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A History of the World Cinema, Part 1

World-renowned directors take part in the tribute, which proves to be as much about countries as the filmmaking.

May 19, 1996|Kenneth Turan | Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

Cinema turned 100 last year and the British, who believe in doing things properly, wanted to give the movies a present. But what can you possibly give the medium that has done it all?

"I hesitated for eight months because I couldn't think of how to do it," says Colin MacCabe of the British Film Institute. "The cinema is so enormous, so vast, how could you turn out something that would show its range?"

Then Florence Dauman, a Los Angeles-based producer, had a thought. "We had a meeting at the Chateau Marmont and she said, 'Why don't you ask great directors to make films about their own country's film histories?' " And, just that quickly, the idea behind "The Century of Cinema" came into being.

While not all 18 of the projected episodes are finished, enough of this remarkable series is in the can to safely characterize it as a wide-ranging master class on the movies, an exciting, always idiosyncratic collection of personal essays that illustrate the notion that, as Edgar Reitz's German film notes, "No other invention has so profoundly changed people's dreams and their knowledge of the world."

And though the films are intended mainly for video and then television release, 13 of them can be seen on the big screen in a rare open-to-the-public series at the Directors Guild of America starting Monday and extending through the end of July. The series is free but phone reservations are necessary.

Nothing about making these essays, which range in length from 52 minutes to nearly four hours, turned out to be simple. Raising money was always a problem, with key contributors running a wide gamut from Miramax (which has the American rights) to Saudi Arabia's Prince Nawaf Bin Abdulaziz.

Just as much of a headache for co-executive producers MacCabe and Bob Last was what MacCabe calls "the most complicated rights clearance in history," involving clips from about 2,000 films, so many that clearing them all for theatrical release was too daunting to even attempt.

As might be expected from a project this diverse, the quality of the finished films does vary. The longest effort, the 3-hour, 46-minute "A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies," is a brilliant piece of work, enthralling, enlightening and just a little bit maddening, and several others, though not up to this level, are excellent as well. And, interestingly enough, all of them prove to be as much about the history of the countries in question as about the films produced.

This is especially true of the most accomplished film after Scorsese's, "Cinema of Unease," made by director-turned-actor-turned-director again Sam Neill. Potent enough to have been selected for the New York Film Festival, this study of cinema in New Zealand focuses on how a lovely island came to have "a uniquely strange and dark film industry."

Used to feeling that "real movies came from overseas," New Zealand produced travelogues almost exclusively until 1973, the year Britain, the nominal mother country, joined the Common Market. In need of a sense of who they were and feeling "abandoned and increasingly stupid," New Zealanders, starting with Roger Donaldson's 1977 "Sleeping Dogs," turned their back on the picturesque and focused on the idea of a menacing land peopled by outsiders pushed too far by society. Neill's literate examination of this transformation shows how much can be wittily packed into only 52 minutes.

Somewhat longer but done with as much intelligence and style is "Typically British," made by top U.K. director Stephen Frears. He starts by recalling a quote from Francois Truffaut to the effect that there is "a certain incompatibility between the terms 'cinema' and 'Britain,' " and then ripostes, with a tartness that typifies his approach, "Well, bollocks to Truffaut."

Since so many of Britain's directors, himself included, end up working for Hollywood, Frears goes there to conduct two sets of interviews that frame his selection of clips. Director Alexander Mackendrick (who has since died) and critic Gavin Lambert chat about the period from Alfred Hitchcock through the postwar Golden Age that, Frears archly notes, "people like me are frequently beaten up for failing to measure up to."

The chat continues with Michael Apted and Alan Parker, key members of the next generation, who talk about the importance of television and the preeminence of director Ken Loach, who Apted pays tribute to by calling "Kes" "the best film in Britain since the war, respecting all our vanities." Like many of the directors in the series, Frears ends up worrying if exporting films and directors is worth the inevitable loss of national individuality.

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