Homely materials become a complex, resonant film; From Poland, the stunning story of a troubled idealist

The Constant Factor is one of the most stunning films to emerge from Europe in the past 20 years. Though the subject matter is simple - a young man embarking on his career - it transforms its homely materials into a complex and resonant story rich in personal, political, and philosophical overtones.

The result is a triumph for all concerned, especially Polish filmmaker Krzysztofcq Zanussi, who is also known for such films as ''A Woman's Decision'' and ''Camouflage.''

The main character is an idealist, a bright and hopeful man who believes that good intentions and good works will make a positive difference in the world about him. Yet a shadow hangs over him - the memory of his father's accidental death in a mountain-climbing accident. This memory becomes a motif of the film, embodied in a powerful shot of a Himalayan peak that recurs at key moments of the action.

As if to exorcise this image, the young man begins a deliberate campaign to control his experience, vanquishing accident and chance. His methods are admirable: intellectual rigor, through study of mathematics; physical courage, through mountaineering and sky-diving; moral integrity, through a sincere interest in the deeper questions of human existence, and a refusal to acquiesce in bribery and chicanery at his workplace.

Ironically, it's this last quality - his ethical posture - that threatens his progress to a ''respectable'' position in his profession and his society. His colleagues resent his staunchly upright stance, leading to a masterfully ambiguous climax that casts blinding new light on all the issues of the film.

After its first American showings, at the New York Film Festival in 1980, ''The Constant Factor'' was applauded by many critics for its prescient political aspects. Though a number of recent Polish films have dealt with labor unrest, Zanussi's contribution seems particularly acute in its exposure and criticism of workplace corruption and bureaucratic insensitivity.

Yet the greatest value of ''Constans'' - to use the Polish title - lies more on a philosophical than a political level. Ingeniously written and performed with uncommon skill and insight, it merges gripping story values with moral and ethical meditations, finally going beyond all these elements into realms of reflection rarely touched on by the world of film. ''The Constant Factor'' will have its American theatrical premiere next Wednesday at the Film Forum in New York as part of a ''Polish Panorama'' presented by the courageous New Yorker Films distribution company. From there, one hopes it will spread like wildfire to screens everywhere. Independent films

Independent films made outside the Hollywood mainstream are unusually visible these days. One reason is a stimulating collection of ''classics'' now touring the United States, scheduled to visit 24 locations before ending its travels at the end of next year.

The American New Wave (1958-67) includes 13 films that challenge the way movies are traditionally financed and shot and question the very purposes film should fulfill. Though it's hard to generalize about them, they are often marked by gritty images, loose acting styles, and a habit of avoiding the expected. Don't look for polish, or - in some cases - taste. Do look for an adventurous experience.

One of the most powerful selections, for instance, is ''The Brig'' by Jonas Mekas, an excoriating portrait of a military jail filmed from a stage production by the Living Theater. Another winner, ''David Holzman's Diary'' by Jim McBride, deftly satirizes the life of a movie buff determined to capture his own life on film.

''Nothing But a Man'' by Michael Roemer and Robert Young, and two pictures by Shirley Clarke, ''The Cool World'' and ''Portrait of Jason,'' evoke aspects of black experience with uncomfortable sharpness. By contrast, some other items are exercises in whimsy and iconoclasm - ''Pull My Daisy,'' for example, directed by Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie with narration by Jack Kerouac; and ''The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man'' by the late Ron Rice, with its manic performance by Taylor Mead.

Many of the selections, hard as they may be to pigeon-hole, have played important parts in the often raucous history of independent film. In all, it's a welcome and worthwhile show, though some entries are naturally more laudable than others. Now wrapping up its New York visit, presented jointly by the Public Theater and the Collective for Living Cinema, it was organized by Media Study/Buffalo and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Growing trend

Street Music illustrates a quiet but growing trend toward independent films that aren't really mavericks - that look nearly as shiny as their Hollywood cousins and find their way to regular movie theaters. Such crossover pictures are still scarce, but if recent items like ''Street Music'' and ''Smithereens'' catch on, they could lead to a new and healthy competition between the Hollywood establishment and the ''indies'' that are springing up everywhere.

Like others of its ilk, ''Street Music'' was made on the proverbial shoestring, held together by energy and affection rather than mere money. The story, which clearly caught the imaginations of all involved, involves down-and-out residents of a cheap SanFrancisco hotel fighting to save their home from demolition.

The writer and director, Jenny Bowen, got the idea from a real-life event and determined to make a film that would reflect the situation with an accuracy and ambiguity not usually found in formula-bound Hollywood productions. The producer and cameraman, Richard Bowen, raised cash by groping through the world of movie finance, eventually lining up a string of small investor as new to the game as he was.

