Californication: “…the truth is what you need to finish this song…”

In Love Song, the sixth episosde of Californication‘s fifth season, creator and showrunner Tom Kapinos wrote a soulful, wistful and melancholic look at missed opportunities, love and authenticity.

Samurai Apocalypse (portrayed with insane style and panache by RZA) ordered his Santa Monica Cop screenwriter Hank Moody to write lyrics for budding songstress Kali. As Hank forced Kali to delve deeper into her memories, he got lost in his own, giving us black-and-white flashbacks to the moment when Hank and Karen first decided to stay in L.A.

(Whenever Kapinos shows us Hank and Karen’s past, he writes scuffed and dirty emotional riffs that move you. These episodes are rock-n-roll ballads, bluesy guitar solos, romantic, whiskey-soaked tales of all that could have been, and all that might yet be, if no one f**ks it up.)

As Hank re-lived this moment in time, while drawing lyrical inspiration from Kali’s increasingly painful memories, the theme became abundantly clear:

What makes your writing truly yours, what makes it really sing… is you.

Your soul. Your authenticity. Your truth. Nothing less than the absolute revelation of what you really, truly, need and want. Getting to the truth of who you are and why you do what you do. What drives you, what do you dream of? What makes you want those things, and what will you do — and give up — to get them?

Find the truth about who the f**k you are and how you fit into this world. Because you do fit into this world, even if you don’t know how yet. Some people know right away. Some take thirty years, some fifty or more. It’s OK. Your life is all about you, m***erf***er. Act accordingly.

Nothing you write will be good until you inject yourself into it. It’s what Dave Grohl talked about at the Grammys when he said music isn’t what happens inside a computer. He wasn’t ranting against technology itself, against any of the tools of making music; he was ranting against soulless music, which can just as easily be made with a guitar as an iPad. And the flip side is true: soul will always come through, must always come through, however you make your art.

Consider two extraordinary and seminal albums: The White Stripes’ Elephant, and Massive Attack’s 100th Window. The first made only on equipment dated pre-1963 (it’s a Jack White thing), the second made on laptops and in digital worlds, with songs and textures that couldn’t exist before 2003.

Both have beauty and soul, in different ways: Elephant is rough, heavy, pounding and wild, while 100th Window is hypnotic, evocative and dreamlike. Both are true and truthful, and it doesn’t matter how they were recorded or how we listen to them: the souls of the people who created them shine through, make them real; making them connect.

Whether you write poems, stories, novels, songs, or scripts, you need to make them yours, write them your way. Quentin Tarantino kept getting told that True Romance wasn’t written properly, that this wasn’t how scripts are done. He said, f**k you, because this is me and this is mine. Then he made Reservoir Dogs, and Tony Scott shot True Romance, and then came Pulp Fiction. Tarantino-esque became its own literary style and took over pop culture. All iconic & unique writers do.

Ultimately, being a writer, being any kind of artist, is all about you being authentic. That will shine brightly; the rest will follow.

So find your truth and finish your song.

Then let the world hear it.

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SouthLAnd “Community”: slow burn to inferno

One of the things that makes SouthLAnd so great is its evolving textures; the writers have their own styles within the framework of the show, as do the directors. This diverse community around the central heart of SouthLAnd makes for a show that always feels fresh, on the edge, unfolding in ways we can never predict. Much like life in L.A. Much like a typical day in the lives of our cops.

Scripted by Jason Horwitch, Community was lacerating in its compressed complexity, its compacted violence. Each scene was a one inch punch that rocked out of nowhere, on the count of one, not three, with Felix Alcala bringing a brawling, aggressive directing style to the episode, getting up in everyone’s face.

We all need to take a moment here to recognize the absolute genius of Alcala’s brilliant shot-framing. All the show’s directors are great, but Alcala went hard at this episode, making it raw and beautiful in savage ways. His camera prowled the over-saturated Los Angeles streets and skyline, framing the actors and their backgrounds with an unerring eye on the motion and composition of the shot.

