They open in small theaters, with little publicity, to mixed reviews. The actors are little known, the subject matter is eccentric, the tone intimate. Sometimes, though, movies can elude their death warrants and flourish into cult objects through doggedness and word of mouth. They acquire "legs"-- staying power. Herewith, reports on four small films with long, strong legs.
THE GODS MUST BE CRAZY
One peaceful day in Botswana's Kalahari desert, where the Bushmen live, a Coca-Cola bottle fell from the sky. It must, they thought, be a gift from the gods. But this glass icon brought with it the compulsions of civilization: greed, jealousy, rancor. So the family patriarch determined to take the bottle to the end of the world and drop it off. On his journey he saw the strangest things: beasts with round legs (Jeeps), and a female with strange skins on her back (the village schoolteacher), and a squad of shiftless African guerrillas. The gods must be crazy!
Not so moviegoers in the U.S., France and Japan who have made a hit out of this 1980 comedy by South African Writer-Director-Producer-Actor -Cinematographer-Editor Jamie Uys. The film's pleasures are simple and obvious: an original plot, lots of slapstick and a lead performance by the Bushman N!xau, who registers every absurdity with the aplomb of an aboriginal Buster Keaton. There is a tinge of paternalism in Uys' attitude toward both the Bushman and the bumbling rebels, but he seems no racist; he tars all his characters, black and white, with the same broad satirical brush. With very little exertion, the spectator can convince himself he is laughing not only at a primitive with a Coke fetish but at himself and the whole gods- forsaken human race. By Richard Corliss
STOP MAKING SENSE
David Byrne is a riveting physical and emotional presence--a cult movie star who radiates otherworldly danger. Occupying the center of this glossy rock- concert film as leader of the avant-punk band Talking Heads, Byrne comes across as both stage-frightened and spellbinding. The dramatic contours of his gaunt face seek the shadows, where his most pounding, powerful songs (Psycho Killer, Burning Down the House) take form. The other band members, who appear to have been born on this planet, are along to provide white noise for the Showman from Outer Space as he surfaces in a big white suit or leads his troupe in odd calisthenics that turn into a Walpurgisnacht boogie. This ain't no party; this ain't no disco; this ain't no foolin' around.
Stop Making Sense, directed by Jonathan Demme, was recently declared Best Documentary by the National Society of Film Critics--a bizarre joke very much in this film's spirit. "David Byrne" is a fictional creation as fully formed as Darth Vader or Norman Bates; the movie is more meticulously composed than most Hollywood hits. It could as well be called Best Thing of Undetermined Species. By Richard Corliss
Q. Can Otto (Emilio Estevez), the failed Los Angeles supermarket stockboy, find purpose, if not happiness, as a repossessor of autos on which the owners have failed to make payments?
Q. Can the Helping Hands Acceptance Co. provide a morally salubrious climate in which he can search for life's meanings?