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December 07, 2002

TV Alert

Friedrich --

It doesn't surprise me that complaining about television is such a beloved ritual -- so much TV really is crap. What does surprise me is how many people let themselves stop there. Are they unaware of how much that's worth watching can be found on cable? As in all things, you just have to go to a little trouble.

Such as reading 2Blowhards, for instance, and eyeballing our weekly TV Alert. As far as this film buff is concerned, Turner Classic Movies alone justifies the cost of a cable subscription: miraculously good prints that are far better than what most movie rep houses come up with; no commercial interruptions; an extensive library. They even schedule the occasional silent movie. Is it to Ted Turner that we owe thanks for this? Then: thanks, Ted!

Which leads to my Blowhard Pick of the TV Week:

The Scarlet Letter (TCM; the midnight between Sunday and Monday). Silent movies were their own art form, somewhat distinct from what we're now used to thinking of as narrative audiovisual entertainment. Speaking super-generally, they were more akin to opera or narrative ballet than to talking pictures; if you think of them as a combination of movement, pantomime, and pictorial material that has been set to music, you'll start to get in the ballpark. If you've never quite found the silent-movie groove, this early adaptation of the Hawthorne novel might help you along. Lillian Gish, a frail, Victorian-tulip type, is surprisingly powerful as Hester; Lars Hanson partners her beautifully. The director, Victor Sjostrom (sometimes spelled Seastrom), was one of the greats of early film -- a precursor of such talents as Bergman, Bresson, and Tarkovsky; his work was spare and intense, yet sensual and mystical. Critics complain about the way the film alters the book's ending, and I know it should have bugged me. But, honestly, it didn't. A fabulous movie.

Programs and documentaries

Ian McKellan on Inside the Actors Studio (Bravo; Sunday at 8 pm ). Frankly gay, rail-thin, articulate and perverse, McKellan might make a witty and insightful guest. What do you mean, you haven't seen Gods and Monsters? That's the film in which McKellan gave a brilliant performance as the horror-movie director James Whale. Go rent it right now. The movie itself is a gem, fully the equal of a good small literary novel. (To my shame, I haven't read the novel the film is based on.)

Rumrunners, Moonshiners and Bootleggers (History Channel, 9 pm Monday, and 2 am Tuesday morning). A 2-hour documentary about Prohibition. I haven't seen it, but I have been having good luck recently with History Channel documentaries, which tend to be crisp and efficient.

The E! True Hollywood Story: Whitney Houston (E!, 8 pm Wednesday). This showbiz-documentary series flaunts a trashy, National-Enquirer style but often delivers solid goods. And, you know, ahem, this kind of style isn't all that inappropriate for showbiz subjects...

Biography: Billy Barty (A&E, 8 pm Thursday). This episode promises to be an especially fascinating one. William John Bertanzetti was born in Pennsylvania in 1924 and grew to a final height of 3'9". As Billy Barty, he had one of the longest and most extensive careers in American showbiz, appearing in films from "Gold Diggers of 1933" to near the time of his death in 2000; he became an icon of talent and class, as well as a symbol of pride for little people. There's much to be enjoyed and discovered at his official website, too, here.


Desperado (Cinemax, Sunday at 11:05 a.m. and 10 pm; also at 11:15 am Thursday morning). Robert Rodriguez directs Antonio Banderas in a flamboyant pop-Western fantasia. It's like a spaghetti Western set to a sexy rock score. Never completely satisfying, but likable, eager, and sensual. Rodriguez strikes me as a nearly-ideal pop entertainer, and no one can do the sexy-yet-comic-Latin-lover these days as well as Banderas.

The Music Man (TCM; Sunday at 8 pm). Laugh at me if you will, I don't care: I contend in all solemnity and earnestness that this version of Meredith Wilson's cornpone musical about a musical-instrument salesman who visits a small midwestern town is a genuine masterpiece: Stylized, tuneful, wholesome, a great portrait both of midwestern life and of the American traveling-salesman type. (My dad was a salesman, so I have a special interest in artistic portrayals of the type. And this film gets the type, as far as I'm concerned, about a million times better than does "Death of a Salesman.") It's also refereshingly true to the sweetness of smalltown American life. Where are the festering, David Lynchian undercurrents? Not here; maybe in a David Lynch movie, where they belong. Robert Preston gives a peerless performance as the salesman -- he's a boisterous, charming fraud, yet no less lovable for it.

Pumping Iron (Cinemax, 6:30 am Tuesday morning). Guys who lifted weights were generally considered morons, freaks and goons before Arnold Schwarzenegger made bodybuilding respectable. This 1977 movie, which portrays weightlifting as something like a chic, glamorous art form, helped put the whole scene over.

The Craft (Cinemax, 1 pm Wednesday). The director Andrew Fleming uses the lowdown teenflick form as a vehicle for more in the way of sophistication than you expect. This picture concerns a group of teen girls who get interested in witchcraft, and while it's small and imperfect, it's also memorably moody. With the wonderful Fairuza Balk as the most Goth of the girlpals. If you enjoy it, check your local video store for a copy of Fleming's earlier Threesome, a bittersweet comedy about college roommates who toy a little too heedlessly with romantic dynamite. It's sexy, melancholy, and raunchy -- half "Jules and Jim," half "Porky's."

The Unbearable Lightness of Being (IFC, 10 pm Wednesday). Philip Kaufman's version of the Milan Kundera novel stars Daniel Day-Lewis as a philandering Prague doctor, and Juliette Binoche and Lena Olin as two of his women. Some find this movie a pretentious travesty of a great novel. I love it, and think it an improvement on the book. If you go for it as I do, the tone of erotic melancholy can sweep you away as fully as a dream. Watch the way Kaufman works in touches of silent-movie and literary styles; it's a movie for those lit majors and art lovers whose erotic dreams and art obsessions can't be separated.

The Rules of the Game (TCM, 2 am Saturday morning). Jean Renoir's 1939 tragi-comic farce is set in a French chateau, where friends meet to play, indulge in hanky-panky, and hunt animals and, finally, each other. Class, sex, money and love -- it's all here. Arguments erupt between film buffs over whether "Rules" is the best movie ever made, but no one disputes that it's one of the very greatest. I've seen it at least 15 times, and each time found something new and freshly moving.

And a couple of choices for those who, like me, are fools for actresses and are willing to endure not-so-good movies to get a glimpse of their beauty and talent ...

Metroland (IFC, 2 am and 6 am Monday morning). I can't remember much about this English movie, taken from a Graham Swift novel -- except that itís one of the rare chances Americans have had to watch an elegantly idiosyncratic French charmer, Elsa Zylberstein.

Sweet November (Cinemax, Saturday at 6 pm). Godawful sentimental chickflick about a tragic kook (Charlize Theron) who decides to loosen up a hard-driving prig (Keanu Reeves) -- but Theron is terrific, as well as beyond-belief pretty.

And these are just a few of the highlights I spotted in next week's TV schedule. Still complaining, America?



posted by Michael at December 7, 2002


Good bunch of movies and reviews, but I thought you should have mentioned the other great Seastrom/Gish film, even better than Scarlet Letter: namely "The Wind". TCM has shown it before. Yours is also the first review I've ever read of a Seastrom/Sjostrom movie that doesn't mention him as the star of Bergman's "Wild Strawberries". Admirable restraint.

(And ROTG IS the greatest movie ever!!)

Posted by: copans on December 10, 2002 8:48 AM

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