A talky 'Dresser' struggles too hard to be 'theatah'

The Dresser positively itches to be an Important Film, and looking at the ingredients, you'd think it was. The seasoned stars are Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay. The poignant setting is wartime England. The artistic and intellectual subject is theater - or rather , theatah. Shakespearean variety, of course.

Also present is what could have been a resonant story, written by Ronald Harwood from his successful play. The main character is a dedicated actor called Sir, who struggles to keep his traveling company on the road amid the uncertainties of war and the horror of air raids.

His motives are partly selfish, since his life is bound to his troupe. Yet his devotion to the classics is sincere, and keeping them alive is his way of upholding civilized values against the barbarians of the day. In any case, the strain is too much, and he loses his mental balance, becoming a pathetically enraged Lear with only a hired Fool - his backstage dressing assistant - to understand and sympathize with him.

It's a dramatic premise. What goes wrong with the movie? Three problems, as basic as can be: The camera is too close, the performances are too loud, the screenplay is too stagy. Harwood revels in the sort of mouth-filling verbiage that fills a stage impressively, but seems overblown when coupled with big-screen movie images. Compounding this, director Peter Yates inflates the action with pushy close ups and busy editing. The stars respond by hamming it up - Finney stamping and yowling, Courtenay mincing and flouncing as if his career depended on it.

There are strong moments in ''The Dresser'' despite all this. The images of Sir donning his Lear makeup, muttering dolefully into the mirror, are memorable. Courtenay comes brilliantly alive in his last couple of minutes, delivering a desperate eulogy for his ill-starred employer and his own second-rate life. And some good supporting players, including Eileen Atkins and Edward Fox, keep their cool amid the noise and overstatement.

This isn't enough to make ''The Dresser'' an Important Film, though. The pretensions of the project have overtaken director Yates, whose talent is better suited to the slam-bang heroics of a ''Bullitt'' and the modest sentiment of a ''Breaking Away,'' movies in which he distinguished himself. In production notes from Columbia Pictures he is quoted as saying, ''If I can make a film which will get more people to go to the theater, I will feel I have achieved something.'' In a way he never intended, he may have done just that. Multichannel show

If you think of a TV as a 19-inch box in the corner, Gary Hill wants to shake you up. Like some other video artists, he's partial to the ''installation'' format, using television to shape an encompassing electronic environment.

His latest work, an installation called Primarily Speaking, is on view through Dec. 11 in the New American Filmmakers Series at the Whitney Museum of American Art here. In the middle of a room stands a corridor of TV sets built into large cases. The viewer may stroll between them or stand at one end and see all 10 screens at once. During a 20-minute playing cycle, a series of images and sounds hopscotches from one set to another, pulling the eye and the attention in sundry directions.

The content is as fractured as the form: Often it seems to be a self-reflecting meditation on communication through art, but there are touches of social commentary, too. What counts is that the images are both witty and unpredictable, ranging from visual non sequiturs to sumptuous fields of pure color, with pictures often edited to match the syllables of a mostly unseen narrator. In a program note Hill speaks of his ''preoccupation with the notion of face value.'' On its face, ''Primarily Speaking'' is always diverting and sometimes dazzling. More deeply, its razor-sharp kineticism suggests new possibilities for multichannel video. Entertaining anthropology

When was the last time you spent an involving, dramatic, sometimes hilarious afternoon watching anthropological documentaries? For me, it was just the other day, and I'd like to recommend these films highly. Most theaters probably won't show them - not commercial, you know - but they're now on-screen at the Film Forum in New York and should make their way to other adventurous venues.

First Contact, an Australian film, is built on a unique artifact: a motion-picture record of white travelers encountering New Guinea natives who have never heard of, much less seen, people of a different color and culture than themselves.

This remarkable meeting took place in 1930, when three brothers named Leahy left Australia in search of gold and took lots of movies as they poked around the New Guinea highlands. The makers of ''First Contact'' have integrated this vintage material with present-day footage - interviews with the two surviving Leahy brothers and with natives who still remember the impact of this strange intrusion by strange men.

The film is ironic, poignant, and often chilling. It's ironic to see recent shots of the natives, once so isolated, sporting Western clothes and chuckling over old photos of themselves. It's poignant to hear women recall being sexually ''sold'' to the visitors despite their fears. It's chilling to hear the Leahy brothers matter-of-factly explain why they killed their less hospitable hosts - forgetting that, whatever the danger may have been, no invitation had been proffered them in the first place.

It's a disturbing film, full of head-on challenges to colonial and racist attitudes. Yet it's a deeply human experience, too: Its message, strongly implied if not stated, is that some kind of rapport is bound to develop in any situation, however clouded the circumstances may be by isolation, ignorance, and the urge for domination. Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson are the directors.

Trobriand Cricket is mellower, with a sense of humor that reflects its subject. The subtitle is ''An Ingenious Response to Colonialism,'' and the subjects are Papua New Guinea's wily cricket players. So wily, in fact, that they have turned the venerable British game on its head.

Some of the rules they've imposed on the game since missionaries introduced it: full-scale tribal dances at every out; teams so flexible that any number can play; comic pantomimes as the players take the field; umpires who try native magic to help their favorite side win; and a tradition that the defeated team only lost to be polite.

It's great fun to discover all this and to witness the boundless good humor that transforms crusty British traditions into exuberant outbursts of wit, color , and sheer energy. A production of Papua New Guinea, the film was directed by Jerry W. Leach and Gary Kildea.

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