Hollywood Focuses on Itself PBS Series Delves into Method, Magic of Making Movies

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PBS' 10-part series, "American Cinema," kicking off Monday, focuses on the three M's of the movies: the method, the meaning and the magic.

Produced by the New York Center for Visual Art, KCET-TV (the PBS station in Los Angeles) and the BBC, "American Cinema" is not a typical clip anthology but a serious study of American film making during the last 100 years. Each hour examines an aspect of American movies - from the style of film making to the concept of the movie star to the rise and fall and rise of the studios to specific genres known as film noir, the Western, the combat film and the screwball comedy.

"American Cinema" also features a stellar array of interviews with leading directors, producers, industry executives, stars, film historians, screenwriters, editors and cinematographers. To drop a few names: Robert Altman, James L. Brooks, Clint Eastwood, Michael Eisner, Peter Falk, Harrison Ford, Samuel Fuller, Charlton Heston, Jack Lemmon, George Lucas, Joseph Mankiewicz, Sidney Lumet, Sydney Pollack, Julia Roberts, Gena Rowlands, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Oliver Stone. John Lithgow is the host.

The series is to serve as a fully accredited college course, which will include a textbook, "American Cinema/American Culture" by John Belton; a study guide by Edward K. Sikov, and three additional half-hour programs. A glossy companion book, "American Cinema - One Hundred Years of Filmmaking," by Jeanine Basinger, was published last fall by Rizzoli.

Lawrence Pitkethly is the executive producer of "American Cinema." The Northern Ireland native is a writer, journalist, film maker and co-founder of the New York Center for Visual History. He previously conceived and developed "Voices & Visions," the acclaimed 13-part documentary series on American poetry that aired on PBS in 1988.

Los Angeles Times staff writer Susan King discussed "American Cinema" with Pitkethly in a phone call to his house in New York.

Q: "American Cinema" looks at film as an industry, an art form and a mirror of our culture. How did you arrive at the concept for the series?

A: The general public has a kind of love affair with movies, an obsession with movies. Not just in Los Angeles, but in every city in the United States. But there is actually very little on television for people who want to get a handle on a lot of things they are talking about. There is very little history. One of the strongest reasons for doing the series was to make a lot of information available in a general way.

We are obviously coming up to the centenary of cinema (this year). So this was really a project looking to 100 years of film and saying this is a way to celebrate one of America's greatest cultural achievements, the entertainment success story of all time.

There is a third (reason) that was really behind this thing. I think we have really reached an interesting moment in our society for retrieving the history of Hollywood. That is to say, you looked at old films in revival houses or you looked at old films on TV and then videocassettes came along. …