Television / Visual Media

Californication: when writing rocks

Being a writer has never been so exciting than in Californication. Sex, books and rock’n’roll is Hank Moody’s motto.

Californication

The main character of the series Californication created by Tom Kapinos, Hank Moody (David Duchovny), is a novelist, but not the common type. Witty and not so bad looking, Hank lives in the Venice district of Los Angeles, living out a rock ‘n’ roll version of the “Californian life” with his agent as best friend (Charlie Runkle played by Evan Handler). For the audience’s great pleasure, Hank’s life is skirting—and sometimes outrageously crossing—the edge of American morality.

Tom Kapinos chose to take the creativity concept literally by intertwining real life and fiction, which give more depth to the main character. For Hank has more than his surname, his glass of whisky and his old fashioned typewriter in common with Charles Bukowski’s alter-ego Hank Chinaski.

A self-destructive character

Hank Moody has few things in common with the cannon of the intellectual, lonesome and withdrawn writer one could have in mind. He persists making his life difficult, plunging right down into moving waves with his eyes closed, creating his own problems by playing the role of the melancholic and outcast poet like his name “Moody” implies. In love with Karen (Natascha McElhone) Hank keeps endangering their relationship by seeing other women, drinking and behaving selfishly.

For Hank would have been tedious if he had always lived the well-off “Californian life”. The fact that he was not rich, and even not prepared to be, but made his fortune by creating a piece of work makes him a legitimate and down to earth writer. The series plays well with the audience’s expectations in this sense. For instance, the ellipsis on Hank’s simple lifestyle when he lived in New York, where he was a common, unknown man who writing on an old typewriter in a barren loft that he shared with Karen.

Like Harry in the movie Deconstructing Harry by Woody Allen, Hank is “out of focus”. It seems that when Hank plays the hero or the perfect gentleman, he always fails at it. Having “incredible talent and flush[ing] it down the toilet” (“Pilot”) turns him into the “perfect” touching writer. The white page trauma acts like a thrill creating tension in the plot and worrying audiences who gamble on his destiny. But shots, like the one in which Hank finishes Lew’s Ashby biography reassure the audience.

The anti-hero questions and raises controversies a character with less personality would have failed at. Californication challenges right-thinking American values—family, sex, love and behavior— by giving the main character unusual features from regular television series.

Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll

Yet, contrary to Woody Allen’s antihero, Hank is the famous writer of Hollywood who lives a “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” life.

In season 5 episode 1, Mia Lewis (Madeline Zima), the sixteen year old daughter of Karen’s boyfriend Bill Lewis (Damian Young), praises him “you’re a fucking rock star”. The symbolic of rock ‘n’ roll attitude plays a pivotal role in the series for they characterize our anti-hero through a contemporary point of view, which the audience can recognize as a certain ultimate rock dream. The short but intense friendship between Hank and the rock band leader Lew Ashby, is key to the creation of Hank’s “rockstar” characteristics. Hank mirrors the rocker lifestyle— music, women, prostitutes, parties, sex, drinking— through his remarks after disapproving Lew’s behavior: “Jesus Christ, I just realized what it must be like to live with me”.

Rock ‘n’ roll clues are obvious but intentional for the series target. From the obvious tribute to The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ hit, to Hank’s novel titles which also refer to rock songs —such as “God Hates Us All” from the band Slayer. Hank’s black and white shirt style, electric guitars in the house, vinyls lying on the floor, old dusty convertible black car with one broken light. His daughter Becca listening to hard rock and playing guitar hero. All this wrapped with rock music soundtracks and drug addiction issues set the scene in order to grasp a certain target audience in quest of rebellion.

Beyond fiction

Californication, Hank-Moody

However, if Hank is supposed to be a writer, then why are there very few scenes where Hank is writing? Unlike movies, series needs far more action and reactivity. As David Duchovny highlights:

“it is really horrible to play writers because it’s usually really boring. It’s not dramatic” (LA Times)

Knowing some blue chip audience expectations regarding the narrative, the series plays a lot with intertextuality. From the mediated life of David Duchovny to the obvious relationship between Hank Moody and Hank Chinaski, one of Showtime’s best hits is full of literary winks.

Media coverage of the fact that the former actor of X-files went into rehab for sex-addiction which could have prevented him from continuing his career as an actor, but instead the director Tom Kapinos judged it as an interesting—if not commercial— opportunity since David Duchovny’s life looks alike his role as Hank Moody.

However, this is not the only case where Duchovny’s role in the series resembles his own reality. Having a PhD in English Literature, Hank’s alter ego on screen confesses to the LA Times that he dreamed of becoming a writer:

“I thought I would write. I thought it was a good job with good vacation time to where I could take four months a year and be able to do what I wanted to do, which was write (…)”.

