ROUGHSHOD (I Watch Westerns: Take Eight)

Roughshod (1949)
D. Mark Robson

Hectic week, but I found time for a second viewing of Roughshod,  a 1949 effort from Mark Robson that occupies a unique space among both westerns and the career of Gloria Grahame.

I originally sought it out because I want to see Gloria Grahame in anything and I especially wanted to see her in a western, where being ahead of her time (as she always was in the noirs that made her legend), would be more a challenge than an advantage.

Challenge it may have been, but she made it work. This was probably her first really strong multi-dimensional role, and it can be seen as a bridge between the hardcore sheen she had perfected in the likes of Crossfire (and even It’s a Wonderful Life), and the complex, truly unsettling performances she would give shortly after in In a Lonely Place, Man on a Tightrope and The Big Heat.

I wouldn’t say she’s quite as unsettling here, though she didn’t have it in her to be comforting. But the quality she brought to everything works beautifully in a western–at least in this western, which has a sharp, perceptive script that offers a far more nuanced, sensitive and realistic portrayal of  Old West prostitution than the “modern” takes seen in the likes of Unforgiven or Deadwood or even Lonesome Dove.

Grahame’s Mary Wells (there’s a prescient name for you!) is hardly the whole show in Roughshod. There’s the usual fine work by the period child actor Claude Jarman, Jr., a menacing, typically understated turn by John Ireland as the villain (a shot of his face replaces a scene where the last “showgirl” in Grahame’s little troupe is presumably raped and murdered and it’s a wordless forerunner of Johnny Cash’s offhanded line, delivered a few years hence, about shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die). Robson–not known for being exactly actor friendly–gets good work all around here, and keeps a complicated story moving at a brisk pace, helped along by a sharp script that keeps on delivering, both visually and verbally. Robert Sterling is better than I thought on first viewing as the stoic lead, forever trapped by his classic westerner’s inability to convey any emotion not rooted in the mastery of violence and physical hardship it takes to survive in an untamed land.

I could go on. This is not a movie with any weaknesses. It’s the sort of movie where two people whose honor is suspect on every level, give up their lives trying to protect each other from men who don’t care about them one way or another except as a means to finding the man they really want to kill…and don’t much care that killing them will only make their own vengeance task more difficult.

Yes, I could certainly go on.

But Grahame is the center piece.

It’s her dilemma–her skepticism that any new life will really be better than the one she has, tempered by her fragile hope that the one she glimpses behind the Sterling character’s “roughshod” demeanor, just might be–that lifts the movie into something better than fine craftsmanship.

Turns out she didn’t need Nicholas Ray or Elia Kazan or Fritz Lang after all. At least not any more than they needed her.

I wasn’t entirely sure of it on a first viewing, but this one’s going on my frequent watch list. It really does set the stage for the great theme of Grahame’s career–it’s her first three-dimensional character (at least the earliest I’ve encountered) and that character wants what all her great characters want: to be taken on her own terms.

And Mary Wells refuses what all Grahame’s great characters refuse.

To be taken any other way.

If the great western theme–that Civilization should not merely exist, but be worth something–happens to get reinforced along the way?

Well, you won’t hear me complaining about that, either.

I AM SHOCKED TO DISCOVER!….RUMINATING ON OBSCENITY, THEN AND NOW (Adventures in Language: First Journey)

[WARNING: Since this category-inaugurating post is about current and historical uses of vulgar language, I’ll have to use words I don’t normally use either in my every day existence or on this blog. I know I have readers who prefer to avoid all that, so, if you’re one of them, you may want to either skip this or at least proceed with caution.]

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Hard to read, but if you peer closely enough, you’ll find a copy of a license to practice prostitution at a “House of Ill Fame” in the City of Tombstone, Arizona, circa 1881, which is very close to the time period I’ll be discussing below.

So last week came the news that Madonna is offering high quality blow jobs to Clinton voters. While it’s unclear whether this is a promise or a threat, it’s definitely an attempt to stay relevant. These days, you have to run fast if you want to stay on the cutting edge Madonna used to navigate with ease. Even so, the belief that a woman’s freedom lies in wanting what her guy wants–already all the rage–doesn’t have much further to go before it reaches its inevitable conclusion. That’ s where the rape victim at last finds “freedom” by learning to want what the rapist wants.

You can see why even Madonna might be getting a little out of breath.

