Wednesday, March 22, 2017


David Milch

I suppose I think of a “body of work” because of Bob Scriver and his thousand sculptures, grouped into subjects like Blackfeet, rodeo, Montana animals.  The Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife, with its full-mounts of every Montana game animal, was also intended to be a body of work but it was dispersed almost as soon as Bob died.  Whether the bronzes stay together in a “body” is up to the Montana Historical Society and, admittedly or not, they evaluate it in terms of its commercial value.

There was another body of work, which was Bob’s rather short teaching career and his music.  Teaching and music are time arts.  At the moment they are happening, they are palpable, but as soon as the process stops, they are gone.  Where is the body now?  Sheet music?  Maybe recordings but the means of the time were not very adequate.

I had thought my “body of work” would be a set of books, beginning with the biography of Bob which had been a goal since we met, though he had thought it would be more of a celebration of his achievements and I had always understood it to be an explanation of how and what he achieved.

I now understand “books” as the production of objects for sale that was devised for the wealthy and then became symbols of culture and wealth for the middle class.  When publishing developed, it exploited this last by seeking publishable material, that is, material that would appeal to people with the means to buy books.  In conversation with Blackfeet teachers of a speculative kind, it has become plain to us that the reason “Indian” books don’t sell is a) the People don’t have enough discretionary income to buy books and b) the material in most of the books is not appropriate to their interests, unless it’s sensational, common denominator stuff that’s not “Indian.”

The tribal community colleges are changing that because traditional academics are book-based.  Publishers know this and capitalize on it, so that class books have inflated prices.  In farflung places like the Montana Highline, there are not many opportunities to resell books and teachers tend to move on often, so that the same books aren’t used.

From the writer’s point of view I have finally realized that the writer is not in control of their books unless they publish them by themselves.  Editors feel they own the right to change everything.  But the publisher claims to control quality, so that to many readers the fact of being published at all means a kind of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, a reality check that this book isn’t just a little home project.  

If you look at you will find a “body of work” that I wrote, edited and sent to be printed “on demand,” when the book is ordered.  This cuts out the cost of storage, salesmen, and bookstores, but also cuts out promotion, unless I pay for that myself.  The machinery of reviewing books is pretty much limited to the books of major New York publishers.  So I have a body of work, but no one knows about it except that Lulu puts them on Amazon, because if they begin to sell, Lulu will profit from printing them.  I don’t.

Slightly north of here is a writer of romance novels, whose body of work is targeted at tablet users who read eBooks.  Kari Lynn Dell, is a partly Blackfeet writer and ranch wife.  She also writes a humor column that appears in newspapers, another way to accumulate a body of work.  (She’s excellent in terms of the genre, a prize-winner.)  

John Tatsey’s newspaper columns were accumulated into a book (“Black Moccasin”) by an admiring and wealthy reader and also read into the Congressional Record.  Print of all kinds goes everywhere, but people are not aware of it.  They simply think about “books” as objects.  Even highly educated people can bristle if you ask them about books they have not read, because certain books have been promoted as “markers” of whether the potential reader is keeping up.

For the past ten years I have not directly created books, but rather “blogs,” daily thousand word essays, some of which follow threads that are sometimes like Bob’s (Blackfeet, animals), sometimes Bob himself, and the rest of the time almost anything.  Now that whole movies, past and present, can be bought on a disc and treated like a book — put on a shelf, watched on demand, made into a marker of education, self-published on the Internet — the idea of “book” has become very broad, much less prestigious, not limited to those who have the means to buy something expensive.

But the idea of a “body of work” has not been developed fully.  I’ve been watching as much of “NYPD Blue” as Netflix will loan on disc.  Much has been written about this series — as though it were a seminal book — because it functions much the same way.  David Milch and Steven Bochco developed the idea and a whole team fulfilled it, because — unlike a book — this art form is communal, as though the guy who prints the pages and embosses the cover of the book with gold leaf were consulted about the contents.  In this case, the cameramen were part of the art, using a particular style to support the content.  The opening “music” was deliberately part of the story, using percussion to suggest the New York subway that pounds its way under the canyons of the streets in the same way that the Elevated screams overhead in Chicago, and the sirens of cop cars wail through city nights.  This was artful and effective.  Whose “body of work” is it?

The root of the narrative is twofold:  part of it is the life-mind of David Milch, which comes through particularly in the character called “Sipowitz.”  But another part is brought to the work by Bill Clark, a veteran police officer who knew many small story arcs that could be woven into an emotional trajectory when David Milch began to write.  Steven Bochco had the urban aesthetic vision that coordinated everything.  Today his role is called “showrunner.”  

Milch proposes that in NYC for a time most cops were Irish or Italian or some mix.  He says that their family "codes" demanded duty, protection, and secrecy from those outside.  The scene was very much patterned by the European Catholic church in small towns, and cops were like priests.  Both were plagued with alcoholism because of the pressure, but the pressure couldn't be relieved because no one can save everyone.  If you save this one, two more need to be saved.

Even now, when a silly program like “Bones” can discuss dildos and vibrators without flinching, argue the ethics of polyamory and the means of murder, show flesh more shocking than nudity, and otherwise address historically taboo subjects, “NYPD Blue” still has impact and meaning.  It is a powerful expression of what might arguably be called the legacy of war:  traumatized fathers who turn violent and addicted, taking it out on sons and wives.  Bochco barely survived the son’s role and it is the intensity of it that feeds the series.

TV series are oral culture, not written, though the platform is always written narrative script.  In particular, cop stories and other underground subjects are “talked through”, people swapping vignettes and arguing theories.  In the first place, not all these people are likely to be literate/readers, but in the second place events are immediate and often private, whispered, or shared in a protected setting like an AA meeting or with a therapist.  Or told in a seedy bar.

But then who owns the “body of work”?  Possibly it doesn’t need to be such a thing, which is a way of evaluating from the outside, because it is experienced from the inside, in the moment, and that’s the reward.  The essence of Bob Scriver’s “body of work” is in the stories Corky Evans and I still swap about the creation of it.  In a way they are internalized books, a BODY of work in the most literal sense.

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