MOVIES : Regarding Ridley : For 15 years, Ridley Scott has dazzled us with expressive imagery. 'Every time you make a film, really you're making a novel,' says the director.

Jack Mathews is the film critic for Newsday.

In her review of Ridley Scott's first film, the 1977 "The Duellists," critic Pauline Kael seemed almost perplexed by how much she enjoyed a movie of so little consequence. The story, about rival French officers during the Napoleonic Wars, wasn't very involving. The performances of stars Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine weren't very compelling. The filmmaker's passion for his subject wasn't very convincing.

And yet. . . .

"We sit back and observe it, and it's consistently entertaining--and eerily beautiful," Kael wrote. "You watch almost unblinking, because the imagery is so lustrous."

In the 15 years since "The Duellists," we have sat back on a half-dozen occasions, unblinking, while Ridley Scott dazzled us with imagery that, as Kael added, has an "expressive tone, like the sentences of a writer whose flow of feelings is richer than any explicit statement he can make."

To be described as a writer forming thoughts with images would not displease Scott, who refers to movies as visual novels and television commercials, a medium he stylistically revolutionized in the '60s, as short stories. Before his years at London's Royal College of Art, he recalls having passed a history course at Oxford by studying the accurate period detail about the Napoleonic Wars in Cecil Forester's Horatio Hornblower novels, and suggests that history may best be taught through feature films.

"Every time you make a film, really you're making a novel," says the 52-year-old Scott, whose latest movie, "1492: The Conquest of Paradise," will add kindling to the debate over the legacy of Christopher Columbus. "It's a pity you can't teach history this way. . . . There is something very captive about the dramatized act."

The question critics have been raising about Scott ever since "The Duellists" is whether he has the writer's intellect to go with the artist's eye. Until last year's "Thelma & Louise," a women-on-the-lam road movie that exploded like a smart bomb in the midst of the gender war, Scott's movies had been brilliant images in want of something to say.

After "Alien" (1979), a riveting "monster-on-the-train" horror movie, and "Blade Runner" (1982), a masterpiece of futuristic urban atmosphere, he went on a streak that all but cemented his image as a stylist-for-hire. In slow succession, he rolled out "Legend" (1985), a gloriously vapid fairy tale that not even the presence of Tom Cruise could save at the box office; "Someone to Watch Over Me" (1987), a Manhattan penthouse thriller memorable only for its sleek reflective surfaces; and "Black Rain" (1989), a U.S.-Japan cross-cultural chase picture that assaulted your eyes and ears without laying a glove on your brain.

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To conclude that Scott's films are victories of style over substance, however, misses the essential point of his work. For him, style and substance are inseparable. His compositions on the screen are brimming with content; they're designed to create atmosphere, mood, energy, tension and expectations. Whatever else may be said about "Thelma & Louise"--with it, Scott certainly proved he can direct great performances--it is a movie of sweeping visual power.

Even in "1492," whose period setting would seem to limit Scott's visual choices, the frame is constantly packed with textures. Mists and fog drift over the sea and out of the woods. There is smoke, rain, Spanish flags snapping in the wind.

"Ridley likes visible air," says "1492" executive producer Iain Smith. "He always finds ways to make you see it."

Scott has a quick answer for why he fills the air.

"It's very simple--I see it," he says. "Most people don't see things. They walk by them and it's right there. I see them. I see everything that's going on in front of me. It's a visible way of approaching life, I suppose. If I'd lived in a different time, I guess I would have been a painter."

Talk to Scott for a few minutes and it becomes clear that he is a painter, at heart, and by definition, as "one who artistically represents persons, scenes or objects in colors on a suitable surface." Those objects and scenes can be selling Apple computers on television or interpreting the discovery of the New World on a theater screen.

"I used to get asked, 'Is film an art form?' Of course it's an art form. Taking pictures of food at a high level is an art form. . . . Unfortunately, the film industry doesn't think of it that way. Therefore, 90% of it is not art. Producers and directors don't go into it with that sensitivity, and that's a pity. Film is 20th-Century theater and it will become 21st-Century writing."

Meaning that literature is going to become the opera of the next generation?

"Definitely," Scott says, "and there's nothing you can do about it."

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Scott says that just as today's feature filmmakers are influenced by the television commercials of the '60s, the next generation of filmmakers will be influenced by the work being done on video. They've got his attention.

"I'm influenced by the way they're shot and cut, the brevity of their communication, of getting to the point," he says. "To me, it's healthy, on one level, because in two hours, you can put in so much more information. In features, you could tell an incredibly complex story in an hour and a half or two hours. Somebody will do it well soon and everybody will say, 'Wow, that's really interesting.' "

With "1492" opening Friday in theaters throughout the world, Scott and a film crew were heading for Rome to shoot a television commercial. "A comedy," Scott said. "It's very exciting, it's going to be a lot of fun."