It can’t be easy being the Queen of Shock when a major party nominee for president–the Republican no less–has a tape out there where he’s bragging about pussy-grabbing and Howard Stern, of all people, is insisting he’s never heard that kind of talk!

If I seem a little skeptical of this latter claim, it might be because Trump would have been counted an amateur in my rural southern high school’s lunchroom. (Forget the “locker room.” In public school environments back then the only place that was relatively loose and unsupervised was the lunchroom.)

I’m not saying something along the lines of  “Damn it, I saw that white stuff spilling out of her pussy and I started thinking Jesus fuckin’ Christ I mighta’ just made a baby. Fuckin’ bitch was straight-up Italian, too. Little fucker’ll probably be born with a mustache.” was every day conversation, but nobody counted it any way unusual. Given my subsequent adult exposure to city types (i.e., “Who does he think I”m gonna hire John? I’m gonna hire the one I want to fuck!”), I doubt the level of enlightenment was much higher elsewhere.

And I doubt much has changed.

But here’s a question.

Was it ever thus?

I have a special interest in this for two reasons. The first is that I have a relationship to language that’s a lot like the relationship singers have to singing. Ask a singer when they started singing and it’s almost guaranteed the answer will be along the lines of “since before I can remember.” Same with me and the pursuit of words–spoken words, written words, overheard words, covert words, public words, whispered words, imaginary words, words to learn, words to live by, words to forget or else be nagged or haunted or vexed by.

Almost any child has a boundless interest in words, of course, but mine went far beyond  any version of normal. When it came to words (and almost nothing else), I had to know. I didn’t have to share what I learned. Sharing, in fact, is still a learning process (of which this blog is just the latest part). But I always had to know. And what I mostly had to know was just how much power words–or, if you like, language–could contain. How I could use them and how they could use me.

The second reason, likely the main reason I’ve taken a long time to find myself as a fiction writer–and I have, the world just hasn’t caught up yet–is that I never wanted to be pretty good. I never wanted to settle. I wanted to be as good as anyone can be in this time and place. I wanted to die unpublished (which could still happen), rather than live with being just okay, no matter how successful.

Whether I’ve gotten all the way there will be for others to judge once the stories I’ve learned to tell make their way into some public domain (self-publishing if all else fails–yes you pros out there, yearning to discover the next big thing, that’s a threat and a promise).

But the yammering around the “shock” that’s being expressed over vulgar, abusive language these days–language which always amounted to just words in our collapsed “modern” culture until Donald Trump, of all people, spoke them out loud–has put me in mind of a particular instance where I found myself playing Mark Twain’s old right word/almost right word (i.e., the difference between lightning and the lightning bug) game whilst trying to live inside the mind of a young woman in the Arizona Territory, circa the late 1870s, trying to find just the right words to say to a town marshal who has come to deliver her a considerable bounty earned by her husband for tracking down three stagecoach robbers.

Normally, the right words for that circumstance might be along the lines of a simple “Thank you.” But, this being a tale worthy of the telling and a telling worthy of the tale, the young woman’s relationships to the marshal, her husband and the bounty her husband has earned are…complicated.

Without giving away too much of the plot–you will want to read the book some day–let me just give the situational basics:

The young woman has come from a terribly hard, violent background in the Civil War South. The marshal is a classic Yankee carpetbagger who has an eye for her. They have collaborated on a scheme to send her husband after the bounty. They do not have the same ends in mind, however, as she simply wants the money while he wants a crack at her.

Her husband is lying (seriously, though not mortally, wounded–he may never walk again) in the tiny house where they live with their four-year-old daughter.

She has just learned that the gunfight where her husband was wounded, may have been a bushwhack set up by the marshal (his backup plan for turning her into a vulnerable, available widow in case the stage robbers weren’t up to killing her husband to begin with).

She is now standing just inside the front door of her house, staring out through a fly screen, watching the marshal walk up to her front porch.

She is not yet certain that the information just conveyed to her by a teenage girl who is her unofficial ward is reliable, but she has nonetheless picked up a shotgun.

As she waits for the marshal to step up on to her porch, she thinks: I will know by his eyes.

When he is close enough for her to see his reaction to the sight of the shotgun (on an occasion when he expects to be met with open arms), she knows the information is sound. The marshal is the reason her husband may never walk again…and why certain larger plans, of which the bounty is a necessary ingredient, may never go forward.

She pushes the screen door open with the barrel of the shotgun and steps onto the porch.

