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Daily Reads: ‘Deadwood’s’ David Milch Gambles Away His Fortune, How Triumph Cracked Donald Trump, and More

Daily Reads: 'Deadwood's' David Milch Gambles Away His Fortune, How Triumph Cracked Donald Trump, and More

Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.

1. How David Milch Gambled Away His Fortune.
Creator of such acclaimed series like “NYPD Blue” and “Deadwood,” David Milch is one of the most brilliant minds working in television today. However, he faces a lawsuit that says he owes the IRS $17 million, and he currently subsists on a $40-a-week allowance. The Hollywood Reporter’s Stephen Galloway and Scott Johnson report the story.

Milch, 70, is a four-time Emmy-winning writer-producer who co-created the classic series “NYPD Blue” and HBO’s acclaimed “Deadwood.” A former English literature professor at Yale, he is known for his cerebral and unorthodox approach to writing, for the profanity of his dialogue and the precision of his plots, for elevating the very possibilities of the once-maligned medium in which he works. For the past few years, he has been based in an exclusive deal at HBO and is in negotiations to renew it. He is working on an adaptation of Peter Matthiessen’s novel “Shadow Country,” with Jeff Bridges attached to star as 19th century outlaw Edgar “Bloody” Watson. He also is devel­oping a two-hour TV movie version of “Deadwood.” He has admirers and fans across the spectrum of the television world, though he has not had a successful show since “Deadwood” ended in 2006. “We have always felt very lucky to have had David in our family,” says HBO chairman and CEO Richard Plepler. “It is obvious to everyone that he is a preternatural talent. What might be less obvious, because he doesn’t ever talk about it, is how much time and energy he spends mentoring young writers. I think it speaks volumes about him and reflects his decency and generosity, which is one of the reasons all of us at HBO love him. Over many years, I’ve watched him treat everyone throughout the company with enormous respect, no matter what their title. He takes time to show his appreciation to everyone. It’s why he has so many fans all throughout HBO.” Judging from the accounts of several men and women who know him well, he is a person of extreme talent but also extreme behavior. Now a lawsuit, which was filed last year and is proceeding in Los Angeles Superior Court in Santa Monica, indicates that he lost $25 million from gambling between 2000 and 2011 alone. Colleagues estimate he has earned more than $100 million across his three-decade Hollywood career, but the lawsuit reveals he is left with $17 million in debts. That marks a breathtaking financial fall for one of the most admired creative figures ever to grace the world of television. “He’s in debt to the IRS,” says one friend. “He’s doing what he can, but it’s hard for him and everyone close to him.” A publicly available legal complaint obtained by “The Hollywood Reporter” and filed last year by attorneys for Milch’s wife, Rita S. Milch, details the couple’s finances and seeks damages from their business managers, Nigro Karlin Segal Feldstein & Bolno LLP (NKSFB), for not informing her of the full extent of her husband’s losses. These legal documents do not indicate how much Milch has made from his TV work, but a “New Yorker” profile of him that ran in 2005 said he earned $12 million in his last three years on “Hill Street Blues,” on which he was co-executive producer, and noted he had made more than $60 million from “NYPD Blue,” the ABC hit drama that ran for 12 seasons from 1993 to 2005. That article appeared before he was due to receive many millions of dollars more from “NYPD’s” syndication sales. He used some of his money to buy houses in the tony Brentwood section of Los Angeles and on Martha’s Vineyard, together worth more than $13 million. But nearly everything he made is now gone.

2. Donald Trump Is a Conundrum for Political Comedy.
Robert Smigel’s Triumph the Insult Comic Dog character debuted on Conan O’Brien’s late night show in 1997 and has endured for almost twenty years. The foul-mouth Yugoslavian Mountain Hound puppet has gone everywhere from the opening of “Phantom of the Menace” to a Bon Jovi concert. But now, Triumph has returned for a Hulu exclusive where he takes on the 2016 election. The New York Times’ James Poniewozik examines how Donald Trump is a conundrum for political comedy except for characters like Triumph.

