What Are You Watching? is a weekly space for The A.V Club’s film critics and readers to share their thoughts, observations, and opinions on movies new and old.
This is a cheat, but not too long ago, I had to review the newish French version of Beauty And The Beast, which made me think of a very weird adaptation of the story that Roger Vadim directed for Faerie Tale Theatre, the offbeat children’s series that actress Shelley Duvall created and hosted for Showtime in the 1980s. Vadim was a playboy and failed novelist of White Russian parentage (born Vadim Plemiannikov) who prided himself on having lost his virginity on D-Day, seemed to have known just about everyone, and is now best remembered for directing …And God Created Woman and Barbarella and for marrying or impregnating a succession of beautiful movie stars. His “Beauty And The Beast” is basically a Wishbone-ized remake of Jean Cocteau’s classic 1946 version, shot on watery videotape with porny four-pointed star filters.
The episode’s threadbare Gothic atmosphere (it was shot in a chateau-style mansion in the San Bernardino Mountains) echoes my favorite Vadim movie, his Sheridan Le Fanu adaptation Blood And Roses. But what really fascinates me is that “Beauty And The Beast” is the only screen adaptation of the fairy tale in which the Beast is noticeably shorter than Beauty, which introduces it own subtexts. On top of that, he’s played by Klaus Kinski, the wild-man star of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath Of God and Fitzcarraldo, as a stumpy, hairy neurotic who throws anxiety tantrums, instead of the usual gloomy, looming monster. (Susan Sarandon plays Beauty.) Kinski, who was then pushing 60 and had one of those sunken faces that made it very easy to picture what his skull looked like, makes a uniquely creepy prince once the Beast is magically transformed back to his human form.
Made at a time when Vadim was once again trying to establish an American career (and, strangely enough, living with Ann Biderman, later the creator of Ray Donovan and Southland), “Beauty And The Beast” could be read as an homage to his roots: his mentor, director Marc Allégret, had a fling with Cocteau in his youth that was the source of much jealousy from André Gide, the Nobel Prize winner whose approval Vadim initially sought out as an aspiring writer in his teens. But it doesn’t come across as personal unless you already know a bit about Vadim’s convoluted biography; I don’t think he had the raw talent necessary to make anything meaningfully personal anyway.
It’s one of the oddest episodes I’ve seen of Faerie Tale Theatre, a series that was ostensibly meant for kids, but in many ways existed for the strange whims of grown-ups; Duvall had come up with the idea during the filming Robert Altman’s Popeye, and it shows. Nowadays, it’s mostly a nostalgia item, remembered for its casting (Paul Reubens as Pinocchio, Jeff Goldblum as the Big Bad Wolf, etc.) and for attracting smart-alecky comedy writers. But here’s the thing: If you’re the sort of person who tends to think of audiovisual media as existing on a spectrum rather than in a couple of increasingly meaningless boxes marked “film” and “TV,” then arty but overwhelmingly televisual shows like Faerie Tale Theatre and its ilk represent an under-explored aesthetic frontier and a time when TV series could be more concerned with looking interesting than with looking like movies.
Having re-watched “Beauty And The Beast,” I decided to finally check out one of the last episodes, a handmade “Rip Van Winkle” directed by Francis Ford Coppola with Harry Dean Stanton perfectly cast in the title role. Of course, I’m now kicking myself now for not having seen this delightful and goofy piece of small-screen art earlier. With its primitive video effects and the faux-naïve, theatrical production design by Eiko Ishioka, “Rip Van Winkle” is a crayon sketch for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Not coincidentally, the two were both by produced by Fred Fuchs, who became president of Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios after Faerie Tale Theatre went off the air.