Players Wind Up for the Sales Pitch

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Stanley Jacobs' "Pitch People," which screens tonight at 7:30 at the Egyptian, is one of the most entertaining films the American Cinematheque's Alternative Screen showcase has presented.

Finding an apt subject is ever the documentary filmmaker's key task, and in this Jacobs has been truly inspired. He introduces a group of pitch people--individuals who try to sell all manner of gadgets and products by demonstrating how they work--at fairs, flea markets and, of course, on TV, especially in the age of the infomercial.

These are colorful, engaging folks who work hard trying to induce us to buy those kitchen gadgets that slice, dice, grate and shred with lightning speed and efficiency.

The golden rule, we learn, is that the product must actually work and that the pitch person must believe in it. Whether you will actually get around to using such thingamajigs once you get them home is a whole other matter--the last thing that the pitch person wants you to think about.

Receiving special attention are two brothers, Arnold and Lester Morris, of Asbury Park, N.J. Their father, Nat, was a pioneering legend in the field, as was Nat's cousin and rival, Seymour Popeil, whose descendant Ron has been hailed as the salesman of the century--and, unfortunately, is not among Jacobs' interviewees.

Lester pioneered pitches on TV and, in fact, back in the '50s built an infomercial-style cooking show around a rotisserie he was selling. The Morrises gave the world the glass knife and the fruit juice extractor; today, Arnold is famed for selling knives.

Pitch people understand that they're in a form of show business, so it figures that no less than Ed McMahon got his start from Lester selling the Morris Metric Slicer on the Atlantic City Boardwalk.

Jacobs' film is framed with a treasure trove of vintage clips, and it leaves us realizing that the traditional pitch, delivered to a live audience, may be a dying art. (323) 466-FILM.

*

Larry Clark's corrosive "Bully," was supposed to open the third annual Method Fest Friday at 7 p.m., but last-minute legal entanglements have cause it to be canceled.

That's unfortunate, because the film could scarcely be more timely or unsparing. Based on an actual incident, it reveals how Marty (Brad Renfro), an ineffectual Florida high school dropout, is alternately abused and cajoled by his mercurial and brutal lifelong friend, Bobby (Nick Stahl), and how Lisa (Rachel Miner), a lonely girl who falls in love with Marty, protests Bobby's treatment of him.

Tragically, her solution reveals her to be even crazier than Bobby.

Told with Clark's usual unsparing sex-and-drugs candor, "Bully" reveals a bunch of insulated, self-absorbed suburban parents with nary a clue as to what's going on with their profoundly disaffected kids. Call to find out what will replace it.

In Leonard Farlinger's "The Perfect Son" (Sunday at 6:30 p.m.), the death of a difficult, long-widowed father permits his troubled 30ish son, Theo (David Cubitt), to connect at last with his much-resented older and highly successful lawyer brother, Ryan (Colm Feore), now on the verge of the final stages of AIDS. This superbly acted domestic drama is marred by an infuriatingly intrusive and gratuitously manipulative score.

"Hard Luck" (Saturday at 7:45 p.m.; Monday at 2 p.m.) is the third of actor-writer Kirk Harris' impressively implacable odysseys of driven, defeated men. Under Jack Rubio's direction, Harris plays Trevor, a young man who impulsively escapes from a mental institution three months before his scheduled release after nearly seven years to effect a reunion with his dying best friend (Matthew Faber) and former wife (Renee Humphrey) on an Oregon island retreat, where as children they enjoyed their happiest times.

It's worth overlooking mind-boggling plot developments and occasional narrative murkiness for experiencing Trevor's single-minded determination to fulfill a loving gesture.

Jeff Probst's clever "Finder's Fee" closes the festival next Thursday at 8:30 p.m. It stars James Earl Jones, on whom the festival is bestowing a lifetime achievement award, as a New York bus driver who comes by the apartment of the young man (Erik Palladino) who has found his stolen wallet--but who has taken from it a winning lottery ticket worth $6 million. (310) 535-9230.

*

The Goethe Institute's Blockbuster series of recent popular German films continues Tuesday at 7 p.m. at 5750 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 100, with Leander Haussmann's engaging "Sun Alley," an affectionate and raucous look at coming of age in East Berlin in the '70s.

Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, teenagers had to be resourceful and daring in so oppressive and arbitrary a society intent on banning everything. Alexander Scheer's skinny, likable Micha has his heart set on winning the prettiest girl in school, but as if that weren't enough of a challenge, he and his family live in the border zone on a street that extends into West Berlin, panhandle style.

For Micha and his pals, rock 'n' roll records are so near yet so far--risking a small fortune on a black-market Stones record may yield only a poor-quality knockoff.

It is amazing how jaunty Haussmann can be, even in the face of the dark realities of the rigid Communist regime. (323) 525-3388.

*

The American Cinematheque's "The Bizarre, the Droll & the Occult: The Magical World of Jan Svankmajer" opens Friday at 7 p.m. at the Egyptian, with a sneak preview of the brand-new "Little Otik."

Among the films screening in the weekend series is "Alice" (Saturday at 7:30 p.m.), a 1987 take on "Alice in Wonderland" that suggests Lewis Carroll anticipated surrealism, which will be followed by "Conspirators of Pleasure" (1998). That's an apt, elegant title for Svankmajer's brilliant fable of sexual longing and gratification at its most furtive and kinky.

Yet another of Svankmajer's inspired blends of live-action and animation, it uses compulsive-obsessive sexual behavior as a metaphor for a society repressed by religion and oppressed by politics.

Svankmajer belongs to a rich Eastern European tradition in animation and experimental cinema that views the universe as an absurd mechanism that remorselessly grinds down the individual, often to the sound of a tinkling music box, itself an intricate, self-contained device.

As if it were clockwork, the film is set in motion by a diffident young man, Mr. Pivonka (Petr Meissel), purchasing a Playboy from a vendor (Jiri Labus) who is tinkering with some sort of electronic device.

The magazine centerfold sets off in Pivonka the most elaborate and macabre of sexual fantasies. The film's pitch-dark humor is matched by an acute sense of pathos.

Svankmajer's eerie 1994 "Faust" (Sunday at 8 p.m.) imagines that a perfectly ordinary middle-aged man (Petr Cepek), living in a seedy Prague apartment, follows a strange-looking map that leads him to a theater dressing room, where he ends up as Faust in a puppet-show production of the Gounod opera.

Steeped in folklore, Svankmajer is prodigiously imaginative, blending the quaint and the macabre in unsettling, jaunty ways, but his "Faust" film itself tends to be mechanical, more impressive than emotionally involving. (323) 466-FILM.

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