Key to filming the world of young adults: credibility

Walking into S.E. Hinton's hotel room, the first thing I noticed was a battered copy of ''Gone With the Wind'' on a table in the corner. When I asked about it, she cheerfully admitted to being a ''Gone With the Wind'' freak - ''Give me any line in the book, and I'll give you the next one'' - just like the character Johnny in her own first novel, ''The Outsiders.'' She often carries a copy of ''Gone With the Wind'' with her, a reminder of the storytelling pleasures that drew her to literature as a way of life.

To many readers, Miss Hinton is a leading author of books for young adults. ''The Outsiders,'' published when she was a mere 17 years old, has become a classic in its field. Quick popularity has also followed her other three novels: ''Rumble Fish'' and ''That Was Then, This Is Now,'' as well as her own favorite, the recent ''Tex.''

And now moviegoers are discovering her unusual world of fiction. ''Tex,'' in a sensitive screen version by director Tim Hunter, is a current release from Walt Disney Productions (reviewed in the Monitor's Aug. 5 issue). It marks a major breakthrough for the Disney studio, with its realistic depiction of realistic teenage problems.

What's more, early next year will see the release of ''The Outsiders,'' directed by no less a cineaste than Francis Coppola of ''Godfather'' and ''Apocalypse Now'' fame. In fact, Coppola got so enthused while shooting ''The Outsiders'' that he segued into yet another Hinton story, filming ''Rumble Fish'' in the same location (Tulsa) with much of the same cast and crew.

Miss Hinton seems a little overwhelmed by so much cinematic activity in so short a time. But she's enjoying her new links with the movie world, she said during our interview in Manhattan, shortly before ''Tex'' was shown at the recent New York Film Festival. Indeed, she has moved beyond the status of ''original novel by . . .'' and become a screenwriter in her own right. She is as proud of her script for ''Rumble Fish,'' she says, as of her books.

Though her novels all deal with young people, Miss Hinton doesn't feel that she or her career are stuck in adolescence. She knows many adults have valued her books, too. And she takes real pride in her popularity with teenagers, who are often overlooked by serious authors. The teen years are complicated and often difficult, she says, and provide plenty of deep, forceful material for a mature writer to explore.

To conduct this exploration in depth, Miss Hinton likes to create fictional worlds inhabited largely by teenagers themselves, with a minimum of adults to intrude and interfere. This serves a number of purposes - allowing teen attitudes and customs to stand out in clear relief, and revealing the ''code'' that often governs adolescent behavior. Miss Hinton is fascinated with this unwritten moral system, which resembles the ''code'' frequently found in westerns and other heroic tales. One goal of her books is to probe the complex web of moral, ethical, and practical decisionmaking that is an integral part, she feels, of adolescent life.

Miss Hinton discovered the joy of reading and writing at an early age. She wrote ''The Outsiders'' as a teenager in 1967, out of frustration with the ''young adult'' books then available, which didn't mirror her idea of the real world. Her career didn't exactly leap ahead from that point, though. She ran into a case of ''writer's block,'' which finally dissolved under the encouragement of her boyfriend, who insisted she write two pages a day, no matter what.

The summer after she graduated from the University of Tulsa as an education major, her life fell into place. ''I finished another novel, and married my boyfriend,'' she happily recalls. They still live near Tulsa.

How did Hollywood discover the Hinton novels? In various ways. Tim Hunter stumbled on ''Tex'' while concocting an earlier film about teenagers, ''Over the Edge.'' As he told me a few months ago, ''All the kids in the cast were reading these books by someone named Hinton. And apparently all their friends were, too. Never one to ignore the advice of hundreds of teenagers, I decided to look into them.'' What he found was a strongly written story of two brothers growing up with no parents in a rundown Oklahoma house - excellent grist, he felt, for moviemaking.

Francis Coppola was introduced to ''The Outsiders'' by a group of California high school students. ''They wrote a letter,'' he says, ''suggesting that I film their favorite novel. I got a copy of the novel and read it, and I saw how forceful the story was.'' Later, the momentum of ''The Outsiders'' - about youngsters caught up in gang rivalry - carried Coppola into the production of another Hinton yarn, ''Rumble Fish.'' Like the current ''Tex,'' both Coppola films will feature Matt Dillon in important roles.

Though such novels as ''Tex'' and ''The Outsiders'' sometimes deal with tough material - including gang violence and brushes with drugs - a basic morality always shines through. Miss Hinton believes the best way to make a point is by example, not mere exhortation. She points out that ''Rumble Fish'' (due in theaters next year) will probably be rated R, saying it would have been wrong to soften a book that is basically a ''tragedy.'' If a positive message is going to be received by youngsters, she feels, it has to be couched in credible terms - in other works, terms that are realistic by modern standards.

