SP – Steven Peacock JJ – Jason Jacobs
SP: The recent news of Luck’s cancellation, cited as due to the death of three horses on the show, leads us to the race sequences. The death of animals in unnatural circumstances, especially within the controlled arena of the film set is perplexing at best, reprehensible at worst. Milch and Mann have offered persuasive accounts of on-set safety measures for the animals. The case is made even more confusing as Luck’s race scenes present some of the most celebratory images of the animal on film. From Mann’s pilot episode onwards, the camera places us in the middle of the action, amidst thundering hooves. Here, these scenes, these creatures, teem with life. The dynamism of these moments heightens our appreciation of the majesty of a horse in motion. They also form a significant addition to instances in which the inherent qualities of the filmed image – the motion picture – are most strikingly revealed in moments capturing the movement of a running horse. From Muybridge to Red River and Ben Hur, the cinematic machinery finds its soul-mate in the natural grace, rhythm and power of just this animal’s activity. Some observers have suggested that it is in, and only in, the race sequences that Luck snaps to life. They are seen as redemptive moments amidst slower, longer, rambling tracts of dialogue. Yet both types of scene can be taken as mutually integral. Luck explores the addiction, distraction, preoccupation that comes from the thrill of the race and backing a winner. The sensation has to be fleeting in order to thrill, lifting the gambler out of a more mired state of everyday affairs. Crucially, track-life is at once frustratingly flat and constantly informed by the nagging risks and promises of that moment of release. Luck’s bits of business are fuzzy and partial until the race brings everything to clarity and attention because that is what the characters experience.
JJ: Yes that’s one place transcendence happens. The cancellation brings us back to earth, sadly, because it seemed to be in response to a view that was largely mistaken about the intentions and treatment of the animals concerned. One can calibrate PETA’s grasp of the production by looking at the letters it sent to HBO expressing concern that the ‘breakdown during one of the racing sequences… looked very realistic’ and demanding to know how it was done. Well, if they meant the scene where the horse breaks its leg in the pilot episode, it was done with CGI – I saw that sequence before the CGI was added and it is hard to believe the animal suffered. The irony – one of many – is that the good and bad treatment of horses and their power to heal the human spirit is a theme that the show was developing, and which is now removed from our screens. Indeed it seemed to want to balance a pastoral view of horses (as aids to the rehabilitation of prisoners) with the dynamic expression of their full breeding and training as athletes which implicitly, and somewhat mischievously, asks us which we prefer – Dustin Hoffman’s polite jogging next to a pony or the majestic competition of racing beasts…
The horse race that crowns what is now the ending of the show is unlike anything I’ve seen before on screen. I think one review mentions Luck’s horse races as implying the earth’s rotation – there’s been a lot of grasping at allegory and analogy in the commentaries, not completely without reason – and certainly when Getting Up Morning and Pint of Plain compete for the win in the finale that cosmic sense of planetary motion is conveyed by the beauty of the San Gabriel mountains in the background, and our knowledge of its location as straddling a fault in the crust of the earth. What thickens the excitement of the spectacle is that the race is itself a beginning, the discovery of true rivalry, between two great horses (their story is based in part on the legendary rivalry between the thoroughbreds Affirmed and Alydar in the 1970s). After the result is known competition becomes unity when the two trainers Walter Smith (Nick Nolte) and Turo Escalante (John Ortiz) acknowledge that they are participants in that rivalry: that their luck is to be caught up in some part of the world’s excellence. ‘Next time more of the same, huh?,’ says Smith. Sadly that wasn’t to be.
My own response to the cancellation is one of sheer grief for the loss of characters that had insinuated themselves in my life, each of them sounding out a different depth and register of the congealed and complicated nature of human experience. In particular I was hoping to see the women characters develop. Luck has three important female roles (Rosie/Kerry Conlon, Jo/Jill Hennessy and Claire/Joan Allen) that in this season tended to be subsumed by the activities and drama involving the men. Ever since Deadwood I think many of Milch’s admirers have hoped to see and listen to women that matched the staggering, eloquent brilliance of Alma Garret, Trixie and Joanie Stubbs. Adding Naomi (Weronika Rosati) and the extraordinary Mercedes Ruehl (as Renzo’s mum) to the ‘Degenerates’ group seemed a kind of recognition that the women needed to emerge more strongly amidst the quite oppressive male battles for control and mastery.
Finally we should say something about Dustin Hoffman and horses. David Thompson in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film describes his screen character as possessing ‘a nucleus of hard identity [that] never wavers, never seems fully threatened, and never floods us with animation’. But do you agree that working in a television drama has opened up that hard nucleus in some slightly strange way that is connected with his relationship to the horse? Is it that sense of inscrutable, skittish, unfinished-ness that has deepened him? What are we to make of the final shots of the series that seem to want us to compare his kind, dark stare into the camera, with that of his horse in its stable? What happens to the intimacies that form and shape us?
Jason Jacobs is Reader in Cultural History in the School of English, Media Studies and Art History, University of Queensland. He is author of The Intimate Screen and Body Trauma TV. He is currently working on an Australian Research Council funded project called ‘Worldwide: the history of the commercial arm of the BBC’. His BFI TV Classic on on Deadwood will be out in May. He is writing a book on David Milch for the Manchester University Press Television Series and is co-editor with Steven Peacock of the forthcoming collection Global Television: Aesthetics and Style (Continuum).
Steven Peacock is Senior Lecturer in Film at the University of Hertfordshire. He is the editor/author ofReading 24: TV against the Clock (2007), and the co-editor of The Television Series for Manchester University Press. He is also the author of Colour: Cinema Aesthetics (Manchester University Press, 2010) and Hollywood and Intimacy: Style, Moments, Magnificence (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). He is currently writing Swedish Crime Fiction: Adaptations from Novel to Global Film and Television(Manchester University Press), and is co-editor with Jason Jacobs of the forthcoming collection Global Television: Aesthetics and Style (Continuum).
Unfortunately this will be Steven’s last guest blog for CSTonline. I would like to take this opportunity to thank him for all his stellar work for the website and hope that he will continue to contribute occasionally in the future.