These shows from the PBS series The 90’s, shown last season and now available as a home video set, evoke the spirit of the ’60s more than the current decade. Infused with a self-consciously amateurish spirit along with a dash of off-the-wall humor, the shows are sometimes fascinating, sometimes frustrating, but rarely boring. Each one-hour program consists of short works from independent filmmakers woven together around a theme — money, racism, alcohol, war — in a fast, magazine-style format well suited to home video.
The best of the 10 shows is the first volume, Money Money Money. Among its varied segments: a visit to the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, where bored employees watch millions of dollars go by; a portrait of an 82-year-old tax resister; and an interview with Ruth Handler, who invented the Barbie doll and who now heads a company that manufactures prosthetic breasts.
Race & Racism — Red, White and Black (vol. 6) is also compelling. Standout segments include a rousing speech by Malcolm X, an interview with director Matty Rich (Straight Out of Brooklyn), and a piece on Black Panther Dhoruba Bin Wahad, who was jailed for 19 years for attempted murder but whose conviction was recently overturned.
Less successful is The Anti-War Tapes (vol. 8), an example of the series’ tendency to preach to the converted. While there is some interesting material (purportedly uncensored footage from post-bombing Iraq taken by a former Today show contributor but rejected by NBC), it is full of ’60s-ish left-wing sound bites with little meaning (Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal saying the U.S. President is really a king or an emperor).
Other segments deal with TV, food, America, children’s video, life in the streets, and prisons. Each tape contains gems and duds, but even at its worst, The 90’s conveys an almost subversive sense of excitement. B+