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Long Voyage Home: On “Louie” Season 4

In this inaugural column entry, Adam Cook looks at the unique expressiveness of Louis C.K.’s Louie and its remarkable fourth season.

How our relationship with movies evolves is intricately bound to our own changing perspectives, and to the medium's ever shifting context, forming a perpetually shifting dynamic. This new column borrows the namesake of one of my favorite films for that reason. Cinephilia itself is a sort of journey, and I’m no longer naïve enough (but still hopefully naïve!) to think that it’s one with a conclusion, or even a safe plateau one can reach. Likewise, life is some sort of movement homeward, where home is not a 'place,' but a pursuit of 'something.' For me these two odysseys run in parallel—hence, a long voyage home.

This column, for which I hope to prepare an entry every two weeks, ultimately has no unifying theme or format. One piece may be a review, the next a single observation, an image piece, a video essay...and hopefully things I can't even think of at this point. The first topic is appropriately centered on something equally unbound to a single format. Implicitly I hope this somewhat disparate series of pieces cohere, if only as part of some larger voyage, shared by us and the movies.

And now what better way to inaugurate a column on cinema than with observations on a TV show. OK, so it’s not a typical show and that’s the point. It has been noted that Louie is something entirely unique and remarkable, controlled as it is on so many levels by the distinct artistic vision of Louis C.K. Outstanding from the get-go, the show has never stopped evolving, and especially since reaching its third season, each episode finds C.K. pushing it forward with new ideas, both in terms of style and content. Essentially, the short-film-a-week format (make that two shorts per week with C.K.’s/FX’s rollout strategy of two episodes per airing date this past season) allows for him to do whatever he wants, vaguely stringing together the ‘series’ with the perennial presence of C.K. as himself, a divorced stand-up helping raise his two daughters in New York. Often, it is the show’s most autobiographical segments that can be most moving and insightful, expressing both C.K.’s love and anxieties when it comes to parenthood with rare honesty. However, the show is frequently hijacked by bizarre digressions spearheaded by side characters, with C.K. figured as a sort of a avatar through which to wander a carnival of absurdities full of encounters with the mundane punctuated with surrealist gestures.

C.K. has said that his least favorite part of the show is acting, and that if he could, he would eliminate it so he could devote all of his focus to writing, directing, and editing—but he has ingeniously found a way to make his ‘character’ have a fluctuating prominence in the show with multiple purposes. He can use his on-screen Louie as a 1:1 portrayal of his life, or as a bumbling, occasionally clueless, everyman navigating mid-life, as the one sane person left in the world, or just as an excuse to explore anything else he may come upon—a conduit who responds with dollar store common sense (not unlike a standup routine but completely reimagined cinematically) often characterized with bewilderment. He can also abandon his temporal incarnation of himself entirely, hiring younger actors to play him in extended flashbacks, which he has done twice in the latest, fourth, season. Guest characters can take over the trajectory of the show with ease, and become the center of single sequences or episodes. With this freewheeling format, Louie is never pigeonholed in to being any one thing, and every week is a surprise. The only true constant is the man behind the camera, and the odd yet familiar world he and Paul Koestner, the show’s DP from day one, have crafted and continue to expand. Indeed it is a director/cinematographer team-up that rivals other such contemporary duos like Claire Denis & Agnes Godard.

In this above scene from the season premiere, C.K. uses the unfocused background to subtly reveal the dystopian surroundings, juxtaposed with a ritual diss session from comedian chum Todd Barry. A scene that would have been carried by performances and jokes in the first couple seasons is now a vessel for another absurd painting of modern life. What is the primary subject here? These two different planes of (visual + aural) thought don’t actually meet, they’re both left to operate independently. If Louie has heretofore operated on two different levels, one realistic and one surrealistic, then here finally they have collapsed into one. A typical Barry + Louie dialogue is married with an absurd scene (not unlike the one in season one where Louie has to navigate a café full of hipster zombies mumble-chanting "Obama"). Now these scenes co-exist. C.K. is no longer interested in maintaining one separate from the other. As season four continues, this realist/surrealist collapse is even more prevalent.

In this beautiful scene, C.K. uses just one take full of whips to capture him saying goodnight to his two daughters, using motion instead of a cut, he creates an impressionistic sense of the moment, the actual physical and emotional sensation of putting his children to bed. Even in quiet, "inessential" instances like this, C.K. is making extraordinary decisions with the camera to bring out feelings that would otherwise remain dormant.

In the above scene, C.K. cuts from a wide of this poker table full of comedian friends, to alternating close-ups that emphasize their spontaneous vulgar banter, shots that also make for loving portraits of each person and their respective personalities. More interested in capturing smiles and natural glimpses than continuity (the dialogue is ultimately subservient to the spontaneous expressions it leads to), look at how he captures Sarah Silverman’s off-the-cuff laugh at Jim Norton left of frame. C.K. is tackling every sequence on its own terms, and applying to it its own set of rules and rhythm.

Convinced by Norton that a vibrator will bring his masturbatory practices to a new level, Louie enters a sex shop. Ingeniously, C.K. begins the scene from within the shop before he enters it, establishing a zone and its own vibe (a brief dialogue between the two employees lends it a lived-in matter-of-factness, it's like any other store to them) and rules in a matter of two seconds, validating it as a space and articulating Louie as the awkward outsider. To maximize tonal oddity, as a manifestation of his insecurity, he pulls his back when trying to point out the fake member of his choosing. Also: the handling of the woman from the shop (pictured below) is quintessential C.K. direction: she is whole, intelligent, interesting. You could clearly follow her out of the shot and into her own story. More so than in previous seasons, fully felt—not necessarily 'fully drawn'— characters permeate the show.

