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Commentary

Fade to Pitch-Black : The real evil in film's current obsession with bleak subject matter lies in the blocking out of more positive work.

November 22, 1998|KENNETH TURAN | Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

On a July day in 1987, a quirk of fate gave me the last full-scale interview with John Huston. Six weeks before he died, the director was seated in a garden in Malibu, smartly dressed in a black turtleneck, blue windbreaker, pressed white pants, white socks and penny loafers, receiving oxygen from a nearby tank through a clear plastic tube.

The talk turned to Huston's interest in the far corners of human behavior, to the way he relished exploring troubling material. "The dark side is very bright indeed," he said, offering a rare smile in the late afternoon sun. "The dark is gleaming, like a fire opal or a black pearl."

The dark that gleamed brightly to a dying Huston more than a decade ago shines like a bank of Klieg lights today. What the French call epate les bourgeoisie, the eagerness to startle the middle classes, has always been an aim of artists, but we are now overwhelmed by a creative culture that is passionate about going to extremes to the exclusion of everything else.

Film is where this darkness is most pervasive, and where it threatens to take over the intellectual soul of an entire medium. It is also in film, as it turns out, that this trend is most dangerous. Not, as might be expected, for what it puts on the screen but for what it blocks from view.

But this is not to say that other arts and other aspects of our culture are immune from the dark glow of this kind of material. In fact, it's just the opposite. The determination to create in areas where no one has ventured before has been so visible for so long that picking examples can be done pretty much at random:

* artist Andres Serrano's crucifix submerged in urine, which, famously, got the NEA in trouble;

* the zeal for new and unusual "extreme sports" among the young and fit;

* the New York Times' recent celebration of Sandra Bernhard's scathing one-woman show for its ability to turn "wickedness into a grotesque thrill, a joyful release";

* the Sundance Channel's enthusiasm for celebrating Thanksgiving with "Stuffed With Dysfunction," a selection of films cheerfully described as "a cornucopia of family neuroses."

A recent visit to a photography bookstore illustrated the trend's growing influence: Prominently displayed was an entire section devoted to images that would have been unthinkable a few decades back. Possibly inspired by fine-art photographer Joel-Peter Witkin's mixture of corpses and the grotesque, there were several volumes of daunting medical photographs as well as books with titles like "Death Scenes: A Homicide Detective's Scrapbook" and "Murder in Rotterdam: Diverse Pictures"--expensive books in handsome jackets that seemed poised to haunt the nightmares of the unwary.

It's in film, however, that this trend is most noticeable, most celebrated and most pernicious. The bleak, sour and critically acclaimed "Your Friends & Neighbors" comes complete with a long and detailed monologue that lovingly recounted the remembered joys of same-sex rape. The upcoming "Very Bad Things" is proud as can be of its attempts to make a comedy out of grotesque murder and dismemberment. A friend on a film festival selection committee reports that the gleeful and nihilistic mixture of bloody violence and comedy symbolized by Quentin Tarantino's ascent has made its mark on wannabes in national cinemas around the world.

In short, the closer anything once was to a taboo, the more ardently current filmmakers embrace it. How else to explain the simultaneous appearance in theaters of three films dealing with the once-unspoken subject of pedophilia? Adrian Lyne's "Lolita," Todd Solondz's "Happiness" and the excellent Danish film "The Celebration" all go brashly where Louis B. Mayer couldn't even imagine setting foot.

Not that these films were universally welcomed. "Lolita's" difficulties finding an American distributor were assiduously publicized. While the film's excessive cost and lack of commercial potential were major factors in that reluctance, a queasiness about the subject matter doubtless played a part.

With "Happiness," the resistance was even greater. Speaking at Cannes, director Solondz recalled a furious participant at a test screening who "swore he would personally see to it that this film never saw the light of day." And the New York Times reported that Ron Meyer, president and chief operating officer of Universal (which forced its subsidiary October Films to halt plans to distribute "Happiness") told friends, "I don't want that to be part of this company . . . as long as I have the job and can throw my body in front of something, I will."

Hip New York audiences, however, did not agree with Universal, buying so many tickets on the film's opening day that Variety wrote a story about the unexpected size of the success, suitably headlined " 'Happiness' at B.O.: Gotham venues embrace controversial pic."

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