Friday, January 02, 2009

"Theres a lot of souls" - Reflections on John from Cincinnati

- "John from Cincinnati" is the story of the Yost family, a dynasty of surfers gone somewhat to seed in a small town in Southern California; and their encounter with John Monad, a mysterious stranger with unexplained powers who, it emerges, may or may not be the new Messiah. Along the way it also takes in a couple of Hawaiian hoods, the founder of a surfwear company, a lottery winner who buys a dingy motel and a Doctor disillusioned by his experience of a miracle. It was created by David Milch and Kem Nunn for HBO, who cancelled it after a single, unsuccessful season.

- The credit sequence is beautiful. Right from the first shot, where we follow a bubble from beneath as it breaks for the surface of an azure ocean. Grainy vintage surfing footage of the golden age of surfing is edited together for maximum effect, and together with Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros laid back shanty "Johnny Appleseed", it sets the tone immediately - elegiac, nostalgic yet suffused with the rapture of surfing. Especially great: the boldness of the title, held back until tight at the end of the sequence, after almost all the credits have passed. And then: huge lettering against those blue waves.

- Bruce Greenwood is always great. Always. He possesses a certain sourness; as if he is bitter about the passing of what were once obviously a sort of dashing matinee idol's good looks. It makes him great in roles where he plays up jealousy, rivalry, where he is up against a less complex sort of masculinity. But he does have those good looks, the suggestion of inner nobility. He has played JFK, after all. He is perfect as Mitch Yost, patriarch of the shows central family, the Yosts; fallen Golden Boy. A busted knee destroyed his own (now legendary) surfing career, and he is furious about his son's fall into drug addiction and fiercely protective of his grandson. He surfs alone, for the love and purity of it, conflicted about so much in his life, stubborn, principled, angry, a bit pompous. The scenes where he is tempted by the nostalgic adoration of a young "fan" are beautifully played. His amusement and suspicion, and the way his vanity allows him to fall for it.

- David Milch's dialogue is unlike anything else I've ever heard. Complex, rambling, tangential, purple, can be hard to divine his characters central point, such is the effusive nature of their monologues. Soliloquays, really, is a more accurate word. And they all speak differently - the dialogue is obviously Milch's, but they have distinctive rhythms and patterns, vocal tics and riffs. John's parrot-like recording and playback is used hilariously, his timing always perfect. Even when we witness a Stinkweed corporate retreat of sorts, the jargon-loaded shoptalk sounds like Milch-speak - semi-abstract, flat verse, its meaning elusive.

- Some of John's parrot-speak: "I'm gonna bone her and then break her jaw." "Stare me down? Stare me DOWN?" "I don't know Butchie instead."

- Luke Perry, redeemed. What is it Milch sees in aging, former hearthrobs? Ian McShane in Deadwood, Greenwood and Perry here? He sees depth, and he brings it out. In episode Seven, another familiar face had me furiously racking my brain for where I knew him from. That faded pretty boy look, stubble and longish hair made it difficult. Then it came to me - he was Zack, the lead character in "Saved By the Bell". His name is Mark-Paul Gosselaar, most recently seen (by me, at any rate) in "NYPD Blue" a few years back. Milch gives him a couple of intense scenes with Perry, as if he's making some point. In 20 years, expect Zac Efron in a gritty cop drama created by Milch.

- What is the show about? Its pacing is so relaxed it takes 5 episodes before that begins to come into focus. Which is probably what doomed "John from Cincinnati" in the States. It defies categorisation. Its comic, dramatic, yes. A spiritual parable? Yes. Family drama? Yep. Surf-noir? In parts, sure. It expands as it progresses, too, with important new characters emerging as late as the sixth episode. As in Deadwood, the comedy slides in when least expected. Surrealism, too, is always a hard sell. It frightens people. Here there is surrealism aplenty.

- What really doomed it, however, is that it is not "Deadwood". The perception amongst the fans of that show is that Milch killed it in his haste to start on this show. "Deadwood" fans are devout. I get it. Much as I loved "John from Cincinnati", I would much rather have seen another Season of "deadwood". Or even one of those tv movies rumoured at one point...

- The sixth episode, which climaxes in the extraordinary, semi-impenetrable communal dream sequence when John addresses most of the cast in a great rolling monologue heavy on symbolism and thematic pointers, is the make-or-break moment. You'll either love it or hate it. Nothing else on tv has ever been remotely like it.

- Those themes. Commerce as a new religion, the internet as a sort of bible, with marketing, consumerism and faith all somewhere in the mix...this may be the most dense television series I've ever seen, in terms of allusions and suggestion. I have the suspicion that a second viewing would make so much more sense. Yet it doesn't wholly work. Milch and Nunn's world is perhaps the wrong shape for the issues they wish to address - too knotty and awkward in its mix of tribes and genres, too clumsy in its sometime symbolism. The ambition, though, is breathtaking. To even attempt such a massive statement. Milch was obviously on a creative high after the slam-dunk success of Deadwood.

