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Apichatpong Weerasethakul Recalls Past Lives; Car 54 Answers the Call

To experience Thai film artist Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s current installation “Primitive,” at the New Museum through July 3, is to live—however briefly—inside the ghost-filled forest world of the filmmaker's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. The seven linked videos that occupy the museum’s darkened third floor were conceived while the director was researching Uncle Boonmee, and made in collaboration with rural teenagers, all of them boys, in a haunted part of northeastern Thailand, Nabua village, the site of a crushed Communist uprising in the late '60s and early '70s. One video, “Nabua Song,” is an interview that alludes directly to this event; the others are spookier and more oblique.

The unseen narrator of the installation’s central video, titled for the exhibit, describes following animals through the forest (“like it was a dance”) and dreams of a future “city of images.” His incantatory narrative is accompanied by images of “empty” forest landscapes and a dome-like space ship that appears in a clearing. The uncanny atmosphere is accentuated by flashes of lightning, the flicker of bonfires, and thunderous explosions that, one’s senses heightened, can be felt to be emanating from “Phantoms of Nabua” and “Making of the Spaceship,” the videos in the adjoining room.

Last summer, at the end of a piece on Nat Hiken’s great sitcom Sgt. Bilko, I expressed the wistful hope that someone would similarly bring out a DVD edition of Hiken’s other great workplace sitcom. Now, summer has rolled around again and so has Car 54, Where Are You?—the first of its two seasons released in advance of the show’s 50th anniversary.

Be careful what you wish for. A blatantly ethnic urban sitcom, set (and shot) in the east Bronx, at a time when all TV families, even the Goldbergs, had long since abandoned the city for the suburbs, Car 54 is not exactly the laugh riot I remember as a 12-year-old—it’s something sweeter and stranger. The show’s mythical 53rd Precinct is a fantastic shtetl of daydreamers, fools, and misfits, closer to The World of Sholem Aleichem than Law & Order, or even its successor, the long-running '70s sitcom Barney Miller. Everyone in the 53rd is a little crazy, and the biggest meshuganas are the cops themselves.

Where Bilko was dominated by the fast-talking con artist Phil Silvers, Car 54 revolves around a wonderfully mismatched Mutt and Jeff pair—the morose, cultivated Officer Francis Muldoon (hulking, Harvard-educated Fred Gwynn) and his excitable, empty-headed little partner, Officer Gunther Toody (burlesque comic and Bilko veteran Joe E. Ross). Never less than welcome, the terrible-tempered, rubber-faced Officer Leo Schnauser (another Brooklyn-born ex-strip-club emcee, Al Lewis) frequently appears as a third wheel. Cops were fun—even lovable! Scarcely more than a month into the show’s run, a New York Times editorial praised it as a potential source of “aid and comfort” to New York’s Finest, beset as they were by “beer-bottle barrages, near riots” and charges of moonlighting.

NBC scheduled Car 54 for 8:30 Sunday nights to compete with the second half of TV’s then-reigning variety hour The Ed Sullivan Show, and Hiken provided the program with his own sort of vaudeville. Car 54 was a showcase for comic actors. Much of its pleasure derives from the local talent that enlivens individual episodes, a pungent mix of Friars Club regulars, Damon Runyon types, and Off-Broadway stalwarts including Nipsey Russell, B.S. Pully, Gene Baylos, Larry Storch, Rocky Graziano, Jake LaMotta, Wally Cox, Nathaniel Frey, Ossie Davis, Severen Darden, and, a semi-regular as the superbly volatile Mrs. Schnauser, Charlotte Rae. In a class by herself was, however, Molly Picon—once upon a time the most sprightly gamine of the Second Avenue Yiddish theater, here a delightfully daft grandmother stubbornly clinging to a rent-controlled apartment in the last standing tenement on a block reduced to rubble.

The building was actually across the street from the show’s studio. Urban renewal is part of the local color—the Cross Bronx Expressway was completed during its final season—and Picon could have been playing a local character. Sent to the Bronx to investigate, reporter Charlotte Curtis discovered that the show had a unique live audience, a horde of neighborhood “kibitzers” who set up folding chairs on 175th Street to watch it being shot.

 
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