THE Universal City Cinema. It's a movie-lover's dream. Or is it? ``The largest movie complex in the world'' is how it's described, and it's located (like a modern Acropolis) atop a hill in Universal City, which is also the site of Universal Pictures, one of Hollywood's most important studios. The enormous theater contains 18 screens, which is too many for even Hollywood to fill - so movies often play in more than one auditorium, with different starting times. While waiting for the show, you can gobble popcorn, sip mineral water, or munch a stuffed croissant at the ``cafe'' in the lobby. It's modern moviegoing at its most omniverous, and it puts to rest any notion that videocasettes or cable TV might deal a death blow to film.
Paying my first visit to Hollywood in several years, I made the Universal City Cinema my first stop; the idea was to surround myself with regular moviegoers before starting my round of studio and production-company visits. I'd been wondering if West Coast audiences might be more savvy than their counterparts elsewhere in the US, since they live in a region where daily newspapers often contain items on hot new studio deals and projects. But filmgoers are pretty much the same all over, it seems. My fellow spectators at Universal City were as uncritically appreciative of the silly ``Uncle Buck'' as Manhattanites might be. The only difference was the absence of boos and hisses when management sneaked a couple of commercials onto the screen before the main feature. New Yorkers often vent their antagonism when that happens, but the Californians took it in stride.
In another sign of the times, I couldn't help noticing that this huge complex, smack in the middle of Hollywood, is owned by Cineplex Odeon, a Canadian company. That seems ironic, but it's perfectly in line with Hollywood's increasingly multinational leanings. Directors from Europe, Latin America, and other parts of the world have been flocking to work here in recent years, on projects as different as ``RoboCop,'' by Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven, and ``The Old Gringo,'' coming soon from Argentine director Luis Puenzo.
More important still, overseas money and influence are making a strong mark here. On the first day of my visit, the Los Angeles Times reported a pair of potentially important developments. One is the largest Japanese investment in Hollywood to date, with Japan's JVC/Victor Company, injecting more than $100 million into a new film company to be run by a former 20th Century-Fox president.
The other, perhaps even more telling in the long run, is the decision by Australian executives - soon to be the new owners of United Artists, an important studio - to scrap a project considered by the industry to be a sure-fire moneymaker. The project is ``Child's Play II,'' and the reason for its abandonment is the Australians' refusal to associate themselves with a horror movie about a murderous doll. Could ethics be overtaking dollars as Hollywood's main concern? If the Australians have their way, the answer could be yes, and the consequences could be enormous.
Why does Hollywood lend itself so easily to outside influence? One reason is that its own operations are divided between California and New York, preventing any single clique of executives from getting its own way all the time. The so-called business end is ensconced largely in New York, where American cinema began and where the major studios have offices, executives, and public-relations bureaucracies. The so-called creative end remains where it's been since D.W. Griffith headed west back in the silent-screen era, hoping to dodge the competition that was springing up around his New York headquarters.
I say ``so-called'' when mentioning the business and creative sides because, deep down, they're part of the same art-industrial complex. Financial considerations color everything the Hollywood artistes do or say, and conversely, the activities of the Manhattan power brokers are geared toward facilitating the success of their West Coast counterparts. Despite the enormous distance that separates its two arms, the movies are unquestionably bicoastal.
ODDLY, movie criticism isn't. Most of the influential American reviewers (those who write for national publications or widely read New York periodicals) are based in Manhattan, thousands of miles away from the city where most film ``product'' is conceived and brought into being. For a critic like me, an occasional trip to Hollywood is like a descent into dreamland - a reminder that the movies are an industry as well as an art, and that the simplest on-screen image is the result of handiwork and logistics as well as inspiration and the urge to entertain.
IN a way, it's fitting that so many of us reviewers should be based so far from Hollywood itself. After all, filmmakers want moviegoers to be swept away by the films they see, without thinking of mundane considerations like how much the pictures cost or what problems their producers and directors ran into while making them. And what are critics but moviegoers with a public forum for their views? No matter how sophisticated a reviewer may be, no matter how knowledgeable about the facts and figures of a production, once the movie comes on-screen it's likely to be judged on its minute-to-minute merits and demerits, not on the practicalities that played a part in shaping it.
This is an interesting paradox. Behind the scenes, movies are a hands-on commodity, created in a process that's rooted in chemistry and mechanics. On the screen, by contrast, motion pictures are magical constructions of sheer light and sound, flashing before our eyes and ears with uncanny spontaneity. A sojourn in Hollywood is a happy reminder of how down-to-earth the filmmaking process really is - and how human, and how compounded of business, as well as creative, decisions.
Anne Thompson, an old friend who writes and edits film columns in Hollywood, regards West Coast critics as not more insightful, necessarily, but definitely more realistic than their Eastern cousins. A movie like ``The Abyss,'' she says, can't be accurately judged without taking into account the wacky realities of shooting a science-fiction epic 40 percent underwater, something nobody but a Hollywood dreamer would undertake in the first place. I like to judge a picture by its value as a finished product, the same way people might judge it years from now, when the circumstances of its making are long forgotten. At the same time, though, I know my friend is right when she reminds me how important on-the-set actualities are in determining a movie's final form.
Notwithstanding all this, my latest Hollywood visit has renewed my conviction that movie reporting and movie criticism are different enterprises, best practiced by different people. Filmmaking is such a complex procedure that it's often impossible to trace the links between on-paper decisions and on-screen results. Still more important, the advent of home videocassettes has stretched the gap between a movie's actual production and the time when a spectator may sit down to watch it. Looking at ``The Abyss'' two or three decades from now, will viewers know - or care - about all those in-production stories telling how hard it was to shoot the underwater scenes? I doubt it. And if I'm right, the best critic - in Hollywood, or New York, or anywhere else - is one who identifies most strongly with the audience, not with the filmmakers.
In sum: As films continue to proliferate, as more new countries take an active role in this process, and as ways of seeing movies (via cassettes, laser discs, maybe even theaters bigger than the Universal City Cinema!) keep evolving, the more important it is to focus on each movie as a unique experience, for better or for worse - and seeing behind-the-scenes scuttlebutt for the marginalia it ultimately is.