Wednesday, April 28
The Living Edens is a nature show that amazingly doesn’t make you feel guilty. Amazing! The producers travel to exotic lands and film nature for three months, that’s it. Absent are the depressing sidebars about loggers wiping out rain forests or the slow painful death of an indigenous tribe. Executive producer Alex Gregory said, “We don’t deal with conservation. We just want to celebrate what exists.”
The show airs quarterly. This segment is about the tropical island of Borneo.
“We start filming at the top of Mt. Kinabalu, the highest mountain in Southeast Asia, and the story follows the water down from the mountain into the rain forest and then into the coral reefs that surround the island,” said Mr. Gregory. “There are a lot of exotic creatures on Borneo–lizards that fly and snakes that fly from tree to tree. Also the world’s largest bat caves, caves you could fly a 747 through.”
So how many bats are there, Mr. Gregory?
“There are so many bats, they start to form these cones and spirals as they come out at night. They eat hundreds of tons of insects every day.” [WNET, 13, 8 P.M.]
Thursday, April 29
There’s nothing like a Fox stunt special to reduce entertainment to the big issues: life or death. Tonight, Robbie Knievel, son of Evel, jumps across the Grand Canyon (or, perhaps, to his death) live. Robbie Knievel: Grand Canyon Jump is Fox’s third broadcast of the cyclist’s jumps. Executive producer Jeff Androsky, head of Tri Crown Productions, which specializes on location swimsuit shows, fought long and hard to get his vision on air. “I had been pitching the Robbie Knievel jumps for almost 10 years, but nobody had the balls to do it live,” he said. “They were scared. Finally, there was a guy at Fox who said, ‘All right!'”
To this critic’s mind, the first two televised jumps, particularly the second one, which was between two buildings in Las Vegas, relied too much on finesse. Distance was not an issue. The Grand Canyon jump promises to be more balls-out daring. “They were more like a chip shot in golf,” Mr. Androsky said. “This one is more like a long drive.”
Would a bloody death scene be good for ratings? “Not really, because if he falls up short and dies, there wouldn’t be any more shows.”
Good point. Mr. Androsky, however, could envision a scenario that’d work out just fine for ratings and Mr. Knievel: “If he crashed and then healed.” Now there’s a ‘tude that’s just right for Fox. [WNYW, 5, 8 P.M.]
Friday, April 30
Fox treat, part 2. Eric Schotz, executive producer of Guinness World Records: Prime Time , said he listened to his fans for this installment of the occasional series. “We had a bunch of guys write us who said they could eat more live worms than anyone else,” he said. So Mr. Schotz set up a competition. Guinness officials monitored the set to make sure everything was done by the rules. “There’s an official on every shoot we do. These are legit people,” Mr. Schotz insisted. “Our job is not to say if it’s good or bad–we just make sure the playing field is the same.”
Mr. Schotz is also working on another show, this one for CBS, called Surprise, Surprise, Surprise! , which will be hosted by Kathie Lee Gifford and is scheduled for a May 14 debut.
“The idea is everything is a surprise, but the level of surprise is much greater than a normal surprise show,” he said. “There’s always another surprise just around the corner. Some are emotional, some are comedic, and some are heartwarming. For example, we put together two best friends who had lost touch. Then we flew them and their husbands to Europe for a vacation. We also taught a woman how to wrestle and she surprised her husband. We flew her and her husband down to Florida separately. They both thought they were going away on business and, in the end, the husband finds his wife wrestling a guy in a mask. And then it turns out that the guy in the mask is his twin brother.”
Of host Kathie Lee Gifford, Mr. Schotz said, “It’s critical that the host be popular and accessible.” But what about her
K-Mart clothing scandals? “She was hired to be the host,” Mr. Schotz replied. [WNYW, 5, 8 P.M.]
Al Goldstein’s popular “Fuck You” segment on his Midnight Blue program–which features Mr. Goldstein, the publisher of Screw magazine, ranting and wheezing about everything from Ted Turner to an overcooked steak–has amused and entertained viewers for years. So when Craig Kilborn came up with a tepid imitation called “Screw You” for his Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn, you’d expect Mr. Goldstein to be pissed off. And he was.