Then she raises the shotgun’s muzzle to the very surprised marshal’s eye.

…There I had to decide what she was going to say, and, this still being a telling worthy of the tale, I shifted to a memory scene, wherein the teenage girl who gave the woman the information (and who stuck around to watch the four-year-old and sneak a peek at what she suspected were going to be fireworks) is recalling her time on the witness stand during the trial that inevitably ensued.

She’s been admonished to say exactly what happened and, having been assured by the court that this is what she must do, she begins by repeating the woman’s exact words–the words I had to come up with to convey the quality of the woman’s rage.

“Damn” and “hell” didn’t seem to get there and I knew “mother fucker”–which is kind of dull and listless anyway–was not a thing then.

So I had the woman say (and the girl remember) this:

You back up off of my porch cocksucker!

I thought this was strong. The woman in question is a devout Christian, but has been formed by an extremely violent and harsh set of experiences. She is drawing on deep memories of that previous violence (much of it done to her, some of it done by her). She  also well knows the power of shock language coming from her, especially when it is directed at a man who is infatuated with her and has an inkling, but no specific knowledge, of her background. Having had women point guns at him before–he’s that type–he only becomes alarmed when he notices that her hands don’t shake.

Perfect then, or at least perfectly acceptable.

I was satisfied with it.

The only question was, did anybody, Christian woman or otherwise, say “cocksucker” in Arizona in 1878?

Language, you see. My thing. Should I leave it alone just this once?

It bugged me a little. Surely, I thought. Surely by 1878!

I spent another year finishing the book from that scene forward (it’s about a third of the way in), then some months editing and polishing.

I left in “cocksucker.”

It still felt strong. I just still didn’t know if she would actually say it in 1878.

I liked it well enough that I considered not researching it, because, if the book were ever published, not one in a thousand readers would know if the word was historically anachronistic and even fewer would care.

Still, it bugged me, not knowing. It bugged me long after I had satisfied the thousand other issues–language related or otherwise–bound to come up in a seven hundred page novel set well before the memory of anyone currently living.

I admit it. I didn’t want to find out that “cocksucker” wasn’t a valid word for the time, place and/or character, because, if it wasn’t, then it was unlikely I would find another word or phrase as good.

If that happened, then I would be caught in the Deadwood dilemma. Though I had never seen an episode of Deadwood at the time (I wrote about my subsequent, rather disappointing experience with the first season here), I had come across interviews with the show’s creator David Milch and some of the other writers. They freely admitted their use of “cocksucker” and the various forms of “fuck” were anachronistic (in the sense that they were almost certainly not part of every day speech, even in brothels or criminal gangs) in the show’s time period (very close to mine).

I didn’t want to be part of the Deadwood crowd. Even before I watched it I was sure of that. I didn’t want to be part of the Deadwood crowd because not being part of any crowd is my identity.

Knowing that, I also knew that, finally, I had to do my research.

It didn’t take long to confirm one expectation and discover another thing I hadn’t know.

The expectation was that the specific origin and use of blue language as it related to common speech in an era when many words were unprintable is often murky at best. By the best information I could find, “cocksucker” wasn’t referred to in print anywhere until the 1890s. But that didn’t mean it couldn’t have been in use in 1878. Words are rarely invented for the purpose of publication and, if they are, they rarely outlast their specific usage. (Think supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, which my generation of school children used to insist was the longest word in the English language no matter how often our teachers kept insisting it was not a word!)

“Cocksucker” seemed like the kind of practical word that might have been in common usage by 1878, found its way into print a decade or two later, and survived to even more common usage in later days, to be re-inserted into “history” by modern fiction writers invested in making the language of history seem real.

Its historical usage–the likelihood, or at least possibility, of it showing up in my character’s speech on that porch in the Arizona Territory in 1878–couldn’t be confirmed.

But it couldn’t be absolutely denied either.

I was safe….Kind of….Sort of.

Not safe enough, in other words, to keep the issue from bugging me.

Still, I might have let it go, had I not come across the thing I did not expect.

I did not expect it because, what with those thousand other things on on my mind, I had gotten hung up on the origin of this certain word and simply neglected to consider something which should always be first and foremost among anyone trying to write convincing historical fiction, which is the evolution of words.

It was one thing to suggest–without proof one way or the other–that my character, under extreme duress, could have used “cocksucker” on a porch in Arizona in 1878.

But what about how she used it?

