Thursday, June 28, 2007

In the soup with John

Like a lot of people, I wasn't too impressed with the first hour of HBO's surf noir John From Cincinnati. It was hard to find things to like about any of the characters, and it was cryptic in a way that was more 'wtf??' than 'wow, you just blew my mind!' But now that I've seen three hours of the David Milch drama, I'm hooked to it like The Sopranos, Lost and, yes, Milch's last HBO series, Deadwood. Since it's probably not a show you can just drop in anywhere on, HBO is re-airing the first three episodes tonight – like lined up peaks for you to totally shred (Dude.)

There's so much going on in these three episodes, it's hard to put in one post, but here's some of the highlights. First and foremost is the opening credits, which are a mesmerizing montage of old surf film clips cut beautifully together with Joe Strummer's "Johnny Appleseed." In this regard, JFC dutifully fills The Sopranos shoes as opening credits that you relish watching again. I'm not sure if it's intentional or not, but Strummer's lyric about "don't go killing all the bees" feels especially ominous with recent news and all John's talk about "the end is near."

The music grows as a storytelling method throughout the series. When the second episode ends with a 'resurrection,' TV On The Radio's "Staring at the Sun" plays with the opening lyrics "cross the street from your storefront cemetary..." and goosebumps appear.

By the third episode, we're inundated with musical references. As Freddy "the ice cream man" (Deadwood's Dayton Callie) talks to himself in his car parked outside the hospital, he's listening to the Sarah Brightman duet with Andrea Bocelli of "Time to Say Goodbye (Con te partirĂ²)" Freddy must assume the worst about Shaun to be listening to a song like this (especially considering his brutish nature.) "Aww. That's where the blind dago was supposed to come in. What's this, a different version?" No, Freddy, Bocelli actually comes in later. Some may remember once upon a time this song served as a sort of theme for Carmela on The Sopranos.

Then, in a very Twin Peaks-like scene back at the 'haunted' hotel room, Barry says, knee-deep in Milchspeak: "I alone, then, am favored by that jovially croaking postcoital falsetto winsomely caricaturing Debby Boone?" To which he starts to sing "You Light Up My Life," (did anyone else flashback to Todd Solondz' Happiness here?) When Barry later mutters the seemingly non-sequiter "black bobby socks," I find myself eerily looking forward to a Lynchian flashback that involves said song and socks.

Later in the episode, John makes Kai "see God," set to Buddy Guy's rendition of John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillen." Why Buddy Guy's version? Most likely because in the middle he starts improvising with the lines "gotta get away from John for a bit." The 'seeing god' montage is once again very David Lynch, showing four of the characters all being burned by metal: Kai's piercings, Ramon's necklace, Vietnam Joe's shrapnel in his leg, and the transdermal horn implants in Butchie's head. That last one was an odd revelation, one that you'd assume will have more meaning later, but Butchie as "the beast" here makes perfect sense. As Shaunie skates the half-pipe outside the Yost home, it's set to the song "Feeling Good," popularized by the great Nina Simone, but covered here to great histrionic effect by Muse. The onlookers gasp (Link revealingly says "Jesus Christ!") as they watch the resurrected son riding the homemade wave... cue credits.

Speaking of resurrection, you can imagine there's a lot of religious themes going on here - even the main character, named John Monad, a last name which philosophers associate with the obscure metaphysics of Leibniz. This use of a last name in sync with philosophy is pure Lost. Monism is the theological/metaphysical belief that 'all is one,' and there are no fundamental divisions. The setting of Imperial Beach is full of these 'divisions' or borders – Mexico and the US, Tijuana and San Diego, land and ocean, life and death. The main characters are faced with miracle after miracle, but refuse to recognize it as such, until Dr. Smith (played by chameleon Garret Dillahunt, who played two different roles in Milch's Deadwood) is shaken to his science-based core by Shaun's recovery. Then folks start to acknowledge what they've known all along: weird things are afoot since John arrived.

And last, but certainly not least, is Milch's dialogue he perfected with Deadwood. The characters speak a lot that seems nonsense, but with their actions, these words have a lot more meaning. When Linc (Luke Perry) says to Dr. Smith "Thank you. Thank you for the work you do," he sounds polite, but the look they give each other suggests enemies have been born. Meanwhile the following exchange appears to lead to punches, but instead to comaradie.
Bill: "What is your name please?"
Freddy: "What's your name?"
Bill: "Bill Jacks. I'm a retired police officer. And you don't want to make me ask your name again."
Freddy: "Retired cops don't get my name, what time it is, or pissed on if they go up in flames."
a few minutes later...
Freddy: "I'm a friend of the family, all right?"
Bill: "I'm a friend of the family."
Freddy: "Then they got two friends looking out for them."
Bill: "And you look out for them how, by seeing when their backs are turned so you can steal their drapes?"
The characters stand side-by-side with arms crossed staring at the house, the cop and criminal on the same side. It's exchanges like these that lessen the blow of not having another season of Deadwood to look forward to.

Playlist: John From Cincinnati - Ep101-103
1. "Johnny Appleseed" - Joe Strummer - opening credits/theme song
2. "Sun/Rise/Light/Flies" - Kasabian - closing credits episode 101
3. "Tic" - Kava Kava - surfers get ready for competition, episode 102
4. "Staring at the Sun" - TV On The Radio - Shaun opens his eyes, closing credits, episode 102
5. "Time To Say Goodbye" - Sarah Brightman - Freddy listens and talks to himself in the car outside the hospital, episode 103
6. "You Light Up My Life" - Debby Boone - , episode 103
7. "Boogie Chillen" - Buddy Guy and Junior Wells - John bones Kai / Kai sees God, episode 103
8. "Feeling Good" - Muse - Shaun rides his skateboard as people look on in disbelief, episode 103

More: HBO, in their infinite wisdom, has included a "inside the episode" section, giving the viewer more insight into each episode. It's very illuminating and you'll find yourself wanting to rewatch an episode as a result. Bonus: Here's Milch discussing discussing the show in a recent interview.

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Meagn said...

Just wanted to say thank you for the really helpful music links. I had been wondering what the name of the blues song was.

Thanks so much!

MJAPA said...

I was wondering if there was going to be anything left to watch on HBO now that everything that I used to love is RIP.

ajd said...

Thanks so much. Do you know in version four what the song is that is playing when John is stabbed and Vietnam Joe has him in his van and the girl in the hotel has the vision of John? It sounds like David Byrne. It is beautiful. Let me know if you can help.