Independent films, bold and stylish, are at the crest of American cinema
New York — Each year about this time, the New York Film Festival gives some broad clues to what's been happening in world cinema for the past 12 months. One bright sign is that American movies are benefiting from a wave of energy and imagination on the independent scene, away from the major studios and power brokers.
The festival offered a striking array of high-quality American independent features, in formats ranging from comedy and thriller to drama and documentary. Nor, for the most part, were they low-budget imitations of traditional studio products. Almost every one was marked by an originality and boldness that surface too rarely in standard Hollywood projects.
Most heartening in the new breed of ''indies'' is their interest in style as a means of expression. Hollywood movies often focus their main energy on performance and storytelling, letting visual style - the ''look'' of the film - tag along in third place. The best of the independents have plot and performance to spare, but give equal attention to the flow of the images themselves, using them to draw the viewer into the film and strengthen the story's emotional punch.
The new drama called ''Paris, Texas'' is a splendid example, directed by Wim Wenders from a Sam Shepard screenplay. The hero is a man found wandering in the desert four years after his family fell apart and separated. Brought back to civilization by his brother, he comes to terms with his seven-year-old son, then determines to reunite the boy with his mother.
With the help of Robby Muller, a superb cinematographer, Wenders has shaped this uncomplicated story into a visual essay on loneliness and the yearning for love. Never rushing the action, he lingers over images of loss and affection, giving their moody rhythms as much weight as the spare dialogue and deeply felt performances. Only near the end does the movie falter, digressing into a long monologue scene that loses the gentle flow already established. Most of the way ''Paris, Texas'' is a powerfully affecting work charged with more visual and dramatic brilliance than any dozen of Hollywood's current concoctions.
More whimsical is ''Stranger Than Paradise,'' reviewed in these pages Oct. 4. Centering on two dull young men and a European woman who wanders into their lives, it's another ''road movie'' with shifting locales and expressive landscapes. Again, the characters are few and their words are doled out sparingly, letting small details of imagery shape our responses to each incident. The director, Jim Jarmusch, heightens this by condensing every scene into a single shot isolated from the others by a moment of blank screen. The result is lean, unpredictable, and immaculately crafted.
A still darker sort of wit is visible in ''Blood Simple,'' a shocker by Joel Coen that combines the sensibility of a 1950s ''horror comic'' with a technical excellence rarely found in low-budget thrillers. The plot involves a murder scheme that gets more and more confused as characters double-cross each other and make stupid mistakes. The screenplay goes for irony most of the time, punctuated with lightning bolts of tension and gore. While not for all tastes, the movie has a rare knack for shoestring suspense, and it should have fans of ''The Texas Chainsaw Massacre'' and ''Night of the Living Dead'' cackling with glee for a long time.
''A Flash of Green'' has a political dimension not evident in the pictures I've mentioned so far, or in most Hollywood movies of recent years. It's a drama about real estate, and its plot hinges less on familiar elements of romance and suspense - although these are present - than on the dynamics of rivalry and greed. The main character is a Florida reporter hired by a corrupt politician to spy on friends who oppose an environmentally unsound development plan. The film, directed by Victor Nunez, is sometimes plotty and artificial like ''Gal Young 'Un,'' his respected earlier movie. But it has a thoughtful group of actors, led by the offbeat Ed Harris, and its sincerity is laudable.
More political yet is ''The Times of Harvey Milk,'' a documentary by director Robert Epstein and producer Richard Schmiechen. Its subject is the man named in the title - the first avowed homosexual to win political office in a major American city, only to be assassinated (along with the mayor) by a fellow San Francisco official. Using a standard documentary format, the movie generates terrific momentum with its deft use of on-the-spot footage and pithy interviews with former associates of Milk. The result is an intelligent and provocative tour through a most revealing byway of the American sociopolitical landscape.