Besides, since he was once a teaching assistant like Hank in season three, Duchovny feels more at ease performing the role of a writer :

“I understand the self-loathing and the resentment, and the discipline that it takes to sit down in front of a typewriter or computer every single day, whether it’s going well or not going well… I didn’t need to research how to be a professor because I’d already been a teaching assistant when I was pursuing my Ph.D.; it was a very clear memory.” (The Daily Beast)

Though he said to the newspaper he only “dabbles” while writing poetry or even screenplays, his role as a writer—and maybe his own identification with it—plays a good part in creating an effect of “reality”, and offsets the fact that Californication does not show the work of the writer because few shots show Hank Moody writing for real.

Hank Moody vs Hank Chinaski

The poem “How to be a Great Writer” by Charles Bukowski, sums up all:

“you’ve got to fuck a great many women

beautiful women

and write a few decent love poems

and don’t worry about age

and / or freshly-arrived talents.

more and more beer (…)”.

Hank Moody is easily recognizable in the very self-inspired Bukowski character Henry “Hank” Chinaski who always appears to be an alcoholic writer living in Los Angeles. Similarly, the straight writing of the scenario, such as the use of “real life dialogs” with a lot of rudeness and swearing or fights and sex shots,signify Bukowski’s style. Besides, as if to set up the scene, the first two episodes of Californication make direct references to a collection of the American writers’ poems untitled Notes of a Dirty Old Man: Hank Moody is dubbed twice a “dirty old man”, first by his “lover” Karen, then by Mia. Other references are also made during the episodes and seasons, such as when Karen reading one of Bukowski’s collection of poems Sifting Through the Madness for the World, the Line, the Way.

In Bukowski’s novel Women, the similarities of characters with Californication are obvious from the first pages. Like Hank Moody, the “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” life of Hank Chinaski is the story of a man who has a unique love, Lydia, whom he had a daughter with, but who messes it up because of his infidelities, alcoholism and borderline way of living.

The name Californication refers also to the novel written by Bukowski, Hollywood. The book is about the man’s daily life striving at the writing of a screenplay, which in real life turns out to be the movie Barfly directed by Barbet Schroeder. In season four of Californication, Hank Moody accepts to write a screenplay of his book Fucking & Punching, which like in Bukowski’s novel takes time to take place. Similarly in season five, a rap singer “Apocalypse Samurai” asks him to write the script for his film.

The “reality effect” is also highlighted when Hank Moody’s features not only match those of the fictional character Hank Chinaski but the real Bukowski. Alcohol abuse aside, Hank has some difficulties managing his celebrity like Bukowski admitted in a French show : “I did not write to be famous (…) to me that’s a terrible evolution (…) it does not please me”.

Hank implies such paradoxical thinking for he flirts with the Los Angeles jet set but keeps his broken convertible.

Making quality TV

A good scenario is one of the most important features defining quality for any type of media since it implies the narrative and the aesthetic, hence the writer is the key element in the creation of any Quality TV series.Making Hank Moody the main character in Californication is therefore not by chance but choice,to reflect one of the primordial properties in Quality television.

The intertwined intertextuality, giving an aspect of “hyper-realism”, are there to remind the audience that they are watching a peculiar form of television, if not something else than television as the channel HBO claims:“It’s not TV, it’s HBO”. For Californication, Tom Kapinos uses the writer as a direct reference to its blue chip demographic for he knew they would know about the literary references of Charles Bukowski and winks at David Duchovny’s personal life. As well as for the “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” contents that not only matches Bukowski’s writing style, but also creates harsh realism and controversial matters.

In the same way, Showtime could have not made it more realistic for they published the fictional book written by Hank in the series for real, under the same title (God Hates Us All) and with Hank Moody as the writer. They have erased a part of reality, the real author’s name, to transpose a fiction into real life.

God Hates us All Hank Moody

The aim of the series is not to perform what the real life of a writer is, but what the audience wants a writer to be likeCalifornication is like any others series : its goal is to reach the biggest audience as possible by transferring fantasies of the public into a pleasant, laughable and watchable story. Hank Moody has all the features to make a good character since he is creative and his life “rocks”. In the same way as Bukowski does in Hollywood, Californication gives in its own way, a critical approach to the Hollywood machine, the book industry and the people who play a part in it. Hank is represented as a rebel writer, the one who is out of the mainstream and who dislikes, even if he participates in it, the cultural business of L.A.

Bibliography

Bukowski, Charles. Hollywood : a novel. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2007. Print.
—. New poems book four. London: Virgin, 2005. Print.
—. Notes of a dirty old man. [San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1973. Print.
—. Women. London: Virgin, 2009. Print.

McCabe, Janet, and Kim Akass. Quality TV. London; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2007. Print.
Moody, Hank, and Jonathan Grotenstein. God Hates Us All. New York: Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2009. Print.
Villez, Barbara. “Ecritures Médiatiques : les Séries ( Writing Series/ Series Writing).” Compendium. 2013 2012 : n. pag. Print.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Californication: when writing rocks

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s