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Scarsdale can be as exotic as any place. Avant-garde films and documentaries make their annual bid. ALTERNATIVES TO THE MOVIES AT THE MALL

Two coming film events point up the alternatives available to moviegoers who'd like a change from standard Hollywood and ``art film'' fare. They also point up new developments in two important branches of world cinema: documentary and experimental movies. The annual Margaret Mead Film Festival, now in its 12th year, opens Monday at the American Museum of Natural History here, with an emphasis on ``visual anthropology'' and other documentary forms. On the same day, the Parabola Arts Foundation will unveil its third annual selection of ``Current Avant-Garde Films'' at the Collective for Living Cinema.

In addition to their museum showings, the films in the Mead festival will be distributed internationally by the American Federation of Arts in its ``Art and Artisans'' program; and the Parabola movies will be circulated by the Film Distribution Project.

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When one thinks of Margaret Mead and the anthropological issues she devoted her career to, far-flung places and exotic cultures come to mind. To its credit, however, the Mead filmfest usually focuses on the close-to-home as well as the faraway. This year's edition is no exception.

One grimly fascinating item on the program, for example, has roots in Scarsdale, N.Y., with its tree-lined streets and stately homes. The film is called ``Inheritance,'' and its subject is a young man who grew up there. He was surrounded by amenities, but there were no parents to offer love and guidance, because his mother and father lived in nearby New York City, where their social and business lives were centered.

The movie traces the biography of this psychologically deprived millionaire, from his attempt at a political career to his early death at a murderer's hands. Directed by Bill Donovan, it includes harrowingly real video footage of doped-up parties and Hitlerian political harangues, as well as interviews and other material. The result is a disturbing but indelible document - as bizarre and jolting as any ethnological report from an unfamiliar corner of the world, yet as near and recognizable as the nasty underside of American society itself.

Not that the Mead festival specializes in negative fare. Also included is the upbeat ``Young at Heart,'' directed by Sue Marx and Pamela Conn, about the love affair of two artists who met and married when in their 80s. Just as celebratory is ``No Applause, Just Throw Money,'' a lively (if superficial) look at New York sidewalk performers, directed by Karen Goodman.

True to Mead's own spirit, the filmfest also looks at places and cultures far from American shores. One inventive item is ``Cannibal Tours,'' a documentary by Dennis O'Rourke that looks at citizens of Papua New Guinea - and at Western tourists who visit this country to patronize, exploit, and gawk at it.

``There is nothing so strange, in a strange land, as the stranger who comes to visit it,'' is the epigraph that begins this intelligent and ironic film, in which natives generally achieve a more favorable image than tourists simply because they have a sense of place and hence a natural dignity. Still, it's sometimes hard to say which group has the filmmaker's sympathy - as at the beginning, when a native shows off a tribal execution site while an eager tourist gapes and asks insensitive questions. ``Cannibal Tours'' is a provocative work that takes ethnological film into fresh and important terrain.

The festival also features ``Talking to the Enemy,'' by Mira Hamermesh, about the attempt of an Israeli and a Palestinian to strike up a productive dialogue with each other. More earnest than successful, it raises important issues without revealing a great deal about them.

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Another portion of the festival includes ``Citizen 2000: Khalid Goes to Kenya,'' by Jill Fullerton-Smith, a poignant look at a little boy's first journey from England, where he lives, to East Africa, where his parents have their roots. ``Foster Child,'' by Gil Cardinal, chronicles the filmmaker's own search for his biological mother in Canada's poverty-racked Indian community.

Other offerings include ``The Men of Kihnu Island,'' by the gifted Mark Soosaar, about an Estonian island plagued by a harsh climate and a bad alcoholism problem; ``God's Country,'' by Louis Malle, in which the great French director visits a rural Minnesota community; ``Portrait of Imogen,'' filmmaker Meg Partridge's resonant study of photographer Imogen Cunningham; and Mark Roberts's hilarious ``Cane Toads: An Unnatural History,'' an exhilarating look at Australia's most pervasive (and controversial!) amphibian inhabitants. (After the Mead festival, ``Cane Toads'' will go into theatrical release.)

Turning from documentary to experimental films, Parabola's new selection of avant-garde movies offers a good way to sample the latest trends in the most adventurous branch of independent cinema. What struck me most strongly, when I previewed all 14 films, was what a gloomy lot they were.

Maybe non-narrative filmmakers are reacting to recent statements by a couple of respected critics that the avant-garde movement is all but dead where movies are concerned. This series proves that statement wrong: All the films in it are sincerely and capably crafted. But their mood is generally dark. Several of them, for instance, set their action in wartime Germany or divided Berlin, using these locations as conscious metaphors for contemporary alienation and malaise. The best is Ernie Gehr's masterly ``Signal - Germany on the Air,'' an understated essay on the dangerous human penchant for mental and physical regimentation.

A more extravagant kind of gloom shows up in ``Mayhem,'' by Abigail Child, an explosive mixture of Hollywood imagery and personal psychodrama; and in Peggy Ahwesh's super-8 ``Ode to the New Prehistory,'' an end-of-the-world tragi-comedy that's as unpredictable as it is apocalyptic.

Extra credit for ambition goes to Mark Daniel for his prizewinning ``The Influence of Strangers (genealogy)'' and to Jack Walsh for his confessional ``Present Tense.'' Other items on the program were generally unmemorable, but are still worth checking out by moviegoers looking for early clues to the newest cinematic directions.

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