Hogan's Alley

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

No Miracle Will Revive John From Cincinnati

In the midst of the ten episodes of David Milch's "John From Cincinnati" on HBO the young and pure Shawn Yost, boy surfing genius, is paralyzed in a surfing accident. He is subsequently made miraculously whole through the kiss of a parrot.

No parrot-looking agent of God will save Milch's show from the wrath of HBO executives, who have just canceled it after one brief season.

When the show began I wrote that I could not make a judgment about it after three episodes. It was clear that only a full devotion of one's attention could discern the meaning of the program, if the meaning was in fact discernible.

This program was unique in television history. It was apparently intended to not be understood by viewers. Characters routinely communicated in the ass backwards syntax unique to David Milch. That was survivable. Those of us who have stuck with Milch since his "NYPD Blues" days had come to understand Milchspeak, even if we knew no actual human beings who spoke that way. The real problem with understanding the drama was that Milch abandoned the ancient tradition of drama of having stories reveal over time the meaning intended by the author. Instead we were treated to a conglomeration of characters who each had their own interesting weirdnesses. These people all seemed entranced by the central Yost family and by each other to the extent that they disengaged from whatever their "normal" life was to become observers and commentators on the events that began to unfold once the curious John of the title arrived on the scene. They were viewers along with us.

This cavalier attitude towards the audience's capacity to understand the flow of the drama reached its peak in the final episode. As someone who has scene all the episodes at least once, I felt like I had been suddenly awakened in Lithuania with only a rudimentary understanding of the language. What the fuck were these people talking about? This was not drama that sought to represent the communication between human beings in the world. It was something other. An exposition of the underlying concepts behind the show without any attempt to have that meaning flow from the show and its expression in the lives of the viewers.

Exhibit One: Here is part of the script chosen on the HBO website about the show to illustrate the depth and wonder of the show and the mind of David Milch:

The scene in which Linc (Luke Perry), Jake (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) and John (Austin Nichols) buy an El Camino from the Dealer (Peter Jason) at the Cherry Oldies car lot is probably the most important puzzle-solving moment of the season. It's not my place to provide a line-by-line interpretation, but I can say this: If you sensed that the car-buying sequence provides some clues about why John has come to Imperial Beach -- and about the show's fundamental cosmology and intent -- trust your instincts. Here's a transcript, with narrative from the original script:


Linc and Jake and John with the owner/operator of Cherry Oldies Used Car Sales. The Dealer's appearance invokes P.T. Barnum's trustworthiness, and his manner Chicken Little's hurried angst --

DEALER: I feel that you boys are ready for this Camino ....

LINC: (Includes Jake) Between the two of us we own more cars than you have on this lot. My guess is that your feeling's probably right.

Linc meant to put the Dealer off his pitch and thereby abbreviate their business; instead the Dealer bridles --

DEALER: That's not what I mean by ready – number of vehicles owned.

Jake and Linc tag-team their message of impatience --

JAKE: What do you mean, Pops?

LINC: We got to, uh, boogie.

The Dealer comes over their top --

DEALER: Oh, so I've got to know what I mean before I can have a feeling. Do I have to know that you'll understand me? Do you have to know you'll understand before you'll listen?

Which appears to put Jake in a different, passive state --

DEALER (to Linc): Twenty-five cars between you -- you should've let me sit down before you told me. I got that many dealerships in each of that many sectors, and brands on goddamn franchise. I've got to boogie, me.

John indicates the Dealer, in whose rhythms and accents he reproaches Linc and Jake for their failure to take the Dealer's premise on its face --

JOHN: He feels you're ready for the Camino.

Where Jake's gone, Linc has now gone too --

DEALER (to John) You're off-line now, Country.

JOHN: I don't know Butchie instead.

DEALER: (To Linc and Jake, re John) How's he for high-performance? And he ain't who's worst-underpowered.

If the Dealer had suspenders he'd flex them to indicate who he means --

DEALER: Intrusions, evanescences – I'm a shepherd without crook or understanding. Fits and stops and starts. Waves and ripples and ramifications. Busted knee, mother-son handjob .... Christ, Jesus Christ Jesus Christ.

The Dealer's tight smile is not fully persuasive --

DEALER: Crosses and shoulders to bear 'em.

He smacks his hand on the El Camino --

DEALER: El Camino, fifteen thousand, as is.

Linc and Jake have regained their faculties --

LINC: Is it gassed?

JOHN: F**king-A right it's gassed Linc.