''I'm not a teacher, a preacher, a parent, or a cop,'' she says with a smile. ''I write things the way I see them.'' It's a successful formula for one of today's most eagerly read novelists. Merged media

In recent years, some artists have used cinema in an unusual way - not giving a show on a theater screen, but merging film with painting or sculpture in a fixed, permanent work. Such works are more likely encountered in museums than in movie houses, but can be thoroughly entertaining for all that.

The Whitney Museum of American Art has become a leader in exhibiting such pieces. Beginning this week, it is showing ''The Judas Window'' by Leandro Katz. On Dec. 23, ''Passes'' will be on view - a video installation by Ed Emshwiller, whose long film and video experience includes collaborations with leading modern dancers. In between these installations, the Whitney will present videotapes by Isaac Cronin, Terrell Seltzer, and Judith Barry, running Dec. 10-19.

What is a ''film installation'' like? I can think of no better example than the work which kicked off the current season of the Whitney's New American Filmmakers Series. A new ''film and sculpture installation'' by Roger Welch, titled ''Drive-In: Second Feature,'' it splendidly sums up the unique options offered by the installation form. It deserves to be re-mounted soon by other museums.

The piece has two main elements. One is a full-size Cadillac made entirely of twigs and branches tied together with twine. It faces a movie screen held aloft by primitive wooden poles. On this screen we see the detritus of 80 years of Hollywood production - ''coming attractions'' for Debbie Reynolds and Elvis Presley films, punctuated by ballyhoos for the snack bar and warnings to return to your car before ''show time'' begins.

Welch's purpose is to recreate ''two symbols of American culture . . . as if by a Micronesian cargo cult or a contemporary Robinson Crusoe.'' He has done so concisely and wittily. He has also linked, in a wryly nostalgic way, two fading dinosaurs of midcentury American life: the huge ''luxury'' car, and the kitschy outdoor theater that catered to it in the days when gasoline and movie tickets were both inexpensive items.

Meanwhile, the patchy images on the screen are indeed ''like pieces of a broken artifact an archeologist would put back together again,'' reminders - both vapid and poignant - of a recent past that still waits to be assessed and understood. ''Drive-In: Second Feature,'' described by its maker as ''the product of an archeological expedition into contemporary America,'' is a provocative achievement. If the remainder of the Whitney film-and-video program rises to its standard, this will be a lively season indeed. Films with a new shape

Hollywood movies usually want to look - and perform - like best-selling novels come to life. By contrast, many independent filmmakers take poetry, painting, or music for their models. These films often do without the conventional plots and characters we expect from popular features. Instead, they offer new perspectives on what film can do when stretched into new and often unexpected shapes.

The Kitchen, an adventurous showplace in lower Manhattan, has launched a new series that will explore this undervalued branch of cinema. The series is called ''Film/Music,'' and it opened the other day with a quartet of classics, each of which probes the relationship between image and sound on the motion-picture screen.

The oldest item on the program was ''Rose Hobart,'' a late-'30s ''collage film'' by the respected artist Joseph Cornell, who is best known for his lovely and mysterious boxes decorated with ''found'' materials. Always unconventional, Cornell took all the footage of ''Rose Hobart'' from a 1932 ''B'' movie called ''East of Borneo,'' and specified a particular phonograph record - ''Cordoba,'' a disc of Latin dance tunes - to be played along with it.

Thus the sound track and the film have only a loose connection that will be different each time the movie is shown, since the projector and record player will never be in perfect sync. Of course, this chance element vanishes when the ''Cordoba'' tunes are physically added to the film like a standard sound track; but the Kitchen commendably showed a silent print, with the merry Latin music tagging along at its own jaunty pace.

Somewhat similar is the 1964 ''New York Eye and Ear Control,'' by Michael Snow, a Canadian artist and musician. The images are based on a cardboard cutout of a woman's figure, which is seen in various situations with various moods and meanings. The sound track is a freewheeling jam session, featuring six jazzmen, whose unfettered noodlings are punctuated with long moments of silence. As in the Cornell film, the pictures and sounds each have their own lives, which intermingle on the filmmaker's terms.

The program was rounded off with ''All My Life,'' a movie haiku by Bruce Baillie that exhilaratingly matches a single camera movement with an Ella Fitzgerald song, and ''Blonde Cobra,'' by Ken Jacobs and Bob Fleischner, in which deliberately anarchic images are counterpointed with a seemingly chaotic but actually controlled melange of ranting speech, whimsical song, and miscellaneous noise.

The ''Film/Music'' series, curated by critic and teacher Amy Taubin, will continue Nov. 28 with a splendid program featuring Bruce Conner's exquisite ''5: 10 to Dreamland,'' Peter Kubelka's dense ''Unsere Afrikarese,'' and worthwhile pictures by Baillie and Kenneth Anger, along with several other items including an anthropological film and a cartoon. It's all part of the Kitchen's new effort to emphasize forward-looking film along with its usual menu of video, music, and dance - an effort to be praised and encouraged.

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