Movie theaters are in their usual midwinter doldrums. Films considered major items by their studios and distributors were all released before the end of last year - on at least a limited basis - in order to qualify for the parade of awards culminating in the imminent Oscar race.
Faced with a shortage of enticing mass-audience pictures, theaters have two choices. One is to fill their screens with cold-weather mediocrity and hope springtime arrives quickly. The other is to get creative, programming independent and international releases that get crowded out by Hollywood features at other times of year.
One result of this situation is an annual flurry of interesting theatrical films. A distinguishing characteristic of this year's batch is its emphasis on documentaries like "The Art of Amalia," a portrait of a Portuguese singer, and "The Mystery of Picasso," a rereleased 1956 classic about the legendary artist.
The latest nonfiction movies to arrive continue the variety of this lineup. Perhaps the most moving is Scottsboro: An American Tragedy, which takes a clear-eyed look at a troubling historical subject: the racially sparked upheaval that resulted when nine African-American youngsters were arrested, prosecuted, and persecuted in 1931 for a crime in Alabama that probably didn't happen, and certainly wasn't committed by any of them.
This dismaying incident began when the homeless teenagers were accused of rape by two white women. Taken into custody by a justice system that was unsympathetic at best and bigoted at worst, they languished in prison and underwent various trials while more powerful people battled over their fates. Among these were local officials who cared more about sustaining white supremacy than making sure the accused received fair treatment; idealistic Communists who made the case into an internationally noted issue; and anti-Semites who resented the Jewish lawyer who traveled from New York to defend these controversial clients.
"Scottsboro" chronicles all this in the manner of many traditional documentaries, spinning its sad tale through an articulate narration and an artful collection of archival films and photos. It isn't great cinema, but it's a pungent historical account that deserves notice. Daniel Anker directed the picture, which will be broadcast by PBS on "The American Experience" later this year.
Another nonfiction film worth tracking down is Night Waltz: The Music of Paul Bowles, which has special interest for music lovers. Bowles was best known as the author of "The Sheltering Sky" and other evocative fiction, but he spent the early part of his career as a composer trained and influenced by Aaron Copland.
His composing slowed down after he moved from the United States to Morocco, but he had already created a significant body of musical work.
Owsley Brown's film traces the course and significance of his career but spends much of its time on the music itself, accompanied by poetic footage of New York City and other visual icons of Bowles's peripatetic life. It's a treat, and a tuneful one at that.
Neither film is rated. 'Scottsboro' contains visually explicit material about racial violence. 'Night Waltz' contains drug use.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society