Both filmmakers told me over lunch the other day, it wasn't easy to make a professional-looking picture on such limited means, with no better studio than two floors of an abandoned building. But their enthusiasm prevailed, and they are more than pleased with the results they achieved.

As it turns out, ''Street Music'' does have its share of Hollywood mannerisms , with some too-familiar characters and enough nudity and rough language to earn an R rating. Its low budget also shows through at times, as when the overhead microphone drops in for a visit more than once.

Yet it's a gentle picture, and it cares a lot about its characters, sympathizing with them even when it refuses to let them off the hook for their failings. It captures the most delicate moods, too, letting them build just enough, then holding back before they become cloying. Despite its weaknesses, it's a strong debut for director Bowen and a sure sign that moviemaking is alive and alert in San Francisco. Words on film

Like an electric charge, Poetry in Motion cuts through the gentility of its literary subject and its documentary format. It's often rude, noisy, and abrasive. But if it shakes up a few stodgy notions - like the idea that verse must be perused on the printed page, not shouted gleefully from the rooftops - it will serve a salutary purpose.

The film's director, Ron Mann, has assembled a gang of wordsmiths who enjoy performing their poetry as much as writing it. They are young and old, black and white, male and female, polite and boisterous. They range from the famous - Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs - to such lesser lights as Jim Carroll and Michael Ondaatje. Some of their work is G-rated, while other selections veer into R territory with sexual and scatological detail.

What holds this mixed bag together is energy and eccentricity. There's literally no way to guess what will happen next. Robert Creeley and Gary Snyder recite quietly. Amiri Baraka and Ntozake Shange read with jazz instruments in the background, as do Jayne Cortez and Diane di Prima. John Giorno echoes his own voice through a tape-delay system. Ed Sanders punctuates his poems with electronic rhythms. One poet sings to country music from a portable tape recorder, another accompanies himself on guitar. A quartet called the Four Horsemen leave words behind altogether, yowling and howling a string of pure noises.

The result is a celebration of poetry's ancient oral tradition. And it's a lively demonstration that verse is alive and thriving in the media-blitzed age of ''E.T.'' Indeed, many of the assembled talents have plugged into the electronic age themselves, showing how the ageless and the newfangled can collude rather than collide.

To be sure, the diverse writers have diverse views of their art. Baraka calls poetry a ''word science.'' Giorno says, more loosely, ''You're a poet and there's an audience and whatever happens in between is the poem.'' Michael McClure points out ''reconnections with traditional poetry'' as well as ''new possibilities'' on the current scene, while Jim Carroll sees his relationship to his audience as ''putting the light back into their eyes.''

This movie might put the light back into a few eyes, though it's likely to shock some sensibilities. It's flawed and sometimes deliberately offensive. But it says more about poetry as a living form than any film in a long time.

''Poetry in Motion'' is now having its American theatrical premiere at the Film Forum here, which recently introduced another maverick movie by an independent filmmaker, Emile de Antonio's docudrama In the King of Prussia. The subject is the real-life Pennsylvania trial of the ''Plowshares 8,'' a group of antiwar militants who were charged with damaging nuclear-missile parts during a protest. From a transcript of the trial, the original defendants re-enact portions of their court appearances, interspersed with interviews and other documentary material.

The topic and the issues are so fascinating that it's too bad the filmmaker doesn't just present them and leave his viewers to make up their own minds. In subtle ways and obvious ones, though, he slants the movie to signal his own antiwar convictions loudly and clearly - which won't make the faithful any more so, but may alienate the unconvinced, thus undermining its own purpose. It's also disconcerting to see movie star Martin Sheen in the role of the judge, bringing a misplaced touch of Hollywood to a production that scrupulously avoids all other hints of slickness.

As in the past, de Antonio's sincerity is admirable. But his methods are a touch too heavy for comfort. Mixed-media work

He Saw Her Burning is the latest ''performance piece'' by Joan Jonas, an eccentric but oddly compelling mixed-media artist. It's a hard work to describe, much less fathom, with its elusive blend of news items, dream imagery, and repetitive gestures, all framed by a multi-media mix of film, video, and music. But it has a haunting quality that's likely to lurk in the back corners of the mind long after the show is over.

The piece is based on two bizarre news stories that Jonas ran across during a recent European visit. As in earlier works based on science fiction or fairy tales, she uses these as raw material for an audio-visual collage knitted together by ''elements of mystery and crisis,'' to borrow a phrase from her program notes. The prevailing atmosphere hovers between reverie and nightmare, with broad strokes of wit to leaven the experience.

It's a complicated work, steeped in spatial and technological explorations - Jonas manipulates a movie screen, or talks with her own televised image - as well as narrative and ''entertainment'' values. The set (a ''video installation'') is on view continuously at the Whitney Museum of American Art through March 13, with full performances given intermittently on Tuesdays, Fridays, and weekends, as part of the ongoing New American Filmmakers series.

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