Peter Bogdanovich’s Movie of the Week
The most strangely poetic of crime thrillers, known chicly these days as films noir, also has one of the great movie titles, and features Robert Mitchum’s first (and probably most) defining role for his screen persona, Jacques Tourneur’s memorable 1947 romantic suspense classic Out of the Past [Monday, April 13, AMC, 54, 4:15 P.M.] . Mitchum is a former detective now working in a small-town garage, all in the hope that his past won’t catch up with him. But it always does, especially the past you’re trying so hard to forget: the vulnerable, lovely and very dangerous woman he fell for, acted enticingly by Jane Greer, and the smooth, lethal gangster she comes attached to, played to perfection by a young Kirk Douglas (only his fourth film).
The superbly constructed screenplay-with an extended flashback beautifully narrated by Mitchum-was done by Daniel Mainwaring, under his crime-author pseudonym Geoffrey Homes, and based on his own novel, Build My Gallows High , which remained the picture’s title in Britain. (The story was remade, after a fashion, in 1984 as Against All Odds , starring Jeff Bridges.) The black-and-white photography by Nicholas Musuraca, much of it shot on real locations, is especially evocative, but the overall quality of passionate understatement, of a certain sadly clear-eyed empathy for all the doomed characters, comes from Jacques Tourneur.
This feeling can be found in all Tourneur’s finest work, even with the most unlikely material, from a subtle horror picture like Cat People (1942) to a low-keyed Joel McCrea western like Stars in My Crown (1950). It is the Frenchman in him. Born in Paris, Tourneur grew up with the movies: His father, pioneer director-producer Maurice Tourneur-a student of sculptor Auguste Rodin-was (particularly during the silent era) one of the giants of the French and the American screen, and was most distinguished by his work on mystery-horror-fantasy films. The master Alfred Hitchcock himself told me that among the pictures that most impressed him as a youth was Maurice Tourneur’s fantastic The Isle of Lost Ships (1923). As a youngster, Jacques first worked on his father’s pictures, soon was off on his own and, being a good son, did not want to figuratively kill the father, so never seems to have aspired to the kind of size and popularity the elder Tourneur’s work achieved. Instead, Jacques went the other way; his more modest accomplishments, however, have an equally enduring value, and Out of the Past is his best film.
The Sturges Watch: One-of-a-kind writer-director Preston Sturges’ very first work in both jobs was his brilliant 1940 satiric comedy-drama about crooked politics, The Great McGinty [Monday, April 13, AMC, 54, 2:30 A.M.] . Veteran B-actor Brian Donlevy gives the performance of his career as an indigent drifter who gets paid to vote in a local election and impresses the bosses by managing to vote 37 times; he eventually becomes governor of the state! Love, however, makes him fight for truth in one fatal instance, proving Sturges’ point that honesty can be disastrous for a politician. His exceptional screenplay won the first Academy Award ever given in the newly minted category, best original screenplay, and in the next three and a half years, he wrote and directed seven other comedies of equal resonance, sparkle and wit, from The Lady Eve (1940) to The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944).
The following films, on this week, have previously been highly recommended here (for a nominal fee, I am told The Observer will send you the relevant column): Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles in the Carol Reed-Graham Greene-Alex Korda Vienna-shot suspense masterwork, 1949′s The Third Man [Thursday, April 9, WLNY, 55, 3 A.M.] ; Judy Garland and James Mason in George Cukor’s show-biz musical tragedy, 1954′s A Star Is Born [Saturday, April 11, AMC, 54, 3 A.M.] ; pre-accident Montgomery Clift as a priest suspected of murder, Anne Baxter in love with him, in Hitchcock’s 1953 suspense-love story, I Confess [Sunday, April 12, AMC, 54, 1 A.M.] ; Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in Frank Capra’s affecting 1941 antifascist drama Meet John Doe [Tuesday, April 14, WLNY, 55, 3 A.M.] .
