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By James Arnold

Electronic Vision and Its Forever Memory

Q U I C K S C A N


Thinking and Watching

THINKING AND WATCHING: During an anxious September, I had the following thoughts about TV coverage of the attack on America.

The awful images. We are victims of our own ubiquitous electronic vision and its forever memory. After Pearl Harbor, the only way of seeing the images was in black-and-white photos and movie newsreels. This September 11 will live in infamy. And we don't know if there will be more such days to come.

No more Gary Condit. The vast media apparatus finally has something to do. As so often before, it comes through. It unifies, informs, comforts.

The paper. Fluttering, falling like snow in the gloom. Does it suggest something poignant to those who work with paper every day and squirrel it away in drawers?

Cell phones. Who would have thought about it? Good-bye and a final declaration of love.

"God Bless America." For our second national anthem, thank you, Irving Berlin. The legislators who sang it spontaneously on the Capitol steps were sour but sincere.

The rhetoric about American sin and secularism. It has to be toned down. The attack was evil. Compared to that, we are not evil.

The rescue workers. They show up and they don't give up. Also haunting are the stunned and bereaved, with their many pictures of missing loved ones, standing behind every TV reporter.

The telethon. Paul Simon without Art Garfunkel sings "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Once again, as 30 years before, the song has meaning and moves us.

TV executive forecast. "Viewers are going to be looking for different themes [now] in their programs. The age of irony will be over. You'll see more escapism, more warmth, more heroism, more patriotism."

The dilemma. We're like the dispossessed Oklahoma Dust Bowl farmer in The Grapes of Wrath, who asked, "So who do we shoot?"

Sister Wendy's American Collection

SISTER WENDY'S AMERICAN COLLECTION (PBS miniseries): For some it's the NFL that keeps you going; for others, it's Sister Wendy stalking the halls of U.S. museums and explaining why good stuff is good. Wendy always surprises and delights.

At Fort Worth's Kimbell Art Museum in this September three-parter Sister Wendy finds Mondrian's straight lines and solid colors "sharing a spiritual vision of the world." After an awed look at an eighth-century bronze statue of a Buddhist ascetic, she says, "Every aspect of this exquisite saint reminds us of what a Christian mystic said, 'All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.'" (Talk about the right message at the right time!)

War Letters

WAR LETTERS (American Experience series, PBS, November 11): This selection of newly discovered letters by ordinary people in various American wars (based on Andrew Carroll's best-seller) is extraordinarily apt. Read by celebrity actors over archival images and recreations, the letters cope with love, suffering, hope, reconciliation and faith.

Here is a typical excerpt (from a WWI soldier to his Episcopal pastor): "What I would like to believe is that God is in this war, not as a spectator, but backing up everything that is good in us. He won't work any miracles for us because that would be helping us to do the work He's given us to do on our own. I don't know whether God goes forth with armies, but I do know that He is in lots of our men or they would not do what they do...."

Hardball

HARDBALL (A-3, PG-13) is a Bad News Bears descendant with a hard edge and a social message. It has all the heart-tugging gimmicks of a feel-good interracial movie.

A down-on-his-luck gambler (Keanu Reeves) grudgingly coaches a ragged youth baseball team from the Chicago projects. He comes to love the kids and tries to reform his life. The kids are real in that their talk is riddled innocently with common vulgarities and the toughness of their existence—drug thugs and shootings in the projects, absence of fathers. Poignant realities (they've never been to a big-league ballgame in their own city) are pushed to our attention. They are also almost unbearably cute, but the script isn't very believable. Other problems include violence in the gambler's own seedy life.

Yet it's a movie about hope and harmony among people who at the start don't really like each other. It will inspire compassion. It's also a rare film shot amid the setting and icons of an inner-city Catholic school. More uplift than art; mostly suitable for adults and older children.

O

O (O, R): Moralists have been so concerned with other sins, we may have forgotten about envy. As the September events demonstrated, envy can be a dark and powerful force.

Shakespeare's Othello is surely the definitive drama on this subject. Writer Brad Kaaya's O, relocating the situation to basketball in a contemporary South Carolina prep school, is skillful and largely effective.

