Video films offer fresh views of world

Directors at New York's Video Festival blur the line between moviemaking and video art.

It's a blockbuster world.

Wherever you turn, the most heavily touted and readily available items are Hollywood pictures still riding the waves of their theatrical ad campaigns.

Video stores stock dozens of copies of mainstream hits; independent films are limited to one or two lonely shelves. Pay-per-view and many cable channels offer largely the same fare.

At the same time, enormous numbers of storytellers and entertainers are expressing themselves in original ways; they just don't fit mass-market patterns.

How can we see their work?

That's where showcases like the New York Video Festival come in. In its seventh year as part of the annual Lincoln Center Festival, this summer event unveils works that – at their best – can offer us new ways of looking at the world.

An important message of this year's program is that lines between video-art creativity and movie-style entertainment are blurrier than ever.

As recently as a few years ago, most serious video artists made experimental works aimed at museums and galleries. Today, many thoughtful videomakers want to entertain and innovate. The results can be as enjoyable to watch as they are stimulating to think about.

An excellent example is "Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary," directed by Guy Maddin, a Canadian filmmaker with a touch so unconventional that it's hard for him to bankroll theatrical movies. Video is perfect for him – inexpensive, flexible, and easily used for the otherworldly moods he likes to create.

His new "Dracula" is a genre-bending extravaganza. It started as a dance version of Bram Stoker's novel by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, which Maddin adapted into a feature-length video that mimics the look and feel of old silent movies.

Its rich black-and-white images are punctuated with vivid bits of color, like the blood-red lining of Dracula's cape. Characters dance in some scenes, pantomime in others, and strike dramatic poses that Maddin brings to life with camera moves and lightning-quick editing.

In sum, it's a video artwork to its bones, but it's also as gripping and surprising as any big-screen version of "Dracula" ever made.

Also exciting is Steven Matheson's oddly titled "Tree Grown in Wind Tunnel," about a mysterious woman who makes remedies for ailments from toxic wastes – until the pharmaceutical industry sets the law on her trail, alarmed that its notions about well-being are completely wrong.

It's easy to imagine Hollywood remaking this into a full-blown feature, but it's hard to visualize, say, Julia Roberts or Brad Pitt, being more effective than the little-known actors of this smartly made video.

The festival has many first-rate offerings, and also some duds – such as "Meet Mike Mills," a documentary about a rising filmmaker that veers perilously close to infomercial territory.

No festival can offer a nonstop stream of masterpieces, though, and Lincoln Center merits applause for encouraging a range of talents – and giving their works a boost toward further exposure, maybe even on an enterprising cable outlet we can all tune into.

• The festival runs until Thursday at Walter Reade Theater.

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