Scott Ellington's Blog

Just another weblog

Brooklyn South

In the pilot episode’s commentary, David Milch mocks himself for the hubris that led to creating a better version of Hill Street Blues (my emphasis) in the midst of perpetuating NYPD Blue.  It’s a powerful, deadly-serious, self-inflicted attack on his character.  The remark stems very specifically from his contempt for the roll-call parody set piece, that characterized the earlier show (created by other people before he came aboard in season 3), but it ends with an underexpressed apology to the actors whose careers were not favorably impacted by a cancelled show that the actors loved.  He indicts himself for failing the creative enterprise of Brooklyn South by underestimating the demands of his very own process; Licalsi confessed to a crime ascribed to Giardella.  The series is eminently worthy of study for that reason alone — to provide insight into David Milch-overextended, heroically trying to provide just-in-time, custom-tailored inventory to two, unimaginably-demanding creative enterprises, simultaneously:  Inserting newly-minted, custom content too late for the meddling of bosses.

     Why is it still a lamentable truth that only the first four seasons of NYPD Blue are available on DVD?  I don’t know, but I entitle myself to the speculation that that series spiraled toward the toilet the moment the attention of David Milch became permanently divided between a wildly successful commercial property and a speculative spin-off (that was also a remake [from scratch]).  I’m just guessing that ABC’s vested interest in NYPD Blue frowned on the devotion of previously-contracted resources to CBS for the upstart Brooklyn South.  But then, I’m inclined to see monied people meddling in the affairs of artists, Culture and practically everything.  So let’s move on to the heart of the aborted series after noting that Brooklyn South had more than a little in common with a fabulously-rich mining camp (named Milchwood) that Power coveted.
     Yesterday, I bought a new copy of Brooklyn South from a guy in Georgia, via Amazon.  I was surprised to find it advertised as unexpurgated.  How exactly that term can be applied to a (Standards&Practices-inhibited) broadcast television show remains to be seen, but (speculating again) I figure the arcane language of smart, undereducated neighborhood tough guys (who grew up to become cops, skels and assholes) foreshadows the metatextual use of language in Deadwood, which will probably lead me to Mencken’s and Twain and Melville and London and McChesney and Mcluhan and God-knows-where-else, like a moth to a flame.  And maybe the seller in Georgia is simply bullshitting, precisely as Spielberg suckered me out of the box office price of CE3K, The Director’s Cut.  We’ll see.
     Brooklyn South is loaded with characters, storylines, conflicts, solutions and an extra-heaping helping of Bill Clark’s worldview and expertise in world viewing.  I’ve noticed (or imagined) that the emphasis on confessional exposition (that made NYPD Blue very different from the standard-cop-procedurals before and since) is amplified in BS to the extent that the action-motivating stuff people are thinking eventuates in “secret” conversations (later or immediately), and the subtextual mysteries in the pilot (for example) become spoken bonds of confidence between characters in episodes 2-12.  So I have to go back to see how Kersey might have had the opportunity to accidentally kick the life out of that maniac gun-thug in the pilot. The show encourages the audience to gain access to the VHS/DVD archive of the show to review the choreography of events that take place in a rigid chronology, yet are influenced in viewer perception by subsequent and/or future events that don’t unfold in time so much as they open our understanding of how stuff happens/happened; literally permitting present revelations to profoundly modify our perceptions of “factual” events that we thought we understood (well enough) when they happened in the past.
     This manner of structuring stories illustrates some of the most-repeated Milchisms, but it also sets up a kind of call&response between events and subsequent revelations, like pastor and congregation, like theme and variation, like virtuoso musicians jamming, like artists and audience in ecstatic collaboration.  Like David Milch teaching.  Like Bill Clark teaching him.  Like life.  Lifelike.
