Keeping tabs on the celluloid world with American Film magazine

Cinema, movies, film: As film historian James Monaco has noted, these three distinct terms represent three different approaches to motion pictures. It is an interesting distinction and one that is evident in our film magazines. If our scholarly journals discuss the aesthetics of the ``cinema,'' our fan magazines give us the gossip and glamour of the ``movies.'' One magazine that has staked out its territory in the broad middle ground of ``film'' is American Film, which offers the general reader a balance of criticism and celebrity, politics and photographs, the serious and the popular.

American Film, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, is published in Washington, D.C., by the American Film Institute, an independent, nonprofit organization established to ``advance the art of film and television in the United States.'' Although American Film does cover television, its primary focus has always been on film. Each issue offers half a dozen features (trends, profiles); a section on video; and a variety of departments, which include the longstanding ``Dialogue on Film'' (interviews with prominent filmmakers), a column on independent filmmakers, and an in-depth book review section.

From its inception, American Film has been ambitious. In its first editorial, it promised to explore all aspects of film and television and to get at ``root questions'' on their role in American life.

In part, American Film has fulfilled those ambitions. Through the years it has analyzed, poked, and challenged the celluloid world. Recently, for example, it published Indian novelist Salman Rushdie's biting critique of the degrading ethnic stereotypes in the recent spate of films and television shows about India. This is the kind of incisive overview hard to come by in the general press, which devotes most of its limited space to movie reviews, or in specialized film magazines. Also good in that issue was Pat Dowell's examination of television's new female audience and new types of female prime-time stars.

But American Film doesn't seem to me as feisty as it could be -- and as I, for one, would like it to be. Too many of its articles take on easy subjects (``Is There Life After Punk?'') or treat difficult ones superficially.

And while the magazine's profiles are well done, there are so many they seem to dominate the magazine. April's issue, which carried interviews with Rebecca de Mornay, Paul Bartel, and Penelope Spheeris, as well as a profile of Sam Peckinpah, seemed more concerned with personalities than with issues.

American Film is an increasingly popular magazine: Its circulation has risen from 6,000 to 140,000 in 10 years. But editor Peter Biskind is concerned about overpopularizing. In the coming year, he plans to do more articles on political issues, to pay more attention to filmmaking outside Hollywood, to tackle some important social issues -- to maintain American Film's reputation as a magazine that may enjoy the glitz of the movies but also takes film seriously as an art form in mass culture.

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