Jay’s Giant Interview … Roddenberry’s Aliens … Spade’s Bitter Homecoming … This Week’s Big Rat Story

Peter Bogdanovich’s Movie of the Week

Toward the end of the 40’s, after a tumultuous decade within the Hollywood studio system, Orson Welles went to Europe and began to prepare what would turn out to be the first modern independent film made by an American artist, and the first thoroughly cinematic picture based on a play by William Shakespeare: the striking, innovative 1952 Mercury Production of Othello [Friday, April 17, Bravo, 64, 1:30 P.M.] . To insure complete independence, Welles acted in other people’s movies (like The Third Man , Prince of Foxes and others) and used his salary to pay for the shooting of his own film. Because of his players’ schedules and myriad other obstacles, the process took Orson nearly three years, but resulted in one of the most inspired and brilliant of his works and won him the grand prize at the 1952 Cannes Film Festival. Since he had shot a large part of the picture in Morocco, Welles submitted the film as a Moroccan entry, and so the movie became the first (and probably only) Moroccan production to win a great international award!

But the real nationality of the work is pure Welles via Shakespeare and still, along with Welles’ Falstaff film, Chimes at Midnight (1966), the only artistically satisfying Shakespearean adaptation that also is truly a film, as opposed to photographed theater. Orson argued that since Giuseppe Verdi and his librettist Arrigo Boito had felt no compunction in altering the Bard’s play when they created their grand opera Otello , why couldn’t he be as free for this new medium? Tightening the tragedy from a usual three hours to a fast-paced 91 minutes, he begins with a funeral sequence for the suicide Othello, the Moor of Venice, and his murdered white wife Desdemona, then flashes back to the cause, starting dialogue with Iago’s “I hate the Moor,” sometimes replacing famous lines (like “I kissed thee ere I killed thee”) with similarly memorable images that evoke the words, and proceeding with a kind of terrifying inevitability to the annihilating conclusion.

When costumes didn’t arrive in time, Welles decided to shoot a key night sequence–the murder of Roderigo–in a dark, steamy Turkish bath, thus requiring only towels. Welles’ fearless inventiveness is the same throughout, giving the whole picture, therefore, a remarkably fresh, spontaneous quality. Shot on numerous distant locations in Morocco and Italy, the film’s black-and-white photography is sharply evocative, and Angelo Francesco Lavagnino’s music has the classic size for epic tragedy. All the performances are excellent, but Micheal MacLiammoir’s wily, quicksilver Iago stands out, as does Suzanne Cloutier’s heartbreakingly innocent Desdemona. In the title role, Welles himself gives a subdued, extremely vulnerable reading of the proud, guileless man driven to insane jealousy, all because of one man’s envy.

Those two superdeadly sins were understood by Orson all too well, having been at the receiving end of them for his entire creative life. After all, he had published revolutionary editions of Shakespeare ( Everybody’s Shakespeare ) while still a teenager, had scored on the New York stage with a voodoo Macbeth at 22, with a modern-dress Julius Caesar at 21, had directed, co-written, produced and starred in one of the greatest films ever made at 25, Citizen Kane (1941). Certainly, there was a lot of envy and jealousy that helped to prevent Orson from doing more work in pictures; he was simply too good not to be some kind of terrible rebuke to mediocrity. All this sort of thing similarly contributes to Iago’s destruction of Othello.

But Welles survived. His Othello , though highly acclaimed all over Europe, was either ignored or despised by critics in his own country. Not until nearly a decade after Orson’s death was Othello revived in the United States and finally hailed as the masterwork it had, of course, always been. And for all those who ignorantly ask that tired old question, “What did Welles ever do after Citizen Kane ?” the answer is, at the very least: The Magnificent Andersons (1942), The Lady From Shanghai (1948), Macbeth (1948)–his dark, rough sketch of Shakespeare’s play, done in 23 days on old Western sets– Othello , Mr. Arkadin (1955), Touch of Evil (1958), The Trial (1963) and Chimes at Midnight . He did more, too, but for God’s sake, these alone put him at the very forefront of the world’s greatest film artists. And as America’s first independent, his example remains our brightest hope.

