FILM / Without a leg to stand on

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE WEIRDEST thing in Boxing Helena (18) is Art Garfunkel's hair: an Afro cruelly curtailed by baldness, like a hedge with a hole in it. Garfunkel's film career has been equally risque: at times it has looked like his revenge on his sweet singing voice. Thirteen years ago, he played the sexually obsessed psychiatrist in Bad Timing, the film Boxing Helena might have been if it had ever passed puberty. Then, Garfunkel did unspeakable things to a girl he was hung up on, while Freud and dreams bubbled under the surface. Now, unthinkable things are done to a girl, by Julian Sands, Art's surgeon colleague, while the Freud and the dreams boil over.

Boxing Helena, as everybody must know by now, is not a promising female flyweight, but a romantic strategy. Sands' Nick decides that if he can't have his girl's hand in marriage, he'll have it in his top drawer - along with both arms and legs. In its soberest section, the opening scenes, the film offers a makeshift explanation for Nick's monstrous behaviour - the usual stuff about childhood rejection, conveyed in flashback. From then on we follow his deranged path without a compass: from spying on Helena (Sherilyn Fenn), to luring her to a party, to trapping her in his mansion. The dismemberment is never seen, nor is any box. The film is all talk: Sands' self-pitying pleas for love and Fenn's furious pleas for release.

As film monsters go, Sands is a dreadful drip - he gives a wet rag of a performance. Hannibal Lecter would wipe the floor with him. His voice whines away (the idea is that he's a child), and he's nothing but exposed nerve-ends, like an anatomical model with the innards outside. We never know what his love for Helena was founded on, other than one night together. When she strips to her underwear and dances in his fountain, he goes into raptures, suggesting he loves her gaiety and movement. So why reduce her to a stump? What drama the film has is in Sherilyn Fenn's shifting response: from denial to fury, to vengeful sexual taunts, to doomed escape bids. With her raven hair, bee-stung lips and full-blooded petulance, she maps similar ground to the young Elizabeth Taylor - though Fenn country is flatter and more predictable.

Just 25 when she made the film Jennifer Chambers Lynch is reputedly the youngest female feature director in Hollywood history, and it shows. She can set up a shot so that the bottle in the foreground masks the private parts in the background, but her boldest strokes are all cliches - her idea of imagery is a caged bird caught in slow motion. Her father, the great David Lynch, got this sort of thing out of his system in a couple of creepy student films about vomiting blood, bed-wetting and trees that turned into old ladies; together they lasted 38 minutes. David Lynch's shocks spark off the everyday, whereas Boxing Helena plays in a plush world of marble mantelpieces, four-poster beds and wicker wheelchairs for Fenn to perch on. We're so distanced from reality, nothing feels far out.

When Kim Basinger was sued for reneging on the role of Helena, her counsel was demonised for describing the film as pornography. I'm not sure he was wrong. Early on we see Nick peeping from a tree at Helena undressing. As she starts getting off with a lover, he runs away, unable to contain his jealousy, or perhaps shocked to see them doing it in slow motion. But we see the full act, even though we have yet to meet either of the players. There's a similar blue-movie spuriousness about the scene in which Nick puts Helena's advice on impotence to the test with a young brunette. Lynch wants us to feel we're learning about male sexuality, its need to possess and control, but the argument is so sketchy, we can't help but assume the worst. Basinger's withdrawal was a financial disaster, but an

artistic triumph.

Cyril Collard's Savage Nights (18) won four Cesars, the French equivalent of Oscars, 72 hours after his death from an Aids-

related illness. Collard directed and played Jean, a bisexual, HIV-

positive film-maker, with a racing driver's stubbly good looks and love of danger. He parcels out his life between gays under bridges (his nuits fauves), a teenage girlfriend (Romane Bohringer) and a sexually ambiguous rugby player (Carlos Lopez). The less he commits himself, the more they desire him. He feels apart from the world, gazing soulfully at Paris from his balcony.