Not how she said it. That’s a matter of tone, and the tone being perfectly matched to the word–along with the fear of never finding another quite so good–was the whole reason I was fighting to keep it to begin with.

Usage is something else, though. And that was where the real problem began.

At a stretch “cocksucker” might have been available to my character. At only a slightly longer stretch she might have even used it.

But, in Arizona, in 1878, she would never have used it the way I was having her use it.

Being a very literal-minded character, she would never have used it at all unless she was referring to someone she knew for a certainty sucked cocks…and would never have used it at all in the circumstance I had her using it.

She would not have used it as a euphemism for “bastard” or “son of a bitch” or “hell spawn” because, even though those insults already carry a certain euphemistic quality, the one thing all my research confirmed–the one thing everybody agreed on–was that it was well into the twentieth century before “cocksucker” was used the way those other words were used.

To be called a “son of a bitch” did not mean someone literally thought your mother was a bitch (then regarded as a further euphemism for a “loose women” which was the polite phrase for “whore,” now more likely to be applied to someone merely being cranky). But to be called a cocksucker just meant you were known to suck cocks.

In other words, before it became a euphemism itself, “cocksucker” was, by every account I could find, universally literal.

My character might have said (even as far back as the 1870s, well before its first officially recognized use, if we accept that much obscenity was then kept in the shadows) “Well he is known to be a cocksucker.” But neither she, nor anyone else, would have said: “He’s a goddamned cocksucker!”

Nor, as Deadwood might have it, would one have said “He’s a mother fucking cocksucker!”.

Not unless maybe you knew for a fact that the man in question had both consorted with his mother and sucked at least one man’s member.

Evolving sex words into general insults–ultimately the worst insults–seems to have been a curious side effect of the twentieth century’s waves of sexual revolution.

That might be another post for another time.

For now, let’s get back to me and my dilemma.

Cocksucker was a word my character simply would not have used.

Granted, historical language is unlikely to be anywhere near perfect.. One of the things I came across in my research was how many of the “folksy” frontier words Hollywood was using in westerns or historical dramas in the 1930s were completely anachronistic or even ahistorical, despite many of the people involved as writers, directors and actors, having grown up around a generation who lived through the period in question. But I still couldn’t live with something I knew didn’t cut it.

I’d already told myself every comforting lie I could think of, and I still had to go and poke the anthill. Once the anthill was good and poked–no longer hibernating but alive with confusion–I had no choice but to set out on a new quest for the “lightning.”

“Cocksucker” had officially been turned into a lightning bug.

For the moment I was stuck with going back to “son of a bitch,” which I had rejected to begin with because it was too common an epithet (in that time or this) to carry the full weight of the situation. The man arranged to have her husband shot for God’s sake!

In those rare moments when my character could forget that she was on her way to becoming a lady, she would have thrown son of a bitch around as casually as she drew a breath.

For this moment, when she was pointing a shotgun in the face of a law officer who she had just discovered had her husband shot and nearly killed, I thought she would reach a little deeper….that something stronger would flow through her mind.

It was my job, finally, to discover what she already knew…which was what she would really say.

“Son of a bitch?”

I meant more to her than it does to anyone now living.

But it still didn’t feel like it meant quite enough.

Back to the Deadwood dilemma.

How to bridge the distance between the modern mind’s expectations and what a historical character would actually say at one of the novel’s crucial moments.

There was nothing to do but keep living in her mind–especially her mind at that moment–and hope for the best.

i did that for a few weeks and then, unbidden, she walked through mind mind’s eye and confronted the Marshal as she had a thousand times before. She raised the shotgun to his eye, saw his shocked expression, just like always.

Then she said:

You back up off of my porch you sheep shit son of a bitch.

And that was that.

Son of a bitch hadn’t done it.

Adding “sheep shit”—the beautiful, natural alliteration, the organic association with the eternal images of the sheep-vs-cattle wars that take up so much space in western history and mythology, the combination of the long assimilated directness of judging a man’s character by his whore of a mother and being no better than sheep dung as a result–gave it the just right touch.

Once I heard the unbidden phrase in my ear, I knew that, unlike “cocksucker” or “son of a bitch” on its own, it came from her and nobody else.

I knew those words satisfied her and, the way only she could deliver it, they stung the Marshal far deeper than “cocksucker,” which he would have already had flung at him a hundred times over if the word, and the concept of applying it non-literally, had been available to the average “dove” (the time and place’s euphemism for a prostitute, especially one working in “a house of ill fame”).

