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CRITIC'S NOTES

Fanciful 'Reality': When the Reel Thing Ain't That Real

November 01, 1987|SHEILA BENSON

Let Los Angeles out of your sight for mere weeks and suddenly every manifestation known to man and newspapers is visited upon it: earthquakes, forest fires, a visit from the Pope, an arts festival and a tidal wave of new movies.

(You may be pleased to hear that in Paris, Le Figaro had its priorities about Our Earthquake nicely in place. After sketching in the facts in a box on Page 8 for several slim paragraphs, the article concluded with the news that "King Juan Carlos, traveling in the area, was reported in no danger.")

Paris, in addition to being almost overwhelming for a short-time visitor, is also movie mecca. In its 300-odd cinemas, you can find virtually everything--from Max Ophuls' "Letter From an Unknown Woman" and John Cassavetes' "Husbands" to "Barfly," its newest rage. A budding Parisian cineaste doesn't actually need a film school or a university; he or she could get a pretty decent education at the commercial theaters, with good prints in their original languages and a cross-section of every director from Wyler to Capra to De Toth to Tarkovsky playing every night of the week.

Whether this will change for Parisians when the price of VCRs finally comes into the range of the affordable remains to be seen. Somehow, overhearing the discussions taking place in movie lines, you tend to doubt it--or perhaps that's wishful thinking. VCRs have already changed the face of London movie-going, where repertory cinemas are almost as endangered as they are becoming in Los Angeles or New York.

You come home with a bump, in any number of ways. In the perspective of Paris or London, it seems even more outrageous that, in spite of the efforts by UCLA's Film Archive, the Los Angeles County Museum's film department et al., to provide substantial, serious programming, this city still has no equivalent of the Pacific Film Archive or the Museum of Modern Art's film department, which give a ground-floor-up education continually, with the choices of films of any certain genre rotated regularly.

If our movie past is shrinking to the size of our VCR monitor, what we seem to have at almost surfeit level in Los Angeles now is the movie present --in every conceiveable form, available in every conceivable size theater, including one new 14-plex that has mushroomed into life since I left.

Trying for a quick round of catch-up, I was struck by the fanciful "reality" at the core of some of these recent releases--flossy characters or settings whose roots are really in the cloud cuckoo-land of the movies but which seem somehow to be mistaken for the real thing.

Take the Merchant/Ivory "Maurice," an adaptation of the homoerotic book that E. M. Forster ordered published only "after my death or England's." His came first but, had Forster lived, he might be a little taken aback at the reverential tone and decorous mounting his "revolutionary" story has been given. Part of "Maurice's" problem comes from the book itself--not even the most enraptured reader can suggest what this loving couple, the Cambridge student Maurice and the gamekeeper Alec, who gets such claustrophobia at the British Museum, are going to do out in the real world once their spiritual--and physical--troth is sealed.

Forster worried no little bit about that, too; he actually realized that his failure to provide this future was a signpost to the failure of the book itself. However, the film makers send Maurice and Alec off, or at least frame them lovingly, with so few worries about the pitfalls ahead, that we are encouraged not to trouble our pretty little heads about it either.

"Fatal Attraction," which deals with a life-threatening experiment in infidelity, is only shamming reality in order to magnify a message of terror about women--careerists make your life living hell; homebodies can kill. Glenn Close now occupies the front page of one of the juicier tabloids, billed as "America's Most Hated Woman," so it's plain that director Adrian Lyne, of "9 1/2 Weeks" and "Flashdance," has been canny indeed in the way he has presented Close's successful Manhattan publishing editor as a grasping, pathetic, homicidal nut case. That viewpoint seems to give audiences the excuse they need to lust for her blood so that when the film lurches into full-scale horror--with its final shocker-scene borrowed unapologetically from "Diabolique"--even the sparsely scattered audience I saw it with on Hollywood Boulevard seemed unified in their hatred for her.

What not too many writers I've read have mentioned is that Anne Archer's almost perpetually beaming homemaker (the woman with the true vocation, as the movie would have it) is equally preposterous, her vacuous virtue an absolute match for Close's psychotic vice. It leaves us virtually no one to root for, since Michael Douglas' (well-played) lawyer-husband, trapped in the seemingly unending after-effects of a one-weekend stand, manages to be wimpy, stuffy and ineffective all at once.

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