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MOVIE REVIEWS : 'Split': A Political-Religious Parable

August 30, 1991|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Chris Shaw's dazzling "Split" (at the AFI USA Independent Showcase at Laemmle's Monica 4-Plex) envisions a near-future in which humanoids from another dimension control our every act and thought while letting us think we possess free will. Only one man, Starker (Timothy Dwight), for whom no official records exist, eludes that other dimension's leader, the Director (Shaw) and his Agency because he is among the homeless. Starker has in his possession a round disc (which looks like a woman's compact) that he says contains "the gateway to a greater humanity."

As a timeless political-religious parable, "Split" invites many interpretations in its celebration of the power of ideas and the notion of freedom. (The film's title refers to the bifurcation theory of mathematics, which apparently means that events can go either of two unpredictable ways; Shaw is a mathematician by profession, with four textbooks to his credit.)

"Split" suggests that all its takes is for one man to believe in a dream for it to accrue power, for that individual to collect a following in making it come true. Starker could symbolize Boris Yeltsin--or Jesus. Shaw, however, provocatively asserts that in the modern world Christ as well as Marx have been co-opted. He would also have us consider, as Lina Wertmuller did in "Seven Beauties," that chaos nurtures the possibility of freedom.

In any event, Starker is a man on the run, adopting one disguise from another in trying to elude (through the streets of San Francisco) the Director and his minions. Shaw makes brilliant use of his brother Robert's stunning command of computer graphics, not only to track Starker's movements but also to express what's going on in both Starker's and the Director's heads.

No doubt about it, both the Santa Cruz-based Shaws display prodigious imagination in achieving maximum effects from minimal means. So impressive is their achievement one could wish that they dared to bring greater clarity and specificity to their premise. "Split" is sufficiently original to sustain a little more definite information, especially about the Director and his significance. After all, Don Siegel's classic "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," which this film in some ways recalls, gains rather than loses impact by being accessible to audiences.

Even so, "Split" (Times-rated Mature for complex style and themes) is a notable achievement. Chris Shaw becomes a silvery, metallic superman--he has a bodybuilder's physique--as his "human" outer shell disintegrates while Starker's power grows. Shaw has a dry wit both as an actor and as a writer-director. (He also photographed and edited his film--and painted the surreal paintings on display in an art-gallery sequence.) Dwight is a charismatic presence who adopts an array of accents with ease. Joan Bechtel is a standout as a good-hearted, down-to-earth waitress who gives Starker shelter, as is John Flynn as a whacked-out artist.

We are definitely going to hear again from these people and others involved in this singularly venturesome film.

'Split'

Timothy Dwight: Starker

Joan Bechtel: The waitress

John Flynn: The artist

Chris Shaw: The Director

An AIP release of a Starker Films production. Writer-director-cinematographer-editor-production designer Chris Shaw. Producer Barbara Horscraft. Music Chris Shaw, Robert Shaw, Ugi Tojo. Sound Chris Shaw, Robert Galpren. Computer effects Robert Shaw, Peter Broadwell. Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes.

Times-rated Mature (extremely complex style and themes).

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