- Luis Guzman!

- It accords surfing an incredible respect. The show shuts up - a rare pause in the Milch-babble - and bears witness to the beauty of figures cutting across waves. Its always presented as a transcendent activity. In episodes 8 and 9, a newly invigorated Butchie surfs alone, an acknowledgement of his recovery. And the show is silent in a sort of awe. All we hear is the endless roar of the ocean, all we see is him against the horizon.

- Rebecca De Mornay. Older, a kind of fragility having entered into her beauty, is still absolutely smoking hot. And a cracking actress. There was always something fearsome about her, she seemed like a lioness. Ferociously willful and unbending. Her most famous roles - in "The Hand that Rocks the Cradle" and "Risky Business" - both make use of this quality to a certain extent. Here Milch makes her the ballbuster of ballbusters, her self-hatred vented onto the rest of the world in bitter, choked little eruptions. But her vulnerability is plain, her terror and sorrow. She wears this desolate expression when she isn't breathing fire. There is a moment late on when she looks at her seemingly redeemed, recovering son with a mixture of love and pain and bafflement that is just beautiful. Why was she never quite a major star?

- It may just be the most original show in the last half-decade of TV. Its indescribable. Its lack of a simple, tie-everything-up-neatly ending just makes it the kind of work you can endlessly theorise and argue over. Which is a good, increasingly rare thing.

That credit sequence:



Blogger jamesinseoul said...

Downloading has commenced...

7:34 am  
Anonymous MacGhil said...

How has "JFC" generally been received in the UK? I've seen very few reviews. I'm so glad there are a few people out there who saw its beauty. It was truly ahead of its time.

Anyways, I really enjoyed reading your entry.

Milch talks about the meaning of "JFC" here:

David Milch of Deadwood (Part 6 of 6). All six parts are well worth a listen.

(More Milch lectures on writing here.)

5:13 pm  
Blogger David N said...

It's shown on a channel with quite a small audience - FX, which also showed the Wire - so it really doesn't have much of a cultural presence at all. The only reviews I've read were in the savviest London press - Time Out and The Guide - and they both love it.

I hope, but doubt, that it will find its audience, just the way The Wire did, on DVD. But it hasn't been released over here yet and the fact that theres only one season will undoubtedly count against it.

I imagine it'll gain a small cult, the way it seems to have in the States...

Thanks for the links.

11:57 pm  
Anonymous MacGhil said...

The only reviews I've read were in the savviest London press - Time Out and The Guide - and they both love it.

Glad to hear it! The only one I've seen from the UK is from TimesOnline:

...And even if the set-up owes something to John Carpenter's film Starman, the whole thing is a dark delight.

Sadly the series was cancelled by HBO after ten episodes, but that, I like to think, just gives it the kind of precious, fleeting charm that makes life itself so special.

In related news, HBO passed on Milch's new cop series, Last of the Ninth, starring the fabulous Ray Winstone. The pilot script made its way online.

Not sure how you can go wrong with a Milch cop show and Ray Winstone, but HBO found something objectionable -- most likely their own past, which they seem eager to leave behind.

As a Milch fangrrl, I really hope he moves onto another network now, since HBO has obviously moved on from him.

I imagine it'll gain a small cult, the way it seems to have in the States...

And hopefully in the way the Twin Peaks cult has persisted ("JFC" was often compared to "TP"). It's still airing here on Bravo.

If you've a mind to, click my name and visit my youtube for some "JFC" scene uploads and a soundtrack playlist. I have a few Kava Kava vids, too, whose song "Tic" was used in "JFC." I'll soon be uploading (in full) another short-lived Milch series called "Big Apple."

My, how I've gone on. That'll do, I suppose.

Thanks again, David! Take care.

6:10 pm  
Blogger Ross said...

One of the reasons I flirted with the notion of vampirism as a teen wasn't just for the charged eroticism behind it or the self-conscious need to be seen to be different, it was the giddy possibility of living forever.
Many stories have been told about the sorrow of watching loved ones die; the inevitable loneliness as the years trundle on without end - I saw it as an opportunity to see every artwork ever created, read every novel, listen to every piece of music recorded and watch every film.
My grandparents have used their retirement as an opportunity to travel the world, in little bursts. After a trip to Russia, I remember them telling me about the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg which houses three million works of art...there literally isn't enough time in the world.

It's a shame that we can't live life through, and then go back to only concentrate on the best films, books, plays... and this is what criticism is for. So often I've heard people say that they'd rather create, but people create for an audience, not a vacuum, and audiences only live so long. Great art needs champions to try and be heard among the screaming of the commercial lobbyists of entertainment.

You should really throw your writing at people who pay others to do this kind of thing. I know you keep saying it's not as easy as that, but what's the harm in just e-mailing every fucking publication you can think of? An e-mail costs you nothing, after all, nothing but time.

Do it, bitch.

8:40 pm  

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