Avant-garde films dazzle as visual equivalent of poetry

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Moviegoers looking for alternatives to Hollywood fare won't find much at their local multiplex, but some other venues take pride in moving far from the mainstream.

The most adventurous of these showplaces - museums, movie clubs, art galleries, film festivals - take occasional excursions into the world of avant-garde cinema, which is the movie equivalent of poetry. Instead of focusing on stories, characters, and dialogue, these works tend to explore cinematic qualities for their own sake, filling the screen with forms, colors, textures, and movements that evoke ideas and emotions in their purest form.

While programs of avant-garde film exist in many American cities, Lincoln Center's closely watched New York Film Festival has emerged as a leader in recent years, helping carefully selected movies gain exposure that's often international in scope. This year's batch of "Views from the Avant-Garde" (Oct. 7-8) demonstrated the vitality of this underappreciated field, and by attracting large, enthusiastic audiences proved that experimental cinema can be as appealing as it is challenging.

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Some avant-garde filmmakers have major reputations in regular theaters as well as at festivals and museums. One of the greatest is Jean-Luc Godard, who revolutionized French film as a founding member of the New Wave movement in the 1960s and now divides his time between theatrical features and highly experimental shorts.

His latest dazzler, a 13-minute movie called Origin of the 21st Century, opened this year's Cannes festival before traveling to Lincoln Center for its American premiere. Recalling the style of Godard's great video series "Histoire(s) du cinema," it explores the 20th century through ingeniously edited images from sources as varied as newsreels, exploitation movies, and Stanley Kubrick's horror classic "The Shining," which emerges as one of the gentler specimens alongside Godard's harrowing evocations of modern-day oppression and violence.

At the other end of the cinematic scale is The Heart of the World, directed by Guy Maddin, whose "Careful" and "Archangel" have international cult followings. A high-energy installment in his good-humored "campaign to redeem melodrama," it crams enough plot and character material for a dozen regular movies into a mere five minutes that had spectators laughing and applauding with wild enthusiasm. Maddin's movie was commissioned by the recent Toronto film festival, which also provided Michael Snow's exquisite Prelude, a parody of coming-attractions trailers that proved to be an elegant and eloquent two-minute comedy.

Since avant-garde filmmakers like to be ornery, it's not surprising that some are still making silent movies 70 years after that format supposedly expired. Peter Hutton says he wants to slow down the pace of our ever-faster world by crafting gentle, noiseless pictures like Time and Tide, a leisurely look at life as viewed from boats traveling along the Hudson River's currents.

It shared a bill with Arbor Vitae, by Nathaniel Dorsky, who assembles seemingly unrelated pictures into streams of imagery meant to highlight the sheer tenderness of silent cinema.

The filmmakers mentioned so far are established stars of the avant-garde scene, but newer talents also made their mark on the Lincoln Center program.

Perhaps the most impressive is Janie Geiser, whose three offerings - Spiral Vessel, Lost Motion, and The Fourth Watch trace astonishingly subtle nuances of mood and emotion through ingenious patterns of collage-like imagery.

Music also played a part in these avant-garde shows, most notably in the spooky In Absentia made by the resourceful animators known as the Quay Brothers in partnership with Karlheinz Stockhausen, a giant of electronic composing. This surrealistic vision tells the elusive tale of a lonely, perhaps deranged woman trying to write a love letter with pencils that seem determined to thwart her. Stockhausen's richly abrasive tones are a perfect counterpoint to the dreamlike visuals that define the idiosyncratic Quay style.

These are only some of the standout works introduced by the New York festival. Others include Abigail Child's explosive Surface Noise, a fascinating array of "found footage" from preexisting movies, and Mark Lapore's anthropological The Glass System, a poetic look at street life in an Indian city.

There were disappointments, too, like Sharon Lockhart's well-meaning but underwhelming Teatro Amazonas, a 40-minute shot of Brazilian citizens listening to modernist music in an exotic opera house.

Expertly assembled by Gavin Smith, Mark McElhatten, and Kent Jones, this four-part program gave enormous pleasure to the large, adventurous crowds it drew. Avant-garde film is clearly alive, well, and growing by leaps and bounds.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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