Wednesday, April 16, 2014

True Detective Obsession

This feature contains spoilers – read with caution

With only a few minor issues, I consider TRUE DETECTIVE to be a ‘picture perfect’ crime thriller; combining existential philosophy, gothic horror, and serial killers into a tale of troubled men, investigating a very troubling series of killings along Louisiana’s coast in a post-Hurricane Katrina world.

The genesis of TRUE DETECTIVE comes from literature professor and writer Nic Pizzolatto who took a big risk in life, something that must be admired. Nic wrote a novel entitled GALVESTON a few years ago. It was critically acclaimed including praise from Shutter Island’s Dennis Lehane. The problem was it didn’t sell well, and was not published in the UK, but is now available as an ebook from Little Brown for Kindle and other platforms. As a debut novel, Galveston is an excellent crime-thriller, but also very dark and a perfect antidote for those suffering from withdrawal symptoms due to the end of TRUE DETECTIVE.

Following Pizzolatto’s disappointment that his debut novel Galveston didn’t sell well, his literary agent mentioned that a colleague asked ‘can this writer, craft a screenplay?’ Pizzolatto stepped up to the plate, resigned from his academic tenure and packed his family up and headed off to Los Angeles. He managed to get a job writing screenplays for the US remake of the Danish TV thriller THE KILLING [for AMC] and speculatively worked on his own original screenplay TRUE DETECTIVE. The submitted scripts provoked a bidding war, due to the unusual nature of the narrative structure, with HBO winning out against AMC and many others.

If you’ve read GALVESTON or watched TRUE DETECTIVE you’ll realise that Pizzolatto was influenced by Vince Gilligan’s BREAKING BAD. However what makes TRUE DETECTIVE a “game changer” in terms of TV crime-fiction, is its background in the gothic, and the weird. It is far from a conventional serial killer drama, for it combines existential philosophy, and ponders upon the true nature of consciousness and reality, referencing writers such as Arthur Schopenhauer, Emil Cioran, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre among others – with the cosmic horror of Thomas Ligotti, Laird Barron, John Langan, Simon Strantzas and especially Howard Philips Lovecraft and the curious collection of stories THE KING IN YELLOW by Robert W. Chambers. During my teenage years, I was [and remain] an avid reader of the subgenre, ‘weird fiction / cosmic horror’ from writers such as Robert Bloch, HP Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, William Hope Hodgson, Ambrose Bierce amongst many, many others.

The Wall Street Journal and I09 were the first, to realise that there was more to TRUE DETECTIVE than just a TV Cop show, as the influence of ‘cosmic horror’ was very evident -

This is a detective show, but the echoes of the bleak tradition of weird fiction don’t stop with Ligotti or Lovecraft. We learn in “True Detective” that the murder victim, Dora Lange, had said she had met a “king,” and that she kept a diary in which she mentioned “the Yellow King” and “Carcosa.” These come from Robert Chambers’ 1895 collection of weird stories, “The King in Yellow,” in which several of the stories are connected by a fictional play, about the titular ruler, which drives to insanity whoever reads it. (Chambers, likewise, took Carcosa from an Ambrose Bierce short story.) Chambers’ writing inspired Lovecraft’s work on what came to be known as the “Cthulhu Mythos.” Lovecraft even co-opted parts of Chambers’ mythology to include in his monstrous pantheon of “gods” and otherworldly locations.

I often joke that my eccentricity [and my interest in the existential nature of reality] is related to having read Robert W Chamber’s 1895 collection of weird stories [collected as THE KING IN YELLOW] as a teenager. Some of these peculiar stories reference a forbidden [and fictional] play THE KING IN YELLOW; that if read, makes the reader insane, such is the disturbing content of the narrative.

