Negative Space

In anticipation of the return of True Detective this weekend Paul Duane revisits the first series and Nic Pizzolatto’s novel Galveston.

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“Not everybody wants to sit alone in an empty room beating off to murder manuals.” (Detective Martin Hart, True Detective, Ep 1 – The Locked Room)

I’d never heard of True Detective when I was in Los Angeles late in 2013, but I took a photo of a skyscraper-sized (literally; it was stuck on the side of a very, very tall building) image of Woody Harrelson & Matthew McConaghey looking harrassed in different directions. It was pretty impressive.

Mind you, LA during that time of year was pretty chock-a-block with impressive billboards for shows nobody really talks about now (Black Sails, anyone?). But more than a year and a half later, True Detective has taken up residence in the collective unconscious, and Series 2 (coming soon!) is getting the mixture of dread, scorn and anticipation that we reserve for sequels to our best-loved stories.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not coming at this as some slackjawed fanboy. I reserve the right to question TD S1, to say it failed to bear out the beauty and the promise of its beginnings, to raise an eyebrow at the all-pervading masculinity of the show and its lack of interest in giving its women an interior life.

But apart from all that, there was a lot about True Detective  that raised it above and beyond the ordinary. Like Hannibal, it seemed at times to come from a different dimension of television, where composition, score & a dedication to the architecture of the male cheekbone are as important as who did what to whom in the scullery with an electric carving knife.

The element that I found most interesting about True Detective, though, when I examine it a year or more after first experiencing it, is its use of what painters & photographers call ‘negative space’. I don’t mean that simply in its compositional sense – “the space around and between the subject(s) of an image. It may be most evident when the space around a subject, not the subject itself, forms an interesting or artistically relevant shape,” says Wikipedia – but in a storytelling sense. True Detective revels in what’s left unsaid.

In its journey from treatment to script to screen, it’s intriguing to watch as the filmmakers strip away many of the conventional elements that cue the audience as to how to feel about the characters – most of all, they took the narrative crutch from under Rust Cohle. They barely address the central tragedy of his life – the death of his two-year-old daughter in a car accident, which caused his marriage to break down and made him the solitary, nihilistic figure we meet in Ep 1. The script of Ep 1, though, contains a (fragmentary but unmistakable) flashback to this event, doing the regular TV thing, telling us why he is who he is.

Clearly at some intervening stage, the series’ trademark narrative austerity took hold. Don’t show, don’t tell.

The negative space aspect is really introduced, however, in the story’s audacious opening gambit. We meet two Rust Cohles – one young, cleancut, wiry, driven; the other, twenty years older, hollowed-out, crazy-eyed, alcoholic, gone full Unabomber. To quote the original treatment that got the series commissioned: “Part of the driving, underlying drama of the series is in learning how the Hart and Cohle depicted in the ‘90s become the men being interrogated in 2010, as each has changed significantly.”

What happened, offscreen, in the space between the edits, to turn one into the other? Life, that’s what. And as the audience, we are suddenly aware, watching Ep 1 of True Detective, that life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans. The 1990 Rust Cohle didn’t plan for his 2010 self to be a relief bartender in a fishing shack and a self-annihilating full-time drinker. Life happened to him, in the space between the storylines. “Time is a flat circle,” he says. Whatever it means, it feels somehow right.

Then there’s the disjunction between word and image. When we, the audience, watch the events of 1990 as told by Cohle & Hart to their interlocutors, we see quite a different picture to the one they describe verbally.

Hart, instead of being a dedicated family man, is fucking a court stenographer every chance he gets, and later a sex worker who’s tangentially involved with one of his cases. Cohle is using drugs. And their biggest case, where supposedly they were involved in a shoot-out with a gang of armed criminals, was instead a balls-out cold-blooded massacre, though a totally justified one. You’ve heard of unreliable narrators? Cohle & Hart are straight-up lying their arses off. And we are watching them do it.

It’s, as I said above, an audacious gambit. A pair of dislikable men who don’t tell the truth and who may know more than they’re saying about a series of missing children. It’s hardly CHiPs.

But Nic Pizzolatto’s use of negative space – the skilful way he edges around the characters, showing you the long-term damage of the two men’s self-destructive behaviour, dropping in lines like Hart’s “I haven’t spoken to him in about, oh, ten years,” gives their partnership an epic quality. And the questions raised by the things he chooses not to tell us are what kept me coming back for more.

