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John From Cincinnati

 
 
August 2009 SITE MAP   SEARCH

John From Cincinnati
cast: Rebecca De Mornay, Bruce Greenwood, Brian van Holt, Luke Perry, and Austin Nichols

creators: David Milch and Kem Nunn

479 minutes (18) 2007
widescreen ratio 16:9
Warner DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Compared with the likes of Deadwood, The Sopranos, and The Wire, John From Cincinnati comes across as the unwanted stepchild: a series that lasted only 10 episodes and which garnered little critical praise and no awards worth mentioning. Hardly a fitting epitaph for David Milch, the writer and creator of Deadwood or the great Kem Nunn, pioneer of literary surfing novels such as Tapping The Source (1984). But despite a few conceptual problems, John From Cincinnati is actually a treat for anyone who enjoys genuinely beautiful writing. Fans of Deadwood would be mad to pass this over.

The Yosts are a family on their uppers. Mitch (Bruce Greenwood) was once a tower of the surfing community but his quasi-religious view that surfing should be an end in itself has alienated him from a community increasingly in thrall to competitions and sponsorship money. Butchie Yost (Brian van Holt) is one of the surfers who forged that new culture but he is now a washed up junkie living on the pity and the memories of others. Cissy Yost (Rebecca De Mornay) used to be the hottest surf bunny on the beach but she has grown into a venomous and tyrannical mater-familias who has alienated all of those around her except for her grandson Shaun Yost (Greyson Fletcher), a 13-year-old whose potential as a surfer rivals that of his shit-bird father and whose skills are already attracting the attention of sponsors despite the protestations of Mitch. The Yosts, once surfing royalty, are now on the verge of being forgotten. Their greatness erased by years of bitterness and self-consumption. That is until John Monad (Austin Nichols) arrives in their lives. Seemingly affected by some kind of mental disorder, John communicates only by parroting back phrases spoken to him by others. He also seems to be able to produce anything he wants from his pockets and when Shaun has his neck broken in a surfing accident, he also manages to heal him.

What most struck me about John From Cincinnati was its incredibly resemblance to Deadwood. Deadwood was a series that was unconstrained by what one would traditionally think of as plot. It functioned primarily as a kind of sandbox with the characters entering the town and then simply being allowed to bounce off of each other directed only by their psychological state. Sometimes the right series of collisions would result in a re-orientation of a character's psychological state, at other times some event would intercede upon the town from the outside, thereby prompting a more generalised process of change. As an approach to writing it was not only incredibly bold, it also resulted in a series that was completely character-based and which was not only true to its characters (in a way that the likes of Battlestar Galactica, Dexter, and The Sarah Connor Chronicles systematically failed to be), but which also provided real depth of characterisation. John From Cincinnati was clearly written with the same methods. However, instead of urban and economic development serving as a motor for psychological change, the series uses the supernatural as a means of forcing characters to swerve out of the paths they have carefully laid out for themselves. This is not unproblematic.

Deadwood benefited hugely from its portrayal of a blossoming frontier economy and the political changes forced upon a community by that process of economic development. It served as a hook for the audience and a guide-rail for the writers. People tuned in for the series' western and historical-fiction genre trappings but stayed for the characterisation and the drama. Even if the series got bogged down in the lives of permanently miserable characters, its political and economic subplots allowed the series to keep one foot on the ground at all times. The problem with John From Cincinnati's use of fantastical elements is that these elements are much more of a narrative blunt-object when it comes to provoking change.

What I mean by this is that firstly, they are not an on-going feature of the world. Deadwood's economic and political subplots served not only to provoke change in the characters; they were also an end in themselves. It was possible to watch the series simply for the growth of the town. By contrast, it is not possible to watch John From Cincinnati purely for the fantastical aspects. One is either interested in the characters or one is not. The series has no other hook and as a result, it is less complex and satisfying than Deadwood. Secondly, Deadwood's use of political and economic change as narrative engines gave the series a ring of psychological and social realism; we could see the characters reacting to their environment. If the currency of drama is personal and psychological truth then Deadwood gave it to us by the bucket-full. John From Cincinnati, on the other hand, gives us change that comes by authorial fiat. What are we to take away from a series in which people's lives are turned up-side-down by someone being brought back to life? If these are personal truths they are not particularly universal or valuable because these types of things simply do not happen in the real world. Deadwood's commitment to social realism made the series and its characters more engaging (engaging enough that we saw the artificial nature of the series' language as a feature rather than a bug). John From Cincinnati's use of the fantastical, on the other hand, is alienating. It bounces us out of the narrative long enough to make us notice how contrived the dialogue and the characters' emotional states really are.

