David Milch

From a Dylanfest, a note on 'Series of Dreams'

Last night I coconvened a celebration of Bob Dylan at seventy. Nine Dylanologists each chose one song, prepared a short, informal talk about that song, and arrange some sort of presentation of this music (some performed arrangements themselves, others chose an audio excerpt). I spoke about “A Series of Dreams,” a song of the late 1980s, and then played the opening three minutes of the final episode of David Milch’s John from Cincinnati. Here is the text of my talk:

I’m mostly turned off by the Christian Bob Dylan, and so you’ll wonder why I chose what is almost certainly meant to be a song expressing an abstract faith. And I’ll need a television series to help me explain this.

My favorite single song is “Love Minus Zero, No Limit” and as for a favorite album — on some days Blood on the Tracks and on others, Blonde on Blonde. And I like much of his work of the 1990s. So I’m a sixties, seventies, and nineties guy. The 1980s? Dylan’s worst decade, to my lights, although Infidels has earned my respect and “Blind Willie McTell” is remarkable — and I treasured Bob’s four sung lines in “We Are the World” of 1985. 

The finest and most compelling song of the 1980s is “Series of Dreams.” Most agree that it’s the strongest song in the Oh Mercy group and yet, strangely, it was omitted from that album. I should note that “Dignity” was omitted from the same album, and so perhaps there’s no strangeness here at all — just bad decisions. “Series of Dreams” came to most of us through Bootleg Series 1–3 and to a few intrepid TV watchers by its use as the song leading into the final episode of David Milch’s eccentric, one-season-only HBO series John from Cincinnati, about which more in a moment.

David Milch visits

A series of dreams

David Milch was visiting us from Sunday morning through yesterday. An extraordinary experience, at every turn. Spellbindingly smart. The guy is both brilliant and supremely funny. Every story (about himself) he tells is both far-fetched and true, and the combination slays me.

I'd felt that I'd known him already from all those years of intense watching, starting of course with Hill Street Blues. HSB provided me, during the dimmest years of graduate school, an alternative universe on Thursday nights at 10; yet getting to know him in person now was nonetheless an adventure. What I hadn't yet realized about Milch was the extent of his generosity--a better word is an old one, charity. He had every reason to be distracted (pilot of the new show, Luck, is currently filming back in LA) but he focused on every person (and there were many, and they were various in kind) who came his way in our quite open space. He refused to take our honorarium, directing it instead to a campership program set up in the town (Arcadia, CA) where Luck is being filmed. He was still his hilariously acerbic self but he also had a kind word, a real ear, for everyone he met--and this was, in the course of days, many dozens.

On Monday evening he read the first 20 pages or so of the script for the Luck pilot. On Tuesday morning (yesterday) I interviewed him. Both these sessions are already available as audio recordings (mp3) and in video (streaming). All four files are linked here.

Anyone interested in my top four moments in all of Milch's TV-making? Probably not. But it's my blog and here they are:

4. Sipowicz has hidden his prostate problem from Sylvia and so she believes their not having had "relations" in a while was caused by the revelation of her traumatic experience with rape years earlier. She lovingly tells Andy that they are going to grow old together and their bodies will be what they will be, and that they should talk about it.

3. Mick Belker, in tears, standing in Frank Furillo's office doorway, saying he's 36 years old and can't afford to take care of his father.

2. Merrick reads aloud to the camp elders the contents of the simply and beautifully written letter Seth Bullock has composed to memorialize the life of a simple Cornish nobody who's been killed by Hearst.

1. The first 5 minutes of the final episode (#10) of John from Cincinnati. John and Shaunie reappear - surfing in from the far-off oceans, while all the characters in various places waken from a shared dream. The whole thing is covered (and unified) by Dylan's "Series of Dreams."

Imperial Beach alienation

“You know that’s flapping your fins for an audience. That’s letting dipshits define you by a number so other dipshits can compare you with other numbers so the other dipshits know who to pay to wear their sunglasses so that dipshits in the malls know which ones to buy."--Mitch Yost, John from Cincinnati, episode 3

brown appetit

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TV soliloquy

One of the longest soliloquies in the history of TV dramas:

