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Film review: Pornographers, The

For those who disdain going along with the crowd, and are therefore looking for alternatives to "Total Recall" and "Back to the Future, Part III," three new so-called "art" films are playing this weekend.

The best is "Longtime Companion," which has been getting a lot of national press lately as the first mainstream theatrical film to deal with AIDS among the homosexual community. "The Pornographers," despite the titillating title, is a non-exploitive 1966 Japanese character study by the respected filmmaker Shohei Imamura. And "Speaking Parts" is a Canadian film that has received some press from its reception at various prestigious film festivals.

-"LONGTIME COMPANION" is a sensitive, insightful look at how AIDS affected the homosexual community in the '80s and seems to offer as well a low-key plea for acceptance from the heterosexual community.

A restrained, slick and very well-made picture, "Longtime Companion" covers most of the decade, focusing on a group of homosexual friends, ordinary people living in the Southern California area.

Though some are in show business, it is this ordinariness of the characters that gives the film its anchor, as we come to identify with the day-to-day concerns and, ultimately, the crises they face when AIDS begins to whittle down their number.

Of the ensemble cast the most compelling performance comes from veteran actor Bruce Davison, whose lover is one of the victims, but the entire cast is excellent and the story, which could have been handled in an exploitive manner, instead takes on universal overtones to attract a wide mainstream audience.

This is probably calculated to some degree, but the film's success is a testament to the talent of screenwriter Craig Lucas, who manages to write scenes that are separated by lengthy periods of time and yet never seem fragmented, and director Norman Rene, who extracts remarkable performances from the actors and power from the script with a subtlety that is all too rare in movies these days. There's nothing flamboyant about this picture, which makes it all the more intimate and moving.

"Longtime Companion" is rated R for its homosexual themes, along with some nudity and profanity.

-"THE PORNOGRAPHERS" is saddled with an unfortunate title, and Cinema in Your Face! owner Greg Tanner says that as a result it seems to be attracting the wrong audience. If you're going in expecting something salacious or lurid, you're in the wrong movie. (Go see "Wild Orchid" instead.)

"The Pornographers" is a 1966 Japanese classic by Shohei Imamura, whose most recent work, "Black Rain" (not the Michael Douglas film), has been garnering rave reviews nationally.

This black-and-white character study is a dark satire about a man whose business is pornography, which he hides from the dying widow he lives with and her two rebellious adult children.

Imamura never shows us the porn this man and his partners make - whether on film, audio tape or still photography. Instead we see the faces of the pornographers themselves, which reveal that for the most part this is just a boring workaday business. And, just to add a twist to the cliche, quite often they are rather shocked at the lengths to which people go in performing or requesting certain bits of business.

Imamura reveals the hypocrisy of modern society, particularly Japanese society, which is perceived as polite and humble on the surface, but which harbors deep-seeded perversions that drive some people mad in this film.

The most amusing, sad and sympathetic character is the widow, a superstitious woman who is sure that a carp born in her fish tank the day her husband died is his reincarnated spirit. She rightly fears for the downfall of her selfish, manipulative children but has personal obsessions that seem to rule her life _ though she's sure that carp is always watching her.

There also seems to be some comment about the dangers of pornography _ and of obsessions on a larger scale _ at work here, but the messages are not heavy-handed, but rather buried beneath skillful satire.

I've not seen any of Imamura's other films, and it is said he does not personally consider "The Pornographers" among his better works. If that's true, his other films must be quite remarkable.

Though unrated, "The Pornographers" is obviously adult material. There is sexual content, but no nudity or profanity.

-"SPEAKING PARTS" is an odd movie that seems to be self-consciously similar to David Lynch's work, or perhaps, going back a bit, Michelangelo Antonioni.

This tale of an obsessive hotel chambermaid who yearns for the love of a fellow worker, a movie extra aspiring to become a star, has equal moments of hilarity and puzzlement, but in the end seems artificial and unsatisfying.

Yet there are some striking visual moments as Canadian writer-director Atom Egoyan explores sterile lives in a society dominated by technology _ particularly video. This is sort of "sex, lies and videodrome."

The story has the actor (Michael McManus) selling out in a number of ways, including sexually, to get ahead. He has a mixture of ethical concerns and selfishness that he never seems to come to terms with, particularly as regards a screenwriter (Gabrielle Rose) he meets. Meanwhile the chambermaid (Arsinee Khanjian) pursues him to the end, despite advice from a philosophizing video store clerk who shoots weddings, funerals and orgies on the side.

Art film buffs may find something of value here, but for the most part this movie is as sterile as its characters and in the end the audience may feel a bit numb _ not from any power the film offers but from being frequently bored over the film's 90 minutes.

"Speaking Parts" is not rated, but the orgy scene, intercut with a boardroom sex scene, would doubtless earn it an R for sex and nudity. There is also a single spoken profanity.