"Home" comes to us with a heavy hat the gray fedora of grave significance. But the 90-minute video verite special, at 10:30 tonight on Channel 26, frequently and movingly surmounts a pretentious format and, appropriately, hits us where we live.
The videotape, more a vital document than dull documentary, was made by Julie Gustafson and John Reilly for Channel 13's industrious TV Lab and records four pivotal experiences in the lives of Americans in the shifting '70s. It begins with a birth and ends with a death; "Growing Old" and "A Marriage" are sandwiched in between.
The idea was to invade the privacy of selected people at delicate, crucial moments, in the hope that the subjects were representative both of common human experience and of contemporary changes in home and family. Overlong printed prologues strive too hard to establish the illustrative credentials of one and all.
It is in the specifics rather than the generalities that the program exhibits exemplary insight, candor and sensitivity. Some observers have called the last sequence -- a death watch for a terminaly ill cancer victim -- the most affecting, but in fact the second section, "Growing Old," is likely to elicit the strongest and most painful responses.
It was shot at a nursing home where a 94-year-old widow named Lena waits out hours and days. In recalling the happiness of her 60-year marriage, she casually provides the recipe for peaceful coexistence. "I gave up my dancing, because he didn't dance well," she says of her husband, and in her house, "We were both the boss."
There is no room for her in the home of her offspring, so she is remanded to the kindness of strangers, to the patronizing voices and pats-on-the-shoulder of those hired to feign concern. The sequence ends with the old people using frail breaths to blow out candles on a communal birthday cake. Then they sing "There Are Smiles."
"Hearts will never be practical," to quote the Wizard of Oz, "until they can be made unbreakable."
In the opening sequence, we see in extreme and stunning detail the arrival of a baby by natural childbirth. The mother is not only awake but wearing her glasses, the father chants "push, push," and the baby is greeted with cries of "Oh, my goodness" from mom and "A baby! a baby!" from dad.
"A Marriage," part three, shows a young couple going hesitantly through the formal rigors of official union. The two young sons of the bride, who was married once before, act out the ceremony in a small room after watching it on closed circuit TV.
Gustafson and Reilly do not flinch at harrowing or pathetic occurrences, but they show discretion and keen judgment that remove the stigma of voyeurism, particularly in the very difficult "Death of a Parent" segment. There is no obession with the details of suffering but rather an examination of how the woman's family and friends cope with the inevitability of her death. o
"Home" walks a precarious line between clinical indifference and gross sentimentality, almost never tipping too far to either side. It has immediacy and impact possible with no other medium but television, and an inquisitive compassion that turns cold video images warm and real.
Channel 26 should have shown "Home" at its scheduled PBS time, last Sunday night, but the station was busy with an antiquated and trifling British mystery rerun.
Constance Bennett and Cary Grant they ain't. Even Anne Jeffreys and Robert Sterling they ain't. And "Topper" it isn't, though the ABC movie at 9 tonight on Channel 7 goes by and slanders that name. Kate Jackson and Andrew Stevens try to play those gay ghosts George and Marian Kerby in this catatonic remake, and spiritsless blithe it is all but impossible to imagine.
The Thorne Smith novel was a successful '30s movie and '50s TV series Jackson and Stevens decided to produce a thoroughly unnecessary new version and after miscasting themselves in the leads, they pulled a real topper by giving the role of the haunted and henpecked banker (now a lawyer) to chunky and burly Jack Warden, an error that would be ruinous if the project weren't already ruined by a listless, humorless, feckless and lifeless script.
It is always hard to figure how truly tiny minds work, but presumably Jackson and Stevens (married in alleged real life) saw Warden in "Heaven Can Wait," another whimsical ghost story, and made a cosmic logical leap that stuffs him into Cosmo Topper's role as comfortably as the Osmond family would slip into a telephone booth.
Charles Dubin must have directed this trance from inside an oxygen tent, and we are even deprived the elemental delight of clever special effects. Instead, Warden repeatedly has to fake being pushed and shoved by the invisible ghosties he has so tediously inherited.
Music is credited to Fred Karlin, but the tune heard most often on the soundtrack is Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies," trashed into smithereens. Irving! Irving! Hello, Irving? Irving, you won't believe what they've done to your song. . . .