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HOLLYWOOD SIGNS

Film For Our Mid-lives

November 23, 1986|MICHAEL WILMINGTON

Today I turn 40. And I'm a little puzzled at how I'm reacting to it. Or, actually, how I'm not reacting to it.

I haven't been breaking out into cold nocturnal sweats. Or counting the hours before 30-hood's paradise slithers off. Or scouring the tabloids for vitamin ads to restore dying potency.

I'm not scuffling through dead leaves under a gray sky murmuring, "Of all the words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: 'It might have been."

(This is California. Can't find any dead leaves to scuffle through.)

Somehow, I just can't muster up the feeling that the big clock is ticking down to doom and senility.

Here's the rub. Half the movies I see seem to scream that I'm not just over the hill but a good 20 years past it. Sometimes--at their worst, most frantic pitch--it appears we've all gotten stuck in some flashback to the 18th Century, when the life expectancy was about 36.

So, being a self-questioning kind of guy, I wonder: Am I out of touch? Has youth's hard and gemlike flame died forever? Am I a grouch, a sourpuss, a Scrooge?

Perhaps--which is why two recent movies touching these doubts or fears affected me more than a little. One is "The Decline of the American Empire," a Canadian film playing at the Beverly Center Cineplex. The other is "Farewell, Illusions," a Norwegian film playing at the Fox International.

Both these movies focus on refugees from the Baby Boom generation faced with the onslaught of middle age. They're funny, lively, sexy films, full of vigor, charm and intensity. But each goes dark at the end. ("Decline of the American Empire," written and directed by Denys Arcand, is the more muted and modulated; it goes delicately somber. But "Farewell, Illusions"--written and directed by the team of Svend Wam and Petter Vennerod--takes us almost down into hell's maws: into pain, death, and dissolution.)

Both films deal, very specifically, with the malaise that the film makers see in our current era, the '80s--and what it means to those people whose flush of youth and enthusiasm came in an earlier time: the much-romanticized, much-criticized, much-misunderstood '60s.

The main characters are roughly in my new age category. The two protagonists of "Farewell, Illusions" are a psychiatrist and a theater director in their early 40s, ex-radical activists of the '60s. The group in "Decline of the American Empire" includes academics, a teacher's wife and some younger lovers and students, all connected to a Montreal university history department. This latter group is more genteel. Rather than marching to the barricades--like stage director Eigil and psychiatrist Atle of "Farewell, Illusions"--they may have simply signed petitions.

The old comrades of "Farewell, Illusions" tend to lacerate and flay themselves over their lost illusions. They're shocked at what's happened to their children: sons sunk into drugs, punkhood or seeming nihilism and one daughter with a business-minded boyfriend. (All three are scornful of their parent's politics--from different angles.) The two men are now--as they undoubtedly were in the '60s--disorderly, spontaneous, rebellious, quick to anger, quick to joy or sorrow. But they're more conscious of the strictures that confine them, the games they must play, increasingly, to survive. (This last rang a few bells that resonated like J. Arthur Rank's gong.)

In contrast, Arcand's academics, are--at least, at the beginning--more seemingly well-adjusted. They do not take furious umbrage at life, as Wam's and Vennerod's buddies do. Their conversation is mostly about sex. They seem capable of observing everything--even sadomasochism, infidelity and AIDS--with a certain suave and articulate irony. They smile constantly--radiant and self-satisfied smiles--while the faces of the Norwegians have a grimmer, more skeptical, wary bitterness. The Montreal survivors are cultivated writers and pedagogues: analysts rather than activists, spectators at history's games. Only gradually do the flaws in their seemingly well-balanced little community begin to bubble and erupt. And, only at the end, do we sense how fragile their world is and how much they need each other.

"Farewell, Illusions" is a bit more melodramatic. (It's done in a heightened, nightmarish style that tends to inflate every emotion, while "Decline" is a precisely etched comedy of manners whose very clockwork intricacy makes you chuckle.) But all these characters affected me in a way that the bunch in the similarly pitched '60s requiem "The Big Chill" really didn't. In "Chill," the focus, subtly, seems to be on success: on the fact that most of the survivors had won it, but that one--the suicide victim, Alex--hadn't. Gradually, the survivors decide that guilt (or "guilt trips") are unnecessary: that their success is fine, that, after all these years, they still have each other, and that, therefore, their youth and ideals have not perished.

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