My character is a woman who will abide by, even insist upon, the strictest observance of the social niceties, unless and until her back is to the wall. At which point she will make the meanest man in the world wish he had just walked on by. The combination of steady hand on the shotgun trigger and “sheep shit son of a bitch” conveyed all of that.

Just where she decided to shoot him, you’ll have to read the book some day to find out.

Just as a coda: Madonna and Trump, in the recent instances cited above, both deployed direct, frontier usage, calling a thing what it is. However, one of Trump’s earlier headline-grabbing “transgressions” was a game of cat and mouse with a female in the audience at one of his early rallies, which ended with first her, then him (quoting her), calling Ted Cruz “a pussy.”

That was pure modernism, no matter how much you think Ted Cruz resembles a vagina.

THE AMERICANS….WHERE IT’S ALWAYS WINTER, WHETHER OR NOT IT’S EVER AMERICA (What Impressed Me This Week)

The Americans: Season Three

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For those who aren’t familiar with The Americans, now entering its fourth season on FX, it follows the lives of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, both superb and now married in real life),  an attractive, All-American couple living in Falls Church, Virginia, in the 1980s. They have a travel agency, a lovely house in the suburbs, two kids and every outward appearance of respectable normalcy.

They’re also deep-cover Soviet spies.

As I’ve mentioned before here (often, on the order of a broken recorrd), I haven’t kept up with much modern television. Generally speaking it’s just too much time and money for too little reward. Among those who do keep up, several whose opinions I respect, including Steven Rubio, count The Americans as one of, if not the best, shows going.

I can believe it.

For starters, it doesn’t have any major weaknesses, something I can’t say for 24, Deadwood, Justified or even Homeland (to mention the “serious” shows of recent vintage I’ve seen at least a fair amount of…you can catch my various thoughts here, here and here) and can’t imagine ever saying for The Sopranos, The Wire or Mad Men (all of which make my ears bleed and eyelids droop whenever I try to attend them for more than five minutes). The casting, acting, writing, direction, visual style, story, conception and just plain Zeitgeist in The Americans are all compelling and have sustained beautifully throughout three full seasons, with some key elements actually improving over time. I don’t know how the show would fare on a revisit–I’ve basically binge-watched each individual season after it became available on DVD–but on first acquaintance it has the additional pull of being a thriller that is actually thrilling. A near disastrous cock-up at the end of Season One might be the most gut-wrenching “action” sequence I’ve encountered on-screen, movies included, because, for once, the danger is both palpable and personal. It wasn’t until that very moment I admitted to myself I didn’t want the protagonists, who are, after all, cold-blooded killers working for a monstrously evil cause, to be caught–not a common reaction to a car-chase.

Having scaled that height, it seemed almost inevitable that a drop-off would follow.

Instead, the series has only gotten better and better. Every potential trap that has snagged other similarly compelling sympathy-for-the-sociopath narratives around the ankles at some point has been avoided. That’s in part because somebody on this show–presumably creator and overseer Joe Weisberg–has a real feel for narrative structure which, remarkably, has not so far given way, even for an instant, to the usual crippling demands of cliffhanger plotting. It’s also in part because the cliffhanger plotting has not been undermined, even for an instant, by the considerable demands of the narrative.

Pulp narrative to be sure. This ain’t War and Peace. But true narrative just the same.

I can’t say how rare this actually is in television. I simply don’t watch enough to know.

But I can say that, until I encountered The Americans, I didn’t think it was possible at all on television, where too many cooks–producers, writers, directors, stars, show runners, network suits–are forever spoiling the stew. For me, part of the tension that set in around the middle of Season One, when I had accepted the far-fetched elements of The Americans as part of a legitimate really-no-stranger-than-life vision (much like 24, which, albeit in often entertaining ways, began falling apart almost immediately thereafter, with only Season Five managing any kind of transcendence), was in wondering just how and when it would all go wrong this time.

It hasn’t. And, after three seasons of what is apparently going to be a five-season run, I’m now convinced there’s a real chance it won’t.

One of the very smart elements that has given the show this kind of space–the key element I think–is the extent to which, in a show called The Americans, America itself is felt in every frame while being barely glimpsed visually, and then in only the most obvious and superficial ways. Since the protagonists are the spear tip of a sleeper cell which has essentially infiltrated the American security state and, with the Cold War raging under Reagan, are under intense pressure to act, the audience is drawn into a claustrophobic world which really does present itself as the unseen reality while everything going on around it, including what’s beaming forth from the ubiquitous televisions playing in background after background, is reduced to a series of illusions.

