Movie buffs find screen gems on cable TV

When it comes to film history, you may be better off watching television than going to your local video store. Hundreds of movies, from the classics to the avant-garde, are now playing on cable.

On American Movie Classics, The 8th Annual Film Preservation Festival pays tribute to the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, in a 32-film extravaganza June 16 to June 19, including a newly restored print of "Rear Window."

CBS offers more film history with American Film Institute's 100 Years ... 100 Laughs (June 13, 8-11 p.m.). Hosted by Drew Barrymore, the show dedicates three hours to 100 years of American comedy.

The AFI documentary is the third in a line of loving tributes to American film history, and its real value lies in its guidance: Check out the list of 100 films, including the ones you've never seen, and you're bound to grasp the breadth and depth of our film-comedy heritage. Movies released through 1998 were considered for the list, and long clips of the movies picked will be featured.

"It's like reading the Great 100 Books," says Jean Firstenberg, AFI's director. "The movies are a mirror of our mind and heart.... Comedy has not received the recognition it deserves. AFI has taken the opportunity to recognize and appreciate this most remarkable variety of films that cuts across genres."

For those of us who remember when all of TV was black and white, we also remember growing up watching satin-velvet beauties, black-and-white films of the 1930s, '40s, and early '50s. From "Cyrano de Bergerac" with Jose Ferrer, to "Pandora and the Flying Dutchman," "My Darling Clementine," "It Happened One Night," and "The Man in the Iron Mask," TV played them all - and it was a rich childhood that included these great old flicks.

I've seen all the above-mentioned films on AMC in recent years. With some careful navigation and with the help of Web sites and program guides, most of the best movies ever made can be found on cable.

AMC is an amazing isle of American film culture in a sea of foamy TV trivia. "Our No. 1 priority is to give context and relevance for today's audience," says Marc Joris, AMC's director of programming.

AMC produces a range of original programs, documentaries, and ongoing series, he says, to help enlighten us about everything from the history of special effects ("Cinema Secrets") to the stories behind the famous films ("Back Story") to the presentation of festivals meant to deepen our appreciation for a certain actor, director, or genre.

The channel has raised $2 million to preserve works of art from the '20s, '30s, and '40s - films that would otherwise have been lost.

And very importantly, this basic cable station does not interrupt its films with commercials. It may have to run ads between the pictures, but it is dedicated to showing the films as they were meant to be seen, without breaking them up and destroying the flow of the story.

Turner Classic Movies (TCM) doesn't interrupt its films with ads, either. The Turner library includes 3,000 classic films, and 3,000 more short subjects, according to the vice president of programming, Charlie Tabesh. But he says TCM also uses films from archival sources. TCM recently presented Erich von Stroheim's fully restored masterpiece, "Greed."

Bravo started out 20 years ago showing works of visual art, from concerts and performances to foreign flicks, without commercial interruptions. But about a year and a half ago, officials found it could not sustain itself without interrupting films with ads.

Though Bravo has had to slide toward the mainstream in screening more American films and in including commercials, its sister channel, the Independent Film Channel (IFC), still slices along on the cutting edge.

George Lentz, who programs both channels, says that IFC is already in some 30 to 40 million homes and Bravo is in 50 million. That means these individualistic movies get a much larger audience than they would in theatrical distribution.

What would independent filmmakers do without IFC and Sundance?

"There's a lot more options out there," says Liz Manne of Sundance Channel. "There's a lot more information, and choice - and ... junk, so navigation can be quite difficult. The name Sundance is like a Good Housekeeping Seal of approval for more offbeat movies.

"We're doing a Latino film festival in August, and for the past four months, it's been like film school for us - looking at Latin American films nonstop."

She says Sundance programmers look for quality and diversity - the channel makes a serious commitment to the work of minority and women filmmakers. Like the Sundance Institute (though the channel is separately owned), its mission is to give viewers access to films that are not easily available otherwise.

With all these choices, you're ready to pick up a good film history textbook - and study the movies on TV.

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(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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