Struggles to complete 'Heart,' 'Brainstorm' were worth it

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Two enjoyable new movies come from filmmakers with unusual track records. Jonathan Kaplan, director of Heart Like a Wheel, is a veteran of cheap action pictures that don't hint at the depth of his new film. Douglas Trumbull, maker of Brainstorm, is better known for special effects in other people's movies - including ''2001'' and ''Close Encounters of the Third Kind'' - than for his one previous feature, ''Silent Running,'' made back in 1971.

Though both men have waited long to show what they're capable of, they display sure-fire talent in their new pictures. If there's any justice in Hollywood - a dubious proposition, I admit - they should now be launched on unstoppable careers.

Yet neither ''Heart'' nor ''Brainstorm'' has come smoothly into the world. ''Heart,'' too quirky for the usual marketing categories, was nearly shelved by its own distributor. ''Brainstorm'' was almost scrapped before it was even completed, after the accidental death of Natalie Wood, one of its stars.

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So, as if making a first-rate feature weren't hard enough, both directors must now be apologists for their work. Kaplan insists that ''Heart'' will find an audience despite its offbeat material. Trumbull explains that the loss of a key actress didn't hurt the final shape of his movie.

Of the two pictures, ''Heart Like a Wheel'' is easiest to love. It's a ''bio-pic'' based on the life of Shirley Muldowney, the first woman to become a big-time drag racer. I know - the idea of a whole movie on drag racing sounds drab. But don't worry, I don't care a pin about cars or engines, and I enjoyed almost every scene of this rousing story about people and the endless, unpredictable changes they're always going through.

It begins with Shirley as a child, squirming in fear and excitement as her fast-driving daddy careens down a country road. Then we're in the '50s, the Flamingos are crooning ''doo-wop'' on the sound track, and teen-age Shirley - the only girl who's ever tried - is wiping the boy drivers right off the local track. She marries her high school flame, and they start inching toward drag-racing stardom.

The plot gets more complicated as the characters age. Shirley's success frightens her husband. She leaves him, finding new romance with a racing chum. Doors to success slam in her face because she's a woman. The new boyfriend turns out to be a philanderer. There's a big race and a nasty crash. And so on: familiar situations made fresh by unusual surroundings and heartfelt performances.

Since there is a real Shirley Muldowney, and she is a champion racer, there's not much suspense about how the movie will come out. This posed a problem for director Kaplan, as he confirmed over lunch with me the other day.

To liven things up, he determined to cram in as many human touches and emotional details as possible, so we'd care about the characters even when we know what's coming up. The effort worked, especially in some moving scenes with Shirley's son, and in her later encounters with that two-timing boyfriend, when a glance from star Bonnie Bedelia's face says more than five pages of dialogue could have.

According to Kaplan, this fine movie was almost abandoned by 20th Century-Fox because nobody could decide how to sell it - as a woman's picture, an action yarn, or a racing extravaganza. I understand the confusion, since ''Heart'' is all of the above, and yet something completely different, too. In any case, it is now edging its way into a few American cities after premiering at the New York Film Festival, and I hope viewers respond so it can spread its glow far and wide.

As for Kaplan, a graduate of Roger Corman's low-budget film factory, he has already spent years typecast as an action director, an exploitation hack, and a car-movie specialist - that last reputation earned at a time when he didn't even know how to drive. Again, he's really something very different. Here's hoping ''Heart Like a Wheel'' puts him on the map where he belongs.

High-tech drama

''Brainstorm'' should do the same for Douglas Trumbull, the high-tech wizard who has devised some of the most dazzling effects in science-fiction history. Though this is only his second movie as a director, it shows a visual assurance and a skill with performers that would be impressive in a filmmaker with far more experience. If its intellectual pretensions paid off equally well - which they don't, I'm afraid - this would be the fantasy epic of the year.

The heroes, a gaggle of technocrats, whip up a machine that transfers thoughts from one person to another. Naturally, a slew of subplots is just around the corner. The military can't wait to get its hands on the thing. Some sleazy character makes a pornographic - and dangerous - ''tape'' for it to play. And one of the inventors thinks he's stumbled on a new way to study death. (The rating is PG, reflecting a little sex and a scene of fatal illness.)

Storywise, the film squeezes in too much: Every angle gets explored, from technical details to a troubled marriage, making the action hectic and scattered. But the images have a vigor and surprise that keep the picture afloat during all but its most overstuffed moments. And while the goofy ending finesses the issues instead of resolving them, it has an optimism and an unabashed naivete that almost outweigh the craziness.

If the movie is so strong, why did MGM nearly scuttle it, especially since nearly all the Natalie Wood scenes were shot before her demise?

Trumbull tells me there's a moment near the end of every production ''when the pieces haven't quite fit together yet, and the studio gets worried and looks for an excuse to save the rest of its money.'' In this case, potential insurance payments - stemming from the Wood drowning - made the film worth more if abandoned than if completed. Trumbull believed in the project, though, and fought to see it through. The results fully justify his tenacity.

As for the vivacious look and feel of the movie, and the burbling optimism that crowns the finale, Trumbull says they reflect his own personality and outlook. Which indicates that ''Brainstorm'' is an uncommonly personal work despite its technological trappings and novel shooting methods. Trumbull thus seems poised to join the ranks of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, who have also captured on celluloid fantasies and images so personal they have something of the universal about them.

''Brainstorm'' is no ''Star Wars'' or ''E.T.,'' but it leads me to expect big things from Trumbull as his career develops.

Chinese films

When censorship stands in the way, many are the wiles of a filmmaker with a message.

For a vivid example, see the two fascinating Chinese movies - both made in 1937 - recently unearthed and reissued by Francis Ford Coppola and his Zoetrope Studios. They are on view through Sunday at the Collective for Living Cinema in New York and should surface at adventurous showplaces in other cities.

Crossroads and Street Angel were shot in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, just before Japan's full invasion in the summer of 1937 . The filmmakers were members of a militant ''screenwriters committee'' set up by the Chinese Communist Party, an underground group at that time. Their aim in these pictures was to comment on social and economic conditions, and in ''Crossroads'' to incite resistance in Manchuria - a goal so worrisome to the government that censors wouldn't allow so much as a fighting song or a map of Manchuria to remain in the finished film.

So the filmmakers had to be cagey. When one of their characters leaves Shanghai to fight in Manchuria, they can't say where he's headed, but they can tell us he's gone ''up north'' and that he's a terrific hero. Audiences surely figured things out. Similarly, two characters just happen to be a journalist and a factory worker - so there are lots of openings to sneak in critical views of industrial conditions. Other bits of blatant social comment slip into brief ''transition'' sequences that show newspaper headlines or industrial scenes filmed on location.

''Street Angel'' also has things to say, making points indirectly through a tragicomic story (with songs) about Shanghai's lower depths. Not all the social and political content of these movies is commendable - a picture of Stalin creeps into the background at one point, just happening to be in a character's apartment - but it's quite a sight to watch committed filmmakers run rings around the censors of their time. Also of interest are the strong Hollywood influences (director Frank Borzage was apparently a favorite) that course through both pictures.

''Street Angel'' was directed by Yuan Muzhi, the more impressive ''Crossroads'' by Shen Xiling, and the popular Zhao Dan starred in both. It's an unusual and worthwhile double bill.

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