SPOILER ALERT FOR ANYONE WHO HASN'T SEEN THE FINALE OF "JOHN FROM CINCINNATI."
(This post updated Monday evening, after thinking more about all that Mr. Milch had to say this a.m.)
"Each character has the opportunity to generate God by his or her behavior. All of us are the mother and father of God, to the extent we accept the limits of our humanity."
David Milch, the Oracle of Imperial Beach, the co-creator with Kem Nunn of HBO's strange and wondrous "John from Cincinnati," was kind enough to indulge me in a few (but only a few) "what'd that mean" questions this morning as the hangover in the cerebral cortex from last night's season finale was really settling in. In this viewer's humble opinion, "JFC" wrapped on a high note -- high as the "whoooooos" that Little Richard vocalizes in "Long Tall Sally," the ecstatic R&B hit that was used to great effect in the final scenes.
The above quote is from Milch in response to my question about the very very last scene of Kai on the water. The shot of Kai expertly turning her body into a wave would've seemed to have stood alone, but then just as she turned her face to the camera to show a sly smile came the maddeningly intriguing voice-over from the John character: "Mother of God, Cass-Kai."
What!? After a second viewing of the episode, I was almost confident in my interpretation of nearly everything else that transpired in the previous 47 minutes -- even the pigeon-English scene between the two visiting Hawaiian drug dealers. But that voiceover clip at the very-very end threw me.
I should've known better than to think that Milch would've talked me through it frame by frame, explaining every syllable. That's just not how he works. But he was generous enough to give me the above quote as a hint as to what he was getting at with that "mother of God" business.
(Pictured above: Milch in the center of a crowd scene from the "JFC" finale seg.)
We talked a lot about how at its core "JFC" has a hopeful message of salvation and even redemption. It may have seemed gritty on the surface -- you can just smell the fetid-ness of Butchie's motel room, a credit to the show's set designers/decorators -- but it's a tale of the power of community, faith and the ability of even the most seemingly hopeful characters to find something to hang on to as they claw their way back.
Milch set out to challenge the conventions of TV storytelling with "JFC," even more so than he did on his last HBO series, "Deadwood," and in so doing he knew it would not be an easy sell in the climate of the smallscreen today. For sure, there was linear storytelling in "JFC" -- the saga of the Yost clan and their supporting troupe had a beginning, middle and climax in last night's finale, episode 10 -- but within each scene and within each character, there was no convention of having beat A lead neatly to beat B and then beat C and then the next act. Oh no, no, no. This is the hand of Milch, a guy who's thought a lot about the "tactics of fictive argument, generally."
To wit, he explained, sounding very much like the Yale university lit lecturer that he once was in a previous life:
"My understanding of the way the mechanism of storytelling works is ...whether or not the audience is conscious of the process, apart from the audience awareness that there is a process, any story is constantly appending specific values to the meanings of words, and of the actions of characters. And the fact that story uses as its building blocks words or characters that the audience believes it has some prior recognition or understanding of, is really simply the beginning of the story, but not its end.
For example, to take a less controversial instance of stuff that I've worked on before: ("NYPD Blue" protagonist Andy) Sipowicz. We know him in the first episode (of "Blue") to be a racist, alcoholic. A slob and a fat bastard. Over the course of time, we come to attach different associations to him, based on our experiences....I think that's the case at every level of storytelling. Not just in terms of character but literally with every word, every sound that's made in a story."
Deep breath, on both sides of the telephone connection. Then Milch gets specific about the titular character whose parrot-like dialogue makes little-to-no sense to any of the other characters for most of the series:
(Pictured right, Milch with stars Brian Van Holt, center, and Austin Nichols)
"When when John says 'Did you dump out? (to the Butchie character in the first episode of "JFC") He takes it to mean, 'How can I help you? The reason he means that the first time any human tries to help him, it's Butchie saying, 'Did you dump out? When he sees the boy (Shaun) is about to die (after a surfing accident), he says to Kai, 'Did you dump out.' He rouses that in an effort to be helpful to Kai. That is a demonstration pretty early on that words mean something absolutely different to John. She takes him to the bathroom thinking that he needs to use the bathroom. When he mimics the same sounds coming from the next stall, that really contains in miniature everything that an audience member needs to know about the in which the story takes place. Any action generates its meaning not from a preexisting idea, but absolutely from which the context in which its expressed....so that the frustrations people feel are meant to erode the senses that to the extent you are going to be part of the ("JFC") experience (as a body of work, episodes 1-10), you're not going to find gratification in terms of 'I know what this means.' It simply has to be working on its on its own terms. The story we tell erodes the idea that there is any one answer, or that even a single word means the same thing two seconds after its been said."
