`Ten Minutes' worth the time

Showtime series showcases short filmmaking at its best

TV Preview

July 01, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Ten Minutes Older is the kind of creative, offbeat production that makes cable so much more exciting and rewarding to watch than network television these days.

The concept: Showtime asked seven of international cinema's best directors to each make a 10-minute film on the subject of time.

The deal: They would have total creative freedom to express their vision.

The seven: Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, Chen Kaige, Aki Kaurismaki and Victor Erice.

The result is an uneven but always interesting and occasionally dazzling series of 10-minute films. The series premieres tonight at 10:45 with Lee's We Wuz Robbed, a documentary that revisits Nov. 7, 2000, in Florida -- one of the most controversial election nights in the history of American presidential politics with its legacy of butterfly ballots, recounts and hanging chads. While some will call the film pure propaganda, We Wuz Robbed is one of the works in this series that absolutely dazzles.

It starts with Lee's fluency in the grammar of political documentary -- his masterful ability to manipulate visual symbols, words of the interviewees and bits of factual data to arouse emotional response. Yes, that is propaganda, but that's exactly what Ken Burns or any skilled documentary-maker does. We generally only notice, though, when our politics are the ones being gored by the filmmaker's manipulation of montage.

The core of We Wuz Robbed is Lee's interviews with campaign workers for Al Gore, the Democratic presidential candidate in 2000. Also in the mix is Associated Press White House correspondent Sandra Sobieraj, who covered the election-night story. Selectively using Sobieraj lends an overall aura of objectivity to what the other partisan interviewees are saying. Lee is so smooth in his use of her, though, that it took me three viewings before I figured out the filmmaker's game.

The film focuses on the 10 minutes between the time Gore started making his way to a microphone on election night to concede Florida and the election to George W. Bush, and the moment when campaign workers were able to whisk Gore off the ballroom floor and into a holding room to tell him that the television networks were wrong about him losing and that he must not publicly concede. The rising rhythm of recollection that Lee constructs through his careful editing makes you feel as if you are standing next to Gore in this whirlwind of data and decision-making.

And where there's Lee, there is always some discussion of race -- usually carrying a supercharged load of emotion with it. The hot buttons are pushed in We Wuz Robbed by Donna Brazile, the African-American manager of the Gore campaign, when she characterized the way the voting was conducted in Florida by saying, "For the first time, Jim Crow came back on the scene."

In explaining how she believes African-Americans were systematically denied the right to have their votes counted, she refers to Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris as "Katherine Jim Crow Harris" and Florida Governor Jeb Bush as "Jeb Jim Crow Bush." Harris was the co-chair of the Bush campaign in Florida, while Jeb Bush is the younger brother of George W.

Brazile and other Gore campaign workers are all posed with huge American flags behind them -- much the way George C. Scott was in the film Patton -- as they are interviewed. A final shot shows five of them holding a flag in front of themselves (as if being wrapped in it) as they stand outside the gates of the White House.

Overall, the most striking aspect of the seven films in the series is how much a skilled filmmaker can say in 10 minutes. Herzog, in a mock documentary airing July 22 -- titled Ten Thousand Years Older --about a "lost tribe" in the Brazilian rain forest having its first (and last) encounter with civilization, literally tells the entire history of a civilization. It's brilliant.

The cultural diversity resulting from Showtime's decision to go global even though some of the filmmakers might not be that widely known to American audiences is also impressive. Lifeline, airing July 15 from Spain's Enrice, has far more to do with Imagist poetry than it does filmmaking -- if you define filmmaking in terms of Hollywood. Enrice strings together one perfectly distilled image of Spanish village life, circa 1940, after another, until you feel in your very bones what the common expression "circle of life" really means. He does it by creating the illusion of imminent death.

Ten Minutes Older is the kind of culturally enriched filmmaking we traditionally had to go out of our way to see at urban art-house theaters like the Charles or a college campus. The fact that cable television is now bringing such work into our living rooms -- and into the lives of many who would be unable or unwilling to make the journey to find it -- is one of the happier developments of our current television culture.

Cable series

What: Ten Minutes Older

Where: Showtime

When: Monday nights at 10:45 for seven weeks starting tonight

In brief: Showtime brings the art house into our houses.

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