FILM / An immaculate, serene vision

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The Independent Culture
The Quince Tree Sun (U). . . . . . . . . .Victor Erice (Sp)

Blue Black Permanent (PG). . . . . . . .Margaret Tait (UK)

Splitting Heirs (12). . . . . . . . . . . . .Robert Young (UK/US)

Mr Nanny (PG). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Michael Gottlieb (US)

Night of the Living Dead (18). . . .Tom Savini (US)

The best film this week is a 139-minute documentary about an artist's vain attempt to paint the quince tree in his garden before the fruit rots on the bough. The Quince Tree Sun is audaciously low-key and inconsequential. For the first 20 minutes there is no dialogue or music; the painter, Antonio Lopez, doesn't even put brush to canvas. You just see him carefully preparing his tools and setting up his easel.

Unlike La Belle Noiseuse, another lengthy exploration of the painter's craft, there are no tensions between artist and model. This is simply a detailed chronicle of Lopez's daily life. A band of Polish decorators drifts in and out, fixing up his kitchen (and passing unimpressed judgement on the painting in progress). Friends drop by now and then to schmooze about the good old days and discuss their work.

Occasionally, there's a pan across the Madrid skyline. Eventually, Lopez gives up. He had waited for the moment when the quinces are gold and swollen - but the fruit perishes and the sun goes into hibernation well before his painting is done. If all this sounds like watching paint dry, read on.

The director, Victor Erice, is possibly even slower than Lopez. He made a spectacular splash with his first film, The Spirit of the Beehive, which established him as an international arthouse name. That was in 1973. Then he made one more movie, The South (1983), before resurfacing at Cannes last year with The Quince Tree Sun. And if one felt a secret disappointment that it was 'only' a documentary, it was also refreshing to see an important director (for Erice is still, despite his tiny output, a name to conjure with) addressing himself to the form.

Against all the odds, his film is fascinating. It's immaculately shot and framed (with the exception of a rambling video sequence). One friend asks Lopez why, when it rains, he can't work from photographs. He replies that there would be no point: he paints the tree because he loves it and wants to be near it, and the beauty of Erice's images makes you understand something of that passion. The Quince Tree Sun is about the importance of minute observation - Lopez bedecks his tree with white marks and plumb lines, and knows at once if a quince, ripening and heavy, has sunk by a couple of centimetres. And so it's not surprising that the film commands the audience to watch it closely too. Once you accept it, the serenity of pacing is deeply satisfying.

Of course, The Quince Tree Sun will not be to every taste. The Die Hard brigade will certainly see its acclaim (it has won a sheaf of awards) as another instance of the intellectual snobbery of film critics. I prefer to see it as demonstrating their own tunnel vision, because ideally there ought to be no reason why they shouldn't enjoy The Quince Tree Sun and Die Hard too.

The week's other art film, Blue Black Permanent, is an inevitably slighter but by no means negligible work. The director, Margaret Tait, beats Erice in the slowness stakes, having taken 74 years to get round to her first feature, although she has an impressive list of short films to her credit. Set in Orkney and Edinburgh, Blue Black Permanent chronicles three generations of mothers and daughters, hinging on a dreamy poet whose life is claimed by the sea she loves when her child is nine years old. The daughter, now grown up, relates these memories in an attempt to exorcise her guilt for the death. It's a delicate film with a strong sense of mood and seascape - the beginning, one hopes, of a distinguished career.

The pickings are thin at the popcorn end of the market. Splitting Heirs is an embarrassingly mirthless British comedy written and produced by Eric Idle - also miscast as a young man in his late twenties. He believes himself cheated out of his wealthy inheritance; the imposter, swapped at birth, is the brash, American-bred Rick Moranis.

The film fields the old naked- man-in-the-cupboard gag, the old nymphos-on-the-rampage gag ('Would you like to come up for a coffee or would you like to come up and screw me?'); it looks old-fashioned and sounds it with a steady drone of obtrusive, would-be funny music. The number of laughs at the press show remained in single figures, but one of them was elicited by a rare modern joke - a description of Miss Saigon as a 'sort of Sound of Music meets Platoon'.

It's almost matched by Mr Nanny, a vehicle for the chunky wrestler Hulk Hogan, playing bodyguard to a pair of mischievous rich kids who outsmart him at every turn. The film is dimly scripted and directed (by the auteur of Mannequin and the producer of Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III), but Hogan is a likeable screen presence.

Night of the Living Dead is George Romero's 1968 horror classic returned from the grave and re-filmed by Romero's make-up man, Tom Savini. The motive is the fact that the copyright had lapsed and other imitators were poised to move in. The new version is competent but pointless - emptied of the original's social comment, it becomes a straight siege piece, with the survivors holed up in an old farmhouse trying to stop the zombies crashing in. But it's hard to be spooked by the shuffling baddies when, as the heroine points out, you can escape from them by walking quite fast.