On the April 23 Midnight Blue , Mr. Goldstein ran a “Fuck You” segment dedicated to Mr. Kilborn. We called him up to learn more. “He’s a piece of shit,” said Mr. Goldstein.
“He’s a sleazy piece of shit. It shows you that I’m 24 years ahead of my time. I’ve been doing my show for 24 years and only now do they get it on commercial TV.”
Although he had not seen the anti-Kilborn bit on Midnight Blue , Billy Kimball, Late Show ‘s executive producer, did not deny the relationship.
“Anyone who grew up in New York would consider Midnight Blue as a prime influence. This was a deeply felt homage to Mr. Goldstein, to the program, to the idea of him. We all stand on the shoulders of giants. We no more ripped off Al Goldstein than Shakespeare ripped off Plotinus or Plotinus ripped off Aristophanes.”
Mr. Goldstein knew Mr. Kilborn from his time on The Daily Show . “He’s one more pretty face with lacquer in his hair,” said Mr. Goldstein. “He’s of no consequence. He looks like he was made in Disney World. He’s not a real person. Do you honestly think he’s a real person? At least Tom Snyder was human. This guy is derivative of something very low on the food chain.”
But Mr. Goldstein, how do you really feel? [Leased Access, 35, midnight.]
Saturday, May 1
The Daily Racing Form ‘s national handicapper Mike Watchmaker has a few pet peeves about the TV coverage of the Kentucky Derby . “They continuously cut from one angle to another that really bothers me,” he said. “The general pan shot is the long-distance shot where you see the horses out of the gate into the first turn and continues to the end of the race in one shot–that’s the way they show 99.99 percent of races in America. In the Kentucky Derby, they make so many different cuts from shot to shot that it’s jarring to anybody with experience. I wish they would never do that. But they won’t stop–they have to justify having so many cameras on site. What kills me is the head-on shot in the first turn. That really kills me. You can’t see who’s in the lead. This makes it very hard for people to cover their horses.”
Guess what, ABC. The man is right. [WABC, 7, 4:30 P.M.]
Sunday, May 2
Only NBC, with its new miniseries, Noah’s Ark , complete with a wisecracking God, could make you long for the overwrought biblical epics they show on TNT. Tonight, see Jon Voight (sans white scarf) get started with the big boat; Mary Steenburgen plays his wife. [WNBC, 4, 9 P.M.]
Monday, May 3
For the past month, C-Span has devoted several hours each week to a different U.S. President as part of its American Presidents: Life Portraits series. You know the deal: snippets of John Philip Sousa march music and tweedy academics talking, with the centerpiece of a two-hour live show from a President’s birthplace or library. Sounds great. But what happens the week of June 11, with Millard Fillmore? Or Chester A. Arthur on Aug. 6? “In a way, I think those are going to be the fun ones, like Franklin Pierce,” said C-Span spokesman John Maynard. “You never see The American Experience on PBS doing documentaries on those guys.” No, you sure don’t.
This morning’s program gives us Martin Van Buren, he of the hefty chops, who according to C-Span was known as a “dandy” and “liked exquisite wines and fine foods.” From Kinderhook, N.Y. [C-Span, 38, 9 A.M.]
Tuesday, May 4
Those with sharp eyes and sharper memories may have spotted 81-year-old Allan Arbus (a.k.a. Dr. Sidney Freedman, the recurring Freudian analyst character on M.A.S.H. ) on Tuesday, April 27, doing a guest turn on N.Y.P.D. Blue as a lawyer.
“I admire the show, but it’s not a subject matter that I like,” Mr. Arbus said. “Because of the violence and that’s a whole society level that doesn’t hold a glow for me.”
He was good in the episode, playing a Jamesian guy who never declared his love for a murdered woman. After all these years in the business, Mr. Arbus still knows what to say about his co-stars. “I was told that Dennis Franz is the sweetest guy in the world. Now everyone says that, but in his case it’s absolutely true. I really enjoyed him.” Sure, Dennis is a sweetheart (love ya, Den-O!), but Mr. Arbus could do without the shooting style over at Steven Bochco’s cop drama.
