So narrowly white-male is our perception of the past that it is tempting to construct a Television Documentary Subject Generator, one of those comic charts that would let a producer choose randomly from Column A and Column B. ''Our documentary will explore the long-overlooked role of blacks/Asian-Americans/southpaws/vegetarians in Vietnam/early baseball/medicine/the Industrial Revolution. . . .''
That such programs have become somewhat formulaic is a good thing; slowly, our view of who shaped today's world is being made more inclusive. But with each revisionist nudge the bar gets higher: the more sophisticated our view of the past becomes, the more we demand from the revisionists.
So ''Reel Models: The First Women of Film,'' tonight's historical corrective on AMC, has the burden of doing more than simply telling us that women have been overlooked in the history of cinema. Unfortunately the program seems content merely to identify four female pioneers and gush about them.
Barbra Streisand, executive producer of ''Reel Models'' with Cis Corman, should know that achievement speaks for itself, but in her earnest introduction she seems a little too eager to sell us on the whole idea. And that tone lingers over the program as Shirley MacLaine, Susan Sarandon, Hilary Swank and Minnie Driver narrate segments on the four pioneers.
First we hear about Alice Guy, an early director and producer who made hundreds of short films in France and the United States beginning in 1896. There is plenty to credit her for: realizing very early the possibilities of close-ups and fade-outs; even hand-tinting films long before color. Some of these things have been erroneously credited to men who came later. But here as elsewhere in this program there is a tendency to go overboard. Ms. MacLaine, for instance, implies that Guy alone came up with the concept of using film to tell a story rather than simply to record real life; surely this was so obvious a step that it occurred spontaneously to many who were there at cinema's creation.
Ms. Sarandon tells of Lois Weber, who by 1916 was a top director at Universal, making daring films on social themes like birth control and child labor. She was a bit too committed to these subjects, as it turned out; in the 1920's public taste took a mindless turn and her films ceased to draw crowds.
Ms. Swank introduces Frances Marion, a screenwriter who, we're told in one of the program's funnier factoids, got her start writing lines for extras to mouth in silent films in case anyone in the audience could read lips. Here, though, the program veers from the theme of women who did not get their due. Marion won Oscars in 1930 and 1931 and, as the program acknowledges, was the highest-paid writer in Hollywood for years. There is a difference between being disenfranchised and simply fading into history.
Last, courtesy of Ms. Driver, comes Dorothy Arzner, a director who gave Katharine Hepburn and other future legends their first starring roles. She was, the show says, the only female director who managed to find a place in Hollywood's studio system.
Certainly ''Reel Models'' leaves no doubt that these four women made major contributions (and some of their films will be shown on AMC after the program). But it gives little sense of them as people.
Was Weber a domineering type of director or the kind who worked collaboratively with her actors? Was Marion a brooding writer or a zany, fun-loving one? The few times the program does provide personal glimpses it gets timid. After hearing Guy and Weber portrayed as strong, accomplished women, we are told that they both basically fell apart when their husbands left them; the incongruity is left unexplored.
In short, the program commits what is surely a cardinal sin in Ms. Streisand's book: it puts the four women on pedestals. They don't have any flaws; no one is that wonderful.
The First Women of Film
AMC, tonight at 8
Barbra Streisand and Cis Corman, executive producers; directed and produced by Susan and Christopher Koch. For American Movie Classics: Marc Juris and Jessica Falcon, executive producers.