Monday, April 7, 2014

Unleashing the Agony: Film as Text in "True Detective, Season 1" (Part 1)

Unleashing the Agony: Film as Text in "True Detective"*

"Song that the Hyades shall sing,
Where flap the tatters of the King,
Must die unheard
In dim Carcosa."
Robert W. ChambersThe King in Yellow

"From the dusty mesa,
a looming shadow grows,
hidden in the branches,
of the poisoned creosote."
The Handsome Family, 'Far From Any Road'

So goes the opening credits song to True Detective, a series which is a good deal more visceral than the horror novel of late 19th century origin that this brilliant new show draws much inspiration from.  From Poe to Bierce, on downward through Chambers and then finding it's apotheosis in the godfather of modern horror, H.P. Lovecraft, we have a rich history of literature absorbed through the medium of Gothic fiction found here.   It's odd to open an essay with two quotes, but this show has so much literary depth that you'll  find that it's easy to do so, and two quotes may simply not suffice.  We'll be comparing the first episodes - 1 through 3 specifically - to literature in the coming paragraphs this week.  Once we understand the literature this show draws upon and understand bits of it textually, we will follow with two more vantage points; This show is far from just an audio book.  To analyze it solely as literature is to let down the glorious vision that Nic Pizzolatto set out to point us toward.

Evolution plays heavily in this show.  We will see it from an evolutionary psychology standpoint, of course, but we must also discuss it from the point of view of evolved humans ensconced within a modern framework of culture and politics.  We have great conversations between an atheist and a Christian, which in their simplicity echo through history, containing those ideas that have kept these two camps (rightfully so, I might add) at odds with each other.  We have adultery, murder, serial murder, evolutionary awareness, cynicism, lust, redemption, justice and so many other juicy tidbits that have played a huge role in our evolutionary past, do so in our evolutionary present, and will do so in our evolutionary future.  We will consider altruism and the artist, how religion plays into this, and how it may be the only thing that can save us.  With the middle of the series - episodes 4-5 - covered, still there is more.

Finally, we must level the lens of humanism at this show.  Here we blend everything we know so far to try and understand what can be said and what must be done as a result of insights gained.  The final three episodes arrive in the present, after the first 5 having various flashbacks and only interviews in present day, and it makes sense to use this turning point in the show to consider the present day situations this show touches upon, and there are many.

So what is literature?  More importantly, why do writers write?  Sure, each writer probably has a slightly different story, but perhaps we can draw some rough generalizations.  Evolutionary psychology has argued that much art is done for the sake of gaining status and wealth, which allow us to have, in theory, a better genetic fitness (Dissayanake, Pinker)  Certainly this is true of much writing.  Romance novelists may not have a lot of status as compared to your typical artist or writer, though humorously they may not lose a lot of it either, as they write under pen names much of the time.  They certainly gain wealth.  Stories told in past societies helped us live within the mores of the society, and learn those very ideas, but they probably conferred a high status upon those who memorized them and told them best.  Rather than stick to the byline here, I'd argue that certain writers, in modern societies, and perhaps all of them to a smaller degree, write with an altruistic reason at heart.

Art is one of the few ways to express something I'd call pure altruism.  More on this later, but let's get a tiny bit more perspective on writing.  Maya Angelou has stated, "There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you."  Aye, this suggests that there is a sort of catharsis in storytelling.  Perhaps in modern society, the artist is more sensitive, and thus holds on to pain and love and other emotions longer and more intensely than those who don't feel this need to "express."  Certainly much criticism of art has taken this vantage point.  Is the idealist just projecting their lack of genetic fitness, or is there a real desire to change things there?
"I believe one writes because one has to create a world in which one can live," writes Anais Nin.  "I could not live in any of the worlds offered to me--the world of my parents, the world of war, the world of politics."  Certainly there's a good deal of selfishness evinced in just these words, but there's a genuine selflessness as well.  There's a destructive capability that isn't explainable in purely selfish terms.  Perhaps these women have a more feminine approach to literature, something which allows their altruism to more easily come to the surface.  Perhaps they've evolved this way, as the caregivers of the young.

Let's discuss a brief outline of the first episodes of the series.

