Hollywood's 'movie brats' -- a status report

Not long ago, the ''movie brats'' were the great hope of Hollywood - the new breed of young, energetic, film-school types who were itching to lead the movies into a new age of high-tech, high art, and high profits.

How goes the campaign? Results vary from one whiz kid to another.

Steven Spielberg is the king, with hits ranging from ''Jaws'' to ''E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.'' Martin Scorsese is doing well, winning praise for ''The King of Comedy'' and other pictures. George Lucas is riding high, with Chapter 3 in the ''Star Wars'' saga - ''Return of the Jedi'' - due next month.

Less happily, recent efforts by George Milius and John Landis have fallen short of expectations. And the ambitious Michael Cimino, once the prodigy of ''The Deer Hunter,'' has kept a low profile since the disaster of ''Heaven's Gate,'' although he is working on a new picture.

In the middle, hovering between success and failure, is the original movie brat: Francis Ford Coppola. The latest pictures to emerge from his Zoetrope Studios, ''The Outsiders'' and ''The Black Stallion Returns,'' are a far cry from the ''Godfather'' films and ''Apocalypse Now.'' They show Coppola working hard. But they indicate no clear direction for his future, either as an artist or as honcho of the financially troubled Zoetrope kingdom.

If any theme unites these Hollywood whiz kids, it's the difficulty of joining personal expression with big money and flashy show-biz traditions. Each of the ''movie brats'' now out of favor was harmed, directly or indirectly, by an attempt to join ''personal'' themes or styles with lavish production values - be it the ''The Wind and the Lion'' from Milius, ''The Blues Brothers'' from Landis , or ''Heaven's Gate'' from Cimino.

By contrast, the success of a Spielberg, a Lucas, or a Scorsese grows partly from a talent for meshing personal conviction with the lavish touches Hollywood loves. Whatever the worth of an ''E.T.'' or a ''Star Wars'' or a ''Raging Bull, '' it's clear their creators believed in them deeply - and kept their visions intact, even while using the movie industry's potentially overwhelming technical and financial resources.

Coppola had this skill. He knew how to make big pictures that reflected his own background and preoccupations, like the ''Godfather'' epics; and he knew when to keep a project intimate and concentrated, like ''The Conversation.'' He tested his talents to the utmost in ''Apocalypse Now,'' a Vietnam-war drama that called for mountains of money and arduous ''location'' shooting. It reached the screen late and was a little scruffy, but it impressed critics and audiences.

Apparently dazed by his own success, Coppola then began his downward slide with ''One From the Heart.'' Although it was designed as a romantic ''valentine, '' intimacy and charm were smothered by self-conscious cinematic devices. Coppola saw these touches as an intrinsic part of the picture. But moviegoers wanted a real love story, not an overstuffed visual study.

Aside from artistic considerations, the financial fallout from the failure of ''Heart'' was grim. It lost nearly all the money sunk into it, and spelled big trouble for the Zoetrope operation, which had never before produced a clinker. Clearly, it was time to retrench, and fast.

The first result of that retrenchment is ''The Outsiders,'' directed by Coppola from S.E. Hinton's popular young-adult novel about rich kids vs. poor kids in Tulsa. It has opened to many mixed and negative reviews, but good box-office response. As a movie, it's mediocre. As a clue to Coppola's thinking, it shows he still has things to learn about the relation between technology and expression.

As he has admitted to me and others, Coppola is in love with advanced filmmaking methods, including video techniques that allow him to plan and prepare his pictures in great detail. It sounds good, but (as ''Heart'' showed) such elaborate practices can separate the artist from the work at hand.

''The Outsiders'' is full of dramatic shots, unexpected angles, and evocative lighting. But there's no flow to the story, no momentum to the emotions. Even the strong scenes are oddly isolated from one another. The effect is dry and lumpy - turning the yarn into a sterile study of class conflict, a dialectics for the drive-in, rather than the empathy-filled adventure that Hinton wrote and Coppola presumably meant to film.

Compounding the situation, Coppola so enjoyed shooting ''The Outsiders'' that he segued into another Hinton project, ''Rumble Fish,'' filming it in the same location with many of the same colleagues. What a shame he didn't take things one step at a time - watching audience response to ''The Outsiders,'' and using this to improve the follow-up.

It also doesn't help that Zoetrope's other current movie, ''The Black Stallion Returns,'' has been greeted with a bored shrug by almost everyone. As directed by Robert Dalva, with Coppola as executive producer, it's a pleasantly old-fashioned picture with the kind of preposterous plot and exaggerated characters that studio backlots used to thrive on. It's not a worthy successor to the original ''Black Stallion,'' a superb film.

The lesson of all this is, Look out for that tempting technology, and don't rely on sequels to bail you out. If he heeds these messages, Coppola could rejoin the Hollywood whiz kids. If not, he could find himself alone with his equipment, making movies only his fellow cinephiles want to see. Imagery for its own sake

Like a jeweler, Vincent Grenier takes a small chunk of reality and chisels away the bits that don't shine according to his vision. His films are small and concentrated, bringing out the sensuous play of light and form in shots that might have seemed banal or barren in another context - a woman tending her garden, or a simple array of colored bars stretching across the screen.

The imagery itself seems to be the main point, rather than literal or even allusive meaning. Yet the filmmaker suggests we try to ''pick up the pieces'' of his fractured films, ''which can suggest many things at once.'' So says a program note printed by the Collective for Living Cinema, which will show four Grenier works tomorrow night: ''Closer Outside'' and ''Architecture'' from 1981, ''D'Apres Meg'' from last year, and a recent untitled film. Although none are major achievements, all are worth a look by viewers interested in new movie directions. They are distributed by the Filmmakers Coop in New York.

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