At this generally disappointing time for moviegoers, when most major films are more interested in quick effects than lasting impressions, it's comforting to recall that there are plenty of alternatives to Hollywood.
Independent, experimental, and documentary films are being churned out all over the world. And there's a rich backlog of such pictures from the past, waiting for their chance to speak to new generations.
The big question is -- how can we see these movies?While many cities have "repertory" theaters devoted to Hollywood revivals, independent and documentary works can still have a hard time finding the serious audience that would respond to them.
It is encouraging that imaginative and innovative programmers are wrestling with this very problem. Among them are two women based in New York, working in very different venues, but both committed to the proposition that smart movies and smart audiences deserve each other, and can thrive when given the opportunity.
Karen Cooper runs the Film Forum, an 11-year-old showplace for offbeat productions, which recently moved to a spanking new "twin cinema" at 57 Watts Street in lower Manhattan. Wendy Keys, associate director of the Film Society of Licoln Center, heads a "Film-in-Education" program that brings unconventional works to teen-age students in their schools. On a broader level, she also assembles a "special event" for each year's New York Film Festival. Her latest program, on-screen at the Paramount Theater through Sept. 22, is a boisterous selection with the unlikely collective title of "Movies for Cynics."
Housed in a converted garage near the SoHo neighborhood, decorated with a spunky mural by filmmaker Robert Breer, the Film Forum reflects the broad tastes of Karen Cooper, who has been its director since 1972. Specializing in independent films -- domestic and foreign -- her goal is to legitimize such work by removing it from the museum and the film society and showing it in a regular and commercial setting. Thus the Film Forum is a real movie theater, from the refreshment counter in the lobby to the first-rate projection facilities inside. Only the program is unusual.
"I'll show anything and everything," Miss Cooper said in her upstairs office on the first day of business in her new building. "i see as much as I can, and I work on the theory -- sometimes correct, sometimes not -- that if I respond to a film. other people will. It's a treasure hunt. I can't say what I'm looking for, because I wouldn't be doing my job if I were looking for anything in particular. there's no kind of film I'm closed off from."
Yet she has her tastes, and these are basic to her programming. "I'm less involved with the avant-garde than some programmers," she says. "I lean less toward the conceptual, the theoretical, and the dry. I prefer films that get a gut response from the viewer. I like works with strong content, and which present that content in new, innovative, and personalized ways. I wouldn't show a documentary that looked like an 'NBC White Paper.' I'd be bored to deat. I believe in film as an art form, with content that's of interest in itself."
To see the Cooper philosophy in action, consider her current program. The opening attraction at Film Forum 1 is "14 Americans: Directions of the 1970s,; a straightforward documentary by Michael Blackwood about 14 artists, from musician Laurie Anderson to furniture sculptor Scott Burton. Also on the bill is the short "Ameican Is Waiting," the latest brilliant movie-college by West Coast experimenter Bruce Conner, who transforms old film footage into breath-taking personal visions, this time with a musical score by rockers David Byrne and Brian Eno.
Coming up between now and Christmas are "September Wheat" by Peter Krieg, a West German documentary about world hunger, paired with a 1909 short by D. W. Griffith, "A Corner in Wheat." Next comes "Tiefland," a rare fiction film about a beautiful Spanish dancer by former Hitler propagandist Leni Riefenstahl, whose works are in many cases as cinematicaly respected as they are thematically controversial.
Filmed in Africa by David and Judith MacDougall, "Lorang's Way" and "Under the Men's Tree" are anthropological documentaries. "Garlic Is as Good as 10 Mothers," by Les Blank, heads a bill that includes Blank's "Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe" and "Stoney Know How" by Alan Governar and Bruce Lane. "Strong Medicine" is the first movie by the amazing avant-garde theater director Richard Foreman. "Clarence & Angel," by Robert Gardner, is about minority children; it will be accompanied by Warrington Hudlin's "Capoeira of Brazil."
It's a divese selection, and an international one. "About half my programming is European, South American, Israeli, Scandinavian, Japanese," says Miss Cooper. "One thing like most about film is that it crosses national barriers, speaking to people across time and across borders. It's important for Americans, who can be very parochial, to see work from other parts of the world."
his attitude is further borne out next door in Film Forum 2, which is programmed by Daniel Talbot of New Yorker films. On-screen through Nov. 10 is a major retrospective of West German prodigy Rainer Werner Fassbinder, to be followed by a festival of Werner Herzog, including New York premiers of his "Signs of Life" and "Land of Silence and Darkness." Miss Cooper hopes these bona-fide "art films" will help draw a wider-than-ever audience to the Film Forum building -- "people who might otherwise ignore the more eccentric, oddball , independent work in Theater No. 1."
