The active, often hidden world of independent films

Mention "the movies" and most folks think of Hollywood, or maybe "art films" from Europe and Japan. This is understandable -- but it's vexing, too, because it leaves out the poetry of cinema.

I'm talking about the personal, inventive, often quirky works that form the flourishing "independent" movie scene. If Hollywood productions are like best-selling novels, these "experimental" efforts are film poems, from the tiny haiku to the enormous epic. As poems, they resemble their literary cousins in at least in that they don't make much money, nobody expects them to, and if something new under the cinematic sun, you probably saw it here first -- if you bothered to look.

A good place to look is New York, which has several showplaces for independent film. The most prestigious is the Whitney Museum of American Art, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where the recent 1981 Biennial Exhibition included a splendid sampling of movies made within the past two years. From three to 125 minutes longs, from mystical meditation to cartoonish whimsey, it gave exhilarating evidence of the scope and vitality of today's noncommercial cinema scene.

As I'm not fond of pigeonholes, I won't try to cram these freewheeling works into familiar slots. I won't even try to count them, since the "6 Films" of Stuart Sherman -- full of unexpected visual rhymes --look more like a single opus to me.

Trends and fashions do exist, however, even when you're dancing on the farthest twigs of the experimental limb. It's currently popular, for example, to make a film virtually without a camera -- "mining" old footage for new information, by splicing it together in new ways. Thus "Eureka," by Ernie Gehr, represents a magnificent "traveling shot" through old San Francisco, originally filmed during the first days of cinema. "The Doctor's Dream," by Ken Jacobs, turns an old Hollywood drama into a dreamlike fantasy. Hollis Frampton's "Gloria" uses silent-movie scenes as part of a personal eulogy to a relative, while Chick Strand's "Loose Ends" takes the most divergent kinds of footage and magically transforms them into a surreal vision of disturbing power.

Other films are far removed from such concerns, though. There's the animated wit of Robert Breer's "T.Z." and the earthiness of Robert Frank's "Life Dances On," a streetwise ode that holds toughness and sentiment in an amazingly delicate balance. James Benning explores the relations between image and sound in "Grand Opera," as does Larry Gottheim in "Tree of Knowledge: Elective Affinities, Part IV." Social and political concerns run through "Journeys From Berlin/1971" by Yvonne Rainer, and the less successful "Empty Suitcases" by Bette Gordon.

And how do you classify the iconoclastic humor -- directed largely at the independent film movement itself -- of an epic by veteran experimentalist George Landow, called "On the Marriage Broker Joke as Cited by Sigmund Freud in Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious or Can the Avant-Garde Artist Be Wholed?"

Not all the Whitney movies worked. Though he is relatively popular, Kenneth Anger interests me less as he sinks further into the childish "magick" of a "Lucifer Rising." Barry Gerson represents the "interesting patterns" school of filmmaking with the dull "Hidden Tracings" and "Exposed Fragrances." There's little to remember in Martha Haslanger's "Circus Riders," and in "Painting Room Lights" David Haxton is up to his old tricks, which are clever but no longer new.

Yet I'd sit through a dozen of these to reach the shadowy splendor of "Charmed Particles" by Andrew Noren, a soaring exercise in light and darkness. And new films by Stan Brakhage are always an event, even when they're minor works like "Other" and "Creation." As for Brakhage himself, he recently left his Colorado digs and visited New York with an astonishing new group of pictures on subjects as diverse as murder, TV, and what you see when you close your eyes. I'll report on them, and their indefatigable creator, in a future column.

In the meanwhile, all the films in the Whitney Biennial are available for rental from the American Federation of the Arts in New York. There's no reason why the independent cinema should have to seem "underground." Adventurous libraries and schools -- and even an occasional theater --show them all the time. Here's hoping the generally fine Whitney series throws a little more light on this colorful cranny of the movie world.

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