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“Texas Forever.” « The MacGuffin Men

“Texas Forever.”

Published on February 8th, 2011

Alex looks at Friday Night Lights, memory, cinema verite and Explosions in the Sky’s music. 

We are heavily affected by the media we experience; this seems to be common knowledge at this point. The level of impact media can have on us, however, is probably not accurately gauged. Some people are surely more susceptible to these things, whereas some are more free thinkers. In post-2000 North America, I really doubt many of the latter remain. Without question, I fall into the former designation, and unless you were raised by Ted Kaczynski or post-Catcher in the Rye JD Salinger, you do too. At this point, everybody seems to have a few pieces of fictional media that they like as much as they do because they learned something through it, or just passionately care about it without really being able to classify why. I refuse to accept that I would be the same person had I not seen Friday Night Lights upon its release in the fall of 2004: it’s debatable if I would have ever shown interest in the band that primarily scored the film, and it’s doubtful that I ever would have watched the television show that grew out of the film.

The movie version of Friday Night Lights is based on the Buzz Bissinger book about the real-life Permian Panthers’ 1988 season. That true story was then slightly fictionalized for the movie, and while the film is about high school football in small-town Texas, it’s primarily about loss. Not the loss of a game really, but more just loss in general. Throughout the movie, we see the players continually lose hope both individually and as a team, and by the end of the movie most characters have completely changed how they feel about their lives. That was kind of clear to me when I saw Friday Night Lights the first (and second, third, fourth, etc) time back in 2004, but when I began watching the television show based on the movie this past summer, all of that became clear by the five-minute mark of the pilot episode. All I had to hear was some familiar music and see an empty football field in the opening cinema verité-style montage.

Peter Berg (director of the Friday Night Lights film) developed the television version which debuted in September 2006 and will air its final episode tomorrow. While the show deals with the theme of loss much like the film did, there are a much greater number of themes covered throughout the series, mostly because the total runtime of the show is approximately 3167 minutes longer than that of the movie. A television format was perfect for Friday Night Lights, as it allowed for elements that the movie skimmed over to be expanded into full ideas. Quarterback Mike Winchell becomes the infinitely more interesting Matt Saracen, fullback Don Billingsley slims down, drinks more beer and becomes Tim Riggins, and star running back Boobie Miles’ arc is split into both Jason Street and Smash Williams. The coach’s tenuous relationship with the town remains in the television show, as does the focus on the coach as a father figure. The writing is typically good, and with a few exceptions the acting is great, making the best moments of the show nearly perfect.

A technical choice that came from the movie was continuing to use the music of Texas-based instrumental rock group Explosions in the Sky as the primary score for the television show’s first few seasons. Their sparse guitars, which often build to impeccably crushing crescendos, were the perfect fit for both the small-town Texas scenes and the higher-intensity 2-minute drills in the football scenes. The music is intense and (if not handled properly) can rock your face off, but it still feels emotional and occasionally mournful, much like the overall tone of the show and movie. As a big fan of Explosions in the Sky since around the Friday Night Lights movie’s release, I was all too happy to see this music remain at the core of the television show. As much as I’ve listened to this band over the last 6-7 years, I can still listen to them all day for various reasons.

AN UNFORTUNATE TRUTH ABOUT ALEX: I have never been able to think about lyrical music any way other than literally. It’s weird, I know, but for some reason that’s how I work. When I would hear Mr. Tambourine Man, I always assumed it was about a guy hanging out and playing some music… until Pfeiff Dawg came along and explained to me and a group of inner city youth that there are actually various interpretations to be had. I love thinking abstractly, but have always had an issue doing so with music. I suspect that this is because most of my musical life has been spent listening to the most literal form of lyrical music there is: hip-hop. Jay-Z says great rap is almost never meant to be taken literally, but most rappers aren’t great. Anytime an allegorical rap song is written, no matter how simplistic, it’s a big deal and rap fans collectively lose their shit (example: Common’s ‘I Used to Love H.E.R.,’ which is often called one of the best rap songs ever, even though it’s only ‘really, really good.’ I blame its lack of literalness for its overratedness). With movies and television shows, I have always been able to take them how I wanted, because that is what I always perceived should be done with those things. With music, my perception was that most rappers wanted me to think they really meant exactly what they said, and for some reason, I took that as a way to listen to all lyrical music. However, I tend to let my mind wander when listening to Explosions in the Sky, as I don’t have any lyrics to pay attention to and am free to think about whatever I like.

The most important non-plot element that remained from the big to small screen was the technique used for the visual style of the show, commonly referred to as cinema verité. Loosely translated, it means ‘truthful cinema,’ but it’s easiest to just describe it as applying a handheld, documentary-filming style to a narrative, such as in the latter two Bourne movies. The cameras are shakier, seem to be moving freely throughout the scene, and there tends to be more obstruction in a lot of shots. The intended effect is to simulate the feeling of realism, and when it is done well, the technique succeeds.

