Farewell, Chris Farley … Conan’s Onanistic Bear … NYPD Blues … Peter Bogdanovich’s Movie of the Week

It’s now an absolutely perfect holiday season because the funniest and at the same time most beautiful comedian of the American screen will be represented by eight-count ‘em, eight!-of the most wonderful movies ever made (shown on AMC), mostly directed by, mainly written by, and all of them starring the one and only Buster Keaton. Don’t miss any of the eight-there could not be anything better to do (tape each-they’re on too early, anyway-and run chronologically): (1) From 1923, The Three Ages [Wednesday, Dec. 31, AMC, 49, 8:05 A.M.], Buster’s first feature-length work-after a remarkably rich series of shorts (1920-23)-is an ambitious, witty, yet unpretentious trio of variations on a theme: Two guys (Keaton and Wallace Beery) after one woman through three different Ages, starting with Prehistoric Buster in the Stone Age, ending in modern times; also it is a friendly parody of D.W. Griffith’s famous four-part classic Intolerance , made only seven years earlier, but the picture works on its own terms without knowing the inside joke. A charming, rarely seen work. (2) The following year’s Sherlock Jr. [Monday, Dec. 29, 7:45 A.M.] is among Keaton’s most famous cult films but not one of his funniest, though it is never less than amusing, and is most certainly his cleverest, with any number of brilliantly inventive camera tricks which haven’t really been improved upon for freshness, and this was made 73 years ago. Buster plays a lovesick small-town movie projectionist who daydreams himself into the movies he runs. Again, knowledge of the inside references are not necessary to enjoy this smart and unusual romantic comedy. (3) From the same year, incredibly, comes one of Keaton’s most popular and enduring pictures, The Navigator [Tuesday, Dec. 30, 6 A.M.]. The Great Stone Face-Buster’s moniker at the time because he never smiled-plays a pampered young millionaire who inadvertently ends up on an abandoned ship cast adrift in the ocean with a society girl (Kathryn McGuire) who just turned him down. Sequence after sequence is superbly funny and justly celebrated; my favorite is one James Agee used to rave about: where Buster and the girl realize each of them is not alone on the ship and proceed to try to find the other. If you’re unfortunate to only have time for one or two Keatons, this one is essential. (4) From 1925 comes Seven Chances [Tuesday, Dec. 30, 7:05 A.M.], in which Keaton plays a guy set to inherit a fortune if he marries by a certain time; it features one of the great silent-comedy chases: a thousand brides, literally, after one hapless Buster. The funniest section-when first stones, then rocks, then boulders roll down after him-came about as a result of the first preview audience’s unintended laugh at some pebbles he dislodged while running down a hill; Keaton, the consummate comedy professional, was now compelled to “top this” and did with a vengeance: It’s just achingly funny. (5) The next year came Battling Butler [Wednesday, Dec. 31, 7:30 A.M.], which was one of Keaton’s biggest hits in its day but, ironically, has virtually no reputation now, except perhaps as a little-seen minor Keaton. Although it has a not particularly memorable setup (millionaire playboy Buster pretends to be a prize fight champion to impress the Sally O’Neil), the film’s payoff-Buster in an extended David-and-Goliath boxing match-is utterly hilarious, and reveals where Chaplin got the idea and some of the jokes for Charlie’s more famous, but considerably less funny, boxing match five years later in City Lights . (6) Most film experts cite 1927′s The General [Tuesday, Dec. 30, 8:05 A.M.] as Keaton’s absolute masterpiece, with Buster as a Southern railroad engineer who tries to enlist in the Confederate Army to impress his girl (Marion Mack), gets turned down, then becomes a hero by saving his train from the Union Army. Not a popular success in its day, it is his one certified classic and, because of the obviously serious Civil War background, must be considered the forerunner of black comedy. Another quintessential Keaton. (7) Far more popular in that same year was Keaton’s foray into sports in College [Sunday, Dec. 28, 6:30 A.M.], one of the most lightweight of his comedies, but for sheer into-the-aisle laughs, one of his best. What that other major comic contemporary, Harold Lloyd, had done for football a couple of years before in The Freshman, Keaton now does for every other conceivable college sport, and Buster’s extraordinary athleticism is flamboyantly, uproariously displayed. (8) Finally, from the great last full year of nontalking pictures, there’s 1928′s Steamboat Bill Jr. [Monday, Dec. 29, 6:30 A.M.], in which Buster is a pampered mama’s boy who comes down South to meet and impress his macho riverboat-captain father (Ernest Torrence). I just saw this on the big screen at the Telluride Film Festival in September with 750 men, women and children, and can’t recall hearing that much laughter in years; it was the hit of the festival, this 70-year-old comedy, and had to be rerun twice to accommodate demand. Steamboat is probably also Keaton’s most consistently funny picture, with a spectacular hurricane-twister sequence that is as breathtakingly funny as it is awesome in technical brilliance. Remember, Keaton did all his own stunts, and in Steamboat there is a virtual symphony of unbelievable falls. Buster didn’t smile, yes, but the variety of subtle expression in all his work is as memorably cinematic as his lithe and vividly expressive body. One maxim of Keaton’s-”You must always see a comedian’s feet”-is exemplified in these eight works of Keaton’s mature flowering, and he was, after all, not only the purist, most unique of American comic artists, he was also the finest director of comedy in world cinema. Long live Buster!

