Like many, many American towns of its size, Deadwood has a Main Street which over the years has been turned into a tourist district—a "Historic Main Street" as the Chamber of Commerce calls it.
In the classic text Main Street Revisited: Time, Space, and Image Building in Small-Town America (1996), historian Richard V. Francaviglia explores the illusion of the American Small Town that we have in our imagination. He suggests that there is no such thing as an authentic Main Street, because even in historically preserved, unaltered structures from the later 19th and early 20th centuries, "the image of Main Street that reaches the public is often a selected or edited version depicting what the street should look like." [emphasis mine]
Francaviglia outlines a series of axioms in his text of Main Street Development, and I'll be returning to them from time to time in later posts. Essentially, these rules describe the architectural DNA of Main Streets across the country and why they look remarkably similar. I won't list all the axioms here, but one stood out to me in the context of thematic design, especially as relevant to the "historic" Old Western town:
Main Street is essentially a stage upon which several types of human dramas are performed simultaneously, each character or actor in the drama having a designated role that is dependant on his or her relationship to the "set."
If indeed Main Street is a set, then the genre of film being performed in Deadwood is naturally an American Western. Francaviglia emphasizes in his book that the portrayal of the Small Town Main Street in film and television (in Bonanza, The Twilight Zone, the films of Frank Capra, etc.) is true in a sense to its essential role as this stage set in actual life—and it is also at once a fusion of both the actual historical aesthetics and roles of Main Street and the televised version that lives on in our cultural subconscious.
In another one of his axioms, Francaviglia mentions what the design of a Main Street has in common with a movie set—to extend and enlarge commercial presence (i.e. the "brand image") many buildings employ some kind of false front.
The façade of the building becomes more important than any other elevation because it faces the street.
Movie sets, of course, are designed as a series of false fronts. Unless they are photographed in the round, structures are not fully complete—in order to save money only what appears before the camera is built.
The incompleteness of sets has been used before in fiction for dramatic, surrealist purposes. As is usual, necessity was the mother of this innovation. In an episode of the original Star Trek series, Captain Kirk and members of his crew are sent by aliens to die in a re-enactment of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Because of the show's modest budget, shooting on location or on an actual outdoor western town set was out of the question.
The episode was instead filmed on a soundstage, with one of the show's typical planetscape colors as background. The aliens who are punishing Kirk et al. have read their minds to concocate this fantasy of the warring Earps—so the incomplete western town façades present as the "incomplete" reconstruction of the crew's collective memories of the Old West. The device of the movie set becomes a literal representation of cultural subconscious.
Although scenes take place in the interior spaces of the saloon and other buildings, none of the rooms have walls. They have floors and are fully furnished with all the period-appropriate trimmings. But no walls, perhaps suggesting the classic fourth wall of the audience.
Given the dominance of the Western genre in American fantasy culture throughout the 20th century—a tradition that began with "Buffalo Bill" Cody's roadshow reenactments of the 1870s and 1880s—it makes sense that presenting the Western Frontier Town as a movie set has special resonance. Would this Star Trek episode read as strongly if the aliens had dumped them in a Medieval or Roman fantasy scenario, with all the structures presented surrealistically as false fronts? I don't think so. The connection between actual American Main Streets, the mythology of the Old West, and the Western Town as movie set is undeniably strong. Deadwood—as well as countless other such towns scattered west of the Rockies—capitalizes on these associations.
A plaque commemorating the"Historic Facade Replication" of the Horace Clark and Apex Buildings which burned down in 1982. This is odd, right? I've seen plaques noting restorations, but this is the first I've spotted proudly stating that these building facades were replicated—that is to say, cloned.
The phenomenon which Francaviglia alludes to is pervasive. Neal Gabler wrote an entire book about it—simply the fact that since the dawn of motion pictures, we construct our environments (sets), our relationships (characters). and our very lives (screenplays) in a cinematic mode. Gabler claims we can't not do this.
This is something my colleague Greg Turner-Rahman and I call Cinematic Subsumption, and the topic something the two of us have been working on—first for a paper presentation and then for a book prospectus. More on this later.