     I’ve got to go back now to explain that Robert Montgomery’s The Lady in the Lake is a 1947 screen adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novella.  Montgomery chose to provide the world with an almost-unique movie; shot from Philip Marlowe’s point of view.  That’s a very big deal because of its rarity, audacity and the enormity of its failure, unlike the first 25 minutes of Dark Passage, which did a little business despite its use of the same and similar photographic techniques).
     I know that Montgomery’s mistakes are interesting.  It’s a minority opinion.  Playing Marlowe, he’s the camera, so every move, every conversation, every reflective surface involves a technical problem in preserving the illusion that the lead actor, who we almost never see (who’s also the director of the film) is moving, conversing and being reflected as though a noisy, 1947 phonebooth/movie-camera were Philip Marlow/Robert Montgomery.  That’s a minefield of potential illusion-destroying errors that the film manages to escape.  BUT the aspect of the novel that made the story fascinating to readers was Marlowe’s inner voice revealed from line to line as Chandler describes factual reality filtered through the narrator’s perceptual faculties and his vastly cynical, sardonic experience that makes metaphors leap from the page in a way that Montgomery’s film absolutely didn’t.  So the movie is a remarkable experimental failure (that makes an adequate film noir) and never even approaches the super-enriched quality of telepathic audience-experience Chandler built into every breathing line in the book.
     David Milch in Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue and especially in Brooklyn South —  found ways to make the viewer a reader by fashioning access to the thought processes of his characters connecting directly to the life experiences of his plural audiences (broadcast, archive, academic, disciples, detractors…)
The camera in Brooklyn South doesn’t call conspicuous attention to itself in the way that it did vehemently (ad [literal] nauseum) early and often in NYPD Blue (with Dektors and wobbles and jittering movement) nor by pulling a Montgomery.  How the camera facilitates storytelling is another reason I want to own a copy of the series.  I think the emphatic-yet-understated quality of mercy falls easily from the actors (not by means of camera trickery, but) because David Milch imparted to his cast/staff/crew the fundamental, overwhelming decency he found in the company of Bill Clark, and the ability Clark invested in Milch to see the world anew.  (In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, “Who ARE those guys” (who are chasing us as though the cosmos depended upon their inevitable success and in our complete and utter destruction) is one hell of a wonderful question that Milch has been answering for a couple-three decades.  So his commentary barely mentions the myopia of fear-based network and studio executives who wanted to build on the unaccountable mystery of past success by casting young, attractive actors in place of the actors for whom the show was written.  And I entitle myself to speculate on who those uglier, older actors might have been, which permits me to guage performances (in the future, when I own a study-copy) of child actors struggling with parts designed to impart a more complex reality to the global audience.  Ed O’Neill.
     In True Blue, Milch is far from blind to the idiosyncracies and congential defects visible to him in Saint Bill ClarkKellySipowiczDoyleMcElwaineDonnovanMooneySwearengenBullock (and his legendarily-dysfunctional kind), but just as in Boomtown (Yost, 5 years later), the flaws in people lend majesty to the people-destroying enterprise of the invigoration of an infrastructural system that absolutely, desperately needs them to be effective (and needs them, in order to be effective and relevant to the dynamic needs of people) warts&all.  Saint Monster.
     Now, I don’t claim to follow the Milchian explanation of the cyclic battle of corruption&reform outlined in the enforcement of law as practiced in New York City from 1965-1997, but Serpico, Report to the Commissioner, both French Connection films and countless other narratives help to fill in the subtextual context that Brooklyn South builds upon to illustrate the regional recovery of either law or order from Lindsay to Giuliani.
I wrote the foregoing in a letter to a friend, a couple of days ago, after viewing only the first four episodes.  Now that I’ve seen all six discs of the lone 22-episode season, and cruised Stephen Bochco’s follow-up interview, I’d like to relate another layer of opinion.
