Review: ‘Painting With John’ represents HBO at its most worthwhile: arty and unpredictable
Every once in a while HBO will slip something strange into the lineup of shows on which it stakes its fortune — your “Game of Thrones,” your “Undoing.” Something arty for art’s sake, something odd for oddity’s sake, like Terence Nance’s “Random Acts of Flyness” or “How To with John Wilson.” They may not bring in large audiences, or dominate the chatter on social media, or prompt multiple stories in the press, but for my money, these unpredictable exceptions represent the channel at its most worthwhile.
Such is John Lurie’s “Painting With John,” an idiosyncratic bagatelle whose second episode (of six) premieres Friday. First known as a musician and an actor, pursuits he was forced to abandon by the Lyme disease that still troubles him, Lurie turned to painting, and this new series, whose title calls back to his 1991 IFC/Bravo series “Fishing With John,” finds him making pictures and telling stories on the unnamed, tropical “tiny island” he calls home.
Seemingly straightforward, unscripted if not exactly unplanned, “Painting With John” also raises questions of just what games Lurie might be playing here. He has worked in the space between authenticity and invention before, recording in the persona of Malian-Jewish bluesman Marvin Pontiac, while “Fishing With John” — which saw him out in the wild with Tom Waits, Jim Jarmusch, Dennis Hopper, Willem Dafoe and Matt Dillon — mixed a little fiction in with its facts. Each episode of “Painting” opens with what is either a failed attempt to fly a drone for the opening credits or a successful attempt to crash a drone for the opening credits.
It is more Spalding Gray than Bob Ross. (“I just want people to know that none of the trees in my paintings are happy,” Lurie says in the opening episode, “Bob Ross Was Wrong.”) That Lurie is credited as writer and director, with Erik Mockus photographer and editor, suggests that he might actually be in control whenever the series seems to be something that’s being done to or about him, rather than by or with him. “I don’t know why I’m doing this show,” he’ll tell the viewer. “Do me a favor and just turn it off... If you don’t turn it off, at least don’t tell anybody about it.” And, “It’s a very strange thing to do to talk into a camera like you’re talking to a person…. and people that can actually do it well, they’re probably sociopaths, ‘cause it’s just a weird thing to do.”
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Lurie’s vivid watercolors, which bear titles like “Bob didn’t believe in evolution so God turned him into a flower” and “Toward the end, she would sit on the porch and see things that may or may not have been there,” are shown whole in the closing credits; viewers will have their opinions, but the point isn’t whether he’s a good artist by art world standards. Lurie’s career, as a musician (the Lounge Lizards, the score to “Get Shorty” and the theme to “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” ), as an actor (“Stranger Than Paradise,” “Down By Law,” “Oz”), and now as a painter, has been one of autodidactic self-invention, of finding a way to beauty that doesn’t require virtuosity.
As he works, he tells stories from childhood and of grown-up fame, about meeting Barry White (good) and Gore Vidal (bad); the last time he saw Anthony Bourdain (“I’m agoraphobic now”); his brother and bandmate Evan Lurie and their love of John Coltrane and Little Walter; and how, exhausted from cancer treatment (“Don’t make that face, I had cancer, I beat it, that’s done, it’s in the past”), he nearly blew himself to bits attempting to reheat a curry.
The mood is mostly meditative. Plants sway in the breeze, tree frogs sing, Lurie sits and stares. Much of it is devoted to watching paint move from brush to paper, very close up, and it is pretty and satisfying. (Lyme has not affected his fine motor control.) When things get more active, it’s along the lines of the star rolling a tire down a hill (“Make sure you have a little fun every day”) or pretending to be an elephant (“I’m not really a elephant, you know — I’m John”), trying to free a bird from his room, and “the section of our program where we show you how the white people dance.” Here and there we see him with employee castmates Nesrin Wolf and Ann Mary Gludd James: “Would you mind telling the folks at home what a good and fair boss I am?” he asks, as the women stare back at him and at one another. (It is comedy; elsewhere he will be called “adorable.”) In his person, Lurie mixes adult weariness with a childlike playfulness, while the show as a whole feels at once homemade and elegant.
There is a sort of arc to the series, in that Lurie’s circumstances come increasingly, if never completely, into focus; that what we’re watching is by the end framed in a slightly different way; and that the last episode builds toward a fanciful dance in the garden, like something out of Henri Rousseau, that has the force of a small, affecting finale. That it also concludes with the title card, “The End,” suggests we have been told a story as much as having been shown a life.
‘Painting With John’
When: 11 p.m. Friday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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