-Peter Bogdanovich

NYPD Blue was shooting its 100th episode in the days leading up to Christmas. (Given the show’s quick turnaround time, that episode will air Jan. 13.) What a strange show it has been. With each hour, it doggedly tries to answer one single question: To what extent are cops willing to compromise themselves for the greater good of putting criminals away?…

It’s like a cop’s recurring nightmare. Once again, you’re in the interview room with the suspect. Once again, you know he did it and he’s being evasive. Once again, you consider beating the confession out of him.…

Amazing how this show has gotten a reputation for being “controversial” for the occasional buttocks shot. The truly subversive thing about NYPD Blue is that it has made police brutality seem like a necessary evil. In the Dec. 16 episode, even Bobby Simone, NYPD Blue’ s resident good cop, punched a particularly loathsome murder suspect square in the jaw with a right cross. Sometimes, after things get hot in the interview room, NYPD Blue grants its detectives locker-room soliloquies in which they say things like: You think I like poppin’ skels in the jaw for a livin’? Detective Simone didn’t get one of these speeches in the Dec. 16 episode. Meaning the brutality has become a non-issue on the show, probably because the viewers are solidly in the cops’ camp by now.…

Another interesting thing about the show: A lot of the time, NYPD Blue portrays murderers as fundamentally stupid and evil; they are not the dashing villainous masterminds of, say, Columbo . Right?

“That’s true, and it’s not true,” said Bill Clark, a former New York City detective who has worked closely with NYPD Blue creators Steven Bochco and David Milch since the first episode. “The contradiction in that is that true serial killers get away with 20, 30, 40 and sometime 100 murders, because there’s no association between them and victims. But most homicides arise from conflict between known parties. It’s just a question of proving who did it. Listen, most of the perpetrators in Columbo were extremely high-profile people, and Columbo used to just drive ‘em nuts and be in their business until they cracked, and the reality is, an attorney would leap out of the woodwork and that would be it. But the reality is that most people who kill somebody are very uncaring people, or people who are pushed beyond the brink-they do a robbery and then they’re standing there with a gun and smoke and blood. So I mean, the answer is, yes, most perpetrators involved in a homicide are very similar to people in the show, but there is a group out there, a group of cases out there, that are very difficult to solve.” …

Mr. Clark added that he once worked on a case that was especially tough. Turned out, many years later, that the murderer was Sammy (The Bull) Gravano. “No way that one would have been solved without Sammy the Bull flipping,” Mr. Clark said.…

Have the producers of the show ever considered, in the interest of realism, writing an episode in which the detectives can’t solve the case? …

“We think about it all the time,” Mr. Clark said. “We’ve come very close, where we’ve written a story that way, and it begged for closure. The audience wants that.” The detective-turned-producer added that the show will probably have an episode in which the audience knows who did a murder, but the suspect beats the system and goes free.…

