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by James Arnold


Anne Frank Remembered
Primal Fear
One Survivor Remembers
The 'Monk' Commercials
The Mystery of Happiness
A Family Thing
The Birdcage
Strange, Isn't It?
Cybill

Primal Fear stars Richard Gere as Martin Vail, a brillant but quite arrogant defense attorney who represents a young man accused of murdering a Catholic archbishop.
ANNE FRANK REMEMBERED (A-2, PG): Briton Jon Blair's Oscar-winning documentary fills in the details of the short but significant life of this famous victim of the Holocaust. Her diary has sold 25 million copies in more than 50 languages. It has made Anne, executed in Bergen-Belsen at age 15 for the crime of being born a Jew, the symbol of the estimated million-and-a-half children who died in history's most evil "government program."

The story of the Franks, and the brave women (especially Miep Gies) and men who helped them hide for two years
in an Amsterdam attic, is told chronologically, using a wide range of sources. Kenneth Branagh narrates and Glenn Close reads occasional diary excerpts. Most effectively, we see and hear from living witnesses (including Gies) who knew Anne or the Franks, both in "normal life" and in captivity.

The detail is spellbinding and exhaustive. For example, we know exactly how many Jews (1,019) were on the freight train that carried the Franks to Auschwitz and that "more than half were gassed the next day, including all the children under 15." The film will have special meaning for the young, who love Anne and shouldn't be "protected" from knowing her fate. It's for them and those yet to be born that this testament is made. Recommended for ages 12 and above.

A FAMILY THING (A-3, PG-13): Robert Duvall is Earl, an aging small-town Arkansan who discovers at the death of his elderly, beloved mother that she only raised him: He was born of a brief affair between a black friend who died in childbirth and his irresponsible father. His mother's last wish is that he find and bond with his black half brother.

The theme of this warm film, directed by Richard Pearce (The Long Walk Home), is reconciliation between the races. Improbable in 1996, it's integrationist rather than separatist. As both comedy and drama, its heart is the amiable acting rapport between Duvall and James Earl Jones, as the resentful brother in Chicago, and Irma P. Hall, as the wise, elderly aunt who brings them together. Problem language; otherwise, generally recommended for mature youth and adults.

PRIMAL FEAR (O, R): When a popular Chicago-based Catholic archbishop is murdered, a barely adult white male is pursued and caught running away. Covered in blood, he claims to be innocent. How will hotshot defense attorney Marty Vail (Richard Gere) get him off?

This suspenseful melodrama glorifies the wits but scorches the ethics of attorneys for both sides. It's also loaded with skepticism (following the real-life trials of the Menendez brothers and O.J.
Simpson) about the credibility of high-priced defenses and "expert" witnesses. The cynicism goes deeper, since the dead cleric proves to have been a hypocrite in serious sexual and social matters.

Nearly all the characters in this slick but sour movie are corrupt in one way or another. Sexual detail, problem language; not recommended.

THE BIRDCAGE (A-4, R) is La Cage Aux Folles set in Miami, with Robin Williams and Nathan Lane as the comic gay partners who try to pass themselves off as straight "parents" at a farcically catastrophic dinner for their "son's" future in-laws. The fiancee's father, naturally, is conservative to the max, a Jesse Helms-like U.S. senator (a rousing performance by Gene Hackman).

This show has always been aimed at mainstream audiences and remains so in this version by the veteran director-writer team of Mike Nichols and Elaine May. This film makes no fuss about AIDS, gay sexuality or militancy, or anything actually relevant, just spreads stereotypes in all directions, plus many yuks at the expense of the political right and drag queens, mixed with a dash of hokey compassion. Some new energy in this old war-horse, but not generally recommended.


ONE SURVIVOR REMEMBERS (HBO): This deceptively simple Holocaust memoir, which won the Oscar for best short documentary, describes one of the lesser-known forms of Nazi atrocities against their prisoners. These were the forced marches, staged in the final winter of the war, ostensibly to move inmates of labor or death camps beyond the reach of advancing Allied armies.

In reality, they had no such rational logic. The victims, already weak, journeyed on foot without food or adequate clothing. Most died from brutality or deprivation. The SS men and women who drove them seemed determined that none of "their" Jews should survive.

Survivor describes a march by about 4,000 Jewish girls in January 1945 from a slave-labor textile factory in Poland to Volary, Czechoslovakia. The on-camera narrative of a single survivor, Gerda Weissmann (only 21 at that time), tells the horrifying story with heart-cracking restraint.

Producer-director Kary Antholis seamlessly works in period film and photographs, as well as showing images of the terrain as it appears today. But it is Gerda's face that dominates the memory as she describes dreadful and common events--families separated and deported, moments of unexpected grace as well as terror, the constant presence of death and (worse) palpable hatred.