The afflicted, subversive Iago is now Hugo (Josh Hartnett), the coach's son, once the designated star of a team now taken to state-championship level by an import from the inner city, point guard Odin James (Mekhi Phifer). The black athletic hero with the brilliance to bring fame and fortune to an affluent white residential school seems an inspired 21st-century U.S.A. variation on the character of Othello, a Moor idolized as a war-hero general in 16th-century Venice.

Hugo is disturbed, both for the loss of his own ambition and for being displaced by Odin in the esteem of his obsessive father (an intense Martin Sheen). Odin has all the glory, plus the affections of the dean's beautiful daughter Desi (Julia Stiles). Hugo subtly poisons this relationship, manipulating perceptions and mutual friends as he destroys O, playing precisely on his racial and cultural insecurities in an uncertain environment. In the end, as in Shakespeare, the tragedy plays out.

Among the problems: We have tragic impact. (O has overcome every obtacle in his rise from poverty except his friend's cruel jealousy.) But we don't have the Bard's poetic words, which explain why the characters are vulnerable to Iago's evil. Director Tim Blake Nelson's soft-spoken, low-key style (which captures gossip's wickedness so well) and virtuoso hoops sequences are helpful but not equivalent.

Sex scenes may be even more troublesome than the suicide, beatings and shootings. The original Othello and Desdemona were mature adults and married. They didn't need sex scenes to display either love or suspicion. In any case, O and Desi are just kids "going together," and their lovemaking is pointlessly center stage. Flawed but artful effort; the R rating (17 and over) seems about right.

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion

THE CURSE OF THE JADE SCORPION (A-3, PG-13): In one of Fellini's great films (Cabiria), the innocent heroine falls under the spell of a stage hypnotist and is mocked for her simple faith in true love. Woody Allen, who has been borrowing from Fellini for years, uses this situation for comic effect. Co-workers (Allen and Helen Hunt) who dislike each other are made to fall goofily in love under nightclub hypnosis.

The sinister hypnotist puts Allen and Hunt in a trance to pull off burglaries of precious jewels, using their insider knowledge as insurance operatives. (Eventually, somebody says the basic truth about hypnosis: A person can't be made to do something that he or she wouldn't do in real life.)

Much of the hilarity comes from the frequent instant switching (normal to trance, hate to love), plus the fact that the characters are trying to solve the crimes. Such blatantly broad hypnotism humor has had little exposure since the golden age of the Three Stooges.

Curse is set in 1940 (Woody's favorite era). His character is a sexist, politically incorrect shamus of the time. Hunt plays a more improbable feminist precursor, so there is plenty of mutual irritation. He: "Never trust a woman who whistles for her cab." She (in a charming mixed metaphor): "He's not man enough to be a cat burglar."

Despite nostalgic sepia images, the usual Allen wit, jazz background and plot simplicity, Curse is several cuts below Allen's last two films (Small Time Crooks, Sweet and Lowdown), but still among the best adult flicks in recent months. Satisfactory for viewers in search of unstressful entertainment.

Smoke

SMOKE (1995): Although the action is mostly set in and around a Brooklyn cigar store, this unpretentious first screenplay by novelist Paul Auster is a marvelously complex (and rare) tale about people who respond to grace. Grace here means two things: an opportunity (both to understand and to do something benevolent) and a revelation (of purpose, meaning, design).

The characters include Augie (Harvey Keitel), who operates the store, and Paul (William Hurt), a writer and regular customer. Paul almost walks into a bus but is saved by a disconnected young black man, whom he invites to stay and who gets a job working for Augie. This ultimately leads to a series of reconciliations.

The best anecdote is saved until last, when Augie narrates his favorite Christmas story, about how even a bad deed turned into a wonderfully warm day of friendship. These parables of the big city are uplifting and beautifully underplayed by the good cast (including Stockard Channing, Ashley Judd and Forest Whitaker) directed by Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club). A low-key discussion-group bonanza; urban realities without the usually prescribed hopelessness.


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