EVIDENCE OF BLOODThe Movie ChannelSaturday, March 28,9 p.m.HOLLYWOODISM:Jews, Movies and the American DreamA&ESunday, March 22, 10 p.m.
Here in the killing season between the February sweeps and the summer vacation, they knock 'em down faster than I can write about them. The most spectacular recent axing (indeed, one of the few not ambiguously characterized as a hiatus) is that of CBS's Four Corners, a big-sky drama starring Ann-Margret and Sonia Braga that managed to last all of two weeks before network prexy Les Moonves turned his big thumb down, instantly collapsing months of work – by actors, agents, directors, writers, decorators, costumers, script supervisors, focus pullers, clapper loaders, best boys, dolly grips, caterers, wranglers, electricians, editors, Foley artists and dozens of other show-business professionals who might have believed themselves employed for a season or longer – into little more than a massive tax write-off. So quickly was this sentence passed and executed that it's hard not to believe the decision was at least half-made before the show ever hit the air, for in no fair sense was it given a chance. It's like calling the outcome of an election based on a fraction of a fraction of the returns: accurate, maybe, but an unpleasant and cynical way to operate.
This is not to make too-great claims for a series essentially of the genre epitomized by Bob and Ray as Garish Summit (where “socially prominent people . . . in stately splendor far removed from the squalid village below . . . fight their petty battles over power and money”), a genre Four Corners executive producer David Jacobs indeed helped to create, with Dallas and Knots Landing. Yet the show certainly seemed to me to do its job, and within the dialectical limits of prime-time soap opera it was uncommonly serious: Set in a Southwestern community more Mexican- than Anglo-American, it rather righteously engaged issues of class, culture, immigration, gentrification and urbanization. All that, plus two mature female leads, and Megan Ward in her unmentionables. You could have done worse, and you will.
The month's second significant cancellation is, of course, Lloyd Bridges, dead at 85. A steady presence in B-pics of the '40s and '50s, Bridges was already in his mid-40s, but still Muscle Beach-buff, when in 1957 he created the role of flippy frogman Mike Nelson in Ivan Tors' syndicated underwater adventure, Sea Hunt. His vigor ever belying his age, he returned to TV often, if never for long, with the dramatic anthology The Lloyd Bridges Show; as The Loner, wandering the West after the Civil War; running San Francisco International Airport; as patrolman Joe Forrester; boss again in the short-lived Paper Dolls and the shorter-lived Capital News; and with son Beau (though not as his father) in Harts of the West. As with his Airplane! co-star Leslie Nielsen, Bridges' talent for comedy was realized late; his last shots were for Seinfeld, where he was tough and stringy as the incapably belligerent Izzy Mandelbaum. Though not a major star and frequently out of view, he was one of those actors who nevertheless seem ever-present, integral to the pop-cultural warp and woof; one was never surprised, and always glad, to see him, and his going puts the world a little more out of joint.
In the superior made-for-cable film Evidence of Blood, premiering next Saturday on the Movie Channel, David Strathairn plays a writer who goes to a funeral in his woodsy hometown – it might be anywhere from Appalachia to the Ozarks, though, as so often now happens, Canada stands in – and stays to solve a mystery. The story is stocked with elements familiar to the form: a prodigal's return, a community full of secrets, an old crime that won't die – even the sepia flashes back in time are crimewriter's textbook. Nearly every character, from the blustery prosecutor, to the town drunk, to the chattery clerk, to the cynical ex-newspaperman, to the independent but lonely barkeep (played by co-star Mary McDonnell), has been met somewhere before. And yet the picture, based on a novel by Thomas H. Cook, never smells of pastiche, and in the way that the apparently sinister keeps resolving into the ordinarily human, and every new scrap remakes the past, and the past remakes the present, and the search remakes the searchers, it is quite its own kettle of fish.
Strathairn – recently seen in L.A. Confidential and less recently on TV's The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd – is solid and severe in the role of a man quietly capable but emotionally incomplete. (You wouldn't think, watching the actor, that he's an alumnus of the Ringling Clown College.) His reluctant potential paramour, obsessed with proving her father innocent of the murder for which he was fried 40 years before, is McDonnell, with whom Strathairn has oft worked before and whose high place in my esteem – she's dandy, and fine – not even ID4 could shake. (High Society, her much-maligned AbFab-rip-off sitcom, I actually kind of liked.) Both actors underplay to perfection, a strategy that holds for the whole film, which is economical, life-size and impressively slow to boil, its overall aura of uninsistent reality redeeming the occasional cliche, filling the odd logical pothole. First-time director Andrew Mondshein, who has cut several films for Sidney Lumet along with What's Eating Gilbert Grape and Desperately Seeking Susan, directs like an editor – that is, he knows when to hang with a shot or a scene and when to move on, so that while his movie is unhurried, it is never dull. There are no brawls, no car chases, no mad stalkers. (There is one violent attack – of asthma.) Apart from some hiking, some eating and drinking, and some half-exhausted pitching of woo, not much happens other than that questions are asked, answered or dodged. The film's ample tension is generated – as in scary real life – not so much by the threat of violence as by the imminence of the truth.
The central thesis of A&E's Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies and the American Dream, an entertaining new documentary film tardily based on critic Neal Gabler's decade-old An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, is that American cinema was, and to a great extent remains, an expression of the very particular cultural concerns, memories and aspirations of the Eastern European Jews who came to found the great studios; that the values of the shtetl, the horror of the pogroms and the challenges of the tenements are clearly legible in movies from It Happened One Night to The Grapes of Wrath, all the way up to Independence Day; and moreover that these movies – which champion the outsider, support the common man against the corporation, the individual against the mob, which apotheosize the family and fetishize motherhood and imagine the country as a patriotic brotherhood of diverse people – created our national self-image.
There's some plain sense in this, though the myriad good points of the film, directed by Simcha Jacobovici, are stretched sometimes to the point of breaking: While I have no trouble featuring Frankenstein, the Phantom of the Opera and King Kong as “marginal beings who were persecuted like the Jews of Europe,” it's less easy, say, to accept My Fair Lady – nearly word for word Shaw's Pygmalion – as an intentional parable of assimilation, even if its score was written by a couple of Jews. At least open to debate as well are assertions that the moguls were the movies' real auteurs (Gabler's argument rests on that premise); that the “Protestant” filmmakers that preceded them were fundamentally racist; and that the studio system collapsed not because of antitrust rulings and the advent of television, but because its leaders, always insecure in their position, were demoralized by an anti-Semitic HUAC.
But that is one way to look at it, and Gabler and Jacobovici support their perhaps too liberally applied big ideas with a battery of critics, historians, reminiscing relatives and aged relics of the studios, and a couple hours of pretty delightful clips (though, to be sure, one could find material enough in the Hollywood vaults to support any thesis at all), including documentary footage of life in the Old World, home movies of life in the New, and some rare remnants of Yiddish film. And certainly it's good to see one's “people” (don't let the “Lloyd” fool you) given their overdue due: Despite that the first talking picture was about a cantor's son, Jews on the screen – consider Kirk Douglas, Shelley Winters, Tony Curtis, Danny Kaye, Edward G. Robinson, Lauren Bacall, Judy Holliday and, may he rest in peace, Lloyd Bridges – were, by design of the Jews behind it, typically renamed, consistently deracinated. It's time at last to wake up and smell the challah. Nu?