Add to that a nuanced view of the KGB which never devolves into romanticism, or lets us forget that some secret police forces really are worse than others, lots of first-rate acting (this is the kind of show where even Frank Langella doesn’t stand out), and an editing style that actually creates its own tension (any scene you enter might last thirty seconds or ten minutes and, unlike any other show I’ve actually watched, there really is no way to predict) and you can maybe begin to understand why this highly praised show has a lot of frustrated followers, now including me, who feel it hasn’t been praised nearly enough. It’s just possible that, narratively speaking, it asks too much of a world which has been preconditioned, especially and specifically in the matter of narrative, to accept much, much less from shows that rate far more chatter.

By way of example, we need only examine the element in that narrative that was most fraught with peril, which is the character development of the Jennings’ daughter Paige, who is first drawn to, then immersed in, evangelical Christianity.

Normally, even a hint of Hollywood using evangelicalism as a plot device just makes me sigh and roll my eyes. I’ve never seen anything remotely resembling a fair or accurate treatment of the world I grew up in on screen, and, to be clear, that’s not exactly what happens in The Americans either. If the show does have a weakness it’s in the portrayal of “Pastor Tim” (Kelly AuCoin). He’s a kind of reformed hippy type which was, in fact, pretty common in evangelical churches during the seventies and early eighties. But either the casting or the conception is off base. As played by AuCoin, Pastor Tim is pretty much a Hollywood idea of the type. He has none of the charisma or feral intensity (often fueled by self-doubt which was not infrequently compensated for by the loudest “halleluahs” and “amens” in the hall) that was typical even for youth ministers and choir directors (the more common positions an ex-hippy was likely to hold), let alone the occasional leader of a flock.

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This fly in the ointment is redeemed, however, by Paige Jennings’ own character and the remarkable performance of Holly Taylor who has caught, or perhaps just embodies, a certain fresh-faced American type–so at odds with her cynical, devious parents and with the ridiculous parodies of teen angst that have frequently undermined narrative in 24 and Homeland–to a tee.

For all she talks about Pastor Tim, it’s pretty evident Paige is really caught by the message, not the messenger (in that sense, Pastor Tim’s drab qualities may be a narrative strength, though I have to believe it’s accidental). Since Christian ethics are the elephant in the room in the fight going on at the heart of The  Americans, the never-to-be-admitted, two-thousand-year-old reason why some secret police forces are better than others even if it all leads to the same place in the end, Paige’s ever-greater certainty that something is rotten in Falls Church (and the KGB’s nagging insistence that her parents start training her as a second-generation agent, which presumably will mean subjecting her to the same soul-killing horrors they endured during their own “training,” of which the show offers occasional chilling flashback glimpses), it’s hard to believe this is merely a plot device. It might have started out that way–but it hasn’t stayed that way.

And so, as I watched Season Three, it became more and more evident that Paige was coming to represent something more than youthful innocence. I have to admit that, based on the seeming superficiality of the “Christianity” on display in the first two seasons, and the show’s usual concessions to graphic sex and violence (tame by modern standards but still plenty strong enough to offend what’s left of the church crowd), I assumed some serious missteps would accrue.

Not only did that not happen, but the handling of the Paige element made an already strong show measurably stronger. I won’t give away the details–no spoilers–but seeing an American teenager presented so ably and credibly on American television (let alone a devout Christian, let alone one who is now in a place where the moral shield of her faith is likely to invite real physical peril, let alone in a show that takes place in the eighties and is very definitely about the way we live now and how much cultural time has stopped and stagnated since the period in question) is refreshing to say the least.

The quality and quiet depth of Taylor’s vulnerable performance, though, presents another possibility, one that will have me on the edge of my seat a year from now when I catch up with Season Four. I don’t want to oversell the likelihood of this happening, but I wouldn’t be caught entirely by surprise if the resolution of Paige Jennings’ character arc were, at some point, to match the power and poignancy of Judith Hutter going among the British at the end of The Deerslayer, or Caddy Compson being glimpsed among the Nazis at the end of the revised edition of The Sound and the Fury.

The Americans is that good. And that unexpected.

