Talking dirty about democracy

CINEMA

There is a lot of provocative, arousing speech in The People vs Larry Flynt (18), Milos Forman's biopic of the American porn broker, but not of quite the sort you might have imagined. As the title suggests, more of its action takes place in the courtroom than the bedroom, and the dirty talk is all about Liberty, Justice, Truth and Democracy. Though Flynt made his millions by being the first man to publish gynaecologically accurate girlie pics in a mass-circulation magazine (in the film, his decision to "show pink" is made to seem as heroic and momentous as the discovery of radium), this version of his life story is heavily airbrushed. The real-life Flynt looks like Jabba the Hutt and is not, one suspects, a chap one would happily invite to tea with the Archdeacon; the movie Flynt, charmingly played by Woody Harrelson as a slightly more foul-mouthed version of the goofy country boy he made immortal in Cheers, is a court jester, a crusader, a Life Force, a martyr (a sniper shot him, leaving him paralysed) and above all, a champion of the First Amendment.

If you don't mind the prettifying, the result is as entertaining as it is meretricious, though it is hard to escape the reflection that a film which prates so about freedom of speech goes pretty ruthlessly about the business of suppressing any suggestion that anyone but hypocrites and humbugs might have objected to Flynt's chosen trade. Flynt versus the TV evangelist Jerry Falwell, who demanded millions from the pornographer for having been made the butt of a stupid joke, is made to seem like a replay of Toby Belch versus Malvolio. It's a portrayal which conveniently ignores the fact that Viola and Olivia might have had something to say on the matter, too, since the most cogent and stinging criticism of Flynt publications came not from the Born Agains (whose ranks were briefly swelled by Flynt himself, in a weird episode which Forman milks skilfully for its comic potential) but from women who were worried that Hustler was doing something darker than providing solace for unsatisfied men.

The only moment in the film which suggests that Flynt might be about anything more sinister than asking a sexually repressed nation to Lighten Up is a shot of a Hustler cover showing a woman being passed through a meat grinder - an atrocious little touch which Forman lets slip without comment or dramatic consequence before hurrying on to the next bit of full-frontal demagoguery. He's admirably served by his cast, particularly Edward Norton as Flynt's idealistic, baby-faced lawyer and Courtney Love, who's remarkably convincing in a role that teeters on the edge of caricature - Flynt's drug-addled wife Althea, who has the perverse loyalty to her spouse of Morticia Addams and the fashion sense of Nancy Spungen. It's certainly fun while you're watching it, but you feel furtive and vaguely ashamed afterwards.

Suspecting that angsty early middle age might not be the best of all possible perspectives from which to view the digitally enhanced reissue of The Empire Strikes Back (U; Irvin Kershner), I recruited the help of a somewhat younger cinephile, Ben Cuddon, who was not born until two years after its initial release in 1980. Ben's verdict: "I loved it." As well he might: this screening confirmed the received wisdom that Empire is far and away the best of the Star Wars trilogy, boasting as it does some impressively desolate images (the Imperial Stormtroopers' raid on the ice planet Hoth - twinned with the fire Planet Coldh? - is especially fine), delicious man-management tactics on the part of Darth Vader (when in doubt, strangulate) and some sexy dialogue between Han Solo and Princess Leia. This last is attributable, at a guess, to the co-screenwriter Leigh Brackett, whose most famous early credit was another festival of hard- boiled flirtation, The Big Sleep. It's a rare entertainment that echoes both Howard Hawks and the Muppets, but Empire is that beast. When the cuddly Jedi master Yoda speaks Zen gibberish in the unmistakable tones of Frank Oz, you can't help recalling some of the other immortal characters he's played. The Fozz is with him.

The opening 20 minutes or so of Kevin Allen's debut feature Twin Town (18) seem to be struggling painfully, not to say pitifully hard to epater the po-faced: it's a rambling set of miserabilist low-life scenes, crammed with less-than-Ortonesque incongruities about pensioners who groove on magic mushrooms, and sets levels of effing and blinding to rival Scorsese's most mucky-mouthed flights. Wearisome, on the whole. But once the plot eventually sits up and lumbers into action, it grows funnier and funnier by the scene. Set in Swansea, and preoccupied with tittering or snarling disgustedly at every Welsh icon from rugby to male choirs (it might as well have been called How Green Was My Mucus), it's mostly about a deadly feud between a couple of glue-crazed delinquents and a wealthy local hard man, with a pair of cocaine- peddling policemen as go-betweens. By the grand maritime finale, which features one of the most idiosyncratic, and musical, screen murders of recent years, you can sense the shade of Orton nodding in approval.

Time has not been altogether kind to Total Eclipse (18), Christopher Hampton's account of the amorous life of Verlaine and Rimbaud, which he wrote when not a great deal older than the teenage yobbo-genius and which has now been boringly filmed by Agnieszka Holland, with Leonardo DiCaprio as the James Dean of symbolisme and David Thewlis sporting a variety of unusually silly hairdos as his wife-battering lover. DiCaprio's features, while a bit too pretty, are reasonably similar to Rimbaud's (say, in the Fantin-Latour portrait), but nothing in his words or his picturesque foul behaviour hints at the boy's staggeringly precocious gifts and occult learning; Thewlis makes Verlaine such a comically repellent, self-pitying ninny that he seems to be sending up the whole venture, notably when he decides to give his wife (Romaine Bohringer) a "halo" by setting fire to her hair. Some of it is quite jolly, in a Monty Python's Life of Arthur way, and Christopher Hampton turns in an excellent cameo as a Belgian judge, but one fears it will leave impressionable young people with unfortunate, stereotypical representations of an oppressed minority which already has a hard enough time from the media. Poets, that is.

Bits and Pieces (15) is the English title of Antonello Grimaldi's latest feature, which does for Rome roughly what Slacker did for Austin, Texas - it rambles idly around the Eternal City for 24 hours, dipping into some 30 vaguely connected plots populated by about 130 characters, including a vast-breasted transvestite, a boy who murders his mother with a hammer, a donnish chap who executes a sudden hit on a company director (unheralded by the usual plot grindings, these violent acts are quite shocking) and a silly, lovelorn postman who is probably included as a parodic dig at Il Postino. It's more enjoyable than it may sound, especially if you are the kind of bore who likes to stage-whisper nostalgic tourist remarks along the lines of "Oooh look, that's where they burned Giordano Bruno!"

One young Victorian lady, writing back home from her adventures in Italy, remarked that she would not bother to describe the works of art she had been admiring because Ruskin had already said all there was to say about them. This is roughly the position of a reviewer faced with a re-release of Citizen Kane, and aware of the long shadows cast by, inter alia, Andre Bazin and Pauline Kael and David Thomson (check out his essay in America in the Dark as well as the essential Rosebud); so I will remark only that if you love the cinema well enough to have hacked your way through to this terminal sentence, you owe it to yourself to watch Kane on the big screen, whether for the first time or the umpteenth.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 14.

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