01.I don’t think films have left cinema rooms to reappear on TV screens, as people say. However, I’m convinced that projects such as Community or True Detective are as influential, when it comes to renovating what has been termed as contemporary ‘audiovisual’, as Pedro Costa, James Gray, Arnaud Desplechin and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest movies, or the late museum works by Chantal Akerman and Harun Farocki. And the same could be said, no doubt, of Breaking Bad, The Wire, Perdidos or The Walking Dead, even if my expertise on the subject is only based in some episodes. Maybe, as can be deduced from Adrian Martin’s essential last book, Mise en Scène and Film Style, what we knew as ‘film’ has become ‘a mise en scène’ able to be translated into many other formats and devices, so that we can’t pre-establish qualitative borders between a feature film and a series episode, an installation and a YouTube video. It seems obvious, but some sectors of film’s old guard are still reluctant before the possibility. That’s why I still find difficult to justify, with more or less powerful arguments, why two television discourses such as Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm and Louis C.K.’s Louie, both broadcasted during the first years of this century, should be counted among the most innovative products presented in the moving image field and, as such, comparable in importance and influence to the most radical films of the avant-garde.
Everything progresses at such a speed, though, that on my behalf I can’t do anything else than staying behind time after time, to try and painfully advance again, always at a certain distance from what’s happening. This isn’t about being à la page, of developing a snobbery the only purpose of which is a constant research on what’s new for the mere sake of it being new, but quite the contrary, of not losing these renovations from sight in order to detect their pertinence and submit them to a relentless and ruthless critical analysis. The first attitude has to do with a certain kind of reactionary conformity, since it accepts the fluctuation of hypes from the perspective of ‘progress’, that fallacy of technocratic power. The second, however, is related to the rhythms of thought liberated from any ties except one, which links it to tradition, to heritage, to the past understood as the continuous learning of a canon always updating itself and never closed: each thing I see can change everything. And precisely that’s what I was telling myself when, throughout this year, two series as huge as Baskets and Horace and Pete, both related one way or another to Louis C.K.,* (who has taken very seriously his role as main defender of dark comedy; see also Better Things or One Mississippi), made me, again, think anew about several questions. Let’s see what I mean.
02.Somehow, the aforementioned Curb Your Enthusiasm and Louie were the peaks of so-called post-humour in at least two different ways. First: they took the spectator to the limits of uneasiness before characters and situations located at the other end of sitcoms, that is, alien to clever dialogue lines or immediate gags, in benefit of a growing strangeness of the comedian not only before the world around him, but also before the classic codes that should be supposedly used to provoke laughter. Second: once they crossed that line, they ended up facing the disturbing possibilities of drama. Was comedy no longer enough or, to put it another way, once they reached this point, there was no other choice but to transform humour into melancholy? In any case, both Larry David and Louis C.K. created humour spaces in which there was also room for a reflection on their own borders, on the possibility that the idealised territory of laughter was covering the inevitability of its other side, grimace. And of the fact that it couldn’t be carried out from a perspective that wasn’t film theory, since both series resort to the most disturbing counterpoint and off-screen to talk about themselves and the genre they come from. Curb Your Enthusiasm is about a comedian that can no longer make comedies, who keeps the humorous fiction outside his story to portray the miseries of his audience. We never see anything else than his day to day life, the way he copes with the impossibility of laughter and sees himself overwhelmed by what spontaneously pops-up from that clash, something that also makes us laugh but in a different way. Louie begins each episode, almost, with a humour monologue to later illustrate it with a much greyer and miserable everyday experience. In both cases, what makes us laugh seems located, almost locked up, outside the plot so that it’s us, as active spectators, who proceed with their deconstruction.
It could be said that Baskets and Horace and Pete are like the perfect distillation of all those generic and narrative experiments, the definitive step –particularly the second one– towards a post-drama that has already surpassed post-comedy, if you’ll allow me to put it in such simple terms. The first is based on the typical meta-comedy mask, the figure of the clown, to go on developing the story of the loss of an identity that finally becomes an encounter with oneself. Baskets is a French school clown, who, back in his natal Bakersfield, California, from his dream Paris, is made to fight three different fronts that in the end are only one, since in what was ‘the new world’ there’s no longer room for creative humour (he ends up working during the breaks of a rodeo show), or romanticism (the girl who travels with him from Paris only does so to get her green card), or a return to the roots (both his mum and his twin brother are ghostly caricatures of that family ideal that constantly evades him). Should I only laugh about his failure, his lacking, in what is little by little built as the cruel and ridiculous mise en scène of a vital collapse, or take it as a turn towards melodrama, even tragedy, inhabited in this case by a hero that has been condemned from the beginning? And up to what point that disappears, in Horace and Pete, to show everyday life in a NY bar, property for decades of a dysfunctional family, being Horace an aloof and grumpy divorcé, and Pete a schizophrenic isolated in his own universe of fears and phobias, and being their surroundings an undecipherable mess full of hardened alcoholics and helpless loners, all of them with their elbows on a bar as a kind of metaphor of impossible communication, of a cosmic and devastating loneliness? Why, in Horace and Pete, the Louie monologues are pushed into the bar, uttered by those characters who seem to have no home whatsoever, emerging from Donald Trump’s dark America to act as a Greek chorus of the main stories, which are interwoven, full of ellipses and misunderstandings, reduced sometimes to a couple of mute gestures at breakfast, when the main events –a suicide, an escape, a love failure– which conform the story are always off-screen?