EP1: "The Long Bright Dark"
In episode one of True Detective, we meet the cast.  Marty Hart is a family man, married, two daughters.  A policeman who hasn't been a detective in Louisiana long, Rust Cohle, is his new partner, a seemingly jaded, obviously atheist character, a wild card who we can't really figure out right away.  The series hinges around a bizarre case where a girl is tattooed in the shape of a swirl on her back, molested, stabbed, and tied naked to a tree.  It's not for the faint of heart.  Strangely, a crown of deer horns is placed on her head, and hanging from the tree and around other areas of the scene are wooden sculptures, initially indecipherable, but clearly a part of the scene and intentionally.  Rust takes immediate interest, scribbling notes in his journal pad which earn him the nickname, "The Taxman" amongst his coworkers.  Marty does as well, and we're not really sure if it's a magnetic attraction to Rust or an interest in the bizarre, but it's probably a bit of both.  The die is cast.

An awkward dinner invite and an even more awkward acceptance and attendance ensues.  We first learn of Rustin's background here, a bit, as most men, according to Marty, don't talk about their personal lives at work.  Funny enough, it's him who first brings up personal things, after witnessing the horrific crime scene.  "Ask you something.  You're Christian, yeah?"  Pause.  "No."  What ensues is the most gleefully uncomfortable discussion between the two.  Rustin is clearly an atheist and he has a lot to say about it.  Marty is freaked out by the crime, and now being paired with a heathen.  Back to working the case, we learn more sordid things about Rust and we get new evidence and eerie elements as the two detectives seem to have stumbled onto a serial murderer.

Most importantly, and I've left it til last because it add another entire dimension to the proceedings, we are told the story by the two detectives 17 years after the case, by way of flashback.  Why the interviews?  What has happened?  Well apparently there is another murder, we learn that supposedly the killer was caught in 95 and the new detectives interviewing Cohle and Hart want to know why it's still happening.  "How indeed detectives?" Asks Cohle.  He knows something.

EP2: "Seeing Things"
In episode 2, following up on the case, the victim found first (Dora Kelly Lange) is where they start.  Her mother reveals she was religious.  Backwards, Southern Baptist deep south swamp religious, to be sure.  It's fitting to mention, considering my own struggles, that she says the Ave Maria to mitigate her migraines.  More friend interviews, more details of Hart's life told to the detectives.  More interesting car rides with incredible dialogue.  They found out where Dora was staying, a trailer park whorehouse and find people to question there.  She left behind a bag with a diary.  "The king's children were marked.  They became his angels."  A scribbled, hasty view of her diary shows in bold, "The Yellow King." Here we get a first mention of "Carcosa," and a most literate back story.  They talk about the killer perhaps drugging his victims, slowly upping the dose to drive them crazy and draw them deeper into a fantasy he's creating.  Cohle tells the detectives some of his own insane history and we see some of the visual hallucinations.  He quotes Corinthians obliquely to explain his desire to work homicide.  We get an interview with Dora's ex, belying more religious aspirations and weirdness.  "The King in Yellow" was one thing she talked about with him.  He thought she was crazy.

Marty and his wife visit her parents.  There is some strange conversation here, and we see more and more development of these characters.  "You know, throughout time, every old man has probably said the same thing.  Old men die, and the world keeps spinning."  Marty says to the same thing, after a conservative rant about the state of the world today. We just know that all is not right.  Episode 2 also introduces Marty as an adulterer.  It's a common thing, so why does it matter so much in so many fictions?  Well, at least in this series, it provides a glimpse into Marty's mind and reality.  A cousin of the Senator Tuttle stops by the precinct to talk about a task force they're creating to investigate "anti-Christian" crime.  Rust can't believe it and voices his frustrations about it.  It creates tension between everyone in the station. "It's a political circle-jerk," he tells the chief, laughing.  Nobody else (except the enlightened viewer) finds the humor in this.  Rust scolds his coworker for hitting the bars instead of witnesses and there's a clear rift between him and his more casual fellow police.  This is life or death for Rust, a drive to do what is right and to pull the blinders off the windows, and let the sunlight spill in.  He's doing it as much for himself as for those he's trying to help.  "Our bosses don't want you at all."  There's a bigger thing at work here.  Marty seems to plead to do the case as much for his respect of Rust as his desire to do this.  But he's not beholden to any interests other than his own, so at least he can be trusted.

In the present day again, we hear that there was a "throwdown" in the jungle back then.  Something with Rust and Marty and taking place in the jungle.  Foreshadowing.  Taking a drive out to a place advertised in a flyer in Dora's bag, we find a burned out old church in the middle of nowhere.  The birds form the symbol drawn on the back of Dora as they take off in the distance.  Mildewed swamp, the church opens to rafters with wholes and jagged lines.  It's quite beautiful really.  Rust pulls aside some hanging swamp vines to a drawing of a woman with antlers on her head.  They were here.