The camera (and the show) was set to slow-burn throughout, until the final inferno with its magnificent, alien, sci-fi Jimmy Muro lens flares and complex visual textures. It was as breathtaking as the emotional turbulence of the scene itself. It brought to mind the devastating emotions and hypnotic lighting of the conclusion to last season’s Code 4, which Alcala also directed.

And then there was the acting. Man, the acting.

The day players in this episode were f**king amazing. Every single one brought a vivid, intense and painfully raw performance that fit the show perfectly. This was a Community full of extraordinary talent. It’s a credit to the skill and dedication of the casting team on SouthLAnd that every single person on the screen leaps off it with their performance. There was something special in this episode with those day players; maybe it was the script, or the directing, but this felt like TV drama in true 3D.

The core cast, of course, nailed it. They always do, but it should never go without saying; it takes a tremendous amount of talent and hard work to maintain that level of excellence. Ben McKenzie proved that if the actor is engaging and that much of a natural star, the writers can make the character that much more of a dick without ever losing the viewers; much like David Duchovny in Californication, McKenzie’s easy charm brings the viewers back in even as his character continutes his steady descent into darkness. Special credit this week goes to Lucy Liu for her utterly perfect, low-key, lived-in naturalism. She’s integrated seamlessly into the show thanks to the truth she brings.

But MVP this episode was Regina King. Although Dorian Missick gave her a run for her money with his eloquently poetic performance as the father nervously rehearsing his daughter’s quinceanera speech, King’s near-silent performance at the end of their final scene in the episode was beautiful and moving. Especially in the light of the promo for next week, her reactions during and after Missick’s final lines were staggeringly, subtly great. It’s like there’s nothing, no human truth, King can’t convey with her eyes. She tells the truth so profoundly without even speaking. It was pure poetry as she listened to Missick, then pulled out her phone when he left the car, and made her call.

That’s what this show is all about: praise of the extraordinary. The extraordinary work that cops and detectives do every single day on the streets of Los Angeles, and the extraordinary work everyone in the cast and crew of this show brings to it week after week.

Californication Season 4: “It’s getting dark, too dark to see…”

“My heart was beating outside my chest… It’s been almost too much to bear.”

Written by Tom Kapinos and directed by David Duchovny, Suicide Solution was abundantly soulful, transcendently raw and eerily beautiful.

It’s fair to say this episode was Duchovny’s finest moment yet in the series. From Becca’s lonely guitar playing, through Hank’s heartbreaking realization (beautifully, subtly played by Duchovny) that for now at least, he has lost her, to the extraordinary power of its conclusion, when the scuffed poetry of Hank’s words to Becca was overlaid with hypnotic, melancholy dream-imagery, as Hank’s self-medication finally took him down, the show reached a new level. “It’s getting dark, too dark to see,” Hank said in voice over as the waves crashed over him, swallowing him whole.

With this season, the show as a whole is delivering on everything it has promised in the previous three seasons, and more. It’s better at everything now. Executive producer and creator Tom Kapinos is flexing new dramatic muscles, and the show has come back as though it spent the hiatus working out: it’s leaner, stronger, tougher, and its core twin strengths (the genuine love of Hank for his family, and the don’t give a f**kness of it all) are back in full effect, but this time used more precisely and to more subtle, devastating effect.

This season is all sinew, muscles and veins, exposed and raw. It’s all about facing the music in the worst possible way. It’s about staring into the eyes of your daughter who hates you. A life in painful shards, slicing the skin. Season Four of Californication is drawing blood. It’s harsh, unforgiving. And still it’s damn funny. Whether it’s Hank getting unexpected relief from Marcy, or Rob Lowe channeling Brad Pitt’s Floyd and Gary Oldman’s Drexl from True Romance to play Eddie Nero, the crazy A-lister who wants to play Hank in the movie of his book, the show jabs humor with southpaw precision. It’s great to see the show full throttle like this. Its one liners are sharper, its gonzo situations more outrageous. It’s pulled off one of the most difficult tricks in TV: treating darkness and humor just the same, combining them into one scathing, blistering, pain-fuelled but hilarious blend that charms, horrifies, moves and makes you laugh, hard.

