MOVIE REVIEWS : Documentary Series Focuses on Also-Rans

Times Film Critic

The documentary film series that we’ve come to expect at this time, given under the auspices of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and UCLA’s Film and Television Archive, has a slightly different spin to it this year. (The free programs begin tonight at UCLA’s Melnitz Theater and continue through March 7.)

Instead of films that won or were nominated for Academy Awards, this collection comes from that great pool of also-rans. The academy’s position is that the number of good films considered for nomination has been growing, with too few time slots or programs to accommodate them. This is an attempt to give exposure to other outstanding films.

It would be interesting to know how this group was selected, since its common ground is a certain numbing worthiness. A few of these films grab you by the throat, shake you around, leave you changed or exhilarated or powerfully depressed--but only a few. Tonight’s double bill is a pairing of just such opposites.

“Trader” which is like an un-phonied up “Wall Street,” is one of the breathless ones, all the more surprising when you consider that it’s the intimate wheelings and dealings of a 32-year-old New York futures trader whose mother tongue seems to be tobacco-auctioneer-speak. You don’t have to know or even care about trading to be caught by film maker Michael Glyn’s fascination with this world. It doesn’t matter that Paul Tudor Jones II’s offices are decorated with wet-T shirt girl calendars instead of Renoirs. This, more than “Wall Street,” gives you the sense and the feel of the real thing--a 32-year-old lonely monarch of the money biz and his 27-year-old right-hand man, the whiz at predictions. And though the film stops eight months short of the crash, these two had it clearly in the sights and their forecasts. Amazing.


The second half, “The Global Assembly Line,” is such an urgent and compelling subject that you wonder why director Lorraine Gray (who made the marvelous “With Babies and Banners”) backed into it the way she did. Tracing the interconnectedness of the cheap labor trap, its repercussions on both American and foreign workers, Gray begins with her real villains--silken-smooth, beefy American businessmen--when the heart of her story are the workers, a huge percentage of them women, from Arkansas to Manila to Juarez whose health and lives are being ruined as we watch. Gray gets to some fascinating material, but not early and not acutely enough.

Not to be missed under any circumstance is the second feature on Oct. 18: the haunting “Threat” by Swedish director Stefan Jarl. A great and a beautiful film, its tragic subject is matched by the film maker’s measured skill and anger, as he presents a young, articulate Lapland couple whose gentle, deliberate, centuries-old way of living in harmony with nature was changed forever in April, 1986. That day, clouds from Chernobyl killed 87% of the reindeer on which the Lapp culture is based, and poisoned their only other alternative, fishing. “Threat’s” programming just before the elections could hardly come with more appropriate timing.

A light, lively bill follows on Nov. 15, but it’s another one of those unequal pairings. Karen Goodman’s filmic sketchbook of street performers in every corner of New York, “No Applause, Just Throw Money” is so infectious that you want it to be deeper too. It doesn’t want to go that way, to tell us whether it takes more--or different--nerves, to work right in your audience’s face, or how street artists are licensed, or any number of questions. Is it by audition? Luck? Is there, say, a quota of Michael Jackson imitators? Anyone over the quota has to do James Brown? We will never know.

The star of that evening, and one of the stars of the series, is Merrill Brockway’s “On the Move: The Central Ballet of China,” during which we watch this young group on its first trip to America. We see them change, loosen up, become individuals as they tour every dance discipline from Paul Taylor to Alvin Ailey to George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet and the Broadway pizazz of Graciela Daniele. This is one of the lapel grabbers, an example of skill and verve combined with an entrancing subject.