NEW YORK — MOST audiences think of documentary film as a sort of poor relation to mainstream commercial movies - respectable, maybe, but not really important and usually not much fun. Accordingly, nonfiction films have always found it hard to attract attention outside the specialized domain of museums, classrooms, and other ``educational'' venues. Video documentaries face the same problem when they don't fit the ritualized patterns of network news and ``magazine'' shows. On television, they're often relegated to out-of-the-way time slots on PBS and local channels hungry for programming. Off television, they have even fewer havens than their celluloid cousins.
Yet video documentary has an honorable history, stretching back 25 years and encompassing a wide range of visual and informational styles. That history is featured in an ambitious new program called ``American Documentary Video: Subject to Change,'' which had its premi`ere at the Museum of Modern Art here and has now embarked on a wide-ranging international tour sponsored by the American Federation of Arts.
What makes museum-quality video different from things we see on our late-night TV screens at home? I asked video teacher and curator Deirdre Boyle, who assembled the ``Subject to Change'' program. ``A lot of these tapes were made for television,'' she replied. ``But some of them ... never got on television because the work was too controversial, or because it set out to fundamentally undermine the notions of television.''
A prime example of this ``undermining'' activity is a videotape called ``Media Burn,'' made in 1975 by Ant Farm, a San Francisco arts group.
``They really set out to criticize the way in which the media collude with the government, industry, and the space program, for example, in creating media events,'' says Ms. Boyle. ``So they set up their own media event. They staged a happening [in which] a Cadillac drove through a burning pyramid of television sets - to celebrate Americans kicking the TV habit.'' The result, says Boyle, was an antimedia media event - a ``rather amusing idea'' that became subversive by criticizing the whole idea of capturing public attention with outrageous stunts. ``This was never broadcast,'' she adds with a smile.
``Media Burn'' is one of 26 videos, made between 1965 and 1988, that make up the 10 ``Subject To Change'' programs. Together, they cover a wide range of styles. There's the cin'ema-v'erit'e realism of ``The Clarks,'' a portrait of a welfare family in New Orleans, and ``Frank, a Vietnam Veteran,'' an extended ``talking head'' monologue.
There's the poetic and impressionistic approach of ``Meta Mayan II,'' an ethnological study, and ``Smothering Dreams,'' an antiwar statement. There's also the polemics of ``Healthcare: Your Money or Your Life,'' and the historical concern of ``A Common Man's Courage,'' and the political passion of ``Doctors, Liars, and Women: AIDS Activists Say No to Cosmo,'' and the eccentricity of ``Herb Schiller Reads the New York Times - 712 Pages of Waste: The Sunday Times.''
Boyle says these very different videos were made by very different artists. ``There's a wide spectrum of people involved,'' she reports, ``from activists who are concerned with burning issues - who use video as a tool to get their ideas across - to artists who are concerned with the nature of the medium.... You have people who are working as free-lance journalists for television, and others who do work that would only be seen in a museum.''
The styles of video documentary have been influenced not only by different artistic personalities, Boyle continues, but also by the passing of time.
``In the early days,'' she explains, ``a certain kind of documentary was made: extremely rough and ready, and not very caught up in aesthetic issues. But over time, different issues arose. In the '80s, during a very conservative political and cultural climate, aesthetics became much more important - partly because people couldn't get funding or distribution for works that were more overtly political and confrontational.''
Boyle points out that there is a big difference between ``someone just using consumer video equipment to go out and record what's happening - whether it's a protest or a demonstration or some sort of street activity - and someone else who spends three or four years working on a production that may come out of a personal experience.'' As a result, she says, ``The possibilities for video documentary are as numerous as there are people working in the field.''
Video artists also differ in the kind of audience they seek. ``There have always been people ... who've wanted to reach a wide audience,'' says Boyle, ``and they tried to get [their work] placed on cable, either public-access cable or the more sophisticated pay stations. But you also have people who just want to reach a local community.... They're satisfied if their videotapes are seen in community centers or libraries or museums.''
Boyle's interest in documentaries goes back to ``the realist days of video production'' when ``anybody who was interested could pick up a portable video camera and make a tape. That sort of freewheeling, open-ended approach to documentation was very seductive and appealing.''
She decided to assemble the ``Subject To Change'' show when she realized how ``dramatically'' the field has changed over the years. ``The range of approaches,'' she says, ``seems to me to call for recognition of the enormous scope and potential of the medium to be both an art form and an information medium.''
What impact do such videotapes have on the people who see them?
``Back in the early '70s,'' answers Boyle, ``these tapes had a tremendous impact. They alerted networks to the fact that there was something to be said for using video instead of film for recording news. Were it not for the pioneering video documentaries, we wouldn't have `Eyewitness News' and electronic news on television.
``And some of these tapes are made to change opinions or public policy - and to a greater or lesser extent, they succeed. Whether it's altering health-care options in a given community, or changing people's stereotypes about different ethnic and racial and sexual groups, the potential to change and affect people ... is always there.''
Boyle sees basic differences between independently made videos and the reports that appear on network TV.
``There's a fundamental concern [in the independent work] for what I call ordinary people,'' she says. ``These documentary producers are not going to celebrities. They're not going to official spokespersons. They're going to the real people, whose lives are affected by everything from the proliferation of nuclear weapons to the difficulties in finding health-care options or dealing with the welfare system.''
What effect does Boyle hope her show will have on the people who see it across the United States and beyond?
``I hope it will broaden people's expectations of television and information programming,'' she replies, ``so the art of the documentary will continue to flourish - and people will begin to sense that it's possible to address issues in a way that isn't boring, dry, pedantic. And that real life is as exciting and important as the fictional commodity we see on television.
``And beyond that, I hope it may have a rippling effect - so people in the industry will recognize that with an audience demanding better programming, there should be better programming. And more opportunities for people with independent viewpoints to get their ideas out there!''