Wednesday, April 8
Of all the unlikely places for a sudden expression of artistic integrity. Last week on Beverly Hills, 90210 , David (Brian Austin Green), who, let’s recall, was folding shirts at the Gap a few months ago, almost broke up with Valerie (Tiffany Amber-Thiesson) because she introduced him to a commercial director. “I don’t do armpit music, Val,” David told her. “Do me a favor, don’t do me any more favors.” In the real world, a world in which Gus Van Sant directs Hanson videos, commercial directors come in all shapes and sizes. NYTV spoke to Harvey Wang, a still-life photographer and filmmaker who started making commercials a few years ago-maybe you know his 14 Ikea ads, like the one where the dog can’t wake the parents, pees on the rug and the announcer asks, “Need a new rug?”
“One of the biggest hurdles is getting the job,” said Mr. Wang. “I was at an agency yesterday, and there were 100 reels on the floor. They have to like your work, but a lot of the time they like two or three people, and it ends up being about what goes on at the meeting. It’s the highest-paid form of filmmaking that there is; you make between $5,000 and $15,000 for a day’s work. There’s a lot of money in commercials, which is probably why every feature director wants to make them. They generally figure anywhere from $80,000 to $150,000 a day for the total budget for a shoot, so when it gets down to making these things, you hire great people. And it really is fun. There’s a real adrenaline high to being in production. The stakes are very high, and there is tremendous time-pressure. For instance, they’ll describe something in storyboards, and then a week later you’re standing in a field watching a country fair being erected. A lot of what I bring to commercials is a sense of believability. It’s about creating worlds that are identifiable and real.” Mr. Wang’s “Blimpies Bloopers” ads start airing today, through June 28 on ESPN, channel 8.
Thursday, April 9
Jonathan Benjamin plays Jonathan Katz’s son Benjamin on Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist . He spoke to NYTV from his Manhattan apartment. “Once a month, we meet in Boston and shoot an episode of Dr. Katz , which is primarily improvised,” said Mr. Benjamin. He says he’d like to do the show forever, although he never watches it. Sometimes he spends time in Los Angeles, like last year when he made short films for MTV’s The Jenny McCarthy Show . Right now, he’s writing a sketch-comedy pilot for Comedy Central called The Half-Hour Network . “That will keep me in New York, which is sort of a goal of mine. It’s actually my only goal.” How much TV does he watch? “I’m really like a channel changer. I don’t watch things consistently, I just sort of change channels until I fall asleep or take a nap, kind of like a lab animal. I used to have a girlfriend to force me to watch shows the whole way through. I’d have to get up and go pace in the kitchen. It used to be I could watch TV a lot easier because I remember being in Boston and not having cable, and though it wasn’t as good, it made it more significant to watch something. Probably my favorite show of all time is Cannon , which is an old 70′s detective show with William Conrad. I just like the idea of a really fat detective, really fat, too, he wasn’t even moderately fat. I guess what it was, was the chase scenes. There’s at least one chase scene per show, and that is great television.”
NYTV called Dr. Will Miller, a pop-culture therapist, to ask how big a problem Jonathan Benjamin has. “It’s not in the category of silent killer, but it’s certainly a silent epidemic,” he said. “Channel surfing is rooted in this neurotic idea that there’s something you’re missing. It’s a compulsive disorder and a very common modern ailment, and there are definitely steps you can take to cure it. It doesn’t necessarily affect your ability to be productive, but it affects your mood and your capacity to enjoy what you’re doing, and that can have a long-term effect because if you never feel satisfaction and you always feel driven, it will affect the choices you make in your life. It’s a challenge for people in this day and age to decide when the time is to say ‘I’ve succeeded.’
“People are unable to detach from the pull to be stimulated. They can’t just sort of rest in place where they are. It takes a lot of discipline to do that. It’s a compulsion, like gambling, where you want to get the next thrill. It definitely qualifies as an addiction. If you’re watching it compulsively, the way Jonathan is describing, you’re fearful of missing something and so you can’t enjoy any of it. And that’s what Jon does, that’s classic Jon.”
