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DVDs: 'On the Road With Charles Kuralt: Set 1'

The CBS reporter's instincts for finding uniqueness in the commonplace made his journeys into America's heartland must-see viewing for two decades.


Back in the 20th century, a CBS TV reporter named Charles Kuralt set off in an RV with no particular place to go to see what was happening there. "On the Road With Charles Kuralt" was the name for the short pieces he filed, which ran in several venues over the years, beginning in 1967 with "The Evening News With Walter Cronkite" and ending a couple of decades later as part of "CBS Sunday Morning," which Kuralt himself hosted for 15 years. A three-DVD set collecting some of Kuralt's televised anthologies of favorite pieces is being released today by Acorn Media, with "Set One" attached to the title. More would only be a good thing, and not too much of one.

From "Huckleberry Finn" to "The Wizard of Oz" to Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" and Dennis Hopper's "Easy Rider," stories about going from here to there and having adventures along the way are a cornerstone of our national mythology. If the hippie bikers of "Easy Rider," which hit the screen two years after Kuralt hit the highway, "went looking for America and couldn't find it anywhere," Kuralt sees it everywhere he looks. And because he is only interested in what makes a person, place or thing interesting or valuable, there are no politics in his pieces, other than the extremely local politics of doing well by one's kith and kin and talents. You would not know that when many of these stories were filmed there was a war on, or that half the country feared the other half, and vice versa.

Although there was a kind of exclusivity in his inclusiveness -- he was looking for untold stories off the beaten track -- the range of subjects that Kuralt embraces is wide. We meet poor people, working people and a refreshing amount of old people; the carver of carousel horses, the champion shoe-seller, makers of bricks and boats and ginger ale. It is the world of the family farm, the corner cafe where (after the first 100 cups of coffee, and some time on a waiting list) you get your own cubbyholed mug, with your name painted on.

Television is full of things that are sort of like Kuralt's pieces, but they almost always lack his intelligence, curiosity and point of view. And while his downshifting from hard news to "soft," from breaking stories to stories that stretch out over a lifetime, might seem a (self-directed) demotion, the whole point of "On the Road" is that "the news" -- the stuff of tomorrow's history books -- is just a hiccup in the greater, more particular, more abiding history of the People.

Although Kuralt is a presence in his work, he stands out of the way. ("We" is the pronoun he uses, or "you," but rarely "I"). Still, it's his narration that gives it context and meaning, conveyed with a poetic (but never poetical) economy. Of a Fred's Lounge in Mamou, La., where at 9 o'clock on a Saturday morning the party is in full swing, he says memorably, "Fred's Lounge has the smell of beer and joy. It's the place you didn't think existed anymore, the place your mama told you to stay away from when you were a kid, and you grew up, and didn't, and were never sorry."

And so "On the Road" is endlessly watchable, not as history but as some timeless expression of ongoing life. One hopes they are still out there, these people -- or people like them, since many, including Kuralt, who died in 1997, must be long gone. Indeed, the world he reported on was endangered even then -- that was partly the reason for the visit -- and has become no less so as the country grows more conglomerated, super-highwayed and franchised.

But Fred's Lounge remains open for business in Mamou, still smelling, I would imagine, of beer and joy.


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