There were moments in season three when the show located itself – charmingly to be sure – in the quirkier areas of its world. The drama of it all was traded down in favor of priceless humor. This was a good trade, for a time, but ultimately Kapinos brought the show to the darker place it needed to be, where every seed Hank has sown is reaped.

Throughout the first three seasons, Hank played at self-loathing, played at being the one everyone hated, knowing, or at least hoping, all along that it wasn’t quite true. But now, it’s real, and Duchovny is giving a virtuosic rendering of a man realizing his life really is disintegrating, and flashing that smile or being rogueishly adorable means nothing anymore to those whose hearts he has truly broken. It’s a tough, excruciating experience and lesson: watching Hank learn it is heroically compelling.

Californication is at the top of its game, and getting better.

******

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True Blood: Trouble

It’s true: this week’s episode of True Blood was the best yet in the show’s three seasons. Why? Because Alan Ball and his writers are perhaps the finest team in the business right now (with SouthlandCalifornication, GleeFringe,  Modern Family and Nurse Jackie).

With ‘Trouble’, they  took everything great about the series, and punched it the f**k up.

The show has fully grown into its core strengths: utter insanity, and a visceral, joyous sense of combustibility. True Blood now deeply revels in the possibility that any given moment on the show could violently explode into beautiful, raw, sexy chaos. The show thrives on this constant state of danger, handling it with an intense stare and crazed, high-velocity humor. The dialogue snarls, rips and tears through every scene like one of the wolves amped-up on Vampire blood. The writers throw lines like Jason Bourne throws punches: this is writing like Krav Maga – the  brilliance reveals itself with dizzying speed, line after line after line.

All this has been richly surrounded in this season by the growing depth and complexity of the vampire political and power structures, which has proved to be fascinating source of menace, conflict and fascination, and a chance for the actors to play some great scenes.

The energy from the actors in this particular episode was fantastic, and they had awesome writing to work with, to play with. Watching James Frain access pitch-perfect, utterly unhinged madness as the crazy vampire Franklin Mott (interesting in itself as the show hadn’t shown us vampires who were truly insane), or Stephen Moyer and Denis O’Hare as Bill and Russell playing their diabolically subtle power games, or Anna Paquin continuing her raw, edgy emotional makeover. In many ways, it was Franklin and Tara that propelled this episode with the show’s signature blend, its seamless, unholy and explosive mix of “what the f**k?!”, genuine danger, and sick, literally twisted humor. When Bill and Lorena had their vampire hate sex at the end of episode three, this writing team delivered their TV game-changer: as Lorena’s head slowly turned around, so did the television landscape.

That’s what Alan Ball and his writers (and the stellar cast and crew), have done with this season: changed the landscape, with each episode, with each scene, with each line sometimes. They are charging the show with plummeting rollercoaster velocity into completely unpredictable territory: we have no idea which insane left turn it’s going to take next, and that’s an extraordinary feat of story-breaking. Not only that, these writers deliver some truly nuanced emotional and psychological arcs, accessing the existential sadness of the vampire’s existence, and the many kinds of desire, the endless different ways we can lust after each other.

If there’s anything to criticize, it’s that Jason’s arc seems to be far away from the rest of the converging stories, Sam’s story is unfolding at a slower pace than the other arcs, and for now, Jessica appears to have been abandoned in Merlotte’s. This last is particularly upsetting since, as one character put it, Jessica is a “smokin’ hot vampire, in the majors.” Yes, she is. Therefore it would be great to see her brought into the monumental clusterf**k that is undoubtedly awaiting the rest of the characters by season’s end.

However, if there’s one thing we’ve learned from watching this show, it’s this: trust the writers.

Firstly, they know how to amp shit up: they salvaged the relative smallness of Jason’s story (compared to the high drama of the others) by pulling out a “classic Jason” moment, giving Ryan Kwanten an actor’s dream entrance to a scene: they were duly rewarded with ‘Jason Stackhouse’ being the number one trending topic on Twitter the next day.

