Hollywood's return to 'average Joes' and Americana

Americans love Americana, especially at the movies. And so do people in lots of other countries, judging from the wide popularity of many film with American themes.

Peter Bogdanovich once told me that all his pictures were about Americana, and plenty of other directors would be qualified to make the same remark about their work. As if to demonstrate this, the enterprising Regency Theater in New York is running a series called "Americana" through Dec. 13, with 69 features chronicling four centuries of American life.

The films are as diverse as "Citizen Kane" and "Yankee Doodle dandy," "Stagecoach," and "Easy Rider." The entries by John Ford alone constitute a veritable history of the United States, from "Drums Along the Mohawk" to "Fort Apache," "The Grapes of Wrath," and "The Last Hurrah."

But movie Americana is not a thing of the past. Look at the brand-new picture that opened the New York Film Festival last week, and will soon be in general release. It's American down to its toes -- and though Universal Pictures is jittery about its box-office potential, it could turn out to be the smash hit that restores Americana as a major Hollywood genre.

It's called Melvin and Howard, and it has the unlikeliest subject matter of the year. Remember the gas- station owner who stepped forward after the death of billionaire Howard Hughes, a brandishing a will that left him many million dollars of Hughes's money? He's the Melvin of the story.

Actually, there isn't much to tell about him and Hughes, especially since the courts threw out the "will" in real life, and he hasn't seen a penny of the Hughes fortune, although his claim is depicted as being entirely legitimate. So what is the movie about? Simple: I's a loosely plotted odyssey through the life and tim es of Melvin Dummar, in all its commonplace variety.

With our unassuming hero, we move from the challenge of a new job to the sadness of a family quarrel, from the comfort of a suburban home to a seedy bar. The movie incorporates the seamy as well as the wholesome. But the thrust of the story is consistently toward the decency and respectability of its characters, although this is compromised by Melvin's dishonest claim on Hughes's will. Actually, the sordid underside of American life is just touched on, and it turns off Melvin as much as us.

In its way, "Melvin and Howard" is a hymn to the average Joe, as he used to be called. When was the last time a movie dealt so earnestly with the real problems of regular folks? The moments of high drama occur when Melvin spends too much from his paycheck. The suspense builds as he struggles with his new job -- will he be named Milkman of the Month? Pyschological subtleties unfold too: What is his wife hinting at by serving bell peppers for supper, when we all know Melvin hates bell peppers?

Of course, Howard Hughes is in there as well. But it's a small appearance mostly at the beginning of the movie, when Melvin picks him up in the desert after the tycoon has taken a spill from his motorcycle. Good old Melvin doesn't even believe it is Howard Hughes until long after, when the mysterious will shows up.

The characters are twice as ordinary as the folks of "Ordinary People," yet we are fascinated with them all the way. Credit for this goes to the excellent cast -- Paul LeMat, Mary Steenburgen, Jason Robards -- and to director Jonathan Demme, who has shaped No Goldman's unpretentious screenplay into an ever-lively feast for the eyes and ears. After a few false starts in his earlier pictures, this bright young filmmaker has hit his stride at least, giving the story the resonance of a new American myth.

Melvin and Howard play out their story in the Western states. By contrast, Woody Allen is still hanging out on the "sophisticated" East Coast. His new comedy is called Stardust Memories, and it's easily the strangest movie of his career.

Allen, a New York filmmaker, plays Sandy Bates, a New York filmmaker. Bates used to make comedies but has been overwhelmed by the dark side of life -- recalling Allen himself in the increasing seriousness of "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan," not to mention the gloominess of "Interiors."

It's hard to be sure how exactly the character of Bates reflects Allen's own image of himself, but there seem to be strong parallels. In his book "When the Shooting Stops," film editor Ralph Rosenbloom describes Allen as a "perennially joyless . . . not ingratiating . . . cerebral, cautious" person who "feels . . . out of step with the world." That sounds a lot like the fictional Bates. Fans fawn on him, while he struggles for privacy. Critics castigate him for not being funny any more, while he agonizes over the meaning of art. Women fall into his arms, while he agonizes over his lack of "meaningful relationships."

Two threads run through "Stardust Memories." The first is an admiration for Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini. In structure, "Stardust Memories" is almost slavishly patterned after Fellini's "8 1/2," its flow constantly punctuated with memory and fantasy scenes. Yet this seems like a logical stylistic step for Allen: It's an exercise in editing, just as "Manhattan" was an essay in camera movement.

The other thread is Allen's insistence on somber comedy, spilling over into real agony -- and even nastiness on more than one occasion. The edgy undertones of Allen's recent movies have become overtones her e. In "Annie Hall" the main character was obsessed with a movie about Nazism. In "Stardust Memories" this idea is carried further, as when the main character decorates his living-room wall with a horrifying image from the Vietnam war.

When we first see this, the incongruity has an automatically comical effect -- we giggle, and maybe gasp, from sheer surprise. But the image lingers and lingers, until we don't know what to make of it. "Stardust Memories" could be the most nervous, most self-questioning comedy in movie history. It doesn't even feel comfortable about its own viewers; through the character of Bates, Allen attacks his fans and admirers as aggressively as he attacked California in "Annie Hall."

Why has Allen centered "Stardust Memories" on an alter ego so jittery, so compulsive, so unlovable? Film critic diane Jacobs, who is preparing a book on Allen, has a good theory: that Allen is an obsessively honest filmmaker who feels compelled to reflect his own shortcomings and self-doubts on the screen, as well as the cuddly qualities that have come out in his earlier pictures.

This is courageous of him, even if it isn't always pleasant; and this courage speaks well for Allen's future as an artist, even if it undercuts the humor of his current offering. "Stardust Memories" is an uncommonly challenging comedy. Whether you love it or loathe it -- and audiences are sure to do both -- you've never seen a picture like it.

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