In cinema verité, shots can be set up, and then you can maneuver the camera in bizarre ways that no documentary camera person would try to do unless they were actively trying to get fired. When filming Friday Night Lights, the cast and crew set out a few marks that the actors need to hit with certain lines, but other than that the actors are free to improvise while three cameras swoop around them to get a good shot. There is little in the way of predetermined movement: the outcome of the scene will stay the same, but the actors are free to move about the scene as they see fit, and the cameras will follow.

Reacting to unscripted elements is precisely what we do every day, every minute. Cinema verité is the closest filmmaking style to the way we see the world, as our eyes are never really level. Our day-to-day vision is clearly more like handheld camera work than that of a tripod-based camera, or even a Steadicam. We can craft however we want to look at what is immediately in front of us, be it a person, an object, whatever. We can’t zoom, but we can mess around with the framing. Almost all of this ‘camera movement’ is done without thinking anyway, so you would never make that movement as a conscious decision. Which reminds me, I made a conscious decision to make something exceptionally clear…

A FORTUNATE TRUTH ABOUT ALEX: I do not see my life as a movie. Not even a little bit. Outside of most popular rappers and Skeet Ulrich’s character in Scream, nobody does, and nobody ever should. If my life were a movie, it would be exceptionally boring, and even a viewer of my level of patience (I sat through Ang Lee’s Hulk) would be bored to tears within five minutes. But that’s because my life doesn’t have the benefit of a three-camera setup following me everywhere, with talented editors cutting it all together. And while I may not see my life as a movie, I definitely see media as a way to contextualize my own life. We spend so much of our time consuming media that it only makes sense to see parts of ourselves in what we watch. I merely think that life is more fun when I apply some film theory to it, and I also think that if the human eye was a filmmaking style, it would absolutely be cinema verité.

All of my memories, therefore, have been ‘shot’ in a cinema verité style, much like the scripted world of Friday Night Lights. I don’t think this opinion really shapes how I remember certain images, just like I don’t always remember turning my head to get a better look at something. I’m not actively thinking of these things when I am in that moment, because I am too busy living in the current situation. However, I almost never have detailed memories of the sounds attached to the corresponding memory. I can remember certain images to what I believe to be 100% accurate that I saw them, and I can typically recall the point of a memorable conversation, but I am always significantly less confident about what I heard exactly.

Whenever I’m travelling alone (be it on the subway, walking, or however), I tend to be listening to music. When listening to instrumental music I have heard more times than I can count, my mind begins to wander toward the last show or movie I watched, which for a while was always Friday Night Lights. I spent half of this past summer doing monotonous work on 12-hour overnights, and spent the other half watching the first four seasons of Friday Night Lights in rapid succession. This leads to a totally different view of a television show as a whole: when racing through any series, I tend to be able to ignore the poor ideas and only remember the great moments. I don’t have a whole week to think about what I did and did not like about each episode. That’s why the first four seasons of Friday Night Lights all seem significantly better to me than the fifth and final season, which I have been watching week by week. When watching the entire series quickly, I know that the end of a poor plot point is coming as soon as I can watch the rest of that story arc. But I couldn’t speed up this season’s frustratingly annoying Julie Taylor storyline, and that week between episodes would lead to me thinking about how much that storyline hurt the show. This happens with other shows as well: I am able to deal with the fact that Robin Scherbatsky and Barney Stinson are the only likeable characters on How I Met Your Mother by watching a season in a week, much like I was able to glaze over the sheer ludicrousness of about two-thirds of 24’s plot points by doing the same thing. I love all of the shows I have mentioned, but I would like them a lot less watching them week to week, much like I would probably like Community or 30 Rock even more if I wasn’t watching the episodes as they aired. I had a lot to think about with Friday Night Lights while trying to make it to the end of my shifts, but there were always so many positive elements that I would unconsciously glaze over the bad.

Episode by episode, Friday Night Lights will not be remembered as the best show on television in the last ten years or anything… but that doesn’t matter, so long as it is remembered. While it certainly had its issues throughout its five season run, Friday Night Lights is, as a whole, spectacular. If the show had featured a painfully long, wholly unrealistic arc of covering up a murder in every season, I probably would have liked it just as much as I do now. The moments that work are what matters, and this show has multiple great moments in each episode, as well as a number of incredibly good, longer story arcs (Matt Saracen’s relationship with his father, Coach and Tammi Taylor’s incredible relationship throughout the show, Tim Riggins constantly and ponderously drinking beer while musing silently from a recliner, etc). I am not the type of person to miss television characters themselves, but I’m going to miss the show itself a lot. Like leaving high school or anywhere you spend a lot of time, it just sort of feels like I won’t have this type of experience again.