(Aside: I wonder if he’s seen Kill List? Two hard men, comrades but somehow mistrustful of each other, sharing their lives with women they don’t really understand, taking on a mission that starts out another day on the job but ends up taking them over the edge of reality and (let’s face it) straight into Act Three of a bog standard direct to video horror movie… Two stories that build up an enormous head of nameless terror in the first two-thirds of their running time, only to run completely out of steam… Two extraordinary genre collisions, making the crime thriller and the Lovecraftian (or Thomas Ligottian) tale seem as if they were designed to work together…. just wondering…)

Anyway, given that there was a long gap between Seasons One & Two of True Detective, I thought I’d divert myself for a while with Pizzolatto’s only novel, Galveston. Maybe I’ll find out here whether this pony knows more than one trick, I said to myself.

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Sure enough, you open the book and there’s all the negative space, right on the page. A protagonist shown via two timelines – in one, he’s a hired thug, built like a firetruck, smarter than he looks, going on the run when he realises his boss means to have him killed. Twenty years later, here he is, attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to pass the time (his wrecked innards won’t let him drink any more anyway), one-eyed, gimpy-legged, with a ruined face that’s hard to look at and harder to ignore, living in a fishing shack with only a dog for company.

What happened?, you ask, once more. You wander in, for a desultory look around, and find you can’t escape til the book ends – apocalyptically, with a great end line that’s as nihilistic as the final scene of True Detective is, surprisingly, life-affirming.

Like Rust Cohle, he also cuts beercans into little tin homunculi, but that could be an in-joke, of course.

So, OK, I’ve alluded to it a couple of times, I should really tackle it head-on. I don’t like the finale of True Detective. I really, really don’t. I’ve tried and tried but it’s like Season 5 of The Wire, or practically the whole second half of Twin Peaks, in my personal pantheon of disappointment.

My agent said to me, “Nobody likes endings,” and maybe he’s right. How many season finales of much-loved shows have really delivered? How many can you name? But, ask how many have caused people to express their disappointment, and the list is easy to reel off, starting with Seinfeld & The Sopranos and coming right up to (insert name of whatever was the most recent TV Twitterstorm, oh probably Game of Thrones anyway).

But really, to evoke nameless dread and an awful feeling that those in power are all connected to a cult that celebrates systematic, ritual child slaughter – to do what horror does best, and take everyday reality, the news headlines, but turn them up so the contrast burns your eyes – and then to throw it all away with a Texas Chainsaw Massacre redneck deviant who has his own satanic theme park in the backyard? I wanted so much to know what Carcosa was, and now I wish it had stayed on the dark side of the negative space, a mystery to be wondered about during sleepless winter nights.

So it seems to me that True Detective failed only when it moved away from itself, its core self. But then, its in the nature of television to demand that. Going back to the show’s original ten-page pitch document, the whole of the final episode is covered by one line: “The men find the killer, but not without paying a high price.”

Maybe the writer and the director (famously, there was only one director across all eight episodes, an incredible achievement given the rigour and detail demanded by the storyline) were just so worn out that by the time they had to pull all the threads together – Lovecraft, Ambrose Bierce, The King In Yellow, the philosophy of Emil Cioran, the comics of Alan Moore, the true story of the Shanda Sharer case – the easiest thing was just to blame it all on Leatherface, the creepy old child molester who lives in the dilapidated house full of chicken bones and old TV sets. You get tired by the time you’ve finished writing five hundred pages of script.

Of course that doesn’t bode well for Season Two, which was written even more quickly than One. Expect a bunch of people whinging on Twitter when the first episode fails to come up with a meme to compare with “What Matthew Said To Woody”.

But I’m not going to judge too quickly. Pizzolatto has something very unusual in television, the voice of a real pulp artist. Crime TV has never had its own Jim Thompson or its Charles Willeford, an eccentric genius whose work resides in the genre but is never entirely OF it.

Those great writers, however, worked in anonymity for a few cents a word, and their experimentation was aided by the fact that, for the most part, nobody noticed, nobody cared. How can great pulp with all of its experimentation & craziness exist when it costs $4-5 million an hour to make?

We will soon find out, it seems.

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One thought on “Negative Space

  1. I read a lot about this show when I was watching it, as it aired, and I think this is the best piece I’ve seen. I can’t wait for season 2, I think the clean break from Hart and Cohle is a good thing, and am intrigued to see how Pizzolatto’s world view survives an urban setting.

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