New American filmmakers, the 'other' cinema

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In the rush to see the latest blockbusters from Hollywood and Europe, it's easy to lose sight of the "other cinema" that flourishes, more modestly, in museums, libraries, and universities. Just as music lovers listen to chamber music as well as symphonies, and readers keep up with poetry as well as novels, it's appropriate for moviegoers to see the smaller, more intensely personal films that dwell outside the commercial mainstream.

The New American Filmmakers Series at the Whitney Museum of American Art is an important showcase for this brand of moviemaking. The series recently launched its spring program, which includes a wide variety of works, ranging from the new to the comparatively familiar.

The opening item was a particularly fascinating work: "Poto and Cabengo," written and directed by Jean-Pierre Gorin. On the surface, it is a documentary about a pair of six-year-old identical twins from southern California who were thought by specialists to have invented their own prilanguage. Beneath the surface, the film probes the filmmaker's own relationship with the children and with the intrusions of the media -- including his own activities -- on their lives.

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On many levels, "Poto and Cabengo" -- the girls' own "secret names" for each other -- is a charming and engaging movie. We see these lovely children at play , learning and growing and thoroughly enjoying life. They take a particular delight in teasing and hobnobbing with filmmaker Gorin, who captures all kinds of privileged moments with his restless, vigilant camera (operated by Les Blanc). Meanwhile, the soundtrack offers samples of their speech, which veers from recognizable English to something that sounds very outlandish indeed.

Ultimately, though, this is no naive depiction of an unusual but happy childhood experience. As the film builds toward a sort of intellectual climax, we hear the revised opinion of experts studying the girls, who now conclude that there is no "invented language" at all -- just an amalgam of the English and German spoken in their home, garbled by childish imprecision and enhanced by the twins' strong mutual dependence. We also get a keen sense of the insecurities lurking in the twins' family environment -- including financial problems alleviated by the fee paid to make this film, which is itself frankly talked about in the film. And we are invited to ponder the "differentness" of these girls.

The social dimension of the film is familiar territory for director Gorin, who was long associated with French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard and collaborated on such radical explorations as "Tout va bien" an "See You at Mao." In the new "Pato and Cabengo," Gorin is up to many old tricks -- letting the screen go black as we listen to sounds and words, running whimsical subtitles across the bottom of the frame, using written words as an important element in his visual construction. Yet "Poto and Cabengo" must rank among Gorin's most accesible -- not to mention endearing -- works. It opens no new cinematic paths; it offers no radical visions. Yet it is a stimulating and involving document for the film buff and the casual moviegoer alike.

Among other items on the Whitney's spring program is a full-fledged classic of "experimental" cinema, "The Art of Vision" by Stan Brakhage, scheduled for June 10-15. This is a monumentally challenging work: 4 1/2 hours long, with no conventional narrative structure, based on a complex raveling of images, camera movements, and superimpositions. It represents Brakhage's postmortem on one of his own major films, "Dog Star Man," which is here taken apart and analyzed as if it were a living, functioning specimen under a microscope.Brakhage is an enormously influential artist among today's independent and avant-garde filmmakers, committed to capturing on celluloid a fresh and "deprogrammed" vision of the world around him.

Closer to today's popular tastes are the films of Robert Breer, scheduled for May 14-June 1. His works are respectably "artistic," meshing animation and live-action sequences into new shapes that are sometimes quite startling. Yet he knows how to entertain, as well, to the point of making a receptive audience laugh out loud. Among the Breer "classics" on the program are the tiny but hilarious "Un Miracle," the whimsical "A Man and His dog Out for Air," "Eyewash, " "Fuji," the recent "77," and "LMNO," and "First Fight," which is a seminal work in the experimental-cinema movement.

The program is supplemented by "gallery talks" and by the exhibition (April 17- May 4) of two objects by the controversial artist Chris Burden. These are his handmade automobile, the "B-Car," and his reconstruction of the first mechanical TV set, originally designed in 1915. Burden wants to "demystify" technology. At the Whitney, we can judge whether he's succeeding.

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