Collard quotes Jean Genet, and Genet's wilful perversity is the inspiration for Jean. He has the same treachery (unprotected sex with his girlfriend, without revealing his condition), glory in grime, and self-destructiveness. But whereas Genet had the hard brilliance of genius, Collard has an adolescent callowness. It's easy to see how this doomed figure, in his red sports car, half in love with diseaseful death, has become a cult - an HIV James Dean, too hip to live. But, for all his courage, he's an empty poseur. His film is best when confronting Aids: the sex is unsettling, as gasps of painful ecstasy suggest a love-making that may be death-causing. In the end Collard seems aware of his hollowness. Ready to embrace the world, he stands alone against a velvety blue dusk, the night turned serene.

In Joe Dante's Matinee (PG), the Cuban missile crisis is a catharsis for America, an equivalent to the cheap shockers packing the nation's cinemas. While Kennedy warns of forthcoming destruction, John Goodman's movie mogul, Lawrence Woolsey, whoops up forthcoming attractions. Woolsey has Orson Welles' girth and Alfred Hitchcock's cigar, but neither's talent. The film spends a weekend in Key West, as Woolsey presents his new film, Mant ('Half Man. Half Ant. All Terror]'), in 'rumble-rama', shaking the cinema so that the audience doesn't know if it's ants or Reds rocking it. Dante's creation of Mant's schlock is as meticulous and witty as his feel for the panic of the time. But Matinee never gets up a head of comic steam. Instead it floats between genres: political satire, teenage romance, paean to lost showmanship. We end up wishing we'd seen the whole of Mant.

There's no danger of Mant turning Kafkaesque, despite its giant insect. And no danger of The Trial (12) turning Pinteresque, despite being adapted by Harold Pinter. The parallels between the writers' works cry out from Scene One (in which two strangers arrive to take a man away on his birthday), but Pinter stays faithful to his master's voice. Prague, which was understudied by the Gare d'Orsay in Welles' chiaroscuro 1962 version, is now played by itself - looking brighter, more colourful, almost sumptuous. David Jones's film, though in period, feels timeless, appropriately for a book both historic and prophetic. Though Kyle MacLachlan is too flat as Josef K, he looks the part: a Magritte who's also the first Modernist yuppie. He's continually being propositioned, as Pinter homes in on Kafka's sexual anxiety. Macabre comedy is there, and dreaminess; what's missing, except in Anthony Hopkins's hollow-eyed cameo as the priest, is nightmare.

Finally two unvaunted American films which vault over the pack with their sharp sense of place. Fire in the Sky (15), 'a true story', is set in Arizona in the mid-Seventies in a stooped little Mormon town of hard, pinched faces, checked shirts and whitewashed churches.

So far, so mundane - until a bunch of lumberjacks crane their red necks to the sky and see a golden glow over the evergreens: a huge saucer lands and abducts one. Not the sort of thing Arizonans swallow easily, least of all granite-jawed, 10-gallon-hatted sheriff James Garner. He suspects murder. We see the lumberjacks' fight for justice and what 'really' happened, in a surprisingly believable scene involving a giant green gravityless honeycomb, a crew of cone-heads and the most frightening eye operation since King Lear. A welcome riposte to Spielbergian notions of kindly aliens.

From outer space to spaced- out Los Angeles in South Central (15). Steve Anderson's debut tracks the life of a gang member (Glenn Plummer) through prison, release, re-arrest and a stab at a new life, inspired by an inmate's lessons in black pride. Meanwhile his son (Christian Coleman) follows a parallel path through petty thieving and reform school. The story is trite, but Anderson packs it with the savvy and argot of the street, the hopeless life of the ghetto, where the best education is in stealing car radios and the best hope is crime. Spike Lee and John Singleton have hung out in the hood, but, with their gloss, have shown gifted blacks dragged down. Anderson's film starts lower and shows the full climb.

(Photograph omitted)