In all of political comedy, there may be one person who truly understands Donald J. Trump. And that person is a dog. In “Triumph’s Election Special 2016” on Hulu, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog — the cigar-chomping, foul-muzzled canine puppet voiced by the comedian Robert Smigel — offers to coach the Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee on belittling his opponents in his next debate. (The special was taped; Mr. Huckabee has since dropped out of the race.) “I’m an insult comic,” Triumph explains. “That’s the wave of the future. That’s what Trump is doing.” It takes one to know one. (You can’t, after all, spell “Triumph” without “Trump.”) In a few quick sentences, Mr. Smigel both summed up Mr. Trump’s political style and explained why TV comedians have had a hard time satirizing him in any memorable way. How do you spoof a candidate who treats campaigning like a roast? Mr. Trump is now a serious candidate — often a self-serious, angry one — with a serious chance. But stylistically, he works in the mode and rhythms of a stand-up. He riffs. He goads. He works blue. When he gave a victory speech in New Hampshire, feinted at congratulating his opponents, then pivoted — “Now that I’ve got that over with…” — he sounded like a sketch comic doing an imitation of himself. His style has rendered him, weirdly, almost comedy-proof. Election parodies traditionally exaggerate candidates. But Mr. Trump exaggerates himself — he’s the frilled lizard of politics, inflating his self-presentation to appear ever larger. Satire exposes candidates’ contradictions and absurdities. But Mr. Trump blows past those, while his supporters cheer. Whatever anyone thought of Mr. Trump as a candidate, the consensus was that he would be a one-man stimulus program for comedians. He’s given them plenty of material, but little of it has stuck. As Mr. Trump has defied conventional politics and confounded conventional pundits, so has he frustrated conventional satire. There were a few successes early in the campaign. The new “Daily Show” host, Trevor Noah, a native of South Africa, used his own background to find a novel angle on Mr. Trump, likening him to an African dictator à la Idi Amin, given his “lavish lifestyle” and “level of self-regard.” But more often comics have been scrambling to keep pace with the news. A December “Saturday Night Live” sketch tried to exaggerate Mr. Trump’s debate attacks on Jeb Bush: “I know for a fact that you pee sitting down.” Transgressive, right? By February, Mr. Trump was repeating a rally participant’s obscene insult of Ted Cruz.

3. “The People Vs. O.J. Simpson” Director Talks Dream Team Behind The Scenes.
The new FX series “American Crime Story: The People Vs. O.J. Simpson” has taken off in the public consciousness with its soapy charms and compelling narrative. Variety’s Maureen Ryan interviews Anthony Hemingway, the director of this week’s and next week’s episodes, about the experience behind the scenes.

Q: When Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk approached you about doing this, what was your response based on the subject matter?

A: It definitely raised many questions for me. I wanted to know what the angle was going to be, what the through-line or the point of view of the show was going to be. Having lived through the most galvanizing story in our history, I wanted to know what we were going to learn that we didn’t already know about the case. At the same time, what was the show’s purpose? Was it going to make a statement or not? They quickly assured me and kind of enlightened me as to what you’re seeing [on the show]. So I quickly said yes and I’m so thankful and excited to be part of it. I mean, having lived it then and being very in tune to the millennial generation of now and realizing how important this show is – it’s almost more important now than when it actually happened. It is somewhat of a commentary of where we are in our society and in the world.

Q: One of the things I find compelling about it is that it shows that there has not been much progress in these key areas of American life, and yet I think that the show does not give an easy solution or try to create easy targets.

A: Absolutely. The things that we forgot kind of make it fascinating. It shines a light on so many things, on the distrust of the system and so many things that are broken. And it helps us hopefully continue to figure out a solution to the progress that we need in this world.

Q: If this had come out before Hurricane Katrina, before the Black Lives Matter movement, before Eric Garner or the Charleston shooting, I think there’s a substantial number of people in this country who would not have been ready to hear this or see this.

