The return of the talkies: Cinema

Hollywood is not all guns and gore. Ben Thompson meets three male direc tors for whom words speak louder than action
Click to follow
THE CASUAL film-goer could be forgiven for thinking that the only excitement to be found in modern American cinema derives from self-conscious ultraviolence. But there are other fictions than pulp fictions, and scripts do not have to be marinaded in goreto have a distinctive flavour. The Quentin Tarantino/Roger Avary axis is turned on its head by a trio of films from American writer-directors who are leading lights of the second generation of new US independents, post-Jarmusch, post-Spike Lee.

The fact that two of the films come via Castle Rock Studios doesn't stop them feeling independent.

The three are Hal Hartley's Amateur, which opened this month to critical acclaim; Whit Stillman's Barcelona, which opens this week, and Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise, which is coming soon. What they share - and there is much that they don't - is a thrilling sensitivity to the possibilities of dialogue. This is rooted in the exigencies of low-budget film-making, but what started as a necessity has become an established virtue. The other thing they have in common is a certain Europeanness. In Amateur 's case this means the star (Isabelle Huppert), finance, and ambience (a New York designed to look like "Rome in the Afternoon"); for the other two films it's the location (Vienna in Before Sunrise) and story.

What are the origins of this continental drift? Is it what Spike Lee might call a Henry James thing: a deliberate turning of backs on Holly-wood by clever white Americans, based on a perception of European culture as somehow higher and more literary? Would these men really rather be novelists? Given the unfettered loquacity of their film-making, it would be no surprise if Hartley, Stillman and Linklater turned out to be sour, tight-lipped characters who hate talking about their work. Thankfully, this isnot the case.

Most people seem either to love or hate everything Hal Hartley does. I thought his first two films - The Unbelievable Truth and Trust - were really inspiring in their location of a lyrical sensibility in an everyday context; but the next two, Simple Men

and the package of three short films (Ambition, Surviving Desire and Theory of Achievement) were disappointingly mannered and self-indulgent. Amateur falls intriguingly between these two extremes. A metaphysical thriller with, in Hartley's phrase, "one flat tyre", it features characters who are continually stopping their vehicle and getting out to see why they aren't travelling in a straight line. This might easily be annoying, but it makes you want to get up on the screen and give them a hand.

Hartley, 35, admits that as a low-budget film-maker, dialogue used to be the only thing he had access to: "Talk is cheap, so I used a lot of it." However an affinity, born in film school, for the work of Wim Wenders also left him with "a healthy suspicion of the use of language as being somehow not filmic - we're film-makers, we should look". Hartley's way through this apparent contradiction was "not to use the words as exposition, to describe or sum up or anything like that, but to use them as action".Consequently, his best dialogue is thrillingly witty and economical.

And his worst is profoundly irritating. Hartley's fondness for characters reading long chunks out of books "without having to justify it in terms of character and motivation, shit like that", can try the patience of his most ardent admirer. "I'm always looking for ways of having somebody read," he affirms, worryingly unrepentant, "It's one of the most beautiful images I can think of. In Amateur, Isabelle Huppert is writing out loud. An earlier vision of the script had her doing that a lot more; narrating the story that she's actually in, but I'll have to save that for another film."

Whit Stillman, 42, is a late starter and proud of it. One of the many jobs he had before making Metropolitan - his elegant and humane dissection of New York's urban haute bourgeoisie - took him to Spain in what he now refers to as "the last decade of theCold War". He emerged from this experience with not only a Spanish wife, but also the raw material for his second film, Barcelona: a romantic culture-clash comedy that is as finely wrought as a Gaudi fence-post, and actually manages to sustain the startling proposition that "Anti-Americanism has its roots in sexual impotence, especially in Europe."

One of the most striking - and likeable - things about Barcelona, unusual in such an intelligent film, is its explicit patriotism. The two American cousins at the heart of the story battle to hold on to "the ideal burger of memory" in the face of the Spaniards' wilful misapprehensions of their culture. Presumably this sense of being beleaguered is rooted in the urbane Stillman's own Levantine experience.

