CINEMA / Hunting the killer, with no arrest in the final reel

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HOLLYWOOD Aids films are like London buses: nothing for years, and then two together, cautiously nosing their way into view. After Philadelphia, we now have Roger Spottiswoode's And the Band Played On (15), a dramatisation of Randy Shilts's authoritative history of Aids. While Philadelphia masked its gay subject matter with a courtroom drama, And the Band Played On poses as a detective thriller. Epidemiologist Dr Don Francis (Matthew Modine) and a team of scientists follow leads down city streets, before returning to base at the Center for Disease Research in Atlanta, to piece together the clues and shoot the breeze by the coffee machine like cops from Hill Street Blues. Except the killer they're stalking is a virus.

Philadelphia tackled the subject (when not evading it) through a single case. Spottiswoode takes the opposite approach, providing a panorama. We're given a fevered world tour: from West Africa, where Ebola Virus Disease in 1976 was a grim portent of the devastation to come; to Copenhagen, and the first case of the mystery new disease; to the San Francisco bath houses, off whose liberality the virus fed; to Paris, where at the Pasteur Institute scientists undertook a parallel, sometimes rivalrous, quest to identify the disease. As the location and date change, typewriter subtitles tap the new information on to the screen, and with it an inexorably rising tally of Aids cases and deaths.

In such a runaround there's a danger of superficiality. It's been taken as an insult to gays that their lives are so fleetingly shown. And plots are swapped with bath-house abandon - we meet almost as many characters as 'Patient Zero', the air steward alleged to have brought the disease to America, had partners in a year (250). But a deft stroke can bring

a character to life: Richard Gere has a wrenching walk-on as a choreographer, facing the disease with a baffled charm that can't quite conceal his terror. A man at a public meeting about the proposed closure of the bath houses explains how he came to San Francisco to be seen as normal: 'I'd rather die as a human being than continue living as a freak.' It's his only speech, but it resonates through the film. There's often more power in these glimpses than in the carefully constructed inoffensiveness of Tom Hanks's gay Aids sufferer in Philadelphia.

At times, the film gets drowned out by the stamping of celebrity seals of approval. Phil Collins, as a venal bath- house owner, is as unconvincing as his moustache and safari shirt. Steve Martin, as the bereaved brother of a rich closet gay, has the right upper-class stiffness, but the wrong superstar charm. But though Ian McKellen, as a gay-community leader, has a wobbly American accent, the awkwardness fits the underwritten role, a harried voice of homosexual monogamy.

There are other misjudgements. The African prologue gives the disease a primordial mysticism and puts a racist slant on its origins. Alan Alda, as the American professor who swipes the plaudits for discovering the disease, does a fine comic turn, with perfectly timed throwaway cynicism, but it's in the wrong film: it feels like offcuts from his narcissistic director in Crimes and Misdemeanors. The role is a set-up too: he's first seen scuttering in whites around a tennis court; and in his private moments, the lighting darkens. Whatever the facts, the film's prosecution of his chicanery seems a little unworthy of it. Modine's upstanding medic, the focal point of the film's collage of characters, is a good foil to this villain. He makes rectitude seem not too dull, carefully grading the stages in which responsibility rises to rage.

With its vast cast and hospital interiors, it's easy to imagine the film slipping into visual boredom or confusion, but Spottiswoode and his British cameraman, Paul Elliott, dramatise the long passages of talk, whip-panning between speakers, or circling them, distinguishing locations through lighting. If it's grey skies and fluorescent interiors it must be Paris and the Pasteur Institute.

Such nuances help make political points, Paris's plushness shaming the rickety Atlanta lab, which looks as if it belongs to a run-down prep school. The film casts an accusatory glare at the under-funders, especially Ronald Reagan, who didn't say the word Aids in public until 25,000 Americans had died. When Spottiswoode cuts to archive footage of Reagan's second election victory, the standard note at the top of the screen, 'Live', assumes a mournful irony.

From a sober semi-documentary about Aids to a flighty French feature in which two virtual strangers have a lot of unprotected sex. The Diary of Lady M (18) lives down to its tacky title. A Parisian nightclub singer (Miriam Mezieres), part of a trio paid to wiggle their derrieres at the audience, hooks up on the way home one evening with a Spanish painter, Diego (Juanjo Puigcorbe). So begins a torrid series of sexual encounters, from Barcelona to Paris. The film is a good deal more frank than so-called shockers like 91 2 Weeks. It might even have been erotic were it not for an explicitness that leaves no room for imagination and a rapturous voice-over from Mezieres which piles metaphor upon simile ('A river flows into the sea, like a man dies in a woman'), each one out-perfuming the last. 'He keeps me attached to him, hanging on the edge of the abyss,' she gasps, and all too graphically we see it: bollocks on the soundtrack and bollocks on the screen.

What is the semi-eminent Swiss director Alain Tanner, student of the New Wave, colleague of John Berger, up to here? The best you can say is that it's a woefully misjudged poem of pantheistic eroticism, a hymn to nature and sex. It would be nice to blame the translation, and the sub-titles are a disgrace ('With tears of love running down her extatic face'). But it's tosh in French too: 'Loin, encore plus loin'. When Diego's wife (Felicite Wouassi) turns up, there's some sharp character observation, including a superb scene in which the two women chat over a game of pinball. But soon Tanner's talent goes back to bed, and we're subjected to a round of threesomes. Strictly for the dirty-mac brigade.

'Lights. Camera. Action.' But first of all, light. The men who manipulate it, the great movie photographers, are celebrated in Visions of Light - The Art of Cinematography (PG), a feature-length documentary. The film is a cornucopia of clips: 125 of them, from Birth of a Nation (1915) to GoodFellas (1990), including the Jean Harlow scorcher, Red Dust (1932, pictured right). They're discussed by top cameramen, who often shed as much illumination in person as they do on set. It's rather superficial (no proper discussion of how well photography represents reality), and incomplete (nothing on the western), and watching all those gorgeous shots is like eating a box of chocolates at one go. But it helps you understand why the pictures are often better than the movies.

'Visions of Light' season: Everyman, 071- 435 1525, from Friday, then touring the country with a season of related films. Other cinema details: Review, page 74.