Wednesday April 15

Economist, actor (the teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off ), lawyer and American Spectator columnist Ben Stein, who’s been beating a dead horse with his nasal-voiced character in commercials and movies since 1986, is the star of Jeopardy! knockoff Win Ben Stein’s Money , up for three Emmys against Jeopardy! itself. Mr. Stein, a Pepperdine University professor, has a car phone. “I’m a fucking basket case when I’m doing the show,” he said while driving in Beverly Hills, Calif. “We made 110 episodes in eight weeks… I give up my sanity and my peace of mind to do this show. It eats at my sleep, and I find myself taking tranquilizers. The show has a dry, subtle humor, and usually I think my jokes are the subtlest.”

Here are Ben Stein’s favorite comedians: Jimmy Kimmel (his Win Ben Stein’s Money sidekick), himself, Craig Kilborn. “For every hour I work on the show, I’m making more than the most highly paid lawyer on Wall Street,” Mr. Stein, a former Nixon speechwriter, said. “But it’s more stressful. I have to sit in that booth and answer questions against some Unabomber clone–some of the people are really scary … damned maniacs who spend their whole lives memorizing trivia.” [Comedy Central, 45, 7:30 P.M.]

Thursday, April 16

Billy Crystal, who’s become what he once mocked, sells My Giant on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno . Here’s the probable dialogue, in case you have to go to bed by 11 that night:

Jay: “I just saw this movie. It’s a very funny, very touch-ing–very touching– How would you describe it?”

Billy: “Very funny, very touching’s nice. Very nice.”

Jay: “And for the folks who haven’t seen the movie, who don’t know–”

Billy: “There’s a giant–played by Gheorghe Muresan, a very talented, very tall, 7 foot 7 inch–”

Jay: ” Seven foot 7 inch?”

Billy: “That’s two of my Aunt Irmas–without the arch supports. [As Irma:] ‘ My arches are killing me !’ [Back, as Billy:] Anyway, he’s a very tall, talented actor–and there’s me, playing a driven schlemiel of a press agent–”

Jay: “So it’s type-casting–”

Billy: “Very type, very close to life–”

Jay: “Hee-hee-hee-hee! Very close–”

Billy: “Very close.”

Jay: “And it’s funny, but also touching.”

Billy: “But also funny.”

Jay: “Very, very funny. Did you shoot in Romania?”

Billy: “Yes, we shot in Gdunskianskolknugnyat. Nnyat. Poon. Gnyat. And, boy, what food do they have there!”

Jay: “A little heavy, huh?”

Billy: “See the sprained toe? I dropped a Romanian cruller on my foot.”

Jay: “I understand it opened well.”

Billy (reproachful look): “Yeah. It opened. So you folks should see it. Please.”

Jay: ” My Giant , folks. We’ve got a commercial.” [WNBC, 4, 11:30 P.M.]

Friday, April 17

David Spade needs a bigger hoe if he’s going to till the comedy field planted by Jerry Seinfeld–Mr. Spade’s unfunny Just Shoot Me is NBC’s most likely replacement for

Seinfeld ‘s 9 P.M. Thursday slot, and Laura San Giacomo is no Julia-Louis Dreyfus. Tonight, the wispy, bitter blond boy tries to fill his buddy Chris Rock’s Bring on the Pain shoes with his own originally titled HBO special, Take the Hit . With a pubescent mustache, Mr. Spade returns to his Arizona roots, setting the show in a unnervingly calm comedy club in his hometown. Painted slides of the desert flash behind him as the act builds from a timid start (“I fly a lot” jokes, Beavis & Butt-Head riffs, Adam Sandler imitations, four-year-old routines from his role in Tommy Boy ) and eventually achieves memorability (who’s the god of McDonald’s … what happens to the tit scenes on the USA Network … kickball in junior high). Caveat: He sucks up to HBO on camera. [HBO, 28, 11:30 P.M.]

Saturday, April 18

NYTV’s correspondent Joe Conason reports: If space aliens ever do show up around here, they’ll probably resemble the beautiful, androgynous, spiritually advanced creatures on Earth: Final Conflict , the late Gene Roddenberry’s posthumously produced action-adventure series. Instead of the usual alien fare (giant insects, crazed, laser-firing green dwarves), the Taelons share their marvelous technologies to eradicate war, hunger and disease on Earth, billing themselves as our friendly, paternalistic “Companions.” To most people, they seem like divine saviors, worthy of adoration and even worship. But as the humans closest to them gradually discover, the powerful Companions are an endangered species with a hidden agenda that involves bizarre genetic experiments, political manipulation and even murder.

