Crimes of Fashion

When the gay community has fought so valiantly during the post-Stonewall period for great causes - equal opportunity, social and political integration, and over the past ten years, against the tragedy of AIDS - there is no reason for certain quarters to be obsessed with irrelevancies such as early drafts of movie scripts. Of course, the principle of perception-as-reality applies to politics, the arts, and any other walk of life. And yes, a prejudicial image is emblematic of the larger problem for gays in America. But Basic Instinct's ice-picking femme fatale is an unworthy target for such groups or concerns. If the stink is a conscious attempt to educate a large portion of the film community to achieve a greater sensitivity toward the complexity of our gay population, it's ignorant of the fact that a large portion of the film community is gay. What they're selling is formulas. Hollywood's priorities aren't macho, they're monetary.

The gay community's mediahounds shouldn't be so eager to adopt censorious, hysterical, McCarthyite methods to achieve such meager ends as idealized, indefatigably pro-gay portraits in cinema. It's unseemly for any political entity - gay, straight, right-wing, or leftist - to impose its view on the creative process through guerrilla tactics like obtaining a script and trying to change it. And it's useful to remember that film and television may be powerful, but they're commercial mediums. They reflect more efficiently than direct popular consensus. Often some of us are appalled by the information, but that's democracy.

As movies go, Basic Instinct shows us a mere political miscalculation. What Woody Allen gives us is something worse: an artistic blunder. Two years ago in this paper, I skewered Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors, but I recognize now that it shines like a precious stone beside his current work, Shadows and Fog. This vaguely European-looking film is set in the Twenties, and presents a group of displaced circus performers, prostitutes, and metropolitans trying to catch a strangler over one dark and foggy night. Nothing much happens in this film, except that Allen has thrown in the entire cultural kitchen sink, borrowing from a full library of literary and cinematic sources. Mercifully, this time he's restricted his habitual 78 rpm record blitz on the soundtrack to sparsely scored music from Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera. Carlo Di Palma's black-and-white cinematography is no match for the haunting grays and blacks of Steven Soderbergh's Kafka; Eszterhas's script for Basic Instinct, warts and all, is a model of excellence next to Allen's.

Paul Verhoeven's cribbing from Hitchcock's Vertigo and The Birds may actually be modest beside Woody Allen's selection, whose number of cultural references stretch credulity. As always, there's the Chaplinesque persona Allen has cultivated over the years, alternately impish and pathetic. The inveterate reader of literature will rightly note a Kafkaesque air in this film, but equally recognizable will be bits of Bertolt Brecht, chunks of Franz Wedekind's Pandora's Box, and clusters of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. The inveterate film student will see even more: German Expressionists as represented by G.W. Pabst, Max Reinhardt, and particularly, Fritz Lang's M. And once again, the singular influence of Ingmar Bergman is evidenced: the Knight's confrontation with Death in The Seventh Seal, the carnival of Sawdust and Tinsel, and science-versus-theology in The Magician. What cynical filmmakers like Verhoeven and Allen might call cinematic derivation - or Hollywood's word of choice, homage - is more like stealing another creator's thunder. The dictionary definition for this crime is plagiarism.

Allen attempts to be funny, mysterious, fearsome, metaphysical, and dramatic in a midnight prowl that, at a quick 85 minutes, is still as slow-moving as a cortege. And what views on character!~ Only in Woody Allen's skewed world would Mia Farrow and Madonna pass muster as circus performers while Lily Tomlin and Kathy Bates make a living as hookers. What is most peculiar here is how ugly everyone is - not to mention Allen himself, whose sagging, clownish features begin to resemble Jack Gilford's. The lack of generosity extends to the women, too - even beautiful Kate Nelligan is filmed from an unglamorous distance. It's as though Allen had conceived this project in the same, self-revealingly nasty manner with which he examined the oversize noses of his fans in Stardust Memories - and failed where it counts. It's a tired, dissembling mess.

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