Give them an F as in FAILURE Hollywood's hunger for money-making hits gets in the way of good movies

March 26, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Three mainstream movies opened in Baltimore last Friday -- "Basic Instinct" (Tri-Star), "Shadows & Fog" (Orion) and "Company Business" (MGM) -- and they had two things in common.

The first was that, by one of those meaningless coincidences that make the world so interesting, each features a minor actor named Daniel Von Bargen -- he's an internal affairs officer in "Basic Instinct," a vigilante in "Shadows & Fog" and a CIA station chief in "Company Business." Von Bargen is very good in each of them, a brusque, tough-looking authority figure, who may have a career as a character actor ahead of him. Welcome to the movies, Mr. Van Bargen.

The other thing the three movies have in common, and it's a coincidence that may not be meaningless at all, is that each one stinks. Welcome to the movies, Mr. and Mrs. America.

"Basic Instinct" is a wretchedly plotted, overacted, overheated mess; it was driven to a $15 million opening weekend on the strength of a year's worth of protest by militant gay groups that made it the most visible movie since "JFK." Why do I suspect the fact that it is reputed to have some of the hottest sex scenes this side of NC-17 didn't hurt it, either?

"Shadows & Fog," on the other hand, was created by Woody Allen, America's most beloved auteur, a director who has been pampered by his studio for years, given large budgets and extraordinary artistic freedom, and unprecedented critical support.

"Company Business," on still a third hand, is a formula buddy-picture of the sort that Hollywood had been knocking out honorably since at least the Thirties. It stars two well-known performers (the ever-likable Gene Hackman and the charismatic Mikhail Baryshnikov), directed by an old hand (Nicholas Meyer) with more than a few hits to his credit.

To me, the weekend represents a failure at all levels of the American professional film industry: at the top, where an elite filmmaker has stumbled wretchedly; in the middle, where the formulas have stopped working; and in the gutter, where even the most basic instinct for story telling seems to have dried up and blown away, to be replaced by cheesy porn that can have no effect but to divide men from women and gays from straights. And it is particularly galling as it happens just before the industry's annual orgy of self-celebration, the Academy Awards.

What is going on? Have they forgotten how to make movies out there?

This is a question a critic hears and sees more and more these days. Ordinary citizens, if they should happen to recognize a critic at a screening, ask him (that is, after they ask him how many movies a week he sees) what's wrong with Hollywood? How come they don't make them the way they used to?

And it's a question critics wonder about. I can barely remember the last time I saw a Hollywood movie I really loved, flat-out loved and wanted to see again. Today, the most nourishing film experiences are found in the Charles, this town's brave little art-rep house. It just so happens that in the last three or four days I've also seen some real movies there: "Overseas," the French film, and "Pepe le Heros," from Belgium. Then "Let Him Have It," a British film. And the best movie I've seen this years may be "The Vanishing," a Dutch movie, which played at . . . the Charles. Oh, and I did see a movie someplace other than the Charles: "Cabeza de Vaca," a Mexican film, which the Baltimore Film Forum will be showing during its festival. How is it? It's terrific.

Now it just may be that the Chuck has had a lucky run and Hollywood has had an unlucky run, but I suspect it's something more.

What's driving Hollywood these days appears to be less and less the urge to make solid, profitable, respectable pictures; in a terrible way, the business has become a great deal like the publishing industry (or the publishing industry has become too much like the movies) in an absurd quest for the single, liberating hit, a best-seller, if you will. If it connects, the money is endless, the power to make more movies expands exponentially; moreover, there's now an expanded linkage of profit-taking possibilities: novels, novelizations, VCR sales, laser disc sales. The money seem literally endless.

And, in its way, hit fever explains each of the three movies that opened this weekend, as it does the movies that you'll see for years to come -- unless you see them at the Charles or the Baltimore Film Forum.

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