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AN ARTIST'S LIFE

Portraying an artist on film is dicey for a number of reasons. The artistic process itself - a painter staring at a canvas, a poet at the typewriter, a songwriter at the piano - is a visual bore, and few filmmakers have been successful at showing what's going on inside an artist's head. Then there's the old cliché that genius and madness go hand in hand - a good friend of mine, a sculptor, practically refuses to watch movies about painters, because he finds most of them insulting to subject and audience alike. Two recent reissues dance nimbly around artist-on-film clichés - one taking a madcap view of a serious painter, one depicting the tragedy of a status quo-threatening comic.

In Ronald Neame's The Horse's Mouth (Criterion/Home Vision, $29.95), adapted from the Joyce Cary novel of the same name, Gulley Jimson's anti-social behavior has nothing at all to do with his gifts - but he is a dyed-in-the-wool kook. If you only know Alec Guinness from Star Wars or Bridge on the River Kwai, you'll be astounded to see this side of him; not only is he completely transformed physically (with a hoarse, mumbling voice and a nervous stance), but he has a hair-trigger sense of comic timing that's the flipside of the stately reserve that was Obi-Wan's stock in trade. (Guinness was so enthralled with the character that he wrote the screenplay himself and convinced Neame to direct it.)

In this age of Jerky Boys and Crank Yankers, Jimson is a prank caller who's funniest when he breaks character; when a wealthy patron refuses to fall for his impersonation of a duchess, he gets carried away and growls that he's going to burn the man's house down and cut out his liver. The only thing that holds Jimson's concentration for long is painting, and there's one beautiful, poignant moment in the film in which he looks at a completed work, by himself, and laments that the finished product never matches what's in his mind. Never mind that he painted it on the wall of an unsuspecting millionaire's townhouse.

Gulley Jimson is a work of fiction, but Lenny Bruce was more real than you might believe if you watch today's cable TV - can it be that an American was arrested, hounded, and destroyed as recently as the '60s for saying things that can hardly get a rise out of the audience for any Comedy Central taping? Indeed. But Bob Fosse's Lenny (MGM, $19.99) is more than just another biopic of a genius who ran afoul of conventional mores. Fosse gives Bruce the Citizen Kane treatment, telling his story in fragments through multiple eyes - and through Bruce's act, which is recreated (if not imitated) brilliantly by Dustin Hoffman. The film, based on a play by Julian Barry, only lets enough joy and humor in to give the audience an idea what was lost when the comic allowed the courts to drive him to despair.

Fosse clearly identified with his subject, in ways illuminated by his follow-up film All That Jazz, but he never goes along with the idea that torture produces the best work. His Lenny Bruce may find his voice because of hardship, but he's derailed when he embraces self-pity; not only does he stop being funny, he's pathetic enough to empty a room.

Lest all this get you down, there's a little gem tucked away on that Horse's Mouthdisc - pop it back in. D.A. Pennebaker's 1953 Daybreak Express, his first film, is a five minute tribute to a New York elevated train line that was about to be shut down. Silent except for the Duke Ellington tune that accompanies it, the short is less a documentary than a poem of color and composition. The sunrise oranges and reds at the film's opening are so deep as to make real life seem like an abstraction, and the filmmaker shows a gift for rhythm and image that you might miss in his other films, where subjects such as Bob Dylan (Don't Look Back) tend to occupy your attention. Pennebaker's pictures are as beautiful as any Gulley Jimson painted, and you don't have to endure prank calls to experience them. - John DeFore

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