TV Picks: ‘Charles Lummis,’ ‘Uncle Bertie’s Botanarium,’ ‘Loud House’

Huell Howser
The late Huell Howser returns to television in “Lummis House,” a new episode of his state-trotting series “California’s Gold,” edited from newly discovered footage.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

“Charles Lummis: Reimagining the American West” (KCET, Tuesday); “California’s Gold: Lummis House” (KCET Monday, repeats Tuesday). A sweet hour-long film on a local man all Angelenos should know, in the historical sense, presented as part of the KCET series “Artbound.” Lummis, an adventurer, writer, photographer, collector, amateur ethnographer, bohemian, librarian, editor of this newspaper under different ownership, civic booster and founder of the Southwest Museum of the American Indian — that big Spanish Colonial Revival castle you see up on Mt. Washington as you drive to or from Pasadena — did much to shape the romantic image of a Los Angeles that even in his lifetime (he died in 1928) the city seemed bent on burying.

A man with a deep if somewhat fanciful relationship to Mexican and Native American culture, who arrived here in 1885, on foot, having walked from Ohio, filing syndicated dispatches along the way, Lummis comes off as ahead of his time, or anyway out of it. One of the original Highland Park hipsters —  before it was cool and then uncool – he built a house of river rocks carried from the neighboring Arroyo Seco and threw arty parties he called “noises.” (You can visit the house, which he called El Alisal for the alder tress that grew nearby.) But the film is less interested in Lummis’ rather chaotic private life — “We could spent a lot of time talking about his faults,” a commentator says here, but no one really does — than in his place as a creator of L.A.'s sense of itself. Director Stephen Pagano fills his film with handsome historical images (which do click by a little quickly at times), including Lummis’ own striking photographs; Ari Balouzian and Max Whipple provide a score that sets an artistic tone without getting arty. With the old city and the land that shaped it ever less visible through high-rising blight and sprawl, “Lummis” is a reminder that what calls itself progress comes at a cost.

Premiering on Monday and repeating just before the Lummis documentary on Tuesday is an episode of the late Huell Howser’s “California Gold,” edited from “newly discovered footage” of a July 1997 visit to the Lummis house and grounds. I’ve seen only a few online clips, which include the performance (and recording on wax cylinder) of some old Spanish songs. (Lummis recorded many himself.) It’s surprising to me that Howser left an episode’s worth of material left uncut, especially given the subject and their sympathetic enthusiasms; and if this posthumous creation is not quite as presumptuous as, say, trying to finish Orson Welles’ “The Other Side of the Wind,” there is something about it that feels a little … not “wrong,” exactly, but “hmmm,” given the oversight the host-director exercised in life. Still, the bits I’ve seen suggest it’ll be familiar fun, and if you have followed me here at all, you know I am a Huell Howser fan, all the way. 


“The Mysterious Secrets of Uncle Bertie’s Botanarium” (Howl). From Wellington, New Zealand, available over the Howl podcast platform, comes this scripted serial comedy with sound effects and music and such — a theater for your mind’s eye and your ear’s ear. Jemaine Clement, from Flight of the Conchords the comedy duo and “Flight of the Conchords” the series, stars as Lord Joseph Banks, an “aristocratic, idle, opportunity-squandering squillionaire botanist” in an alternative antipodean 18th century — a citizen of the Gravy Isles, where they eat cats and drink their milk like ale, use pigeons as postmen and hold such a highly sexualized view of plants that even to touch one is considered immoral. (It is the third of their Fourteen Commandments, six of which are dedicated to what you can’t do with flora.)

 A chance encounter with a psychic cheesemonger sets Banks on a journey across exotic islands and strange ports of call, hopefully to cross the supposedly impassible Boiling Ocean in search of his uncle and the legendary Heaven’s Clover and to “face pleasure in order to destroy it.” The tone is variously reminiscent of Monty Python, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” (the original radio version) and the Chris Elliott film “Cabin Boy.” Created by novelist-screenwriter-comedian Duncan Sarkies, musician Lawrence Arabia (otherwise known as James Milne) and artist Stephen Templer, it seems to have first been intended as a film — you can see a teaser from 2011 here — and I would certainly watch such a thing were it ever completed. But the radio format allows for fantastic effects on a workable budget and brings language playfully to the fore (Gravy’s rival, the oddly Nordic, dog-eating Andalusia, is described as “a nation capable of perpendicular thinking, outstanding hygiene and the production of extremely salty licorice”). Clement is quite wonderful throughout, rendering Banks as casually cruel, heedlessly high-minded and intellectually dim, so that he bristles in wonder at the simplest things.

“Loud House”
"Loud House"
(Nickelodeon )

“Loud House” (Nickelodeon, weekdays through May). A fast-paced, Flash-animated cartoon with an old-fashioned, hand-drawn, pen-and-ink, comic-pages look about 11-year-old Lincoln Loud, his 10 sisters and a necessary best friend. (Creator Chris Savino, whose quarter-century in animation includes stints on “Dexter’s Laboratory,” “The Powerpuff Girls,” “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends” and “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic,” had five sisters himself.) Like the girls called Spice, each Loud girl has a distinguishing characteristic — sporty, flighty, scientific, punk, goth, jokey, handy, and so on; as a kid I probably would have known them all by name. (For the record, they are Lori, Leni, Luna, Luan, Lynn, Lucy, Lola, Lana, Lisa, and Lily.)


The adventures, while they loom epically large and fantastic in Lincoln’s mind, and are punctuated with the boings and whistles and wooshes of classic cartoon-making, hew to daily matters and recognizable rivalries — who controls the television, who gets the bathroom. Not to be confused with the Louds of “An American Family,” though not completely dissimilar.

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