NEW YORK — Some regard video as a poor relation of "real movies," with a smaller-than-life impact that can't compete with the images on multiplex screens.
Distinctions between video and film grow fuzzier by the day, however, as movie theaters convert their projection booths to digital equipment and videomakers exploit the latest wrinkles in high-resolution technology. In terms of artistic innovation, a growing swarm of video artists - making sophisticated works intended more for festivals and museums than neighborhood video shops - is giving the independent film community a heady dose of competition.
Another sign of video's vitality is the ongoing success of the annual New York Video Festival, returning today for a run at Lincoln Center through July 22.
Festival curator Marian Masone says this year's edition wants to celebrate "the art of the medium, rather than the bells and whistles of an ever-evolving technology." The festival does just that, but art and technology are often inseparable. Numerous items here prove that today's video can rival "real movies" when it comes to sheer sensory impact. It also has a flexibility that allows venturesome artists to blur traditional boundaries between sight and sound, on one hand, and thought and imagination, on the other.
Examples abound. "Moorings," by Michael Ginsburg, turns a patch of woods into a radiating tone poem that floods the eye with patterns as exotic as anything the Skywalker Ranch has ever dreamed up. The cybernetically named "in.side.out," by Scott Stark, plays dazzling games with humanly made habitations. "A Tropical Story," by Alfred Guzzetti, works extraordinary variations on material usually associated with tourist-type home movies.
Similar qualities are evident in works like Chris Petit's thoughtful "Negative Space," a visit with the great movie critic Manny Farber, and Ken Kobland's playfully titled study of American and German cityscapes, "Transit Workers of the Earth Unite! Walk Dog Eat Donut."
The festival starts tonight with a rousing opener: "The Emperor Jones," made by Chris Kondek in collaboration with the Wooster Group, a brilliant avant-garde theater troupe. Their stage production takes Eugene O'Neill's brilliantly creepy 1921 play, about a bogus emperor fleeing a murderous mob through a forest, and reworks it into a furiously choreographed nightmare. The video adaptation is at once a record of Kate Valk's explosive acting and a rich example of the unique magic that director Elizabeth LeCompte and her Wooster accomplices have been conjuring up for more than 20 years.
Since the unity of perception and imagination is a major theme of the festival, it's a perfect place to see the latest work by Aleksandr Sokurov, the Russian director whose "Spiritual Voices" was a highlight of last year's event. More than four hours long, "Confession: From the Captain's Journal" draws most of its content from leisurely shots of young sailors laboring on a ship in the freezing waters near Russia's northern borders.
These images are accompanied by the spoken thoughts of the ship's commander, trying to make sense of the contrast he sees between the awesome power of the natural world and the pointless drudgery that consumes so many promising human lives.
The captain is unable to solve this enigma through intellectual reasoning, but Sokurov offers a clue by weaving thought, imagery, and language into a mentally absorbing whole that suggests the power of art to encapsulate human experience, illuminate our place within it, and liberate us from its most confining limitations. Few works make such a compelling case for the exalting potential of today's technology-based media.
*Curated by Marian Masone, Gavin Smith, and Jocelyn Taylor, the festival continues through July 22 as part of Lincoln Center Festival '99.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society