Secondly, simply, they always weave their complex plot strands together in the end, as amply demonstrated by the previous two seasons.

Each episode so far this season has roared through the TV stratosphere, and the deep, dark power of the wars to come is looming. This is one of TV’s most purely thrilling experiences, and this episode took it further still.

Empire State Of Mind / falsetto prophecies

It takes a certain state of mind to never settle, never accept; to always move onwards, deconstructing the past to make something never seen before. A certain kind of ruthlessness. To be new all the time is a fierce position to take. Constantly remaking your world is not an easy thing. Writers, painters, musicians, TV execs, all face the challenge of reinvention; sustaining relevance. Take Californication’s third season: it’s darker and more complicated, rougher than before. Its beautiful soul, in the form of Natasha McElhone, has drifted to the periphery of the show, at least for now. Without its soul it is lost somehow but still has its wayward charm, despite the rawness, the darkness. You fear for it, like you would fear for a charming alcoholic with a bottle of whiskey in hand. The intelligence and wit are there, but with more of an edge, a presence of rage beneath the surface. It’s like a Kris Kristofferson blues, a Warren Zevon comedown lament. Like days ending. The sky darkens, the night brings rain, whispering on the surface of our minds. Massive Attack’s new EP is that whisper. It’s a remixed promo for a forthcoming album – remixing the future this time – a pensive set of tracks. Beauty and loneliness in peripheral vision, half-dreaming. It’s a quiet yearning, an aching that never seems to stop. Much less quiet, disrupting the night with sound and fury, is Jay-Z, whose Blueprint 3 was recently released to a roar of critical approval, and the #1 spot – his 11th. It’s a monument to the relentless pursuit of being the best, the newest, the one and only contender; the Ali of rap, the Beyonce of pop. The album is like a triple-triple-espresso in every beat, like the sentences in James Ellroy’s latest opus, Blood’s A Rover; brutal, condensed violence, densely packed yet overarching, epic – it has much in common with Blueprint 3. This Jay-Z of novelists went so deep into the darkness of his characters to feel them truthfully that he lost himself in a breakdown. It’s the ongoing theme – the danger of journeying into the dark for art. Fortunately Ellroy made it back; truly a giant of American fiction, of any fiction – looming over the literary landscape. The U2 of fiction, towering like the Alien Claw set on U2’s current tour. The monstrous structure rising out of Giants Stadium like a mothership about to lift off, past the intense line of the Manhattan night skyline ripping the night alive, heading away from NYC into a shimmering oceanic density of thousands of glittering lights. The entire structure rippling thousands of times a second with light roaring majestically into space. It’s philosophically astute, this Spaceship set. It shocks you out of your usual ways of experiencing and your perceptual expectations like Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project, opening your mind to the pure, unmediated experience; what you “know” set aside in favor of what is. Exhilaration, over the top, like the skyline, too beautiful to be real; an empire state of mind. All writers need this state of mind over their own literary kingdoms. We need to build our spaceships and not be afraid to take off. Vision. Vertigo. The two often go hand in hand. Creating the blueprints for the future to rise alongside the skylines we’ve already made. Always hustling, looking for the greatest line, the most perfect four minute song, or riff, or story, or novel. Each one must be the best, better than the last, better than the rest. “I move onward, the only direction, can’t be scared to fail in the search of perfection,” raps Jay-Z in On To The Next One. What joins them all is the bold vision that deconstructs what went before and refashions the future according to their creativity, their souls. Like Lady GaGa deconstructing pop to build the mezzo architecture of Paparazzi, then deconstructing Poker Face into a metallic heliosphere and her own unprocessed voice, dizzyingly, exhilaratingly pure, her naked voice the most beautiful it has ever sounded, as though through the metal and light she’s revealing her soul to us with eerie intensity. Like the Weather Project, like U2’s mothership, the lights and fury and sheer unexpectedness of it all shock our perceptual framework sideways and then we experience unmediated exactly what the artist wants us to. With Lady GaGa, it’s her lonely, lovely voice that strips back the meaning of the song and rebuilds it again. U2 do it with I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight, utterly dismantling the song and retrofitting it into a pusling techno behemoth that could only exist beneath the Claw. Ellroy does it in Blood’s A Rover, attacking and restacking his narrative style. This might be the mark of the truest artist; they can fragment what came before into something new and beautiful, then deconstruct and remix their own creations into futuristic, stripped back yet magnificent new versions. Striving for the new, finding a new visual, verbal or musical language, a new language of movement in choreography; new ways of moving us and touching our souls. Like Michael Chabon’s Trickster In A Suit Of Lights, the exuberantly talented mischief-maker who exists in the spaces between the things we know. Bono embodies this literally during Ultraviolet towards the end of the show, in his suit covered with red laser-like lights, hundreds of red lines piercing the blue otherworldy glow around him with chaotic geometry. The Trickster looks for the action in the borders between things, the places where new directions take form; this is where U2 dwell, more experimental and progressive than many give them credit for. After two straight-up rock albums, they returned with a quietly ruminative piece, from which they launched one of the biggest rock tours of all time, journeying around the planet in their Spaceship/Alien Claw creation, bringing out of the hushed quiet of No Line on The Horizon the behemoth of the 360 tour. True tricksters (in the best sense) of hearts and minds.
“I’m going in for the kill, I’m doing it for the thrill…” La Roux
This played before the U2 show, as the sun set beyond Giants Stadium, a cool breeze flowed around the massive set and 84,000 people slowly appeared, the crowd intensifying as the sky grew dark and Muse unleashed their stadium-sized post-apocalyptic bombast via screaming, squalling brutal guitar riffing, Matt Bellamy’s falsetto prophecies ringing out loud and clear as the band roared out from beneath. Then the lights went out, U2 lit up, and for 2 hours and 15 minutes, the future came back through a massive rift in the time-space music continuum, spinning and flashing wildly, a close encounter with a future state of mind, an empire state of mind.