* Louis C.K. is one of the creators and producers of Baskets and the scriptwriter, director and main character of Horace and Pete. Zach Galifianakis is the creator, executive producer and main character of Baskets.
03.That’s the way it is: what we see is as important as what we don’t see, to the point that both things end up making up a blurry and shady mixture, a sort of nightmarish dream between genre and something beyond it, between reality and what previous fictions of the same kind have done with it. In Baskets, the peculiar love story between the protagonist and Martha, the dazed insurance agent he meets at the beginning, is fragmentary and elusive, we never know the details until she becomes the unexpected and ultimate executioner of his dreams, while the plot is able to devote a whole episode to the search of a relative lost many years before, in what would seem a scruffy western, or a shabby road movie, inside the comedy that the whole series is meant to be. In Horace and Pete, the episodes have different lengths, sometimes divided up into separate parts, but others a dialogue between two characters can take up the whole episode, or an apparently pointless conversation on the bar end up becoming the foreword of a subsequent minimal plot. If I said earlier, with an aplomb that would better fit a different cause, that I don’t think current American series are more original and creative than Hollywood films, I’ve got to add now, without worrying about the apparent contradiction, that there’s no doubt of the fact that some mise-en-scène models that seemed banned from film productions are finding their place in TV fiction.** At the same time that Baskets could be an indefinite mixture between the most stylised Fellini fantasy and the tradition of Hollywood’s coarse realism ranging from King Vidor to Richard Linklater, Horace and Pete takes as a reference the ferocious and raw nature of some of Bergman’s works to frame them in that bitter naturalism emanating from original US puritan culture.
Both series, thus, seem to deliberately ignore eighties and nineties post-modern irony and playfulness –where most contemporary series spring from, and which, on the other hand, such different projects as Stranger Things destroy with evident bad faith– to go back to a time in which the most important thing was first degree emotion, maybe seventies New Hollywood moments in which European modernity had left a deep and eloquent impression without a need to destroy American inheritance. I mean that there’s no place here for recreational Steven Spielberg fiction, or for Norah Ephron’s re-elaborated comedies, or for reiterative Adrian Lyne’s melodrama. Here we play in the space of a primitive and coarse existentialism that uses references as a kind of protective shield, not as an Arcadian and self-satisfied universe from which to evoke a certain paradise lost, but as an original sin to which we are made to go back again and again around the circles of hell, since living seems no other thing than repeating the same mistakes again and again, and the history of America is nothing else than a succession of losers and rootless people, banned forever from the Garden of Eden. Should I be sincere –and I think I should be–, I’d tell you that Louis C.K. and Zach Galifianakis are revealed, in their latest creations, as the inhabitants of a territory abandoned by great part of contemporary film, an area that has been deserted. It isn’t where some of the aforementioned directors, from Costa to Weerasethakul, find themselves, but the place they started from because they considered it a wasteland, or maybe inadequate for what they had in mind. In any case, Baskets and Horace and Pete prove that it’s still possible to transmit these feelings without having to resort to recycling or nostalgia.
04.I was talking to you earlier about tradition and about a canon that is always updating itself, if I can recall. How do Louis C.K. and Galifianakis’ series work in this sense? There’s seventies Hollywood films, as I said, that moment in which anything was possible for American fiction, when the life of the country was shown, torn apart and throbbing, to those of us who came from classic or modern European film, as if it were a logical continuation of both, and at the same time a connection with a certain American cultural tradition that is in the origins of both Baskets and Horace and Pete. The first one, the fable of the no class antihero, with the country seen from its more abysmal depths, comes as much from beat literature as from Arthur Penn and John Waters’ films, let’s say: a neurotic community in which there appears a character that is at the same time its product and its most ruthless critic, the adopted son who will never learn to accept it. The second, with its theatrical forms –the bar and the flat above it are the settings of almost all of the scenes– comes from that great tradition that goes from Eugene O’Neill to David Mamet, going through Tennessee Williams or William Inge, while its poetic resonance, that litany permeating each episode as a desolate wind, seem to bring echoes of Paul Simon’s rawest songs –that he has composed for the series– and the least indulgent of Woody Allen or maybe Sidney Lumet’s films, turning Louis C.K into the bastard son of Robert Browning and Sylvia Plath. Somehow, both prove that the mythical search for the Great American Novel isn’t only a literary question: at this point, that legendary fiction might find itself on TV.
** The first season of Baskets was broadcasted by FX, while Horace and Pete can only be seen through Louis C.K.’s web page, as he didn’t want to use any conventional production and distribution methods for what he described, from the beginning, as an unusual series not divided into seasons, but into ten fragments of unequal duration.