The most timely movies in town are playing free at the Pratt on Saturday.

At 10:15 a.m. the Film Talk viewing and discussion group will be showing Barbara Kopple's 1990 Oscar-winning documentary, "American Dream." Michael Moore, to his credit, awoke Americans to the provocation and entertainment possible in "first-person" documentaries. But Kopple practices a purer, more complex and ultimately more involving art. (Kopple is pictured above with Woody Allen, the subject of her "Wild Man Blues.")


In "American Dream," she brings a novelistic power to a factual account of a meat cutters’ strike in Austin, Minnesota. When the Hormel company proposed a pay cut for its labor force in the mid-eighties, Local P-9 of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union refused to give in.

Defying their national leadership’s policy of accepting concessions, the Austin meat cutters enlisted the freelance labor strategist Ray Rogers. He orchestrated media events to win free publicity, betting that a public outcry would embarrass Hormel as well as the businesses connected to it. Rogers comes off as a carpetbagger who nonetheless inspires the Local.

Kopple draws multidimensional portraits of labor leaders and representative workers (from diehards to scabs), and also fills you in on the how-tos of negotiating. In an age when, in too many documentaries, personal peregrinations and rootless "atmosphere" often frustrate a viewer's need to know, Kopple reminds us that documentaries can be mind-openers.

After a break, moviegoers would be wise to return at 2 p.m. for Akira Kurosawa's 1949 urban melodrama "Stray Dog," which sizzles in every sense of the word. Walter Hill borrowed part of the plot of "48 HRS." from "Stray Dog," in which Toshiro Mifune plays a green cop scouring a sweltering Tokyo for his stolen gun.

When I plugged "Stray Dog," for an AFI screening last weekend, one reader posted this: "Hopefully the weather will cool off by [July 10], as Stray Dog gives as great a feeling of how hot it can be in a city as any film I know. It is also almost in the style of the American semi-documentary cop films (like 'Naked City') of the same period, with the pairing of an old cop and young cop. I think that this was the 2nd pairing of the great Takashi Shimura ('Ikiru,' 'Seven Samurai,' etc.) with the better known Toshiro Mifune, their first being the also very good 'Drunken Angel.' "

Ditto on all that -- but then again, if the weather doesn't cool off, the impact of "Stray Dog" will  be even more immediate.

Have you seen Kopple's other movies, such as "Fallen Champ" and "Harlan County, USA?" And what are your favorite Kurosawas? "Seven Samurai?" "Rashomon?"