It’s a question that is constantly burning in the back of any aspiring cinephile’s mind: “Have I truly plumbed the depths of the Criterion Collection?” You know what I’m talking about. Those moments when you’re trying to get to sleep at night yet find yourself growing anxious over Eclipse Series sets that you’ve foolishly ignored, the fact that Robocop is out-of-print and way too expensive, the crushing realization that the reissue of Playtime probably has way cooler extras than your no-longer-so-trusty original, and the embarrassment of having only seen five of the Six Moral Tales…it’s enough to wear a man (or woman) down. Luckily, Facets’ Videotheque is well-stocked with Criterion titles, including some rarely discussed oddities. Released way back in 1999 prior to the label’s string of graphic design overhauls, Fishing With John collects six episodes of a peculiar and far too short-lived TV series that originally aired in 1991 on IFC. The John in the title is John Lurie, who made his name in the early ’80s downtown New York scene as leader of the “fake jazz” group the Lounge Lizards. His lead performance as bohemian loafer Willie in Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise led to an acting career that included roles in Wild At Heart, Paris, Texas, and The Last Temptation of Christ, as well as Jarmusch’s next film, Down By Law. After the ’90s, however, Lurie seemed to have all but dropped off the face of the earth, as health problems, extreme paranoia (which you can read all about here), and an interest in painting began to override his seemingly expired hip actor/musician reputation.
But before Lurie’s “lost years” set in, he did manage to put his celebrity credentials to use in the best possible way: by creating a self-referential absurdist parody of TV fishing programs (of course.) Each episode consists of Lurie dragging one of his film world acquaintances along on a fishing trip in locations that range from about Maine to Bangkok on an unofficial scale of exoticness. Lurie isn’t exactly an expert fisherman and rarely has success catching anything, but the title of the show doesn’t imply that it’s instructional, informative, interesting, etc. Rather, “Fishing With John” simply describes what these situations are: Jim Jarmusch, Tom Waits, Matt Dillon, Willem Dafoe, and Dennis Hopper all go fishing with John, and they all experience varying degrees of discomfort and boredom depending on their relationships with both the sport and John himself.
Seeing how each of these men deals with being plopped into the wild with limited human contact is fascinating and hysterical. A sunglasses-clad Jim Jarmusch puffs on a cigarette, stares at the water, and wonders aloud, “Why am I here?” (i.e. on a boat with John Lurie trying to catch sharks.) Tom Waits grows seasick, kills time by putting a fish in his pants, and hates Lurie by the end of the episode (they didn’t speak for years afterwards.) Matt Dillon, who was brought on the show to Lurie’s chagrin after original guest Flea wasn’t able to make it, lounges around drinking Fanta and isn’t a very good conversationalist. Willem Dafoe actually seems into the whole thing (videotaping their ice-fishing trip in Maine was what inspired Lurie to create the series), while Dennis Hopper consumes a lot of soda and candy, repeatedly calls his companion “Johnny,” and insists that his character in Easy Rider doesn’t actually die at the end.
Personally, I would love to have access to hours of raw footage from these excursions, but the ways that Lurie creatively condenses everything make me wish that he had branched out from music and acting more often. The show plays as part travelogue, part bizarre social experiment, and all just one big attempt to make an amusing use of 22 minutes and a modest budget. There’s some subtle fun had with visual effects and melodramatic music, while the narration provided by Robb Webb seems to be mocking the very idea of narration, spewing non-sensical profundities left and right (“Whether there is such a thing as a giant squid, life is still beautiful. Every breath. Every day of our lives. Ah… fishing.”) And if not much seems to be happening, said narration is quick-wittedly one step ahead of the viewer (after we have endured a few awkward exchanges with Matt Dillon separated by long stretches of nothing, there’s Webb on the soundtrack stating, “I think this is John’s best show!”)
Going off interviews from the ’90s, Lurie’s hopes for Fishing With John‘s non-existent future suggest an idealistic level of ambition decidedly not grounded in reality. He figured that a wider audience would embrace his show as they embraced Seinfeld (“Nothing happens on my show either and it’s just as funny”), that TBS could be convinced to run episodes during rain delays of televised sports games, and that the next step was to expand the pool of guests to include people like Noam Chomsky and Martina Navratilova. It is indeed a shame that John Lurie ended up getting lyme disease instead of seeing his dreams come to fruition. But the missed-opportunity dimension is outweighed by the fact that something this weird was actually funded, broadcast, and eventually released in a home viewing format, which I’m not about to take for granted. Like Get A Life and Check It Out! with Dr. Steve Brule, Fishing With John embodies a singular brand of offbeat humor that manipulates and defies conventions while succumbing to none. Not only is it funnier than most TV shows, it’s also a total breeze to get through. Once you’ve spent 147 minutes watching all the episodes, you can watch them again with commentary, and that’s still, what, about five hours? Sounds like one swell afternoon. Swing by and rent it today (or whenever I decide to return it.)
– Garret Kriston