“I and this mystery here we stand” (requiem for Luck)

A few thoughts commemorating David Milch’s HBO series Luck in the wake of its widely publicised cancellation due to the accidental death of a third horse on set. It’s a response, in some ways, to dreadful assessments the show has received at the hands of some, like the Guardian’s David Stubbs (his argument, paltry and at times even anti-intellectual amounts to “People didn’t watch it on the nights it was shown therefore it’s shit” which, though technically correct – first viewing figures were small – disregards the fact that on the nights it was put out Luck had to compete for viewers with the Superbowl, the Oscars, the Grammys, Golden Globes, and betrays a misunderstanding about the way TV and HBO in particular works: cumulative figures for each episode were around about 4 million (see Michael Mann’s explanation here)).

The coruscating heart of Luck is, naturally, the race around which every episode circulates, to which adheres a plethora of (largely commercial) institutions and activities and from which astonishing and luminous affective power is generated. Like gold in Deadwood, for Milch a symbol whose value is agreed upon by the socius and therefore promotes the interaction of discrete systems (see “The Color” in Deadwood: Stories of the Black Hills),  the synergy of rider and mount in Luck emits a symbolic power and attraction which systems of signification orbit. Unlike gold, however, it isn’t reliant upon extant systems for legitimacy but seems to come before them, exceeding the transience of its satellite endeavours and speaking to a more persistent theme. Metonymically, it stands for the obliteration of the artificial distance between man and nature, and limns a kind of transcendent alliance between human and animal such as the one Whitman depicts in his Leaves of Grass (1855):

A gigantic beauty of a stallion, fresh and responsive to my caresses,
Head high in the forehead and wide between the ears,
Limbs glossy and supple, tail dusting the ground,
Eyes well apart and full of sparkling wickedness….ears finely cut and flexibly moving.

His nostrils dilate….my heels embrace him….his well-built limbs tremble with pleasure….as we speed around and return.

I but use you a moment and then I resign you stallion….and do not need your paces, and out-gallop them

(Whitman, “Song of Myself” 702-707)

The asymmetrical attachment of Walter Smith (Nolte) to his bay colt “Gettn’up Morning” is, in a sense, completed, reciprocated, on the track on race day (no wonder, then, Smith initially attempts to find a surrogate for himself in fellow Kentuckian, jockey Ronnie Jenkins).

"And the look of the bay mare shames silliness out of me." (Whitman, "Song of Myself"237)

Yet it seems like the awesome incandescence of this union is just too bright and too close to be countenanced in its pure form: in order to continue, it needs to be diluted and adulterated, conducted into regimes of (monetary) exchange and (legal) control which interpose themselves between the common man and this quasi-divine experience. Gambling here serves to induce a kind of altered state, shielding the individual from recognising their insignificance in the face of this dazzling moment of truth (we witness Jerry, the brain of the Pick 6 winners, undergo a progressive psychological disintegration and physical deterioration at a succession of high-stakes poker tables).

"Me going in for my chances, spending for vast returns" (Whitman, "Song of Myself" 253)

Unlike Whitman, however, who might seek to embrace and affirm all of this (his pietist thought famously leaves little room for criticism or negativity), Milch seems to see in these just so many pernicious, though human, abstractions which obscure, perhaps forever, a more fundamental experience of the world.


~ by schoolboyerrors on March 26, 2012.

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