TV Reviews : ‘Imagining America’: Four Riffs on a Common Theme


Until this year’s “New York Stories,” one might have thought the anthology film was dead. Yet just as that movie revived the genre cinematically, “Imagining America,” which airs tonight at 9 on Channel 15 and at 10:35 on Channel 28, reinvigorates the format for TV.

A presentation of “American Playhouse,” it’s such a superb, offbeat collection, one hopes more will follow. Conceived and produced by John H. Williams, it offers four riffs on a common theme: America, viewed personally. Only one of the four, Ralph Bakshi’s “This Ain’t Bebop,” is a narrative. The others include two fine documentaries: Ed Lachman’s “Get Your Kicks on Route 66,” a racy ode to the great American ‘50s highway, and Mustapha Khan’s “Reflections of a Native Son,” a grim, clear-eyed look at the teen-age subculture of a South Bronx housing project. The fourth, Matt Mahurin’s “Tribe,” is a lyric kaleidoscope of public gestures in America: a cross between impressionist documentary, music video and live-action photo-essay.

“This Ain’t Bebop” is, in a way, another nostalgia piece about the ‘50s. But this is nostalgia for the buried ‘50s: of the beat or counter-culture figures such as Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, James Dean and splatter-painter Jackson Pollock.


Brooklynite Bakshi follows an aging would-be hipster (Harvey Keitel) on his barren rounds through the pool halls and streets, looking for action and sex, juxtaposed with his memories of a ‘50s youth, and the self-destructive idols whose gestalt haunts him. Sinuous Miles Davis-style jazz threads under the action; “This Ain’t Bebop” itself is an apocryphal remark attributed to Cassady as he collapses on the railroad tracks before his death.

Though Keitel’s presence reminds us of Martin Scorsese’s mean street ethos, Bakshi shows style and personality all his own. His first totally live-action effort suggests others should follow.

“This Ain’t Bebop” is the longest of the shorts, but it doesn’t dominate. The films all weave together, a quartet of variations on the theme of the American outsider: whether white, black, urban, western or on the road between. Subthemes trace their way from film to film, like the jazz and rock underscore.

“Tribe” is probably the anthology’s heart: with its multi-images of Americans of all classes, races and sexes in a huge dance--staged variously to the slow movement from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, drums and “Hang On, Sloopy.” And the shorts have been embedded in a rich collage of clips from bland, celebratory documentaries from the ‘50s and earlier: a technique that recalls experimental gems like Michael Wallin’s “Decodings.”

One other note on this excellent package. Khan’s and Mahurin’s films are in black-and-white; so are sections of Bakshi’s and Lachman’s. And they all look beautiful. In this sad time of the denigration of monochrome cinematography--through the colorizing antics of Ted Turner and his shortsighted industry supporters--watching four fine film makers make such creative modern use of black-and-white is heartening indeed.