Scott is still a going concern as a maker of TV commercials. He has offices in New York, Los Angeles and London, and claims that 15 of the top commercials directors in the business are on his roster. He directed the famous Apple Computer spot that aired only once, during the 1984 Super Bowl, and his commercials for American Express, Chanel and Nissan Turbo also have aired in this country. After 23 years, Ridley Scott Associates is still one of the U.S. and Europe's busiest producers of TV spots, and Scott speaks of the medium in near-reverent terms. "I love doing commercials," he says. "If I didn't do them, I might not turn over for another year."

He also freely acknowledges he's the filmmaker he is because of the commercials he's made. "Whatever you see (in my movies) comes totally out of commercials."

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When you consider the cost of producing the high-quality TV commercials for which Scott first gained prominence in the 1960s, and the satisfaction-guaranteed relationship that exists between the artists and their clients, it's easy to appreciate how he's managed to keep the artist's temperament under control.

When producers were forcing post-production changes on "Blade Runner," including a ludicrous narration and an incongruously upbeat ending, Scott quietly went along. When MCA-Universal President Sidney J. Sheinberg suggested that Jerry Goldsmith's orchestral score for "Legend" be replaced with a rock score by Tangerine Dream, and that the movie be trimmed by 30 minutes, the director said fine.

"Hollywood, and I say this nicely, is a film factory," says Scott. "You have to keep in mind with the cost of films today . . . that at the end of it all, somebody's going to have to want to go and see it."

Lately, with the success of "Thelma & Louise" and the national release of his original version of "Blade Runner," Scott has been feeling, if not rebellious, at least more secure and more independent.

"Early on, I think I did it for the right reasons and the right instincts," he says. "I didn't know enough. I think now I know quite a lot and I'm going to trust my own instincts. When you're making a movie . . . you're filled with doubts about yourself. But the last two movies, I've felt more confidence."

The change, he acknowledges, began the day he read Callie Khouri's script for "Thelma & Louise," the story of two women friends who, fed up with their humdrum lives, hit the road for a weekend fling, then become fugitives who would rather drive off a cliff than return to their old lives.

Scott, who was preparing to film another "Alien"-like science-fiction film, didn't see "Thelma & Louise" as a Ridley Scott film, necessarily, but he was looking for properties to produce and offered the script to several other A-list directors.

"I thought I was really generous, taking material like that and laying it on someone's desk and saying, 'Do you want to do it?' What I met with was a kind of paranoia. They didn't want to do it unless they could change it. I said, 'This is a script that doesn't need changing.' Finally, I just decided I'll do it myself."

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Even Scott thought of himself and "Thelma and & Louise" as an odd match. His previous films had distinctly masculine points of view, even "Alien," whose major character was a woman. Scott says that character, played by Sigourney Weaver, was strong in dramatic terms, but unlike traditional male heroes, "she survived more by luck than by judgment."

"Thelma & Louise" was far from a consensus critical hit, but its broad depiction of male chauvinism tapped a collective nerve in a year when highly publicized rape trials and Senate hearings regarding sexual harassment were demonstrating just how oafish much of America's male population is.

The film grossed more than $60 million for struggling MGM/Pathe, and received four Oscar nominations, including Scott's first for direction. For the first time, he knew what it was to be applauded for something other than his visual genius, and he liked the sensation. He now sees "Thelma & Louise" as a clear turning point in his career.

"Once you touch the ground about a film being about something," he said, "it's difficult to go back."

Scott seems to have a ways to go himself in understanding the anger of American women. He says the Hill-Thomas hearings were an abuse of television's power, that the charges brought by Anita Hill against Clarence Thomas were nothing in the context of normal male-female relationships, and quotes women friends as saying that when they don't get wolf calls walking past building sites, they'll know it's all over.

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At the same time, he acknowledges that it's the women's point of view in the scripts for "Thelma & Louise" and French journalist Roslyn Bosch's "1492" that give them a humanity missing in some of his other movies. That's particularly important to "1492," he says, because where men tend to see Columbus as an adventure story, Bosch saw it as a character study.

"What we're doing here is interpreting a man's life 500 years after he lived," Scott says. "We have a lot of information about what he did, but very little about who he was, what formed his judgments. Frankly, I was pretty ignorant about Columbus and when I read Roslyn's script, she presented a man and not a myth."

Scott says his next movie will probably be an adaptation of Terrence Rattigan's 1948 play "The Browning Version," a domestic drama about an aging schoolmaster and his unfaithful wife. And further down the road, he hopes, is "Blade Runner 2."

"I'd really like to do that, I think 'Blade Runner' made some very interesting suggestions to the origins of Harrison Ford's character, addressing the idea of immortality. I think it would be a very intelligent sequel."

That it will look great goes without saying.

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