Why are young viewers flocking to ''Staying Alive'' and ''Flashdance'' - ignoring the critics, and confounding the idea that movie musicals are an endangered species?
One answer may be ''invisible marketing,'' Hollywood's latest promotion gimmick. Using this method, instead of flooding the airwaves with paid advertisements, a studio produces brief videotapes (usually just a few minutes long) with images and music from a forthcoming film. These are donated to the cable-TV music channel, MTV, or to new-style dance clubs with large video screens dominating their decor.
To hype ''Flashdance,'' some 200 videocassettes were dispatched to dance clubs in 60 cities, according to the New York Times, which credits this maneuver with boosting the sound-track album as well as the movie itself. Paramount Pictures also used MTV in the campaign, preparing a similar stack of MTV tapes to launch its new ''Staying Alive,'' Film Comment magazine reports.
Universal Pictures has jumped onto the bandwagon, too, shooting and editing MTV promotional clips while movies are still in production. The coming Rick Springfield opus, ''Hard to Hold,'' is an example. If results are good, other studios will surely follow suit.
In theory, it's a way to market films, TV, and records by combining their selling points into waves of coordinated promotional energy.
In practice, it seems to work. ''Flashdance,'' made on a lower-than-average budget and lacking star names, opened in mid-April to withering reviews. It caught on quickly, held up against such competition as ''Return of the Jedi'' and ''Trading Places,'' and is still going strong months later. Industry insiders are hoping for a similar performance from ''Staying Alive,'' the sequel to ''Saturday Night Fever,'' which also opened well despite pans from the press.
If dance-club and MTV promotions do bring new life to musical movies, studios may lean more toward rock and disco projects. They may also imitate the style of ''Flashdance'' and ''Staying Alive,'' which use similar techniques to energize their thin stories.
Both pictures rely on short scenes and quick editing for a punchy, rhythmic effect. And music is almost constant: Even serious moments are often punctuated by the first throbbing notes of the next dance number. In these matters, and in the short attention span they require, both movies are cousins to MTV itself, with its continuous musical pulse and shifting images.
The plots are so flimsy, moreover, that they seem designed not to interfere with the flow of flashy pictures and sounds. Each film deals with a would-be dancer living a hand-to-mouth life while waiting for the proverbial ''big break.'' The story conventions date back at least to ''42nd Street'' in 1933, and few attempts have been made to freshen them.
''Flashdance'' includes many four-letter words and some nudity, aiming at an older teen-age audience with its R rating. ''Staying Alive'' stays well within PG territory, however, reflecting the usual restraint of Sylvester Stallone, who directed and co-wrote the picture. In fact, much of the dialogue is positively old-fashioned. About to give the hero his long-awaited shot at stardom, a character in ''Staying Alive'' actually says, ''I've got a feeling about this kid!'' - a line that might have seemed trite decades ago, but is accepted today, decked in new trappings of chic, stylized cinematography and multitrack pop music.
In sum, these aren't movies, they're rituals - formal exercises built on shamelessly predictable events and cardboard characters. In style and content, they are as calculatedly devised and rigidly manipulated as the rock and disco sounds that accompany them. But their popularity can't be ignored, as it may be ushering in a new era of movie musicals built on the same formulas, promoted increasingly through tie-ins with pop-music and pop-video markets. The return of Snow White
It's a pleasure to say hello again to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, who are back for another visit.
Like many other Walt Disney classics, this feature-length cartoon gets reissued every seven years, and the current release (the seventh since it premiered in 1937) is its biggest ever. Variety, the entertainment newspaper, calculates that last month Snow White and company had the most profitable opening weekend of any animated film in Disney history. And the picture was still thriving at last report.
Not that ''Snow White'' wasn't appreciated when it was new. It was a huge hit in its day, earning $8.5 million right off the bat - a fine return on production costs of $1.5 million. According to ''The RKO Story,'' by Vernon Jewell, 570 artists and 250,000 drawings were needed to make the picture, which was a lavish project by any standard.
And it still looks good today, although it anticipated other Disney cartoon-features by putting most of its imagination into the funny and frightening parts, lapsing into tedium during the romantic and musical episodes.
In any case, children are still charmed by Snow White, captivated by the dwarfs, scared by the wicked queen, and relieved when all the good guys live happily ever after. And grown-ups - at least this one - still enjoy going along, just for the very considerable fun of it. An original vision
Luis Bunuel, who passed on recently, stood with the giants of world cinema, and stood there on his own terms. From his very first film, the searing ''Un Chien Andalou'' in 1928, the ferocity and originality of his vision were plain. Those qualities stayed undiminished through decades of moviemaking in Europe and Mexico.
Bunuel was the greatest surrealist, and one of the foremost satirists, in all film. His vision was basically comic even at its darkest, with a biting sense of the absurd. He delighted in taunting all kinds of attitudes, institutions, and personality types, chasing down the pretentious power-monger and the hypocritical pauper with equal glee. Neither the mighty nor the meek were safe from his probing camera, or from his belief that poverty corrupts as surely as power.
Born in Spain at the turn of the century, Bunuel entered the movie world in France during the '20s, assisting director Jean Epstein and collaborating with Salvador Dali. He crystallized his surrealist approach in the feature-length ''L'Age d'Or'' and the grim documentary ''Las Hurdes,'' also known as ''Land Without Bread'' - both of which are still widely shown and admired. Dogged by censorship problems, however, he then deferred his directing career for more than 15 years, working as a producer and documentarist, and dubbing pictures into Spanish for American studios.
His artistry broke into the open again with ''Los Olvidados'' in 1950, a prizewinning melodrama about Mexican juvenile delinquents that blended a fierce social realism with touches of the grotesque and dreamlike. After a series of minor but often engaging pictures, his next masterpiece - the wryly cynical ''Viridiana'' - summed up all the themes that preoccupied him, telling of a young woman whose determination to do good is smothered by the worldliness she encounters.
Other highly regarded works of Bunuel's mature period include ''The Exterminating Angel,'' a relentless dissection of upper-crust burghers; the slyly subversive ''Tristana'' and ''Belle de Jour''; and more playful satires such as ''The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie'' and ''The Phantom of Liberte.'' His last film, ''That Obscure Object of Desire,'' showed his visual style and absurdist leanings as assured as ever in 1977.
Bunuel's influence ranged wide. Alfred Hitchcock openly admired the simplicity and economy of his work, and strong echoes of his imagery can be found in movies by younger filmmakers as diverse as David Lynch and musician-cum-director Bob Dylan.
For moviegoers everywhere, Bunuellian touches are etched indelibly into memory - a dapper businessman with a messy burlap sack on his shoulder, a dinner party that refuses to end, a sleepwalking woman scooping ashes from a fireplace, a gang of beggars grouped into a replica of a Da Vinci painting.
In his private life, Bunuel was reputedly quiet and conventional, observing the proprieties and appreciating the amenities. Only in his films did his deepest sensibility erupt in force, ignoring all the comfortable norms and creating a unique body of work.