True Detective Revisited: The Fall of American Culture

Let’s talk about Pulp fiction — not the movie — but its namesake, those lurid narratives printed on cheap paper that, to cop the cliché of their heyday, explored the “seamy underside” of American culture, publications like True Detective, which enjoyed a 71-year existence from 1924-1995.


The HBO television series of the same name follows the magazine’s tradition of exposing lurid depravity, though it does so on a much higher artistic plane with shades of David Lynch and Flannery O’Connor, and the depravity depicted in the television series is like to 10th power of the seemingly quaint pistol whippings and murders of the magazine’s beginnings. Furthermore, the series seems to me to be an indictment of American culture, its spiritual poverty embodied in the corrupt Christianity of Southern Protestantism and in the rapacious capitalism of multinational corporations.

The director, Cary Joji Fukunaga, constantly underscores these two themes with the visual motifs of crosses and industrial wastelands, which bring to  mind landscapes depicted in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosh.

Check out the opening credits, for example:

Obviously David Lynch’s influence is profound here, not only in the arid, dispassionate images but also in the soundtrack, and this landscape is populated by characters right out of Flannery O’Connor — shiftless Southern scumbags, depraved criminals, corrupt preachers. The twin protagonists Marty and Rust offer an interesting contrast with Marty embodying the hollow hypocritical Protestantism that O’Connor despised and Rust the nihilism that O’Connor, though a devout Catholic, preferred to the mealy-mouthed ignorant insincerity of many of her nominally Christian characters, as we can see in her treatment of the Grandmother and the Misfit in “A Good Man’s Hard to Find.” In fact, in the sixth episode, a grown up child whore whom Marty tried to rescue from a trailer park brothel years ago calls him “a good man” in a restaurant, echoing the Grandmother’s comment to Red Sammy Butts in a restaurant in the O’Connor story. Of course, neither are good men, as Marty clearly demonstrates when he engages in extramarital sex with the woman.

(Here’s an earlier post dealing with Marty and Rust).

goodmanhardtofindThe complex characterization in the context of the cinematic images that create surreal beauty from ugliness makes the series both intellectually and aesthetically interesting, and there’s also a subplot dealing with public education money being funneled into Christian schools to overcome what one character calls “secular, global education.”  These Christian schools lie at the center of the ritualistic Satanic murders the two detectives have spent the better part of two decades trying to unravel.

Certainly, an anthropologist studying the magazine True Detective and the series would conclude that American culture, despite great inroads in civil rights, has declined precipitously since the decades the magazine flourished, and I can’t help but wonder if the creator Pizzolatto is himself a moralist, perhaps even a Catholic in the tradition of both Bosch and O’Connor.

At any rate, the same cultural anthropologist would also have to agree that television has gotten a whole hell of a lot better in the last fifty years.


True Detective: Existential Nihilism for the Masses

In his 1996 novel Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace has a seventh grader, Hal Incandenza, write an essay contrasting Hawaii Five-O and Hill Street Blues, an essay that ponders the evolution of American television heroes.

Remarkably observant, young Incandenza underscores sociological differences in the programs. For example, Five-O’s Steve McGarrett has the luxury of working on “one case per week” in an office that resembles “the libraries of the landed gentry, hushed behind two heavy doors and wainscoted in thick, tropical oak.” On the other hand, Hill Street’s Frank Furillo, a precinct captain, juggles several cases at once in the chaotic confines of a cluttered cubicle-crammed station house teeming with clashing personalities. Essentially, “McGarrett is not weighed down by administrative State-Police-Chief chores, or by females, or friends, or emotions, or any sorts of conflicting demands on his attention” whereas Furillo “is beset by petty distractions on all sides [. . .] with suspects and snitches and investigating officers and angry community leaders and victims’ families all clamoring for redress.”

Colbert Root in his Summer of Jest, a handy on-line scene-by-scene summary and analysis of the novel, recaps the essay for us:

Where McGarrett exemplifies the modern man of action, Hal argues, Furillo typifies a man of postmodern “reaction.” Both protagonists are heroes of their own show’s culture, but both are also ill-equipped for the other’s world. McGarrett, as the modern man of action, is single-minded, acting to “refashion a truth the audience already knows into an object of law, justice, modern heroism.” Contrariwise, Furillo succeeds because he is cast within a large system; he excels at being a cog in a very large and bureaucratic machine [. . .] That Furillo comes after McGarrett as a typical US protagonist reflects a shift in US cultural preferences. Audiences, Hal says, want the stoic bureaucrat. His successes and shortfalls more closely align with their own. But, Hal ponders, what comes next? What hero will succeed Furillo?

from left Rust (McConaughey) and Marty (Harrlesson)

from left Rust (McConaughey) and Marty (Harrlesson)

Well, if we look to the current HBO crime drama True Detective, the answer is Rust Cohle (played by Matthew McConaughey), a nihilistic metaphysician, an agoraphobic detective who considers human consciousness “a tragic misstep in evolution” that enables us “to labor under the illusion of having a self” when we’re merely “accretions[s] of sensory experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody.”

This cat makes Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and Mike Hammer seem downright dewy in comparison. His partner Marty Hart (played by Woody Harrelson) considers Rust “the Michael Jordan of being a son-of-a-bitch,” and when Rust says shit like, “It’s all one ghetto, man, a giant gutter in outer space,” Marty virtually begs him to shut up. You see, despite having kinky handcuffed sex outside of his marriage, Marty is a family man, a Christian who holds essentially a Medieval view of the cosmos, a belief that divine reward or punishment keeps folks (though obviously not himself) in line. Rust responds, as you might expect, with scorn:

If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward then, brother, that person is a piece of shit. And I’d like to get as many of them out in the open as possible. You gotta get together and tell yourself stories that violate every law of the universe just to get through the goddamn day? What’s that say about your reality?

Set in the semi-industrialized backwoods of Louisiana, the narrative features superb characterization and brilliant acting as the two detectives try to solve a series of grisly ritualistic murders. So many symbolic crosses (e.g., aerial shots of perpendicular lines of trees) sneak into the story I can’t help but wonder if its creator, Louisiana fiction writer Nic Pizzolatto, is making some sort of statement.

Whatever the case, Rust is not the fellow you want your sons to grow up to be. He’s a bit of a throwback, a cross between Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man and a Zen Buddhist.

He’s also about as fascinating a character as television has ever produced.