Wednesday, September 12, 2007
Getting wet and killing the bees
Every summer I perform one of my mini-customs: I go to the Kolonaki square kiosk and look for Surfer magazine. In this year's June issue there was a full-page ad about a new HBO show. It pictured a wet-suited surfer standing on a sandy beach watching the ocean (his back turned to us) and his body slightly elevated from the ground. The name of the show was "JOHN FROM CINCINNATI". I torrent-searched it and started watching it a few hours later.
The titles were part Sopranos, part Six Feet Under. The typeface, a clear, white, sans-serif title font that looked a bit like a Myriad condensed or a Blast Gothic, was immaculately placed on the right part of the moving pics in one size and one weight. The footage was a perfectly edited mix of surfing and suburbia and the music made a perfect match. A little masterpiece. I knew this song from somewhere - hours later, i grabbed randomly some cds from my cd rack and played them. First song i played was the title song: "Johnny Appleseed" by Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros. Weird.
As in every series pilot, first scenes and first impressions count. (Remember the plane-crash scene in Lost's pilot?). So there were these beautiful titles and then the first scene: a guy longboarding on an empty beach at dusk, seen from a distance, far away from the shore. Just a figure moving into a shore-breaking wave and a long sandy terrain in the foreground. The guy floating on the wave silently, no sound, just a bit of wave-breaking - it looked like a fleeting snapshot from a forgotten morning dream, where, before waking up in the real world, you dream about ideal surfing moments placed in utopian places and times.
I was hooked and saw the first 8 episodes back to back. Not just because of the surfing action and the surf-related semiotics in it, but because it was interesting, fresh, raw, ambitious and often emotional and heart-breaking in this strangely marvelous neo-american, "Magnolia" or "American Beauty" kinda way.
The cast included a mature but beautiful Rebecca De Mornay (80s icon next to an almost underage Tom Cruise in "Risky Business") playing the ballbreaking mother/grandmother in a very, very convincingly ballbreaking manner; a Luke Perry NOT bringing you to mind Beverly Hills 90210, full of wrinkles, his lips getting smaller than before; and a Ed O'Neill reminding you less of Al Bundy and more of a cartoon-character mouthing self-pitying, philosophical vietnam-vet monologues. The dialogues, in general, were bordering on the incomprehensible, a true showcase of American rough-and-rugged language full of creative swearing, hilarious metaphors and surfing lingo- making it more than obvious that Deadwood and the Sopranos played their part in their creation.
As for John himself, he is portrayed less like a human being than an extra-terrestrial or a mirage, bringing insight and luck to the persons he's getting close to. Being a mysterious mix of a healing messiah and a retard that repeats all the words and phrases he hears around, this hilarious and strangely grave-sounding "parrot-talking" is mimicked perfectly by new actor Austin Nichols and his rockabilly-like hairdo adds up to the character's otherworldliness and surrealism. Phrases otherwise told on a casual way by protagonists get another meaning repeated by the strange, miracle-making, "slow" John; as if echoing their words, he almost makes them look themselves stupid and slow, and himself a sage from another planet that knows the score better than anyone.
So there you have it - a new, fresh mini-series, or long movie if you prefer, full of emotional power, intriguing and super-clever dialogue, interesting characters, great acting, amazing art direction, and a lot of ocean spray and wave-breaking in your face. Maybe John from Cincinnati is the natural result of the brewing in the creator's heads of influences by Six Feet Under, Deadwood, David Lynch's universe and the whole boardsports myth that seems at its peak now more than ever, in some strange way. And, yes, adding a bit of stereotypical California beach scenes and babes in the mix wouldn't hurt anyone.
The only thing that did hurt someone was the ratings - they weren't bad, but they weren't good enough. Yes, HBO decided to cancel it and bring a finale on the 10th episode of the 1st season.
As one user in Youtube comments sourfully, echoing the title song's lyrics:
"HBO is after getting the honey, but they're killing all the bees".