As in all the best sci-fi literature, this encounter between humans and aliens is awestruck and ambiguous. The series hero is William Boone, a former police captain and military commando serving as security chief for the Companions, even as he secretly works with the Resistance–a tiny dissident underground that seeks to expose the Taelons’ nefarious purposes.

Fitted with a brain implant that vastly expands his mental capacities and a bio-engineered wrist gizmo that shoots bolts of lightning, Boone spends each episode seeking clues to the real reasons for his masters’ sojourn on Earth. His implant is designed to ensure his utter fealty to the Companions, but it has been sabotaged by a Resistance doctor, played by the founder’s widow, Majel Roddenberry.

Despite his ties to the Resistance, Boone forms a strong personal attachment to the Companion Da’an, who in many ways is the series’ most compelling character. Like Boone, Da’an is conflicted: He must pursue the Companions’ mysterious mission while gradually coming to care deeply for humanity and its future.

Production values are strong, particularly the interdimensional Companion shuttle craft, and even the product placements by sponsor MCI, in the form of handheld global videophones, aren’t too obtrusive. The cast, including the stolid Kevin Kilner as Boone, is more than adequate to the better-than-average scripts. But as with all of Roddenberry’s creations, what really gives Earth: Final Conflict enough tension to keep us up late on Sunday nights (when it’s repeated) is the concept: How much freedom would we surrender if a landing party of godlike aliens promised to lead us into a Golden Age? [WPIX, 11, 6 P.M.]

Sunday, April 19

“When people tell rat stories, the rat is always tremendous. It’s a drag-belly rat the size of a cat because this is a satisfying rhyme …” from Underworld , by Don DeLillo. This week’s big rat story is the high-budget, beautifully shot episode of the National Geographic Explorer series called Urban Invasion , featuring rats. Director Mark Lewis said he did the show because “it’s always intrigued me that here’s one of the best cities in the world, and the most despised and loathed creatures are so prevalent. Every person has a story about a rat.”

The segment’s horror story is from computer analyst Tim Brice, whose apartment in Old Mill Basin, Brooklyn, is slowly overrun by rats. “The house was on dirt,” he said from his new home. “The rats had been using it as a highway, so to speak. If you live through something like that, it doesn’t really go away.” [TBS, 22, 7 P.M.]

Monday, April 20

The Independent Film Channel exists up there at the top of your dial, way past the richer, slicker Bravo, off the grid of the New York Times TV listings. There, in its second season, independent film guru John Pierson (the co-author, with Kevin Smith, of a book about independent films, Spike, Mike, Slacker & Dykes ), hosts a show about and by scrappy filmmakers called Split Screen . “In this day and age, there are like 1,000 independent features being made,” he said, “900 of which will never be seen.… A lot of the stories behind the films are more generally accessible and entertaining to people than the movies might be themselves.” Mr. Pierson, whose favorite film is Seven Samurai and favorite TV show is King of the Hill , said the next big indie director star is Chris Smith of Wisconsin, who made American Job (a movie currently in post-production) and is featured in an episode. He cites last year’s In the Company of Men as proof that independent film is still independent. “It was made for less than $100,000,” he said. “If you think the times have changed, and you can’t have a film by no one from nowhere, it’s the type of movie that proves you can.” This week the show goes south to Hollywood, Fla. [Independent Film Channel, 81, 8 P.M.]

Tuesday, April 21

Frank Capra’s American Dream : Ron Howard hosts this documentary on the life and work of the simultaneously celebrated and underrated American filmmaker. Let’s hope it has at least one clip from A Hole in the Head (1959), his last great movie. Capra always liked a nice big cast, fast cutting and a mobbed public forum scene that he could use as a backdrop for a private crisis–and also show the audience something it hadn’t seen before. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington –cruelly denigrated by Hendrik Hertzberg in The New Yorker a couple of weeks ago–he showed a sound-stage U.S. Senate. In Meet John Doe , he created a massive outdoor political rally in the rain. In A Hole in the Head , he did Miami, water ballets, dog races and the overlit, candy-pastel outdoor pageants of the 50’s. [AMC, 54, 10 P.M.]

Jay’s Giant Interview … Roddenberry’s Aliens … Spade’s Bitter Homecoming … This Week’s Big Rat Story