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Burt Kennedy and James Garner Look at the Future Looking at the Past….Or Something Like That)

Support Your Local Sheriff (1969) (Burt Kennedy, director; starring James Garner, Joan Hackett, Bruce Dern, Walter Brennan and a cast sent from God.)

I mean, except for a nice Christmas and all, it’s been a dreary, slogging couple of weeks. So, with depression hovering, I did what I oft-times do and fired up a couple of westerns.

First up, was The Tin Star, Anthony Mann’s superbly balanced town-tamer from 1957, with Henry Fonda’s old school flint sparking Anthony Perkins’ whet-stone Methodology. This was my umpteenth visit and it never gets old.

Then, just by coincidence, my eyes roamed the shelves and alighted on this:

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Now, if anything, I’ve seen this even more often than The Tin Star…but I don’t think it ever made me laugh until I stopped breathing before (believe me, I’d remember, because not much ever does).

It may have just been the burden of the times being lifted for a few moments, but I suspect another element was the proximity (in my personal viewing lexicon) to this.

I mean, Support Your Local Sheriff is a specific kind of spoof–not only of westerns but of the “town-tamer” tropes in particular (there are plenty of direct references to Rio Bravo, My Darling Clementine and High Noon, among many others).

But, take all the elements…a reluctant sheriff:

SUPPORT5a wide open town…

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with muddy streets and, er, “construction issues”

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touchy moral dilemmas…

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shady back room deals…

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a winsome, “complicated” heroine…

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a bemused sidekick…

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villains who embody consummate evil…

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spine-tingling showdowns…

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further moral dilemmas…

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and a sort of happy ending…

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..and what have you got, but Deadwood with all the “realistic” dreariness supplanted by gut-busting laughter and touching human drama!

Not to mention a tight script, a dream cast (every one of whom would have served the “seriousness” of the later project better than their modern stand-ins) and a fine sense of the absurd.

A spot-on parody of the past is one thing.

But parodying the future forty years before it gets around to “revising” that same past?

That’s genius.

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Keith Carradine Nails Wild Bill Hickok, Gets Killed For His Pains)

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(John Hawkes and Timothy Olyphant, each assaying his entire range of facial expressions in Deadwood, and Keith Carradine as Wild Bill Hickok)

It may not always be obvious, but I really do prefer to accentuate the positive. So when I finally caught up to Deadwood this week, David Milch’s “revisionist/realist” vision of the west that ran on HBO from 2004 to 2006, I was hoping–against what I knew were long odds based on what I’d read and various clips I’d seen over the years–that I could find something good to say about it.

Not too long into the first episode, I realized it had one very good thing, which was Keith Carradine’s riveting performance of Wild Bill Hickok, a mytho-historical figure who has probably been portrayed on screen only slightly less often than Wyatt Earp and Jesse James.

Naturally, I didn’t want it to stop there. I looked really hard for a second good thing. Ten episodes in, I haven’t found it, unless having my suspicions confirmed that–given the bright “creative” minds involved–not much was likely to be very realistic and nothing at all was going to be revised counts as a positive.

I actually consider that last to be sort of value-neutral, so Carradine as Wild Bill it is.

I’ll admit it’s not a small thing.

I’m sure the script called for Hickok to meet his famous demise at the end of the fourth episode before Carradine was even cast. But, if it hadn’t, they probably would have needed to move the enterprise  forward. Based on the ten episodes I’ve seen so far, letting him hang around for even four episodes might have been a mistake, because having even one person walk through this drag-ass exercise in po-mo pretension for four seconds (let alone four episodes) who looks, sounds, moves and behaves like someone who might have actually lived a life worth telling  a story about–in the Old West or anywhere else–just knocks the whole enterprise sideways.

Once the famous fatal bullet finds its mark in the back of Will Bill’s head, we’re left with Ian McShane’s Al-Pacino-In-The-West bluster (I’d call it one-note but that’s giving it credit for far too much dimension) and Timothy Olyphant’s thousand-yard-stare (which, if, as I suspect, is his version of the laconic western hero, has given me a whole new measure of appreciation for Gary Cooper which I wouldn’t have previously believed either necessary or possible) and Milch’s evident belief that adding three “fucks” and a “cocksucker” to lines nobody who knows anything at all about “the West” as either history or myth could possibly read with a straight face to begin with will make it all come good in the end.

