From Four Filmmakers, Quick Takes of America


`Imagining America,' tomorrow, PBS, 9-10 p.m. `American Playhouse' presents four short films by independent filmmakers. Produced by Vanguard Films.

`IMAGINE all the people,'' as John Lennon used to sing, and that's what a quartet of American filmmakers has done in this offbeat production.

``Imagining America'' may not be the America of your imagination or Norman Rockwell's or Andy Warhol's, but it is the America of filmmakers Ralph Bakshi, Ed Lachman, Matt Mahurin, and Mustapha Khan, whose four short works are being presented.

Vanguard Films, which put the package together ``as a launching pad for boldly innovative young filmmakers'' as well as established talent, leads with a live-action short by Ralph Bakshi. Mr. Bakshi has been making animated films, like the unsavory ``Fritz the Cat'' and the fantasy ``The Lord of the Rings,'' for a couple of decades now. His first live-action film, ``This Ain't Bebop,'' is a curious m'elange of '50s Beat Generation nostalgia and contemporary Los Angeles culture.

The film stars Harvey Keitel at the wheel of a red convertible racing through the semi-mean streets of Los Angeles and through flashbacks into his past. It sees today's man through a scrim of reenacted incidents about Jack Kerouac, whose book ``On the Road'' was the Baedeker of the Beat Generation, and Allen Ginsberg, its poet laureate, best known for ``Howl.'' The film concludes, ``You dig, baby, [James] Dean, Kerouac, Jackson [Pollock, the Abstract Expressionist painter]. They're all dead; they've been replaced by shopping centers.''

Bakshi's short with its lively jazz score, offers a vivid look at that burned-out era. But its contemporary scenes are so personal and confusing that they strike the viewer as self-indulgent, despite Bakshi's talent.

Director Matt Mahurin's ``Tribe'' is a more contemplative film, one that ties all sorts of diverse images together in a celebration of tribal rituals, American style. The images include, among others, a funny, lusty dance by the shore, a man trudging up interminable steps of a government building, a Golden Gloves boxer dancing in the ring, a beach party, a shouting preacher shaking up his congregation, and a view of the Washington Monument through the mist.

``Tribe'' was shot on location from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Washington, to Harlem. Mr. Mahurin is a music-video director, magazine photographer, and illustrator. His ``Tribe'' is a lyrical and innovative short.

Cinematographer Ed Lachman (``Desperately Seeking Susan,'' David Byrne's ``True Stories'') has come up with a populist ode to a US highway in ``Get Your Kicks on Route 66.'' He directed and shot this affectionate salute to the first interstate concrete highway from Chicago to the West Coast.

In the film, one of the route's fans remembers that traveling it was as full of down-home diversity as visiting members of a far-flung family, unlike today's impersonal freeways. Bobby Troupe's famous song about Route 66 is used. Mr. Lachman, with his wonderful cinematographer's eye, gives us a colorful tone poem of that two-lane silver ribbon winding through breathtaking countryside. This is an evocative and well-made film.

Mustapha Khan's ``Reflections of a Native Son'' is really a short documentary on growing up vulnerable in the South Bronx. Raymond, a 15-year-old raised in a neighborhood rife with drugs, poverty, and violence, tries to sort out his life choices in this thoughtful and affecting film. Mr. Khan, an anthropologist and former evangelical preacher, spent a lot of time living on location in the South Bronx to shoot this movie. The resulting film shines a bright and compassionate light on the dark dilemmas facing any child of our crime-blighted cities.

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