Crimes of Fashion

A movie's genre will often dictate a critic's approach to it. Which is why, under normal circumstances, Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct, a sister-slashing film noir, and the new Woody Allen film, Shadows and Fog, would scarcely be whispered in the same breath, let alone survive being paired as a tandem. Their differences are too obvious. Verhoeven's film, a thriller, revels in plot twists and multiple homicides and sexual exertion. Basic Instinct's formulaic components aim to raise pulses, not consciousness, to draw a fast buck from the mainstream moviegoing crowd. Conversely, Allen's reticent, plot-skimpy, atmospheric period piece is more rarefied - entertainment intended for a partisan, pro-Woody public and its attendant critical faction.

But that's not to say there isn't common ground. Both films depict serial murders and deal with the homicidal urge. The cinematic modus operandi applied by both directors is derivative enough almost to warrant charges of plagiarism. Finally and by no mean coincidence, both movies are strikingly and surpassingly bogus - their respective centers, to borrow briefly from Yeats, cannot hold.

Verhoeven's Hitchcock-variety shocker has opened to greater fanfare than any movie since Gone With the Wind, and the resulting media fire has taken on an ugly life of its own. Thus the shots of Michael Douglas's exposed tush and Sharon Stone's bared bush have been mentioned on every TV chat show from coast to coast. The sexual bump and grind involving Douglas's San Francisco cop and Stone's novelist/heiress/psychologist/dominatrix has been called everything in the book - hot, steamy, lurid, demeaning. Needless to say, tickets have been selling like the Lotto.

There's also been a veritable jihad of tongue wagging and saber rattling among gay-rights groups. I was already well aware of the political campaign being waged against Basic Instinct early last month when, prior to the March 20 opening of the film, I received a letter from a Fort Lauderdale-based gay-rights organization, GUARD (the acronym stands for Gays United to Attack Repression and Discrimination), warning me of its objectionable nature: "The movie includes a number of scenes which can be considered homophobic and misogynistic. The villainous characters are lesbians who murder men because they hate men. A number of the `good' characters make homophobic comments which are left unanswered, and a rape scene is portrayed as really being a love scene which could legitimize rape."

This was the local end of a national campaign launched by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), a media watchdog, which began to place ads in Hollywood trade publications such as Variety to list and denounce movie projects either about to be produced or already in production, whose scripts GLAAD had attained, read, and deemed unacceptable. Among the projects considered politically incorrect: Basic Instinct.

GUARD sent along a copy of an interview with screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, author of Basic Instinct, which was published last July in the national gay magazine The Advocate. Eszterhas, who received a staggering three million dollars for his original screenplay, claimed that his intentions were nonhomophobic, that he argued vehemently (and fell out) with director Verhoeven over changes in the script, and further that he threatened to remove his name from the project if the rough cut of the film didn't meet his standards. Subsequent to his remarks, Eszterhas, with classic con-artist bravado, kept his three big ones, did not remove his name from the film, and essentially promised the gay community a more compassionate script the next time round.

Let me address the charges one by one. Regarding the homophobia and misogyny, frankly, only the feloniously stupid or literal-minded could sit through 122 minutes of Basic Instinct and still harp over its admittedly old-hat lesbian stereotypes. The female lovers (played by Stone and Leilani Sarelle) are lively, sharply drawn characters that even the most rabid sexual hatemongers in the audience would find little to complain about. On the other hand, the male cop network (Michael Douglas's role included) is presented as an army of sexually repressed, half-witted dingbats whose collective IQ matches that of a rabbit. In light of this, better and more accurate to call the film anti-male and anti-authoritarian. But what's the point of that? This is a movie, a bad movie at that, and not a manifesto.

True, there are a handful of gratuitously boorish remarks (in one, the cop asks the lesbian lover, "Tell me something, Roxie, man to man..."), and indeed these are "left unanswered." So what? Since when have cops in the movies been portrayed as models of sexual-political correctness? Have they always been so in real life? As for motivation, at no time is it stated - or even implied in Basic Instinct - that the assassin kills because she hates men; arguably that was the case in Bob Rafelson's Black Widow, but there was no protest about it. The alleged rape-as-love sex scene is little more than your basic rough-house coitus. Patricia Bowman might call it date rape; I doubt someone more credible - say, Anita Hill - would.

Some activists have complained about depicting gay women as murderers. This is the same argument that was leveled at - and almost brought to a halt - the filming of William Friedkin's thriller, Cruising, back in 1979 in New York. The pedestrian politicizing of the arts rears its head once again. Let us not forget that truth can be much more devastating than fiction. To wit: Is there anything in Basic Instinct and Cruising - or in all sexual-psycho pictures combined - that begins to match Jeffrey Dahmer's slaughtering of young men, cutting them into pieces, and refrigerating them? What would be the politically proper thing to do in this instance, I wonder - conceal Dahmer's gayness because he's a necrophileous, homicidal maniac? This use of selective information could well be the latest political-media fashion, but it's a distortion of record. Now that is unacceptable.

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