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Story line tarnishes 'White City'; also, family filmmaker

The influential critic Manny Farber once devised two categories for movies and art: the ''white elephant'' and ''termite'' varieties. The first group includes polished, respectable work that cares more about decorum and correctness than energy and eccentricity. But the maker of a ''termite'' work ignores the rules, burrowing inside the material at hand and honeycombing it - subverting it, even - with streams of impulsive creation that fall into a wayward pattern all their own.

''In the White City,'' by Swiss director Alain Tanner, is a termite movie striving to be a white elephant. The impulse behind it is bold and tantalizing - to make a film about a man doing nothing at all, just hanging around and waiting for whatever happens next. At its best moments, the movie captures the stony flavor of pure human existence, bereft of activity and purpose. While these scenes (shot partly in 8 mm) have little to do with regular narrative cinema, they are often vivid, insinuating, alluring.

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But the director isn't satisfied with being a termite-like explorer of psychological worlds within worlds. Although the languorous nothing-episodes are the heart of his movie, Tanner feels he must weave a story around them, and it's a too-familiar yarn about a sailor (played by the gifted Bruno Ganz) who jumps ship in Lisbon and has an affair with a hotel maid.

To borrow a Farber analogy, the result is like a painting by an artist who feels the whole canvas must be filled, even though the point of the work is all contained in a few scattered areas. Tanner would better have condensed his inspirations into a short film, in the manner of Agnes Varda's vignettes, or stretched his plotless vision into an epic of music-like visual events, as Wim Wenders did in his brilliant and underrated ''The State of Things.'' As it stands, ''In the White City'' is neither impressionistic fish nor storytelling fowl.

Elvin Feltner tries to revive G-rated films

New York ''I think there's enough violence and bad language in everyday life and the 6 o'clock news without paying money to see it.''

So says Elvin Feltner - and he's not just complaining, he's doing something about it.

An experienced movie entrepreneur, he feels the lack of G-rated films presents an opportunity as well as a problem. So he has plunged into the family market, supported by revenues from his New York-based production and distribution company, the Krypton Corporation.

The enterprise has not started with a bang. ''Carnival Magic,'' a G-rated feature costing a fraction of the average Hollywood budget, opened last year to what the Hollywood Reporter called ''mediocre business.'' But plenty more projects are on Feltner's slate, including a racehorse picture called ''Lucky'' and an Agatha Christie-type murder mystery called ''Mars in the Eighth House.''

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And if that's not enough, Feltner also keeps busy distributing the 4,000-plus movies in the Krypton catalog - it's the largest independent film collection anywhere - and serving as chairman of the South Florida Studio Center, a massive film production complex now under way at a projected cost of some $300 million.

''I'm in it for the perks,'' he told Forbes magazine about that project, which will result (if all goes as planned) in a new home for his own productions as well as many others. He's writing a novel, too.

Over lunch recently at Sardi's, a regular Feltner hangout here, I asked the Kentucky-born tycoon whatever happened to the family-film business, anyway?

''I feel nearly all the firms that were in the field have abdicated,'' he replied in a mild voice tinged with a slight Southern twang. ''Companies like the one in Salt Lake City - that put out the 'Wilderness Family' movies - have just disappeared.''

Walt Disney Productions is still around, of course, but Feltner thinks that ''after Disney died, what they called the 'Disney touch' was lost. He did have a touch, a sort of magnetic feeling for putting pieces together into an entertaining family picture.''

The decline of G-rated films has not been accidental. ''There has been a change in public taste,'' he acknowledges. ''I've seen families drop their children off to see my latest movie at an eightplex or sixplex theater. The kids buy their popcorn and then walk into a James Bond picture instead. Kids are much more grown up at an earlier age than they used to be.''

Feltner's response to this is simple: He aims not to make kiddie movies, but real family attractions, hoping parents and youngsters will come together. He claims the ''average mix'' at his recent film is one adult for every two children.

I threw him a skeptical question: Are today's families too fragmented for this strategy to work consistently? ''I don't think so,'' he answered, ''and I think as a nation we'll be in trouble if we don't keep some kind of family unit together.''

He is also convinced that ''certain ingredients'' have sure-fire appeal for all ages. He notes that there's a chimpanzee in his carnival movie, ''and everybody loves them.'' Everybody loves ''magic and a car chase,'' too. ''A little drama, a little pathos, we have it all in there. And spectacle with tigers and elephants. We've got a little of everything.''

His next movie will rely on the same formula. ''It's about two kids with estranged parents, and their grandparents, and a racehorse. Everybody loves that type of film. It's not like 'The Black Stallion,' which got pretty violent. But I hope the photography is as good as that.''

Feltner isn't wedded exclusively to the G rating. ''I would do a science-fiction film or a zombie-Dracula-type movie,'' he says. ''But I wouldn't do an R or an X. I wouldn't do a film with explicit nudity or explicit sex or explicit language.''

This is partly a moral decision, but it's also good business, he believes. ''There are people lined up from here to Staten Island waiting to do those films ,'' he says of the ''explicit'' variety.

He also thinks family pictures have new possibilities in the ''multiplex'' theaters now so common. ''I haven't met an owner yet,'' he says, ''who has contradicted what I'm going to tell you: They'd like to have at least one G or PG movie playing at all times, so the family unit can come.''

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