As John puts on the counter the fifteen thousand dollars in hundred dollar bills which has materialized in his pocket the Dealer's stern gaze goes to Linc --

DEALER: You and your twenty-five cars. Circle and line on the wall, and zeros and goddamned ones, is what to turn the both of your gifts to --

The Dealer's "both" appears to include Jake --

DEALER: -- and not one damn minute to waste.

JOHN: Ragheads are going to get themselves eradicated.

DEALER: (vigorously interrupting John) Country, I took you off-line. (calling off camera, re El Camino) Manuel, get a cage on this thing.

John leans over the hood of the El Camino and employs the entirety of his wingspan to offer it a hug. Off which --
If you agree that the scene is difficult to comprehend, imagine it devoid of the stage directions which speak to the motivations of some characters. The Dealer was never introduced to the viewer before this scene, yet he mentions things known only to John and other characters, but not to Linc and Jake, to whom he is speaking. John's lines are repetitions of lines from previous episodes and characters. Yet we as viewers are being asked to pull all of this detritus together and at some point make sense of it.

What is obvious is that John represents some higher power who is, for unknown reasons, attempting to intervene in the life of this beach community. We are left to learn from the HBO website why Milch thinks intervention is necessary:

What makes the danger of ethnic cleansing so much more acute in contemporary times, and one of the things I want to engage in this series, is the extent to which we now reside in virtual space, and the homicidal impulse that's generated by the violation of our virtual space. After the planes flew into the World Trade Center, we were subjected to the stimuli of those images in our virtual space over and over and over again. And because of the way we're set up physiologically, we experience those as continuous ongoing attacks. They predispose us to a violence toward the people whom we take as the perpetrators, because we can't individuate. And because of the way we receive information, we identify the attackers as Ragheads. Our willingness to respond in a genocidal fashion, I think, is not to be underestimated, and that's one of the reasons that this postulated force from elsewhere [John] has dispatched these various miracles – to arouse the recognition that the apocalypse is upon us.
So the WTC is brought down and the homicidal impulse of Americans is unleashed, presumably in Afghanistan and Iraq, against all followers of Islam. It would seem that this sin is what Milch is attempting to redeem us from. Forgive me, but from my perspective the most homicidal of impulses has been unleashed by terrorists and the warring parties in Iraq against the innocents of that sorry place. Perhaps Milch would argue that the violent bombings in Iraq are the product of repeated viewings by the perpetrators of the violence of American soldiers on Aljazeera TV. Surely the failure of the United States to provide sufficient forces to create security makes us culpable for some of that violence as well. But where is the genocidal impulse and behavior? Do you feel it? I don't. No one I know expresses such feelings. Yes, somewhere in the mass of electronic communication ("the zeros and ones in Cass' camera,"as Milch has John express it) there have been hateful hopes on the periphery of our society for the death of massive numbers of Muslims, but where is the march to genocide? Where are the massive death camps and the necessary mechanisms of that horrid enterprise? They don't exist outside Milch's mind.

For me, this is why the series failed. Milch could not communicate what he wanted us to hear. When he finally said it in another forum, what he was saying was weird, to put it kindly. Milch himself, in an interview with Tavis Smiley said in response to Smiley asking if television was the right medium for Milch,

Absolutely. I believe absolutely I am properly employed in television, because when you're as - I don't want to say crazy, but when you're the way I am and you have been successful, you embody the mystification of the businessman, the paradox of the businessman in dealing with the creative people.

Which is, I don't know what they're doing, they're children, they're idiots, you don't know what they're going to give you - and they leave me alone. Whether they're going to keep leaving me alone is always the question, (laughter) but better they leave me alone than the doctors.


One crystal clear aspect of the show was the performance of Ed O'Neill, pictured above. O'Neill of "Married With Children" fame, was solid, engaging and moving in every episode, especially the last. His character's inability to accept or adapt to the death of his wife was consistently touching and understandably human.

Finally, HBO has no one to blame but itself. In the interview with Smiley, Milch blows apart the previously agreed upon bullshit about "Deadwood" having been ended via mutual agreement.

Whether we choose to or not is up to us, and so why surfers? Surfers are because my show - "Deadwood" was canceled, inexplicably to me. The suggestion...The suggestion was made to me, why don't you do a show about surfers? Young, masculine, that's the demographic. Can you do that and have it engage your own spirit? "John From Cincinnati."

So Milch justifiably harbored anger at HBO. But why did he choose to inflict it on the rest of us?

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