How can it be cured? “With any compulsion or phobia, you must force yourself to detach. I would say to Jon, Jon needs to turn off the TV and force himself to go out and engage in some other activity. And if you can’t do it alone, call up a friend and say ‘I’m a compulsive viewer and I can’t help myself, please come over to my house and take me out.’ That’s one reason people are into nostalgia TV, because they can find rest. If they come to a Brady Bunch , it breaks the spell. You’re in a frenzy to find something better and if you find something familiar, you can let the rhythm break.” Today, Jonathan Katz analyzes the stand-up comedians, and TV writers, Louis C.K., Ron Lynch and Fred Stoller. [Comedy Central, 45, 8 A.M.]
Friday, April 10
Rodney Dangerfield, missing in action for the last couple of years, flies to Burbank, Calif., from his hometown Nashville to appear on the Tonight Show With Jay Leno . [WNBC, 4, 11:30 P.M.]
Saturday, April 11
When Saturday Night Live called up Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper’s Magazine , and asked him to appear in a skit about all the Clinton junk, he said Yes. No stranger to TV, from 1988 to 1991 he hosted a talk show called Bookmark on PBS where authors sat around and talked about books, and he frequently appears on Washington Journal to talk about the news with Brian Lamb. SNL even sent Mr. Lapham the script and let him make a few changes. “I thought all of it was fun,” said Mr. Lapham from Harper’s . “I like the wit of the show. They make it very easy for you, and it was better than I expected.” Mr. Lapham has his own idea for a show. “I would like to do a show on history, kind of a talk show. It would be a show with a Nightline kind of format, but instead of doing it with politicians, you’d have historians. You’d start with the week’s news-war in Africa, White House scandal-and then work backward with three or four historians. You could work the war in the Balkans all the way back to the Romans or take the confusions about the lack of overarching Christian faith and take that back to Charlemagne or into medieval times or whatever was the judgment of the historians present. I’m an addict of C-SPAN. I like the History Channel and A&E and Bravo. I spend a lot of time at the high end of the dial, if you know what I mean.” How about the bear hug from the guy in the band Third Eye Blind at the end of the Saturday Night Live taping? “Oh, that was nice. I didn’t know who he was, but I was told by my younger associates that it was a cultural moment.” Tonight on the old NBC war horse, Greg Kinnear and the band All Saints. [WNBC, 4, 11:30 P.M.]
Sunday, April 12
Carey Zeiser directed and produced Madonna Rising , a nostalgic tour of Madonna’s old stomping ground: her apartment on East Fourth Street and Avenue B, the Music Building, old delis. NYTV spoke to Ms. Zeiser about the shoot, which was hosted by best friend-to-the-stars Rupert Everett. Madonna affects a British accent, mispronounces the word “anonymity” and continues to perfect her energetic and world-weary routine. “It was Madonna’s idea,” said Ms. Zeiser. “She pitched it, and I’m not even 100 percent sure why she chose to go back. It’s kind of cool because a lot of the lyrics are about her past.
“She chose Rupert, I think, because they’re like two peas in a pod, and there’s a mutual respect; they can give each other shit. She was more open with him than with journalists. At this point in her life, she’s really looking back and taking stock; it’s sort of perfect.” [VH1, 19, 8 P.M.]
Monday, April 13
Open auditions for MTV veejays today and tomorrow: Call 258-8000. The winner will be announced on April 18. It’ll be a tough job announcing the whole half-hour of videos that play between 8 P.M. and midnight. [MTV, 20, 9:30 P.M.]
From the creators of Party of Five , the season premiere of Push . Hot, blond athletes at a California college. [WABC, 7, 8 P.M.]
Tuesday, April 14
Grant Tinker, the founder of MTM Production and the former head of programming at NBC who believes strong news helps entertainment, would take a dim view of ABC’s recent decision to fire 50 people from news bureaus around the country: “Laying off correspondents, closing bureaus and deep-sixing documentaries certainly saves money in the short run,” he said. “But to the degree that corporate financial pressures injure the credibility of a news organization and shift its programming focus from good journalism to ratings, they are disastrous.” Nightline has been spared any firings. [WABC, 7, 11:35 P.M.]