Thursday, August 23, 2007

In Praise of JOHN's Gospel

Bill Carter has a piece in today's New York Times about the "stumbling" of HBO:

Has HBO, the pay-television channel stocked with so many outstanding shows that it declared itself in a category all its own — as in “It’s not TV, it’s HBO” — finally tumbled from its pedestal of prestige?

While the channel rejects that notion as both inaccurate and unfair, some of its long-suffering competitors are only too eager to advance that message. As evidence they point to the final exit from center stage of HBO’s greatest performer, “The Sopranos,” and the subsequent quick demise of the show that inherited its spot on the schedule, the quirky surfer tale “John From Cincinnati.”

Lest readers think that my review of Kenneth Branagh's adaptation of William Shakespeare's As You Like It was intended as another nail in Carter's coffin, I feel a need to say a few words in praise of John From Cincinnati.

First of all, I do not follow the media "buzz" when it comes to choosing my own entertainment. My wife and I watch what we want to watch; and, when it involves a series, we have periodic "sanity checks" over whether we really want to continue. Thus, I had no idea how John was playing to audiences in general. However, I was certainly not surprised that it "didn't resonate," in the words of Michael Lombardo, the president of the HBO Programming Group. I suppose I was also not surprised that, at least according to Lombardo, the series received "poor critical response." The truth is that it was not particularly easy to write a newspaper column on what that series was about or to classify it according to some familiar ontology of genres. Since I am currently immersing myself in the life and work of Lennie Tristano, I know that defying genre categories can be the kiss of death among both critics and the audiences who read them. So I feel some need to set down a few words about why I was as passionately supportive of this series as I was passionately antipathetic towards Branagh's latest attack on Shakespeare.

Most importantly, this series was, by no means, a "quirky surfer tale," although I am sure that Carter was far from the only one who described it that way. In Kenneth Burke's terminology surf culture, particularly that part of the culture centered in Imperial Beach (a key choice because of its proximity to the Mexican border), certainly establishes the scene but is relatively secondary with respect to the acts that constitute the narrative. This was best appreciated by a San Francisco Chronicle critic's reference to magical realism, which, in many ways, is a license to stretch logic to the breaking point, if not beyond; and one way of viewing magical realism is as a literary perspective on theology, the primary scene where it is acceptable to logic to be trumped (in the case of theology, by acts of faith and their consequences). From this point of view, just as Seymour Chatman had analyzed Mon Oncle d'Amerique as argumentation cast in the framework of narrative, John From Cincinnati is, at its core, a theological exposition rendered through narrative, instead of the more systematic structures of paragraphs that state and support a thesis. Furthermore, it is a theology of self-reflection. If prayer is the ultimate reflective act through which we try to confront who we are and what role we play in the complexity of the cosmos, then just about every character in this series engages in such acts; and, whether or not there were any thoughts of continuing the series (which seem to have been dispatched by now), all of those characters come to a closure that gave the final episode a satisfying sense of conclusion, however many petty questions of logic were still littering the narrative landscape.

Yes, I can understand why an exercise like this would not have a strong following. On the other hand I finally got around to watching Absolute Wilson yesterday, and I never expected that Robert Wilson would have a strong following. Indeed, Wilson's greatest supporters and enthusiasts remain outside the United States; so it would not surprise me if John From Cincinnati garners similar support in both Europe and Asia. My first exposure to Wilson was when I saw King of Spain over 35 years ago, and I had absolutely no idea what to make of it. John From Cincinnati left me just as stunned; but this time around I had more interpretive skills in my knapsack and enough eagerness to engage them that I could make something out of it all!

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