'That Championship Season' wins only some of the time

That Championship Season is not a championship movie. It's too stagy, reflecting its roots in a play by Jason Miller, who also wrote and directed the film version.

But it has some virtues. It begins with a devastating satire of local political rallies in a broad outdoor scene that's better than anything else in either the stage or screen edition. Continuing, it deals with matters as real as they are universal, including the grip of memory and the challenge of aging gracefully. And it develops a quintet of involving characters.

On the minus side, its dialogue is rather studied at times, and some may find it needlessly coarse. More important, Miller doesn't always manage to sustain a sense of gut-level realism as he concentrates a world of emotion and experience into a single night (running less than two hours on screen) of conversation and confrontation. The result seems earnest one moment, contrived the next.

As in the original play - winner of a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award, among other citations - the characters are five men on the brink of middle age. They are caught in various personal crises, from alcoholism to shaky marriages. But they are buoyed by a shared memory of greatness years ago, when their obscure high-school basketball team won the state championship. The action takes place during their annual reunion and focuses on the bond that holds them together despite the rivalries and jealousies that threaten their relationships.

When I spoke with him recently, Miller took a lot of pride in the ensemble performances by his five actors. It's true that all the portrayals are striking in one way or another; yet I don't feel they mesh as seamlessly as they might. Nobody else in the cast matches the impact of Bruce Dern as a small-time politician on the skids, or the matter-of-fact pettiness of Paul Sorvino as a capitalist with a manipulative streak. Robert Mitchum is imposing but not vivid enough as the coach who still serves as surrogate father to the others. And neither Stacy Keach nor Martin Sheen quite find the centers of their forlorn characters.

More impressive is Miller's use of an urban setting - it happens to be his own home town of Scranton, Pa. - as a mirror for the inner change and deterioration that face his characters. And his analysis of political pettifoggery seems just right, abetted by Dern's fierce performance, a logical extension of his brilliant work in the underrated ''Smile,'' wherein he played a used-car dealer with a very similar personality. When it hits its target squarely, ''That Championship Season'' is a winner. Too bad it doesn't happen more consistently. Building a film museum

About three years ago Anthology Film Archives, the closest thing to a world headquarters for independent cinema, embarked on a major expansion program. The goal is to create a major film museum, including three repertory theaters for film and video, plus a reference library and the largest film-preservation vaults on the East Coast. How goes the campaign?

According to the latest update by Anthology director Jonas Mekas, the economic recession has hurt fund-raising efforts. A new building has been purchased, interior demolition and redesigning are complete, and construction is ready to begin on the theaters, vaults, library, and offices. But a lot more money is needed before the theaters can be finished, and still more before the entire project can be consummated, including the vaults that are badly needed to preserve rare and fragile movie material.

To help, a number of respected artists have produced three art and photography portfolios, being sold at four-figure prices to generate revenue for the expansion. The star of the trio, the art portfolio, contains prints in diverse media by such artists as Claes Oldenburg, Richard Serra, Andy Warhol, and Robert Rauschenberg. The photography album includes works by Peter Beard, Rudy Burckhardt, Willard Van Dyke, and Michael Snow, among others. The third portfolio is a collection of prints by the eccentric artist and filmmaker Walter Gutman.

The latest announcement by Anthology is that film critic and theorist Andrew Sarris will take charge of creating a Repertory Collection of American/Hollywood Film in the organization's new quarters, complementing the established Essential Cinema Collection, which focuses on independent film.

The new collection will include classic works by leading directors from the beginning of Hollywood through the present. These pictures will be screened on a repertory basis, with three or four programs daily, giving everyone - from students and scholars to everyday moviegoers - regular and continuing access to the best of Hollywood's heritage.

Anthology is already an indispensable resource with regard to independent cinema. Most crucially, it ensures the preservation and viewability of major independent works. But it also lends prestige to this neglected branch of filmmaking, enlisting the support of such notables as star Woody Allen, artist Larry Rivers, and stage director Richard Foreman, all of whom serve on its board of directors.

With its new Hollywood collection, Anthology is spreading its branches in yet another useful direction. It's a strong step toward justifying Mekas's claim that the newly enlarged operation will be ''a major cultural institution . . . the creation of which is comparable only to the creation of the Museum of Modern Art some 50 years ago.''

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