FILM / A cloudburst and a heatwave
Friday 28 August 1992
Body Heat (18). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Lawrence Kasdan (US)
British Film Institute. . . . . . . . .New Directors (no cert) Various (UK)
The Cutting Edge (PG). . . . . . . . . .Paul Michael Glaser (US)
NOT MANY films these days go around shouting 'Hooray for Hollywood'. The American cinema's vulgarity has also proved to be its vitality, its means of survival, but its practitioners rarely grasp that nettle. Films-about-film-making, like S O B, Postcards from the Edge, The Big Picture or Sweet Liberty, reflect with varying degrees of indulgence on the crassness and decadence of the industry, and even if some, like The Player, concede a sneaking fondness for it all the same, they whisper 'Hooray for Hollywood' in a slightly grumpy and grudging manner.
That's one reason why Singin' in the Rain, which celebrates its fortieth birthday this week, is exhilarating. Set in the watershed years of the late Twenties, it shows how various Hollywood players adjust to the new order - the film-within-the-film is a silent swashbuckler upon which are hastily grafted some song 'n' dance numbers as a concession to the coming of sound. No one harbours any delusions about the artistic integrity of The Dancing Cavalier. But no one despises it either: in this Hollywood, the people behind the dream machine delight in their craft and take it with the utmost seriousness.
Compare and contrast the opening sequences of The Player and Singin' in the Rain, the one prowling around studio offices chronicling the flat, businesslike origins of America's popular fantasies, the other viewing the movies at the point of consumption, at a star-studded premiere. The fans mill and scream, the flash-bulbs pop; the gossip columnists gush; it is all very frivolous, but nothing is held up to ridicule. And the movie folk - Gene Kelly's matinee idol, Debbie Reynolds' chorine, Donald O'Connor's clowning musician, even the gruff-but- kindly studio mogul - are propelled by love, not concupiscence; one of the big numbers, 'Gotta Dance', sums up that inner compulsion. It is all filtered through nostalgia, since Singin' in the Rain was made in 1952; like the - much more cynical - Sunset Boulevard (1950), it's an evocation of a Golden Age, written as the advent of television was about to herald Hollywood's decline into self- doubt, and perhaps self-loathing.
In an outstandingly poor summer for new films, the only other piece worth seeing this week is another revival, Lawrence Kasdan's Body Heat (1981), a perfectly executed film noir pastiche. It's set in the present, an oppressively hot Florida summer, but fortunately nobody seems to have heard of air-conditioning and the omnipresent fans and venetian blinds give the movie a potent period feel. William Hurt, sporting an odd little moustache, plays a horny small-town attorney who falls under the thrall of Kathleen Turner's gold-digger - 'You're not too smart, are you?' she purrs. 'I like that in a man.' The dialogue crackles (Kasdan was a former ace screenwriter); the story is intricately and satisfying plotted, although there's a jolting gear change at the end when the Hurt character, not previously noted for his acumen, suddenly and rather improbably delivers a speech unravelling the mysteries.
The film is playing as part of retrospective devoted to Hurt, an uncommonly subtle and detailed actor, but hardly an exciting one. I enjoyed Turner much more, and her character: how nice to see an elegant, restrained femme fatale in place of the crazed psychos who pass for villainesses in more recent fare such as Fatal Attraction, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, Basic Instinct and Single White Female. Turner's subsequent career shows how few good roles are now available for smart, bad-ass women - apart from her work with Michael Douglas, it's thin stuff and her best fatale performance since has been as the voice of Jessica Rabbit.
Now in its fifth year, The British Film Institute's New Directors programme is meant to be a crucible of new talent and, although none of its alumni has yet emerged as a really top-flight director, it has always yielded an interesting haul. So it's disappointing to report that this package is a truly feeble batch. Most of the six films have coped with budgetary restraints - a ceiling of about pounds 27,000 - by keeping their focus small; not bad in itself, but there's a definite tendency towards introspective, indeed navel-gazing, single-character pieces, in which aimless dream and fantasy sequences (Rosebud, Mad Bad Mortal Beings, Shakti) stand in for narrative energy and substance.
Added to this is the heavy hand of positive discrimination - the programme is dominated by Asian, black, gay and lesbian people, brooding over their race or sexuality. But the fact is, as some American gay film-makers are discovering, that political correctness is often plain boring; these scenarios seem to have been chosen more for their minority credentials than their intrinsic interest, let alone entertainment value.
In Rosebud, one of the thinnest, a female painter observes the lesbian couple living next door, then gets herself a girlfriend at a local club. Is she coming out for the first time? - the 14-minute film doesn't even find time to pass on that information. If this were a hetero story, it wouldn't be accepted as a Jackie photo-romance. In Public Enemy Private Friend, one of the few films to display a sense of humour, three brothers lose one of their tickets to a Public Enemy gig. Their search for it turns into a genial Cook's Tour of the Brixton community. There's a colour and spriteliness that faintly recalls Spike Lee, although the director, Danny Thompson, is no Lee - he doesn't have Lee's story-telling confidence, or (fortunately, perhaps) his bile.
The most ambitious film is Capoeira, a documentary exploring the history of the Brazilian martial arts / dance form, and its mutation (atrophy?) into the stately Latin steps of its British version, Come Dancing (there are two directors, one English, one Brazilian). It's a meaty, sometimes ironic piece that could have done with a little more guidance in organising its argument.
But all of these films, however inadequate, are a thousand times more compelling than The Cutting Edge, a film about a temperamental figure-skating star (Moira Kelly) and a rough-trade ice-hockey player (D B Sweeney) who, following an accident, has to quit the sport. They become reluctant skating partners but - surprise] - the sparring conceals an irresistible mutual attraction.
The only thing that would have made this palatable in a mildly camp sort of way would have been the skating sequences. But these, choreographed by Robin Cousins, have been filmed in a blurry, over-edited style, with rarely a close, full-length shot (or even a foot and a face in the same frame). And you can forget the cunning little costumes: Sweeney is much too blue-collar to wear any of those nancy-boy sequinned numbers. Best thing in the movie: Roy Dotrice grinding out gutturals as the couple's salty middle-European coach.
See facing page for details of 'The Cutting Edge', 'Body Heat' and the BFI New Directors programme. The screening of 'Singin' in the Rain' at the Royal Festival Hall includes dance lessons for the audience. The film is released on video by MGM on 21 September.
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