C.K. knows the power natural sound can have on defining a scene's mood. In this next terribly awkward sequence (following a discreet off-screen killing-of Ricky Gervais' doctor character from previous seasons), Charles Grodin's indifferent chewing and swallowing dominates the soundtrack as he barely makes eye contact with our protagonist, made more uneasy by the clever shot selection—a wide emphasizing the silence, and an over-the-shoulder placing us in the tense position of awaiting Grodin's input:

It's tempting to delve into every episode like this, as each has their own unique qualities that make them worth taking on an almost scene to scene basis—a testament to the show's unpredictability. The six-part "Elevator" may be C.K.'s finest accomplishment, or at least his most unusual in its beauty. Dealing with two parallel plots, one in which Louie's youngest daughter, Jane, is having behavior problems, and the main story in which Louie falls in love with a Hungarian woman who can't speak English—and is leaving New York in just a month. C.K.'s style has been becoming increasingly sensual, a quality that culminates in this feature-length string of episodes. Spontaneous moments just as moments, teetering on impressionistic in their near-abstractness from narrative, existing for the pure pleasure of sensation or the curiosity of their effect:

Each scene has a goal, but that goal isn't necessarily tied to an idea so much as a feeling. More and more, C.K. is interested in actors as people in front of a camera rather than characters (which is also leading to more long take experiments with performance, both with C.K. himself, regular cast members, and guest stars).

Throughout the six parts of "Elevator," absurd newscasts warn us that a hurricane approaches. The surrealist periphery alternates between punctuating and offsetting the realism at the core of the show.

With the the hurricane, a climactic catharsis to all the tension in Louie's life arrives, bringing him somewhere resembling home. The scene containing his bittersweet goodbye with Amia (Eszter Balint) at a Hungarian restaurant privileges a random waiter, who acts as their impromptu translator—the scene becomes as much about his emotions as theirs, a moment that exemplifies the show's generous, atypical navigation of 'narrative' and 'character':

The third season of Louie found the show tonally expanding, moving away from comedy into drama; the fourth season has continued that evolution while also completely breaking down conventional structural ideas of what can be done on television. Admittedly, since the first season and its two mini-story episodes and absence of narrative continuity, Louie has defied TV norms—but after 2012's three-part "Late Show" arc hinted at new possibilities, season four has bravely explored them. Each week, C.K. seems to discover different ways of how a camera can express emotions, ideas, and how to tell a story. Along those lines, he is bending the rules of television form, tonally and structurally, navigating the show however he wishes, embracing a wholly unpredictable free-form approach. The latest season finds C.K. restlessly trying new things, moving along according to his own whims. His instinct is almost made palpable in the show's intuitively carved path. Each story arc is tonally unique and operates differently, progressing in expressive ways tailored to its specificity. The six-part "Elevator" is the most obvious example of this, along with the more movie-like episode "In the Woods" (which counted as two episodes, even though it ran 90 minutes with commercial breaks—put simply it didn't fit any "TV" mold, and FX simply acquiesced to the atypical demand of the format), a personal coming-of-age story featuring Jeremy Renner and a superb Skipp Sudduth (in a role initially filled by Philip Seymour Hoffman before his passing). While it has garnered the most attention, "In the Woods" is his closest episode to being in an existing register of storytelling. It unfolds in a straightforward way, with a more classical narrative style and use of conflict. However, it slowly builds into something moving and touchingly honest. Tonally risky scenes with Renner (who plays a drug dealer) prove, if it wasn't already proven, that C.K. could probably direct just about anything if given the chance—he could be trusted at the helm of slapstick comedy, melodrama, or more intense dramatics, building tension with ease through performance and camerawork.

And then there's the three-part episode that closes the season, "Pamela," which admittedly I'm unsure of, if only because it seems a little emotionally unearned, and almost startlingly normal. But making yet another unexpected turn for the show's trajectory seems like a perfectly appropriate conclusion to a fourth season that felt like it could've become whatever it wanted to at any given moment, that perpetually required the viewer to reassess what they were watching. What else could we say that about—either in cinema or in television? And as for the ongoing question of to which of those two mediums does Louie most firmly belong, I decline to answer. Whatever it is, it's a work of art that does not allow us to pin it down. A last note to consider about the season's finale: it also seems appropriate that somehow this whole season was about Louis getting naked:

Season four has managed to move even further away from conventions, to blaze its own trail formally and structurally, while simultaneously becoming more generous to side characters, their stories and emotions, and becoming more reflective of C.K.'s own life and experiences—the show has become intensely personal and yet increasingly sensitive to other points of view. In other words, C.K. has created something brand new, a thematically and stylistically expansive portrait of himself and the world, a collection of observations (not unlike stand up!), feelings, and moments somehow fitting into what we call a TV show, even as it demolishes the criteria of being a "show" with its feature-length narratives, random digressions and departures from them. It moves according to no plan. There is no filmmaker in America taking these kinds of chances and working in such a unique way. Moreover, there are few better American filmmakers right now, period.


*What was initially meant to be a response to the first handful episodes inevitably became a reaction to the season as a whole, which kept begging for revaluation every week.

Long Voyage Home is an ongoing journey by Adam Cook

This article is incredible. Thanks for the hard work Adam.

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