But, for all that, I’m still grateful Carradine got to assay his Hickok in something or other, and, while I regret he didn’t get the stage he deserved (preferably in something scripted by Charles Portis or Thomas Berger) I still have to honor a performance that gives us both a definitive version of the cold-eyed killer we’ve seen so often…

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and one we haven’t seen at all….

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(NOTE: Going over Carradine’s IMDB listing to see what all I might have missed I was reminded that he was a Robert Altman regular in the seventies. Robert Altman, if we didn’t thank you then–for this and many other gifts–we thank you now!)

WHY I NEED ROCK AND ROLL (Session #4)

First two songs that feed each other:

The O’Jays “Love Train” (Television Performance)

The O’Jays “Backstabbers” (Television Performance)

Then on to things that feed only themselves:

I have to confess that what is now called “serious” television tends to leave me cold. I’ve taken various, multiple shots at letting The Sopranos and The Wire and Deadwood and Breaking Bad, among others, into my brain and basically come up with some version of “life’s too short” after half an hour or so each and every time.

The one show of this high-falutin’ sort that I have occasionally managed to sit through entire episodes of is Justified. No idea why. I’m not a hater–like I said, life’s too short–so I only have three basic, if rather wide-ranging, reactions to any sort of art and those are basically as follows:

“This is great!”

“This is fun.”

“Meh.”

Somehow, Justified, like a lot of things Elmore Leonard has been involved in since he left westerns (where he was sometimes great and nearly always fun–or at least unpretentious), occasionally nudges over the line from the upper reaches of “meh” to the lowest level of “fun.” And Justified manages to do that even though its white trash chic (an approach that usually has my one and only deeply felt, bound-to-take-it-somewhat-personally version of “meh” encoded in its DNA–ask anybody who has ever lived among “white trash” and we/they will tell you “yeah I/we know somebody like that,” all the while wondering–like every other tramped-on “out” group–why it’s only the fools the rest of ya’ll are interested in).

So once in a while when I’m clicking around and nothing else is on I find myself watching all or part of an episode and this week the one I stopped on featured one of those “hey, let’s play a cool tune everybody knows as the soundtrack for some gruesome violence” scenes. In this case it involved the O’Jays’ “Love Train” playing behind a scenario where an assassin was trying to beat some information out of a dopey-looking deputy sheriff who was (surprise, surprise!) tougher than he looked and (shock and awe!) somehow managed to get hold of a weapon and slay his deadly tormentor.

To be fair, at this stage of civilization’s devolution it’s pretty hard to write scenes the world hasn’t seen a hundred times before and this one was done about as well as a complete non-surprise can be. But it was the choice of music that woke me up enough to start me thinking.

I have no idea what thought process went into having “Love Train” play behind the scene and I honestly didn’t even catch whether the music was actually being experienced by the characters (on the radio perhaps) or was being used as background “scoring.”

Perhaps it was meant ironically. Watch the meanie beat the tough little deputy’s teeth in while “People all over the world, join hands” sings along. That sort of thing.

Or possibly it just fit the rhythm of the beat down.

Or maybe it was just catch-as-catch-can on somebody’s Ipod and seemed like it would get the job done.

Who knows?

I certainly don’t. But I found myself caring a little bit because the song took me out of the scene. And if I had to explain why, I’d probably say it was because every other scenario in which I’ve ever been likely to hear the song–on the radio in some free-form oldies’ or R&B format where America always seems like a very big place indeed; on the O’Jay’s own great Backstabbers LP; on the various AM Gold or Gamble and Huff comps that are scattered through my record collection–is part of a bigger, better, living, breathing, world than the one Justified’s creators keep trying to convince me they have a real handle on.

I made it through the rest of the episode, but the game was up. Either deliberately or otherwise (one problem with the nihilism-is-the-coolest-thing-going game is that you never can tell what’s deliberate–even the creators themselves aren’t that far inside) the show’s decision makers had made the mistake of pointing up their own phoniness.

I’m not saying I won’t watch Justified again. If it gets late enough and my brain has been reduced to crawling I’m sure there will be some night or other when it’s still the best thing on. It ain’t that hard to beat Erotic Shop commercials and CNN.

But there had been moments previously when the night-crawler part of my brain thought it might actually turn into real fun.

To quote another vintage prophet who had to compete with folks like Gamble and Huff on the radio back in the day and therefore didn’t have the option of wallowing in his own occasional tendency to make music that could be played without irony during a teeth-kicking if he wanted to keep up:

“Won’t get fooled again.”