|Photo by Holly Stein|
YOU MAY BE HEARTENED TO KNOW THAT IN SPITE of recent attempts to brand poor, purple Tinky Winky a corrupter of youth, the BBC has ordered another 105 episodes of Teletubbies, which will bring to an astonishing 365 the total number of variations on its theme of hardly anything at all. While it's no secret, and indeed is the proud boast of public broadcasting, that children pick up stuff from television — the influence of Rocky and Bullwinkle on my own development cannot be underestimated — there is, as far as I know, no evidence that carrying a purse turns a person gay. This comical controversy, of the Paul Is Dead variety and most recently inflamed but not originated by Jerry Falwell's National Liberty Journal, reminds us again that the world of grown-ups is infinitely more strange and stupid than anything yet seen under the blue skies of Tellytubbyland, and that the most extravagant fancies of the junior set have nothing on the juvenile absurdities perpetrated daily by their elders.
Still, even to those who know a hawk from a handbag, 365 episodes worth of eh-ohs, Tubby custard and big hugs, broadcast now in 21 languages across 120 countries and territories, might seem something like a plan for world domination. At the very least, it might be considered too much of the same good thing. But repetition is, after all, the raison d'être not only of Teletubbies but of television itself, with its same time, same place unities and endlessly recycled back catalog. Adults as well like their pleasures familiar, which is why I Love Lucy is still running, and why it matters little that both in its constituent parts and overall purpose Earthly Possessions — an HBO road movie about a bank robber, his hostage, and the shared adventures that shape their antipathy into understanding, antagonism into cooperation, and irritation pearl-like into love — is a ride you will have taken before. One roller coaster differs from another only in the sequence and slant of its twists and turns, and in the ingenuity of its filigree; and this machine, sped along on the big-screen star power of Susan Sarandon and Stephen Dorff, is very well constructed indeed. Like any good thrill ride, it lays the illusion of danger over the solid expectation that one will arrive safely home. Its antecedents, built to satisfy the human craving for self-revelation, romance and a change of scene, go back at least to It Happened One Night and include works as superficially diverse as The 39 Steps, The Defiant Ones, Smokey and the Bandit, Something Wild, Midnight Run, that film with Bill Murray and the elephant, and the new Sandra BullockBen Affleck “vehicle” Forces of Nature, along with a few dozen others it wouldn't take me 10 minutes to remember. That Earthly Possessions is based on a novel by Anne Tyler, a woman of literary renown, does not make it any less a genre exercise; novelists crib from the movies, too.
The picture unrolls in small towns and along back roads, giving pride of place to the quirky bar, the colorful motel, the funky gas station, the Chinese bowling alley, and as a result seems to belong to an earlier time. (Tyler's book dates from the late '70s.) Directed by James Lapine, better known as a man of the theater (Sunday in the Park With George) than of film (Life With Mikey), it's talky in the best way and is well-sized to the small screen; its moments of ignition occur almost exclusively within the dwindling space between its attractive, attracted stars. Everything interesting here happens in moments of discovery, connection and transformation, as the characters slough off old skin for new. Sarandon is not a brazen beauty; she cleans up real nice, but her particular loveliness has nothing to do with glamour — she's the slightly strange girl next door, rather, and has the trick of seeming both passionate and plain, which makes it easy to buy her as a mom, a nun, a minor-league-baseball groupie or, as here, a self-defeating preacher's wife. Her Charlotte can't drive, won't dance and doesn't drink, but will of course let her hair down both figuratively and literally — there's more than a bit of Why, Miss Jones, you're beautiful without your glasses (and in that tight skirt and sweater) at work here — before the movie's done with her. A wonderful, subtle, Jean Arthurian sort of pure-American actress, Sarandon in her early 50s is still quite plausibly an object of desire for young Stephen Dorff, the good-bad-but-not-evil agent of her liberation, whom I mistook for a himbo until I saw his Candy Darling in I Shot Andy Warhol, and who does well in a difficult part, managing to remain likable while doing unlikable things. Old-fashioned, well-fashioned fun.
NOT FUN FOR A MINUTE IS SHOWTIME'S THE DEVIL'S Arithmetic, based on a young-adult novel by Jane Yolen and presented as part of the network's “Original Pictures for All Ages” series. This version of the oft-told tale of a thankless or discontented child propelled by magic upon a journey via which she will come to understand who she is and appreciate what she has — parallels to The Wizard of Oz are intentional, clearly drawn, underlined and circled — is here applied to a Westchester County 16-year-old (Kirsten Dunst, of Interview With the Vampire, Little Women, Jumanji and Kiki's Delivery Service) uninterested in her Jewish heritage and family history. She is transported miraculously from a present-day Passover Seder to wartime Poland, arriving just in time to be carted off to a concentration camp, where she becomes part of that family history, ripening in the face of death while guaranteeing (to the viewer and her fellow prisoners alike, to whom she becomes a sort of Scheherazade) a future.
Docudramatically, the Holocaust is a most difficult (because a most hallowed) ground; even the sincerest re-enactment diminishes the historical event, subverting lived, personal tragedy to narrative effect. The subject falls apart under the merest touch of Hollywood technique — there has been care here, for instance, to cast good-looking actors in the main parts, actors who continue to look pretty good, even with their rude prison haircuts, even while being worked away to nothing. Such films make the horror not acceptable but digestible, and render archival the very thing they mean to bring alive.
Nevertheless, director Donna Deitch (Desert Hearts) has made an effective if sometimes programmatic film that may do its little bit to carry the old news to the kids it's been made for, and to keep the flame burning as “20th-century” becomes synonymous with “old-fashioned.” If it is only moderately terrifying, it is as terrifying as it needs to be, for its purpose — which is not so much to catalog atrocities as it is to stress the need for historical and clan consciousness — or should be, given the relatively tender years of its intended audience. (I know, I know, they're all inured to violence. But I can dream, can't I?) Filmed in Lithuania and Canada in the cold and wet, The Devil's Arithmetic is palpably, sometimes numbingly, atmospheric, its most disturbing images also its most beautifully made — attention has been paid to color and texture and light. But Deitch succeeds mainly by keeping the story personal and personally felt, focusing closely on Dunst, whose passage back in time and into darkness stands for our own. Noticeably blond in a sea of dark heads, Dunst is very fine, as are (dark-headed) Brittany Murphy (of Oprah Winfrey's TV remake of David and Lisa) as her best friend and Louise Fletcher in a small but important role as her favorite aunt. The movie's mystical denouement, while predictable, is also moving in the extreme. I'm just glad you weren't here to see me bawling.
A QUICK WORD ABOUT STRANGE WORLD, WHICH concerns — really it does — an agent of the United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases and his fight against “criminal abuses of science,” and which opened to the worst ratings ever for an ABC dramatic series in its time slot. It may even be toast by the time you read this, replaced by reruns of NYPD Blue, whose perch it was (is) set to temporarily occupy. Although in possibly too many respects a minor mutation of The X-Files (call it The Rx-Files), and often silly where it strains to be inscrutable — the mysterious Japanese woman who irregularly delivers to star Tim Guinee the mysterious drug he needs to stay alive is purest pulp — its premise is sound and satisfying. After politicians and policemen, scientists and surgeons (cold, calculating, ready to sacrifice all to the ends of their damnable research) are the obvious villains of our age, perhaps because we look to them to save us and we know they can't. Or won't. The bastards.
THE DEVIL'S ARITHMETIC | Showtime Premieres Sunday, March 28, 8 p.m.
EARTHLY POSSESSIONS | HBO Premieres Saturday, March 20, 8 p.m.
ABC | Tuesdays, 10 p.m.