     NYPD Blue is very different from Brooklyn South.  It’s different for the reasons I mentioned previously, and, as Bochco says, Blue is more cerebral and generally set after the criminal act as detectives reconstruct and intuit the forces that culminated in violence.  Additionally, however, Brooklyn South was set in the midst of the ongoing lives of the police subculture in the vibrant, unique community of Brooklyn; nested within an environment veined with interlocking vascular systems of pulsing dedication to honor, duty, loyalty, tradition and other words that aren’t just rhetorical expressions.  Brooklyn South is a good deal more visceral, funny, tragic and alive than NYPD Blue.  And it makes a significantly more human case for the career of community-policing than any experience, real or virtual, that I’ve enjoyed since riding around Northern and Park Districts in San Francisco one night shift in 1973 with Officer Ray Portue (a superb example of humankind), who, believe it or not, apologized to me because that ride-along was uneventful.
     For all you know, Ray Portue is a name I made up in order to tell a story.  The man was real, but I don’t know enough about him, nor storytelling, to do that convention justice.  The aim of this paragraph, however,  is to substantiate or re-explain my premise that for most narrative/entertainment purposes, people and stories are synonymous.  The fit of the other guy’s moccasins (kensho) still depends entirely on our most ancient technology, effective storytelling.
     By using the same actors in the stories he tells, David Milch makes it easy for someone like me to track similarities and differences in the Silas Adams identity that threads its way through the Deadwood saga which relates to Brooklyn South and Jack Lowry at least to the extent that Titus Welliver played both guys — and I infer that Jimmy Flynn in Big Apple somehow finds a complementary function to perform, a commonality.  It so happens that I cling to the sly suspicion that Milch continually casts Welliver as Saul on the road to Damascus, who emerges from a more-or-less catastrophic epiphany as Paul, the great evangelist for the vision of Cultural renaissance.  Also, Gary Basaraba, Garret Dillahunt, Gordon Clapp, Dayton Callie, Paul Ben-Victor, Bill Clark, Michael Harney, Jim Beaver, Stephen Tobolowsky, Paula Malcolmson and Kim Dickens.
     I just noticed that the practical impact of all men are created equal is ironic, and pathetic until it’s expressed in the voluntary diversity of women.
     I guess I just can’t stop myself from seeing David Milch as the jackpot-motherlode of modern transnarrative media.  No wonder Power never lets him complete any of these tales.  After all, he’s only a private citizen, and the sacred voice of public indignation.  Maybe I’ll defend that last statement some other time.
    The extremely thin, blue line between more-or-less organized crime and Internal Affairs probably enlivens the punchline of a million jokes about a cop, a wiseguy and a rat who walk into a bar.  I don’t know any.
     For Whom the Skell Rolls is the second episode of the second season of NYPD Blue.  It’s fascinating for lots of reasons, but (for the moment) the most fascinating of these for me is the vision of trial lawyers as duelling champion storytellers.  When Licalsi’s champion, Sinclair, sits down after delivering his mesmerizing summation, he does so with the exquisitely understated flare of Wild Bill Hickock’s well-earned reputation for chivalry and restraint.
     Paraphrasing Sinclair, “As you know, Detective Kelly, the witness stand and the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth have about as much in common as a frankfurter and a warm puppy.”
     Champions perform a function.  They execute the intents and agendas of a higher power.  Champions can be played as true believers in an heroic agenda (see Bryan Cranston in Brooklyn South) or as cynical virtuosos (see Daniel Benzali as James Sinclair, Esq. in For Whom the Skell Rolls) or as self-serving vermine (see Paul Ben-Victor as Stephen Ronald Richards), but I see David Milch as both a hero and a champion.  I also believe that the majority of screenwriters see him as I do, thus emulating the person and aspiring to incorporate the genius woven into the work.
     On the other hand, For Whom the Skell Rolls pointedly excludes the adult moment in which Andy Sipowicz thanks Mike Roberts for providing a scandalous videotape at a most propitious and flobotinous moment.  What’s more adult than the feeling of humble gratitude for the thoughtful act performed for you and yours by a toxic opportunist  who already knows how much you  loathe him?

26 Jul 10 Posted by | Uncategorized | 4 Comments