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Three new "art films" in town expand the phrase, ranging from a stiff and traditional documentary to a wild attempt to commercialize the teachings of Buddha to a free-flowing, utterly original musical biography that works as a sort of upscale, highbrow version of MTV.

- "THIRTY TWO SHORT FILMS ABOUT GLENN GOULD" is the latter, with the title referring to the film's structure, 32 short vignettes that probe the life of the title character, eccentric Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, who died at age 50 some 12 years ago.The surprise here is that the movie proves to be less about Gould the man than his passion for his art, though some of his peculiarities are certainly put on display.

A man of contradictions, Gould was an accomplished and respected interpreter of Bach, who also apparently enjoyed listening to Petula Clark (her hit song "Downtown" is used here). But Gould is perhaps most famous for abandoning live performances in favor of working doggedly in the studio on his meticulous recordings, a decision that would seem to fly in the face of what most musicians express about keeping music fresh and alive.

The number of blackout sequences used here is not random but is based on Gould's 1982 recording of Bach's "Goldberg Variations," a suite of 32 short piano pieces for which he won two posthumous Grammys. And it is fitting that his mesmerizing music laces nearly every one of the film bits here, and dominates a number of them.

In fact, "Thirty Two Short Films" is in truth more about the music than the man, reaching some sort of zenith when segments focus on his distinctive style, with fascinating visuals devoted to the inner workings of a piano or the sound-track itself.

But the biographical bits are also fun, ranging from stark interviews with those who knew him to comic scenes that examine his ec-cen-tric-i-ties.

As the adult Gould, Colm Feore is assured, dignified and a convincing pianist, but the film belongs to director Francois Girard who makes what could be a very difficult film quite accessible, if somewhat uneven. Generally, it is quite entertaining and thoughtful.

- "LITTLE BUDDHA," on the other hand, wants desperately to be commercially accessible, as it intertwines the ancient tale of Buddha with a modern-day story about a young Seattle boy who is thought by Buddhist monks to be the reincarnation of one of their teachers.

An ambitious, flamboyant film, fraught with built-in problems, "Little Buddha" is a literal interpretation of both stories by director Bernardo Bertolucci ("The Last Emperor").

A Buddhist monk from Tibet travels to Seattle and after some gentle and sincere prodding, manages to convince the boy's parents to allow the lad to be considered as a "candidate." In other words, whether he is actually the reincarnated teacher has to be determined by spiritual means. Later, a couple of other "candidates" are discovered in Nepal and ultimately all three get together as they are "examined."

Meanwhile, the story of Buddha comes into play as the boy begins reading a book about Buddha's life, which is shown in a sort of flashback-fantasy motif, with special effects and razzle-dazzle interpretations, as when a giant cobra shields young Buddha from the rain as he meditates, and later, when he must confront his inner self.

Cynics may turn away, but I found the ideas and their execution quite fascinating. Until the effect was undermined by an offbeat bit of casting.

Despite the authentic ethnicity of most of the actors here, Bertolucci has, for some inexplicable reason, chosen to cast as Buddha none other than "Bill & Ted's" Keanu Reeves, who is stiff, aloof and affects a halting, Peter Sellers-style East Indian accent. It's a misguided choice and gives what is already a kind of new age concept an even more contemporary twist.

Perhaps Bertolucci should have listened to the advice of one of the monks in his story: "If you tighten the string too much, it will slip. If you leave it too slack, it won't play."

Still, "Little Buddha" is definitely worth a look.

It is rated PG for some fleeting male nudity.

- "THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ALLEN GINSBERG" is a straightforward, talking-heads documentary about Ginsberg, the beat poet who made a name for himself in the '50s with "Howl," his call-to-arms for nonconformity, which Ginsberg and his contemporaries Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs lived during the decade before it became an anthem for the nation's youth.

For those still fascinated by Ginsberg, this would seem to be the perfect film, which chronicles his life decade by decade. But there is nothing that is particularly new or insightful here, as the film seems quite content to settle for nostalgic reminiscences, with interviews of Ginsberg himself, recitations of his poetry and comments by others, such as Burroughs, who seems rather low-key and uninspired.

"The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg" is not rated but would probably get an R for language.