FISHING WITH JOHN: AN ESSAY
by Michael Azzerad
At some point in their lives, probably every sleepless person has switched on the TV in the wee hours of a weekend morning and chanced upon a fishing show. Invariably, a beefy, half-forgotten retired athlete shares a boat with some laconic, baseball-hatted master of the piscatory art, patiently awaiting a bite. The pace is glacial, the visuals unmoving, the murmur of the narrative positively narcotic. It’s the visual equivalent of ambient music. When a hooked fish finally breaks the surface, it’s as momentous as when the creature bursts out of that guy’s stomach in Alien.
The comedic potential of this mise en scène did not go unnoticed by John Lurie. Watching some droll home videos of himself and his buddy Willem Dafoe fishing together, Lurie, a man who is nothing if not always thinking, swiftly came to a brilliant realization: Here was a way to deduct his vacations from his income tax! This was the genesis of Fishing With John.
Lurie has lead the legendary jazz group the Lounge Lizards for twenty years and starred in the Jim Jarmusch films Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law. Both experiences probably taught him a little something about casting: Dennis Hopper, Tom Waits, Jim Jarmusch, Matt Dillon and Willem Dafoe may not be the first people to spring to mind if one were putting together a fishing show, but then that’s what makes Fishing With John so great.
Plunked down everywhere from Maine to Thailand, these sophisticates are escaping the hum and velocity of their lives and loving it. But they’re also kind of hating it—every guest expresses his misery and discomfort at some point, some more forthrightly than others. They are, so to speak, fish out of water. What makes Fishing With John special is the collision between the urban, urbane Lurie and his guests and the reality of their surroundings—witness Jim Jarmusch, clad all in Manhattan black, pondering the morality of fishing while riding on a sharkboat.
For a respite from all that nature—“A game of cards on dry land makes Tom feel much better,” says the narrator—these city boys do all the things the original fishing show guys were doing when the cameras weren’t rolling: drinking, smoking, gambling, playing ping-pong. But things really start to happen when they get out on the water, where, if you’ll notice, few fish are actually caught.
Sure, it’s about how it’s not the destination, it’s the journey, yadda, yadda, yadda, but there’s more. On one hand, with its parodies of bleak existential tropes, Fishing With John makes light of the tendency to read much into a blank slate; on the other, it’s a picaresque travelogue about camaraderie and interpersonal chemistry. Lurie and Dafoe banter about the homoerotic element of male friendships like two teenagers; Lurie impatiently yells at his friend Waits to “Row!” but endures being called “Johnny” by elder hipster statesman Hopper. He’s playful with his former boss Jarmusch and (barely) patient with the laconic Dillon.
The leisurely pace, unfurled with a musician’s sense of timing, owes a lot to Jarmusch’s bleak, deadpan directorial style. It’s why Fishing With John is still great even when the repartee is, shall we say, less than scintillating. Turns out there’s just something very funny about very interesting people having very dull conversations. For instance:
Jarmusch: “I’ll drive.”
Lurie: “You wanna drive?”
Much of show’s charm stems from its resemblance to a home movie—or maybe one of those TV blooper shows—with the guests’ charisma and notoriety replacing the familiarity of relatives and friends; that’s why their fishermanly bullshit sessions about things like armless truck drivers and colostomy bags are so entertaining. The show has subtly stacked the deck on several other levels, too: The cinematography is top-notch and the music, by Lurie himself, is superb (soundtrack available on Lurie’s label, Strange & Beautiful music).
Then there’s veteran narrator Robb Webb, who hits just the right tone of thoughtful wonderment even as he spouts platitudes, clichés and just plain nonsense like “I’d love a bite of your sandwich” just to see if we’re paying attention. The show is crammed with funny little asides, references and non sequiturs that fully reveal themselves only after repeated viewings. And just to emphasize the artifice, there’s the modernist touch of occasional absurd sight and sound gags like dog barking synchronized to the bouncing of a ping-pong ball.
Lurie tells Waits that if he lived in Jamaica, he’d probably make sculptures out of the stuff he found on the beach. It’s an apt metaphor for what he does with the show, reconfiguring scores of hours of raw videotape into a coherent creation, imposing at least some sort of structure onto these shaggy sea-dog stories.
But there’s only so much one can alter in post-production. The fact is, with a camera trained on them for days, there’s no way Lurie and his guests are going to be “on” for all of it. Within the uniquely intimate confines of a boat, their personalities (or lack thereof) stand in deep relief—they are cool, cranky, dull, spacey, scary. Even with no makeup or script, they’re still remarkably like the characters they portray on stage and screen. And therein lies the essential charm of Fishing With John—as Robb Webb puts it, these are real men doing real things.