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No More Running Through Brick Walls: Alec Baldwin confesses that he is mellowing out with age.

In Different Veins

Alec Baldwin lightens up while Dario Argento keeps tightening the screws of terror in Cinequest tributes

ONE QUALITY that both Alec Baldwin and Dario Argento have shown in their movies is their refusal to provide a comforting image of the world. Both the intense American actor and the bloodcurdling Italian director are guests at Cinequest this week. Baldwin will take part in a tribute Saturday (Feb. 26) at 11:30am at the Fairmont Hotel; Argento will be honored at a screening of Suspiria on March 2 at 9:15pm at Camera 3.

As Alec Baldwin gets older, he says, he's gradually losing a "willingness, as an actor, to run through brick walls. You're so eager when you're young." Baldwin is mellowing out. Recently, he was the emotional center of Leaving Providence, as a pot-bellied blue-collar dad who affectionately insults his kid. For another recent project, he provided the voice of the Conductor in a film spinoff for a Thomas the Tank Engine TV series, one of the best and gentlest shows for the younger kids.

One of the actor's upcoming roles is in State and Main, a film he executive-produced. "I stepped in to help raise the money for it," Baldwin explains. "It's a comedy about a film company that goes to a small town to shoot a film. The town is initially bubbling with generosity, but by the time the shoot is over, they're in a different mood. It's about the clash of cultures."

When I address Baldwin as part of an acting dynasty, along with his brothers Stephen and William, I can practically hear him wince over the phone ("Please don't say that"). But the particular intensity--a quality in Baldwin that resembles the last emotion the mouse sees in the cat's eyes--can be found throughout the career of this hard-edged actor.

Talking to him for a few minutes, I find he is more interested in praising the Barbet Schroeder/Dustin Hoffman version of Death of a Salesman than in talking about himself. And though he's shown that glimmer of intelligence that deepens a pathological streak onscreen, Baldwin also possesses a marvelous flair for humor. See him in Beetlejuice, the last really good Mafia comedy Married to the Mob and Miami Blues, one of the few films that shows how a criminal can be ingenious, likable and yet basically dumb.

Baldwin's best role, I think, is Blake, the vicious, brass-balled sales manager ("The third prize is, you're fired") in James Foley's film version of Glengarry Glen Ross. Would Baldwin rank that hard-charging salesman with the other psychotics he's played?

"If I said that," he answers, "I'd win the eternal enmity of the global business community. Many businessmen today don't have the sense of noblesse oblige they once might have had. The character of Blake isn't in the play; he was added to the film to ratchet it up, by coming in and pissing on everyone's forehead. James Foley and I were both thinking of the scene of George C. Scott's Patton slapping the shell-shock case in the medical tent. When Patton slapped that guy, he was sending him a signal. But he was also sending a signal to everyone else in the tent."

Currently, Baldwin's production company is dealing with TNT to produce movies and miniseries; he'll be one of the stars in an upcoming miniseries about the Nuremberg trials. The future of television interests Baldwin: "It'll be like Warhol, only instead of everybody having their 15 minutes, everybody will have their own channel. I'm curious to see what this fragmentation of the audience is going to produce. The fundamental difference between now and 10 years ago, in the film industry, is that marketing has eclipsed the product. How much more is this situation going to degenerate? That's the real question."


Cinequest Top Picks: Our critics select some of their favorites from this year's festival.


THE EMINENT CRITIC David Thomson has an argument against Alfred Hitchcock as one of the very best of all directors. Basically, he writes that a really top-drawer cinematic artist wouldn't be as single-mindedly devoted to putting an audience through the wringer as Hitchcock was.

If that's true, Dario Argento's work is minor artistry, made without even the innovative camera technique and poignancy of Hitchcock. Still, Argento's craftsmanlike devotion to racking a viewer's nerves--in a time when the normal nerve is well racked already--earns him his own place in film history.

In Argento's work, gilded artistry supplements cruelty, as in a Renaissance-era instrument of torture. If, in a museum, you've seen some of the devices once used to "ensure compliance" (as the Department of Motor Vehicles puts it), you'll notice that the artisans occasionally engraved or sculpted fabulous animals, lions or demons upon them. These decorations were signs of pride in a job well done, and hints that those who wielded these awful things were men of taste. What else can explain why these hideous things were so ornamented?

And what else can explain Argento's own devotion to making his horrors so elegant? Argento began with giallos, the Italian genre of murder mystery, including my favorite of his films, his smart and intriguingly titled The Bird With the Crystal Plumage. His biggest American hit was 1977's Suspiria, which took horror to an illogical extreme. He continued in his supernatural vein in films not widely released in America, including the trilogy of 1980's Inferno (showing March 4); 1982's Tenebrae (March 3) and 1987's Opera (March 5).

In these three films, Argento creates the demon in the drowning pool (Inferno) and forbidden books (Tenebrae), and the shriek hidden within an opera singer's solo (Opera). One thing can be said for Argento--he's serious. Can't say I feel like return visits to his films, but they're always respectable experiments in horror. In his films, violent death is always something majestic and not a sick joke.

A Conversation With Alec Baldwin takes place Saturday (Feb. 26) at 11:30am at the Fairmont Hotel, 170 S. Market St., San Jose. Tickets are $25.

Dario Argento is honored at a screening of Suspiria March 2 at 9:15pm at Camera 3. Tenebrae screens March 3 at 5pm at the AMC Saratoga. Inferno screens March 4 at 10:30pm at the Towne 3. Opera screens March 5 at 2:15pm at the AMC Saratoga.

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From the February 24-March 1, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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