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* SCREENING ROOM

A Cry for Prison Reform

'Road to Return' follows a Louisiana program that aims to help break the cycle of crime.

June 04, 1998|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Leslie Neale and her husband's (and former Doors drummer John Densmore) hourlong, incisive and important "Road to Return" summons the barrage of statistics common to other documentaries advocating prison reform. But it goes further to demonstrate forcefully that it's cost-effective to rehabilitate convicts rather than building more penal institutions designed simply to mete out punishment.

Too many American prisons, "Road to Return" suggests, treat prisoners with no respect and then turn them loose with no skills to enter the work force and then expect them to respect the law, society and themselves.

To show a better way, the filmmakers focus on New Orleans' Project Return, a 90-day program designed to equip ex-cons to break the cycle of a life of crime and become law-abiding, self-sustaining citizens. Project Return was created by Tulane professor Dr. Bob Roberts and Nelson Marks, an ex-convict, and it involves group therapy and job training and placement. It costs about $4,000 per individual, far less expensive than the cost of sending a con back to prison. Roberts says that out of 600 graduates of Project Return only 32 are back in prison when "statistically 450 should be."

Without being heavy-handed or preachy, "Road to Return," narrated by Tim Robbins, makes the case that if most people had an opportunity to get sufficient education to get a job to support themselves and their families, they wouldn't turn to crime in the first place--and they wouldn't return to crime if in prison they received counseling and job training.

"Road to Return" will premiere tonight at 7:30 at Peltz Theater, the Museum of Tolerance, 9786 W. Pico Blvd. It will be followed by a panel discussion with state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles) and other social activists and experts. A second screening has been added on Sunday at 7:30 p.m. (310) 459-7914.

*

Filmforum's invaluable retrospective of underground filmmaker Jack Smith continues Friday at 8 p.m. at the Art Center College of Design, 1700 Lida St., Pasadena, with "Normal Love" (1963) and "The Yellow Sequence" (1963), which will be repeated Sunday at 7 p.m. at LACE, 6522 Hollywood Blvd.

Who would ever have thought that there could be a connection between the artificial world of Josef Von Sternberg's lacy "The Devil Is a Woman" and the leafy, richly colored nature imagery of early Stan Brakhage? Yet that is precisely what Smith accomplishes in "Normal Love," often with no more than a swath of paisley-printed chiffon floating over a New Jersey swamp of waterlilies by a meadow where his drag queens and the occasional "real" women gambol in their thrift-store finery.

And when Smith applies his exquisite images created from bits and pieces of detritus to outdoor settings, we are able to perceive the exotic in nature--a drag queen bedecked with sequins, pearls and rhinestones becomes much like a dragonfly.

"Normal Love" is an epic journey through Transvestsylvania that may be taking place in the imagination of the Mermaid (Mario Montez) as she takes a milk bath. Its six sequences open with the Red Scene, in which the Mermaid, who worships at the altar of '40s star Maria Montez, has a prophetic encounter with the Black Spider.

Camp sensibility has rarely, if ever, been expressed with such wit, delicacy and affectionate understanding of the innocent yet eternal power of kitschy Hollywood archetypes. "The Yellow Sequence," intended to be part of "Normal Love" but never inserted by Smith, is a rambling bit notable mainly for the presence of Tiny Tim in drag. (213) 526-2911.

*

Among the films in the final weekend at Raleigh Studios, 5300 Melrose Ave., Hollywood, of the American Cinematheque's Tai Kato retrospective, which has rediscovered a neglected major Japanese director, are a pair of pictures that push the limits of form to sustain content.

"I, the Executioner" (1968), which screens Friday at 9:30 p.m. following a 7:30 p.m. screening of another installment in Kato's "Red Peony" woman gambler series, is absolutely not for the faint of heart.

To be sure, Kato is an artist who lets us complete horrifying events in our imagination, but he's left precious little to it this time. Even so, it is a most provocative thriller of disturbing psychological insight. Makato Sato, a specialist in playing scary macho types back in the '60s, stars as a Tokyo construction worker who waves from a high-rise under construction to a teenage laundry delivery boy as he rides by on his bicycle. Not long afterward, the boy jumps to his death from an apartment building, where earlier, on his rounds, he was invited into an apartment where five hardened, middle-aged bar hostesses are watching a porn film. An innocent 17-year-old from Hokkaido, he is subjected to what amounts to gang rape, with sexual tauntings on the part of the women giving way to savage beatings.

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