Eccentric Cast Plunges Ahead, But Fails to Save 'Search and Destroy'

Artist David Salle takes a painterly approach to his debut film

Painting and cinema are both visual arts, so one might think creative people would travel easily between them. Such crossovers are more the exception than the rule, however, and painter David Salle's first movie, ''Search and Destroy,'' points up the pitfalls.

Salle's protagonist -- Martin Mirkheim, played by Griffin Dunne -- is himself an ambitious fellow who wants to make a debut film. Similarities between Mirkheim and Salle don't extend very far, since Salle is an established figure in the art world, while Mirkheim is a befuddled wheeler-dealer with a spotty business record, a failing marriage, and IRS agents hot on his trail.

But they appear to share a passion for accomplishment and a recognition that mass-audience filmmaking is less a matter of creative genius than of good fortune, connections, and money.

On some levels, ''Search and Destroy'' may be interpreted as Salle's account of how hard it is to enter an artistic field and how temptations may arise to compromise, cut corners, or abandon scruples.

Still, most of Mirkheim's adventures are too idiosyncratic to be mistaken for self-revelation on Salle's part. In the end, ''Search and Destroy'' tells us less about Mirkheim's artistic travails than about how Salle managed to weaken a promising story; he too eagerly struts his visual stuff instead of thinking his narrative through.

The screen is full of tantalizing characters, most notably a self-fulfillment guru whose novel Mirkheim wants to film and a shady entrepreneur whose cash Mirkheim wants to pocket. They're played by a marvelously eccentric cast, including Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken as the two just mentioned, plus Illeana Douglas and John Turturro in other key roles. But instead of developing these figures coherently and convincingly, Salle catapults them from one offbeat episode to another as if they were two-dimensional bodies in a comic strip rather than complicated people in a movie.

Efforts to punctuate the plot with experimental touches -- odd flashbacks, printed words superimposed on the action, and so forth -- reduce the movie's credibility quotient even more, staving off psychological involvement without adding much intellectual or aesthetic depth. Salle's eye for color and composition is evident in many individual shots, but this isn't enough to compensate for the movie's shortcomings.

All of which shows how hard it is to bridge the gap between painting and cinema, even for an artist as versatile as Salle, whose credits include ''The Birth of a Poet,'' a performance-art collaboration with director Richard Foreman and author Kathy Acker. A lesson to be drawn from ''Search and Destroy'' is that film and painting call on such different sets of skills that the talents are rarely found in a single artist.

It's true that some major figures in painting and drawing -- especially avant-gardists like Salvador Dali, Fernand Leger, and Jean Cocteau -- have made noteworthy films. It's also true that some fine filmmakers, from Akira Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray to Andy Warhol and David Lynch, started their careers as painters or illustrators.

Leaving out distinctive cases like Cocteau and Warhol, though, painters usually end up making a definitive choice between the two art forms -- treating film as a briefly indulged hobby, as Dali and Leger did, or leaving their canvases for the broader domain of the movie screen, as Kurosawa and Lynch have done. Indeed, when a filmmaker's work becomes too painterly the result can be static and lifeless.

This notwithstanding, a number of artists are lining up for a shot at cinematic success. Julian Schnabel, a much-respected painter, is said to be among them; so are the photographers Larry Clark and Cindy Sherman.

Now that the money-driven gallery boom of the '80s has faded, says one theory, artists need new territory to conquer. If history is a guide, however, moviemaking may hold more obstacles than opportunities for creators who are most at home with pictures that don't move.

*''Search and Destroy'' has an R rating; it contains violence, sex, and vulgar language.

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