"Oh, did I ever feel beleaguered!" he exclaims, impassioned. "Every visit I made to Barcelona seemed to coincide with some international incident in which the US would always be protrayed in the worst possible light."

Revenge is a dish best served on film. Barc-elona's comic climax comes when Spanish self-righteousness drives Ted the impulsive naval attache to kill some red ants with a rock, thereby transposing classic US military aggression to a new picnic context. Is there a sense of cultural inferiority in America? Stillman thinks so, but he finds the way what he considers to be the "worst elements" of American culture are embraced in Europe just as disturbing.

"The film noir obsession for example. I mean I understand it... but so what?"

With his first film, the heroically verbose Austin Texas young-adult lifestyle epic Slacker (1990), Richard Linklater, now 31, unwittingly coined a much misused cultural category. With last year's hazy but sharp-witted mid-Seventies High School elegy Dazed and Confused, he not only supplied historical perspective, but also reinvented the comedy of manners - "You're always reading about Ernest Hemingway getting into fights," observes one of his engagingly geeky characters, himself on the verge of a beating, "You never read about who won."

Linklater's third film, Before Sunrise, is a two-hander starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. It's "a little chamber film essentially": a young American persuades a French woman to get off a train with him in Vienna, and they walk around all night, talking. "The number of characters in my films seems to be reducing," Linklater laughs, "So does the time-scale." Slacker was 100 people over 24 hours, Dazed and Confused was 20 for 18, now Before Sunrise is two for 12. "Pretty soon I'll have one person for 90 minutes of real time."

Is that a progression - stripping things down to their essence - or a coincidence? "Probably more a coincidence, it's just a question of whatever works to tell the story." A self-deprecating pause. "What story there is." Linklater is happy for his films not to be thought conventionally dramatic. "It's easy if you throw in a lot of plot intrigue and car chases, but to just show two people communicating and the subtle drama that goes with that - which to me is just the essence of life - to make that work in a cinematic form, to give it a pace and a feel and its own little trajectory, that is a real challenge."

The most important thing that Hartley, Stillman and Linklater's films have in common is that they are intensely watchable. For all their makers' literacy, these films could, as Linklater asserts, "only be films". With Hollywood ever more reliant on adaptations of ideas first aimed at bookshelf or television, it is heartening to see purely cinematic ideas edging closer to the mainstream. Even Stillman, the most bookish of the three, is happier making films than he would be writing novels: they "

g et so much more coverage".

Asked if it was an idea of European culture as somehow more literary that drew him to finance Amateur from here, Hartley replies "No, it's just easier to get money in Europe." There is no law forbidding our own film-makers from participating in the sort of deft, high-precision cultural discourses these three directors are putting on the screen: they just don't seem to have got around to it yet. It's hard to know why this should be the case, as European influences both obvious (Godard in the case of Hartley) and not so - the Roger Moore James Bond films for Stillman, Eric Rohmer for Linklater - abound in the Americans' work. Maybe it's just a matter of time. The first half-hour or so of Shallow Grave is certainly a step in the right direction.

We'd better get a move on though, because the next wave of young American talent is already waiting in the wings. Kevin Smith's brilliantly original convenience-store talk-fest Clerks connects the new eloquence with the populist traditions of Wayne's World and early John Hughes. The film is dedicated to Linklater and Hartley. Its director saw Slacker on his 21st birthday, and it changed his life. He adopted a unique approach to dialogue coaching: he lent his male lead a copy of Trust and told him, "Justdo the lines like in this movie." In a neat vision of US/European cultural exchange, Clerks was filmed in Leonardo, New Jersey.

! `Amateur' (15) is out now, `Barcelona' (12) opens on Friday and `Before Sunrise' (no cert yet) follows in the spring. `Clerks' (no cert yet), which Mary Harron wrote about in the `Sunday Review' of 13 November, opens on 5 May. For cinemas and times for`Amateur', see Going Out, page 74.