The fall movie season is arriving, and not a moment too soon. Who among us could take another month of the appalling trivialities Hollywood has foisted on us all summer long? Even now, it remains to be seen whether the domestic studios will provide relief from the warm-weather blues, or whether rescue will come from imported and "art film" releases.
Traditionally, audiences demand more substantial fare in the autumn. Hollywood has a few promising items in store for the next few weeks, from a drama about "the elephant man" to new outpourings by Woody Allen and John Cassavetes.
But so far the two most provocative films of the season are visitors from abroad, distributed to Americans by the enterprising New Yorker Films. Both are meditations on history, but before you don your thinking cap and prepare to take notes, observe a sign of the times: Each of these thoughtful and committed movies expressed itself in terms that would be more at home in a horror comic book.
Even our most socially concerned filmmakers, it seems, are succumbing to the sledgehammer mentality of today's top pictures. Its a dubious trend.
Consider the Australian film The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, which has been released under a self-imposedm R-type rating, aimed at restricting viewers under 17 years old. Like most films from that country, it cares passionately about its characters -- you know someone wanted very badly to make thism movie on thism subject. Its plot takes place in 1900, when similar events actually happened in Australia. The theme is racial animosity and the violent hatred that has allegedly festered in the tragic gulf separating white ideals and Christian principles from the miserable realities of everyday Aborigine life.
The main character is a half-caste Aborigine. He wants to follow the white man's ways, and plunges eagerly into respectable working-class life after being raised and educated by a missionary. But tribal traditions have already become a part of him, being literally carved into his skin during adolescent rituals. And he is repeatedly cheated and mistreated by his white employers, until he and his new family find themselves in danger of starving.
At this point Jimmy's rage reaches a breaking point, and he declares a one-man war on white society -- a gesture that is no more evil, in his deranged eyes, than the war being planned by the British against the Boers. Jimmy fights his futile battle with an ax and a rifle. His own people call him a "devil-man" and refute him, and he clearly has no chance of victory. Yet he rages to the end, as trapped by his own anger as his tribesmen are trapped by the encroachments of white civilization.
For about half its length, "The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith" is well mannered, and even good natured when the story allows. When Jimmy goes mad, though, the film loses its own sense of perspective. His actions are explained in historical, but not in psychological, terms -- so his behavior is often as inexplicable as it is execrable. The movie details his vendetta in the nastily graphic terms you might expect from a bloody shocker like "Dawn of the Dead."
There's no doubt that director Fred Schepisi intends the "Chant" as an outcry against violence, as well as an exploration of Australian history. Perhaps it';s also a comment on the white guilt that produces movies like this (and Phillip Noyce's "Backroads" and Peter Weir's "The Last Wave") 80 years after the fact. But the picture's own rage, coupled with gaps in its logic and its continuity, weakens its persuasive force.
One looks forward to the day when Schepisi will combine his historical inclinations with the subtle psychologizing of his fine film about a seminary, "The Devil's Playground." The rampaging "Jimmy Blacksmith" makes a pungent reminder of the dark side of today's Australian cinema, which has lately been represented by such sunny films as "My Brilliant Career" and "The Getting of Wisdom." But its intemperance ultimately interferes with its coherence. Fassbinder
Of course one never expects temperance from the prodigious West German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who has spewed forth more than 30 pictures in the past 10 years or so.
His latest is a pitch-black comedy about political terrorism called The Third Generation. It is Fassbinder's feeling that terrorists "do not know what they are doing," that they are seduced by the "delusive adventure" of acting "in danger but without perspective." He has peopled his mad melodrama with a motley crew of characters, including a capitalist who pays a terrorist organizer to disrupt society so his computer business will pick up.
As usual, Fassbinder is aghast at the decadence of his characters and their society, and as usual he wallows in that same decadence, peppering his film with images of overbearing sex and pointless violence.
In his more compassionate movies, Fassbinder gets inside his characters and shows how they feel, helping us understand and deplore the suffering they cause themselves. In his so-called comedies, though, this prolific filmmaker turns to hysteria instead of reason, and the point of the picture gets lost almost immediately. For all its imaginative images and famed international cast, "The Third Generation" is an oddly heartless film. Its ironies overwhelm its emotions, and the result seems almost as inhumane as the terrorist mentality it so properly attacks.