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"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Hope Springs From 'Sirens'

Filmgoers should be cheered by the news that an Australian film named "Sirens" is doing strong business at the nation's box offices. It is loosely inspired by the life and times of a colorful painter named Norman Lindsay, who shocked his country in the 1930s with an unconventional lifestyle that included large numbers of beautiful women who were his models, muses and, occasionally, lovers.

I would like to think that there has been an outburst of interest in Norman Lindsay, but I think the movie's success is more likely explained by the presence in the cast of Elle MacPherson, whose screen appearance was preceded by a Sports Illustrated cover and has been followed by the cover of Playboy. MacPherson and three other young women can be seen unclothed in "Sirens." The reason I am cheered by the film's success is that I think it may be the harbinger of a development I've been anticipating for quite some time: the rediscovery of sex by young American male moviegoers. If they are indeed attending "Sirens" because they hear MacPherson can be seen in all of her loveliness, this is a good sign, because the movie contains none of the proven lures for American men below the age of 25, such as androids, explosions, shootings, decapitations, immolations, eviscerations and sudden descents into meat grinders. It doesn't even have any special effects.

In the 1950s and 1960s (decades which some of us actually remember), young men flocked to the movies on the slightest rumor of sex. I still remember vividly the excitement in Urbana when "The French Line," starring Jane Russell, came to town. I was just of an age to start taking more of an interest in Jane Russell than, say, Hopalong Cassidy. A friend's older brother reported that the movie was said to be sexy because when Russell did her dance in a sexy costume, when she raised her arms, you could see . . . or almost see . . . or you could think you could see . . .

What? He was not sure. Words failed him. But that's what he had heard. And as I stuffed the sports section into the mainsheet every night in preparation for my paper route, I gazed long and hard at the ads for "The French Line," wondering if the costume Jane Russell wore in the ad was the same one where you could . . . just about. . . maybe . . .

This healthy interest in the opposite sex has seemed, in recent years, absent from the national scene. The movies aimed at young males are no longer sold with sex, but with violence. They hardly even have women in them - with the exception of Sigourney Weaver, bald and blasting the hell out of extraterrestrial spiders. Young men go to horror movies now, not sexy films. They like chainsaws better than brassieres, electric drills better than panties, bombs better than breasts, and the only time you see nylon stockings in their favorite films is when a mad slasher pulls one over his face as a mask, or uses them to strangle somebody.

I don't know how to account for this sudden lowering of the national libido among the adolescent population. Maybe it's caused by hormones in the meat, or evil rays sneaking through holes in the ozone layer. I know that in my own post- "French Line" years, I had hardly any interest in movies where the characters spent most of their time blowing one another up. I wrote them off as diversions for the dim-witted, entertainments for the same kinds of guys who thought it was cool to drive real fast through the parking lots of the Dog 'n Suds stands where their girlfriends worked. Real men (like my friends and me) were studying the cinema of Brigitte Bardot, Diana Dors, Anita Ekberg, Jayne Mansfield, Cleo Moore and such auteurs as Russ Meyer.

Maybe today's adolescents are less interested in movie women because the whole subject has been demystified. Nudity is common these days, fashion ads are sexier than centerfolds, Kate Moss makes love on posters on the sides of buses, and TV talk shows routinely examine, on a daily basis, subjects that would have made Hugh Hefner's ears burn in 1960. There's no feeling that anything about a woman is mysterious, intriguing or (best of all) forbidden. But your android Robocop with a computer brain and human muscles, now that's a different matter altogether.

And then come these box-office figures for "Sirens," which is a charming film about an earnest young man and his earnest young wife, who are sent to try to reform a randy old painter and his harem, and end up being converted, somewhat, to their freer view of things. It is a movie that urges us to take joy in life, to celebrate sensuality rather than violence, to - yes - make love, not war. Something good could come of this. If the kids today are made of the real stuff, they're going to come out of the theater admitting that, when they both take off their shirts, Elle MacPherson is in many ways to be preferred to Arnold Schwarzenegger. That's my best guess, anyway. On the other hand, I may have simply been driven mad by the scent of spring in the air.

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