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Films making deeply personal statements

By David Sterritt / January 7, 1987



New York

Although most moviegoers pay little attention to independent film nowadays, it remains an indispensable part of the cinema scene. One reason is the forum it provides for deeply personal expressions that rarely find an outlet in standard commercial productions. One good example is the work of Abraham Ravett, a filmmaker based in Florence, Mass., and recently featured in the Cineprobe series at the Museum of Modern Art here.

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Mr. Ravett is an artist so unafraid of sharing his private thoughts that at one point in ``Thirty Years Later,'' a 1978 autobiographical film, he literally stands naked in front of the camera and laments what he feels are his physical inadequacies.

If this were an act of mere self-indulgence it would have little point. It happens to be just one episode, though, in a complex work that probes Ravett's self-image as an individual, his aims as an artist, and - most important - the relationship of these factors to his parents, who survived the Nazi extermination camps.

Ravett doesn't always manage to weave the strands of his life into a cogent tapestry of images and sounds. Yet his work has an honesty and authenticity that give it a vigorous emotional charge. These qualities continue to be felt in his most recent films. ``Zeger's Note,'' made in 1984, combines a letter from a European friend with a celebration of his own wife's pregnancy. ``Half Sister,'' completed just last year, again concerns his relationship with his parents and their past - this time focusing on Ravett's discovery that his mother once had a daughter who perished during the Holocaust.

Ravett is a thoughtful filmmaker who frames his personal material in carefully worked-out cinematic terms. This doesn't guarantee the success of his work: ``Half Sister'' would be stronger if it relied less heavily (or more originally) on the standard vocabulary of romantically inclined ``experimental'' film. But it marks him as a talent to watch.

Adventurous movie fans have been watching New York filmmaker-critic-archivist Jonas Mekas for years. And his camera is still active, as another recent Cineprobe proved. His latest ``diary film,'' a 2-hour epic called ``He Stands in a Desert Counting the Seconds of His Life,'' compiles 124 ``anthropological sketches'' of friends, places, and events he was close to between 1969 and 1984.

This could have been a long ``in'' chronicle, of interest only to Mr. Mekas's cronies. But he universalizes it - partly with a fidgety style that staves off sentimentality, and partly with a witty sound track that lends rhythm and sometimes irony. Add a diverse list of portrait subjects - from John Lennon and Jacqueline Onassis to Roberto Rossellini and Andy Warhol - and you have a very colorful evening at the movies.