A: I would agree. The opportunities I’ve had [to direct] and the privilege that I’ve had to work on stories like this and [WGN’s] “Underground” — they are stories that can be seen as old as time, but they’re as contemporary as these headlines. I think they mean so much more now.

4. “Better Call Saul” Has the Best Romantic Relationship in the Whole “Breaking Bad” Universe.
Vince Gilligan’s “Better Call Saul” had its second season premiere this Monday returning to general critical acclaim off the heels of a fantastic debut year. In honor of its return, Slate’s Eric Thurm argues that “Better Call Saul” has the best romantic relationship in the entire “Breaking Bad” universe.

“Better Call Saul’s” first year covered a lot of ground, including several scrappily handled legal cases, Bob Odenkirk charming the pants off old people, an unnecessary Mike Ehrmantraut flashback episode — but, eventually, it revealed itself to be about the poisoned relationship between Jimmy and his snide, controlling brother Chuck. Chuck was who made Jimmy want to be a better man, and when Chuck broke his younger brother’s heart, it stood to reason that Jimmy would become Saul. But this season, Jimmy has a new rock: Kim Wexler, his only friend and will-they-won’t-they potential love interest. Spoiler alert: This year, they not only will, they do, and it produces the best material of the season so far. It’s a development that brings out the A game of everyone involved. Odenkirk’s performance as the ostensibly naive Jimmy has never been so youthful, or so vulnerable, as when he plaintively asks Kim, “Is this gonna happen?” She doesn’t quite know how to respond, but that doesn’t mean Rhea Seehorn doesn’t do phenomenal acting in the space Odenkirk opens. Whether she’s dragging him out of a pool, chastising him for seemingly the billionth time, or helping him pull a classic Slippin’ Jimmy scam, watching the two of them together doesn’t just feel right, it feels classic. It’s also a notable improvement over the “Better Call Saul” mothershow. “Breaking Bad” was great at many things, but it never quite managed to convincingly depict romantic relationships between people that didn’t involve at least one cardboard cutout. Jesse Pinkman’s various girlfriends existed mostly as motivations for him to want to be a better person. Hank and Marie’s marriage went through various stages of plausibility, irritation, and occasional poignancy. And Skyler White existed primarily to bolster various nagging housewife stereotypes — only emerging into a full-fledged character when she started actively plotting against her husband. It’s a pleasant surprise that the sweetest, most fully-realized relationship in the “Breaking Bad” universe belongs to its sleaziest character.

5. Whitewashed Narratives and Casting Thwart Diverse Representations in Film at USC.
Though it may seem like Hollywood’s diversity problem begins and ends on the casting couch or in studio exec’s offices, but it extends even farther back to film schools. At USC’s Annenberg Media, Cristian Pagan examines the lack of diversity at USC School of Cinematic Arts and how that prepares a world for whitewashed narratives and casting.

I had the opportunity to interview two notable faculty members at SCA: Professor Brenda Goodman, head of the producing track, and Dean Elizabeth M. Daley. The discussion with Goodman began with her addressing a claim that content of the short films selected for the senior thesis film class (CTPR 480) are poor in their inclusivity. Various female students and students of color have disclosed their discontent with the program’s selection process that appears to exclude activist films and shy away from ones that portray leading characters of color, LBGT characters and women characters in non-stereotypical ways. Instead, films with archetypal representations of these groups, or ones that do not declare character descriptions are selected, resulting in the standard all-white, able-bodied cast, which ultimately feeds back into the industry’s systemic oppression of alternative identities. Goodman said that this characterization was “just simply untrue.” “There are a lot of factors that go into the selection of these films, and we try to be as thorough as possible. They can have their perceptions, but they don’t know the politics that go into our choices, and I believe we have a very diverse group of people on the board making those choices.” Although her statement is certainly valid, as our conversation progressed, it became more apparent that the students’ perception isn’t as far from the truth as Goodman would like to believe. Furthermore, whether she believes the perception is true or not, it exists and has a profound impact on the choices of film students — a point she never acknowledged. Students become discouraged from presenting diverse and complex films, as they become convinced that fitting an orthodox mold is the only way for their work to be selected. The lack of diversity among the thesis film selection board members themselves also contributes to the exclusivity of the narratives they choose. When I, and a team of students of color, pitched a short film before the board this past semester, I was surprised to see that there was only one Asian male out of twelve members, making him the token “diverse” member of the otherwise all-white group. This was especially notable because three out of the nine films pitched included black narratives as a key component, but no black faculty was present. Jenna Cavelle, an SCA graduate student who lived among and produced an award-winning documentary about a Native American community, explained how important it was to include members of a minority group to participate in the making of films that portray that group: “It’s difficult to subvert stereotypes and promulgate narratives of inclusion if you’re not spending time with those experiencing exclusion, and often white filmmakers are ignorant about this and have a hard time getting outside of themselves. Not because they’re necessarily bad people, but because they are products of a system that is biased toward the white man and because…they’re not aware of their privilege.” Nuances that are evident to one group can be invisible to another based on how they have experienced life in relation to their identity. No matter how much one claims that he/she understands, empathizes, or is an ally, it does not mean they can supersede the voices of that community and be their spokesperson or have a “colorblind” lens.

