Anthology Film Archives has reopened its doors at last, to the delight of moviegoers who have sorely missed this important showplace since it vacated its former home six years ago. Its new base is an old but smartly renovated courthouse building in lower Manhattan, not far from its former SoHo and Greenwich Village sites. The new building includes two theaters, a reference library, a film-study collection, and facilities for film preservation and storage - more than enough to renew Anthology's reputation as an ``alternative'' film center of the first magnitude.
Anthology has a special mission, according to Jonas Mekas, its founder and director: to support, preserve, and exhibit the work of independent, noncommercial film and video artists. The reason for championing such artists, Mr. Mekas adds, is ``because they're important to cinema, not just because they're independent.''
Virtually all museums except Anthology, according to Mekas, tend to exclude some areas of film or concentrate on certain types, usually involving a ``publicly accepted narrative form'' of some kind. By contrast, he says, Anthology is ``dedicated not to some one style or period, but to the art of cinema.''
A respected critic and filmmaker, Mekas has headed Anthology for 20 years. During that period, what's the biggest change he has observed in the independent-cinema scene? He says it's the fact that ``local, ethnic, and other special groups have developed very strongly.
``We have today large numbers of filmmakers in any small ethnic community,'' Mekas continues. ``They're in the American-Mexican community, the American-Spanish community, the Chinese community, the American Indian community, the black community. ... They have become more conscious of their own social and national position and also of cinema. They're aware that you should use cinema not only for social or economic reasons, but also as a means of expression. Most of what is done by those groups is informational, educational, and so forth. But part of it is interested in cinema as cinema.''
Understanding this wealth of cinematic activity - and presenting it to audiences - is challenging. ``At this point it's not easy for any individual to have a grip on the whole situation,'' Mekas acknowledges, adding that independent cinema ``has also exploded, not only in the United States but in Japan, in Korea, in the Philippines, and everywhere else. And there are women's groups, too. So the problem is to really see what's happening. To learn what's of quality and interest, one has to trust individuals who are in those areas and communities. They have their own festivals and publications and bulletins and showcases.''
Add it all up, he concludes, ``and it's not the same situation as 20 years ago, when I could say I had seen practically everything, and I knew all the filmmakers. No longer!''
ANOTHER recent development in independent cinema has been the establishment of ``about 200 quite sizeable and active regional arts centers'' that form a network for the exhibition of noncommercial film, making it far less esoteric than it once seemed. These showplaces often include video as well as film programs, and Anthology will be stepping up its own video activity in the future.
Rather than a threat to the art of cinema, Mekas says video is simply an alternate means of expression. ``As in any other art,'' he suggests, ``you use this instrument or that instrument. ... The difference between the video image and the film image is not greater than the difference between oils and watercolors.''
Is there a fundamental Anthology philosophy? Yes indeed, and Mekas states it without hesitation. ``The world is so practical these days,'' he says thoughtfully, ``and so full of this craving for entertainment, that seriousness is not very popular. Taking a stand for the poetic principal in life, for poetry in life, is not very popular. You hide; you practically blush. To deal with the essence of life - with what life is really all about in the end - is avoided.
``Here we will be stressing the need of art to uphold the principal of poetry in life - which has to do with inner experience, inner life. It has to do with the one word that people are perhaps more afraid to say than anything else today: the soul of man. In the end, serious art has to do with the development of human beings. We stand for that.''