In Search Of The Miraculous / lighting up the sky

“….a riddle’s just the thing for a dreamer…” Tom Waits.

Not an easy thing, to talk about ‘the miraculous’ without irony. It exists, however you want to define it or refer to it, and we all, in our own way, seek it. And we all have our own version of what it means, which is miraculous in itself, that one concept can survive and in fact be enhanced by having six billion possible meanings, and probably more ways than that of finding it.

We’re human; aren’t we all really looking for the miraculous, one way or another? We might not call it that, but whether we look for it in love, religion, sex, dancing or reality TV, or maybe all of the above, maybe all at the same time, it’s what being human is all about. We need something beyond ourselves, which by the way, just to help you out, is usually found within us. We just need help bringing it to light, if we’ve gone into the darkness to find it, which, being human, we often do, especially as writers, artists, dancers, dreamers and other holy and degenerate chroniclers of the human condition.

“I tell you that I wanna go, but I wanna stay…” The Ahn Trio.

Hubert Selby Jr has words quoted elsewhere in this blog about the risk of not coming back from that darkness. Transforming yourself emotionally in the name of art can be dangerous. You can read that figuratively, emotionally, psychologically, or simply literally. Dutch artist Bas Jan Ader vanished at sea while attempting to complete his enigmatic work, In Search Of The Miraculous. Even back in 1973, it was meant with ironic detachment. It was to be comprised of photographs of a walk through Los Angeles from the freeway to the ocean; photographs from a similar trek in Amsterdam, and details from the Atlantic crossing he undertook, just him in a small boat, the solitary journey during which he disappeared. The Los Angeles photos are evocative in their directness, William Eggleston by way of Weegee. Each one is accompanied by a lyric fragment of a song by the Coasters’ (“I’m searchin’, I’m searchin’ every which way…”) and what could have been mundane and everyday is now something other, something more. It’s simultaneously a deconstruction and a celebration. They coexist, and their coexistence is essential for the miraculous. Like lovers. Transcendence can only occur from opposition.

“All I want is what you got… I know I’m gonna lose myself this way…” The Ahn Trio.

