The Line King:

In India, where at last report the film had not yet located a distributor, Fire was guaranteed to be controversial. The notion that a woman might prefer her sister-in-law’s embrace to her husband’s is not the usual stuff of the Bollywood dream factory, which makes movies in which sex is invariably hetero (and offscreen). But writer/director Deepa Mehta, though raised in India, has lived in Canada for 24 years, so she was surely conscious of the Western viewer as well. Watching Fire, it’s hard to tell whose sensibilities she considered more.

“I had a real desire to demystify India,” announces Mehta in a director’s statement, and parts of Fire back her up. The English-language film includes comic-relief sequences and occasional bursts of Indopop, but also self-consciously poetic flashbacks, sun-dappled natural-light cinematography (by Giles Nuttgens), and a score (by A.R. Rahman) that’s mostly syrupy mystic-moods music. Sometimes it seems that Mehta is less bold than her story’s catalyst, beautiful young bride Sita (Nandita Das).

After the traditional newlywed tour of the Taj Mahal with her bored new husband Jatin (Jaaved Jaaferi), Sita moves in with her New Delhi in-laws, Ashok (Kulbushan Kharbanda) and Radha (eminent Indian actress Shabana Azmi, who can also be seen Saturday at AFI in Nishant). As the older brother, Ashok is officially in charge of the household and the family business, a takeout restaurant. He’s most involved, however, with his guru, who has persuaded him to take an oath of celibacy. The long-suffering Radha can’t have children, and she blames herself for Ashok’s decision to renounce erotic love. Radha and Sita must care for their elderly mother-in-law Biji (Kushal Rekhi); rendered mute but not witless by a stroke, she reigns over the household (and the film) as the spirit of traditional, disapproving India.

Sita soon discovers that she too is to have a sexless marriage, but not because Jatin is an ascetic. A video-store operator who rents pornography to schoolboys from a clandestine cache, Jatin spends his evenings with longtime girlfriend Julie (Alice Poon), a Chinese woman who shares his interest in kung-fu movies. When Sita and Radha find comfort in each other’s arms, the only people around to notice are Biji and Mundu (Ranjit Chowdhry), a family servant who has his own dirty secret: Sometimes, while granny-sitting Biji, he masturbates to something from Jatin’s porno stash—much to the old lady’s silent outrage. (This is the needy-nebbish role customary for the American-based Chowdhry, who has appeared in the last three films by Kama Sutra director Mira Nair.)

Sita is the namesake of the heroine of the Ramayama, the wife of Rama. In the myth, Sita proved her purity by walking through fire, thus becoming the exemplar of Indian womanhood. Fire’s Sita is a modern sort of exemplar: Arriving at her new home, she pulls on a pair of her husband’s pants and dances to Mehnaz’s “Mein Hoon,” a recent Indian disco-pop hit. While attempting to follow Radha’s domestic example, she muses rebelliously that she reacts to tradition “like a trained monkey.” Later, in one of Mehta’s several parodies of mainstream Indian movies, Sita dresses in a man’s suit and dances with Radha. (Lest this seem too deviant, the director also has her heroines girlishly play hopscotch.)

Like Miguel Arteta’s Star Maps, which also opens this week, Fire presents enough possibilities that it’s interesting even when awkward (as during the convoluted explanation of why Julie has an American accent). Alternately brash and prim, didactic and playful, the film seems as confused as the India it depicts, where Radha and Sita dutifully fast to ensure the long lives of husbands who think the custom is archaic. It’s altogether characteristic that Fire’s final moments manage to embrace both an apocalyptic threat and the promise of happiness.

Hollywood makes whores out of the young and the aspiring, decided Miguel Arteta during an unhappy stint studying at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, and so the writer/director decided to make his frustration the premise for his feature debut. The result, however, is not exactly My Life to Live or Every Man for Himself, two of the Godard films that explore the same metaphor. Arteta’s Star Maps shows promise but leaves it largely unfulfilled.

For a low-budget debut, Star Maps has an ambitious range of locations, characters, and themes. Mixing satire, drama, and magical realism, the film is part industry lampoon, part critique of L.A. racism, and part family tragedy. Ambitious protagonist Carlos (Douglas Spain) is a brash 18-year-old who returns to his family in California after two years with his grandparents in Mexico. He’s decided that he’s going to be a star, and is willing literally to prostitute himself to achieve that goal. Now here’s where it gets kinky: Carlos’s pimp is his dad, Pepe (Efrain Figueroa).

This scenario gives the story two parallel tracks to follow. Carlos becomes a favorite of soap opera star Jennifer (Kandeyce Jorden), who spurns her husband in favor of paid sex with “poor Mexican boys.” Jennifer’s so impressed with her new stud that she agrees to get him a small role on her show. Pepe, however, doesn’t want Carlos to leave his stable of (mostly male) hookers, who profess to be selling maps to stars’ homes while waiting for their next pickup. Pepe attempts to use his own Hollywood connections to quash his son’s planned TV appearance.

At home, things are just as squalid. Carlos’ mother Teresa (Martha Velez) has had a nervous breakdown, apparently because of Pepe’s previous attempts to pimp Carlos. While Pepe carries on with one of his hookers, Letti (Annette Murphy), Teresa maintains an imaginary relationship with her dream man, deceased Mexican movie star Cantinflas. Carlos’ sister Maria (singer/songwriter Lysa Flores, Arteta’s girlfriend and the film’s musical director) is the self-sacrificing homebody who cares for her mother and her other brother, the apparently deranged Juancito (Vincent Chandler). Just as he has no intention of allowing Carlos to break free, Pepe also plans to keep Maria under his control. He exuberantly scares off a potential suitor, pleasant, well-meaning pharmacist Fred (Al Vincente).

