Videos Aren't Just for VCRs Anymore

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Slowly but steadily, the many branches of video art have been transforming our visual landscape. Music videos are a TV staple, popular filmmakers use video as a production tool, and works by video artists are viewed in world-class museums.

All of which explains why the New York Video Festival has become a key ingredient of New York's influential Lincoln Center Festival, an annual event devoted to linking masterpieces of the past with today's trends and tomorrow's prospects. This year's videofest is as varied as the medium itself, ranging from documentaries to rock videos, new developments in interactive media, and blends of video and live performance.

Video has captured attention partly because it's a brainchild of the electronic age. Many advocates feel it's destined to replace film as the most advanced form of motion-picture expression - although the changeover hasn't happened largely because film still provides crisper images and better colors.

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Even so, video is flexible to use, and its economy is unbeatable. One of the festival's best works, Alexander Sokurov's "Spiritual Voices: From the Diaries of War," begins with a landscape shot nearly 30 minutes long - a spectacle that might appear self-indulgent in a theatrical movie but seems exquisitely right on video.

The large number of worthy attractions submitted for this year's festival point to video's robust health as both an art and entertainment medium, according to Marian Masone, a curator of the event since it began as a sidebar of the New York Film Festival seven years ago.

While some directors are first drawn to video for economic reasons, a growing number are tantalized by its aesthetic possibilities, she adds. An example is Sadie Benning, who made "Flat Is Beautiful" with Pixelvision, a low-tech device marketed by toy stores. Its images are "small, grainy, and scratchy," notes Ms. Masone. And that's exactly why it appeals to Benning, who wants a "naive" look opposed to slick Hollywood styles.

A sampling of the festival's lineup provides a concise overview of where the video arts - or "new media," as Masone prefers to call them - are currently headed. If a single offering sums up video's awesome ability to open whole new ways of thinking about the world, it's Sokurov's five-hour-plus "Spiritual Voices," a soft and subtle portrait of lonely Russian soldiers whose inner strength serves as a metaphor for humanity's ultimately spiritual nature.

Somewhat similar insights are found in "O Night Without Objects," by Jeanne Finley and John H. Muse, which portrays the healing friendship between a religious family and a bigoted man they take under their wing.

Social conscience also surges through "The Final Insult," a docudrama about poverty by black filmmaker Charles Burnett, and "Dissing D.A.R.E.: Education as Spectacle," by Les LeVeque and Diane Nerwen, which warns against superficial "solutions" to drug-abuse problems.

If these works exploit video's capacity for capturing and critiquing the real world, others exemplify its purely spectacular aspects. A collection called "Persistence of Vision" includes eye-dazzlers like "Transfinite Loops" by Van McElwee, who turns amusement-park lights into a visual symphony.

In a more introspective vein, a program titled "Faultlines in the Psyche" combines video experimentalism with psychological exploration, as does Dominique Cabrera's feature-length "Tomorrow and Tomorrow," a first-person account of a difficult period in Cabrera's own life.

The selections in the festival are not all of equal quality, and some major names in the film and video fields (including Benning and Burnett, among others) contribute less than successful works.

Still, the event sends a message worth heeding even by viewers who won't be near Lincoln Center during its week-long run: Video is continuing to make progress as an art form, an entertainment medium, and an expressive tool for fresh talents who may become tomorrow's film, television, and museum superstars. To ignore it - as TV stations and movie theaters generally do - is to miss an important part of the emerging multimedia scene.

* The New York Video Festival runs through July 23 at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of Lincoln Center Festival 98, which continues through July 26. The videos were selected by Marian Masone and Gavin Smith of Lincoln Center and Graham Leggat of the Museum of Modern Art.

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