Big ideas on the small screen

Modest films shine on Sundance Channel's 'New Voices for the New Year.'

Television is now the only place where fine documentaries and the truly intimate drama of personal vision can be seen by a wide public.

We have seen plenty of good work all year on the documentary front, from PBS to the Discovery Channel. But the intimate drama is more problematic. Most towns have an art screen or three, but there is still so much that rides the festival circuit that is unavailable to most of us.

The Sundance Channel offers "New Voices for the New Year" (Dec. 27-31, 9-11 p.m.), a showcase for modest films that really suit the small screen better than the large.

These eccentric expressions of personal vision are not always successful, but it's easy to see the pearls of possibility gleaming out of the mass of unconstructed emotions and fuzzy philosophizing. The two most vivid in the series are "Decasia" by Bill Morrison and "Riders" by Doug Sadler.

"Decasia" follows in the tradition of the art film - think of the moving abstract expressionist films of Stan Brakhage. In this case, the film is an assemblage of found black-and-white archival film images in various states of decay edited and combined to make a veritable visual poem. The film takes up the illusions of mortality, and the ephemeral nature of man's struggle with it. It is also about the filmmaking process - a highly ephemeral form until quite recently. "Decasia" is beautifully structured and at times visually stunning.

As we struggle to "read" the images behind the scratches, burns, and the fading of film stock, we finally remember to appreciate all the layers of film - like the layers of our lives - from the surface to the deeper structures of consciousness.

It could well have done without the minimalist score by Michael Gordon, which only serves to build a sense of dread, imposing on us emotions we might better have discovered in silence.

'Riders" takes up genuinely troubling issues and deals with them in unexpected ways. Alex (Bodine Alexander) is a hostile teen whose main virtue is that she loves her little sister, Sara, a sweet 10-year-old who longs for her estranged father. When their mother brings home a sleazy boyfriend, Ned (Don Harvey is truly scary in the role), Alex tries to protect her little sister from his advances.

A long trip ending in disillusionment forces Alex to turn to her own self-sacrificing resources - her heroism comes as a frightful shock. The filmmaker uses the character's boredom, silence, and depression to surprise us with the depth of her love for her sister.

"The Slaughter Rule," by Andrew and Alex Smith, stars the illustrious actor David Morse ("Hack") as a coach of six-man football whose shady past might or might not implicate him in homosexual activity with boys he has coached. Despite the swamp of emotion, Morse and young Ryan Gosling give exquisitely refined performances.

"Kaaterskill Falls" by Josh Apter and Peter Olsen, is based on Roman Polanski's classic "Knife in the Water." A young married couple pick up a hitchhiker - a man who carries a knife the size of Florida. But the characters are not who they seem to be in this disquieting thriller.

Each of these filmmaker has serious intentions - they have something to say that most homogenized Hollywood films won't. Right now, the only venue open to these individual voices is, ironically, television.

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