Witnessing Excellence in David Milch’s Luck

Passion and passion in its profoundest, is not a thing demanding a palatial stage whereon to play its part. Down among the groundlings, among the beggars and rakers of the garbage, profound passion is enacted. And the circumstances that provoke it, however trivial or mean, are no measure of its power.

In 1970 David Sanford Milch submitted two chapters from a novel as part of his MFA at the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop (Richard Yates, with whom he was to become close, was one of the examiners). The never-to-be published novel was entitled The Groundlings and I’m sure that title was inspired by this passage from Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor; since that time Milch’s writing has consistently engaged with the lives and passions of ‘groundlings’ – those apparently ‘low’, ‘cheap’, and ‘dirty’ creatures who live close to the ground and who we know intimately through works such as NYPD Blue and Deadwood. His new drama, Luck is set at the racetrack and does not buck this trend: its most immediately engaging characters are described in the script as The Degenerates – Marcus (Kevin Dunn), Jerry (Jason Gedrick), Renzo (Richie Coster) and the endlessly concupiscent Lonnie (Ian Hart), who together allow us to participate in their profound highs and lows at the racetrack (and off it), threatening to steal the show altogether from its big star heavy-hitters Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte and Michael Gambon.

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The first episode of the show was shown by HBO after the season two finale of Boardwalk Empire last December, and it has received some thoughtful reviews in the UK. Both the Guardian and The Independent noted the way old age was foregrounded through the casting (Hoffman, Nolte, and Gambon are all in the their seventies) as well as the fact the show draws on Milch’s own history as a gambler and racing horse owner (he has won the prestigious Breeders’ Cup twice). That juxtaposition between the slowness, deliberation and fatigue of age with the speed, impulsivity and energy of youth is rendered across various sequences that pitch movement against stillness, and reflection against action. As Hitchcock taught us in Notorious and Marnie, given the right performances the very act of watching horses race can electrify our attention, plausibly allowing eyelines to be directed outwards toward the camera at the action, while we as spectators of spectatorship watch the shifting currents of attention wash over the faces of the characters.

However, this is to state the obvious structural and aesthetic matter that is touted in the foreground. One of the first shots has Hoffman’s character, Ace Bernstein, about to be released from jail looking straight at the camera in close up so we can see the geology of his beautifully lined face, freighted with obscure but determined intention.

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The episode concludes with Bernstein and his loyal assistant Gus Demitriou (Dennis Farina) reflecting on the day’s events as he succumbs to early evening tiredness in his hotel room. As he begins dozing Bernstein continues to plot some kind of revenge on the vaguely sketched powers who were responsible for his incarceration. Again, this obvious thing draws us into a deeper place than merely acknowledging that old folks get tired earlier in the day, by asking us to wonder about the nature of time and intention. Is it only the energy supplied by grievance, vengeance and the settling of scores that keeps us sharp in the face of gathering darkness? To draw on a favourite Milch reference from William James, we know Bernstein carries his cards close to his chest, but what he is holding is less important than appreciating the way he plays them. The same is true of the show as a whole: as some reviewers noted it seems to make few concessions to those not well versed in the language and jargon of the racetrack, and shares with Deadwood a certain opacity and complication of language. But we will live into it. Understanding the show is less important than cleaving to its moods and ways of binding as well as repelling us (that is, repelling in order to bind us even tighter to it).
When Bernstein first gets out of prison he asks Demitriou to get him a tape recorder because he doesn’t ‘hold his thoughts as well’. Milch too has his dialogue and discourse taped since he does not write with pen or keyboard but instead speaks the script aloud which is then copied onto a big computer screen in front of him; he then edits and revises as he goes, returning to it for revision and adjustment up until the last moment. Thanks to Milch’s long term production assistant (and also writer of the fifth episode of Luck), Scott Willson, I had the opportunity to briefly witness him writing a later episode, with his friend and legendary champion jockey Julie Krone and her husband, racing columnist Jay Hovdey in the room (as well as Milch’s long term amanuensis, TV writer and urbane LA podcaster Caleb Bacon).

I’ve written elsewhere about the extraordinary production environment he has cultivated which has finally allowed him to develop this work – he has been trying to write a version of Luck since shortly after submitting The Groundlings chapters in the early 1970s. Whatever we want to make of talk about Milch’s ‘genius’, what I saw in his writing room last year was the careful, unhurried pursuit of excellence in every moment, word, gesture and tone. And whatever the reported friction between the two auteurs, Michael Mann’s direction and Milch’s dialogue achieve a satisfying result together. Mann is an aesthetic technician of surface, able to articulate the hectic energy of the track and its spectators, especially in the dynamic, carefully composed racing sequences which convincingly convey a sense of thoroughbreds able to punch holes in the wind. The depiction of their motion is sublime and reminiscent of Milch’s mentor, the poet Robert Penn Warren’s eloquent description in his novel A Place to Come To:

..watching the beauty of timing and fluid force and dreamlike retardation of flight, you felt that, as the last hoof broke contact with earth, both horse and rider had imperially floated into a dimension beyond gravity, time, and contingency.

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Milch on the other hand is a master of making us share the experience of the drama gradually and at depth rather than merely cognitively all at once. He is candid about his past drug use as well as his life on at the track from an early age (his father allowed him to gamble there at the age of six); and thanks to Dick Francis and other writers we know that the racetrack can be a venue where horses and jockeys participate in a vast range of exotic pharmacological interventions; tie this to the compulsive nature of gambling, and the dense layers of mendacity and thievery inevitable in such an environment and you have a typically dark Milchean environment. And yet this is leavened by a transcendent dimension. We glimpse it briefly when we see the character played by Nick Nolte, a patient trainer known as the ‘Old Man’, watching his horse running for the first time and realising he has correctly judged its potential as a sublime competitor. Elsewhere in the stands Jerry sees it too, as does – at another part of the track – Joey Rathburn (Richard Kind), a stuttering jockey’s agent. We get a sense, familiar in Milch’s art, of a unity created from disparate, seemingly unrelated parts. Here it is mutual awe in the face of achievement, the simultaneous witnessing of excellence in motion. Luck promises to offer the same to us.

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An earlier version of this was published at CST Online.

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