Arteta had a Caribbean childhood and a New England education but now describes himself as an “honorary Chicano.” (This mixed heritage is reflected in the soundtrack, which mixes “rock en Espanol” from North and South America with college-rock cult items Big Star, Nick Drake, and Rachel’s.) Driving past the kids who sell star maps every day on his way to AFI, he concluded that they were “the most visible Latinos in Hollywood” and decided to contrast them with the industry’s venality. The connection doesn’t click, however, in part because the film’s Hollywood characters are so pallid. Jennifer, for example, is too bland to make a compelling oppressor. As the upscale, uptight white woman who secretly can’t get enough brown meat, she’s more a porno-movie cliché than a convincing indictment of the Hollywood ruling class.

Speaking of porno, the film’s sex scenes (more perverse in theory than practice) are exclusively hetero. The film admits that Pepe’s boys (even Carlos) have male clients, but it keeps that sort of stuff offscreen. For a movie that challenges dishonest Hollywood, such squeamishness is unseemly.

Ultimately, though, Star Maps doesn’t muster all that much venom to spit at the biz. The real monster is Pepe, an indelible (if not entirely convincing) Oedipal bogeyman; this swaggering brute seems a far bigger threat than the entertainment industry’s hypocrisy, superficiality, and racism. Hollywood provides a high-powered backdrop, but the film’s hate belongs to daddy.

Illustrator Al Hirschfeld has had an interesting life, all 94 years of it. Indeed, his life is surely more interesting than writer/director Susan W. Dryfoos’ film about it, The Line King: The Al Hirschfeld Story.

For regular readers of the New York Times, Hirschfeld needs no introduction. He’s there most Sundays, caricaturing some artiste or another, most frequently stage performers, but sometimes screen actors, musicians, or other show-biz fauna. Like the Broadway stage itself, his drawings are a link with an almost-vanished era in American entertainment.

This documentary offers reassurance to those who’ve envied the apparent ease and elegant stylization of Hirsch-feld’s work: Sometimes the process is agonizing, and the finished product is always the result of extensive pencil sketching. A close-up reveals the artist erasing the penciled framework that lurks hidden beneath the simple, sleek lines of the final rendering. One last tip: Hirschfeld works while sitting in an old barber chair, “the last functional chair made.”

The biographical details are also interesting, if sometimes as elusive as those erased pencil sketches. When they met, Hirschfeld’s father spoke only English, his mother, only Yiddish and Russian. After determining that her barely teenage son had artistic talent, his mother moved the family from St. Louis to Harlem so he could study in New York, and she remained a powerful force in Hirschfeld’s life for the rest of hers.

Originally a sculptor, Hirschfeld developed his graphic skills making advertising art for movie studios. In the ’20s, he moved to Paris, where he met the usual suspects. He spent 1927 in the Soviet Union—”the theater was marvelous,” he remembers, characteristically—and later split with his first wife in, of all places, Tahiti. He went on (alone) to Bali, and was not the first westerner to find it “paradise.” The biz followed him even there: He earned enough money to leave the island when Charlie Chaplin showed up and bought some of his watercolors.

Back in New York, Hirschfeld drew exclusively for the New York Times, an arrangement that continues to this day. He notes that his drawings often used to offend prominent actors, who had their agents and producers threaten to pull advertising from the paper. (According to Hirschfeld, the Times never backed down.) This is hard to imagine, however, since Hirschfeld’s drawings are never cruel—he admits he lacked the “venom” for political cartooning—and have long been fashionable.

In fact, much of The Line King is devoted to celebrity endorsements. Carol Channing, Lauren Bacall, Liza Minnelli, Kitty Carlisle Hart, Robert Goulet, Joseph Papp, Jason Robards, Geoffrey Holder, Barbara Walters, and even Katharine Hepburn (off-camera) sing the praises of their portrayer (and pal). Brendan Gill appears to call Hirschfeld “god,” while former Time critic Stefan Kanfer compares his work to the greats of 18th- and 19th-century printmaking from Europe and Japan. The artist remembers writing a play with his friend S.J. Perelman (“a disaster”) and showing his home movies of Thailand to Rodgers and Hammerstein when they needed inspiration for The King and I. Clearly, Hirschfeld has been a member of the gang for a long time.

Does Hirschfeld have any regrets other than the 1994 death of his beloved second wife Dolly? (Like Papp, Dolly lived long enough to be filmed for this documentary.) If so, Dryfoos doesn’t want to hear about it. The artist does mention that there was period when the Times’ editors lost interest in his work, but this subject is quickly dropped. After all, The Line King is a Times History production, and Dryfoos is a former Times reporter and the great-granddaughter of onetime Times potentate Arthur S. Ochs. (Her previous films include studies of the paper’s fashion reporting and its columnist James “Scotty” Reston.) Dryfoos is also married to the son of David O. Selznick, one of Hirschfeld’s early bosses.

One thing that everyone who knows Hirschfeld’s work knows is that he incorporates his daughter’s name, Nina, into his drawings. The Line King introduces the actual Nina, and her story is the most poignant thing that Dryfoos doesn’t want to hear about. Nina’s unearned fame seems to have crushed her; in her appearance, she looks embarrassed, even lost, swearing fealty to the father whose casual whimsy has overwhelmed her. Dryfoos cuts to Hirschfeld, who admits that Nina “doesn’t like it, I don’t think.” If Dryfoos were a real reporter, she’d ask a follow-up question, but she doesn’t. In moments like that, it becomes clear that The Line King, despite the charming character at its heart, is fundamentally a corporate film.CP