SNIDE CONDESCENSION CREEPS INTO THE MOVIES

Many calls this week about my review of "Ishtar," some from readers who've decided I've gone 'round the bend at last, more from others who've also liked it. A common thread to the positive calls is the sweetness of the film, a sense that the characters played by Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman are each other's valiant buddies, and that alone is a quality conspicuously missing from films in recent months.

An attitude has been creeping in on little rat feet and it's burrowed into several of this year's films--at best a condescension, at worst a sort of snideness toward one's fellow man. You could find it in Joel and Ethan Coen's "Raising Arizona," in Susan Seidelman's "Making Mr. Right," in Diane Keaton's "Heaven." They're very different movies, but they're unified by their high style and their cool lack of passion.

"Raising Arizona" centers around a childless couple of Tempe, Ariz., who speak with sorghum drawls and think a little more slowly than glaciers move. He's a more-than-frequent public offender, since he can barely pass a 7-Eleven without holding it up; his future wife is the police officer who took his mug shots. Kidnaping a baby is at the heart of the farce, but it's the Coens' attitude--unveiled condescension mixed with immense self-satisfaction--that's so damningly pervasive.

"Making Mr. Right's" abrasive heroine is supposed to be a young, ultra-successful image maker in Miami Beach, although the career suggestions she concocts for her clients seem even less inspired than the reasons to have made this movie. In the course of telling her story, we get views of Jewish matrons and Cuban immigrants done with the relentlessness of a Diane Arbus, but without Arbus' saving non-judgmental quality or her apocalyptic vision that told you somehow that she shared her subjects' pain and their humanity.

"Heaven" holds its interviewees and their notions of the hereafter up to sniggering disdain and her use of the public-domain films is a kind of hubris too. These great images, of Dreyer's incomparable Falconetti, from "Stairway to Heaven" or from "Beauty and the Beast," aren't there to make a point--that our notion of heaven may to a large degree have come from movies--but as a sort of cuticle-scissored, chic collage. The films of Dreyer, Cocteau, Lang and Michael Powell et al. deserve better.

In the case of each of these three films, there is a germ of an idea for farce or, in the case of "Heaven," affectionate investigation. It's the attitude of the movie makers that has made the working-out of these ideas so unpleasant.

Afraid of being thought sentimental, these film makers have chosen to be amused. Their stance is to stand apart from their characters, to watch them with disdain. Because they give us no humanity to hold on to, they force us into doing the same.

(Interestingly enough, all three of these movies use the same visual style, that uncozy post-Modernism with the bright, shadowless look of '50s Technicolor. You have the feeling that, like mauve/gray/pink restaurants and glass brick, it's all going to look old hat on the same day, and there'll be a terrible scramble to find the next trend.)

Is there a clue to a joint attitude in the fact that Keaton, the Coens and Seidelman are Manhattanites--the last three all from the same film school, NYU? Is this just another running of the New York Number on anything west of the Hudson? Certainly sentimental is the dirtiest word the East Coast mind can apply to any work of art.

You only need to think of Woody Allen, the quintessential New Yorker, and "Hannah and Her Sisters" or "Radio Days," to sink that argument. Or the Robert Benton of "Places in the Heart." Or even the Neil Simon of Broadway's current "Broadway Bound." With maturity, what each of these craftsmen has done is to go back to his roots to search for and unearth a very private kind of truth. It doesn't have to be truth-without-humor; far from it. But it has to strike a universal, not a regional, chord.

Writer-director Elaine May, certainly a quintessential New Yorker, has done just that with her quirkily funny script of "Ishtar." More than a send-up of the old Hope-Crosby "Road" movies, "Ishtar" is actually about the lure of show biz, as her Dustin Hoffman character would be the first to call it. But under the jokes about the profession is a magnetic affection for it. And what you feel without a trace of doubt is May's pure love for her two goofy guys, and the strength of their support and love for one another. It's what makes the palpable difference between "Ishtar" and these other three New York-style movies.

It's easy to be part of a smug in-crowd, to put down, to be amused by that great milling humanity out there. But the opposite of cynicism is feeling, and feeling involves pain. I might suggest that for all the technical wizardry of the Coens or of Seidelman's cameraman or Keaton's cinematographer or her set designer, that what these other unashamed "sentimentalists"--the Allens, Bentons, Mays and latterly Simons--have done is harder. By far.

Actually, the cynicism of "Raising Arizona" and "Heaven" and the bland, astonishing cruelty of the ending of "Making Mr. Right" tell us far more about their makers than the characters they've created for our amusement. These film makers assume implicitly that we share their attitudes. Why should we? For all their trendy look, there's nothing new being said by these films, about alienation or the emptiness of modern life, that wasn't said decades before by Nathanael West or Michelangelo Antonioni or Diane Arbus. A comic mixture of the perceptive and the humanistic can still be done; you have only to think of Jonathan Demme's "Something Wild" or "Melvin and Howard." But it will come hard, not facilely, and not with a sophomoric snigger.

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