6. Film Comment Selects: On the Unique and Brilliant Mind of Andrzej 
Żuławski. The film world lost a unique titan yesterday when Polish director Andrzej Żuławski died from cancer at 75. His films were rebellious, grotesque, and brilliant explorations into his own psyche. Film Comment’s Daniel Bird examines his career in an article set to publish before his passing.

My first encounter with Andrzej Żuławski’s cinema was in my mid-teens. “Possession” (81) was both exhilarating and disturbing. What struck me first were the performances — surrealistic in the sense that they exceeded realism. Coming from a nation whose national character is epitomized by a stiff upper lip, the lips in Żuławski’s films were often full, frequently bloodied, but never, ever stiff. In fact, a scarred lip is one of the key images of Witold Gombrowicz’s “Cosmos,” the book upon which Żuławski’s most recent film is based. The second thing which struck me was Żuławski’s mise en scène. In two words: clear and precise. Some equate shallow depth of field with that “cinematic feel.” Not Żuławski. By and large, his approach to filmmaking relies on short-focal-length lenses, giving a wide field of vision, with a large depth of field, so that both the foreground and the background are in focus. Close-ups act as a sort of cinematic punctuation. In a word: Wellesian. Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to witness Żuławski at work on set. This approach to filming is a veritable high-wire act. He shoots each set-up in sequence, with little or no coverage — the shots cut together as written in the script. “Cosmos,” for example, finished shooting just before Christmas, 2014, and a few weeks into January I was watching the almost-final cut. This approach to cinema places a huge amount of pressure on every member of the crew — the production designer, the camera and sound teams, and, above all else, the actors. If anyone deems the results “un-cinematic,” then I am afraid we have two wildly divergent concepts of cinema. Finally, I was struck by Żuławski’s approach to storytelling, particularly regarding structure and dialogue. Rarely are scenes bound by a cause-and-effect logic, and ellipses are frequent, as are deliberately jarring shifts in time and space, such as the infamous “miscarriage” scene in “Possession.” Dialogue, on the other hand, is rarely a means of conveying plot in Żuławski’s films. The only way I can begin to describe Isabelle Adjani’s to-camera monologue in “Possession” is by turning to how T. E. Lawrence characterized Conrad’s prose: “It’s not built in the rhythm of ordinary prose, but on something existing only in his head, and as he can never say what it is he wants to say, all his things end in a kind of hunger, a suggestion of something he can’t say or do or think.” This is the point where, in Żuławski’s cinema, words end and purely physical expression begins. It is necessary to get away from the idea of placing Żuławski in the context of a national cinema (i.e., Polish or French) or genre (e.g., the idea of “Possession” as a Cronenberg-esque body horror). Żuławski’s 20-odd books have yet to appear in English translation. He is, fundamentally, a writer who makes films — a writer in the tradition of Conrad, Adolf Rudnicki, or Gombrowicz.

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