… Peter Bogdonavich’s Movie of the Week

Peter Bogdanovich’s Movie of the Week by Peter Bogdanovich

Last week, writing about Jean Renoir (1894-1979)-generally now considered the finest picture maker the West has produced-I specifically mentioned a number of superb films from his first mature period (1931-1939) and, as from a stroke of Aladdin’s lamp, two of these are on this week, so if you’re interested in movies comparable in quality to Mozart’s music, don’t miss them. The 1932 comedy, Boudu Saved From Drowning [Saturday, Jan. 17, CUNY, 75, 9 P.M. and Sunday, Jan. 18, CUNY, 75, 9 P.M.], stars the incomparable Michel Simon as a wildly undomesticated tramp saved by a deeply middle-class shop owner and shows how little the fellow appreciates the good deed, seducing most of the women in the house-wife, daughter, maid-and generally behaving atrociously, hilariously. If this sounds a touch familiar, it’s because there was a milder American remake called Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986, directed by Paul Mazursky, with Richard Dreyfuss and Nick Nolte) which was quite popular. The original is one of the great early sound masterpieces-Renoir himself told me it was technically somewhat rough in places but was nevertheless perhaps his best film-certainly it’s one of them. Another, in a totally opposite vein, is his 1938 adaptation of Émile Zola’s dark novel, La Bête Humaine [Sunday, Jan. 18, CUNY, 75, 3 P.M.], with France’s biggest and longest-lasting star, Jean Gabin, in the title role of the “Human Beast,” a close-mouthed and excellent railroad engineer who occasionally has an uncontrollable compulsion to kill, and does. The beautiful, sexy and talented Simone Simon becomes one of his victims. All the train sequences-which are strangely hypnotic and exhilarating-were shot on a real train engine, Gabin actually handling the controls. This, too, had a softened American remake, Human Desire (1954, directed by Fritz Lang, with Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame), but, again, the original is a landmark film and remains one of the most disturbing, even shocking, of pictures, exposing both the heights and depths of human male behavior. Within a year of its release, World War II had begun and Hitler, among others, would reveal this with the widest and most horrific scope. Also mentioned briefly last week was Renoir’s fascinating American period (1941-1948), and his second U.S. film-and one of the best of these-is 1945′s The Southerner [Wednesday, Jan. 14, WLNY, 55, 3 A.M.] with Zachary Scott and Betty Field as heads of an impoverished farming family desperately struggling to exist. As always with Renoir, there is a poet’s eye at work here, and though he may not be as comfortable with the sound of the language as he is in French, his unique way of seeing is what properly dominates, and beautifully. I was fortunate enough to have known Renoir over the last 15 years of his life and can say unequivocally that no other artist I have met approached his humanity or poetic vision. In trying to describe him, I’m reminded of a poem once quoted by Robert Graves as “a summary of the ideal poetic temperament”; the second Lord Falkland wrote the lines in tribute to that greatest of Elizabethans, Ben Jonson, but they apply perfectly to the Jean Renoir I knew:

He had an infant’s innocence and truth,

The judgment of gray hairs, the wit of youth,

Not a young rashness, not an ag’d despair,

The courage of the one, the other’s care;

And both of them might wonder to discern

His ableness to teach, his skill to learn.

Plus: There’s a top-flight Hitchcock on, his 1951 suspense classic, Strangers on a Train [Saturday, Jan. 17, AMC, 46, 5 P.M. and 10:45 P.M.], featuring one of the most brilliant performances in any Hitchcock film: Robert Walker doing the last complete portrayal of his life-and his best, too-as a deranged rich mama’s boy who plots the perfect murder.

Television producer and Hollywood manager Bernie Brillstein, whose first show-biz job was in the mail room of the William Morris Agency in 1955, manages a vast portion of sitcom real estate ( The Larry Sanders Show, Newsradio, Naked Truth, Just Shoot Me, Mr. Show With Bob and Dave, The Steve Harvey Show, Alright Already ) along with his partner, Brad Grey. The team also produces Politically Incorrect -which Mr. Brillstein calls one of his favorites right now, although he concedes that TV, in general, is in a pretty sorry state …

Anyway, what’s the deal with all these lousy sitcoms on the air? Is the sitcom dead? “Everyone’s trying to figure that out,” Mr. Brillstein said. “No form is ever dead; sometimes they’re overextended. There are 63 sitcoms, and you can’t get enough good writers for that. There aren’t enough good story lines for that, and obviously you’re overexposed. They said sitcoms were dead before Cosby , and then they were back. They said the hour form was dead, and then they had ER . The only thing that is dead is the variety show, because of MTV and people’s impatience. If anything is overextended, it’s the news shows. They keep making more and more of them. I think the reality shows are going to come back. Shows like What’s My Line? which was on CBS-reality programming and fake game shows.” …

But back to what’s wrong with sitcoms: “I don’t think they know what to do,” Mr. Brillstein said. “The comedy business has sort of been taken over by HBO because comedians can use the language they want to use. You can’t do that on network because we’re such a Protestant straight country-as if hearing the word ‘bastard’ on TV would send the country into a tumble.” …

What’s the best thing on TV? “I think it’s between P.I. and Just Shoot Me , and I love Helen Hunt and I must say The Practice .” …

When will TV be good again? “I feel it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” he said. “Maybe another year and a half, and people will change their attitude.” …

Tonight’s lineup on Politically Incorrect: Joe Queenan, Graham Nash, Mercedes Ruehl, Jonathan Kellerman. [WABC, 7, 12:05 A.M.]

