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CRITIC AT LARGE

Garci's Homage To The Movies

March 09, 1985|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

One of the five Academy Award nominations for best foreign-language film this year is the Spanish entry, "Double Feature" ("Sesion Continua") by Jose Luis Garci.

Garci thus joins a very select company--Bunuel, Fellini and Bergman are among his fellow members--with multiple nominations in the category. Two years ago, Garci won the foreign film Oscar with "To Begin Again," a literate and elegiac story of a Nobel laureate, terminally ill, on a last homecoming to see old football pals and an old love (played by Encarna Paso who is also in the new film).

Like Francois Truffaut's "Day for Night," "Double Feature" is a homage to the movies--not, like Truffaut's, to all movies, but to American movies. Also unlike Truffaut's, the center of the film is not the director but a pair of harassed screenwriters who would not seem out of place in Nate 'n' Al's delicatessen or the coffee shop at the Beverly-Wilshire, cursing the myopia and the perfidy of producers.

Garci, who has been in Los Angeles this week talking with distributors, calculates that he has seen something more than 5,000 American films in his 41 years.

Behind the titles of "Double Feature" are black-and-white portraits of the great American directors--Raoul Walsh, William Wyler, Wilder and Hitchcock and several others--and the film is dedicated "To Them." Many of the pictures are from the lovely book "American Directors" by Maureen Lambray.

"We used to say there were American films and foreign films," Garci said through an interpreter. "American films weren't foreign films--the American stars were our stars, our friends. If Spencer Tracy comes to your door and knocks, you would say, 'Hi, come in and have a cup of coffee,' like a friend."

Garci was born in Madrid and started his film going very young. At 3, maybe. A little later, his liberated father insisted that the lad was better off in the cinema than on the streets and urged him off on an endless, delicious succession of double features.

Garci rhapsodizes about American popular films of the '30s, '40s and '50s, stressing the popular as against what he calls the pretentious films shown by cinema clubs that formed in Madrid in the '60s. Today there are more '40s American films on Spanish television than there were in the theaters in the '40s, he says. But Garci is a purist who thinks that films are to be seen in cinemas, on the large screen.

"You watch at home and the telephone rings and interrupts the mood. It is unjust to the actors."

Garci has wide-ranging tastes. He admires Mervyn LeRoy's "Homecoming" (1948), with Clark Gable and Lana Turner, and he finds it baffling that LeRoy seems to be rated higher critically in Europe than at home.

Garci's personal pantheon begins with D. W. Griffith, of course ("for me, he invented the cinema, not the Lumiere brothers"), and embraces Chaplin, Lubitsch, Walsh ("at least one great film in every genre"), Michael Curtiz (Garci has seen "Casablanca" 40 times full-size and now has it on VCR for instant reassurance), Frank Capra and Richard Quine (for "Strangers When We Meet"), among many others.

He has special affection for Leo McCarey, in particular for his "Love Affair" (1939), with Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne, and the remake, which McCarey also directed, "An Affair to Remember" (1957) with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr.

"The great adventure of this century is the film," Garci says, "and the great adventurers are the film makers."

Surprisingly, Garci, who is brown-bearded and wiry and energetically enthusiastic, did not at first think to be a director. "The most to hope was that I could write for films," he says. After he had finished school and, still in his teens, was working in a bank, he did begin writing about film, in a period when young Spanish cineastes were generally devoted to the Cahier du Cinema philosophy of the film maker as auteur. But Garci was a maverick.

"My real adoration was for Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, Dalton Trumbo and Daniel Taradash. The real spine of the American films of the '30s and '40s were the writers. They were fantastic."

He decided to try his hand at scripts, and in two years sold none at all. He turned to science fiction and produced two collections of stories and a book about Ray Bradbury.

He tried scripts again, and sold 20 before it struck him that he might have a go at directing one of his stories himself.

Garci made four short films, one of them a homage to Monroe called "My Marilyn." Finally in 1977 he made the first of his now seven features, "F for the Course."

Having written criticism and edited two film magazines, Garci is now written about by critics who, he says, call him an American director who happens to be Spanish. It seems a fair enough call. "Double Feature," like Woody Allen's new "Purple Rose of Cairo," sees movies as havens from the dangerous realities of daily living--havens not only for the paying customers but also for those, like Garci's harried writers (Adolfo Masillach and Jesus Puente), who invent the magic.

His writers try to infuse their make-believe stories with reality, even as they try to build some make-believe into real lives touched with melancholy. The gentle melancholy is the reminder that Garci is indubitably Spanish.

What he, and his creations, demonstrate is that the outreach of American movies is profound as well as profitable; or more simply, that the life of the movies is universal.

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