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Video Showoffs

January 06, 1991|JOE SALTZMAN

They used to be coffee-table books: rich-looking, expensive tomes, lavishly illustrated, rich bindings, glossy paper, exquisite typefaces. It didn't matter whether you ever read them; they looked great on display. They told visitors that this was a house filled with people who had class.

Today, video sets are home video's equivalent of coffee-table books. Strategically displayed throughout the house, the following video sets should make the Joneses want to keep up with you.

No one expects you to sit through 15 hours of director Werner Rainier Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz in a sitting. But why not display this monumental film classic? It's on eight videocassettes (931 minutes) and available from MGM/UA for about $400. Try to find the time to sample it an hour at a time. It's a gripping account of Berlin in the late 1920s and '3Os that, like a good book, once you start you won't be able to put down.

If you crave instant culture, there's no better way to start than with two stunning classical music packages. Few have seen the uncut version of the eight-hour-plus movie Wagner starring Richard Burton in the title role and a host of amazingly good British and European actors surrounding him (including John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson). You can show off the four-cassette, boxed edition from Kultur (less than $125).

Equally impressive is The Life of Verdi, the complete 10-hour English-Italian-German TV miniseries (Kultur, four videocassettes, less than $125). While "Wagner" only features snippets from Wagner's operas, "The Life of Verdi" is filled to the brim with staged opera scenes surrounding a wonderfully acted biography with Ronald Pickup in the title role. Kultur packages each in an attractive coffee-table size container with "Wagner" featuring a picture of Burton on the cover, and "Verdi" featuring a picture of the composer.

History books on display show visitors you have an understanding of the past. The boxed, six-videocassette edition of The March of Time (Nelson, less than $150) serves the same purpose. Three dozen vintage newsreels survey the world before, during and after World War II-it's an entertaining if not wholly accurate potpourri of movie drama, radio newscasts and newsreel documentary footage.

Vietnam: The 10,000 Day War (six tapes, Nelson, less than $150) covers 1945-75 with interviews and rare footage. It will give anyone who wasn't there a good sense of what happened, how it happened and why it happened.

Some coffee-table books actually are fun to look at. So are many boxed home video sets. The Godfather: The Complete Epic (three cassettes, 450 minutes, Paramount, less than $180) is director Francis Ford Coppola's television version of the Corleone epic, a chronological re-editing of the two "Godfather" films. It runs about 13 minutes longer than both movies combined and includes several scenes that never made TV because censors thought they were too rough for the medium. Everyone's here: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Diane Keaton and an assortment of other fine actors. It's the perfect introduction to "The Godfather, Part III," now showing in theaters. Astaire and Rogers (RKO, three tapes, less than $100) is a neat packaging idea with three of Fred and Ginger's "KO films in mint condition ("Top Hat," "Shall We Dance" and perhaps their greatest film, "Swing Time") with black-and-white stills from the productions and an "original studio edition" box. It's a gorgeous tribute to the greatest movie dance team.

If you want to turn your bookcase into a home video archive, try any of the multicassette series. The obvious place to start is with The MGM Great Books (MGM/UA, each less than $25). Each video volume apes fine book bindings and includes some legitimate classics ("Little Women," "David Copperfield" and "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde") impersonated by MGM stars (Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, W.C. Fields, Ingrid Bergman and Spencer Tracy).

There's also National Geographic Video (Vestron, each less than $30), about two dozen titles from the TV series including "Secrets of the Titanic." Victory at Sea (Nelson, each less than $20), 26 individual volumes of the historic TV series on WW II edited from millions of feet of war footage and featuring the familiar music of composer Richard Rodgers. The collection is also available in six "Special Collectors Edition" series, with each tape averaging about two hours.

Star Trek: The TV Series (Paramount, less than $15 apiece), 61 volumes, each a 51-minute episode with the exception of "The Menagerie, Parts I and II," a special double episode package.

Peanuts (Kartes, each less than $12) comes to home video with a dozen 25-minute tapes showing off the animated adventures of Charles Schulz's popular characters.

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