Goofball TV correspondent Louis Theroux (you loved him on TV Nation ) takes out his penis on tonight’s edition of Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekend. The show is premiering tonight in England and will show up on Bravo in the spring. Book a flight now and you can catch tonight’s edition, in which the comic journalist investigates four different American subcultures.

Mr. Theroux, who’s 27 and keeps a place in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, spoke to NYTV from a pay phone from the underground in London, where he was waiting for a train. “It’s participatory documentary,” he said, by way of explaining what he does, “sort of George Plimpton-esque, but less WASP-ish and more hands-on-ish. I get as involved as possible. They’re like mini-movies that follow my attempt to infiltrate American subcultures by participating in them as thoroughly as possible.” …

So far, five episodes have been shot, and four more are planned for this year. “I love getting a chance to sort of experience alternative existences and, although I take subcultures that on the surface are completely nuts, I like finding the kernel of validity,” said Mr. Theroux, the son of author Paul Theroux. “It’s definitely not just about people that are completely wrong about everything-it’s about finding the heroic qualities in fields that are reprehensible, like the militia guy with the heart of gold or the sensitive porn star. You know, flowers in the dirt. My actual dream is to discover a subculture on the fringe that is perfect for me and then not come back.” …

And another thing: “I identify with the people I investigate more than with the BBC. To the BBC, I’m a freak. I’m sort of as weird and out there as the people I do stories on. The BBC wanted me to go out and make fun of the people who are crazy, but I resist that. I want it to be a lot more nuanced than just ‘Americans are weird.’ Although people in Britain will think Americans are loonies.”

How does this program differ from TV Nation , the canceled Michael Moore show that used to employ Mr. Theroux? ” TV Nation was basically satirical and this is not. This has satirical moments, and it also has moments of tenderness; well, it’s supposed to, actually.” …

On tonight’s show, Mr. Theroux becomes a porn star, briefly. You see him meeting with casting agents, shooting a scene and befriending a 19-year-old named J.J. whose ability to “maintain wood” has allowed him to make 90 movies in the last six months. During one sequence, Mr. Theroux passes around a Polaroid shot of his penis, and everyone who looks at it starts laughing. This is not the kind of journalistic risk that, say, Stone Phillips would take …

“I realize that my penis is not normal,” Mr. Theroux said, still waiting for that train. “Guys labor under the delusion that we’ve all got essentially the same equipment, but, in fact, your penis is as unique as your fingertip. What bothered me slightly in the last shot of the film was when I say to the woman, ‘Would you work with that guy?’ and she looks at my picture and says, ‘I don’t know, I’d have to think about that.’ That hurt a little bit.” [BBC2, 9:30 P.M. Greenwich mean time.]

After helping the Knicks to a narrow victory over the Seattle Supersonics on Jan. 4, John Starks talked about surviving without the injured Patrick Ewing: “I’ve been watching a lot of Classic Sports, and all those guys ever talk about is how mentally tough you got to be,” Mr. Starks said. “I’m convinced that’s all it is.” …

Brian Bedol, chief executive of Classic Sports Network, a subsidiary of the ESPN network, could have kissed the Knicks’ sixth man when he read that quote. “Stuff like this is great because it legitimizes in many ways what we’ve been saying, which is that this isn’t just a channel for couch potatoes,” Mr. Bedol said. “It’s for athletes who are looking for a performance to aspire to. It’s a great example of how we’re having a little bit of an impact on the athletes, too. My sense is that what he’s referring to is this certain quality that probably isn’t so easy to articulate that champions share. An attitude that has historically been described as the winning attitude-a sense of ‘we knew what we had to do and we went out and we did it.’” …

Tonight on Classic Sports, which is available in some New York neighborhoods via Time Warner: the Atlanta Hawks at the Boston Garden against the Celtics, from May 22, 1988. Larry Bird scored 20 points, in what some people say is the greatest fourth quarter in basketball history, to lead the Celtics to a 118-116 victory. [Classic Sports Network, 84, 4 P.M.]

Special NYTV correspondent Tish Durkin filed this report from the field:

Sunday is no day of rest for Democrats in search of U.S. Senate seats. While Geraldine Ferraro fans caught their candidate’s tête-à-tête with Tim Russert on the Jan. 11 edition of Meet the Press , her foes were grousing in their granola that she should have been having it out with opponents Mark Green and Charles Schumer on a previously scheduled edition of Face the Nation . Ms. Ferraro backed out of the CBS show, it seems, in an effort to avoid the dreaded debate .…

Face the Nation did not return calls, but Team Ferraro blames it all on the “chaos” that comes to a political star just back to the stage. This “chaos” seems to have caused someone in the campaign to accept the CBS debate when NBC had already come a-calling.…

“I don’t think anyone would blame us for doing the highest-rated show alone, over a lower-rated show with the other candidates,” said campaign manager David Eichenbaum.…

No word yet on guest lineups for the Jan. 18 editions of Face the Nation or Meet the Press. [Face the Nation, WCBS, 2, 10:30 A.M.; Meet the Press, WNBC, 4, 10:30 A.M.]