Apichatpong Weerasethakul Recalls Past Lives; Car 54 Answers the Call
To experience Thai film artist Apichatpong Weerasethakuls current installation Primitive, at the New Museum through July 3, is to livehowever brieflyinside the ghost-filled forest world of the filmmaker's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. The seven linked videos that occupy the museums 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 installations 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, ones 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 Hikens great sitcom Sgt. Bilko, I expressed the wistful hope that someone would similarly bring out a DVD edition of Hikens 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 shows 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-oldits something sweeter and stranger. The shows 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 pairthe 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 funeven lovable! Scarcely more than a month into the shows run, a New York Times editorial praised it as a potential source of aid and comfort to New Yorks 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 TVs 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 Picononce 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 shows studio. Urban renewal is part of the local colorthe Cross Bronx Expressway was completed during its final seasonand 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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