NEW YORK — If the fuss over "Titanic" seems a trifle overblown to you, a new series at Manhattan's renowned Museum of Modern Art may provide the perfect antidote.
"Big as Life: an American History of 8mm Films" takes a spirited, incredibly varied look at a world of movies few have taken seriously in the past - not the largest ever made, but the smallest, produced with no-budget creativeness in living rooms, backyards, and other venues far from the Hollywood studios.
Ever since Kodak put it on the market in the early 1930s, 8-mm film has been mainly associated with home movies, wedding souvenirs, and other efforts with a homespun touch. It took on new importance in the '50s, however, thanks to artists who saw its intimacy and flexibility as valuable qualities not present in larger, more cumbersome forms of moviemaking.
Over the past 40 years, towering filmmakers like Stan Brakhage and Ken Jacobs have used 8-mm to create deeply personal works closer to poetry and music than to the stories and novels that commercial movies imitate. The birth of Super-eight, with a slightly bigger and brighter picture, has attracted even more directors to "narrow gauge" techniques.
These developments have allowed a huge body of work to be created. Yet most of it has been ignored even by serious critics, who generally focus on the 35-mm movies in theaters or the 16-mm films often shown in museums and libraries.
All of which explains the importance of the newsmaking MOMA series. Featuring works by more than 120 makers, it presents a grand sampling of the narrow-gauge field, from early works by acknowledged masters to recent productions by up-and-coming talents. The opening programs indicated the diversity of the lineup, with freewheeling romps like "The Scary Movie," by Peggy Ahwesh, and "Note to Pati," by Saul Levine, balancing finely honed cine-poems like "The Exquisite Hour," by Phil Solomon and Jacobs's "Winter Sky."
Since the series is continuing for many months, not only New Yorkers but also tourists and visitors to the city can drop in to experience it. Most programs are being shown in the museum's Time Warner Screening Room, a small auditorium that approximates a cozy living-room atmosphere. Also available is a catalog with essays by Fred Camper, Keith Sanborn, and other authorities.
So dust off those home movies, camera buffs. They might turn out to be genuine artworks, after all.
* Organized by Jytte Jensen of MOMA and Steve Anker of the San Francisco Cinematheque, 'Big as Life' will continue through December 1999.