John Lurie, whose body of work includes writing the score for Get Shorty, roles in Down by Law and The Last Temptation of Christ, and museum-worthy paintings, has a new TV show on HBO: Painting With John, in which the one-time leader of the Lounge Lizards demonstrates his watercolor technique while offering curmudgeonly observations about art and life. Audiences encountering Lurie for the first time may want to seek out more of his work, but it can be hard to know where to start with an artist whose career spans so many different types of media over so many years. In this case, however, the answer is pretty simple. Painting With John is a sequel of sorts to Fishing With John, Lurie’s cult hit from the 1990s in which he took celebrity guests on fishing expeditions. If you like one, you’ll probably like the other. But where to start with Fishing With John?
Fishing With John only ever had six episodes, and they average about 25 minutes apiece; you can watch the whole thing in less time than The Irishman. Produced in 1990 and 1991 with money from a now-gone Japanese production company—the Lounge Lizards were big in that country—the series languished for years without domestic distribution, occasionally surfacing at film festivals or trade shows before IFC finally picked it up in 1998. Although early press mentioned an episode with Isabella Rossellini, by the time the show hit TV screens she’d vanished, and Lurie’s fishing trip with Dennis Hopper was stretched to fill the last two episodes. I’d love to know whether Isabella Rossellini ever went fishing, but “too much Dennis Hopper footage for one episode” is an extremely high-class problem to have. There’s no better place to start Fishing With John than with the final episode, “Thailand With Dennis Hopper, Part Two,” which pushes the show’s dryly deranged take on fishing, travel, and celebrity to its furthest limits.
Beginning a show with the series finale, and the second part of a two-part episode to boot, is usually a recipe for confusion, but Fishing With John is not really a serial. Like the fishing shows it sends up—now mostly banished to dedicated cable networks but a “this is terrible but nothing else is on” TV staple back in the broadcast days—Fishing With John can be watched in any order. Each episode works more or less the same way: Lurie takes perfectly normal video footage of himself fishing (well, goofing around, mostly) with guests like Willem Dafoe or Matt Dillon, then uses dramatic editing, music, and an authoritative-sounding voice-over from Robb Webb to exploit the difference between what’s on screen and what the audio is telling us is on screen. In Dennis Hopper’s case, what’s on screen is two white men shooting the shit while visiting local tourist attractions and hanging out on a Thai fishing boat. According to the wildly inaccurate voice-over, however, we’re watching their life-or-death quest to be the first men to successfully capture a giant squid.
The gaps are dizzying from the very beginning: Over footage of Lurie and Hopper riding around in their boat, Webb’s voice-over freely mixes fact and fiction, proclaiming the giant squid “the largest, strongest, fastest, cruelest, most cunning and ferocious of all animals,” before going on to note that it “has the power to hypnotize most mammals.” After setting up this epic conflict between man and hypnotic invertebrate, Lurie lets us hear a snippet of Dennis Hopper’s conversation as he prepares for battle. “Cole Porter kicked me out of his house once,” Hopper tells Lurie. “Said I was a cave man.”
From there, a visit to a Buddhist cave temple becomes, in the narrator’s telling, a consultation with “squid monks” who “live in seclusion and study the ways of the giant squid.” (The stories Fishing With John’s narrator tells about the locals, who rarely seem to be in on the joke, have not aged as well as the rest of it.) As a crash course in using “real” footage to tell a fake story, Fishing With John was a great primer for the wave of reality TV that followed. The climactic confrontation between Lurie, Hopper, and the giant squid takes place entirely in post-production, but it’s no less thrilling or hilarious for that. If you like the episode, you’ll like the show; if you find it insufferable, well, you’re only 25 minutes older.