Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Deadwood wrap up

When I first started watching Deadwood I was intrigued. Here was a Western that added cussing, pimping and drugging to the standard gunfighting and boozing of the Westerns I grew up on. (Which were all made well before I was born.) Deadwood was also based on real historical figures and part of the fun of watching it was, afterwards, I got to get on the internet and try to learn more about the characters I had just met.

Critics hailed Deadwood. Particularly the colorful, unique language --one part Elizabethan soliloquy and one part the word "cocksucker" -- Deadwood writer
David Milch had created.

Key word being "created." Since there were no tape recorders in 1876 South Dakota and little written record of how people spoke informally there's no way of knowing the folks who lived Deadwood sounded anything like Milch has them speaking. And I don't think Milch would claim that he knows.

Which makes inexcusable Milch's decision to make the language and speech patterns he created largely incomprehensible to the modern ear. I thought if I heard enough of Milch's Deadwood dialect I would start to catch on, but it didn't happen. In fact, I suspect the more Milch was praised for his unlikely erudite frontier-speak the more cryptic the language became.

There were some episodes I was losing about half of what was going on. Those who watch the show with sub-titles report that ups their comprehension to around 75 percent.

I was willing to let this slide when the 50 percent I understood was good, but Deadwood lost its way this season, catching Sopranoitis -- the compulsive introduction of characters who barely spice things up and plots that never come to a conclusion.

The final straw was the lack of a gun battle in the season finale after weeks of talk about "the hiring of guns."

Bad words, opium and heartless pimps might be gritty and authentic, but a Western without a shootout ain't worth the horse it rode in on.


Gone to the blogs said...

But is it really that different from other notable works in which a distinct patois is employed without much evident concern for the viewer's ability to understand it?

Classic examples:
1) Tombstone...chock full of bizarre frontier-speak
2) The talking grifters use idioms and references germane to the time and place
3) Chinatown, Miller's Crossing, etc....heavy use of the so-called "hard boiled" detective vernacular

I actually respect writers who make the effort to approximate the prevailing syntax and diction when they do a period piece. That leaves it up to the viewer (or reader) to use context and setting to figure out what the hell the characters are saying.

A personal favorite (from Tombstone)...
Johnny Tyler: "You run your mouth awful reckless for a man who don't go heels."
Wyatt Earp: "No need to go heels to get the bulge on a dub like you."

JT said...

Although I was able to follow all the movies you listed with ease because the langauge was in a context (the quote from Tombstone is perfect example of this.) In Deadwood all too often the character is talking to a dead indian head, a child or, basically, himself and without the context of a real conversation based on a circumstance I am not even 100 percent sure what the conversation is about, let alone what each word means.

Anonymous said...

"...I am not even 100 percent sure what the conversation is about, let alone what each word means.

Sounds like the real-life Nick Nolte would fit right in on Deadwood. Have you ever heard him speak off-the-cuff? Utterly incomprehensible.