THE ROAD TO WELLES-VILLE

St. Louis native George Hickenlooper takes another step on his Hollywood career path with the Orson Welles adaptation The Big Brass Ring -- but a happy ending's still not in sight.

The film Hickenlooper molded from Welles' clay has fascinating moments, a delightful performance by Hawthorne and an admirable complexity of character and theme, but remains lumpy and at times logically incoherent (the opaque motivations of a sinister aide seem especially implausible). And not only has Hickenlooper failed to discard all of the "gothic" flourishes of the Welles original (a pet monkey, for example), he's added a few of his own devising (most outrageously, a gay riverboat on the St. Louis waterfront).

But whatever the movie's faults, St. Louisans will delight in the director's fresh take on the city. Hickenlooper says he chose St. Louis because it dovetailed so nicely with the film's backstory of two separated brothers (a detail culled from Welles' own life): "I was interested in St. Louis really for metaphorical reasons," Hickenlooper says. "I was dealing with a story about two brothers estranged from each other, and the dynamic of that relationship was something I thought literally played into the dynamics of St. Louis. Here you have a city at the crossroads of two major cultures -- being in the Midwest but being caught between the brazen industrialism of the North and the crazy genteelism of the 19th-century South." It's also clear, however, that Hickenlooper loves St. Louis' unique architectural and geographical qualities, and he makes wonderful use of the riverfront and the Arch. And as for those carnival-like revels on the Mississippi's banks: "Are there any gay riverboats in St. Louis? No, there are no gay riverboats, but, hell, there should be," he jokingly asserts.

Hickenlooper was so pleased by his experience that he intends to set future films here as well. He's hoping to shoot an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story "Winter Dreams" in St. Louis during late spring 2000, and he eventually plans to make a film called The Missouri Compromise, which will complete his trilogy (with The Low Life and Dogtown) about "characters who are artists coming to terms with who they are."

Hickenlooper says, "It is my intention, if I were to be blessed and have a career like Barry Levinson, to do for St. Louis what he did for Baltimore. I do have a lot of stories I want to tell in St. Louis."

THE EVENTUAL SHAPE OF HICKENLOOPER'S career, of course, remains in question. With typical bad fortune, The Big Brass Ring proved another near-miss for theatrical distribution. Although serious interest was evidenced by three distributors, none wanted to pay more than the $2 million offered by Showtime, where the film premiered in August. There's a possibility that the movie will receive a limited release before it debuts on video, but Hickenlooper no longer dwells on it.

Given his experience, Hickenlooper is understandably depressed about the current state of the independent film, and he relates an illustrative anecdote: "Just about a month ago, I was having dinner with Quentin Tarantino and Peter Bogdanovich and Cybill Shepherd" -- a group that, incidentally, belies Hickenlooper's supposed "nonentity" status -- "and Quentin and I were talking about The Last Picture Show and how great it was. And Peter said, "If Picture Show were made today, it wouldn't even get a cable release.' It'd probably end up on video if he was lucky. That's just how the market has changed.

"In the independent-film world today," Hickenlooper continues, "in order to pique anyone's interest, your film has to have some kind of shock value. I'm speaking kind of broadly here, but unless you have lesbian heroin addicts or Siamese twins or some kind of gender-identity switch, distributors aren't going to pick your movie up." Hickenlooper feels little fellowship with his peers: "You've got a group of kids who are making films influenced by comic books," he rails. "It's so patently obvious: comic books and MTV and just basically crap. But the literary establishment, particularly the New York critics, have bought into this kind of kitsch, so kitsch rules.

"That's why I'm retiring from independent filmmaking," Hickenlooper announces. "The Big Brass Ring was kind of my swan song to independent filmmaking." Chuckling ruefully, he adds, "It may be my swan song to filmmaking in general -- I don't know." Hickenlooper, however, is not intending to retreat into a Wellesian exile. Quite the opposite: Deriving hope from such challenging mainstream releases as The Sixth Sense and American Beauty, Hickenlooper is now actively pursuing a more traditional studio path, and he believes his substantial body of work and experience with stars will provide him an entree into the system.

"I don't really see myself going into advertising or going to law school," he says. "I love making films, whether or not they're seen by huge audiences. Of course, it would be nice to be on the radar screen, but I am respected; actors do want to work with me. People will hopefully see these films in time. I go one film at a time."

Like Blake Pellarin, he continues to grasp at the big brass ring.

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