Why most audiences shy away from 'experimental' films

I'm watching a movie in a museum auditorium. Behind me, a man loudly complains that he ''can't get any plot out of it.'' In the rear, some younger folks giggle awhile, then rush for the door. Others, more polite but equally puzzled, leave quietly as the show proceeds. When the lights go up, there are just three of us left in the large, nearly empty room.

It's not surprising that these viewers found the film odd, novel, hard to figure out. Like many ''experimental'' works by serious cinema artists, it was all of those things, and on purpose.

What bothers me is that this gloomy (and typical) scene took place at a major museum - the kind of place we go to open our minds, look for fresh visions, clear the cobwebs out of our eyes. In painting or sculpture, the new and unprecedented are taken as challenges to be considered, understood, and judged on their merits. But project the same sensibility onto a movie screen, and even sturdy art-lovers are likely to head for the exit.

Why is there such resistance to films that don't fit the usual patterns of Hollywood hit, European ''art film,'' or documentary? Why do most moviegoers refuse such notions as abstraction, repetition, and nonlinear structure - ideas that have come to be fully accepted in other media?

I suspect there are two answers. One is simply: habit. From our earliest viewing days, we see movies that grab our attention quickly and easily, with the sort of diverting stories and clear-cut characters we're used to from literature and drama. Conditioned to this idea of cinema - quite a limited one, really - we find more purely visual approaches strange, even unsettling.

Less obviously, films exist in time and space at once. This presents conditions that don't apply to most other media. Paintings hang patiently on walls, to be studied at leisure or absorbed in small doses. By contrast, a two-hour movie demands two hours of attention - simply to be seen, not to mention understood.

Other arts require investments of time, to be sure. A string quartet, for example, must be heard at one sitting to be appreciated. But music engages primarily the ears and only secondarily the eyes. And most music plugs into centuries-old traditions that soothe the spirit even when new concepts challenge the mind.

Cinema is a far newer art, and as if to compensate, we like it best when it has deep roots in things we know. So films thrive on narrative, images we can understand at a glance, performances that mirror our own experience. Bypass these conventions, which comfortingly remind us of books and plays, and moviegoers cry ''foul.''

Artistic evolution is hard to stifle, though, and popular ideas of cinema are slowly broadening. For one thing, the mainstream keeps filching ideas from the radical fringe, expanding the definition of what's ''permissible'' while educating audiences in new visual approaches.

Occasionally a quantum leap changes the whole vocabulary of commercial film, as when ''2001: A Space Odyssey'' introduced millions to elliptical storytelling and ''psychedelic'' effects that would have been considered gibberish just a few years earlier. More recent examples include the dream sequences of ''The Elephant Man,'' the mixture of fact and fiction in ''Reds,'' the off-center structure of ''Atlantic City'' - all bold strokes with more precedents in the ''underground'' than in Hollywood history.

There's still a great gulf, however, between the explorations of the independent, personal, ''poetic'' cinema (relegated mostly to museums and special showcases) and the ''movie-movies'' that draw attention from crowds and critics. Indeed, exploratory film gets far shorter shrift than innovative work in other fields. Even conservative music-lovers are used to occasional doses of Messiaen, say, or at least Schonberg. Modern dance - usually plotless, and frequently scored to unconventional music - holds its own next to traditional ballet. Creations by contemporary painters and sculptors stand side by side with masterpieces of the past, and many theatergoers attend Beckett as eagerly as Shakespeare.

Only in cinema is the new and demanding considered frivolous and bothersome. It's a sad situation, which will change only if filmgoers shake off their habits and go hunting for fresh experiences. Whitney exhibition

For fresh experiences, a good place to look is the 1983 Whitney Biennial Film/Video Exhibition, assembled by the Whitney Museum of American Art, where it recently finished a two-month run. Under the auspices of the American Federation of Arts, it is beginning a tour that will bring it to about 40 sites in and out of the United States during the next two years. The traveling series comprises 13 shows (six of film, seven of video) that will be shown mainly in museums, universities, schools, libraries, and media art centers.

Like previous Whitney Biennial selections, the movies chosen give a broad overview of recent noncommercial film activity. Most of the entries are in 16 mm , although included for the first time is a glimpse of the ''super-eight'' revolution that's making cinema more economical (and therefore accessible to more artists) than ever before.

The series gets off to a great start with a three-minute beauty by Sandy Moore, called ''Gawrsh I Didn't Know You Was a Lady'' - a marvelously subversive dissection of an old-fashioned cartoon that turns before our eyes into something like kinetic Cubism. Also animated is the delicious ''Swiss Army Knife With Rats and Pigeons,'' by veteran cartoonist Robert Breer.

Two filmmakers make vivid sociopolitical observations by brilliantly splicing together ''found footage'' - Bruce Conner in ''America Is Waiting'' and Martha Haslanger in ''The Revolution.'' Ericka Beckman's ambitious ''Out of Hand'' is a surrealist vision captured in super-eight. Ernie Gehr's untitled film turns quick shots of a crowded sidewalk into a fragmented panorama of human faces and figures. ''Landscape and Desire,'' by Ken Kobland, and ''Noblesse Oblige,'' by Warren Sonbert, take radical approaches to the travelogue concept, as does ''Visibility: Moderate,'' by Vivienne Dick.

James Benning does something similar with conventions of narrative and autobiography, suggesting settings and stories in ''Him and Me'' but leaving the viewer to piece things together.

As a whole, it's an uneven series, with several entries less memorable than the ones I've mentioned. But there's real gold here, just waiting to be discovered by the venturesome spectator. The tour begins this month in Minneapolis, and is well worth visiting. 'Oklahoma' revisited

For my money, the most avant-garde picture of the moment is the reissue of ''Oklahoma!''

First released in 1955, it still looks big and beautiful today, with its crisp images (filmed in the old ''Todd-A-O'' process) and rousing Rodgers and Hammerstein score. But what a peculiar movie this is. Except for a few forebodings, virtually all the drama and conflict are scrunched into the last hour. The first 90 minutes are downright minimalistic, drained of nearly all emotion except the goofy grins of Gordon MacRae and the occasional pouts of Shirley Jones. There's not a nuance in sight as the director, Fred Zinnemann, obsessively stylizes the performances and camera compositions to mesh with the stripped-down sincerity of the screenplay and music.

The effect is fresh and clean, all right, but turgid and vapid, too. I'm sorry ''Oklahoma!'' holds up only as a curiosity, not a living and breathing classic. But it's good to have it back for another look and an updated assessment.

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