'Eyewitness': good, but overlong; worthy independent film series

Eyewitness provides 90 minutes of the best entertainment I've seen all year. Unfortunately, the movie is almost two hours long. That leaves about 30 minutes of material we'd all be better off without.

Still, 90 good minutes is more than most pictures offer these days, so "Eyewitness" may well be a major hit. It has a solid cast, an original concept, and a convincing atmosphere. Even more important, it has terrifically intelligent dialogue by Steve Tesich, smoothly directed by Peter Yates -- the same team that gave us the sleeper "Breaking Away."

Tesich came up with the basic idea: A bright young man working as a janitor gets a crush on a TV newswoman. When a murder occurs in his building, he uses his "eyewitness" status to get acquainted with this celebrity. To complicate things, his best friend is a "weirdo" who might have done the murder himself. Meanwhile, the newscaster has a rich and mysterious boyfriend who is somehow wrapped up in the murky affair.

There is nothing profound about "Eyewitness" or its plot. Yet the characters are unucually complex, and their personalities are revealed with uncommon wit: There's one scene, for example, where a young couple turn convention on its ear by delightedly discovering they don'tm love each other.

William Hurt is solid as the hero, Sigourney Weaver is exactly right as the newsperson, Christopher Plummer is just enigmatic enough as the boyfriend. And once he gets his teeth into the role, James Woods is inspired as the hero's daffy pal, who keeps getting chased because he seemsm so guilty all the time. "When he was a kid," says one of the splendidly acted cops in the story, "he must have wanted to be a suspect when he grew up!"

I repeat, there are problems in "Eyewitness": The plot loses its tension after a while, the action gets too scrappy, and occasional vulgarities will offend some viewers. When the picture works, though, it works marvelously well. Yates and Tesich are still a winning team.

Movies are an expensive medium; a very low budget may come to $1 million or more. That's why Hollywood pictures are risky ventures, even with huge marketing and promotion departments to back them up. So consider the plight of the independent filmmaker, who must struggle to complete the movie in the first place, and then struggle still harder to get it shown and seen.

Fortunately, a breakthrough happens once in a while -- like the series of American Independent Films on view through June 16 at the Art Theater in New York. Every such event takes on national importance, by bringing the independent movement into the spotlight -- and reminding us that "indies" are the only alternative to studio-bred and distributor-dominated cinema in the United States. With imminent cuts in film funding from the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, it becomes more important than ever for moviegoers to recognize and appreciate the lively vein of filmmaking outside the usual Hollywood-influenced channels.

The series at the Art Theater is presented by a New York- based "cooperative" called First Run Features. Included are many independently produced films that have already gained national and even international attention, without necessarily achieving box office profits. Judging from those I've seen, their range is impressive: from fiction to documentary, from history to "redneck rock, " from biography to love story, from "Vietnam: An American Journey" to "Different Drummer: Elvin Jones."

Naturally, they don't all succeed at what they set out to do, and some are overrated, even by "independent" standards. Yet a few have gained strong reputations ("Alambrista," "Northern Lights") and some have even been nominated for Academy Awards ("The War at Home," "Agree").

If government funding does dry up for the independent movie world, film lovers will have to support or lose the many lively artists who ply their difficult and expensive trade away from the confines of the establishment -- and give some relief from all the dreadful pictures the establishment has given us lately. Here's hoping the current New York festival is a rousing success, and leads to a new and widespread explosion of interest in our valuable alternative cinema.

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