EP3: "The Locked Room"
And now we arrive at episode 3.  Heading to a tent revival of "Friends of Christ," the detectives interview the pastor and a mentally troubled "suspect," and we don't get much out of it.  More sparkling dialogue.  Rust is down on religion and has a pessimistic view of common good.  We learn about Tuttle as a pastor starting a school outreach program for small communities and that Friends of Christ was part of the church end of it.

Marty thinks that Rust has myopia: "Tunnel vision.  [Your] Vision skews, twists evidence.  You're obsessive" Rust turns it back on Marty and Marty denies it.  Rust ends it with a brilliant summary, though in his usually combative way: "People incapable of guilt usually do have a good time."  Home life is fractured for Marty, and it comes to a bit of a head when Marty arrives home and Rust has used the mower he borrowed from Marty to mow Marty's lawn.  He's frustrated and tells Rust never to do it again, a clear sign of his insecurity about the state of his family life.  He's not acting like he should.  Further evidence is it's playing out in his youngdaughter's overly sexualized drawings.  Rust shows us his great skills in the discussion room with suspects.  "You just look them in the eyes.  The whole story's up there... You gotta be honest about what can go on up here," tapping his temple with a knife he's carving beer can people dolls with,"a locked room..."  We'll talk more about the locked room when we discuss the evolutionary aspects of this series.  Suffice it to say, the literary aspects continue to darken.

An insomniac who'd later asked for barbituates from a hooker he thought could help him with the case, Rust decides to do a ton of after hours work on old cases he thinks may be related.  More great dialogue about life and death.  He goes on a double date with Marty and his wife, Maggie.  He still won't drink beer, but he does dance.  Marty runs into his current affair, who is out on a date with another man.  Marty finds out she's over him and he can't handle it.  He gets a couple of drinks and keeps going.  He shows up at her house later and breaks down doors and fights with the guy who he's been replaced with.  We get a good conversation between Maggie and Rust, who have a strange friendship/acquaintance throughout the series.  Getting back to work, Marty is met by Rust who has found "another one."  On their way to look into it they have another great conversation.  The victim's dad tells the detectives about the Ledoux family and her daughter dating one of them, Reggie Ledoux.  She had gone to "Light of Way", a charter school that the Tuttle's Wellspring ministries had started.  Her dad had kept a box of her stuff and reminded Marty of Rust, keeping "his eyes on the crabtraps."  They arrive at the school but Rust doesn't go in because he's called back to the car by Marty.  Marty found out something on his CB.  Ledoux info has come back so they're off on another chase. He spoke to the lawnmower at the school before he went back to the car.  It's too bad he didn't ask more questions.

Back to present day. "And now they saw how easy it was to just let go.. and in that last instant an unmistakable relief, see, because they were afraid and now they saw for the very first time how easy it was to just let go, and they saw-- in that last nanosecond, they saw what they were, that you, yourself, this whole big drama, it was never anything but a jerry-rig of presumption and dumb will and you could just let go.  Finally now that you didn't have to hold on so tight, to realize that all your life-- you know, all your love, all your hate, all your memory, all your pain, it was all the same thing.  It was all the same dream, a dream that you had inside a locked room, a dream about being a person.  And like a lot of dreams, there's a monster at the end of it."

This series has more monsters than just Reggie Ledoux, but let's stop and consider for a moment these concepts of a "monster" and where and how they tie in with this series.  Though germinated in 1764 by Horace Walpolethe horror story worked its way down to Poe, eventually, who was a huge influence on Ambrose Bierce.  "Can Such Things Be?" is a collection of short stories by Bierce in which he mentions Carcosa in one of his short stories, "An Inhabitant of Carcosa." (1886)  9 years later, Robert W. Chambers published "The King in Yellow," the first four stories of which involve Carcosa, borrowing also from another of Bierce's short stories to add to the lore of Carcosa.  This netherworld out of place and time became a huge inspiration for H.P. Lovecraft and a direct inspiration for his Cthulu stories.