Indeed. Milch set out to use the literary device of magical realism (you could totally see the Yosts popping up as a weird family of Basque surfers in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "100 Years of Solitude," no?) in his "JFC" tapestry, and there'd be no sticking to the conventions of fantasy storytelling that "you can always count on, like you're going to know that because characters have wings and certain kind of music is playing you can count on that people will fly in a this particular way."
He knew from the get-go that "JFC" would be a tough sell to the audience, but in the light of Monday morning-after-the-finale, he admits "to a minor disappointment that people have used the specific intentions of the piece to condemn it....As we say that's show business."
There's no official word yet from HBO as to whether the show is picked up, but like the stick figures above the Snug Harbor's decrepit bar, the writing is on the wall. Milch says he had more stories to tell in the construct of the Yosts and Imperial Beach. But he didn't have a harsh word for HBO, only that he is "grateful for the experience...My feeling is that you can't waste a second on remorse."
Among other the clues and insights into "JFC" gleaned from the roughly 30-minute discourse:
**Don't overlook the significance of the used car dealer at Cherry Oldies Auto Sales where Linc, Jake and John buy the Camino. Milch during our conversation flatly called the dealer "John's father." And after watching that scene again post-interview, it's pretty clear that the silver-haired dude (a great guest shot by Peter Jason of "Deadwood") is someone who's a little higher up on the org chart of the same firm that John's working for. It's especially obvious as the dealer keeps telling John "you're off-line now, country," and "country, I took you off-line" (I'm wondering if 'country' has anything to do with John's hair, or the plaid shirt of Butchie's that he's wearing in the scene?) Dealer-dude further indicates that he's probably middle-management, to John's entry-level grunt status, with his memorable monologue:
"Intrusions! Evanescences!...I'm a shepherd without crook (a sheep herding-type stick, not a thief, per Milch) or understanding....Fits and stops and starts!...Waves and ripples and ramifications!...Jesus Christ! Jesus Christ! Jesus Christ!"
That's the kind of writing that keeps on giving. And all this business about buying an El Camino can't help but invoke El Camino Real, or California's fabled"royal road" that ran a few hundred miles along the old mission trail from San Diego to San Francisco.
**Don't read too much into the characters' names. When I mentioned that Linc's pivotal role in the finale made it clear that Luke Perry's character was "aptly named," Milch said think again. "I don't work that way. I give characters a chance to pick their names."
**Milch cited as one of his influences in "the piece," as he called the series, a quote by William James, American psychologist and philosopher and brother of novelist Henry James (click here for further enlightenment). Milch rattled it off too quickly for me to catch all but it went something like this:
"I'm going to make a world not certain to be saved, a world the perfection of which shall be conditional merely, the condition that each several agent does its own 'level best.' I offer you the chance of taking part in such a world....Will you join the procession? Will you trust yourself and trust the other agents enough to face the risk?" (Apologies to James if I've screwed it up.) This is apropos of John's oft-repeated: "Some things I know; some things I don't."
"One of the ideas of the piece is that truth is not a stable thing, that it's carried on waves of association. The wave of association in which 'John' was encountered was the show that had just come before it. When we grieve something we stake something as the object of our grief to a third party. To some extent that happened with 'John.' This is material that depends on you being able to sign on for the ride, what (William) James was saying that the universe invites us to do."
**Why the references throughout "JFC" to "ragheads," "towelheads," and "9/11 is big?" This I never would have put together but in Milch's view:
"People's expectations have been so infantilized by television that the infantilation has itself disposed us to a genocide...My belief is that the constant exposure to news, the constant exposure of the viewer sensibilities to those planes flying into those buildings explains our involvement in Iraq. We wanted to be exposed to an absolutely different show (than the World Trade Center towers falling)...But we were promised a 12-episode miniseries. We'd go in, pull down a statue and it'd be over. Now we want to get out because we want the series to be over...It's the reason I believe the argument that the next time such a (terrorist) event takes place, we'll commit a genocide. We'll sanction the murder of men, women and children, the incarceration of Muslims the way we did the Japanese (during World War II.)
**Who knew? As I kept raving about how good the "JFC" troupe was, particularly Brian Van Holt, Rebecca De Mornay and Ed O'Neill (pictured above with Milch), Milch chimed in with an intriguing tidbit.
"I wrote ("Deadwood's") Al Swearingen for Ed...If he'd had that part the show would still be running." I was dying to ask him to explain what he meant by that, but by this time Milch had that sound in his voice of a man who's ready to end the call, and I didn't want to wear out my welcome. Some things I know...