You shut the fuck up, huh? Gimme that! Hey, you suck my dick and shut the fuck up, huh? Come here. Come on. Now then, here. The place where I found you, huh, is where this warrant’s from. Could you believe that I may have stuck a knife in someone’s guts 12 hours before you got on the wagon we headed out for fuckin’ Laramie in? No! Because I don’t look fuckin’ backwards. I do what I have to do and go on. Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, what? You got a stagecoach to catch or somethin’, huh? Slow the fuck up. Did you know the orphanage part of the building you lived in, behind it, she ran a whorehouse, huh? Oh, so you knew? So, so what are you fuckin’ lookin’ at then, huh? God. Now, I’ll tell you somethin’ you don’t know. Before she ran a girls orphanage, fat Mrs. Fucking Anderson ran the boys orphanage on fucking Euclid avenue, as I would see her fat ass waddling out the boys dormitory at 5 o’clock in the fucking mornin’, every fuckin’ morning she blew her stupid fuckin’ cowbell and woke us all the fuck up. And my fuckin’ mother dropped me the fuck off there with 7 dollars and 60 some odd fuckin’ cents on her way to suckin’ cock in…in Georgia. And I didn’t get to count the fuckin’ cents before the fuckin’ door opened, and there, Mrs. Fat Ass Fuckin’ Anderson, who sold you to me. I had to give her 7 dollars and 60 odd fuckin’ cents that my mother shoved in my fuckin’ hand before she hammered 1,2,3,4 times on the fuckin’ door and scurried off down fuckin’ Euclid Avenue, probably 30 fuckin’ years before you were fuckin’ born. Then around Cape Horn and up to San Francisco, where she probably became Mayor or some other type success story, unless by some fucking chance she wound up as a ditch for fuckin’ cum. Now, fucking go faster, hmm?

Al Swearengen, Deadwood, season 1, episode 11, "Jewel's Boot is Made for Walking" (the very end of the episode).

Hill Street Blues

being Frank

Yes, I'm obsessed with Hill Street Blues. I apologize. My favorite single image from the show comes from the very end of episode 1 of season 3 ("Trial By Fury"--which won an Emmy for the writing). Frank Furillo, having manipulated the justice system to get the guys guilty of the rape and murder of a nun, realizes (we're meant to think: ironically) that he's committed a sin. Got the criminals but gave into mob justice--listened to the advice of his reactionary SWAT-team adjutant (Howard Hunter) and really angered his liberal-left Public Defender lover (Joyce Davenport). Now he's pulling his car into a parking spot in front of the Catholic Church, the place where Sister Carmella had been raped and killed. He'll go into the confessional, we now realize. But in the moment before we realize that, we get this perspective of him, unlike any visual rendering of a major TV series character I'd seen up to that point (1982). We can barely see him through the urban dark and the bars of the church gate and the statue of Mary standing guard.

TV drama-show form/content jibe

"Hill Street Blues"

Still in an online discussion with a few dozen adults, talking about season 3 of Hill Street Blues, 1983.Still in an online discussion with a few dozen adults, talking about season 3 of Hill Street Blues, 1983. We just watched episode 14, "Moon over Uranus," one of my favorites. (Watch it here.) Peter Wolk, the attorney and screenwriter, is in the group, and here is something he wrote us last night:

A couple random thoughts. It's amazing how much is going on in each episode. A typical hour-long drama today has an A story, a B story, and maybe a C story that's more comedic. [David] Milch is giving us A through G stories. One advantage he has is that the show runs 49+ minutes. An episode of Monk in 2009 is 42+ minutes.

My response is not profound by any stretch, but gave me a chance to express my admiration for an experiment in television-show narrative (a tight set of rules there, to be sure!) that today seems easy but in '83 was hard to get past the network ratings worry-warts:

You are right that Milch gives us stories A through G. And maybe H. One of us should count them all up. Someone years ago tracked them all across a season, charting which were maintained across episodes and for how long, which died out in a single episode, etc.

I believe it was in the very first show of the series, ep. 1 season 1, that two characters whom we immediately knew would be mainstays, Hill and Renko, were shot and presumably killed about halfway through the episode.** This was much commented-upon at the time. What a disruption of TV conventions! Introduce two characters and then kill them off, and not even at the end of the individual episode, let alone the end of a season! Threw us all way off, and we knew right then that we had to pay attention to our expectations and be prepared for them to be violated.The formal/structural violations of course mirror the crazy frenetic anything-can-happen early 80s urban reality being depicted. For me, as a longtime TV watcher whose favorite subgenre was the one-hour 9 PM or 10 PM drama series, this was the first time I truly experienced that form/content jibe.

Helter-skelter reality --> handheld camera, ensemble cast, crazy audio techniques, random elimination of characters, many plots going at once.

David Milch's baroque cop

I've been watching episodes of season 3 of Hill Street Blues on Hulu, and discussing them with an adult "class" of a dozen or so people far flung (all by email). Here are some thoughts about the speech style of Lt. Howard Hunter and Sgt. Phil Esterhaus:

David Milch inherited the hyperbolic and circumlocutious speech of Esterhaus and Hunter, but he added the baroque grammar, upped the ironic euphemisms several notches, and made especially Esterhaus unforgetttably different from your usual TV cop.

About Hunter: I never warmed to that character at all. I enjoyed episodes in which Hunter's law-'n-order ideology directly conflicted with Henry Goldbloom's the-less-fortunate-are-not-to-blame liberalism, because at such moments other characters (including Furillo) had to take sides, and not predictably. But when Hunter's conservatism was ridiculed and left dangling as a non-starter (as in "Trial by Fury"--in the bathroom scene) I have the feeling that dialogue is being wasted for mere satire.

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