only used no profanity, but few words of any kind. The stoicism invoked a set of values. When people bond with works such as films, the works take on a kind of reality, so people don't say “I like Shane, ” they say “That's not how they talked in 1870.” That's not my problem. I did my research, and from what I read, in the West, obscenity was used to establish dominance, like apes beating their chests. With no law, any question could have lethal results. Language developed as an alternative to law.

Go out and find these shows, people....

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