CINEMA / Rare find on a darker shore: a film director: The Saint of Fort Washington (15); Go Fish (18); Wild Target (15); Staggered (15)

Quentin Curtis
Saturday 09 July 1994 23:02
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TIM HUNTER, the director of The Saint of Fort Washington (15), is a more earnest version of Jonathan Demme. He has the same feel for turbulent young lives but not the humour and off-the-wall charm. That may explain why Fort Washington died at the American box office. A film tackling the homeless underclass, who sleep in the shelter in New York's Washington Heights, was perhaps destined not to find a home in the hearts of people who can afford a night at the pictures. Demme might have made it more palatable with an eclectically hip soundtrack, a smattering of goofy cameos and spots of upbeat transcendence. Hunter plays it grimily straight. He doesn't sell the picture - but neither does he sell out.

We open in the Fort Washington shelter itself, a converted sports hall. Hunter shoots the vast floor from above, so that with its hundreds of makeshift beds it resembles a giant patchwork quilt. It's like the famous crane-shot at the station in Gone with the Wind of the rows upon rows of the dead (the New York photography, by David Lynch's cameraman, Frederick Elmes, has the sepia tint of old war photos). The fort is a real-life fixture, and the credits 'extend deepest gratitude' to its directors and staff. On the other side, the gratitude may not be so deep - the Fort emerges less as a haven than a circle of hell. The staff are indifferent to theft and bullying.

It is hardly a sanctuary for the dreamy Matthew (Matt Dillon), whose numerous breakdowns have caused him to be diagnosed as schizophrenic. That he survives is due to the avuncular savvy of Vietnam vet Jerry (Danny Glover) in the next bed. Together they escape to the streets, washing traffic-jammed cars and sleeping in squats with other down-and-outs. Each draws strength from the other: Matthew learns to focus his mind, starting on small tasks like counting his day's earnings; Jerry is distracted from his dependency on pain-killers for shrapnel wounds. The film doesn't sentimentalise their struggle. It knows that it is hopeless, presenting the route to self-respect as a greasy pole down which the pair is destined to slide to some new humiliation.

Dillon has never been better than in this undemonstrative role. He has no great speeches - in fact he hardly speaks at all - but in his shy, averted gaze, he displays pained diffidence and spiritual grace. He may be a saint: in a gently understated scene, Glover showers him in rainwater from his cupped hands and hails him as saint to the homeless, after he heals an arthritic old man. Or he may be just confused. He wants to be a photographer, and there's an idea that he has seen the light. So often misused by flashier directors (Coppola, Van Sant), Dillon shows here that his gift is for the ordinary. No other young actor could dim his starriness so affectingly.

As his surrogate father, Danny Glover is too saccharine in his good cheer, his voice glowing like Ossie Davis's in the films of Spike Lee. He may be a victim of politically correct writing, reprising the role of the Good Black Man that he played in Grand Canyon. Still, he delivers the line of the film when he says to the owner of one of the smart cars: 'This is your world. We just live in it.' And around him we see the evidence: cars and billboards and skyscrapers symbolising aspirations that reach out way beyond the essentials of survival. Then for a moment we slip into a fantasy of what Jerry's world would be like: rolling fields in which black families, finely clothed, gambol on the green grass. Hunter makes the fantasy seem not like a lyrical interlude of hope, but a bitter reinforcement of despair.

Following the Jeff Bridges film American Heart, this is the second low-life father-and-son movie of the year. And the better - it's less cravenly melodramatic. But there are faults. Dillon and Glover's relationship is not quite believable: it's hard to see what binds them together. Hunter has Harvard and a criticism course on his CV, and it shows in his direction, which is stiff and academic. But, as in River's Edge (1986), in which friends stood by a mate who killed a girl for kicks, he shows he's willing to wander around America's darker shore. He is not a saint, but a rare original spirit in American film.

The lesbian-love comedy Go Fish (18) comes to us courtesy of the Samuel Goldwyn Company. Sam Goldwyn (ne Goldfish), the great malapropist, would have asked to have been included out of it: 'A lesbian movie is bound to break its balls at the box office,' he might have said. He'd be missing an intermittently charming tour d'horizon of love between women, its delights and pressures. The writers Rose Troche (who directs) and Guinevere Turner (who plays the lead) switch deftly between sexual polemic, comedy of manners and budding romance. The film follows the stirrings of affection between quiet veterinary assistant Ely (V S Brodie), already attached to someone out of town, and ravishing but dateless Max (Turner), while their friends provide a running commentary. Shot in black-and-white, it has something of the feel of Spike Lee's debut, She's Gotta Have It, and although not as witty or as well-made, it may do for lesbian film-makers what Lee did for black ones.

The week's other two comedies, from either side of the Channel, both have stamina problems. Wild Target (15) stars Jean Rochefort, who with his hang-dog face and drooping moustache is a Gallic ringer for Peter Sellers, as a pin-striped assassin. As he starts on a bungling series of hits, on the trail of an art-forger, the film looks set fair for a meeting between The Pink Panther and Man Bites Dog. But the comic juice runs dry, despite a deadpan performance from Guillaume Depardieu (fils de Gerard) as Rochefort's baffled assistant. There is some merriment when a rival hit-man, equally stunted and repressed, arrives on the scene. But the opportunity for a glorious salvo at the inadequacy of killers is largely lost.

That dark and dangerous ritual, the stag night, gets Staggered (15) off to a promising start. A groom, Neil (Martin Clunes, who also directs), is drugged on his big night and helicoptered to a far-flung Scottish isle, where he is dumped without his clothes. The film makes lamentably little of this marvellous premise. Instead, it sends in a small plane to rescue its man, and launches him on an obstacle course of tired comic situations (arrests, car crashes, amorous females) en route to the aisle. Clunes, jug-eared and thick-lipped, looks as if he might be funny, but isn't. Griff Rhys Jones, as a Welsh travelling salesman and rampant swinger, is, but not for long enough. Sylvia Syms, as the bride's mother, acts everybody off the screen.

The plot recalls two other recent, low-budget British films, Soft Top, Hard Shoulder and Leon the Pig Farmer. They too put a young man on a journey and hoped that if he met with enough catastrophes, he'd be funny. All these heroes were passive, rather pallid figures. The Brit who grasps that comedy springs from character might be on to a hit.

Cinema details: Review, page 74.

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