Fringe Films From America Strike Chord

Hollywood domination gives way to fresher themes and approaches

TODAY as in the past, films from the United States dominate moviegoing around the globe, and Hollywood pictures have the most clout of all. Yet at the recent World Film Festival here, some of the most talked-about US movies came from newcomers often working on the fringes of the mainstream film industry.

While these pictures are a diverse bunch, many of them exemplify an interesting trend - focusing their stories not on individualistic heroes and heroines, but concentrating instead on groups of characters in steady interaction with one another, and with the environment around them. The season's most brilliant movie in this vein, "Laws of Gravity" by Nick Gomez, wasn't on the Montreal roster. A number of others were, however, signaling a possible new direction in US filmmaking.

This could be just a temporary wrinkle, due to vanish as arbitrarily as it arrived. Or it could herald a new emphasis on community, cooperation, and common interest - and a new concern with exploring problems in those areas - at the expense of the fetishized individualism that has ruled popular culture.

Here's a rundown of some US entries worth remembering from the 16th edition of the World Film Festival.

Singles, directed by Cameron Crowe, was a real surprise. On paper, it sounds like a painfully ordinary youth movie, about Seattle singles hunting for a spouse, a lover, a companion, or a friend. What sets it apart from the Hollywood norm is its interest in group dynamics as well as personal affections. What lifts it above the Hollywood norm is the attractiveness of its cast, the liveliness of its performances, and the brash humor of its screenplay.

Most surprising of all is the sensational acting of Matt Dillon, who's known more as a screen heartthrob than a cinematic artiste. His portrayal of a dumbed-out rock musician is knowing, subtle, and just plain hilarious. Add solid work by Bridget Fonda and Campbell Scott - two others whose work history is less than exemplary - and you have a most enjoyable experience, modest in scale but genuine in the pleasures it has to offer.

It seemed like everyone at Montreal was talking about Reservoir Dogs, directed by Quentin Tarentino, and no two opinions were the same. The film tells the story of a botched jewelry-store robbery, which unfolds in flashbacks as the thieves await their uncertain fate. It bears the strong influence of earlier movies, from Stanley Kubrick's noir thriller "The Killing" to Akira Kurosawa's classic "Rashomon," and traces of the David Mamet play "American Buffalo" are also detectable.

The picture is set apart from current crime movies by the ingenuity of its editing, the vigor of its cinematography, and especially the brilliance of performances by Tim Roth, Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, Chris Penn, and others. These assets notwithstanding, though, I must report that "Reservoir Dogs" has little of intelligence to say - except for a few implicit comments on the nature of loyalty and betrayal - and that it's violent to the point of sadism.

It's obvious that Mr. Tarentino is a major new filmmaking talent. But if he expects to find an audience that responds to more than technical expertise and sensationalistic storytelling, he needs to outgrow his excesses and find a message worth communicating.

Friends and Enemies, directed by Andrew Frank, also focuses on group behavior - specifically, the increasingly strained friendship of four urban guys who don't know what to do when one of them nearly kills the local district attorney in a drunken brawl. The drama picks up momentum after its trite opening scenes, and some of the acting is imaginative, especially when Dean Stockwell shows up. The filmmaking is less striking than it tries to be.

Swoon doesn't deal directly with group dynamics, but it has revealing things to say about American social attitudes as it recreates the famous Leopold and Loeb murder case of the 1920s.

This sad episode, involving a "thrill killing" committed by two jaded intellectuals, has inspired such earlier films as "Compulsion," starring Orson Welles as Clarence Darrow, and "Rope," one of Alfred Hitchcock's most unusual movies. "Swoon" acknowledges the homosexuality of the killers in ways that previous pictures couldn't do, and shows how factors with little bearing on the crime entered into contemporary debate over how it should be handled. Tom Kalin has written and directed the film with vigor an d intelligence.

Equinox comes from Alan Rudolph, who can't be called a newcomer, but often tries to put a sense of spontaneity and surprise into his work. The main characters are identical twins who have lived opposite sorts of lives - one's a lonely nerd, the other's a nasty crook - since they were separated at birth.

Both protagonists are capably played by Matthew Modine, who also appeared in the terrible "Wind" at Montreal; the fine supporting cast includes M. Emmet Walsh and Lara Flynn Boyle, of "Twin Peaks" fame.

Although the movie doesn't add up to much, it's certainly ambitious and unusual, so art theaters will probably be putting its title on their marquees before long.

Not all the US entries at Montreal were fiction films. Liberators: Fighting on Two Fronts in World War II is a documentary by William Miles and Nina Rosenblum, who call welcome attention to a little-known historical subject: the position of African-American soldiers in the segregated US army during wartime, and the key role played by such GIs in the liberation of the Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps. The film is conventional in style and somewhat limited in approach - it doesn't illuminate prese nt-day tensions between blacks and Jews, for instance - but its lesson in history packs a wallop.

And not all of Montreal's entries had live-action performances. The Tune is a full-length cartoon by Bill Plympton, who has been plugging away in the animation fields for many a year. Although this comedy about a would-be songwriter is less than dazzling, its very existence represents an impressive feat on the part of Mr. Plympton, who works in comparative solitude, avoiding the armies of collaborators that Disney-style cartoonists have at their command. Animation lives, and Plympton has a proud position

in the front lines.

Montreal also showcased some US movies that had already made their way to commercial theaters. These include Harrod Blank's exhilarating "Wild Wheels," about drivers who turn their automobiles into "car art"; Paul Schrader's thoughtful "Light Sleeper," which blends a thriller plot with philosophical themes; and Allison Anders's inventive "Gas, Food, Lodging," portraying a single mother and her family with compassion and humor.

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