The KING IN YELLOW was a huge influence on HP Lovecraft on crafting his “Cthulhu Mythos.” Lovecraft referenced his own forbidden [and fictional] work the dreaded book “The Necronomicon”.  It was first mentioned in Lovecraft's 1924 short story "The Hound", written in 1922, though its purported author, the "Mad Arab" Abdul Alhazred, had been quoted a year earlier in Lovecraft's "The Nameless City". Among other things, the work contains an account of the ‘Old Ones’, their history, and the means for summoning them.

Apart from the weirdness, TRUE DETECTIVE features stunning visuals, an amazing title sequence [featuring the cult band HANDSOME FAMILY track ‘Far from any Road’], eclectic soundtrack, outstanding acting performances, edge of seat narrative and cinematography that takes your breath away, like the single-shot 6 minute sequence of the attack at the stash house in the “Projects” with Ginger and The Iron Crusaders that closes episode 4 – click here to view but have the Valium handy as it will shred your nerves.

Much has been written about the Rust Cohle character, played magnificently by Matthew McConaughey and his nihilism / pessimism about the human condition. It is obvious that Cohle has read, and is an advocate of Thomas Ligotti’s non-fiction philosophical work THE CONSPIRACY AGAINST THE HUMAN RACE.

When interviewed by the Wall Street Journal, Pizzolatto stated -

I read “The Conspiracy Against the Human Race” and found it incredibly powerful writing. For me as a reader, it was less impactful as philosophy than as one writer’s ultimate confessional: an absolute horror story, where the self is the monster. In episode one [of "True Detective"] there are two lines in particular (and it would have been nothing to re-word them) that were specifically phrased in such a way as to signal Ligotti admirers. Which, of course, you got.

The philosophy Cohle promotes in the show’s earliest episodes is a kind of anti-natalist nihilism, and in that regard all cats should be unbagged: “Confessions of an Antinatalist,” “Nihil Unbound,” “In the Dust of this Planet,” “Better to Have Never Been,” and lots of Cioran were all on the reading list.

This is before I came out to Hollywood, but I knew that in my next work I would have a detective who was (or thought he was) a nihilist. I’d already been reading E.M. Cioran for years and consider him one of my all-time favorite and, oddly, most nourishing writers. As an aphorist, Cioran has no rivals other than perhaps Nietzsche, and many of his philosophies are echoed by Ligotti. But Ligotti is far more disturbing than Cioran, who is actually very funny. In exploring these philosophies, nobody I’ve read has expressed the idea of humanity as aberration more powerfully than Cioran and Ligotti.

Read the full interview with Nick Pizzalotta here

Having read Thomas Ligotti’s THE CONSPIRACY AGAINST THE HUMAN RACE, I found it most enlightening, but must issue a warning – it should not be read by anyone suffering from clinical depression, because it reveals much about our plight as beings with a “deep consciousness” which is a blessing as well as a curse, because from our consciousness springs what we term Mortality Salience [or ‘Terror Management’]; as well as living and being aware that the random universe we inhabit is far from benign in nature. It also examines strategies to cope with the deep consciousness we’re bestowed with.

Such is the acclaim for Nic Pizzolatto’s work that HBO have given the green light for a second season, though it will feature different characters and a different storyline. Some viewers were so wrapped up in the ‘weirdness’ that they were perturbed at what they considered a ‘routine serial-killer’ riff in the conclusion. Perhaps they expected Childress and the Tuttles to reveal themselves bestowed with tentacles and originating from an alien dimension? I however was not disappointed as Rustin Cohle’s flashbacks such as the flashing lights when he was driving, the birds making the spiral or the universe opening above Carcosa to me was enough to indicate the ‘weirdness’ or if you prefer, the residual effect of drug use when he was an undercover police operative.

I have only two minor issues with TRUE DETECTIVE, and they are minor when contrasted against the 8 hour ride, and both relate to the last episode.

[a] When Martin Hart is asking one of the black cops if he’d like the call when they uncover the killer, the black cop address Hart “..hey white man….” This piece of dialogue was jarring and totally out of context. But this is minor when compared to every other line of dialogue from Pizzolatto, so forgiven.

