The New American Cinema showcase, now in repertory at the Inner Circle through Thursday, is a worthy, modest innovation whose time was long overdue. It is a program of five movies selected to launch a touring series sponsored by the American Film Institute and the Independent Feature Project, a recently organized nonprofit collective seeking better distribution for serious independent productions.
The catch is that the selection is not everything a well-wisher might have hoped. Indeed, with the exception of the documentary entry, Jon Else's "The Day After Trinity," a survey of the events and personalities that led to the manufacture of the atomic bomb in Los Alamos under the supervision of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the pickings look downright scrawny, calculated to sustain only those who can look upon moviegoing as a philanthropic gesture.
According to the prospectus, the showcase may switch titles as it moves on to theaters in San Francisco, Houston, New Orleans and Atlanta. The Independent Feature Project has access to a few dozen films, and the selections are supposedly designed to take account of fluctuating local tastes in the experimental, offbeat or struggling. Still, one would prefer to believe that Washington got drastically short-changed when the choices were being made.
Perhaps the local success of John Sayles' "Return of the Secaucus 7" and Victor Nunez's "Gal Young 'Un" tended to set up the showcase selection for an inevitable fall. There are levels of competence and accessibility in the independent field just as there are in the commercial mainstream. Sayles and Nunez demonstrated a popular storytelling facility that is more properly appreciated as an exception rather than a rule among aspiring independents. Moreover, it's a facility that will probably enable them to enter and refresh the mainstream. As much as we wish them well and better luck next time, it's difficult to imagine the same professional transition being made by Eagle Pennell, Anna Thomas, Mark Rappaport and Charles Burnett, the respective directors of the four fictional movies in the series -- "The Whole Shootin' Match," "The Haunting of M," "Imposters" and "Killer of Sheep."
Pennell does seem to have a distinctive colloquial writing talent.I couldn't bear to watch much of "Shootin' Match," which often appears to have been shot from a single remote angle in a poorly lit dungeon, but the dialogue has a convincing, funny Texas tang. If Pennell took the same characters -- two ne'er-do-well, working-class cronies forever failing at money-making schemes and inventions -- played by the same amusing actors (Lou Perry and Sonny Davis) to an experienced, warm-natured director like Martin Ritt or Jonathan Demme, the results might be marvelous. As directed by Pennell himself, the promising material becomes a virtual eyesore.
The outlook doesn't improve with "The Haunting of M," a stilted costume gothic that suggests an unintentional high school travesty of "The Turn of the Screw"; "Imposters," an exhausted exercise in absurdist farce, so coyly deadpan it's downright deadly; or "Killer of Sheep," and inchoate collection of footage about a slaughterhouse employe who never gets untracked dramatically, although it has a few telling documentary interludes of kids at idle play in Watts, chuckling rocks at passing freight cars or jumping roofs in the projects.
Even "Day After Trinity" owes more to the natural dramatic qualities of certain witnesses, especially Oppenheimer's brother Frank, and to recently declassified government film documenting the Manhattan Project, than to any notable pictorial imagination or historic vision on the part of the filmmakers. It's the subject that commands overwhelming interest -- indeed, an interest that goes beyond the scope of the movie -- rather than the picture itself. This showcase of the best that independent filmmaking supposedly has to offer suggests that the range is dreadfully narrow: It peaks with an adequate documentary account of an awesome chapter in contemporary political, military and scientific history, and it bottoms out in the nether regions of struggling amateurism.