Friday, 25 August 2006

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Deadwood and To Whom Its Dialogue Is Beholden On Unfogged the other day, we had a long, productive conversation about the merits of Deadwood. (I presented my case rather better there than I have before, but I still dig Sean’s more.) We can continue that conversation, but I actually want to have another one, based on Ogged’s latest post, in which he claims that: just as the dialogue in NYPD Blue seemed cool and edgy at the time, and now seems like a strained attempt at mimicking tough-guy culture, I think the dialogue on Deadwood will seem simliarly stupid in several years. Why do I want to parallel a conversation from there over here? Do I think I can compete? No, of course not. But I think the best response to him lies in our domain: namely, that NYPD Blue‘s language was stylized, whereas Deadwood‘s is literary. To that end, I present—below the fold, as this is a family blog—the line of dialogue we discussed before Ogged’s latest post: Ellsworth: I’ll tell you what: I may have fucked my life up flatter than hammered shit, but I stand here before you today beholden to no human cocksucker. Why does that sentence work? My best guess: The “I’ll tell you what” is conventional enough. Only, which convention does it partake of here? Is it the quiet, conspiratorial “I’ll tell you what” salesmen whisper when they want to do us a favor and throw in the top coat for an extra $400? (They’ll have to run it by their manager.) If it is, the “tell” and “what,” the speech and its content, would be emphasized; the “I” and “you” would sink, unstressed, in order to abnegate responsibility for the fucking “I’m” about to do to “you.” That doesn’t seem to work. So, how about the one in which the stresses fall drunkenly on the first and third beats? “I’ll tell you what” embraces the responsibility for the beating “I” declare, for all to hear, that “I’m” gonna put on “you.” This works much, much better. Such statements should, by law or enforced custom, incite terrible violence ... only this one doesn’t. Instead, we’re treated to a somber but forceful self-introspection. Ellsworth, we learn, “fucked [his] life up flatter than hammered shit.” Look at mess of alliteration and assonance there. We have the f sounds stumbling in and out of “fucked,” “life” and “flatter.” Notice how the poetic trickery staples the phrase together. The fə occurs in “fucked” and draws “life” and “up” together, almost into a single word (li-fəp), uniting life up with that what’s been fucked. You know, life. The third f introduces the next sound, what linguists call the “near-open, front unrounded") æ which occurs in the word which best describes it: “flat.” The flæ pulls together the alliterative fs with the assonant æs. (It also flips the l and f sounds of “life up,” a mirroring which’ll manifest thematically half a second later.) The repetition of the internal æ does what it describes: it hammers. The æ,...

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