[b] The clue of the ‘green ears’ and the paint was a little too stretched in logic for me in tracing Childress’ abode Carcosa, but again a minor point.

Two other observations that bother some viewers [but not me] where –

[a] Not all the loose ends were wrapped up, like the influential Tuttle family seemingly getting off the hook. But hey, welcome to reality, life is rarely wrapped up neatly in a bow, and yes the rich and powerful often get away from their evil deeds, sometimes.

[b] Some people couldn't cope with the complexity of the story, the time zones, the density of the narrative, the sexual imagery, all making it hard work to watch the show. This for me was actually a major plus point. I love narratives that provoke thought, not just a mindless array of action and explosions, and narratives that make the reader / viewer work for their entertainment, gaining enlightenment on the way. 

Though Nick Pizzolatto seems to realise, that it was perhaps the weirdness in TRUE DETECTIVE that lured and obsessed many of the viewers; me included as he stated in this interview when the show closed -

I don't know where you are in working on season 2, but has any of the reaction to this season informed what you're doing with the next? 

Nic Pizzolatto: It's informed exactly one thing. It's that I realize I need to keep being strange. Don't play the next one straight.

Can you tell me anything at all about season 2? 

Nic Pizzolatto: Okay. This is really early, but I'll tell you (it's about) hard women, bad men and the secret occult history of the United States transportation system.

Finally, you wrote this entire thing in a vacuum, as someone relatively new to television, not knowing how it was received. And the show comes on, and people go nuts about it, they are penning raves, coming up with elaborate theories about the Yellow King and Lovecraft and everything else. How did it feel to see your creation being received in all of these ways? 

Nic Pizzolatto: I felt like, look, it's all good, and I really mean that. To me, that is what it means to connect and resonate with people. It means that they are going to project onto the work. There's never been anything I didn't love that I didn't connect with on a personal level because to some degree, I projected upon it. That said, I think I've made clear that my only interest in the Chambers stuff (Robert W. Chambers wrote "The King in Yellow") is as a story that has a place in American myth. And it's a story about a story that drives people into madness. That was mainly it. Beyond that, I'm interested in the atmosphere of cosmic horror, but that's about all I have to say about weird fiction. I did feel the perception was tilted more towards weird fiction than perhaps it should have been. For instance, if someone needs a book to read along with season 1 of "
True Detective
," I would recommend the King James Old Testament. I wouldn't tell anyone to go buy Robert Chambers. It's not that great a book. Joseph Conrad and William Faulkner I think are in there far more than Chambers or Lovecraft. But again, I guess I hope that these 8 chapters, once the totality of it is evident, it might provoke a re-evaluation. But if it doesn't, I'm very happy with the reaction we've had. It couldn't have been better. I'm just surprised by it. I remember talking to you three months ago and having to convince you: "This just sounds like every other show," "I know, I know." And now my wife read a comment the other day that said I live out in the desert, and I run some kind of cult. (laughs) I don't know what I can say about that. I think this show answers everything it told you to ask. The questions it didn't tell you to ask are questions best left to one's self.

Read more here about Nic’s thoughts now that season one of TRUE DETECTIVE has run its course, burning itself into our psyche and what lies ahead in season two.

The series concluded with a wonderfully melancholic song ‘THE ANGRY RIVER’, specially commissioned for the series, which HBO released as a video, which choreographs the dark lyrics of T Bone Burnett to some startling imagery.

Though we must issue a ‘spoiler warning’ in case you haven’t seen TRUE DETECTIVE [and are waiting for the DVD release] as the video contains elements spliced from all of the 8 episodes.

THE ANGRY RIVER by “The Hat” [featuring Father John Misty & S. I. Istwa)]
Music by T Bone Burnett, Rhiannon Giddens and Gabe Witcher
Lyrics by T Bone Burnett
Produced by T Bone Burnett