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Film: Not just another one off the assembly line

Hollywood is often fawningly referred to as "a state of mind" but these days it's more like a turbo-charged assembly line. The directors and screenwriters working the factory floor are earning more money than ever before, but there's a catch: the only clear route to success is the well-travelled, four-lane, techno-violent highway.

For those film-makers who are more comfortable with machines than with people - and whose number include Speed's Jan de Bont, The Rock's Michael Bay, Independence Day's Roland Emmerich and Event Horizon's Paul Anderson - this development is a boon. It places the burden of cinematic success not on human interaction but on engineering, and if the engineering is in the service of a star, or a sequel, so much the better.

But for the film-makers who made their reputations on more humanly contoured movies unreliant on great, big shock-effects, the current atmosphere represents a gradual smothering of creative possibilities. Directors who don't capitulate often find themselves unemployed, or directing the occasional film for cable TV.

One particularly dispiriting case of a talented film-maker who has been done in by the new turbo-charged, youth-oriented Hollywood is that of Irvin Kershner, who once helmed both The Empire Strikes Back and RoboCop 2.

Kershner is about to begin work next month on his first feature film in eight years. Inferno, a $30 million thriller starring Jean Claude Van Damme, heralds the return to work of a director whose fate, ever since he made his first low-budget feature in 1958, has been to be criminally underrated. Kershner is perhaps the most versatile American director in Hollywood; I can't think of anyone else who has been so extraordinarily successful over such a broad canvas, from cutting edge documentary to space opera.

His earlier films like Loving and The Luck of Ginger Coffey had an exquisite, short story-like expressiveness, a feeling for the entrapments of disillusioned lives. A Fine Madness (even in the studio's botched re-cut) and Up the Sandbox had elating sequences of knockabout urban poetry. Return of a Man Called Horse was, to quote the New York Times, "a profoundly stirring epic that probably got further inside the mystic folklore of the American Indian than any Hollywood film ever has". The Empire Strikes Back was easily the greatest, the most resplendent and imaginative, of the Lucas- era sci-fi epics.

Kershner is also an artist who is alive to the pleasure of performance - a dying art in Hollywood. And, of all the all-American male directors, he is perhaps the most intuitively observant of women's lives. An inordinate number of actors have given what is quite likely the performance of their careers in Irvin Kershner films: Eva Maria Saint and George Segal as the anguished couple in Loving; Richard Harris's passionate, lyrical John Morgan in Return of a Man Called Horse; Sean Connery's subversive Greenwich Village poet in A Fine Madness; Robert Shaw as the Irish dreamer transplanted to Montreal in The Luck of Ginger Coffey; Barbara Carrera as the deliciously wicked assassin, Fatima Blush, in Never Say Never Again.

When he returned to Hollywood after the final Connery Bond movie in 1985, Kershner was more in demand than any director alive. The combined box- office for The Empire Strikes Back and Never Say Never Again was in excess of a half-billion dollars. He could do anything he wanted; unfortunately for the studios chasing him, the last thing he wanted to do was another action movie.

"I turned down everything they offered me," Kershner recalls. "I went back to live in London thinking I could do more of the smaller films that I've loved making, but without the handicap of the studios. But I couldn't break through the old boy's network that existed there at the time. I was a big Hollywood director who needed American stars and big budgets to make a successful film."

While he fell in love with London and spent time developing projects and writing scripts, Kershner was announced as the director on a slew of aborted projects, ranging from an adaptation of the Eric Van Lustbader novel The Ninja to Mario Puzo's Fool's Die, from John Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle to a film about Puccini.

While this is nothing new - most directors, even the most bankable, have racked up comparable lists - it's certainly true that most directors of Kershner's class, and many below it, still end up working on something. What does it say about Hollywood that, with the exception of RoboCop 2 in 1990 and a TV movie for NBC in 1993, one of its greatest directors has been largely unused for 12 years?

What it says, I believe, is that Hollywood has become a supremely inhospitable place for an artist with the visionary skills and the temperament to make people's lives reverberate on the silver screen.

Fifteen years ago, Kershner, bemoaning the influence of television on the movies, said in a magazine interview that "the poetry has been taken out of the image. Audiences want to be force-fed. They must be titillated every minute or they get bored. Television has conditioned the American public to constant excitement because they must keep you tuned to that channel."

Today, he believes the trend is widespread in film too. "They bombard you with histrionics: the car is always moving too fast, the shots are fired in volleys instead of singly. They even hit you over the head emotionally," he observes.

Kershner, like Scorsese and most other visual virtuosos, compares movies to art. "Film, for me, is an `almost art'," he concludes. "I like to think of it that way. The word `art' is such a self-conscious one when you're in the process of trying to make something that it's best not to think of yourself as `making art'. The best thing to do is to try to make something to the best of your ability. If other people call it art, then it is art. I can certainly say that Bergman has made art in films. Fellini has too.

"I think of it as a growing thing. People tend to think that whatever period they're working in is a culminating period. It can't go any further, they think. They say that we have the close-up and the camera moves and we have computer graphics. Where else can you go? Certainly three-dimensional vision is going no further in evoking emotion. And that's what film is about - evoking emotion. So to talk about an `almost art' means that you still have some place to go, which gives us all something better to aim for."

For Irvin Kershner today, there are very few places left to go. The types of films he wants to make are not being made any more. In order to survive and to continue doing what he loves doing best, he has been forced to compromise himself, to conform to what Hollywood wants: "Assembly Line Work - No Artists Need Apply".