It doesn’t really need saying at this point, but let’s say it anyway: the miraculous is everywhere, and often shows up when you’re not even looking for it. It’s re-watching the first twelve episodes of Californication and realizing all over again how deftly the irreverence sits with the emotional body blows, the brutal human truths. It’s watching a dancer called Kayla Jenee Radomski from a place called Aurora delivering a wrenching performance to the Ahn Trio’s All I Want, lighting up the sky with moves drenched in wanting and loss and desperation that remind you exactly what it feels like to hurt for someone. It’s watching a performance like this and realizing that writers just have to grasp that sometimes words just aren’t even close to being enough to compete with the eloquence of the body. It’s seeing your lover smile for the first time as your lover. It’s seeing your lover smile for the three thousandth time, and still feeling it light you up. It could be a first kiss… or the last kiss… slow-fading memories of how it used to be, or what could have been… or knowing how things could be. Or breathing clean air on a bright shiny morning and for once, not feeling any pain.

“…why’d you have to wait, where were you, where were you?” The Fray.

‘The miraculous’ can be any or many things, and it’s probably not what you expected. It may not be what you were hoping for, and it might come later than you wanted. You might call it and it doesn’t return your messages… but it is there, always. And if it isn’t (and forgive me for this, because I’m writing this on an iPhone), there’s probably an app for that. Once your higher power of choice gets into the app development market, we’ll all be OK.

Until then, you could do worse than follow the lyric that starts this post, and listen to some Tom Waits. Whatever you choose, miracles await.

beyond the darkness lies the truth

Emotional truths are risky things to obtain. To place yourself in the emotional abyss in order to tell us something about the human soul is a dangerous enterprise, whether you are an actress, writer, philosopher, musician, creator of art installations, dancer… Why do we search for this? What possesses artists to go on the difficult journey to bring us some kind of truth? Showtime’s series Californication gives us some insight into this journey, telling the story of Hank Moody, a New York writer forced to stay in LA by a relationship that subsequently disintegrated, leaving him washed up in the brutal city of artists and dreamers. The first episode of this series was a masterpiece in miniature. It revealed the writer, played by David Duchovny in a manner described by the Guardian as “revelatory,” tormented by the emotional realities of a life truly messed up. The writer whose “exercise in nihilism”, God Hates Us All, was turned into a romantic comedy. The writer whose insistence on an alternative, punk, rock’n’roll, Bukowski-loving, tradition-shunning outlook on life has separated him from the love of his life, and his daughter. He journeyed into the darkness to write brutal truths, and perhaps didn’t come all the way back. That first episode ended with Hank staring helplessly into the darkness of an LA night, with My Morning Jacket’s version of Rocket Man drifting mournfully in the background. It conjured an intergalactic loneliness, the lonely voice of God murmuring truths about the dark night beyond the lights, the lizard kings and run-down bars, strange creatures moving around out there, and nothing human left in the universe; a perfect encapsulation of isolation. By the end of episode two, Hank was alone, again, sitting in his car at night, desperately haunted by the emptiness of the passenger seat, while a voice on the soundtrack described how “some nights I wish that the sun would never show its face.” Hubert Selby Jr, author of searing, unflinching portrayals of the human soul such as Requiem For A Dream and The Demon, writes of the requirement to to go as deep into the darkness as possible to bring back the truth into the light. He notes that, “obviously, there is always the chance that you will go too deeply into the darkness and not come back.” He took the risk of the artist in placing himself in unsettling and terrible emotional places; walking the emotional and psychological high-wire out to, and back from, from the loneliest of places. Searching in these lonely places for truth, discovering things about what it means to be human; this is not the end. The journey back still awaits; the truths must be conveyed. It has been said many times that writers lie to tell the truth, since words on a page are not truths or things in the world; they are words on a page, symbols, non-representational. How should the artist convey the things they have discovered? What language should they use? Words and movements, art and music, can evoke these elusive emotions. The most non-representational form can convey the most exact truth. Acting, for example, is not real, but the transformation of consciousness it requires cannot be faked. Who really knows what transformative effects the truth will have upon one’s consciousness? One cannot truly know without experiencing it. It’s why we do it.