Part of Miss Cooper's task is getting word around to audiences who might have special interest in her shows. She values press coverage highly, and tries to steer publicity toward appropriate groups -- working with the World Council of Churches, for instance, to purvey information about "September Wheat" and its subject of world hunger vis-a-vis big business.
She also hopes the films she exhibits will go on greater life afterwards. "Most of them are available from Americasn distributors, or from the filmmakers themselves," she says. They often show up later in nontheatrical settings -- libraries, universities, art galleries. "After a picture is reviewed, I might well get a call from Kansas City, asking how someone can get hold of it."
Since mass-market films are generally avoided at Film Forum, the economics of the establishment are tricky. Box-office returns are supplemented with grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts. Funds for the new building came largely from a Ford Foundation low-interest loan.But director Cooper dreams of a day when ticket sales might foot the whole bill. Then independent film will truly have come into its own, and Film Forum will deserve a fine share of the credit. N.Y. Film Festival
The Film Society of Lincoln Center is also helping the cause these days, by including independently made movies in its annual New York Film Festival beginning Sept. 25. Three years ago, in a notable burst of enthusiasm, the festival presented an entire "special event" called "American Independent Films." Again this year, several such items are included in a sidebar show at the Paramount Theater, along with sundry classics under the overall title "Movies for Cynics."
Assembled by Wendy Keys, this extravaganza follows such previous "special events" as "British Film Now," a prescient look at the reviving British movie industry, and collections of representative animated and Japanese pictures. Well-attended by viewers and covered by the press, such shows swing between introducing new work and bringing back earlier films for reconsideration.
The current selection of "Movies for Cynics" includes such uncynical favorites as Chaplin's "The Great Dictator," Arthur Hiller's "The Americanization of Emily," and Preston Sturges's "The Great McGinty." And such very cynical efforts as "Smile" by Michael Ritchie, "Putney Swope" by Robert Downey, "Winter Kills" by William Richert, "TAking Off" by Milos Forman, and "First Family" by Buck Henry. Also on view are new or rarely seen items including Larry Cohen's comic-strippish "The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover," Thomas Cohen's documentary "The Hungry i Reunion," and a double bill of "El Salvador: Another Vietnam" by Glenn Silber and Tete Vasconcellas with "Nixon: From Checkers to Watergate" by Charles Braverman. An uneven selection of shorts rounds out the program.
Why put together a list of movies for cynics? Miss Keys explains, "There's a new consevative mood in the country. A new way of thinking is afoot in the land. At the film society, we decided that the issues we consider important -- both political and social -- don't have easy answers of right and wrong, good or bad, right or left. We feel everything of importance should be looked at with a clear, fresh, and perhaps cynical eye."
Hence the program Miss Keys has drawn up, hoping to launch some new movies along this line, and revitalize the reputations of some older ones. "These present -- with a twist -- situations we feel are important," she says. "In some cases they ridicule an issue to make a point; in others they examine the issue closely. It doesn't matter whether you agree with the film's point of view. At least it's an alternative to be considered."
Many of the selections are Hoolywood comedies, with good reason. "Lots of American films have made their points through satire or ridicule," says Miss Keys. "But we've discovered that the gentler the ridicule, the more effective the point. A good example is 'Smile.' It has a subject -- a beauty contest -- that's ripe for harsh exploitation and sneering. But the director makes you like the characters and see their motives. You come out with a rather warm feeling, even though it's funny and absurd."
Some spectators may differ with Miss Keys's view, or with her decision this year to include several often-seen movies instead of introducing more unknown or rarely encountered films, as in previous years. But there's no gainsaying the diversity of her selection, which ranges from parody to polemic, or its boldness in including films (such as "First Family" and "Winter Kills") that were commercial failures the first time around. These may now grow in reputation, while such new items as "J. Edgar Hoover" and "EL Salvador" may be widely seen after being launched at this prestigious festival.
Besides assembling such special events, Miss Keys also administers an educational program which sends unconventional films and filmmakers to visit students in high and junior-high schools. Participants have included such luminaries as Claudia Weill, exerimentalist Stan Vanderbeek, and the yound Martin Scorsese. We use mostly young filmmakers," says Miss Keys, "so the kids will know that movies aren't all made by Cecil B. DeMille; it can be just a young person with a camera. We stress the whym a film was made, not the how.m The aim isn't to steer kids toward a career in film, but to expand their knowledge of the workings of the process." About 50 schools each year benefit from this "very rewarding project," which is part of a larger Lincoln Center program that includes dancers, musicians, and other artists.
Such institutions as Miss Cooper's Film Forum and Miss Keys's festival events aren't likely to turn the movie world upside-down. But they provide alternatives to the usual commercial fare, and suggest new points of view for considering our attitudes toward film as an art and movies as an entertainment. By launching new pictures and ideas, their effect is subtle but broad. Without them, cinema would be the poorer.