The traditional model of the modern TV series is that it has one or two key writers and then a staff of lesser ones. The key writers write the important episodes, doctor the final scripts, and decide upon the general direction of the series but by and large they are not responsible for every line of dialogue. Deadwood and John From Cincinnati both benefit hugely from Milch's willingness to write every single episode of the show. It allows us to fully appreciate the impact of one writer not just upon the broad themes of a series but on the phrasing of dialogue and the construction of scenes. A memorable example of this kind of thing is The West Wing's fondness for back-and-forths carried out whilst characters walk down busy corridors. The series would also frequently deal with political discussions by having arguments become increasingly heated until someone comes out with a heartfelt knockdown objection that would not only win the argument intellectually but also put the other character in their place for having such misguided beliefs. John From Cincinnati is packed with the same vignettes that made Deadwood so memorable.

Aside from the sandbox structure of the series, John From Cincinnati is blessed with dialogue with the same Shakespearean qualities as Deadwood. As with his previous series, Milch litters the dialogue with expletives that clash beautifully with the florid and poetic quality of much of the language:

"Look at this Zip. This fills me with misgivings. Bandying words like 'miracle' in a newspaper headline. This can only attract new types of shit-heel into that boy's life, which wasn't short of shit-heels before. We will keep our distance; I am informing you of that now. We're not going to jockey for attention, or be looked at as a nuisance."

Aside from florid syntax and the use of venerable words such as 'bandying' and 'misgivings', the dialogue in John From Cincinnati is also wonderfully theatrical in so far as it is dotted with speeches. The characters do not so much converse with each other as rant at each other. More often than not, they are speaking to people who are not even there or not in a position to reply such as caged birds, stuffed bears, sick people and (most noticeably) mobile phone voicemail. The characters will react to something be stewing in their juices. Their irritation will visibly grow and will frequently connect up with some long-buried grievance until you can see the characters literally monologuing themselves into setting out for a confrontation: a confrontation that will generally take the form of a beautifully phrased speech. These are characters that use words as weapons. Weapons sharpened by deep pain, long resentment and a touch of paranoia. Deadwood used the same psychological model for its characters and, given the setting, it seemed perfectly natural. The characters in Deadwood were frontiers-people but they were also Victorians and the tendency to hold one's tongue until it won't hold for a second more perfectly represented those clashing world-views: the savagely earthy and the hypocritically refined. In John From Cincinnati, the characters are modern people and as a result, their temper tantrums and poetic language is initially jarring but once you accept that this is how people in the series talk, it can be hauntingly beautiful. Pay particular attention to John's speech about two thirds of the way through the series... It raised the hairs on the back of my neck.

John is an interesting figure. Austin Nichols is a lanky man with a baby face and a genuinely magnificent quiff. The character arrives with one line of dialogue "Mitch Yost needs to get back in the game" which is quite a neat mission statement and synopsis for the series' plot. However, as he engages with the other characters, he picks up their lines of dialogue and uses them. Initially this is presented as a kind of echo chamber. One character says something to John, and John repeats it with a different intonation only for the character to take the utterance at face value and be affected by it. It's almost as though they are talking themselves through their problems. But as the series evolves and John's vocabulary grows, his speech becomes this wonderfully baroque dialect littered with colourful lines stripped of their original context and meaning. It is almost as though lacking the capacity to talk to each other; the community use John to develop a new and better language that they can use to talk through their problems. John is, of course, a transformative figure and his title (John from Cincinnati) speaks of his true nature just as well as his return from death and his capacity to heal. His name is also significant as a monad, according to the philosopher Leibniz, is the most basic element of the universe: an atom, a soul, or God... an indivisible and therefore simple entity.

However, John's messianic nature also raises a further problem I have with the series. Namely, what is it actually about? Soap operas contain characters that have problems, interact with each other and do things but we do not think of them as great drama because they are never really about anything. They have narrative, plot and character but no wider theme. John From Cincinnati also seems to be lacking in this particular area. It has beautiful language, intriguing characters and - aside from a slump between the initial arc (Shaun entering the competition) and the series' end (Mitch Yost gets back in the game) - a lot of stuff happens, but it is difficult to extract any deeper meaning or theme from the series other than a rather facile comment upon the power of the supernatural to change people's lives. In fact, Milch has acknowledged that he has no idea what the series is really about. Not only is this a missed opportunity, it also places even more of a burden upon the characters and the language. Simply put, if you don't like the characters and are not interested in Milch's use of language then I can't think why you would want to watch John From Cincinnati. This probably explains the weak ratings and the show's eventual cancellation but if you have a place in your life for some beautiful language and some intriguingly fucked-up people, then you will adore John From Cincinnati.
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