A film festival that shuns the usual fare

Like many enterprising museums, the Whitney Museum of American Art has long since opened its doors to film. Unlike the others, however, the Whitney speaks out every two years - through its controversial Biennial exhibition - on its choices for the best recent achievements in moviemaking. To its credit, the Whitney has the originality to sidestep commercial fare. Its curatorial kudos goes to movies that function primarily as works of visual art. Spectators don't find much storytelling or light entertainment at a typical Biennial film show. But there's no better place to catch up on the latest developments in experimental and independent filmmaking.

This year's edition includes nine programs, each paired with a selection of videotape work. The programs have already been shown once, and the full slate begins an encore engagement today, continuing through July 2.

The film and video selections will then have an international tour under the auspices of the American Federation of Arts, starting in July at the University of California at Los Angeles. Future stops include Buffalo and Ithaca, N.Y.; St. Louis; and Barcelona, Spain; with many more to be announced.

It's hard to generalize about the 1987 Biennial films. They differ a great deal in quality, style, and content.

All they share is an avoidance of accepted practices, from narrative formulas to avant-garde clich'es. Most filmmakers now being saluted by the Whitney have tried to steer between the emotionalism of much ``personal'' cinema and the coolness that marked an earlier vogue for highly formal ``structural'' film.

One example is The Man Who Envied Women, by Yvonne Rainer, one of the most ambitious films on the program. There is a story of sorts, about an intelligent man who values love and marriage but has trouble putting his emotional life in order following the death of his wife. While this plot glues the movie together, Rainer's real concern is the complicated nature of male-female relations at a time when feminist sensibilities are struggling to make themselves heard above a din of knee-jerk male defensiveness.

As in her earlier work, Rainer draws on every cinematic device that might possibly shed light on her subject, from vulgar humor and offscreen voices to monologues and film-within-a-film. The result is complex, provocative, and dense - qualities that make it a good choice for the Biennial's film-program opener.

Cinderella, by Ericka Beckman, is equally feminist in its politics but far more whimsical in expression. A musical comedy with a storybook setting and a not-so-hidden agenda, it turns the old fairy tale into a video game (Meet the prince! Lose a slipper! Get home before the clock strikes 12!) and then transforms its own heroine into a doll, the ultimate female object. Beckman likes to treat games as social metaphors, and ``Cinderella'' is a most sophisticated effort.

Feminist concerns also play a part in The Dream Screen, a haunting Stephanie Beroes film that contrasts actress Louise Brooks with contemporary women who have ambivalent feelings toward men who threaten to control them. Less successful is Magdalena Viraga: The Story of a Red Sea Crossing, by Nina Menkes, an award-winning exploration of prostitution and violence that proves to be richly photographed but turgidly acted and directed.

The Riverbed, by Rachel Reichman, is a more sensitive study of alienation. Focusing on a drifter and a mentally backward young woman, it drifts eerily away from narrative to reveal hidden emotional landscapes of sorrow and longing.

Even more removed from traditional story-cinema is The Family Album, a charming film by Alan Berliner, who shows how cinema's most commonplace flotsam - home movies - can be transformed into art. The filmmaker has edited an hour's worth of ``found footage'' into a carefully thought-out structure that reflects the cycles of life from birth to marriage, maturity, and the passing of one generation into another. A sound track of family conversations further enriches the experience.

Unlike most filmmakers I've mentioned so far, some of this year's Biennial contributors are longtime leaders of the progressive movie scene. Signal - Germany on the Air comes from Ernie Gehr, who has assembled deceptively simple shots of a German city into a visionary statement on urban life, the subtlety of social controls, and the influence of the past on the present. The Cup and the Lip is Warren Sonbert's study of uncertainties that lie beneath the habits and satisfactions of everyday living. Landscape Suicide, by James Benning, is a powerfully sad meditation on violent crime in two contrasting American regions.

Some other Biennial selections are less memorable than these, ranging from the mere cleverness of Object Conversation, by Paul Glabicki, and Optic Nerve, by Barbara Hammer, to the unconvincing social commentary of The Visit, by Leandro Katz, and Before the Rise of Premonition, by Ernest Marrero and Susan Kouguell.

But special mention must be made of Naked Spaces: Living Is Round, by Trinh T. Minh-ha, a documentary filmmaker. She feels that cinematic ``objectivity'' is a myth, since built-in prejudices color every choice of subject, perspective, camera angle, and so forth. So she has sought to be openly impressionistic, nonjudgmental, and ``foreign'' in this study of African villages and the feminine influences that shape their atmosphere. ``Naked Spaces'' is weakened by strategies that seem more interpretive than Trinh might have wished. Still, her efforts are provocative in the questions they pose.

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