Tuesday, June 27, 2006

On Deadwood

I planned to read a lot this summer. Instead, I've been watching a lot of TV, much of it on DVD.

Television is often considered the lowest of the low cultural forms. But as a cultural studies professor recently reminded me, postmodernism collapses the distinction between "high" and "low" art. So if we are postmodernists, then we can discuss television on the same level as ballet, which is considered the indisputably "highest" of the high arts by those who still make such distinctions.

Although it's not nearly as popular as The Sopranos or Six Feet Under, Deadwood ranks with those television shows as a cultural work on par with the best American novels, plays, films, and yes, even ballets. The show, currently airing in its third and probably final season on HBO, is strange, smart, funny, and worthy of serious discussion.

Television relies on characters more than any other medium. Whereas a filmmaker can use attractive visuals and a novelist can use stylish prose to attract an audience, a TV show needs strong characters to draw viewers back week after week.

Deadwood, set in an American West outpost camp settlement in the late 1800s, is populated by characters - and there are a lot of characters populating this show - who reject the laws and values of mainstream society in favour of their own moral code. Killing a man is justified if you are avenging the death of a family member, but not if you are getting back at him for a trangression against you. There is no good and bad in Deadwood, just different shades of ugly.

Al Swearengen, played with great depth by Ian McShane, is the most interesting and important ugly character. Swearengen owns the Gem Saloon and is the de facto ruler of Deadwood - he's been there the longest, he has the most money, and he's killed the most people. That changes when characters like Will Bill Hickock, an outlaw with a reputation for having the fastest gun in the West, and Seth Bullock, a former Montana sheriff with a quick hand of his own, and worst of all, Belle Union saloon owner Cy Tolliver, show up at the camp. The show draws its tenson from the interactions between these characters, on both personal and business levels. We get lots of facial closeups that allow us to read into their minds, even if our assumptions usually end up being wrong.

Much has been made of the foul language on the show. There's no more swearing than the HBO norm - go back and count the number of "fuck"s Peter Krause uses in any Six Feet Under Episode episode - but the swear words frequently used ("cunt," "cocksucker," and "ass fuck" among them) are more explosive than mere F-bombs. More interesting is the way the dialogue combines this modern, curse-laden language with Shakespearean rhetorical devices. This can make the language difficult to understand at times, but close listening reveals brilliant lyrical flourishes and clever metaphorical allusions.

Television this good is as fulfilling as anything.

Ooh. I just remembered. Canada's Next Top Model is on tonight.

Friday, June 02, 2006

On Italian soccer

Tomorrow I'll wake up at 7 a.m. (PST), put the espresso "machinet" on the stove, and sit, or lie, on the futon bed in my apartment living room to watch Italy play Czech Republic. This will be Italy's third match in the group stage of the 2006 World Cup and if they lose, they will not advance to the next round. I will cheer for the Italians, because my parents are Italian, and because I've cheered for Italy in soccer tournaments for as long as I can remember.

Italy is not an easy team to love. Non-Italians generally can't stand them, and I can't blame them. The Italians are known for playing a boring, defensive game, practically invented diving, and have in recent tournaments, developed a reputation for committing dirty fouls and then complaining about them. They're also the best looking team each year, and no one likes a pretty boy.

Marcello Lippi, Italy's reigning coach, has encouraged his players to attack more. In Italy's opening match against Ghana, there were moments of creative flair and inspired playmaking. Andrea Pirlo controlled the game from the centre midfield position with lovely long passes and a perfect free kick that resulted in the winning goal. Players who do this are often dubbed as "artists" by commentators. Italy hasn't had a bonafide artist in the midfield for as long as I've watched them play.

But Italy's second match of this tournament, against the United States, was a sham. Pirlo was a non-factor and forward Luca Toni, the first player to score over 30 goals in Serie A (Italy's domestic league) since the sixties, performed badly. The U.S.'s lone goal came off the feet of Italian defender Cristiano Zaccardo. Three red cards were handed out, but the only player who deserved one was Italy's Daniele De Rossi, who elbowed American captain Brian McBride in the face as they both jumped for the ball. Tears could be seen in De Rossi's eyes as he walked off the field, but he wasn't getting much sympathy from anyone.

Tomorrow Italy faces the talented Czechs, who surprisingly lost their second match to Ghana after dominating the U.S. in their opener. It's likely Italy will play a tight, defensive game, as a tie would see them through to the next round. And if they do that and get through, I will be pleased. I am in Victoria, and not in Toronto, so I won't be celebrating in the streets. That kind of thing is not in the culture here. I will, however, finish my espresso and go into work with a smile on my face.