“I wasn’t enthusiastic about my performance,” he said. “They work with a schedule that drives me crazy. They give you the lines right before you go on. It’s very nerve-racking and I’ve always been a slow study.”
Looking back on it all, Mr. Arbus fondly recalls The Electric Horseman and those guest spots on M.A.S.H. –especially when the script was written by his pal Alan Alda.
“He’s sensitive and intelligent,” he said of Mr. Alda. But we already knew that! Of Mr. Alda’s scripts, he said: “They were very well written and they were multilayered. There was more going on in them than in the others.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Arbus waits for the occasional call for a role and relaxes at the piano with his favorite composers, Bach, Beethoven and Schumann. Which reminds me–time for my piano lesson. See you next week, everybody … that is, if the world don’t ‘splode! [WABC, 7, 10 P.M.]
Peter Bogdanovich’s Movie of the Week
If Audrey Hepburn was the last virgin goddess of American films, Lillian Gish was the first. Sometimes referred to as “the First Lady of the Silent Screen,” she was the movies’ first truly great actress. From her debut at age 19 in D.W. Griffith’s two-reel An Unseen Enemy (1912) in the first year of film’s golden age to her final starring masterpiece, at age 35, in Victor Sjöström’s The Wind (1928), Lillian Gish was the central player in many of the enduring treasures of cinema’s first flowering, that cornerstone of the art in its purest form. She is the key figure in most of Griffith’s major work, from The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Broken Blossoms (1919) to Way Down East (1920) and Orphans of the Storm (1922). Besides Griffith and Sjöström–who acted the old professor in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957) and with whom Gish also did the first version of The Scarlet Letter (1926)–the other classic director she chose was the brilliant King Vidor. Together they made one of her most popular films, and among the most moving, their 1926 adaptation of the same novel (Henry Murger’s Scènes de la Vie de Bohème ) Puccini had used for his immortal opera, and with the same title, La Bohème [Sunday, May 2, Turner Classic Movies, 82, midnight; also on videocassette] .
One of the Gish trademarks was the ease with which she could break your heart. By the end of La Bohème –a tale of starving artists in 19th-century Paris–she and Vidor manage to achieve silently what Puccini did with voices and orchestra. There is no more devastatingly poignant note in music history than the lover Rodolphe’s final cry of “Mimi!” and no more deeply touching death scene than Gish’s here. Unless your heart is made of stone, 75 years after she and Vidor did the movie, you’ll still need plenty of Kleenex.
Rodolphe is played by dashing John Gilbert, who was then the biggest male star in pictures, and who had also just inherited (upon Valentino’s death that same year) the mantle of film’s most romantic lover. The year before, Vidor and Gilbert had released a towering landmark with the World War I epic The Big Parade (1925), co-starring Renée Adorée, who appears with considerable charm as Musette in La Bohème . The following year, Gilbert was to star opposite Greta Garbo for the first ( Flesh and the Devil ) of three silents that made them movies’ most passionate couple; ironically, Garbo’s extraordinarily popular worldliness helped to date and make unfashionable the Victorian innocence personified by Lillian Gish. Within two years, despite the huge success of La Bohème , her career as a star was over, and so was the glorious silent era.
There is a dreamlike intensity to good silent pictures that has never been equaled by talkies, which are by their nature too realistic to become transcendent in the way the silents could, with their hypnotic focus undistracted by irrelevant sounds or color. Also, the best silent work has a special integrity, which was expressed most eloquently by Lillian Gish when I saw her speak briefly (in 1958) to a small audience at the Museum of the City of New York after a running of Way Down East . She concluded her remarks about the making of the film by saying that when they all worked together in those days, it wasn’t for fame or for money, and they “weren’t even making them for Mr. Griffith,” she said. “We were making them for that–” and she turned slightly, sweeping her arm toward the screen behind her. For the art itself, she was saying–with a comment and gesture that seemed to sum up the fervent idealism of pictures’ early days–for that wondrous illusion created by projecting shadows and light.