Towns like Deadwood—which exist all over the American West—have various strata of actual historicity mixed in with organic retrofitting and remodeling, more cynical redevelopment and gentrification, as well as purely thematic (read: touristic) overlays. It's all something of a layered cake.
What is Authentic Deadwood becomes a specter, an abstraction, a mere concept. The confused (and fused, and re-fused) symbology overcomes the structural forms themselves. Uncertain meaning and the vagaries of history becomes the whole enchilada.
This is an abstraction which Michael Crichton explored, among other things, in his 1973 film Westworld. I hadn't thought about it in a while, but visiting a town like Deadwood brought it back for me, so I watched it again for the first time in years. The movie is enjoyable, though it runs a bit long and is rather clumsy, having been shot hastily in 30 days on a relatively tight budget. As should come as a surprise no one, Crichton became fascinated by the idea of a theme park staffed by robots after a visit to Disneyland. In an interview for American Cinematographer magazine, November 1973, he recounted:
One can go to Disneyland and see Abraham Lincoln standing up every 15 minutes to deliver the Gettysburg Address. That’s the case of a machine that has been made to look, talk and act like a person. I think it was the sort of notion that got the picture started. It was the idea of playing with a situation in which the usual distinctions between person and machine—between a car and the driver of the car—become blurred.
Elsewhere, Crichton noted he was "fascinated by the animated figures at Disneyland. The two tendencies toward making people as machine like as possible and machines as human as possible are creating a lot of confusion. That’s what suggested Westworld to me."
Again, we see the choice of the Old West to be a natural setting for exploring the intersection of fantasy, mythology, history, and artiface.
Westworld has been reimagined nearly a decade after its creator's death as a very popular series on HBO, with a second season underway as of April 22, 2018. Although this new show does hew closely to Crichton's original cinematic vision, the underlying themes have been expanded upon and all the characters and their backstories are crafted of whole cloth.
Creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have taken Crichton's screenplay and development notes as a foundation for a much broader (and deeper) series of stories which examine both the mechanics and ethics of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, as well as more probing philosophical issues like free will and the nature of consciousness. As pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman once quipped, "science fiction tends to be philosophy for stupid people" and Westworld is no exception—though I might (less cynically) suggest that sci-fi can be a viable platform for bringing philosophical issues to a mass audience (though the results vary).
A curious article by Jordan Zakarin from October, 2016 features an interview with Westworld's production designer Zack Grobler, who took over the role from Nathan Crowley after he designed the series pilot. Zakarin notes
The original 1973 film on which this series is based took direct inspiration from Disneyland and its faux-western Frontierland, which is filled with animatronics and musical hoedowns. Crowley and Grobler, however, saw the film, and its Happiest Place on Earth influence, more as spiritual forerunners.
The movie Westworld was shot on an actual western movie set (the MGM backlot, and was one of the last films to be shot there) which was designed as a western movie set and the effect in the universe of the film is that guests in this sometime-in-the-near-future theme park feel like they are actors in a western movie.
The original film doesn't appear obsessed with any kind of verisimilitude—it's clear that the characters in the story realize and act like they're in a conceptual extension of a Disneyland-type environment. But it's an open world in which you can shoot the robots dead.
This is not the case in the new Westworld. And part of the reason is that unlike the film (which takes place only a few years or so after 1973), the series is set further off—according to the series co-creator Jonathan Nolan, "maybe fifty to a hundred years into the future."
Production designer Grobler explains the different in the interview cited above. "The original movie had a lot more of the ‘movie set’ feeling, and it was a bit like Disneyland. We tried to give a much higher quality and much more realistic setting. Disneyland is not bad now, but a few hundred years from now, the technology will be so much better that you will not even realize you’re in the park."
In the HBO version of Westworld, the western town has a name, Sweetwater, and is simply a central setting for what is a much larger world. Scenes in the town were shot at the famed Melody Ranch near Newhall in the Santa Clarity Valley north of Los Angeles.
The ranch is within the 30 mile "local limit" for union productions, and many classic westerns had been shot there until a devastating fire swept through the area in 1962. The ranch was rebuilt and restored in 1990 and in recent years has been host to productions such as the HBO series Deadwood and films like Django Unchained.
The realism of the town's set is supported by more than just HBO's ample production budget. It also fits within the conceptual framework of the series—the thematic environments of Westworld must match the realism of the park's artificial inhabitants.
If the androids behave with true AI, then the built environment around them must meet the same level of representation. In terms of video games, the 3D modeling of both the characters and the world must be at the same screen resolution, the same fidelity.
"The guests wouldn’t just come to see these hosts," co-creator Lisa Joy explained for a featurette on the season one DVD box set. "They’re also coming for the world itself, so it would have to be similarly as impressive, perfect, and unique."
Commentary on the new Westworld series focuses on the more obvious trappings of the stories and the characters, which is to say, Klosterman's dig at "philosophy for stupid people." James Poniewozik in a New York Times review of the premiere of the second season mocked the dialog which serves as the vehicle for this CliffsNotes edition of existentialism, saying it "still sounds as if it were written as a tagline for a subway poster, like Dolores’s 'I have one last role to play: myself.' "
I'm not quite sure where I'm going with all this, except to say that I think that the Westworld series also has things to say on the nature of the virtual / built worlds around the robotic characters, and not just the characters themselves.
At the heart of it, Michael Crichton's interest was in the nature of artificiality just as much as the nature of reality (and though these two questions sound like a rephrasing of the same thing, they're actually quite different). The HBO manifestation of his concept presents a further-in-the-future vision of a specific type of augmented reality—one in which the thematic, built facets work in tandem with advanced android characters in an open world setting. I wonder, then, is this the future of thematic design?
In his seminal Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (1977), former advertising executive Jerry Mander raises an interesting question. "Once television provides an image [of a time and place] what happens to your own image? Does it give way to the TV image or do you retain it?" He then goes on to list a number of settings and characters, such as "An American family farm. Ben Franklin. The Battle of Little Big Horn. The Old South. The landing of the Pilgrims. Ancient Greece. Ancient Rome." And he concludes, tellingly, I think, with "The Old West."
Mander asks finally, "Were you able to come up with images for any or all of these? It is extremely unlikely that you have experienced more than one or two of them personally. Obviously the images were either out of your own imagination or else they were from the media. Can you identify which was which?"
The inability to manage that distinction is at the heart of towns like Deadwood, and is the soul of places like Westworld.
Continued in Part 3.