Bierce himself, good ole Bitter Bierce, was an atheist of the highest regard.  In an introduction to "The Collected Writings of Ambrose Bierce," Fadiman expounds upon how important Bierce is to the negative worldviews of today, how perfect he heralds the coming of the Nuclear age.  "Indeed, the whole conduct of civilized man since Bierce's presumed death in 1914 is happily calculated to confirm his misanthropy.  Lidice, Belsen, Dachau, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Bikini - all would have afforded him a satisfaction deeper and more bitter than that which he drew from the relatively paltry horrors of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries."

Marty: "What do you got the cross for in your apartment?"  Coehle speaks of his atheism. "It's a form of meditation." "How's that?"  "I contemplate the moment in the garden, the idea of allowing your own crucifixion." "But you're not a Christian.  So what do you believe?"  After a bit of sparring, we arrive at the crux.  "I think human consciousness was a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware.  Nature created an aspect of of nature separate from itself.  We are creatures that should not exist by natural law... we are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, this accretion of sensory experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when, in fact, everybody's nobody."  Zen buddhism meets evolutionary psychology.

It's fitting that this writer would have to pen a horror story then.  So what of it?  "An Inhabitant of Carcosa," speaks of more atmospheric and morbid fantasy, really.  It doesn't strike one as horrific, at least in light of the shock-cinema and torture porn of today.  It tells the story of a man in a place he feels he knows but it is clearly alien to him.  He eventually comes to find he is dead, by stumbling across his own gravestone, from ages past.  Bierce is certainly part of the pemmican that is Rustin Cohle, bitterly cynical to their core.

Chambers adapts this tale's world, and a name from one other Bierce short story to create "The King in Yellow."  Only the first four stories deal with Carcosa, but they're decidedly more creepy.  They deal with a book, appropriately named "The King In Yellow," which figures in each of the four stories and involve the reading of the book which turns them crazy or happens around cataclysmic events of the characters' lives.  There's some atmospheric horror, couched in solid storytelling which lends credence to the depth of terrible things that happen.  Some think they're the King, or they're helping the King, or the King brings death for them or a loved one, or for the entire cosmos.

We see filmic echoes of Southern Gothic from as far back as 1941's under-appreciated Swamp Water, the opening scene of which had a zoom-out from a cross with a skull on top of it.  Jean Renoir confirms his status here of a top-flight auteur.  The language is similar as well, but of course the 70+ years of fine-tuning has added quite a polish to the genre.  They talk about killing cats and torturing them in True Detective, and in Swamp Water, the townspeople gather up kittens to put them in a bag and throw them in the swamp.  Cats aren't welcome in the South on film, and the homicidal triangle often finds one or two sides very easily.  A killer with a soft spot hides in the swamp, and overwhelms a young man looking for his lost dog.  We get an interesting picture of the south here.

Many people were satisfied, nay, ecstatic at Phil Ridley's "The Reflecting Skin," but it didn't feel quite right when I saw it a few years back.  Certainly, after "True Detective," the film genre of Southern Gothic has gotten a new rail spike and everything seems paltry in comparison.  The depth and breadth of literature is mind boggling and it opens the series to a large amount of interpretations.  I'm looking forward to peeling back the skin a bit to find new growth beneath it, no matter how painful or agonizing it can be.
*This is Part 1 of a Series of Articles about Pizzolatto and Fukunaga's True Detective.

-Castle of Otranto1977Svankmajer, viewable here
-The Reflecting Skin, 1990, Ridley
-Swamp Water, 1941, Renoir
-True Detective, Episodes 1-8, 2014, Fukunaga.

-Ambrose Bierce, at Wikipedia,
-Ave Maria, at Wikipedia,
-Bierce, Ambrose. 1910.  Can Such Things Be?
-"The Castle of Otranto," at Wikipedia,
-Chambers, Robert W. 1895.  The King in Yellow.
-de Waal, Franz. 2005.  Our Inner Ape.
-Dissanayake, Ellen. 1988.  What is Art For?
-Edgar Allan Poe, at Wikipedia,
-The Handsome Family, at Rateyourmusic,
-Horror Fiction, at Wikipedia,
-H.P. Lovecraft, at Wikipedia,
-Jean Renoir, at Imdb,
-Macdonald Triad (Homicidal Triad),  at Wikipedia,
-Pinker, Steven. 2009.  How the Mind Works
-Nic Pizzolatto, at Wikipedia,
-Robert W. Chambers, at Wikipedia,

-"Far From Any Road," 2003, from the album "Singing Bones" by The Handsome Family