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.

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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