I realize that comparing a television show primarily about high school to my actual high school experience may seem overly nostalgic and problematic, but it makes sense. Media that we spend a lot of time with not only affects who we are, but it ends up becoming just as much a reflection of a segment of our own lives. I find it inconceivable to think that there will be a time in my life when thinking about the television show Friday Night Lights doesn’t remind me of that summer I worked overnights, just like the movie Friday Night Lights will always remind me of the video store where I was employed at the time of its release. Maybe in six months I’ll read the Buzz Bissinger book and it will end up representing my post-traumatic stress in dealing with the end of one of my favourite shows. Much like memories, there is always a reason for a certain song or image to stay in our head, or to have a certain time in your life attached to a television show, or a memory to be paired with a certain song.

I have a memory that occurred after I saw the film Friday Night Lights, but before I started watching the television show, and that memory will always be attached to a particular Explosions in the Sky song for no definable reason. It was one of the happiest, most interesting moments of my life, but six hours or so later, I would start to look back on it as a moment where I’m embarrassed for how everything eventually played out. Since I have little in the way of details from the second, more unfortunate memory, the happier memory adopts feelings from both moments and is therefore both pleasant and painful to look back on. And since there was no sort of memorable sound involved, just a distinct walk and a surprisingly detailed memory of the surroundings, Explosions in the Sky seems to be filling in the empty audio track. Do I think of this memory every time I hear this song? No. To be honest, when I listen to that song, it more often reminds me of walking home from the video store years ago with a copy of Friday Night Lights in hand. But when I think of the bittersweet memory, I often tend to think of that song.

Unlike the film, the television series does not focus primarily on loss, but loss is still very much at the core of the show. Every year, players will graduate and move on, and Coach Taylor will need to find a way to deal without them. This is not a show that is afraid to let a main character leave the town of Dillon if it serves the plot, and we often get to see the perspective of that character leaving the only place they know (Dillon), along with the only way of life they know (Texas football). We also see characters dealing with catastrophic injury, death, and just in general growing up. Having Explosions in the Sky scoring much of the show would then lead me to think about the show even more than I would have otherwise, while I was walking to work with their music playing through my headphones.

It’s fitting that Explosions in the Sky’s music tends to remind me of both Friday Night Lights and my own memories: every memory is a lost piece in time. You can’t go back, and you can’t really verify that what you remember actually happened. The truth gets adjusted as the memories age. Mike Winchell and the Panthers’ true story has faded into entirely fictionalized media through the last 20 years, just as each of my memories seems to be fading as I age. The more time passes and the more memories disintegrate, the more I’m sure that this lack of certainty is the most depressing aspect of being alive. It was a conscious choice to have Explosions in the Sky score a movie/television show about loss, and that lead me to think about lost memories too often when listening to their music. I never paid any royalties for the music, though. This just sort of happened.

Maybe there is something to this. Maybe accepting that memory is unreliable is why I don’t let moving on from a lost place, friendship or moment bother me too much. Or maybe not. However, I do think this helps to justify my love of media. There are numerous shots that I can recall from Friday Night Lights that I can recall with a clarity I have with few personal memories. But the clarity of these memories isn’t what really matters; what matters is that these memories can be verified. If I want to see Smash’s final scene in the show again, I can easily do that. I can check what I remembered correctly, and what I didn’t. In that instance, I can verify the verité of the memory.

Maybe movies and television have conditioned me from a young age to believe that unverifiable memories are depressing, just like they taught me that most audio-free images should have a musical score. Maybe Friday Night Lights taught me that Explosions in the Sky should be the soundtrack for loss, just like it taught me that cinema verité is the closest filmmaking style to human vision. Maybe I should stop saying maybe so much. But maybe I wouldn’t have to say it if memory was more reliable.

Coach Taylor’s motivational phrase, “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose” has likely been repeated many times by legitimate writers to close their wrap-ups of Friday Night Lights. It seems like the easy way to end a piece about a show that one feels passionate about: just use the obvious element that everybody else does. I wouldn’t want a piece of television criticism I read to end with the easiest way available, though. That would annoy me. But while having a contrarian conclusion might make me happier, maybe it’s not the right way to go. When other good teams began running the spread offence in season 3, Coach Taylor initially resisted being like everybody else before realizing it was the best thing for the team. Contrarianism doesn’t always pay, and in some instances conformity can. All that time I spent in my basement watching movies instead of playing football taught me how to write these things, and this writing seems to be the only way I know how to react to my favourite shows ending. But I can’t remove a particular memory from a particular song or show, just like I can’t help but think of Riggins and Street’s friendship every time I hear Remember Me as a Time of Day, regardless of whether or not the song was ever actually used in the show. Likewise, I can’t hope to remember a different phrase from Coach Taylor’s speeches just because this phrase happened to be good enough to be remembered by seemingly every other fan. We can’t remove what media says to us from the media itself, just like we can’t remove ourselves from the effect that media has on us. There may come a time when I can no longer recall exactly what the influence this show had on me was, but that influence will always be there somewhere. We might not always know it, but media we love affects us, and it causes us to think, act, reflect or write differently more often than we think. Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.



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