With the loss of Sharon Lawrence to NBC’s lame-o sitcom Fired Up, NYPD Blue’ s scenes of domestic life have suffered a bit this season. It was always nice to watch Andy Sipowicz (played by Dennis Franz) pop some perps during an interrogation, then go home and attempt to cuddle his infant son while Ms. Lawrence gazed on, beatific-good tear-jerker stuff to close out the hour. This year, we’ve been getting a lot of Bobby Simone (Jimmy Smits) and Diane Russell (Kim Delaney) necking in the tub, with candles all around. It ain’t the same in terms of dramatic effect.…

One more thing: The reruns of the first couple of seasons late Saturday and Sunday night on Channel 2 make it pretty clear that the show misses David (Mesmer) Caruso, or someone like him. With him gone, and Ms. Lawrence gone, maybe it’s time to bring in a ringer. Six episodes with Samuel L. Jackson? Just a thought. [WABC, 7, 10 P.M.]

The comedy sketches on Late Night With Conan O’Brien have been wonderfully ridiculous, combining bad taste with complete absurdity. An early example-back in the days when Mr. O’Brien was a stammering neophyte and Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales was trying to run him off the air-showed a group of kittens and puppies in Nazi armbands acting out the last days of Hitler’s bunker. It was completely tasteless, but who could complain, since the kittens and puppies were so damn cute? Now, Late Night presents the Masturbating Bear.…

The bear debuted July 30 and has made four appearances in all. He wears a diaper and handcuffs to keep his hands out of the zone. The show’s writers are careful to make sure that the bear always finds himself in a situation in which someone will face awful consequences if he indulges his constant whim. In a Dec. 17 sketch called “The Million-Dollar Money Giveaway,” the bear went into a phone booth to make a grab for a million dollars circulating in the breeze. The money would benefit an unemployed worker who needed money to buy Christmas presents for his kids. But when the air was turned on and the money started flying, the bear forgot his mission and went at the wood for a full 60 seconds.

“I think there must be people who would be offended by it,” said Late Night head writer Jonathan Groff, “but it’s one of those things where the person who is starting to attack it would have to be like, ‘You have a bear in a diaper masturbating.’ So you would eventually go, ‘Oh, O.K., it is a bear and it’s ridiculous.’”…

NBC isn’t fully supportive of Late Night’ s innocent onanist. “They’re not crazy about the bear character,” Mr. Groff said. “They sort of ask us to, like, not have that camera dwelling on him doing his thing.” Tonight’s dopey Late Night sketch: the Ventriloquist Dummy Choir. [WNBC, 4, 12:35 A.M.]

Stephen Sherrill, a Chris Farley obsessive, filed this report to NYTV: I could go on and on-believe me, I could-about how Chris Farley’s talents went far beyond the usual amiable fat-guy shtick. There was the thing where he would instantly go from manic to mock business-guy language. There was the pouty voice. There was the thing where he’d get mad at himself for saying something stupid. There was the thing where he’d say something stupid. There was the great screaming.…

But, hey, you either loved Chris Farley or you didn’t. For most of those that did, Tommy Boy was the red-hot core of the White Giant. Here’s a brief list of my favorite Farley moments in Tommy Boy …

1. Farley and Julie Warner are on a sailboat in a lake waiting for some wind. Several kids start yelling at them.

Kids: Hey, Tubbo! You ain’t moving!

Farley: Yeah, need a little wind here.

Kids: No, you need to drop a couple hundred pounds, blimp!

Farley: [to Warner] Rascals! [to the kids] I guess that’s your theory.

2. Spade, holding coffee, walks up to their hotel door and knocks.

Spade: Housekeeping.

Farley: [inside, sleeping] No thank you, sleeping.

Spade: Housekeeping.

Farley: Come back in an hour!

Spade: Housekeeping. You want towels?

Farley: No towels, need sleepy!

Spade: Housekeeping. You want me to fluff pillow?

Farley: Go away, let me sleep, for the love of God!

3. Farley tries to change clothes in an airplane bathroom.…

You won’t be able to see any of that tonight, but at least there’s Black Sheep (1996), the second-best Chris Farley movie. Black Sheep may lack the satire, the wit and pop-cultural punch of Tommy Boy , but it does have Chris Farley and David Spade sharing a bed in a log cabin with a leaky roof. [HBO, 28, 8 P.M.]

-Deirdre Dolan