Cinema vs. video: a friendly feud

It's a friendly feud, but it gets livelier every year. On one side is the legion of cinema fans. On the other is a growing army of video buffs. Each group lays claim to the future of moving pictures.

Strong arguments come from both factions. Film partisans point to the clarity , sharpness, and size of the cinematic image, insisting these are necessary to any visual feast. Make a TV image larger, they say, and you also magnify its imperfections.

Video supporters note the flexibility and relative cheapness of TV techniques. They add that the low cost of videotape makes it a more ''democratic'' medium, available to a wider cross-section of artists, entertainers, and communicators.

As a spectator, I side with the film crowd. Using today's technology, there's no substitute - including ''high resolution'' video - for the crispness of a properly projected strip of celluloid. Cinema is larger than life; TV is somehow smaller.

I'm happy to concede, though, that serious ''art video'' (not prime-time TV) has come a long way as more daring and imaginative talents have applied themselves to it. Just a few years ago, this was a medium for tinkerers - people who were still figuring out the new electronic format. Today video is verging on maturity. While its visual limitations remain, its versatility and spontaneity are being exploited in more and more ways by more and more artists.

One trend is toward ''installations'' that treat TV images as sculpture. Another is the use of video in live theater pieces. A striking example, seen recently at the Public Theater in Manhattan, was a ''performance poem'' called ''Hajj,'' written by Lee Breuer for the the experimental theater group Mabou Mines group. Its lone onstage character was a woman recalling her troubled past. Live video images of her face, mixed with prerecorded ''memory'' shots, materialized on the mirrors of her dressing table as she ruminated and rambled. The effect, set off by Ruth Malaczech's vigorous performance, was visually rich and emotionally stirring.

While an experiment like ''Hajj'' blazes new paths for video in relation to other arts, most video artists use the medium as is, looking for ways to expand the uses of the TV set itself. In its recent 1983 Biennial Exhibition, the Whitney Museum of American Art gave a sweeping survey of such work, presenting 15 single-channel videotapes made during the past two years.

Variety was the most striking aspect of the show. More than ever, artists are probing every possibility they can find in the malleable TV image, using it for purposes ranging from reportage to melodrama to abstraction. ''The Looking Glass ,'' by Juan Downey, traces mirror-image motifs through the history of art. ''Surveillance,'' by Bruce Charlesworth, turns a story of two professional snoopers into a dark joke on video itself. ''A Simple Case for Torture,'' by Martha Rosler, examines some grim social and political trends. ''Allan 'n' Allen's Complaint,'' by Nam June Paik and Shigeko Kubota, pays a spunky and touching (though sexually outspoken) visit to a pair of radical artists in other fields.

Additional tapes used documentary, dramatic, and painterly techniques in equally diverse ways. Some of the videographers were also respected filmmakers, such as Stan VanDerBeek and Howard Fried; some were video specialists, such as Bill Viola and Nam June Paik.

The works on view were as various in quality as in subject and type. But their sheer multiplicity points to an exciting future for video. Even if its imagery can't match that of cinema in some important ways, a medium capable of spawning and hosting such a wide range of energetic work deserves to be carefully nurtured and closely observed as it continues to evolve.

The video selections of the Whitney Biennial are distributed nationally by the American Federation of Arts, based in Manhattan. Now showing at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, the program will travel in coming months to Hartford, Conn., Seattle, San Francisco, Honolulu, London, and Halifax, Nova Scotia. The videotapes will then continue to circulate indefinitely, with additional engagements to follow. In some cases the 1983 Whitney Biennial films will also be exhibited.

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