Fishing with John
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John Lurie knows absolutely nothing about fishing, but that doesn’t stop him from undertaking the adventure of a lifetime in Fishing with John. Traveling with his special guests to the most exotic and dangerous places on earth, John Lurie battles sharks with Jim Jarmusch off the tip of Long Island, goes ice fishing with Willem Dafoe at Maine’s northernmost point, braves the Costa Rican jungle with Matt Dillon, takes Tom Waits to Jamaica, and searches for the elusive giant squid with Dennis Hopper in Thailand.
In one of their more out-of-left-field releases, The Criterion Collection presents John Lurie’s 1992 Bravo television series Fishing with John on DVD in 480i resolution. All six episodes are featured on a single dual-layer disc in their original television ratio of 1.33:1.
The series was shot in Hi8 Video, an analog format limited to about 400 lines of resolution. That is more than VHS but fewer than the 480 lines NTSC standard-definition digital offers, meaning artifacts from the conversion are to be expected on top of whatever is already baked into the original source. Not at all promising, yet, over two decades later, the presentations hold up relatively well, despite all that.
That said, artifacts are still aplenty, ranging from blocky patterns to edge-enhancement and moiré effects, all further hindered by the fact the picture is interlaced, leading to ghosting, jagged edges, and combing rearing their heads. Still, none of these issues end up being the mess I was expecting, the image remaining relatively stable and clean throughout the entire series runtime. Detail is limited, as expected, but I was still surprised by how good close-ups could look. The biggest surprise, though, may have to be the colors, which appear wonderfully saturated and bright. The blue sky in several shots looks perfect, and greens and reds look vibrant without bleeding.
All-in-all, despite everything going against this material—from the source materials to the digital transfer to the very limitations of the DVD format—these episodes look remarkably good, all things considered, and you get a decent looking video presentation.
All six episodes include Dolby Digital stereo soundtracks. Based on the comments Lurie makes in the included commentaries, it does sound like he had a sound crew with him (he also looped in several sound effects), which explains why this presentation sounds as good as it does.
Dialogue is clear and shows excellent fidelity and range without any sign of distortion. Stereo effects are evident throughout each episode, the most apparent moment being the Ski-doos going left to right in the opening of the Willem Dafoe episode. The dry, matter-of-fact voice-over narration provided by Robb Webb (offering some of the bigger laughs) also sounds deep with great range.
Like the video, the audio exceeds expectations.
Episodes are listed individually from the main menu alongside the disc's supplements, but the episodes will play through one after the other without having to return to the menu.
Impressively, for this edition, Criterion got Lurie to sit and record commentaries for each episode, and they prove to be quite a bit of fun. He talks about each episode, sharing stories about location scouting, working with locals, and finding where the good fishing was (depressingly, it was hard to find good fishing spots due to environmental issues already back in 1992, so who knows how things are now), on top of material about his celebrity guests. In that last case, he recounts stories of first meeting Dennis Hopper, working with Willem Dafoe on The Last Temptation of Christ, and more. But I found I most enjoyed his details around filming, editing, and constructing the individual stories, along with all of the surprises that come up along the way, including when working with video and what one does when they realize they didn’t get all of the coverage or cutaways that they needed. Ha also has plenty of stories around financing, most of the money coming from a Japanese corporation (that eventually went bankrupt) that sounds to have been (insanely) game with what Lurie was doing. It sounds as though the only concession he had to make was placing Matt Dillon in one episode, someone he had never worked with before, which explains why the vibe in that episode is "off." As he points out, most of his guests were all in and didn’t mind appearing to be a fool (Dafoe especially), but Dillon was especially guarded and wasn’t sure what he was doing there. It’s a fun and informative track, Lurie clearly enjoying the look back (8 or so years later at the time of recording).
And it’s a good thing the commentary covers so much because there’s nothing else to be found on the disc outside of a music video for the Lounge Lizards’ (Lurie's band) “Big Heart” and an insert featuring a short essay by music journalist Michael Azerrad. Interviews with the guest stars might have been fun, though I don’t know how likely that could have been.
(As a note, I turned on the commentary, started with the first episode, and played through to the last one. When episode 4 started, it defaulted to the episode’s track, not the commentary. I switched back to the commentary track, and it stayed on through the remaining episodes.)
Though I wish there were more material, Criterion has put together a fun little edition. The presentation, sourced from video material, probably looks better than it has any right to, while Lurie’s commentaries are entertaining and informative.