A cult classic resurfaces. `Rameau's Nephew' is audacious, whimsical

Michael Snow's longest film has a title to match: ``Rameau's Nephew by Diderot (Thanx to Dennis Young) by Wilma Schoen.'' Behind that daunting name is nearly 4 hours of intellectual high jinks spliced together by Mr. Snow over a period of three years. It consists of many different sketches, most of them interferred with in some way - by noise, distortion, or gibberish on the sound track, and by too many or too few camera movements (by ordinary standards) visually.

Although it's rarely shown in its entirety, this plotless epic (with some sexual content) has taken on classic status since its completion in 1974, and keeps recurring on the independent-film circuit. Its latest full screening is scheduled for tomorrow night at the Collective for Living Cinema in New York.

What's behind the reputation of this dizzyingly offbeat film?

The answer lies partly in its ambition.

Snow has called it ``an attempt to make a genuine talking picture,'' and this hints at one of his main purposes: to question conventional ways of combining sight and sound in movies, and to suggest new possibilities for audiovisual expression.

A second answer lies in the sheer hugeness of the film.

Its size is necessary, since another of Snow's purposes is to test cinema's capacity for sustaining the continuity of nondramatic images and sounds over extended periods of time.

But if ``Rameau's Nephew ...'' were shorter, and therefore screened more often, I suspect it would be scrutinized and criticized more pointedly. Although it's an imposing work, stretches of plain frivolity - dare one call it fooling around? - dilute its insights. An artist and musician as well as a filmmaker, Snow came to cinema with a fine disdain for storytelling, acting, and other such ``movie-movie'' considerations.

What fascinates him are the raw aesthetics of film. He has explored these in such spare and disciplined works as the recent ``So Is This,'' devoted entirely to printed words on-screen, and the justly celebrated ``Wavelength,'' an astonishing examination of space, time, and architecture as perceived through the zoom lens.

In those and his other best works, Snow has taken brilliant cinematic concepts and worked them out in ways that are as vigorous as they are rigorous - and often humorous, to boot. ``Rameau's Nephew ...'' has all his audacity and whimsy, but not enough of his ingenuity. It's a cerebral Monty Python show (... and now for something completely cinematic!) that doesn't quite live up to its aspirations.

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