Also excerpted on CBS's 60 Minutes, Gerda's memoir has three extraordinary moments: when a remembered promise to her father stops her from taking her own life; when her longtime friend dies in her arms only days before liberation; and when, barely alive, she sees--like a vision--an American G.I. arrive in a jeep. She says, "I am Jewish," and he replies, "So am I." This is an important contribution to the world's memory of evils (and courage) that can't be forgotten.

STRANGE, ISN'T IT? Been writing here about TV practically since the days of St. Augustine, and usually find something current about religion and faith to talk about. Yet every year some think tank comes up with a study moaning about the lack of religion on the tube.

The Media Research Center's (MRC) recent study, reported by L. Brent Bozell III, finds a reference to religion on prime time only once every six hours in 1995, and religion figured in only about one percent of network news. Bozell unhappily notes that the ratio of positive to negative references has fallen to 38-28 from 44-23 the previous year. This he attributes to a backlash by the entertainment industry, presumably against religious conservatives.

This kind of thinking presumes that all good people want positive references to religion to go up, without knowing precisely how any of the terms are defined and regardless of what events are happening in the real world. In this era, most institutions are under scrutiny and very few positive references are rising.

People who write TV scripts are trying to seduce audiences and be very popular so they don't lose their jobs. If audiences laugh at jokes, comedians will tell them again. If audiences respond to religious stories, writers will write more of them. The attitude of "do what works, make what sells" is not absolutely admirable, but it dominates most of our everyday lives in this commercial culture where income matters most.

In this context, the surprise is not that you find inspiration so little, but that you find it so much. One wonders, for example, if the religious faith of the people of Oklahoma City, responding to the federal building attack, registered in the survey, and how heavily. For me, it registered so heavily I will never forget it.

MRC also seems to be unaware of how TV divides up its range of attention. Thus, religion gets much more space on public and cable channels than on commercial network prime time, and more coverage in documentaries and on local news than on the network newscasts trying to wrap up the world in 22 minutes.

In the same week that MRC revealed its survey results, which it called "depressing," a Newsday religion writer, Bob Keeler, won a Pulitzer Prize for his generally upbeat yearlong series of seven stories on the "the way they live their faith" in the multicultural parish of St. Brigid's in Westbury, New York. TV might do this on PBS or A&E, but newspapers are still a better medium.

On the prime-time commercial networks, it shouldn't be a shock that the need to hold the largely youthful audience for advertising produces inanity much of the time. When they do deal with religion positively, it's not likely to be sacred or profound.

THE 'MONK' COMMERCIALS ("Wow, what a pizza!") definitely don't fit in that magical category. This is the one where the fellow in robe and sandals walks through the snow to the top of a mountain to express his enthusiasm for Pizza Hut's pizza. As he goes down he slaps a silent high-five with another monk who is on his way up.

Monk jokes are, for better or worse, a genre for humor, like rabbis-priests- ministers and cartoons about people stranded on desert islands. Like the more obnoxious nun commercials--which are not yet frozen into a genre but trying hard--they perpetuate stupid stereotypes.

CYBILL (CBS, Sundays) is among those shows often embarrassing to watch with kids. A recent episode used teen sex as a source of humor. Come to think of it, it's embarrassing to watch, period.

THE MYSTERY OF HAPPINESS (ABC): This John Stossel special, subtitled "Who Has It and How to Get It," would not dazzle philosophy majors. But it did remind us that technology and science have made life so comfortable, at least for the affluent, that we tend to expect happiness now rather than in heaven.

Whereas happiness (whatever it is) once seemed unattainable, we now expect it. The genial Stossel went through some research showing how money doesn't do it (Princess Di, lottery winners) and watching a lot of TV definitely doesn't do it. Then he showed some giggly, bubbly female identical twins to suggest that "feeling happy" is largely (50 percent) biological. (That may be some comfort to parents.)

Not surprising, actively religious people are happier because their lives have "a sense of purpose." And happiness was found burgeoning in a strange place--among the Amish. They work hard and do without technological conveniences, but they have peace and joy.

Stossel also noted that it's possible to have too much happiness. (He showed that scene from Woody Allen's Annie Hall where the gorgeous young couple say they're perfectly happy "because we're shallow and empty.") "Life is hard, and if you're always happy, you miss a lot," said a young orchestra conductor.

This is one of those shows where network TV comes close, nudges you into a thought or two, and ends, appropriately enough, with a lively patch of Beethoven's Ode to Joy. If you need cheering up, you can get this show from ABC (1-800-913-3434).

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